I wish I had amnesia so I could forget Sally Burry. We were at school together, Sally and I, in Heart’s Pen, the coastal hamlet where we were born, on the Caribbean island of Perseverance. We were Poor White – the inbred aftermath of a long-forgotten British penal colony. Cromwell’s hangover.
Households numbering ten or twelve weighed in on the small to normal side of things in our village and this made Sally and me unique because we were from one-child families. Each of us had hair the color of overcooked pumpkin and neither of us had a father at home. But this did not make Sally and I chums. No one was chummy with her. She suffered a seeping eye condition. One pink-ringed eye cried nonstop globs of pus that left her with a faint, but persistent pong of sour milk.
One morning, as the bell rang and we formed two lines – one for boys and one for girls, Sally filed into place behind me. Her proximity and my belief in her unremitting infectiousness caused me to tread on the heels of the girl ahead.
As we settled at our desks, she approached and whispered, “Borrow me a black lead, please?”
“Please? I would give it back after school. And, I would borrow you my radio.”
I plugged my nose and hissed, “You don’t have no radio.”
It was November 1957. Sally and I were twelve years old and half way through our second to last year in our one-room schoolhouse. On the third of that month, Russia sent a dog into space and the government of Perseverance had yet to build a bridge over a river that swelled to such proportions during raining season, that our village became cut off from the rest of the island.
The only way in or out of the Pen was by boat which meant most of us weren’t going anywhere. When the rain let up, children played rounders barefoot on the flat above the school. The bat or ball, or both, inevitably walloped Sally. I watched as she was tripped and shoved to the ground, as she wiped mineral-red earth from scraped knees and the wetness around her eye, as she hurried to smooth her dress and stand – but never in time to stop us seeing the strap marks on the backs of her legs. When someone had a new welt or bump, we would point it out and ask, “What happen?” The answer was always ‘Burry-sitis’.
At recess, when we had to play indoors, the girls formed a circle for a choral game with clapping and dancing called, Gypsy in the Moonlight. But none of us would clasp hands with Sally, so she swayed and sang along from outside the ring.
Walk in gypsy, walk in/Walk inside I say/Walk into my parlour and hear the banjo play/I don’t love nobody and nobody love me… Tra la lalala…
It was a pet prank for one of the boys to sneak up and crouch at the edge of the circle, pass gas and fan his bottom. Us girls inflated cheeks and waved hands until someone delivered the inevitable punch line, “Something smell stink like Sally Burry.”
Sally laughed off the teasing. She seemed unaware of the freckles of dried mucus stuck to her cheek. Every school day was the same; it had been like that all her life.