He never said it was love. It may have been the name Veronica Pettigrew—a Catholic—that clinched it. Most Jamaican Pettigrews are Roman Catholics, and my husband’s sister Veronica Pettigrew-East (mother of Ermin Goode, Teresa East-Headley and Howard East) died in the Kendal Train Crash on September 1st, 1957, together with her husband, two brothers-in-law, and the beautiful daughter of Mrs Clark. Only the presence of the good Lord saved Mrs Clark’s only son, Earl, who had bawled so hard and refused to board the train that they eventually left him indoors.
Ermin East-Goode, who suffered from a serious heart condition, and was expecting her only son at the time, could not be told right away that she had just lost her mother and father and several relations in one fell swoop. Mrs Clark, who had recently arrived in England from Jamaica and was staying with Ermin at 10 Duncombe Hill, took up smoking immediately. As a devout Catholic and Christian, she has never been able to give up the dreaded cigarettes since. She had just lost her only daughter and nearly lost her one son, too.
But in that “crash” period of 1957, I saw my husband cry for the first and only time, because ‘Aunt Vero’ as everyone called Mrs East was one of the nicest of the Pettigrews, and her husband was a smasher, too, I’m told. Many good people died in that Kendal Train Crash, which is still today the worst rail disaster in Jamaica’s history, and it was a time of great mourning for countless prominent families. It was only during this period, however, that my husband opened up a little, enough at least to show some vulnerability, and it was the closest I ever felt to him in all the years that we were married.
You see, my husband, Thomas Ranford Pettigrew, was a Rastafarian, and although Tom wore no dreadlocks for hair, his family and friends all expected that he would certainly have got married to a Catholic in a Catholic church. As I see it, he must have been put up to the marriage. He was then forty-six. Just why had he suddenly decided to change his bachelor status to marry me—an Anglican woman less than half his age? And where on earth did he get all those expensive gifts he gave me as wedding presents? Last week, in one of those society magazines, I saw a headdress amongst the royal family’s treasures, almost exactly as mine looked on the day I got married.
When I arrived in England in 1956, Tom had a high-powered motorbike. But since I couldn’t understand why anyone should use a mode of transport and still get wet—and as he kept falling off the damn thing, anyway—I encouraged him to buy a car.
He worked for the Gas Board at the time, and his English Foreman was jealous. The Foreman told him,
“I’ve been working here for thirteen years, and I can’t even buy a push bike. Yet you come here, and in no time at all, you can buy a brand new Harley-Davidson, K-H-K. And now, you own a Lincoln Capri car. What the hell am I doing wrong?”
So, when Tom got stuck in snow that next day and came to work late—the Foreman sacked him. Tom couldn’t find a job anywhere, but we had a little money in the bank, and we had to live. ‘Furnished Lettings’ seemed to me like a good idea. I got talking to him about it—about certain neighbourhoods and their suitability as places of residence. I was explaining to him that it was now very difficult for people like us to find suitable neighbourhoods, and by that, I meant, amongst people of our ilk. All the descent West Indians we knew were in the same boat, “No Wogs, No Dogs, No Irish,” was the motto. So what should we do?
No sooner had I asked the question when Tom’s English friend, Mr Bucknor, decided to sell his Highbury home. Tom asked me to come along with him to have a look at the place. I liked it immediately. If only for the fact that it had a bathroom, and two toilets and the house we currently owned and lived in at Cadogan Terrace had no bathrooms at all. We decided to sell Cadogan and with the help of Tom’s Jewish friend, Tony, and a loan from a small-time mortgage company, also owned by Jews, we bought 65 Beresford Road for £3,900. It was a lot of money in those days, but the house had ten rooms, and so it became a home and income.
We had enough from the sale of Cadogan Terrace to deposit on Beresford Road, and St Stephens Road, where my husband put his ex-girlfriend from Jamaica, Icilda, and sent for his daughter with her, Pamela, to come and live in the house. When Pamela came up, and Icilda was working, he said that he had to be there to take Pamela to school at Brokesley Street, and I hardly saw him at all. It was mainly for that reason I was so keen to move from Cadogan Terrace. I figured that it would be hard for him to leave Highbury every morning to take Pamela to school all the way in Mile End, but Tom went one better and bought St Stephens Road in both their names. At least, Icilda had something. The house on Beresford Road was in his name only. I wasn’t too bothered then, for even in that first year of marriage, I knew that someday, I would have to get away.
Tom wanted a son, but the doctor had said that I couldn’t have children because of a retroverted womb, and that didn’t help matters between us. Moreover, when we went to look at the house on Beresford Road, which was fully let, there was a young couple living on the ground floor, a Peter and Penelope Barzey. In hindsight, Tom and Peter may have known each other through Bucknor, Tom’s Poker-playing friend. But Peter worked for the GPO as a Customer Relations Officer in the telephone department, and he did shift work. I supposed he also looked after the house for Bucknor because Bucknor lived in Essex.
When we arrived at Beresford Road to look the place over, Peter opened up the house and showed us around. He was dressed in dark green slacks and a pristine white shirt that showed that somebody cared about his appearance. His shoes were so highly polished that you could see your reflection in them and so was his smile. Later on, when he cornered me alone on the stairs, he said,
“What’s a bright, intelligent, young woman like you doing with him?”
That’s when he looked me square in the face and pointed in Tom’s direction. I thought it was a bit of a cheek, really, since he didn’t know who I was from Eve, but I couldn’t help but smile and pull away. He had certainly made an impression on me. After we had moved in, and the other tenants realised that there was no marriage to speak of, everyone began to wonder what the hell was going on.
Three months after we moved in, I spoke to Peter properly. I had some books delivered. He took them in. As they were heavy, he offered to carry them to my room downstairs, and we started talking. I discovered that he was a teacher in his native Montserrat, and we discussed, among other things, the Pitman bookkeeping and accounting course I had just started, and racism in Britain. After that fine introduction, there was no stopping us from gathering for the odd chat in the passage. I had decorated the very large house in my taste and style, but I had made the mistake of having it fully carpeted, which didn’t make it easy to clean because the tenants were no help. But whenever Peter heard the noise of a vacuum cleaner, he would step out from his door and take it from me to either finish the job himself or pack the machine away. Finally, one day in a fit of fury, he confessed his reasoning to me,
“I’m annoyed because you have to go to work all the way in Walthamstow and then spend all your spare time cleaning! Go put on your coat and let me take you for a walk.”
And he took me to join Mildmay Library, where we found we shared the same taste in books, and gradually, we fell in love.
One morning, I bumped into him as I was leaving the house, and he hurriedly scribbled on a piece of paper and shoved it in my hand with instruction not to open the note until I was sitting on the bus to work, and off he went in the opposite direction. Well, the moment my feet hit the bus, I tore open the paper and read the immortal words,
“You know I’m falling in love with you, don’t you? What are we going to do about it?”
Of course, I intended to do nothing. Peter had a wife who was expecting his child. I did not give a damn about Tom, he had made his life elsewhere, but I was no home breaker. Peter’s wife stifled him. She had no conversation, and they apparently had nothing in common. But she was a good wife. She ministered to all his needs, his shirts were always pristine white, and he was always smart in appearance. Soon after the note, I left my office in Walthamstow one evening and there he was waiting outside. I was so pleased to see him. He too was a pedestrian. My husband had a car and took Icilda to work and their child to school every day, but never once came to fetch me from work.
Peter and I sat on top of the Number 38-bus, all the way from Walthamstow along the Essex Road to Angel where we got off. We then took a slow walk to Highbury, and we just talked. It was so refreshing to have somebody my age and background to talk to that the journey just seemed to whizz past. His first job was as a Bus Conductor, and he had many funny stories to tell of the people he encountered on a daily basis. Like the day he tried to give this passenger her change, but every time he handed her the coins, they fell on the floor. After three or four attempts, it suddenly dawned on him. This woman didn’t want him touching her hand. So, he eventually picked up the coins one last time, grabbed hold of her hand, and shoved the change into her palm, locking her fingers around the cash in a tight fist. She just sat there and stared at him. We fell about laughing.
I told him about the time this one came up on the bus, talking to her friend, completely ignored me sitting in the seat, and sat right on top of me. I said, “Excuse me!” She turned around and looked me in the face. “Oh, I didn’t know you were there,” said she, in a barefaced lie. I said, “If you can’t feel, there’s nothing much you can do about that, but you can see an Optician!” Or the time I had this other one making hand signals to me when I got off the bus on the Mile End Road and was looking around for a taxi. I asked her, “Are you addressing me?” She kept asking what address I wanted. In those days, if West Indians didn’t get together to exchange views they’d go crazy. The country was so cold and unwelcoming. We had to exchange tales of woe to keep from going mad, and the ambitious West Indians had more of these than most.
After the bus ride, Peter invites me to see a James Bond film in the West End, and I said, “Why not?” That Sunday evening, I get dressed in my best. We sit on top of a number 30-bus this time watching the rainy streets pass by. He puts out his hand, and I take it in mine. We see James Bond with Sean Connery in ‘Dr. No’ and get back to Highbury around eleven o’clock at night. It’s the first time in three years that I’ve been to the cinema, and I’m very glad that it’s with Peter Barzey. He’s been trying to kiss me ever since the note, and I’ve always turned away, but when we get back, with the house in sight, and I realise that we’re about to part, I just let it happen. The kiss is the kiss I’ve been waiting for all my life. It seems to last an eternity, and when we separate, I go on indoors, and he goes for a walk. I’m crying when I enter my lonely room, and Tom’s nowhere around.
I’ve found the man of my dreams. I’m 27, and he’s 29, but he is another woman’s husband. My marriage is a sham, and his wife is expecting their baby. We know we are in love but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a hopeless case. I want to disappear, but where can I run? It becomes increasingly difficult for us to keep away from each other. The lock on my bedroom door jams. I’m stuck inside. Peter comes to fix it. Oh, there is that kiss again, and he walks out straight into the arms of his disapproving wife, who creates a scene. He tells her,
“If you know what’s good for you, you’d remember that I went in to fix Mrs Pettigrew’s door … we sat and talked, and that’s that!”
Suddenly, his wife becomes a best friend to Tom, and they even join the Mildmay Library together, although neither of them read books. Tom realises that he lives at Beresford Road and not St. Stephen’s Road, and he begins to involve me more-and-more in the business. Then one day, Peter’s wife tells Tom that “my husband is in love with your wife” and Tom calls a conference. Knowing that he is a “knife-man,” I decide to be in on the talk.