by Rachel Long

The cleaner eats her dinner against the tampon dispenser.
I can tell by the skin, the white meat of her bite, it’s a granny smith. 
She strips to its spine, twists the stalk with her teeth, 
tips brown beads into her palm, pockets them, bins the rest. 
She catches me staring at her in the mirror, 
‘You thought I eat core like a savage?’
‘No!’ I pump soap, blast the dryer. 
She kisses her teeth, laughs, hmms at the same time, 
from the same mouth.
I thought only my Mum could do that. 

Tannoy crackles, a god in the walls; there’s a leak in the Men’s.
She rises, sways, steadies herself on the sink.
I ask if she’s ok. A pause. 
A gap, generation wide, ocean sized- 
I should address a woman this age as Aunty. 
Are you ok, Aunty? But we’re not related.
She raises her eyebrows, closes her eyes, tries 
to kiss her nose with her lips.
This means yes, weary yes
It’s the face my Mum makes to the offer of tea 
when she comes home from her night shift. 
Lurid green and white badges smiling for them, 
Here to assist YOU! branded across their buckets, their breasts.
‘Me, I’m OK O. Jus’ a little back pain’
In her Yoruba accent I hear, ‘Jus’ a little black pain.’

She stoops low for her bucket; I try to help her
but its already scooped in deft hands, 
hands I know if turned over 
would have lifelines deep as knifewounds,
bistre as the vaccine scar on her fleshy arm.
She raises the bucket high, higher, grey water sloshing-  
My eyes must widen, ready to bullfrog -
her laugh saves their amber rolling down my face, across the wet floor
‘Look at you, British girl.  You think we put any bucket on our head?’

I want to tell her No! I know you don’t,
want to tell her a secret,
my Mum is Yoruba, or she was, before she came to England
But ‘Aunty’ will ask, What people? What town? 
I won’t be able to answer. 
A red sun will creep up my neck, set on both sides of my face.
She’ll be disappointed, know my ignorance,
my guilty sweep of a darker side under a carpet of Dad’s white skin. 

She resumes making a sea around my shoes, 
leaves me an island. I stay silent, 
watching her wet mop slap tiles 
like an awkward tongue. 

Tannoy bellows louder this time. 
“Moogee, we need you in the men’s NOW.”
I have a cousin called Moji, 
I wonder if it meant to call the same name? 
She told me it meant endless wealth, 
whilst we sat at a bus stop sharing a box of chicken and chips once. 
Moji she must be, grabs her mop and bucket, 
mutters something to herself, or the god in the walls,
then stops at the door, calls over her shoulder:
‘When you see your Mom, my sistah, greet har for me.
A fine, fine daughter with a head full of nothing. 
Tell har to tek you to Nigeria. They will fill it for you good.’

My laugh echoes foreign against the lockers.

First published by The Emma Press in 'Homesickness and Exile.' 

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Rachel Long writes for women of colour- her work is painfully honest, and it is beautiful.'Short listed for Young Poet Laureate for London 2014. Find her on and Twitter @writesRachel