In her homeland Kuimba would sing; sometimes of joy, more often of sorrow. Under the hot red ancient sun she would sing and the lilies in the field would burst into bloom, as if the rainbow of the first covenant lay shattered on the ground. The bees would stop their work for a while and rest on the petals and the swallows would dance, forming into kaleidoscopic shapes, diving low, following the heavenly music, hypnotised by the song of this strange ebony bird. At night when her brothers and sisters lay sleeping she would sing gently and the constellations would burn brighter, twinkling, some would shoot across the sky, burning out and dying in glory.
She is more than four thousand miles from home. She pulls up her knees to her chin and watches the blotchy flabby white man dress. He is disappointed, disgusted in fact, but she does not care, she has sung her last note. She has been captive in this house, with its walls the colour of clotted blood for nearly a year. It’s her birthday, and she has decided that today is a new beginning. She fondles the small silver cross her Bibi gave her for a safe journey and a kiss on the forehead for prosperity. The journey was hard, walking across the desert in a caravan of malnourished nomads, and across the sea, hidden amongst cargo. She has not seen a penny since she was locked in this room. When she first arrived she was given a room on the ground floor, her tasks were cleaning and scrubbing the semen from the sheets. She received a little pay which she sent some home to her family through Western Union, and the rest she saved in an old Rose’s Lime Marmalade jar, which is now lost.
Life was not what she expected it to be. She hated the cries and sighs of the girls in the house, howling like alley cats against the unsteady rhythm of bed posts banging against the walls. So she sang to drown out the noise. That was her mistake, the music that had once been her only joy now became the reason for her incarceration. When Mrs James first heard her song she wheeled Kuimba round on her heels with her gnarled old hands and stared at her in wonder.
“Do that again, the singing” she crowed holding Kuimba’s chin in her bony fingers. “What a commodity we have here. What a commodity!” Mrs James calls all her girls “commodities”.
Now the men pay to clamber over Kuimba as she sings to them, never in joy, always in sorrow. They are ugly men, sweaty men, men with sour breath and odour the smell of rotting onions. One of the men cries when he comes, and Kuimba sings softly, a lullaby for the cry baby man. But today she has vowed to sing no more. Her Bibi told her there is power in her song, to use it wisely. She has discovered a different power; the power of withholding.
Outside the room there are raised voices. You don’t argue with Mrs James, not if you know what’s good for you.
“She’s a mute, she didn’t even make a noise. I want my money back.” He sounds whiney, piteous man, thinks Kuimba.
“Did she service you?”
There is no reply.
“Well then, you got what you came for. On your way!” Mrs James bellows.
“I said I want my money back.”
Mrs James calls for Pete and there is a scuffle and a door slamming. Kuimba sits on the edge of the bed calculating her next move when Mrs James walks in. Her back bowed from the years of counting money on the kitchen table, and she is a caricature of a Victorian madam, all corset and wild hair pinned on top of her wrinkled face. She lifts Kuimba’s head.
“The men pay you to sing. You sing.”
“I ain’t gonna sing no more.”
“Look here, Wrights back soon. Don’t make him mad. I take no pleasure in the roughness he shows you girls. We’ll let this one go. No questions asked. Just make sure you lie back and sing for the next one.”
Kuimba rolls her eyes and looks squarely at the crusty old hag. “I ain’t gonna sing no more.”
“You’re asking for trouble girly.”
After Mrs James leaves Kuimba throws open the curtains, tidies the bed, puts on her shoes and coat, stuffing her small worn Bible into one of the pockets and waits to face Wright. It’s an hour or so before she hears the thud of Wrights boots in the hallway. He is mean and rough, his eyes are dead, like fish eyes, and his gait makes the room and everything in it seem smaller.
“What do you mean, she’s stopped singing. You’re supposed to keep them in line, you worthless stinking cow.”
Kuimba counts the stairs out loud, he must have taken two at a time because the door springs open crashing against the bed after just six steps. Kuimba jumps. She yelps in shock as he lifts her from her lapels, slamming her against the wardrobe, the handle catching her back, causing a searing pain in her kidneys.
“Listen you stupid bitch. You’re an ugly cow, you wreak of piss, and you’re an idiot. You’ve got one thing going for you, and that’s when you sing, so you better start singing you stupid nigger.”
“I ain’t gonna sing no more.” Kuimba whispers.
“What?” shaking her violently.
“I said I ain’t gonna sing no more.”
She screams and loses her footing as he drags her out of the room by her hair. She hits her shins and knees against the stairs as he pulls her down the stairs, as one by one the doors of the rooms open, and Mrs James’ commodities assemble on the stairs, some of them naked, others dressed in pretty lingerie, watching in horror at the fate of Kuimba.
His grip on Kuimba’s chin is so hard she feels as if her teeth might cave in.
“You will sing” he says with his face so close to Kuimba’s that she can see his gold fillings.
“I ain’t gonna sing no more.” The words come out distorted, her jaw in Wright’s vice like grip.
He pushes her to the floor and in a few moments he’s back with a knife. He smirks and lifts Kuimba up by her chin. He pushes his hand into her mouth, which makes her gag and choke, she can taste the bitter nicotine on his large rough fingers. He pulls her tongue and the nicotine is replaced with a salty metallic taste. Her mouth fills with blood before she feels the pain. Wright laughs. He spits at Kuimba and throws her severed tongue at the girls on the stairs, pushing past Mrs James, and slamming the door behind him.
Kuimba doesn’t scream or cry. She stands for what seems like an age with the blood gushing out of her mouth. One of the girls, Briony, a sweet Irish girl makes a move towards her, but Kuimba raises her hand. Out of her mouth comes a note, low and guttural. She can sing no words but she can still sound a melody. The note becomes an arpeggio, soaring higher and higher into scales, the notes vibrate into trills, into baroque ornament. Things begin to change. The girls begin to bloom out of their pallid complexions, their cheeks become rosy and their hair lustrous, wavy and glossy. Even Mrs James’ eyes shine bright as Kuimba’s melody ascends higher. The light bulbs flare brighter, and the dark oppressive walls are no longer claret red, but the bright pink of candyfloss.
The sweet notes become shrill, and there is no longer rhythm to the music. The notes clash and become discordant. The music is destructive. The blossoming beauty of Mrs James’ girls begins to fail, and one of the girls looks in horror as the skin sags on her hands and liver spots appear on her hands. The wall paper begins to curl away from the walls. Still Kuimba sings on and on with no sign of stopping. Her notes are destructive and have lost all of their charm. The light bulb brightens further as Mrs James clutches her chest and slumps to the floor, the bulb shattering above her leaving the house in darkness.
Kuimba stops. The last note still rings around the hallway. She lifts her hands to her face and gently drops to her knees and lays down. She is not going to sing anymore.
I started by creating a cluster around the theme “Pulling the strings” and I thought of puppets which reminded me of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967). The novel can be classed in the sub-genre of Magic Realism, and I decided I would attempt to employ this type of writing in my piece. I have often had a niggling disappointment with my writing; that it is tame and in some sense too realist, too close to home, so I was quite excited at the prospect of challenging my imagination in this genre. I also thought about control, which led me to consider the concept of slavery.
I did some research on slavery, I had read an article in The Telegraph about modern slavery, (Fox, 2014). I also looked at the website modernslavery.co.uk which had some harrowing accounts of slavery and the sex trade in Britain. Kuimba’s passage to Britain, and her incarceration are based on several accounts from the website, there seemed to be a common theme of being lured to a better life and ending up forced into prostitution. Kuimba’s singing is magical, but I wanted to make sure that my writing did not become burlesque, which is why I insisted on a violent end to the story. Kuimba’s incarceration and her abuse ruins her gift, it becomes a destructive force. I was partly inspired by the song Experiment IV by Kate Bush (1986), which is about a secret military plan to create “a sound that could kill someone.” I also was inspired by the film 12 Years A Slave (McQueen, 2013), and the scene where the Solomon Northup and his fellow slaves sing a Spiritual in order to keep strong in the face of cruelty and adversity. Kuimba sings for herself, not for performance, but she is forced to sing for men, it is symbolic of her overall plight.
I have included some conflict in the story. Firstly between the man and Mrs James, and also between Mrs James, Wright and Kuimba, but I wanted to ensure that Kuimba does not really argue back. I wanted to give her a dignified defiance when she says “I ain’t gonna sing no more.”
Bush, Kate (1986) Experiment IV (song), EMI, London.
Carter, Angela (1967) The Magic Toyshop, Reprinted 1994, Virago Press Ltd, London.
Fox, Geneviève (October 10th 2014) “Sex slaves are on every street in Britain” (article), The Telegraph, London.
Greenwell, Bill (2009) “Chapter 2: Conflict and Contrast” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.
Greenwell, Bill (2009) “Chapter 3: Vision and revision” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.
McQueen, Steve (dir.) 12 Years a Slave (film), (2013), Fox Searchlight Pictures, USA.
Modernslavery.co.uk (website) 2014.
Neale, Derek (2009) “Chapter 1: Playing with Genre” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.