The Long Song

A Novel

Andrea Levy

Picador

CHAPTER 1

IT WAS FINISHED ALMOST as soon as it began. Kitty felt such little intrusion

from the overseer Tam Dewar’s part that she decided to believe

him merely jostling her from behind like any rough, grunting, huffing

white man would if they were crushed together within a crowd. Except

upon this occasion, when he finally released himself from out of her, he

thrust a crumpled bolt of yellow and black cloth into Kitty’s hand as a

gift. This was more vexing to her than that rude act—for she was left to

puzzle upon whether she should be grateful to this white man for this

limp offering or not . . .

Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of

any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of

a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when

all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are

plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the

cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this

without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which

you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty

books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the

backside of a mule is your desire.

Go to any shelf that groans under a weight of books and there,

wrapped in leather and stamped in gold, will be volumes whose contents

will find you meandering through the puff and twaddle of some

white lady’s mind. You will see trees aplenty, birds of every hue and

oh, a hot, hot sun residing there. That white missus will have you

acquainted with all the many tribulations of her life upon a Jamaican

sugar plantation before you have barely opened the cover. Two pages

upon the scarcity of beef. Five more upon the want of a new hat to wear

with her splendid pink taffeta dress. No butter but only a wretched alligator

pear again! is surely a hardship worth the ten pages it took to

describe it. Three chapters is not an excess to lament upon a white

woman of discerning mind who finds herself adrift in a society too dull

for her. And as for the indolence and stupidity of her slaves (be sure you

have a handkerchief to dab away your tears), only need of sleep would

stop her taking several more volumes to pronounce upon that most

troublesome of subjects.

And all this particular distress so there might be sugar to sweeten the

tea and blacken the teeth of the people in England. But do not take my

word upon it, peruse the volumes for yourself. For I have. And it was

shocking to have so uplifting an act as reading invite some daft white

missus to belch her foolishness into my head.

So I will not worry myself for your loss if it is those stories you

require. But stay if you wish to hear a tale of my making.

As I write, I have a cup of sweetened tea resting beside me (although

not quite sweet enough for my taste, but sweetness comes at a dear price

here upon this sugar island); the lamp is glowing sufficient to cast a light

upon the paper in front of me; the window is open and a breeze is cooling

upon my neck. But wait . . . for an annoying insect has decided to

throw itself repeatedly against my lamp. Shooing will not remove it, for

it believes the light is where salvation lies. But its insistent buzzing is

distracting me. So I have just squashed it upon an open book. As soon as

I have wiped its bloody carcass from the page (for it is in a volume that

my son was reading), I will continue my tale.