issue 39: November - December 2003 

 | author bio

Heather Imani  


It was the summer of ’76. That fire-hot summer, when the grass in the parks was parched yellow and you looked along Kensal Rise and saw wavy lines of heat-haze and the roads were bumpy because the tarmac had melted and looked like it was boiling. The sun was blinding, frazzling our Afros, sending everyone a bit crazy. And perhaps because of the sun, Paulette got it into her head that we should go and look for Martini.
      Paulette and me were in the same class at school. I was still thirteen, though, and Paulette was teasing me as usual about being the baby of the class because my birthday fell in the summer holidays. It meant I never got those little gifts that the kind girls in class always brought in for a birthday or at Christmas: foil-wrapped cubes of bath salts or Bronnley lemon verbena soap or pot-pourri.
      Soap-on-a-rope. Instead, Mum gave me either hankies or knickers, with new slippers or flip-flops or jelly sandals.
      And a lecture about being another year older and how I needed more than ever to study my books and keep-weh from de bwoys-dem.
      I was moaning about that to Paulette. She said my mum was right.
      ‘I don’t check for boys, though,’ I said.
      ‘Hmm,’ said Paulette. ‘You think I never see you with TP yesterday?’ I blushed.
      ‘You see you face – and I never even mention his actual name.’
      ‘What?’ I said. ‘He only walked me to the bus stop. I never asked him to; I was just walking when he came up behind me – so in fact he never really walked me to the bus stop anyway; I was walking to the bus stop and he decided to walk there too. I can’t force him not to walk where he wants to walk, can I?’
      ‘Hmm. You so lie. You think I never see how you hook up your arms together and how your face was so grinny-grinny? I bet it was all yes TP, no TP, three bags full TP – ’ I slapped Paulette playfully and she laughed at the fact that I blushed deeper and deeper every time she said TP.
      And it was true: I couldn’t hear his name without going all funny. I felt floppy and my head went kind of swimmy. The feeling confused me and to be honest, I felt silly. I thought it was something only the fool-fool white girls who read Jackie went through with boys they fancied, and that they only felt like that because they were stupid enough to believe a magazine saying they were supposed to.
      ‘You better mind,’ said Paulette. ‘Two twos and you’ll forget about your studies and it’ll be TP this and TP that and you’ll end up pregnant for him and drop out of school and you won’t be any different from Martini – people will think you’re just a leggo-beas’ instead of a bright girl who went stupid over a boy.’ My face burned. I slapped her again, harder. She was talking loudly and two Indian girls, who were sat on the playground bench next to ours fanning themselves with their hands, looked across, their faces like big-eyed dolls.
      ‘Ow!’ Paulette rubbed her arm. But she was triumphant. ‘Truth hurts, innit, Hazel? Your mum’s right: study your books and forget the bwoys-dem!’ The bell for the end of lunch break went and we peeled ourselves off the bench. Paulette pulled out her Afro comb and neatened her hair. Looking at her reflection in the dining hall window, she sighed. Her hair was flatter now than it had been in the morning. She sucked her teeth and declared the whole experience of this English summer disgusting because there were no trade winds to help keep everyone cool, like in Jamaica.
      I didn’t see what that had to do with the sun shrivelling her hair, but since she went to Jamaica with her family every year, I thought she should know.
      ‘It’s so stuffy and it’s like you’re breathing in dry dust from everywhere,’ she said.
      That much was definitely true.


We had double science next lesson and after registration, we made our way up the main staircase of A Block to the lab. I was looking forward to the class because I liked Miss Halai. She was young and fun instead of old and boring like the other science teachers – all men. Also, we were doing a chemistry component and I enjoyed that more than biology (which girls were supposed to like best of all the sciences) and definitely more than physics, which I found dull and difficult, though I didn’t like to admit that.
      Our class congregated outside the locked lab, buzzing noisily and sweltering. A few of my classmates – not me or Paulette, though – were a bit whiffy from half a day in the same clothes. We waited for Miss Halai to arrive and let us in. A couple of minutes later, she bounced along the corridor, looking cool in an ice-green sari that swished under her sparkling lab coat. She carried her papers and a clutch of test tubes, and her single plait, which usually hung neatly down her back well past her waist, swung from side to side behind her. She smiled as she came up to us and passed the contents of her hands to Gary Burton, fished in her pocket for the key and unlocked the door. We streamed in and the wave of heat from the classroom scraped our faces.
      ‘Rah, miss,’ said Gary. ‘It’s too hot in here to work.
      Ennit too hot in here to work, Dalton?’ Dalton shrugged.
      ‘Rah, Dalton, you let me down, man,’ moaned Gary.
      Miss Halai told us to open some windows.We obeyed, tussling with stiff old levers on the lower windows and pulleys to open the ones high up. We breathed exaggerated sighs of relief as cooler air flowed in from outside. Miss Halai started the lesson and the class took the shape it usually did with her: the ones who wanted to learn in a huddle at the front; those not interested at the back, doing their own thing, so long as they kept the noise down and didn’t disturb the rest of us. The ones at the back were a few of the black boys in the class – Gary Burton and his crew – and the two white girls, Susan Wingate and Patsy Rowe, who mostly bunked off to go and smoke cigarettes. No black girls or any of the Indian kids went to the back. Our parents would have killed us if it came up in our reports. Sometimes, the boys at the back fooled around, touching up the white girls and we could hear them squeal and go Stop it, stop it - never sounding like they meant it. That was the only time Miss Halai would intervene. Mostly, though, they played cards.
      I never went to the back. Once or twice Paulette did – but never for the whole class. She wouldn’t dare. She said it was because she was just curious to know what they got up to. But I knew she went off when she didn’t understand the work Miss Halai set. Paulette was like me that way, not wanting to ask for help. But instead of giving up like her, I sneaked a look at what somebody else was doing to give me some pointers. That always worked for me.
      Miss Halai was showing us some phosphorus, which was knobbly and purplish-black and stored in a test tube with water because she said it was combustible. She took a pair of tongs and picked out the phosphorus, when suddenly it slipped and fell to the floor. It whooshed into a small flame and we all went Wow! Miss Halai had to stamp on it to put the fire out and afterwards, there was a burn mark on the wooden floor where it fell. She checked the sole of her shoe for damage.
      ‘Well, class, that just goes to show how dangerous – ’ She didn’t get to finish her sentence, because from the back of the class, Susan Wingate screamed and went,
      ‘Christ! Gary!’ Miss Halai pushed a path through our huddle and we all turned to see what was going on. Susan’s summer dress was up round her belly and Gary Burton had his hand stuffed inside her knickers. Before he realised that everyone was looking at him, he said, ‘Rah, Dalton, I can feel all her pussy juices!’ His voice sounding almost as if he wanted to cry.


The news spread like wildfire. Gary was suspended on the spot. Susan was sent home in a taxi with a note to her mum. They said that she might want to press charges for sexual assault. But the real talk was about how Gary had taken liberties because he’d been with Martini, who let boys do stuff like that, and whatever anyone said about Susan Wingate and Patsy Rowe, about them bunking and smoking and letting boys feel up their tits or whatever, they didn’t carry on like Martini, so it was Martini who had corrupted Gary Burton, like she corrupted everybody, and if Gary got into trouble with the police or if Susan was traumatised for the rest of her life because of what Gary did, then it was really Martini’s fault because she was the ultimate slag-bag, a leggo-beas’ who got boys doing nastiness like this.


First thing the next day was when Paulette collared me with a serious look on her face.
      ‘Look, Hazel,’ she began. She wiped the film of sweat on her nose; she said she’d run all the way up Okehampton Road from the bus stop to tell me this Very Important Development. ‘A little bird told me – can’t tell you who – that some boys went to see Martini after school yesterday when they heard what Gary did to Susan. Said they wanted to get themselves "piece". Nasty.
      Anyway, that same little bird – don’t ask me who, ’cos I can’t tell you – said that TP went with them.’ She paused for effect. My heart, lungs and stomach somersaulted.
      ‘Bad, innit?’ she continued. ‘You see what’s gonna happen now? TP’s gonna come back all corrupted and he ain’t gonna wanna link up arms with you any more, that’s for sure. He’s gonna want you to spread for him and all kinda nastiness.’ Paulette clapped her hand to her mouth. ‘You poor thing,’ she said and grabbed me in a fierce hug.
      I shook her off. I was reeling from the thought that TP could have gone to see Martini. She must be lying. But why would she lie? Maybe it was just rumours. It was just the kind of thing that there would be rumours about. Of course!
      ‘You’re lying,’ I blurted. ‘TP wouldn’t – ’
      ‘Hmm!’ said Paulette. ‘You see how it start already? You vex with me because I brought bad news. It ain’t my fault! It’s that Martini. You should be vex with her: she’s the cause of it.’ She stopped and looked at me. I was trying to push water back into my eyes.
      ‘It’s all right,’ Paulette said, softly. ‘We’ll go and look for her. Sort her out once and for all.’ The bell rang for morning registration and we spent the rest of the day not concentrating on our books but sending each other little notes, planning how and where we’d find Martini.

      —Operation Leggo-Beast. Target: Alison Brown, aka ‘Martini’ (we all know why). Should we round up a posse of Outraged Girls?
      —No; this isn’t general, it’s personal. TP is involved now, so I’m involved.
      —Well, I’m involved too because I’m your best friend and anyway, I thought of going to look for her first.
      —Okay then.
      —Where does she hang out?
       —Well, she’s supposed to love water, something to do with her being from Manchester. Didn’t she say that in class once before she just went and dropped out?
      – What about Queen’s Park then, by the paddling pool?
      —Nah! Nobody’s ever seen her in the park since she left.
      —Does she still live near you?
       —Think so.
      —So, water – by you – Stonebridge Rec?
       —Maybe, but there isn’t any water there.
      —Oh. Isn’t there that canal that runs down by the flats, the other end of Stonebridge?
       —Yeah, they call it the Feeder.
      —Yes! The Feeder! Dutty water for a dutty leggo-beast. Must can find her there.

After school, Paulette and me headed off down Okehampton Road towards Kensal Rise to get a 187 bus to Stonebridge. The sun was merciless. I felt uncomfortable in my flimsy summer dress and sandals, as if I wanted to strip everything off. Not speaking, we walked slowly, Paulette putting on lipgloss with her finger and tutting over the state of her Afro, picking at her hair as we picked our way along the roasting pavement.When we came to the sweet shop at the bottom of the road, we looked at each other and went in.We spent our bus fare on a fat Jublee each – mine cherry and Paulette’s orange – and Paulette also bought a bottle of Fanta with her actual pocket money, which I never got. She asked for a couple of sheets of newspaper, which she wrapped her Fanta in and tucked in her bag for later. We tore at the waxy wrappings of the Jublees with our teeth, savouring the first suck on the huge, sweet chunk of ice.
      It was going to be a long walk to Stonebridge.
      ‘You should talk to her first,’ said Paulette, breaking our silence.
      We were coming towards Harlesden. My feet hurt. I wanted to go straight home really, but I didn’t feel I could pull out of Operation Leggo-Beast now.
      ‘Why me?’ I asked.
      ‘Well, you wrote on your note that it’s personal for you, because of you-know-who.’ She looked at me.
      ‘Besides, you’re half-coolie.’
      ‘What?’ I said.
      ‘We should try to distract her, innit? And you should know what to say to her because you’re half-coolie.’ Now I was just irritated. I found myself wondering why I listened to Paulette, let her talk me into things.
      ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ I asked.
      Paulette shrugged. ‘Martini’s half-caste and you’re half-Indian. You’ll know what to say to her more than me.’
      ‘It ain’t even the same thing!’ My voice was all screamy.
      ‘I know,’ said Paulette, calm as anything. ‘But she’s half-not-black and so are you. You’ve got more in common with her than me; I’m full black.’ I sucked my teeth and drained the last of my meltedout Jublee. I flung the wrapper into someone’s frontgarden bushes as I passed – something I would never usually do.
      Paulette tucked her wrapper into her school bag and fished out her Fanta. She prised the top off with her teeth, wiped the bottle rim and offered me first drink. I shook my head and she took a long swallow.
      ‘Mmm, still cold,’ she said.
      We walked the rest of the way in silence, slow, slow.


Martini was right where we’d predicted. We saw her from a distance, Paulette pointing her out with her empty Fanta bottle. She was by herself, prodding at something in the water.We could tell it was her because of her ginger-brown hair coiling out from her head like mad corkscrews. I felt a kind of creeping nervousness, almost sick. What was I supposed to say to her? We quickened our pace, and as we got within calling range, Paulette dropped back and pushed me forward by the shoulder.
      ‘Go on,’ she hissed, ‘say something to her.’ I hesitated. ‘Hiya, Alison!’ I sounded stupidly cheery.
      I looked at Paulette, who rolled her eyes. Martini turned her creamy-skinned face to look up at us.
      ‘What do you lot want?’ she said. She stood up. ‘If it’s about that Susan whatsername, it’s got nowt to do with me.’
      ‘Don’t be daft,’ I said, something taking me over suddenly. I knew without looking that Paulette would be rolling her eyes again because I said ‘daft’, like I came from Manchester too. I couldn’t stop, so I continued. ‘We were passing and we haven’t seen you in ages – why don’t you come to school any more? You’re missing all the lessons and everything: you used to like Maths, didn’t you – and you were really good at PE.’
      ‘Don’t come it,’ said Martini.
      ‘You’re really facety, you know that?’ said Paulette.
      She used her aggressive tone, her voice all bassy and out of the side of her mouth. She was taller than me and Martini and usually, people got a bit scared of her when she did that. But Martini didn’t look scared at all. She smiled.
      ‘So fookin’ what if I am?’ She turned back to the rawsmelling, slimy green water and poked in it with her stick.
      ‘That water looks so nasty,’ I said.
      ‘Yeah,’ said Martini.
      ‘Doesn’t it make you feel sick?’
      ‘No. It makes me feel calm.’ She turned to see the disgust on our faces. She smiled again. ‘It don’t matter what kind of water – even this.’ I was about to say that I had remembered she liked water, that that’s how we’d managed to find her, when Paulette said, ‘You don’t mind nasty water because you’re nasty.’ Martini laughed, turning back to the Feeder with her stick. ‘Like I said, so fookin’ what if I am?’ Paulette’s eyes bulged and she looked at me for I don’t know what – some kind of ‘go’ signal maybe, but I didn’t have one. I wanted to know why Martini had dropped out and whether she was going to another school and why she liked water so much, even this disgusting water.
      And why it was she smiled and looked happy, even though she must know why we came to look for her.
      A trampy-looking man with matted hair and a stinking overcoat shuffled up to us. He looked straight at Martini, a tall can of beer in his hand.
      ‘You gwine free up de poom-poom for me tonight?’ Martini kept her back to the man. ‘Fook off,’ she said.
      ‘Can’t you see I’m talkin’ to some people?’ The man stared hard at her for a moment. He looked at us too. He wiped his sweaty brow. I don’t know what was going through his head, but he twisted his face into different shapes: angry, a beggy-beggy look, hurt pride, resignation and back to angry again. He took a swig from his tall can of beer, stepped up to Martini and took hold of her arm.
      ‘Come, gyal,’ he said. ‘Me say me want piece.’ He sounded dismissive, as if she wasn’t supposed to have said no, like she wasn’t supposed to have any choice.
      Martini turned slowly so she stood side-on to the man. She gave him a cut-eye look, slicing his ragged body slowly up and down from the corners of her eyes.
      A look of pure insolence, the kind of thing I’d get conked in my head for if I ever dared do that at home.
      She must give cut-eye all the time, I thought; it came so naturally to her. I was outraged and deeply impressed at the same time.
      ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you must be thick or summat, ’cos I’ve told you about a hundred times that I ain’t doin’ it with you. If I wanna do it, I pick who I do it with. Gorrit? Now fook off. I’m talkin’.’ She slid her sidelong look to her arm where he was holding it, then tilted her head to look squarely at him.
      He released her arm and stepped back. He looked broken. Paulette sniggered. The man looked at all of us, witnesses to his humiliation. I saw his face change shape again. He raised his tall can.
      ‘I bet I claat you inna you – ’ He flew at Martini and she side-stepped him neatly.As he went by her, she brought her knee up to his crotch.
      The man bent double and dropped his can. Beer fizzed onto the canal path. Martini stepped out of one of her red shoes and hardly seemed to stoop before it was in her hand, the heel poised to strike.
      ‘It’s too fookin’ hot for this,’ she bawled at the man.
      ‘But I’ll smash a fookin’ hole in your head if you don’t get back in your cardboard box now.’ Martini was shaking but her eyes were on fire.
      The man picked up his can and shambled off, muttering all the claat swear words,mostly about how de p___ claat gyal mek a r___ claat man waste off him good b___ claat beer.
      ‘Whoy, whoy!’ shouted Paulette, leaping up and down, flipping her hand so her fingers snapped. ‘That was wicked!’ I couldn’t help myself. I went up to Martini and offered my hand, grinning. She shook her head but took it, smiling. Then Paulette came up beside Martini and smashed her on the back of her head with the Fanta bottle. The glass shattered, a shower of rainbow sparkles in the sun, and Martini gasped and wheeled towards me.
      I yelped and half-caught her, then pulled my hands back when I saw the blood exploding from the wound in her head, the piece of glass sticking out. All I could think of was how would I explain blood on my summer dress to my mum. As Martini fell to the ground without my support, Paulette kicked her in the face. She thudded onto the path. I was frozen in the sun – couldn’t move my feet or my hands, although I tried.
      ‘Get up!’ commanded Paulette. ‘Get up, you dutty leggo-beas’!’ Martini scrambled to her feet, groaning, her cheek badly scraped and her top lip bloody. She looked dazed and pressed her hand to the back of her head absently.
      She said nothing. Paulette swung her hefty right arm – she did shot putt – and half-smacked, half-shoved Martini into the filthy green slime of the Feeder. Paulette went to the edge of the water to have a good look at her there. I peered at her too, wishing I could make myself look away. She wasn’t moving and her eyes were shut.
      She only had one shoe on and it stood out against the colour of the water. So did the red cloud oozing from her head. I was surprised at how shallow the Feeder was.
      Paulette picked up Martini’s stick and prodded her gently with it. Martini groaned and stirred, the slime-water squelching as she moved. Her eyelids flickered, then she winced, sucking in a small breath. Paulette put the stick down on the bank, next to Martini’s other shoe.
      ‘Come on, Hazel,’ she said. ‘Walk me to the bus stop?’


We passed the trampy man, who had seen everything, on our way back to the 187 bus stop. Paulette said she always kept some spare change for emergency bus fares home, and she reckoned this qualified. The trampy man stepped out of Paulette’s way with an exaggerated gesture, going Coo, coo, de gyal-deh bad-aaass. We stood on the quiet road, silent for a moment. There was no one at the stop and no sign of a bus.
      ‘D’you want another Jublee?’ Paulette asked. There was a sweet shop just round the corner.
      ‘I thought you only had emergency bus fare,’ I said.
      ‘Ah well,’ she said, ‘I’ve got lots of things up my sleeve.’ I asked for a grape-flavoured one this time. I didn’t go into the shop with her to get them. When she came out, she handed me mine.
      ‘We fixed her good, didn’t we?’ she said.
      She paused for my reply but I said nothing. I squeezed the Jublee to soften it a bit and looked down the road.
      Still nothing.
      ‘They’ll think that tramp beat her up,’ Paulette said.
      We tore the corners of the wrapping off with our teeth. Paulette had bought herself the same flavour as mine. It was the first time I’d seen her with any flavour other than orange.

Heather Imani 2003

This electronic version of "Martini" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the collection, Kin: New Fiction by Black and Asian Women, edited by Karen McCarthy, Serpent’s Tail, 2003. Book ordering available through amazon.co.uk

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Heather Imani was born in London to Jamaican parents. Her work has been published in three anthologies: Playing Sidney Poitier and Other Stories; The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain; and Kin: New Fiction by Black and Asian Women (Serpent’s Tail, 2003), from which "Martini" is taken. Though she writes mainly prose and poetry, Heather has recently begun writing for stage and screen. She is currently working towards her M.A. in screenwriting at the Northern Film School at Leeds Metropolitan University.


issue 39: November - December 2003 

Short Fiction

Jesse Shepard: First Day She’d Never See
Heather Imani: Martini
Nick Antosca: Where You Can’t Go Again
Marc DuBois: Match End
H.A. Fleming: Who I Was Supposed To Be

   picks from back issues
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Pinckney Benedict: Dog


Josh Capps
Pa Don’s Troops


18th-Century English Literature
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Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
The Last Summer of Reason
and The Watchers
by Tahar Djaout

Kids’ Stuff by Henry Sutton
The Long Haul by Amanda Stern
Back Around the Houses by Amanda Boulter
Bliss Street by Ken Kenway

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