As I sat in my car watching the tall, slim, honey-coloured, raven-haired girl through the open window I wondered at the mysterious ways in which God often moved. With the disembodied voices of the children in anthemic accompaniment, her head was thrown back, joyfully, as she mouthed the words. She almost disguised the tragedy that she couldn’t really utter any of these beautiful sounds herself. Mary-Elizabeth was deaf-mute. Yet she didn’t seem to take any notice of the fact that she was “challenged”, perhaps because she had been able to rise so admirably above every obstacle which had presented itself in her path.
I had known her for six months; and then only as a student at the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, where she was in the final year of a programme in which she had distinguished herself studying pottery and jewellery making. At first, I was struck by what I took to be pride. She was as graceful and aloof as a swan gliding in the middle of a lake. There was an other-worldly quality about her. I wondered if she were on drugs or something. She would photograph very well I thought, but I wouldn’t ask her to pose for me. A girl like that could be very rude, and if she got it in her head that you weren’t as good as she was, perhaps noisily so and I didn’t like scenes.
“I feel sorry for that girl,” my friend Lenny had commented, nodding at her after she walked past us one morning.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled. I had shifted my position on the wall so that I could stare at her for a longer time. I had been resisting the urge to look at her because Lenny was there, but since he had opened the way, I could now do so without embarrassment.
“She’s deaf, and she can’t speak well either,” he replied. “It’s a pity. Isn’t it funny how you can’t have everything in this life? A girl like that shouldn’t have any problems. She should be one of these high-society women. Look at the way she walks! Class man, class.”
“She should be a model.”
“God alone knows where she would end up if she didn’t have these problems. I even hear that her father has money, but that hasn’t helped her any,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken.
“What is her name?”
I tried to think of the Jamaican moneyed families, but I could not recall any called Johnstone.
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Johnstone is her mother’s name. It’s only a rumour about her father really;” and although he declined to say more, he looked at me significantly.
“The next time you see her look at her carefully. See who she looks like,” he suggested.
Lenny was insane if he thought I would beg him for information about this girl and I told him so.
“If you’re not going to tell me then just say so. I don’t have time for this,” I said as coldly as I could manage.
“She’s Miss Joy’s grand-daughter,” he exclaimed in a loud and exasperated whisper. “Can’t you see it?”
I couldn’t. Miss Joy was the woman who sold snacks outside the gate of the school. Not that a vendor couldn’t have a grand-daughter who looked like Mary-Elizabeth, but this girl was royalty. Her back was always straight and her bearing regal. She carried herself with a dignity which defied my powers of description. She was what I had imagined the princesses in my sisters’ story books would look like when I was a child; and besides, I had never once seen her interact with her grandmother. I was hooked. I wanted to know more about her, but I was suddenly ashamed of myself for discussing her with Lenny. I felt that he defiled her somehow. Her story was really none of his business but he decided to tell me anyway.
“I hear that when Miss Joy’s daughter found out that she was pregnant she tried to have an abortion and that is why she is like that,” he continued. “She felt that the baby’s father had exploited her and so she didn’t want the child. Miss Joy took the baby when she was born,” he said with relish.
“Where did you hear that?” I was shocked at his tale and disgusted with myself for entertaining this conversation; but I was perversely intrigued. Lenny certainly wouldn’t have heard any of this from anybody who was close to Miss Joy herself. She might have been poor, but she was very dignified and I couldn’t imagine the person who would be the link between her and Lenny.
“You know, you just hear things,” he became evasive and I began to suspect that he had embellished the few facts that he did in fact know.
“Lawd Lenny, shut up nuh. Let’s talk about something else.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about her though. I said her name often when I was alone because I liked the way it rolled off my tongue; and every time I did this I found myself smiling. In class I had to force myself not to draw her or paint her but my market women held their heads more erect, their baskets more jauntily; my washing women were more poetic, my dancers, more elegant; my teachers more interesting; all this born of the fact that I wanted to celebrate that she was alive.
I wanted to photograph her badly, but I realized that that would be more easily said than done; for not only did I not know her, but the fact that I didn’t sign either would make changing that situation all the more difficult. How could I explain that I didn’t want to hurt her? How could I tell her that I just wanted to take some pictures of her and that she was the first person that I had actually wanted to work with in over a year? I had always thought that angels were blond, blue-eyed and dressed in white, not dark and clad in festive fuchsia like my muse now was. She’d be good for me, an opportunity for me to redeem myself; Heaven sent in a manner of speaking.
The children were now singing another song which apparently involved dancing because Mary-Elizabeth was often obscured from my view by the surging mob that skipped around her. This annoyed me but as the song would soon be done, I could live with it.
I raised my camera again and immortalised the moment in which she gave herself a little half hug and grinned at one of her charges. It was just as magical as those shots that I had taken when she was singing earlier and the ones that I had taken of her going into the supermarket and at other times, at her home.
“What dat yuh doin man?” An angry voice came up suddenly beside the car. “Look yah sah, di man mad fi true. Gimmi di cutlass mek mi teach him fi leave di good Christian girl chile alone. Nuh him har granmadda she she see outside dem gate a tek picktha di odda dyay?”
A man seized my camera before I could react to him and flung it onto the asphalted car park, breaking it into a hundred pieces. Another man was trying to open one of the back doors but I managed to start the car and drive quickly away.
“Im bright” I heard the second man say.
“Gwe bwoy! Wi nuh waan dat kine a ting eere,” the first man screamed at me.
“So, you lost your camera yesterday,” said Lenny, thoughtfully, some time after I had told him a modified version of how I had had it ‘stolen’ from me.
“Cho man, di ting bun me yuh see; ah don’t even want to tink about it,” I said hissing my teeth.
“Cheer up,” he said after a while, “I know you were thinking of taking some pictures of that girl for yuh calendar, but you have to realise you’d be lucky to get a girl like dat to work with a man like you. Ah tell yuh suppen though I tink you have it wrong about har. I can’t see even one thing about that girl that would make me think that she would pose nude for anybody. It just wasn’t meant to happen, JJ. Face it.”