I am stuck in one room of somebody’s house in Catford. The funny thing is that my husband and I used to offer lodgings to the parents of this woman in whose house I’m living. There was a time, not too long ago, when nobody wanted to live in Catford. Catford was a place you passed through on your way to somewhere better. Dulwich, Thornton Heath or Forest Hill were the places of choice, then. Now you can barely walk through Catford without bumping into a new estate agency set in between the £1 stores.
I had been out all day. My feet were swollen. My briefcase and handbag had suddenly become like lead bricks in my hands. I was glad to spot a number 199 bus at a stop up ahead, going from Lewisham to Rushey Green. I ran towards the bus stop as fast as my tired legs would carry me, but with little hope of catching the bus, it seemed as if the driver was holding on for me.
Well-to-do Jamaicans of the 1950s did not think England was an advanced enough country for them to settle in. Unlike other West Indian islanders, only poor or relatively poor Jamaicans who none-the-less could afford the fares, left for the United Kingdom. Educated Jamaicans did not consider England an option at all. Many of our young men had travelled there during the war, and they did not like what they had seen. The educated ones among us rather opted for the United States of America, or Canada, wherever possible.
One person can make a difference, Mama said. That’s what my stepmother Anne-Amanda Bennett did every day of her life. She died alone in an Almshouse because I was too poor to find the cash for my kids, a home, and her out there in Jamaica. I cry whenever I think of her, but she left me such a legacy that I will end this chapter of my life with the best and most enduring memory I have of her.
I was barely out of pigtails when I emigrated to Great Britain to become Mrs Pettigrew in 1956. Born Verona Franceta Bennett, daughter to Prince Bennett and Keliah Hall-Williamson, I was raised by my stepmother, Anne-Amanda Bennett, and you could say that I had lived a charmed and sheltered life.
England was the motherland to many in the West Indies then, and I needed to escape the limitations of Jamaica, so I married the first man who asked me. I had wanted to migrate to America, but Tom sent the plane ticket, and I landed in London on a TWA flight.
Thomas Pettigrew was all the noise among the Jamaican contingent of East London back then, especially because he had just bought a big house in Hackney Wick. So, with the added promise of furthering my education in the hallowed corridors of power in England, marriage seemed like a good idea at the time.
I hardly knew Thomas Ranford Pettigrew back home in Jamaica. He had stopped me on the streets one day and said that he wanted me to be “his queen,” but I just couldn’t take him seriously. I told him he’d better speak to Mama, but I knew that Anne-Amanda would take one look and have nothing at all to do with him. Next thing I heard, he had gone to England.
“The semiliterate shoemaker from the parish of Saint Mary had charmed the virgin school ma’am whom they all called Queenie,” is what everybody said.
In reality, Tom and I were nothing but a pair of incompatibles on the day that we got married. He was forty-six years old. I was twenty-one.