New Voice Award: 1974 by Veneta Roberts

The clouds hang low, with a smell in the air that reminds me of our small bathroom, when I’m the last in line. The smell of six other bodies removing their night-time odours into the sink, the dregs hanging in the air, not completely eliminated by a layer of cocoa-butter and Sure. I pull the hood of my green Cagoule carefully over my hair, worrying my afro may become limp, or, what if it gets dented from the weight of my hood? Cha man, I took ages perfecting it. As I reach the end of Canterbury Road, I hear the shuffle of Deon running towards me.

‘Wait up bro.’ He shouts catching up. I don’t know how he manages to take the longest to get dressed, yet always ends up looking like he slept in his uniform. While I wait, I glance down at my neat tie and tucked in shirt, then back down the road to Deon, his satchel banging into his hip as he runs. I feel the first drop of rain on the back of my hand.

‘Thanks,’ Deon says, falling in line as we wait to cross the busy roundabout. I’m hoping to get across without breaking into a run, which could create steam in my hood. Deon sees a gap between cars and makes a run for it, pausing at the other side to look back.

‘Why didn’t you run?’ He shouts over the traffic.

‘Don’t wanna mess up my hair man.’

‘Who cares?’ He asks looking confused. Obviously not him, I don’t even think he’s buttoned up his shirt correctly and his face looks well dry, like he forgot to cream.

The traffic begins to pile up and I cross easily between cars. Before I can catch up to Deon, he waves to someone further down the road. Shouts ‘wait up’ and breaks into a run. What a blasted tief! Turning right onto Mitcham Road, there are herds of children, all walking in the same direction, it feels like being in the army, we have differing faces, yet we all look the same, dark coats, navy blazers, grey jumper, grey and navy tie. The only difference I can see, is the few black kids that go to this school all have their hoods up and none of the white kids even have a coat, letting the rain bounce on their heads to drip down their blazers. 

Once entering the school gates, I walk left, past my noisy form room, enter the boy’s toilets, face the mirror and slowly remove my hood. Yes! Hair is still looking good, phew man.

I enter 5a, relieved by the noise and bustle; Emma and Paul are perched on the teacher’s desk, her legs are crossed, one over his thigh, his hands are in her wet hair as they kiss. Felix and Nate are having an arm wrestle across a desk near the back and a crowd has gathered around them, placing bets with penny sweets. I glance through the crowd, spotting Aaron and Huntley glancing out the window. Huntley turns as I approach.

‘Michael, what’s happening?’

‘Not much, annoyed with the blasted weather,’

‘It’s crap innit? Look at Aaron’s hair, he’s well vex.’

‘Shut up man!’ Aaron says, punching Huntley in the leg. Huntley holds his hands up, ‘Alright man, no need for vi-o-lence, peace man, peace.’

‘I’m proper vex man, my hair got mash up, it literally shrank,’ says Aaron looking down at the floor.

‘Why didn’t you wear a coat?’ I ask.

‘You know I come from far man. It was well sunny dis mornin.’

‘Sad man, it looks alright though,’ I add, hoping to make him feel better. 

‘What does?’ Asks Huntley, screwing up his face.

‘Shut up, you know you’re lying,’

‘Yeah, it looks shit man,’ Huntley adds, and I can’t help but crease up.

‘You lot are well outta order man.’

Whilst the rest of the class etch numbers onto their papers, I watch the seconds tick by on the clock above Mister Richardson’s blackboard. I swear the hands are moving backwards. It took me half of the allocated hour to complete the Physics exam. The air feels thick; after this morning’s English lesson, the clouds began to disperse and now the sun pierces through the window with the intensity of an August day. Mister Richardson doesn’t hide the fact he is sleeping under his newspaper, the soles of his brogues facing into the classroom. When the minute hand reaches twelve, the bell buzzes loudly and Mister Richardson falls off his chair and the classroom fills with laughter.

I seek out Huntley and Aaron outside the food hall, falling in line to join the queue to fill our long bellies. Aaron has found an afro pick in the bottom of his bag and Huntley nudges me to watch. Aaron blows crumbs from his comb, then pulls a blue hanky from his blazer pocket, methodically stretching the material between the black teeth, pushing the grease to the ends, forming a mound that he scrapes off with his nail. I glance at Huntley, trying not to laugh as he stares and shakes his head in exaggerated shock at Aaron’s ritual. Once the comb is clean Aaron finally places the long teeth in his hair and it gets stuck. Both Huntley and I crease up.

‘Mash up!’ Huntley says nudging me again. Aaron cuts his eye at Huntley, yanking the comb out of his hair, chucking it back into his bag.

‘It looks alright man,’ I say nudging him with my elbow.

Aaron pushes up his mouth, looking vexer than ever, then quickly becomes interested in the fast-moving queue.

‘What’s the matter now?’ Huntley asks.

Aaron doesn’t reply and Huntley opens his mouth to say something cutting.

‘Leave him man.’ I say leaning into Huntley.

Huntley glances at Aaron, then nods at me.

‘Did you two watch the football last night? Huntley asks and Aaron looks like he has forgotten all about his hair.  

The point of view, the dialogue, the hair! There’s an authenticity in this slice-of-life piece about a group of upper school friends that made this piece an absolute delight to read.

Eliot Li

A strong voice, telling truths about the Black British experience in this engaging vignette. Zinging with potential.

Rachel Edwards

An energetic tale that fizzes with authenticity and the preoccupations of Black British youth in the ’70s.

Patricia Q. Bidar

Veneta has always written short stories, but only in the last 5 years has she found her passion for the preservation of Black British history. As a child, she never heard stories that she could relate to, there was always a lack of Black presence in the literature that she was taught in school, borrowed from the library, or purchased. It is important this narrative changes for herr own children and for generations to come. British history should be inclusive, and she hopes that inclusivity is found within her fiction and that her stories are enjoyable, relatable and passed around.

One thought on “New Voice Award: 1974 by Veneta Roberts

  1. Absolutely authentic, yes totally in agreement about lack of black history.
    I do hope to read the book 📚 once finished and will be happy to pass on to my family. Best wishes Veneta. Good choice 😄

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