Some compared us to Romeo and Juliet and others said it was just ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’. That doesn’t mean to say I didn’t hate him, hate his father, hell, I hated everyone. I was their slave and they took my mama away. In my mourning days, I would actually imagine Tom burning in hell, although it was his father that took my mama away, Tom was always around and I despised him for it.
Tom had black hair that was overgrown, and it was always tousled, and stuck up in all kinds of directions. It was a look not befitting for a man of his age. He was eighteen; the same age as me yet we were so different. Tom had privileges; he was white, had his father’s money and there was no need for him to actually work, God forbid. So, he was always reading. And that was how we started to talk.
Normally, Tom would read in the kitchen, his arms resting on the wooden table, his book’s cover glaring at me, taunting me. I always longed to read, to learn to read I mean. Mama used to tell me stories my grandmamma told her and I looked forward to them, even as I grew older. The stories of slaves escaping, living alone with no white folk oppressing them; they were what I dreamt of. Mama and I would lie side by side on the floor, the room pitch black, and she would whisper the stories in theatrical ways; she would pause at climatic moments, slow down at the end which would leave the ending lingering in my thoughts. But Mama would always say, when I talked too much about the stories, ‘Mary, you gotta remember, these here are just stories, not real life.” Mama’s slim, hollow, face was always in my mind; her brown eyes looking down at me, scolding me for complaining too loudly about the work we had to do, or smiling at a joke I told. Unlike Mama, my eyes were blue and my skin fairer than hers. I had asked her, in the past, why this was but she avoided the subject, and soon I came to realise it was something we didn’t talk about.
Anyway, one day I was cooking Tom’s breakfast and Tom was, as usual, reading a book. As I served Tom his food he looked at me long and hard. I looked everywhere but at him, not sure why he was staring at me as he was. I felt strange, my heart beat a bit faster than normal, and as I stole quick glances at him I noticed how pretty his green eyes really were. I scolded myself for this. I had to hate him. After a moment or so of awkwardness Tom said “Do you want me to read to you?” to this my mouth parted, in both delight and repulsion. I nodded mutely, however, intrigued by what the story would behold, and whether he would put on a show like Mama did.
He read for a while, ignoring the breakfast I prepared, and at one point he told me to sit down. My body tensed as I sat, knowing his father was away at work but still scared he would arrive and see me not doing my work. The story was completely unlike the ones Mama told me. I should have known. Slaves were not mentioned here, and God forbid black people being uttered. Tom would have proceeded with the story but my anger took over, and I stood up, and said “That’s enough of that, if you don’t mind, I have work to be doing.”
If my Mama was there, she would have knocked some sense into me. This was not how you were supposed to talk to your master. However, Tom did not mind, or should I say he did mind, but not at my rudeness but the reason behind it.
As I left the room, he went after me; I could hear his boots against the hard wood floor. I picked up my long skirt and tried to walk faster, to get away and because I thought he may whip me. He called my name. I ignored this, pretending to not hear but was stunned that he knew my name; he and his father always referred to me as ‘the girl’. He surprised me further by firmly, but at the same time somehow delicately, holding my arm to turn me to him. His pale skin glowed as he looked at me earnestly.
I said nothing, and he looked tongue tied, as though he was not sure what he was actually doing. “Did I offend you?” He asked, in a small voice, which surprised me. He was normally so outspoken.
“No.” I said quickly, not returning his gaze.
“Well, why did you leave so abruptly? I’m sure something’s wrong, your eyes are watering.” His hand was still on my arm, and it pained me to admit that I liked it being there. Oh, what would Mama think? I looked at his face, finally.
“I wasn’t offended. It just isn’t like the stories Mama used to tell me.” I looked up now, to stop the tears I knew were going to come. Mama told me if you looked up they would be less likely to fall down your face. Tom seemed to understand what I meant by this, he didn’t push it further. He pursed his lips and let go of me.
Since that moment things were weird between us. He avoided being in the same room as me, and if he really had to he avoided eye contact with me. His father didn’t notice, really, but then again his father was never around.
About two months after the incident I heard a knock on my bedroom door. My room was modest, well compared to their rooms completely bare, but in my eyes it was okay. I slept on the floor, but there was a wad of blankets on the ground to stop my back from hurting. They weren’t bad, the owners. Tom’s father only whipped me when necessary, and I had my own room upstairs, which I hear is rare. Other than the blankets, I had a bedside lamp and some of Mama’s stuff she left behind. I guess you couldn’t really say the room had character - the walls were plain white. The floorboards were dark brown, and were extremely cold to the touch in winter. My blankets were the only real colour in the room; they were mismatched, old and no longer wanted, light pinks and pale blues overlapping each other. I was lying on my bed, with the quilt over me, looking at Mama’s knitting that she left uncompleted. I looked up in confusion as someone knocked on the door. This rarely happened. It was late and everyone was asleep, or so I thought. A few seconds later the door was opened, and a flood of light came into my room, for the lamp was the only thing shinning before. I could see the silhouette of someone tall, with wide set shoulders and messy hair.
Like before, I felt tense. My mouth was open to speak when he cut me off. “I shouldn’t have come here; I don’t know what I’m doing.” Tom whispered in a strained voice. He left the door open, and was half in the room and half outside.
“There any reason you came here?” I asked, wishing Mama was here. She’d know what to do. Tom walked in and shut the door behind him.
“I couldn’t sleep, and heard you were awake.” He shifted his feet around, nervously. It was so strange, I had been living with Tom and his family nearly all my life and I had never seen him so… well, I’d never seen him look like that before, so I guess I didn’t know. “Since we last talked, I mean properly talked, I can’t stop thinking about you.” I looked at him eyes wide. “No, I don’t mean – well, I don’t not mean – what I’m trying to say is I can’t stop thinking about how you said the book I read is not like the stories you were told by your mother. I’ve read a book you might like. I’ve never read it openly; my father wouldn’t allow it to be in his house…” Tom trailed off. He bit his lip and then turned his head to look at me properly. I noticed by his side in his hand was another book. “I put a different sleeve on it in case my father came across it. It’s called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, have you ever heard of it?”
“No, should I have?” Tom began to explain that it was all about slaves, and that he really liked the book, and that after he read it he started to see me differently. I didn’t really ask him what he meant ‘cause after he said that he asked if I’d like to hear some of it. I said yes.
That was how it began; he started from the beginning and read for hours. The first time he read to me I fell asleep after a couple of hours. This became a regular thing. I’m not sure how, he just seemed to knock on the door and the fifth time he came I expected him and made him a sort of seat out of some of the blankets. As well as him reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin to me, we talked, and I realised how funny Tom actually was. I always thought it was amusing that Tom’s name was the same name as the old guy the book’s named after. Apparently that only made Tom’s father hate the book more, for ‘tainting a good name’. One of my fears was that the book would end and Tom and I would remain distant strangers, me washing his clothes, cleaning and making his food and him reading silently by the table. This didn’t happen.
Of course, his father knew nothing of it; although he was considered kind amongst us he still hated me and ‘my kind’. In fact, I didn’t realise how much so until he told me he was getting me a new friend. My hopes rose, after all, it did get pretty lonely scrubbing dishes all day by yourself. I told Tom I think it may be my Mama, but Tom shook his head gravely and bit his lip, something I noticed he did when he was nervous. When I pressed him about it he told me he was getting me a partner. I still didn’t understand. Tom did not want to explain but did and I could see his green eyes become darker as he literally spelt it out for me. “He is bringing another slave so you can…make new slaves together. It’s a business plan.” There was something cold about the way he said it. I knew he wasn’t trying to be cruel; in fact he wasn’t being anything at all.
“What if I don’t like him?” I asked. Tom did not respond, instead he looked away. Tom said the new person would arrive in a week. That same day, when Tom went into my room he didn’t read me a book. I was in bed, cover over myself expectantly looking at Tom but his face was drained and he had bags under his eyes. When I asked him what was wrong he sighed, got up and sat on the bottom corner of my ‘bed’.
“I don’t want you to have a partner.” The room suddenly felt hot and small. “And why not?” was my response. Tom claimed I knew why, and moved closer to me. Again, the room seemed to be getting smaller.
“I just don’t.” I was relieved that was all he said, but nervous nonetheless. I was suddenly aware of everything, the way Tom smelt; of them lilies he always had in his room. I loved that smell, it reminded me of when Mama came home from the fields with one in her hand after a long day; it would always make her feel better. But it didn’t work for me. I could see Tom becoming impatient.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I don’t know. He may be nice, and I wouldn’t mind a bit of company since Mama-” I didn’t have the chance to continue as Tom lent even closer and pressed his lips against mine. I instinctively backed away and banged my head against the concrete wall. I hissed and grabbed the back of my head. I felt stupid. “You can’t do things like that, it ain’t right.” I shouted.
“I know it isn’t. If my father knew…” Tom laughed emptily. “It’s funny, you know, of all the girls I had to like the only black one. But I figure if I keep telling myself you’re half white, it isn’t so bad. You may not even like me back, if you don’t just say and then I won’t bother.” I looked down at the lamp, the candle flickering weakly as though it was about to go out but was determined to remain strong.
“Well, I think you should go with the other girls because this black one isn’t interested. I need to sleep now.” And he left. I couldn’t sleep that night. The conversation kept replaying in my head. When he was laughing I felt as though he was laughing at me, and I realised that he was just like all the other white folk; he didn’t really care about me.
The next morning, as I was making the family their breakfast, Tom and his father at the table, I felt as though I was being stared at by Tom. It made me uncomfortable and I started to become clumsy. Tom’s father started to mutter something. As soon as I’d given them their breakfast I dashed out of the room, to start washing and drying their laundry. As I was working in the next room I could hear Tom and his father talking, needless to say I started to listen in. My Mama would have scolded me for being so nosey, but she wasn’t here, was she?
“I’m meeting Amy today,” I heard Tom say. There was a long silence, and I tried to be really quiet. I was folding one of Tom’s shirts, not really paying attention to what I was doing. My heart started to pound, and I wasn’t sure why but all of a sudden I was angry. He didn’t wait one day. I shook my head, what was I doing? White folk don’t get mixed up with black folk. Everyone knows that.
“I thought you weren’t interested in her. You said you didn’t want to think about girls for a while.” His father replied, he didn’t sound very interested in what he was saying himself. But I was.”I’m only meeting her.”
The next week I met Amy. She was exactly how I imagined her to look like. She had a small face and rosy cheeks. Her hair was in a bun, her blond hair slick and shinny; hair that made you want to look away. She was so pretty. When Tom brought her into the house he had a big smile on his face, he looked happy, so I decided I was happy. I would have company soon, anyway. I wasn’t too sure when, they didn’t tell me anything and now Tom and I stopped talking I got told even less.
When I first met Amy she looked at me in an odd way. She avoided eye contact with me, constantly shifting her gaze. I tried to ignore this, but I knew why she was acting strange. Mama told me some white folk don’t like looking at us ‘cause we make them feel bad, they know what they’re doing’s wrong. She stayed over for dinner, and whilst I was serving them their main meal Amy asked them a question I’d been waiting for someone to ask all week.
“So, when are you getting another, er, helping hand?” Amy asked in her charming way, she had a way of saying everything in a high pitched voice. I peeked at them when this was said, and I noticed Tom’s head snapped up and he locked eyes with me. Not sure what to do, I put down a bowl of salad on their table.
“We were supposed to get him tomorrow, but there has been an incident. I reckon in another few weeks or even a month, just till things die down. How’s your father anyway? I haven’t spoken to him in a while, tell him I said hello.” Once I’d dished them their food, Tom’s father said I could finish early, as long as I started early tomorrow morning. Relieved by this, I went to my room. The feeling of anger wouldn’t leave, though, it confused me. It wasn’t like when I was angry about being black, or angry at the white folk, it was something else. I was angry at Tom, but why? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Not really.
It was only 8pm, and I couldn’t sleep. I decided I’d clean the dishes now, rather than tomorrow. I tip-toed down the stairs; not wanting to disturb them as they drank coffee. I met Tom’s father on the way down the stairs, he was going ups. He asked me where I was going, and I explained, he didn’t seem to mind, and seemed a little confused but told me to ‘have fun’. I don’t think white folk understand that I don’t enjoy cleaning; it just relaxes me when I feel a bit…off.
I went into the kitchen and as I opened the wooden door wider, I could smell the dinner and I wondered if there would be any leftovers. I would be able to take a bit, not too much though. I didn’t even know anyone was in the room until I was halfway inside. I saw movement in the corner of my eye, and as I turned I realised. Tom and Amy. They were kissing. Tom had his arm around her and she was on her toes, her arms locked around his neck. The anger came back, stronger this time, and I wanted to take her off him. What was happening to me? They didn’t notice me; well I don’t think they did.
My nights since then were even lonelier. I missed Mama and I missed Tom. Before, I was mad they separated Mama and me, but the reason me and Tom were separated was so my fault. In the middle of the night sometimes I’d wanna knock on Tom’s door, I’m not sure what I’d say though. I fought with myself for a while, but I knew I was jealous. I didn’t like using that word. I remember Mama telling me it was an ugly word - ‘folk like us gotta be thankful with what we’ve got.’ Though I tried hard to be thankful, I wasn’t. I know I had it easy but, golly, seeing Tom kiss her, it hurt. And knowing I’d see them kiss again hurt even more. And I did; see them kiss again I mean. She kept coming round, and I no longer thought she was charming. She was just annoying.
One night, I heard the door open. The room was pitch black so I instinctively reached for my lamp, but I felt a hand on top of mine. My heart beat hard. Did he come early? I sat up quickly, straightened out of my clothes, and snatched my hand away from his. I had always had an image of him - would he be like that? I heard a match being lit, and then the lamp was fired to life. My mouth was open, the suspense was awful.
Then, my stomach dropped. It was Tom. My mouth was still open, and I tried to speak but had nothing to say. There was just nothing to say.
“I’m sorry, Mary. I keep bothering you, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” I was looking down; I didn’t want to look at him anymore. “I’m angry with you.” I said. Tom sat on the floor, opposite me, crossed legged and tried to gain eye contact with me. I gave in.
“Why?” Tom stretched over to me, and lightly touched my hand again. He left it there.
“It don’t matter.” I took a deep breath in. “Is that why you came? To say sorry?” My muscles felt tight. As I looked into Tom’s eyes I wanted to cry. Tom made a sound then, it was between a sigh and a growl. I looked at him wordlessly for a long while. Then, he grinned to himself.
“I think I’m going to propose to Amy. My father and her father are good friends, and I think it would work. She made it pretty obvious today that she would say yes. Imagine us all living together, it would be nice wouldn’t it?” His eyes were bright green - I couldn’t look at them anymore. After what he had said, my own eyes were starting to water; they stung as I fought with the tears.
“Well, I’m gonna have a partner soon so I won’t notice.” I lied. “Won’t you and her move away anyway?”
The green of his eyes got darker, and his smile had gone. “For God’s sake, why will you not just admit you like me?” I snatched my hand from his then. “Why you?” He whispered, half to himself. Tom grabbed his messy hair, and pulled it.
“That’s why I don’t like you. God, it must be so hard for you to like a nigger, poor little Tom.” I knew I overstepped my mark, and if it was anyone other than Tom I would have expected a slap. Tom covered his face with his hands. He sat like that for at least five minutes. I wanted to apologise but at the same time I wanted him to apologise to me.
Unable to handle the silence, I touched his hands, and pulled them away from his face. His eyes were shut. “Tom,” I whispered. I leaned over, and did something that changed my life. I kissed him. At first I was sure he would push me away, but he pulled me closer. He wrapped his arms around my waist, and for the first time since Mama left, I felt safe.
A few days after we kissed, Tom told his father that he and Amy were no longer ‘seeing each other’. Me and Tom couldn’t last. We both knew my ‘friend’ would arrive soon, and Tom seeing me in the night would be no longer.
We both acted strange in front of people, I avoided looking at Tom like he was the plague and he would take too much notice of me. He would say things like ‘do you need help with that?’ whilst I’m carrying something heavy up, or down, the stairs. Then, he would realise he was being too nice and start to be mean. It was all so confusing.
Tom was especially confused. When he would come to see me he would look so distressed and would say sorry endlessly. Whenever Tom kissed me, he would always hold me for a while, really tight, and whisper how beautiful I was. It made me nervous. I felt like our time was up too soon. The last book Tom read to me was Romeo and Juliet, but we didn’t make it to the end, and since, I haven’t found out the ending. I hope they lived happily ever after; if they didn’t there was no hope for us.
In our time together in the house, Tom taught me new words; he made me feel special. Tom said my slight southern accent was ‘adorable’ but it was Tom’s voice that made me smile. It was the voice that read to me, complimented me and made me feel loved. I asked him why he didn’t have an accent like mine and he told me when his mother died, his father and he moved South to have a ‘fresh start’; he was brought up in the North.
The day before the visitor was to arrive Tom proposed we should run away. I laughed at first, then realised he was serious. “Mary, we have to try.” It was usually the other way around, the slave trying to leave and the white man holding the slave back. How strange this situation was. I was given no time to think. Tom’s father was away on business and would arrive with the slave in the morning; it was mid-day when Tom proposed an escape. After a lot of prodding I agreed, not really aware of what I was doing. Tom said he knew people in the North that, although they would look upon us disgustedly, wouldn’t actually stop us from being together. I couldn’t believe it but Tom insisted it was true.
Something had been bugging me, and so I, finally, asked him something I had been wondering for weeks. “What changed your mind ‘bout me Tom?” Tom told me he heard me crying one night, and realised that black people were just like white people; he had always heard it but, until then, never really believed it. I liked his honesty, needed it if I was gonna run away with him.
So, at midnight, we left. We left knowing the dangers, knowing we could easily be hanged, knowing what we were doing was wrong but we did it. And since, I’ve never looked back, my hatred for Tom transformed to love, and though I didn’t quite understand it, it was what kept me going through the times when people tried to force us apart. Tom taught me to read and write, and I vowed I would write about Tom and me. Although I don’t write like Shakespeare, I feel our love deserves to be read. Mama was wrong; happy endings happen. In the end love really concurred all. That’s my story.