The Christmas Opening

The Christmas Opening

I decided that I would make my 50th year one to remember. In September I started thinking about Christmas. For two reasons. One, I had my sisters with me for the first time in 30 years and two I usually start making my Christmas cards in September. I thought back to last Christmas where I spent Christmas morning wrapping presents. I had offered to help with North Birmingham Carer’s Group Christmas Party as I had done for the last few years. My right foot was just healing from a break I sustained in Macca’s shop. I had not been compensated for it as the shop owner claimed he had no public liability insurance. But I have three years in to sue him so ….. no matter.
Yes, so here I was with a broken right foot and memories of a broken left foot in March deciding between spending Christmas as I used to many years ago. A bottle of booze, a whole cake, chocolates, the remote control, no visitors, heating high, telephone at the ready, child staying with whoever she chose and peace perfect peace. After all year playing Santa Claus, Christmas day was my day off. I was reminded of my first Christmas. Mummy had broken her foot in November. We were living in the dining room with no heating at nights. The paraffin heater which was on all day in the room was taken up stairs every night. I was awake when Mummy’s daughter brought my present int0 the room. She’d wrapped it up and placed it at the foot of the bed which I shared with Mummy. I wasn’t too impressed. This was to leading up to be the worst Christmas ever. I was in a strange country amongst people who were not in the least bit interested in my welfare. I had left a very warm country and had now arrived in this God forsaken place with it’s deep snow, smog, unfriendly people and lots of jealousy. Mummy and I went to bed cold and hungry every night. We very rarely talked of home. That was many miles away. I had left a God mother, grandfather, sister family and friends behind. School was nothing to write home about. My teacher Mrs Towers was Jewish. She had a big nose, ate fish on Fridays and kissed her husband every morning before she got out of the car and walked through the staff entrance to school. I didn’t like her. She couldn’t call my name right. On the first day I told her my name and she couldn’t understand it. I wrote it down for her and after looking at it for a while she said “In this country we pronounce that Coooooooper. Pronunciation before that was Kupper. So everyday she marked the register gave out books etc and elongated my surname and everyday I totally ignored her. She found out I was bright. I already knew that after all I never stayed long in a class back home. I had had privileges that many children my age could only dream of. I had own room, wore no-ones cast offs played piano and typed. I didn’t get the beating though. Okay so I got beaten two days after coming to England. But maybe I deserved it. I was so ungrateful really. Imagine these people had allowed me into their home and I had thanked them by taking off my shoes and hitting their daughter Beverly. Of course no one heard Beverly teasing my Kittitian accent, calling me skinny, pulling my hair. Adults always went being dead and dumb when children are being abused whether by other adult ofr by other children. So I hated school and I hated home most of all I hated England. This place that I was taught was full of mannersable people who said please, thank you, good morning. Ha. Already my foster brother-in-law was finding interesting things up my skirt in the dark as we all sat as a large happy family watching tv. He didn’t have to tell me not to tell anyone. Wasn’t this the same man who had written back to Mummy that he had enough mouths to feed and he couldn’t afford to feed me as well? So I remained grateful. My first Christmas in England was a non- event. I remember opening the present later that day. It was a balaclava. The sort criminals use nowadays. It was green or blue. Not red. Red was my favourite colour. The colour of blood. The colour of my skin and my hair. The colour of my first coat. The colour of anger. Even at ten I was very angry. I hated adults. They kept disappointing me. They never protected or supported me from what the bible which they crammed down my throat five times on Sunday and 7 days a week said was evil. Children should be seen and not heard. I was heard telling everybody to ‘lea me lone’ Whilst Mummy was within earshot they did leave me alone. But she wasn’t with me when they teased me and ran on to school with their friends. Nor was she with me in the playground when because I was the last new girl in I was teased unmercifully. I played alone in the corner of the playground as I had done in a yardful of children at Miss Clarke’s and alone in Mummy’s house in Thompson St. December 1963 was horrid. For the first time I knew what ‘deep and crisp and even’ in Good Kind Wenceslas the Carol and ‘snow had fallen snow on snow,’ In the deep mid-winter in meant and felt like. I preferred the snow on the Christmas cards. I didn’t have to wear extra large boots and coat, use a stick to walk or fall all over the place when I looked at a card. I thought the first snow was nice. Shaved ice falling from the sky. Which child doesn’t like the idea. The first time I saw ice falling from the sky I went out to make a closer inspection. They laughed at me. Hadn’t I seen snow before? I was stupid. I went outside to have a closer look. It was cold. I didn’t know I had to walk in it. We went to the make and made snowballs. They threw them at me. I daredn’t throw back. I had promised Mummy that I would be a good girl when we came to England. It was difficult being good. When everyone jumped over the desks at school I watched in amazement. I liked England. You were allowed to say no to a teacher. In fact you could even swear at and hit a teacher. You didn’t get beaten, could write on text books and library books and you didn’t have to eat all your food. I couldnt have liked everything about school but our teacher kept saying things about ‘you people’ Like the day she called me out to teach me how to write properly because you people wrote in fancy styles all the time and she didn’t like it. You could also come to school late and only get told off. No beatings with sticks and belts soaked in pee. Yes I could have liked going to school but we had to go out for playtime and they didn’t understand recess. They laughed at my accent and accused the coloured girls of stealing smelling and smiling too much. I loved combing white girls hair. Oh it was so long. Some of them actually had more hair than me. Mine was down my back, I always had longer hair than anyone else and now I was in England and people had lighter skin and longer hair than me. In fact they called me black, a word normally only used for people who were darker than me; like my younger sister .
March 1964 Mummy died. The morning before she died she woke me up and told me to go and get her daughter Eileen. I was instructed to write to my grandfather and tell him to send for me. I didn’t write at first. When I got around to it Papa said he had no money. I knew he had a lot of money. After all we had sold him our piano, bath-pan, radio, sitting room chairs, table. He also said that in England when you had nobody the government looked after you. In St. Kitts he would have had to look after me because both of my parents were now dead. I was now not little orphan Annie that I’d read about but an orphan just the same, akin to Cinderella, Pip and all the Charles Dicken’s Characters. I don’t remember much about the next few days. I don’t remember anybody explaining anything to me. I remember going to the funeral in Harehills Cemetry. I remember not jumping in the whole with her as I had promised her many years ago when she asked me what I would do when she died. I remember a skinny litte girl in a purple dress and cardigan looking at the coffin I which the only person I knew in England had been laid to rest for the last time. No one explained anything to me. We all went back to the house. I went upstairs and stared at the lanky girl in the mirror. I moved to the left and turned on the radio tuning it till I found music. Music not unlike what I’d heard in the Caribbean. I was still trying to find the little men inside the radio. I could never understand how so many people could fit into this tiny object. Cramped or what? Whilst I was busily dancing and pondering on the wonderful group playing one of my favourite songs, someone entered the room. “Look at you up here dancing, when we just finish burying mama.” It was my foster sister Eileen. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hadn’t killed anybody. “Don’t think we don’t know how much trouble you gave mama in St. Kitts. You’re a rotten little girl. It’s your fault she’s dead. Well the tears which I’d been holding back ever since the last beating, started to flow. They flowed and flowed. Looking back I cried me a river. I bawled, I howled, I jumped up and down, rolled around the floor and creamed until I was hoarse. Everyone came upstairs to look at this crazy girl who was just like her mother and the rest of her family. Crazy. Like her boasty father who drank himself to death, her uncle who wore a white suit and her mother who had killed herself in Birmingham. Yes this child was genetically crazy. So crazy that they sent for the doctor to be quick, quick quick, He came, just like Miss Polly’s dolly doctor came with his cane and his bag. But he didn’t use brown paper. No he sent for another doctor who sent for another doctor. All three doctors came to see this skinny, fair skinned girl who had just finished thrashing a room because she was bad. Not because she’d just lost the fifth person in her life. So these three very big white gentlemen in suits with their medicine bags quietened the child. Not just for the night but for nine years. They tranquillised her and left her to the mercy of the family who had never wanted her in the first place. All that is except the father who had wanted her from the first time he saw her. A want that was sinful, incestuous, shameless but necessary.
So the child did not go to school for a while and put all memories behind her. The meetings started in the sitting room. What to do? What to Do? No one asked the child. The very bright talented child could no longer speak for herself. She wasn’t wanted but sending her back home was out of the question. What would people say. She’d been brought to England by Mummy and her daughter had no choice but to keep her and feed her with the other 6 mouths she had to feed. Now there was no Mummy to look after the youngest child so someone will now have to be paid to do it. More expenses. See what this rude child had done. Not only had she killed an old woman but she had now caused the family extra expense because they no longer had a child minder. Mummy die of Pneumonia. She had never owned a coat throughout the harsh winter of 63/64. She had never lived to see a summer in England. She had never fulfilled her dreams of getting her own room near her daughter’s house and taking Shirley to live with her until she saved up enough to go back to St.Kitts, her three houses, her community, her church, her lodge. Ruth Cranston died on February 23rd 1964. She had been called Ruth Ann Williams before she married Bobby Cranston. She was a St. Kitts white: very light skinned, long straight hair, well educated, fairly well to do. She had owned a shop over the last few years. If anyone told her she would end up in a paupers grave she would have been horrified but that’s where she ended up because there was no money to bury her. My house was sold to tomb her but years later I found her memorial stone. I was deprived of my first house and on my 21st birthday sent a silver engraved bracelet instead of the deeds. Mr Hancock the local postman, Eddie James the Solicitor and George E Cooper the Auctioneer, my maternal grandfather all signed the will. Years later they all blamed each other for the disposal of my house. May their souls rot in hell.
I don’t remember when I returned to school. The next nine years were hell. I was kept on because everyone would talk. There was only one condition under which I was kept. I had to behave myself. Not a very hard task for a 10 year old. Being perfect is normal childish behaviour isn’t it so I was not the most popular child in Junior school. I strive to be perfect. Had top marks all the time. Stayed in at breaks to help tidy the classroom. Always first in line to go out and come in. Never late for school. Always afraid of not being perfect..
Mrs Towers instructed me to teach four girls being they weren’t very bright. Tessa, Mornell, Melvina Thomas and who? I had done most of the work before coming to England so I wasn’t missing anything I can even remember some of the work we did. People standing at the bus stop. All white. There were very few white girls in my class. I stood combing their hair whenever I wasn’t teaching the four girls so I should know. I never passed a bus stop on the way to school and never went on buses for years so I never knew what people standing at the bus looked like but none of those on our wall had black skin. But then nobody on our wall had black skin unless they were poor and needed us to send them pennies. We never collected enough pennies in our class. Maybe it was because we were poor, lived whole families to a room and had paraffin heaters to keep warm.
We had a tv eventually. Our favourite programmes were the Yes No interlude, Double your money, westerns where the cowboys (whites always won. Saturday afternoons were for racing and wrestling whilst Sundays were for adventures on the high seas, tales of discovery especially those where great explorers discovered us. Whenever black people were featured on the tv my cousins teased each other. Nina Simones song , I’ve got eyes, I’ve got ear, I’ve got etc were taunted with you can keep them.

The Christmas Opening

Shirley Cooper (B)Lake

Birmingham, United Kingdom

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Artist's Description

I started to write an account of the Christmas Opening, something I’ve done for over 20 years. Not a soup Kitchen, but a whole day with up to 200 people who have no one to spend Christmas with or choose to come and spend it with people less fortunate than themselves.

Artwork Comments

  • elfevans
  • Shirley Cooper (B)Lake
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