Matilda’s twentieth birthday passed without ceremony. Would she be free to leave when she came of age next year? Eustace had not gained his liberty and he was forty. Some patients appeared twice that or more.
She was shocked when she realised how old he must be. Although why should she care about the age difference? She had not considered him husband material. But, in the weeks since they met, she had come to treasure him as a friend.
Trudging single-file to the hospital chapel, or caged in the airing courts below the ward, the sun’s heat continually surprised her when winter reigned perpetually indoors. Instead of marking time by the seasons, Matilda measured her wasted youth in a succession of Friday evenings. Excitement mounted as she accelerated towards them, mixed with anxiety Eustace would not attend or the bully would return to filch her polka-dot dress. She would shed her woes on entering the ballroom, surrendering her mind to the music, her feet to the dance. When it was over, she would plummet into desolation, with a seven-day wait to feel human again.
Gradually, Eustace took her into his confidence. Proud to have his trust, but wary of intruding, she asked no questions and patched his story together for herself from the fragments he shared.
He was born in Georgetown, British Guiana, which was in America but not the United States. Matilda thought she recognised the name from her school days, among the swathes of Empire pink that sketched a sunrise across the map on the classroom wall.
Aged fourteen, along with a brother two years his senior, Eustace stowed away on a ship bringing rum and molasses to England, arriving in Liverpool shortly ahead of the Great War. When the brother turned eighteen, neither hesitated to serve the Mother Country, Eustace lying about his age so they could join up together. In the glittering ballroom, as the band played “Two Sleepy People”, Eustace did not dwell on the horrors of the trenches. He spoke mechanically when he told Matilda he had buried his brother’s body in France.
Eustace insisted he sought no special treatment. As he reminded Matilda, thousands made a bigger sacrifice. That didn’t excuse the injustice meted out when the war was over. When no Black man could get a job.
Although preferring to stay in England with his brothers in arms, he would have returned to Georgetown if he could fund his passage. But he could barely afford to eat. Matilda had known poverty in early childhood, but she had not been hounded for the shade of her skin. Eustace was a few short months out of uniform when hooligans descended on the Black community in the docklands. He was forced to seek refuge in the bridewell, fearing for his life. “It weren’ only Liverpool it happened. And it weren’ only men they attacked.” Rioting erupted in British seaports up and down the country: single men and families with children beaten and driven from their homes, their belongings stolen, their windows smashed and bonfires built from their furniture.
Eustace swanned smoothly through the dance steps as he related this ordeal, never faltering or losing his rhythm. But Matilda would have stumbled had he not held her tightly. She never saw a Negro in her coastal birthplace. Never expected to. Why was that? She hoped her neighbours had not scared them off.
Matilda’s mind was spiralling between Liverpool’s cobbled alleyways and the battlefields of Flanders when the band ceased playing and a whistle shrilled midway through that evening’s second dance. She did not register the hand that grabbed her by the shoulder and knocked her to the floor as the matron’s. The blow might have been from a shell exploding in the trenches. A thug chasing her down the street.
“Your dancing days are over, Miss.” The matron hauled Matilda from the ballroom, down the corridor and up the stairs to the ward. Matilda did not see whether Eustace was banished too.
She could have fought the older woman off, but she did not dare risk further punishment. “Why? What have I done wrong?” She could still use her tongue.
“You’ve already brung one chance child into the world.” The matron’s spittle sprinkled Matilda’s face. “It wouldn’t be very clever if you produced a Black bastard next.”
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