Once upon a time I used to live in Scotland, somewhere near Glasgow. My husband was offered a lecture post at one of the Universities. As someone born in London and having lived in London all of my life, this was my first venture into another ‘country’. Initially my husband and I debated whether such a move would be good but of course, we decided to give it a try. What was it going to be like, I asked myself. What could I expect?
We found ourselves a smart flat that was in a four storey building. We were told several times by the owner that the ‘block’ was mainly made up of elderly people and we should respect their peace and make sure that each time we emptied our waste, the bin had to be ‘dettoled’ and washed. No problem, I told him. Maybe he thought we didn’t know how to be clean and respectful. We did what we were told and made sure we were on our best behavior. Whilst my husband was at work, I would be home looking after our three-month old baby and for most days I went out. I was curious about this new place and I wanted to know more. The more I went out, the more I realized there were very few black people in this area.
I would take the nearby train to Glasgow to browse around and shop. I found that Scots were completely different to the Anglo-Saxons. Very upfront and forward. Wherever my son and I went, we were constantly stared at, and people would come up to me and ask questions as well as play with my son. They were totally fascinated with this black child, like they had never seen one before! But one day, I received a shock. I decided that I needed some stamps from the nearby post office. So I wrapped my son up and put him in the push-chair and left. It was a cold, windy day and I remember struggling to push the buggy up the road, against this powerful wind. I got to the main road and tried to cross but the traffic was too busy, so I walked to the nearest traffic light – which was right down the bottom of the road. A good ten minute walk. Although on that day there was a lot of traffic, there were not that many people, except for a woman who was in the far distance coming in the opposite direction. As I gradually approached the traffic light, the woman crossed over the road, still heading towards my way. Just as I reached the traffic light to press the button, she stopped in front of me.
‘How do you cope being a black woman living in Scotland?’ she asked. Totally dumbstruck by her question and frankness, I responded to her by saying that I coped pretty well.
‘Have you been here long?’
‘Just a few months’, I said.
‘Where you from?’
‘No, I mean, where you really from?’
‘I’m really from London.’ I answered, making sure my English was crisp and clean. Like two bulls about to engage in a fight, we stared at each other, gridlocked. She was shorter than me but stockier, her short hair was made up of curls which moved with the wind but kept being swept back by her hand; her jeans were tucked into a pair of cowboy style boots and the over worn three-quarter length jacket was too tight for her. The wind continued to bluster but I stood frozen in my shoes with my eyes firmly fixed on this woman. It had been a long time that I had to give explanations for my existence and I was not about to start now. And besides, the strange thing was that after many years of living in London, I was used to the fact the English had gotten over their curiosity about us. As I peeped down to look at my son, he was fast asleep and totally oblivious to what was happening. She followed my gaze and commented.
‘A lovely wee lass’, she said, smiling.
‘It’s a boy’, I said sharply. She continued to smile dismissing my annoyance. I stepped back to move the pushchair. ‘Look, I have to go….’
‘Do you know where I can go to see someone? I’ve just been raped.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand….what do you mean?’
‘I’ve been raped! Do you know someone who can help me?’ I don’t know what was more shocking. The fact that she had been raped or the casual way in which she delivered her ‘experience’. I continued to stare and the large brown eyes behind the oval glasses looked distressed. I could feel myself softening. I asked her if she’d belonged to a church. She said she did but the priest told her to pray about it and wasn’t very supportive. ‘I don’t think he believed me. I said to him that I was scared I could be pregnant.’ Prayer was a good idea I thought but not exactly practical. She needed help. I looked through the plastic cover to see my son slowly rousing from his nap and wondered if I should invite her home.
‘Maybe you should check The Yellow Pages to see if there is a rape centre somewhere in town or go to another church, another denomination where they may have contacts…..people they know that can help you.’
She raised her head to the sky and the wind further tousled her curls about her forehead. She continued in thought as she stared across the road and then leaned over to my son.
‘Oh, look, I think we’ve woken him. Hello darling, how are you. Ooh, you’re such a wee thing!’ She smiled like there were no problems. She stood up and looked at me with her wide eyes. ‘I’ll go to another church. That’s a good idea. I never thought of that one and if I don’t get any help, I’ll check The Yellow Pages..Thanks!’
‘Then there’s the Citizens Advice Bureau. I don’t know if you have similar in Scotland.’ As my thoughts were pulling together in giving advice, she was slowly walking away from me, repeatedly thanking me and commenting on the beauty of my son. I was about to invite her but the speed in which she left made me feel as though she anticipated that I wanted to ask but had doubts, so she spared me. Did me a favour. As I watched her hurry into the distance, my mind was still trying to make sense of the whole thing. I waited for the traffic light to turn red and crossed over to the post office. There was a long queue. I stood and waited along with the usual stares and whispers. My son was now awake but he seemed happy to amuse himself with the toy that dangled over his head. Some fifteen minutes later I collected the stamps and made my way home. My stomach churned as the seriousness of what happened to the woman hit home. I wanted to turn the pushchair around and look for her. I prayed that she would get help.
Some months later, my husband and I decided to leave and head back to London. Our ‘strangeness’ to others was just too alien for us. Their experience of people from a different race and therefore ignorance was too demanding in terms of us having to constantly give explanations of ourselves. Of course, not everybody was racist and the elderly people in particular were very friendly but it wasn’t enough. There were still battles in London and always would be but my time in Scotland made me realize that parts of England had come a long way. It had grown up but still had not reached maturity. My time in Scotland and this experience happened back in 1988. I know in the current Scotland of today, it has made great strides and progress. I’m confident that Scotland will head to maturity sooner than we expect.