Open Door, by Nicola Jenkin
The smell of Caribbean fish stew permeated around our cul-de-sac at the weekends.
Scents of sea and coconut milk wafted through the windows of my 1970’s built, peach-bricked council house every Saturday afternoon during the summer. It hinted at exotic climes and clear, glistening oceans instead of the drizzly fortnight in a Great Yarmouth holiday chalet that I was familiar with.
On Saturdays, after the cartoons had finished for the day, I’d watch Brenda and Elsie shuffle back from the High Street market. They were large, formidable women. Colourful, cotton tunics draped their shapes and the sound of shoof-slap, shoof-slap kept tempo on the hot tarmacked ground as their crusted heels fell off the back of their flip-flops.
The women would carry thin striped plastic bags, bulging with tilapia, or whatever sea-dwelling creature was available at the market that morning.
After a while, steam would start seeping through open windows while front doors would be flung open to let the midday sun into the kitchens of the identikit houses. A babble of children, including myself, would slowly congregate in one of our engine-oil slicked driveways, and then a joyous couple of hours spent running back and forth and getting shouted at by various Dads in various dialects to stay away from my bloody car! would follow.
When the sun and exertion of play had caused sweat to run down our temples, we would follow our noses and languish next to the open door of Brenda or Elsie’s house. We would sit in a circle and start on our strategic plan of attack. My tummy’s rumbling. Can you hear it? and I only had one Weetabix for breakfast. I’m starving, the ‘a’ of starving drawn out like a thread from an unravelling jumper.
Brenda or Elsie would eventually appear with a horror-film sized machete in hand. “Weh Yuh Ah Seh?” they’d grunt, wiping an arm over their forehead to remove a tuft of damp hair. With Brenda, we’d often have a drawn out rigmarole of admonishments and kissing of teeth before she gave in to our well-rehearsed plaintive mewling. Elsie, in contrast, was a pushover.
‘Mrs’ Elsie would usher us into the kitchen, dip a ladle into the soup and spoon out some warm broth for each of us as we sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor. We would slurp the spicy soup swiftly, peeping between spoonfuls at the sparsely furnished kitchen and listen to the Jamaican dance-hall music on the hissing radio.
“Me ded wid laugh”, Elsie would chuckle, shaking her head and showing gold and gaps in her teeth as she dried cutlery with a worn tea towel.
Our spoons would start clanking to a faster and faster beat before we tipped our heads back and drank the last half teaspoon of liquid, not wanting to waste a drop. We’d shout “Thank you, Mrs Elsie!” and drop our bowls into the sink, before skipping back to our own open front doors, yelling “Mum! What’s for tea? I’m starving!”