Mutula is only seven when she sees her father’s throat slit, she is left mute from the shock of the experience, and angry that no one believes her when she scribbles the killers name down. For seven years Mutula remains withdrawn, alienating herself from everyone outside of her small family.
Old Elvis lives on the Dunn street flats only twenty minutes from the safety of Mutula’s block. He works hard in the homeless shelters around the estate and raises money for the church where he can. He is a pillar of the community and the killer of Mutula’s father seven years ago. It was her assumption there are only two people that know of Old Elvis’s terrifying fits of Lunacy; herself and his battered wife. There is now a third.
The after church visits with the Lesley’s are going smoothly for fourteen year old Teddy Riley and then she make’s a fatal mistake. The door of Old Elvis’s tribute room is left slightly ajar, Teddy foolishly wanders in. Moments later Miss Lesley is beaten within an inch of her life. Teddy barely makes it out; she is found shivering from a seizure outside her uncle’s house. The nightmares won’t stop and the fits are more frequent.
Hell bent on revenge Teddy seeks out an alliance with Mutula. If they can break into the Old Elvis tribute room and rob Raymond Lesley of his priceless Elvis collection he’s bound to turn. Everyone will see what a lunatic Raymond Lesley is, no matter where he sits at church. Nervous and frightened the two girls bring in a lookout. Ben Everett is the only white boy in the neighbourhood, private and fearless Mutula is instantly intrigued. Teddy asks him for help Convinced he’s the man for the job unable to predict disaster. On the night Ben isn’t showing up, Teddy collapses on the floor of Old Elvis’s tribute room. Mutula is left to face another real problem, the woman who’s protected Raymond Lesley’s secret for all these years.
As the years go on a romance with Ben seems to be the only thing saving Mutula from a tide of instability. Teddy becomes too sick from the side effects of her epileptic medication, and Ben at times is absorbed in training for the local football team, Mutula remains consumed by her need to expose the Lesley’s.
After a second failed attempt, the three decide a change of tactics is required. They must do the impossible and make Maya Lesley expose her husband.
Convinced there’s more to Old Elvis’s room than a King obsession, a secret even his wife doesn’t know; Mutula goes back once more to search for clues.
Mutula becomes suspicious of the ads Old Elvis keeps placing in the classifieds for a woman named Delilah. Showing Maya her husbands having an affair could prompt a reaction. Then in a conversation with Aunt Rosalie, the community gossip, Mutula discovers Delilah is no older woman, but Raymond Lesley’s twenty four year old daughter that went missing almost thirty years ago. There’s no doubt Delilah was murdered by her father, all they have to do is prove it to her mother. Maybe then Maya will talk and tell everyone the truth. Yet the quiet flat on Dunn Street holds more unspoken truths than the three could have suspected. Old Elvis did the hiding; it was his wife that did the killing.
I wanted him to love me. I dyed my hair, put rollers in them and shaved my legs. I was a woman, I was born. In his eyes I had suddenly died a thousand times. It’s called growing up, they tell you. You get brain fucked and orchestrated, everybody decided you, the original you, plain, normal , comfortable, tomboyish scampering you, has to sizzle when you walk. Bat your eyelids, chew your lips nervously, there’s a man in the room, he’s watching the sweat drip of your skin, begging you to shake your hips like Mama cita, cita mamma; chocolate goddess, urban beauty, and lull your attention from the white boy sitting next to you. Milk and cookies don’t taste nice together, someone has to fold, the cookie crumbles, and black woman is weak in the soft mush of a white boy. In my neighbourhood you speak to white boys in class ask them for their homework, ginger snitches, ginger boys are jinx. They have too many freckles, freckles have eyes, and white people are always spying. White boys are jinx. His name was Ben. Someone simple in my life. My name is Mutula; my skin is darker than fudge. I am the only black girl in my class with blue eyes. Mother says I look like a ghost. I represent a nation of black women raped by their European slave masters, the product… a black girl with blue eyes. Mutula Shaka, the darkest girl in the class. Summer was the beginning of the death of me mother says, it was when I began to talk. At the age of fourteen I hadn’t spoken in years. It happened in the alleyway near Fourth Avenue opposite the cash mart. My father was beaten within an inch of his life, the murderer a man half my fathers size, with a knife his superior, had slashed it across his neck. I had watched his wise words spill from his throat, until all that remained was a dehydrated body and a fear so loud it had made the world deaf. I knew what I was saying, but for whatever reason the world could not. I was silent but qualified. Then in early summer, the year my mother gave up on the universe, I knew she had. It was like her spirit so sunken had flown the coup it was tired of her, they were tired of each other, so they had chosen to part company after a breath of camomile tea. Warm, bitter, and relaxing. It would be her soul. It would understand her. It would talk to her; the compassion from the black skinned, blue eyed alien at the dinner table was not revered. Ben had come along right on time. Torch hair and dotted skin, he understood everything. He understood that I was fourteen and not willing to compromise. Not ready to pluck my fingernails and clip at my eyebrows. That I liked baggy jeans, and cried with frustration every time mother knotted my hair with her dodo plaits. Rough and unfriendly, like I had learned to be. He played football with the black boys in the back of the class, the ones that everybody wanted to sit next to, ones nobody dared talk to unless they asked you a question. He was the first of everything, the first person I saw whose eyes turned exactly to slits when they laughed, the first person with one dimple, and the first person to ever get into a fight with Tony Richmore. Tony Richmore was the school bully, at lunch he called me ‘er Afrikan,’ spitting the word out like it was metal in his mouth. ‘Dem Afrikan’s dere’. Tony Richmoore was Half African. Half African, Quarter West Indian, Quarter Irish. My mum called it cultural Limbo. Between somewhere and no where of knowing who you are, she pointed to him when we walked out on the street. “Their gonna take over the world. Dat kind, they’ll be no blacks or whites anywhere.” She’d pause. “At least we know where we…” then she’d look at the blue hue in my eyes and sigh, threading a small Richmond superking through her bony fingers. My mother was a restless woman. Edgy, and discontent. My father had been a reader of books humbled by generous prose, and finding delight in the ugliest of things. He’d liked to debate, a good debate was like a cup of morning coffee to him, waking his senses, yet making the world invisible. My mother would suck her teeth at least seven times to get his attention. I hadn’t had to with Ben.
It was raining when we met; rain in the middle of summer was always a sign in my house. My half sister, Elsa, the pretty one with commercial curls and deep set eye liner would be coming back from boarding school. She would have her fingers polished to perfection, and tilt her head in that comely way she’d practiced.
“Hot chick alert!” she called, swinging her hips with sass. “I’m back you guys I’m home, Chickie fry!” she’d call before hauling four heavy suitcases up to our flat. She never used the elevators; she thought they made you put on weight, therefore look old and fat. She never asked for help it made her look ‘dependant.’ Mother yawned a lot when Elsa was around. It was a habit she had with things that didn’t belong to her. “Have you called your mother and told her you’ve arrived?” Mother asked through her usual cloud of smoke.
“She knows where to find me,”
“Elsa. Elizabeth is his other daughter!” She snapped. “My father told me there would always be a room for me in his home, and anyway I’ve got someone to look out for,” she grinned tugging at my chin. “How are you M, how’s school, good?” Elsa was the one who answered the questions she asked you; Elizabeth was the one that asked you really stupid questions in the first place. “My little Chickie Fry turns sixteen!”
“Fourteen,” my mother reminded. She was so tired nowadays I’d hear her dragging her feet as she walked, she’d been throwing up in the bathroom a lot. At the time I assumed she was dying of something, and if she died would I get to have her and my father’s room and fill it up with posters of Tupac and Cl Smoothe.
“How’s life in the ordinary,” she asked my mum as she shoved her way into the corridor, mother shook her head. Pushy as always, that was why Elsa couldn’t find a good black man to take care of her. Elsa was pushy and mother was needy, I wondered who I was.
“White people have moved into the flat downstairs,” she mewled “They have ginger hair.” It made pushy Elsa pause, writhe her face in disgust before continuing her train wreck soul into our fathers spare room. “You haven’t asked me how my mother is.”
“How’s your mother Elsa.”
“Hate the bitch. Elizabeth is fine, still picking her disgusting little nose,” Elizabeth has exactly the same nose as Elsa. They have each others eyes, mouth, lips and teeth. In my house we call them the twins, father’s ‘real’ family. They have two minutes between them, and loathe each other dearly. Mother was invited to a reggae bash their mother threw, and complained the whole time how appalling it was to see a West Indian woman that cannot whine. I spent the rest of that evening practicing my whine, with the ‘support’ of mother. My thighs and hips ached by the next day. Mother said me not being able to speak means it is important to find an alternative way to express myself. I was also forced to learn how to booty clap, and do the dance that nearly broke my neck…..the dutty wine.
“How’s Elizabeth?” Elsa’s back stiffened.
“Dat Bitch! Yeah she’s fine; you know I had to follow her to the clinic. Got herself knocked up while I was away, mother finds the pregnancy test and she convinces her it was me!!” She paused. “I’m pregnant now, I wasn’t then though.” Mother took a deep breath, Elsa did this a lot. “How long ago was then,”
“A week ago, Clever Ellie got rid of all the evidence, baby included.”
“That’s no reason to make such a fuss, I’ll call your mother now and everything will be fine, Get me that number M-”
“No chicken.” Elsa reached a shaky hand towards the half empty glass on the dresser table; the water was three days old. She took a long sip before clearing her throat. “I’m not having the baby with a man. I’m having it with a woman.” It was as if we’d both been struck by lightening, in mother’s case she was still waiting for the punch line. I knew though that when Elsa told you anything ridiculous she was deathly serious. Then something hit the glass, shattering it into a million tiny pieces. It had been a large rock, thrown by a gangly figure, we watched as the orange haired boy sprinted into the distance. Mother was furious, and scared, but speechless; her hands were shaking, and her eyes were thundering, words were knotted in her throat like the dodo plaits in my hair. I knew she wanted to shriek, and holler and rant, but her tongue was frozen. For the first time she knew what it was like to be me. I recognized him instantly; he was the boy that sat in the second to last row in my science class. I recognised the black hood with graffiti art he’d done on the shoulder, and the Russian jeans he’d boasted he would get to Freddie Collinson. I decided he would be the first person I’d sit next to when the new semester came; my world had been fragile enough. I never confronted him about the broken glass, it was nice to come across someone with the strength to silence mother. “Anyway,” Elsa said breaking the silence. “Ellie was gonna marry some packi,”
Old Elvis lived in the Dunn street flats round the corner from us. I knew he went to the café on Deveaux Street, had two sugars in a rich brew of Columbian coffee, ate a bacon sarni sandwich, with a side platter of fried toast and eggs, and put ads in the local paper for a Delilah. Old Elvis was also the man who murdered my father. It had never been proven, his wife had convinced the police and the rest of the neighbourhood her husband was watching an old Elvis concert they had attended in the 60’s.Who was to believe a child over a dutiful grownup, Maya sang in the choir, she cried during the songs and passed out when the preacher touched her head. Her husband, Raymond John Lesley helped in the homeless shelter; he rubbed the shoulders of syphilis sufferers, grinned and shook the hands of people with aids. Maya had not the heart to tell anyone the truth about her husbands fits of lunacy; she had not the heart to believe it. It was Teddy’s idea. Teddy Riley the mixed race girl that lived two doors away from Ben, in one of the flats below. In one of his fits of clever lunacy Raymond Lesley had hospitalised his wife. He’d broken two of her ribs, blackened her eye and bust her lips open, Maya had big enough lips already. This had all taken place because upon being invited to the Lesley’s, you must never venture into the room that old Elvis kept all his classic Elvis cd’s and artefacts. Teddy had sprinted for her life, run straight to her uncle’s house on Barnaby Street and knocked on the door seventeen times consistently. Uncle Johno had found her almost twenty minutes later, passed out and shivering from a seizure she had. Of course when Maya Lesley was asked to press charges she said; “Do you understand the ridiculousness of your statement. My husband is a good man!!” Uncle Johno was also ‘convinced’ Raymond Lesley was a pillar of the community, and invited to the next Church meeting. Teddy was banned from ever seeing the Lesley’s again, her mother was a huge Elvis fan as well, and she’d have to snag ideas from somewhere else to get her mom the perfect present Christmas. I was thinking how loyalty was such a stupid word, and in order to be loyal to someone it felt like you had to sacrifice yourself. Maybe I’m a selfish child; I didn’t feel at the time that I could do that. Watch someone punish the world and sit on a throne of silence and forgiveness. Is it that bad to be alone?
“Nothing’s fair anymore is it?” She said sliding beside me on the broken beech wood bench, a small figure of butter, with hair soft and wet from the rain. We glared out at the open field, it was too dangerous for the footballers to play in the slippery grass, most of the young boys on our street were playing play station, like that could protect them from an unpredictable world.
“People say you can’t talk, but you see stuff…I see stuff too.”
I cleared my throat nervously. I could talk; I had been practicing in my head what I’d say to Ben when his family came back from Cancun.
“You told everyone that it was old Elvis that slit your father’s throat,” she paused, her large brown eyes wide with anxiousness. “I believe you, and I’m kind of desperate to get my words out too. I was seizure free for about a year then I went to old Elvis’s and now I’m queued up for blood tests and everything, they want to prick me with needles and see what’s up with my brain, only a week ago my brain was perfectly fine.” There was a small tornado rising in the pit of my stomach. “His house will be empty on Friday; he has over a thousand Elvis collectibles in his room. Their worth a fortune,” She grinned maliciously. “They’re worth his whole life. I know your scared an all, but my cousin Maliki will play look out,” she held out two fingers, “two days to think about it, then everybody sees what we see.” She rose slowly, like she had more to say. I noticed she was wearing the same orange combats I’d seen her in the last few days, she wore them all the time, like they were her shot at rebellion. “Everyone will see.”
My mother had lost her mind, she said rain in hot summer confused her and made her do strange things. Things that left her open, fragile, and could break the heart. Aunt Rosalie would be arriving in about an hour, the words from her last visit hung in our rooms like old stale curtains, jumped in our heads like fleas. I wondered how the town gossip could have so much power; making your tongue bite itself, turning your mind into a fortress. What had my mother been thinking? It had been exactly two days since Teddy had spoken to me about old Elvis, I was to knock at her door at nine exactly and simply nod. At exactly quart nine I was to receive Aunt Rosalie, return her non photogenic smile and usher her into our living room where the sofa bed and the god channel would be waiting. By the time I reached the door I would be worn down with tears I saved from a nightmare before, Aunt Rosalie would ask me what the matter was, then start a conversation about how Suzie Benedict’s scarf wasn’t real Italian silk, and how I must not worry myself with meaningless things? Aunt Rosalie had this unnerving habit of staring into you; she’d look at you like she’d never seen you before. “Blue eyes,” she’d say, “your eyes are almost purple.” Then she’d stretch out on the sofa and ask for some camomile tea for her nerves, by the time I brought the tea, she’d be snoring away. Her red heels dangling from the foot of our misty grey couch. I took a sip of her tea, it was warm and bitter, the honey coiled into my wisdom tooth, and its bitterness stayed on my tongue. If it was to soothe, it wasn’t soothing enough. My hands were still trembling when I reached Teddy’s flat on the stair below. I stood there for five minutes, before my hands tapped softly on the door. Maybe I didn’t want her to hear it. My head felt light and airy, like I wasn’t here. As if it wasn’t me staring at the cracks and the peeled paint on her green door, as if it wasn’t me crossing my knees together like the pee would drip slowly out. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it, what was I thinking, who was I kidding, who was I turning into? The door swung open as I turned to leave, Teddy stood shivering in the doorway. “Who is it Bernadette?” Her mother called. My heart was already sinking.
“It’s for me moms” she hollered back, slipping out into the heat. “I knew you’d chicken. I saw you thinkin about it. What’s there to think about?” Everything.
“My cousin Maliki got beaten up yesterday, look down there,” she said. I looked over the black balcony, “you see that white boy with the ginger hair? He’s our look out.” Bernadette whistled, and Ben waved back. Lost in a world of fear and poison thoughts I hadn’t even noticed him. “He plays football on Dunn Street, if he sees them he’ll whistle. Whistle or not,” she got out a rolled black cylinder of bin bags, “I’m getting what I came for.” Her voice shook, and her brown eyes dotted the whole street, like there were ghost’s all around. I noticed once again she had on the same orange combats and her dark hair had been stretched determinedly into a bun. I wondered whether she was clean, and since she bounced when she walked, did she get into trouble for walking like a boy. “Maya told someone old Elvis is going for his diabetic checkups, she leaves a spare key by the flower pot opposite the front door, he keeps loosing his. In an hour I’ll meet you out on Dunn Street near the corner shop.” I nodded.
Teddy was silent when the hour came. Stiff when the door was turned into the lock of the white door, I would remember her heavy breathing, and the quick count she started as we entered the house full of ghosts and secrets. Everything about their home was painfully normal, magnolia wall paper, with blue roses lined the walls. The carpet was thick and brown, it felt like fur, and the rooms smelt like early morning coffee and hot toast. Their flat was the cleanest home I’d ever been to, not even a scratch of dirt. Not even a loose penny. I wondered what Ben would say about a place like this, so spotless it was hardly lived in; I wondered why Ben hadn’t showed up. It had added to my nerves, making them feel like a trumpet of jangling keys. When we reached the door, we stopped. The tick of the gold passage clock became louder like it lived in my head, the call of the outdoors like a lover’s seduction. My brain detached itself from my body, I wasn’t here anymore. “We start with the cd’s and then the artefacts and finally those rolled up posters in the corner. These bastards even got silver wear.” We moved quickly, Teddy rushed to open the window and the black bin liners began to feel quickly. I noticed as she hurried, she counted louder. “I count when I cant sleep, this is like a nightmare to me,” and she continued to count, sailing into 252.There had been five bags, so far they all lined the outside window, shoved in, separate from the remainder of things beautiful and soldiered in their boxes. “325, 326, why are you pausing?” I was staring at a black and white picture of old Elvis standing next to the king himself, he had more teeth than he had lately, favouring a large afro and a set of huge white teeth. “He must have been about eighteen back then, he looked happy,” Teddy said in an impressed tone. Worse still he looked almost handsome, and he had one dimple in his cheek, just like Ben. The thought made me snatch the picture from the nail, he was a human being. He had been a child. He had been a teenager. I was about to tear it to shreds, spit on it, stamp on it. It was the silence that stopped me. Teddy was not counting anymore. She was collapsed in a pool of her own bones, quaking, quivering, and shaking. The foam slid heavy from her tongue, then all I could hear was the banging of her skull. I had only seen seizures on TV, I screamed, the noise came garbled like I was choking on my own tears and panic. It was the sharp click of metal that had me turning my head slowly. Someone had entered the house. I was frozen to the spot. The steps were strangely loud on the soft carpet, they were louder than the clock, louder than Teddy’s jerking and gasping for breath, louder than the screams in my head….and then the door swung crashing open. We stared for less than half a minute, Maya’s eyes seemed to swallow her whole body, and the breath I had was gone. “He’ll be coming up the stairs soon, if he catches you he’ll kill you,” she said in a softer tone. “Your father never got the chance to run. I’m giving you yours,” then the strangest thing happened.
A pair of pale hands came flooding through the windows. I was tingling again I was attaching my brain to my body again. It was Ben. “Quickly,” he said. “He’s about to get out of the car.” We dragged Teddy’s limp body into his waiting hands; her clothes were wet and smelt of urine. I climbed out behind them, glancing back only for a second. Maya had turned into the incredible shrinking woman, and the stab of guilt was like a machete cutting at my insides. Ben carried Teddy all the way home. He held her sweated, devastated body in his hands, his feet almost bowling over from the weight of her.
He never spoke during the journey to our block of flats, and never said a word to her brothers or her mother about what really happened. It was then I spoke, pushing the word out, shoving it into the world. “I” GASP “I-I-I” GASP. I swore I’d screamed so loud it was high pitched and deafened the whole world. Silence betrayed me once more. I noticed his eyes were almost the same hue as mine, deep blue, and darkened with fear. Then came his arms, large and endless, wrapping me in a hug that felt like cotton wool, and smelt like Teddy’s Pee. “ Shhhh! you’re alright now.”
It was weeks before I saw Ben again. Teddy’s mum always answered the door, explaining that she was asleep or gone out with her brothers. When we attended church the following Friday, there was a special celebration in honour of Old Elvis’s work for the community. Maya made sure the microphone was passed down to her in her new wheelchair, she had laughter in the only good eye she had left, and said proudly to the congregation; “Were here to celebrate the work of my husband Ray, a fantastic man and a pillar of the community.” I think now that maybe Maya was like my mother confused by the autumn rain and the summer sun, because that was old Elvis cool cool rain then fiery sun. Maybe when elements get mixed up like that, nothing makes sense anymore, even when it’s simple.