The Sacrifice is the story of a young woman navigating grief and burgeoning adulthood against the backdrop of growing social and racial tension. In 2012 it won the inaugural Commonword Children’s Diversity Writing Prize.
I want to fess up. I do. I have to so I can save our Frankie. It’s just that I don’t know how to say it yet or which of the words fit right in my mouth. I ain’t been able to practice. Then I don’t know where to start. If I begin with what I did then you won’t believe me. You’ll say it was Frankie’s fault that he’s a bad influence, which is what you all think anyway. Even TT. It’s only ‘cos Frankie’s coloured, I mean Afro-Caribbean, well Jamaican, or whatever - and he’s a bloke and all black blokes turn you bad don’t they? They won’t believe that girls could come up with a plan like I did.
The only thing Frankie’s guilty of is turning sixteen like it’s some bad t’ing, some sort of curse. Like it's our fault we got to grow up. That’s why I’ve got to tell ‘cos he’s a man now and he’ll get sent down. Frankie couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand that either. Me, I’m only fourteen and a girl so they can’t do 'owt to me. Can they? Frankie said that more black men get banged up than get jobs in this country. He didn’t say if black girls get banged up too. I don’t know if anyone’s counted that number.
He’s probably in this pig-pen somewhere. He might be right on the other side of this puke green wall I’m touching. I shouted for him when I got here but they came in and told me to shut it and so I did. Frankie would’ve given me that ‘Yes H-inglish girl’ look, would have done that turning away to smile on his own thing that he does. He can’t really be cussing me ‘cos I am an English girl. I mean I was born here. So how comes it makes my insides go cold when he says it like I just downed a Slush Puppie? Anyhow it don’t matter, as long as he’s in here, close to me.
You won’t understand how I could do a thing like that unless I tell you about the stuff before it. Like TT pulling me under the bed with him ‘cos I thought the house was about to fall down and then finding the box of Twixes under there. And Orphan, TT and me sitting on the sofa, our feet all tangled, watching them old films with the pop-pop guns and the fast talking men. And then finding Frankie that day, all alone by the kitchen window looking out with that not here not anywhere look, the spout of the orange juice carton all soft and pulpy. You won’t understand ‘owt unless I tell you about the Box. I should have kept it sealed. I should never have opened it. You see it used to be light enough to keep me afloat. Then it started creaking with all the weight of its insides, like Guatemala stuffed itself in there and sat, brewing. I should have kept sealed it up forever. But Frankie made me want to open it again. And when I did, the evil swamped this whole city.
But that’s not what I’m here to confess - not to starting the riot. You caught me red-handed for that. I’m here to tell you what I’m really guilty of. ‘Cos you see no story starts at the end. You got to travel to Christmas Past before you get to Christmas Future. So I’ll start at the beginning, well a beginning, the only beginning that counts ‘cos who I was or what I was before Ryders is no longer. Anything left of me flew away when I opened the box.
It’s freezing in here. I don’t even have my coat. I ran out without it.
I can still smell the smoke of the fire on my jumper. The policeman said he’d be back in a minute, said he wanted to check I’m who I said I was. As if I’d make me up. Today’s date - 25 July 1981. Name - Jessie Patricks. Date of birth - 14 January 1967. Resident of Ryders Children’s Home, Leicester, armpit of The Universe. As if anyone would want to steal that identity.
I’m gonna break the rule. I know I ain't supposed to chat our business specially to grown ups and definitely not to pigs. ‘Cos those boys caught me before I smashed myself to smithereens so I had to do whatever it took to save them. I didn’t know it would start a riot did I? I didn’t know the streets would burn the way they did last night. So I’m gonna tell ‘cos, finally, I might be able to save him.
I bet you’ve visited Ryders sometime on your beat ain't ya? Most of you pigs have. Picking us up and taking us back. I never ran away though. I never got to run away. We never made it that far.
The mushroom cloud is still hanging in the sky when I arrive at Ryders for the first time. I’m not sure how to pop the lock on the taxi door and push it open but I manage it anyhow.
I point my toes ‘til they touch the pavement, just so’s I don’t have to ask Julie, the social worker, for help. I'm standing on the pavement looking up and down the empty street. I’m wearing my new red coat for-best and clutching my Survival Box. I ain’t let it out my sight for two weeks.
It’s the high wall that runs along the front and side of the house that makes it stand out from the others, that and its’ red roof turrets. It’s grander than the other ones on the Aylestone Road which are red-bricked and flat-fronted with tiny walls and concrete gardens. This garden sprawls out right the way to the corner so the waving treetops tell me.
It looks like a place where grandfather clocks strike thirteen. I stop my butterflies fluttering ‘cos I’m not sure I should feel excited not without Marma being here.
I slowly step my feet in a circle to see what’s to the side and behind. The road is long and straight and stretches way into the distance. You could never reach the end of this road, no matter how far or fast you run. On the opposite corner, a few small shops slant into one another. I can smell the faint traces of chip fat and vinegar. My mouth floods with salty saliva at the thought. Next to the shops, cars line up on the pavement, gold streamers dancing over their roofs. Look like they're lining up for a beauty parade ‘cept ain’t no-one about to judge them. Squatting opposite, there’s an old concrete Corporation bus shelter with most of its' window’s smashed out. On the last pane, someone’s written ‘Shaz is a slag’ in thick black letters. Behind the shelter, black railings link arms holding in a dense line of bushes. I can’t see through them no matter how hard I squint.
A hand lands on my shoulder.
“That’s a park right across there. And if you stand on tip-toe in the back bedroom you can almost see the City ground. Ain’t you the lucky one?”
Julie, her hand on the large wooden gate, turns back to see if I’m following.
“Well. You wanna see your new home or don’t you?"
“Gi’ uz it Daz! Gi’z it!”
I don’t look up. I’m Dorothy putting my first ruby red shoe on the Yellow Brick Road ‘cept this path is all black smashed stones and wild weeds.
I hear a boot like a canon shot and a long slow whistle. Time hangs in the air before a leather weight crashes into the side of my leg in an explosion of laughter. Julie clutches me before I fall. Her voice waggles when she says:
“Oi, Bull! I’m sick to my back teeth o’ you. Watch it!”
The ball bounces off into the bushes. I squint at the four of ‘em. Lanky hair drawn like curtains across their eyes, grass-stained t-shirts and mud-caked flares. Their footie pitch ain’t rolling green lawn but puckered with mud clods. Two tin bins, spilling out rubbish, sit in for goal posts. The boys point at me and carry on their cackling. All except the one with the freckles, the fists and the steely blue eyes.
“That nignog ain’t coming here is she?”
He’s pointing a stiff finger at me. Julie pushes me toward the front door out of its way.
"Mind your own bloomin’ business.”
He swears loudly and punches the arm of one of his mates, sending him off to fetch the ball.
I stand on the doorstep and look up but Julie just leans her bulky weight through her finger and rings the bell.
The door swings opens and the din swells over me. There’s Caroline. She looks at me like she ain’t seeing me, like she’s thinking about something that happened yesterday or might happen tomorrow. I take a few steps back not because of her but because of what’s going on behind. There are tons of them, all shapes and sizes, jumping, grabbing and pulling on each other. I rub my foot against the back of my leg to reach the itch.
Caroline bends down so her eyes are level with mine. Up close they’re soft, like there’s a story behind them.
“Welcome to Ryders, Jessie.”
Then she straightens and turns, striding away down the corridor, parting the sea of children like Moses. Her mouth is moving but the sound is drowned out by bellows and complaints and the Crackerjack theme tune cranked up really high.
I wonder why I don’t have to take my shoes off before I come in. The dark red-patterned carpet is worn through. The flowery green wallpaper above tries its’ best but strips have been torn viciously away. I slide my hand over my mouth to stop the smell of warm, caged, dead animals leaking in.
When we pass the living room door on the left, Caroline stops.
“This is the living room. You can watch telly here if you like. You got a favourite programme you like to watch have you?”
There are two sofas, two armchairs, and a telly. The wooden chair legs are scratched and dented and none of the stretch covers match. Photos of boys and girls, in their stiff school collars, smirk down at me. I count fifteen of them. Three older girls are laid out on one of the sofas watching Gary Glitter in a silver jump suit and ten-inches on his shoes, patiently wait for the Gunge Tank trap door to open. It does and he disappears under an avalanche of green mush.
“Girls” Caroline has to shout over the noise of the screaming audience. “This is Jessie. She’s new. You’ll look out for her won’t you?”
The girl with the red hair tilts her head back and her eyes widen.
“But she’s coloured.”
The heat rises about my ears and I lean behind Caroline to shield myself from her horrified gaze.
“Top marks for observation,” says Caroline.
She continues to stare at me like I’m the one in the Gunge Tank.
“She ain’t coming in with us is she?”
“No. She’s in with Wendy.”
She tilts her head back toward the telly.
"Ha! Windy you mean. Good luck to her.”
“Girls – “
Suddenly electricity pulses through her and she's up and stomping toward us, mashing her heels into the carpet. Instintively, my arms spring up to hide my face.
“Get lost will ye! You’re ruining it!”
The door’s gust makes me stumble. I look up at Caroline but she’s off striding toward the end of the corridor. I run to catch her, looking nervously behind me at the shuddering door.
As she swings open this new door, I squint my eyes against the bright sunshine streaming in from the large windows. It’s a breakfast room with a sideboard and a few bench tables tucked into the corners. The big window at the back of the house looks out onto more trees and parked cars are framed in the side window. Caroline enters a door to the right and I follow. A kitchen lined with brown cupboards, most of which have shiny locks fitted. The floor’s covered with sticky orange lino decorated in flowered squares. Julie and another women sit at a kitchen table with Formica-peeling sides. The fusty stink of boiled cabbage swamps the dead smell.
“Maisie,” Caroline says. “This is Jessie. She’s joining us today.”
Julie stubs out her cigarette. The one with the dry curly brown hair that looks like a birds nest, continues smoking hers and raises her eyebrows at me. She beckons me toward her and leans her face in to mine. Lines snake out the corners of her eyes and her breath clouds me in smoke. I back up.
“Hiya love. I’m Aunty Maisie,” her accent is strong and Scottish. She speaks slowly like each word is a new one. “I’m one of the House Mothers and will be cooking lots of your meals. Uncle Chris is the other House Father. He’s popped out at the mo but you’ll meet him soon. Julie’s been telling me you’re a clever girl. Good reports from school.”
Her hands are rough like Marma’s.
Too much washing up.
“She also says you don’t speak much.”
“You’re eleven aren’t you?”
“You speak English do you?”
She’s smiling with her mouth but her eyes are too wide.
“Course she speaks English,“ Julie mutters.
“Well I don’t bloomin’ know do I?”
Maisie says that over my head.
“What you got there?” she reaches out toward my Box. Panicked I pull it away. Her voice is sterner. “You’re not allowed to have food in your rooms and the kitchen locks up at six each night so – “
“It’s not biscuits,” Julie says. “It’s a tin she keeps her personal things in. Apparently she hasn’t let it go since her Gran died.”
Maisie leans in close.
“Well that’s ok. If it’s precious you’ll best let me look after it for you.”
Her hands are close to it and they’re bigger than mine. She could take it from me if she really wanted. She could take it, like they took Marma and they took me, and I couldn’t do anything about it because her hands are bigger than mine. The Box is blurry and wet now.
“Oh lovey that’s okay don’t cry,” Caroline’s hands are on my shoulders. “If you want to hang onto it course you can. Just keep it hidden. Things have a habit of going missing round here.”
“This is your room now,” she says. “Least Wendy’s one of the tidy ones.”
The pink wallpaper’s peeling in places. There are blue crayon marks on one of the walls. It’s tidy though. Both beds made up with matching candlewick bedspreads. There’s a dark heavy wardrobe at one end and a chest of drawers, lodged between two beds, at the other. The carpet is black with dark orange splotches like the sky at night. A window above one of the beds looks out onto the front garden and the street beyond it.
Two weeks ago I walked past Marma’s room and it was empty. No-one told me what was going on and I didn’t ask. But this much I do know, this ain’t my room. This place don’t smell of Saturday soup. I can’t hear Marma talking back to the telly or Miss Baptiste’s hymns coming up the path. Marma’s flapping slippers won't wake me in the morning.
I look down toward my feet and by the time I find them, the truth slams into me like a truck. Marma made it. I didn’t. She warned me didn’t she? She said if I didn’t read my Bible or help out in the kitchen or learn my sums that Judgement Day would come and I would be left behind. She tried to prepare me but I wasn’t good enough. Maybe I gave the two finger salute one time too many or God didn’t like me coveting Hannah Gordon’s long golden party ringlets when I swished the tea towel on my head. Maybe I wasn’t quiet enough when Marma was daytime sleeping. There must have been something ‘cos Marma made it to Paradise and I didn’t. And if I didn’t make it there is only one other place this could be.
I slowly count the orange splodges.
One…two…three….four…who’s that standing at the door?
“Go on in then and get settled. I’ll be back to check on you in a bit.”
Five…six…seven…eight…can’t be saved it’s way too late….
I close the door quietly and climb onto the bed.
Eight…nine…ten…eleven…. You will never get to heaven…
I fit my spine into the corner, place my Survival Box in my lap and bring my knees up to my chin.
I press my fingers into my ears until they tremble and let them go again. I do this until I’m not sure whether the loud bellows and bangs are coming into my head or escaping out of it.