Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Envelope

by Jenny Palmer  

wormwood

‘Open the envelope,’ said Leo, handing it to Romaine.
            ‘No. You open it,’ she said. ‘It’s for you anyway.’ 
‘Well, hang on a minute,’ he said. ‘I need to wash my hands first.’
It was an official-looking letter. Leo had an inkling of what it might be. He’d applied for a passport some time ago. After living and working in England all his adult life, he wanted to visit his country of origin before it was too late.  
When he’d first met Romaine, she’d been working in the community café down the High Street. That was in the days when there still was a community, before the area got divided up into postcodes and the kids started knifing each other.
The café had been her home from home. As well as serving food, there was a bookshop, literacy classes, a writing group, and twice a week they dished out free legal advice, which Leo had once had occasion to avail himself of. He’d stayed on to have a meal in the café and ever after that, whenever his shifts allowed.
‘Hurry up, will you?’ Romaine was shouting from the kitchen. ‘Dinner is nearly ready.’
He’d been looking forward to dinner with some anticipation. Of late Romaine had been experimenting with new recipes. She’d taken to watching cooking programmes on television and then trying out their suggestions. It meant searching around for ingredients and, as often as not, she would end up having to substitute them with something else. It defeated the purpose, he always thought. Of late her tastes were getting more and more outrageous. Last week he’d caught her watching a programme about Peruvian cooking, where they were serving piranha fish. The sight of those upturned fish heads on the plate, with their teeth baring, was enough to put anyone off.
The allotment was Leo’s solace. It took his mind off things, stopped him worrying about the sort of trouble his grandkids were getting drawn into. There were so many risks these days. You could be caught in the cross fire. It didn’t matter if you were the innocent party or not. And you could get stopped and searched or hauled into the police station.
When he was still driving the buses, he’d got into the habit of putting a few hours in at the allotment after work. Now that he was retired, he could spend as much time as he wanted there. He’d always grown vegetables, like his grandmother back in Jamaica. The climate had been warmer there and she’d grown all sorts: yams, maize, bananas, mango. Here he was confined to potatoes, courgettes or cabbages. At least it saved Romaine a few trips to the market. 
He’d been thinking a lot about Jamaica lately. As kids they’d played outside from dawn to dusk. He went to the beach most days to meet up with his friends, when his grandmother wasn’t looking. They swam in the sea and swung in hammocks on the beach in the afternoon sun. They were long, hot days that stretched into warm, balmy evenings. Later he sat on the veranda watching the sun go down, while his grandmother chatted idly to the neighbours.  He would have been perfectly happy, if only his mother and father hadn’t gone off to live in that distant land England.
Eventually when he was ten, his parents had sent for him to come too. He’d travelled over with his Aunt Ada. All he could remember of those first few months in London was the feeling of disappointment and the cold that seeped into his bones. England wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. Besides he hardly ever saw his parents. His mother worked shifts in the hospital and his father worked on the buses all day long.
The family had lived in a bedsit then.  Once his little brother had come along, it was really cramped. He escaped downstairs to Aunt Ada’s, whenever they needed change for the electricity meter. Ada was the one who taught him how to take care of himself, how to avoid getting into trouble with the other kids. She insisted on him doing his homework. Once he’d passed his driving test, his future was secured. He’d work on the buses like his dad.
 ‘You could do worse,’ Aunt Ada had said. ‘It’s a steady job and there’s a good pension at the end of it.’
‘If I live long enough,’ he’d said.
His father had died before he’d even got to pension age. After that, his mother and Aunt Ada started going out together. They went up the West End to the Odeon Cinema at Leicester Square or shopping on Oxford Street. They’d been happy enough then. Neither of them considered going back. This was their home now. 
‘Your dinner is going to get cold,’ Romaine was shouting from the kitchen.
She was growing more impatient by the day ever since he’d started planning this trip.
‘It beats me why you want to go off half-way round the globe on some fool mission?’ she said. ‘It’s not as if you have any relatives over there anymore.’
‘Well, it’s different for you,’ he said. ‘You were born here. You don’t have the same memories.’
His parents had been invited over as Commonwealth citizens after the Second World War to help build up the mother country. He’d settled in eventually. He’d never wanted to go back until now. And had never known there was so much red tape involved in applying for a passport. He’d sent off everything he could think of to prove his identity: his photo, driving licence, his National Insurance number and copies of his household bills.
Finally, though, the waiting game was over, and it had arrived. He would go down the travel agent’s first thing in the morning and book the ticket. So, what if Romaine didn’t want to come with him? He’d go alone. And it didn’t matter that his grandmother wasn’t there any longer. He could still visit the places he’d known as a kid. Some of his old friends would be around. He was really looking forward to it now. It would be the trip of a lifetime.
The smell of jerk chicken and peas was wafting in from the kitchen. Romaine had come up trumps.  It was his favourite. Soon, he would be sitting and eating with his friends in the old country. It was time to open the envelope.  
‘What is it?’ cried Romaine, as Leo collapsed onto a chair, the blood draining
from his face. 
She picked up the letter and read it out.
Unfortunately, we are unable to grant you a passport at this stage. We
require further evidence of your status as a British citizen. Unless you can provide us with your landing card, we will have no alternative but to deport you back to your home country.’
‘But they can’t do that!’ she cried out. ‘This is your home. You’re not an illegal immigrant.’
‘I was a kid when I came here. I’ve never even seen a landing card,’ he managed. ‘They’ve shifted the goal posts. How can they do that?’

About the author

Jenny Palmer is the author of two memoirs ‘Nowhere better than home’ and ‘Pastures New’ and a family history ’Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks.’ Her new collection of short stories ’Keepsake’ is to be published soon by Bridge House publications 

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