Growing Pains

by Nick Sweet

Later, in bed at his place, we were just starting to get it on, when Winston pulled away and said, “I’d like to talk a bit first, if it’s all right with you.” I was really in love with Winston, and still at that stage where I would look at him from time to time and think, God, he’s mine, and marvel at my good fortune. His cheekbones were high and broad, and beautifully sculptured, and there was a calm intelligence, and pride, in those brown eyes of his that I just adored. Right now, though, he seemed distracted, preoccupied.

We’d been seeing each other for about six months, ever since we first met by chance, really, through a mutual friend, Gill Watts, who worked with Winston at BT, and we were dating for several weeks before we started sleeping together. I’d really fallen for him; so far as I was concerned, Winston was the one for me, he was Mr Perfect. Things were going really well between us, or so I thought, although I could tell he was upset right now, and wanted to get what was bothering him off his chest, and so I asked him what was troubling him, even though I knew very well what it was. You see, I’d taken Winston home to see my parents for the first time that afternoon, and things hadn’t worked out well. In fact, they hadn’t worked out well at all. Mum coloured up the moment she set eyes on Winston, the way she does when she’s uneasy about something, and hurried out into the kitchen to busy herself with something or other, while Dad said a frosty hello, his grey eyes cold and unwelcoming, before he hid himself behind the outstretched pages of his Telegraph, which he used, it seemed to me, as a sort of barricade, leaving Winston and me to sit there and watch the news on TV in silence. I don’t know exactly what I’d been expecting, taking the man I loved, who just happened to be black, home with me for the first time; but I sure as hell know it wasn’t that.

Winston propped a pillow against the headboard and sat up, frowning as he did so. Just then, the sound of a police siren invaded the room. It was very loud for a few seconds, but then the sound faded. I lay on my side and looked at Winston. I was happy just being there, next to him. The room, which was situated over a kebab house, on busy Holloway Road, might be a shoddy little affair, with fading wallpaper and furniture that had been picked up on the cheap, but that didn’t matter – to me, right then, it was quite simply the place to be, because Winston was there. I suppose you could say that I was easily pleased; but it wasn’t that: I was in love. And because I loved him the way I did, I wanted Winston to be happy, too. So I was concerned when I saw that he was looking upset, and I waited to hear what he had to say. He cleared his throat and chewed on his lower lip, like he wasn’t quite sure how to begin; and then he began to tell me what was on his mind. He said that it was difficult being a black man living in England; he wasn’t sure who he was, or where he was supposed to fit in. People — white people like me, I suppose he meant – seemed to have all sorts of crazy ideas where black people were concerned. “Why don’t you try to forget about history and everything and just be yourself?” I suggested.

“That’s easy for you to say,” he began to wave his arms about. “You know who you are and where you’re from…You aren’t expected to play up to some moronic fucking stereotype all the time.” He turned on his side, lit a cigarette and drawled on it. He had a strong, lean body, and you could see the muscles working under the skin when he moved. “You’re white and you’re English,” he said, “it’s easy for you. Your situation isn’t complicated like mine.”

“I feel sick about my Mum and Dad,” I said.

“Forget it.” He leaned over and planted a gentle kiss on my eyelid, ran his long fingers through my bobbed brunette hair. “You’re too pretty to be worrying yourself about such things.”

“I can’t forget it.” I felt all stirred up inside.

“Just relax and think about something else.”

But I didn’t want to think about anything else; I wanted to discuss what was on my mind. I wanted to try to identify exactly why it was that my parents had behaved as they had. “I still can’t believe it,” I said. “I just didn’t know they were such bigots.”

“It’s nothing new. You’re white and I’m black. Lots of people out there don’t approve of white and black mixing. In fact, in many ways it’s still something of a taboo subject for some people.”

“People who think like that are idiots,” I said. “You know what you were saying about not knowing who you are and where you’re supposed to fit into things?”

Winston nodded.

“That’s just how I feel now.”

“Heh, that’s my problem, Gemma, not yours,” he said. “You don’t need to go taking my problems on board.”

I lit yet another cigarette. How many’s that I’ve smoked now? Fifteen in what – three or four hours? Must be a bloody record for me.

“Maybe your parents are right,” he turned his face aside as he spoke, avoiding eye-contact. “I mean, don’t think it’s only white people — a lot of black folk feel just the same way.”

“But I thought we really had something together,” I said, stunned, “something worth fighting for.”

He dropped his head. “Maybe it’s best to stop trying to go against the grain and just accept things as they are,” he said, and his voice sounded so different when he spoke that I hardly recognized it.

“So you mean that’s it, then? You want to end it, just like that?” I was well and truly gobsmacked.

He got up out of bed, slipped his navy-blue coloured dressing gown on, lit up a cigarette, and went over to the window, where he stood with his back to me, smoking as he looked out at the dark street. “I think it’s probably for the best,” he said, without turning to look at me.

This was the very last thing I’d been expecting and I didn’t know how to react. I just knew that I didn’t want to break down and cry in front of him. I didn’t want to find myself begging him to change his mind. So I pulled back the chenille coverlet and got up out of bed, put my Levi’s and my purple-coloured T-shirt back on, stepped into my ballet shoes, and went out without saying a word.

Outside in the street I ran my hand up and down over my belly, as I walked along in the rain. God, what a miserable bloody night. I’d been going to tell him, but then he’d taken the carpet from under me. I can feel it growing inside me and he doesn’t even know. It’s my own little secret and I feel proud of it. But it won’t remain a little secret for long – then what’s going to happen? God, I feel awful.

I walked up the Holloway Road and stopped at the bus-stop, took out my fags. God, best pack these in, too. Dammit, I’ve smoked loads today. It’s poison for the baby. Poison! I’ve really got to start taking more care.

I dropped the packet into the gutter and tried to collect my thoughts. Somehow I had the feeling that they were going to take a lot of collecting. I pictured myself six months down the line, bumping into him in the street. “Hi,” he says. “Oh, hi,” I reply, trying to act cool. “What’s this, not in the family way, are we?” he says. And I give him a look as if to say and what’s it to you if I am, and don’t say anything. “Who’s the lucky father, then?” he asks me, a pained expression coming into his gorgeous brown eyes; and, cool as a cucumber, the way I can get sometimes, I look him straight in the eye and I say… What is it that I say to him?

Nick Sweet’s stories have appeared in issues 117 and 118 of the Evergreen Review and in Cutthroat online (2007). His first novel, GEMINI GAMES, was praised by acclaimed authors D.M. Thomas, Andrew O’Hagan and D.J. Taylor, and his second novel, WINTER GAMES, which is set against the backdrop of World War One, was recently published. Both novels are available in the U.S. from Histhird crime novel, BAD KARMA, will be published later this year.

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