‘You’re a fibber, Alice O’Connor,’ Clarence said, holding her skipping ropes tightly. We stood facing each other in the backcourt, tenement windows looking down at us. She wore a smudged and baggy print dress. In the distance we heard an ice-cream van, and it was hot enough for the tar to melt and for Jesus to come down from his cross to get a ninety-nine cone.
I wanted to smack her on her big nose, but that would be a sin. It wasn’t her fault. God made her ugly for a reason. And with her untuned hazel eyes and Clarence the Cross-eyed lion on the telly, overnight Clare became tarred as Clarence. I could hear my mum’s words in my ear, she’s just jealous of you because she’s ugly and fat and you’re small and beautiful. I’d red piping like an Admiral around the sleeves of my dress and my shoes were so shiny you could see envy reflected in them. I turned the other cheek. ‘Am, not fatty. I didn’t want a black baby. I’d have preferred a dog or a rabbit, but it was just there, outside Massie’s. Nobody about. Screaming and shouting at me, AHHHH-LICE, AHHHHHHH-LICE, AHHHHHHHHHHHHHLICE.’
The black baby had kicked its blanket from its legs and it stared up at us from the Silvercross pram. A white doily round its head as a hat tied under its chubby cheeks. Clarence leaned in under the hood, hovering over the baby’s head and made smacking, kissing noises. The baby gurgled and smiled.
‘Leave him.’ I jounced the handle of the pram, so the carriage bounced up and down. ‘He’s mine, I bought him.’
‘Oh, he’s probably never seen a white person before.’ Clarence smiled at me and the baby.
‘Well, that’s the last thing he needs is seeing your ugly mug.’ I made kissing noises at the baby, but he frowned back at me and looked as if he was ready to burst into tears. ‘I mean you could have had a black baby too. I’ve got pictures of twenty-eight of them. But I left them lying over there in Africa, with all the priest and nuns taking care of all the little darkies.’ I smirked at Clarence. ‘Mrs Thompson said I set a great example.’
‘I’ve got a black baby too,’ Clarence said.
‘Liar, if you ever had a penny in your life, you’d spend it all on sweets.’ I bent forward and dropped my shoulder to show Clarence, and the black baby, the medal of the Holy Ghost pinned to the inside of the strap of my dress to keep me pure. I’d asked Mum about the money for the black babies, but she was too busy to answer and smacked me on the head and told me to stop blethering for once and listen. Then she stopped washing socks in the sink and gripped my arm.
‘You have been giving the money I gave you to the black babies?’ Mum asked.
‘Yes, Mum,’ I’d said, meeting her eyes, my wee brother, Timmy, behind me screaming a fuss. Only the devil and me knew about the great temptation. He’d told me nobody would ever know. And you could just tell the priest when you make your first confession and he’d never tell anybody.
But I wasn’t fooled or tempted, even a wee bit. Because I knew about this because of Granny. She was a holy wee women that had a mole on her chin with hair growing out of it, and she went to Holy Mass every day, hail or shine. And she’d been to school with Jesus, Mary and Joseph and she told me that if I told a lie, we wouldn’t know at first, but later when I took my shoes off I’d have cloved feet.
And granny always read to us about the saints, who could do anything. And just floated about the place, putting their heads in a lion’s mouths and jumping out of burning pits and only came down from heaven, now and again, to shout at Protestants that they were going directly to hell. And served them right. Then they’d be sorry.
‘Look,’ I dipped my other shoulder and showed Clarence, and the black baby, the matching medal pinned to the other underside strap of my dress of the Immaculate Mary Ever Virgin.
‘I’ll give you a shot of my skipping ropes if I can hold the black baby.’ Clarence bundled them up as an offering and held them out.
‘Nah, they’re rubbish. And you cannae skip for buttons.’
The baby in the pram murmured and babbled agreement.
‘Aye, but you’ve got to share.’ Clarence stood with her hand on her hip and squinted goggle-eyed, appealing to my conscience.
‘Alright then, but just for a minute.’
Clarence mate tutting noises as she picked the baby out of the pram and cuddled her into her neck. The baby patted her on the shoulder. ‘See, he likes me.’ She shoogled the baby up and down and made him laugh.
‘He only likes you because he doesn’t know you. I bet yeh a million pounds when he grows up he’ll hate you. The same as everybody else.’
Clarence turned her broad back on paced up and down near the close entrance. We heard women’s screams and shouts, but with the pub at the bottom of the tenement and nightly fights that wasn’t uncommon.
‘Your minute’s nearly up,’ I reminded her. But I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to keep the black baby now. Granny had told me that she’d found me under a cabbage leaf. And the only reason she’d found me was because of St Anthony, the patron saint of lost causes. Granny said that she could just as easily have found a tadpole, but she’d found a little girl instead. But that was just the law of averages. It could have been a little boy. Girls were more work. In the same way that I’d been lucky and found a little boy. Just waiting for me. And I wondered if the black baby, as it got older, would turn into a white baby, and go to the same Catholic school as me. Granny had told me babies were a lot of work.
The screaming and shouting got nearer and a black woman poked her head out the entrance to the close. She dressed funny in a hat and good blue coat and gloves, tears in her eyes. Mrs McKay, from the shop, was at her back, with broad arms folded across her piny. I felt invisible. Out of the loop. They spotted the pram and Clarence strolling up and down with the baby in the crook of her arm. The black woman screeched as she rushed at Clarence, tearing at her, pulling the baby away. Clarence stood gormless with her mouth open. I ran the other way, clutching at Mrs McKay’s legs and firm waist.
‘I told her not to take the black baby.’ I peeked up at Mrs McKay, with tears gleaming in my sky-blue eyes. ‘But she wouldnae listen to me. She told me to shut up and mind my own business.’
Mrs McKay patted my shoulder. ‘Don’t you worry,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘They Craigs are a bad bunch. Heaven knows, they’ll get whits coming to them, shortly.’