I checked, for the third time that week, how much cash I had stored under the loose floorboard near my bedroom door. Since I was still grounded for sneaking out to see the Turners, I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to be doing in a few weeks’ time. Luckily for me, my house arrest expired days before the protest march, so leaving the house wouldn’t be a problem. The only problem I had so far was how I would get a message to Mae Turner telling her that I was going to Chicago for the protest meeting. Going behind my parents’ backs was against my better judgement, but I was doing it for all the right reasons.
I rifled through the dollar bills on my bedspread. I had set a chair against the door handle, so there was no risk of Mom or Dad coming in and seeing what I was up to. I had been saving my allowance to buy my very own bedroom radio – but this was more important. So far, I had $89.78 and I wasn’t sure how long that would last me. Hopefully I could scavenge another couple of dollars in loose change from my old purse in the small chest of drawers, leaving me with around $90. It still wasn’t much. I had no idea how much a bus ticket from Greystone to Chicago cost, or if there was any buses from Greystone to Chicago. And what if there was trouble, and I couldn’t come back home? Would I have enough money for an overnight stay in a motel somewhere? Suddenly, I felt very nervous. Was I too stupid to realise that $90 wouldn’t be enough for a road trip across five states of the United States of America, and all behind my father’s back?
And then I had a flash of inspiration. My emergency cash fund! I’d hidden a handful of odd dollar bills and coins away in a box in my old trunk under the bed. There must be around $20 in there. That would give me $110, maybe more. With a new energy, I dived under the bed and pulled out the old, faded trunk that held random things from my childhood. It was lockable, but I’d long since lost the padlock and key so it opened easily when I lifted the lid. Inside was an assortment of items I’d forgotten I’d even owned. There was a faded purple toy rabbit, a bundle of letters from Grandma in Kentucky, a frayed friendship bracelet and an old red-covered diary. Stuffed in the corner, there was a crushed cardboard box with ‘Emergency money’ written across the top in my ten-year-old scrawl. I picked it up and put it on the bed, then closed the lid of the trunk and put it back under the bed.
I opened the box and looked inside. Yes, I was right – there was a fair bit of money in here. A quick glance through showed me $15. There was a handful of loose change at the bottom. I quickly pulled open the top drawer of the small chest and dug out my purse, unzipped it and emptied it onto the bed. A little change fell out, along with a yellowed movie theatre ticket and a broken chain. Feeling a little better, I carefully counted the money. I ended up with $27, more than I expected. I guess I must have saved quite a bit over the years – though I hadn’t really been properly saving. So that left me with $117.29 – but I wasn’t sure whether it would still be enough.
And then, if I did happen to have the money to get there, there would be the protest march itself. How would the other colored people react to me? Would they be afraid – shocked? Angry, even? I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they expect me to yell racist insults at them? Would they even take me seriously? I was judging on the sceptical look the older Turner brother had given me when I had confessed my sympathy for the black people. Would I be the only white protester there?
From what I knew of Chicago, they were slightly more racially diverse and were probably therefore less likely to recoil in the presence of non-whites. But that was just what I heard from other people. I didn’t know if it was true. And I especially ignored anything my father might have told me. White supremacy, that was his ideal world – and inferiority to anyone else whose skin happened to be a different color. My father had a very narrow mind. Very narrow.
I swept all the money off my bed and into the larger box in which I usually kept my money. This box was locked at all times, and I only I knew where the key was – so if mom or dad discovered it, they wouldn’t be able to open it. The emergency cash box, I stuffed back into the drawer of the bedside chest. I wouldn’t need it now. When I was ready to leave, I would put all the money into my purse – even if I had to cram everything in.
But I also had to prepare for any setbacks. If dad caught me, I would have to find another way out. If I had to stay the night in a motel, I needed overnight things. I would have to pack as small a bag as I could find and somehow take it with me without looking too conspicuous to anyone I might meet on the way. In the bottom of my wardrobe, there was an old school satchel of mine, one I’d had before I’d started middle school. It was a decent size, not too big, not too small. I crossed over to the wardrobe and pulled it out, opened it, assessing it for usefulness. I could easily fit a change of clothes, my purse, and some bathroom basics into it. I would be able to carry it over my shoulder and make it look like I was just going out into town for the day. It wouldn’t raise any questions.
All this planning had fired me up – made me stronger, somehow, ready to fight for what I knew was right. I was going to do something about it. I was going to try and help. I would spread the message of the Lord and fight for equality and justice – because is that not what God would have wanted? Even if it amounted to nothing, just being there, just taking part, would help a little. Surely it would help a little. And if I got into trouble for it, well, that was the price I would pay for standing up for my beliefs.
Deciding to get on with it before I changed my mind, I reached into my wardrobe and yanked out a change of clothes, an old pair of sneakers and an assortment of hair bands. Into the satchel they went, as well as a hand towel and my old toothbrush. But, somehow, it didn’t seem like enough. I went to the small bathroom at the end of the hallway and took out a bar of soap. That went into the satchel too. At last, on the very top, I put the purse with the $120 (give or take a couple of dollars) into the satchel. I had to force the button shut, but I was satisfied.
At least now I was prepared, even if I was still quite nervous about it all. There was still the issue of contacting the Turners, after all, as well as actually managing to formulate a credible story to feed to mom and dad. It wasn’t going to be easy, not with dad watching me like a hawk now. But I would have to try. As mom always told me whenever I thought something wouldn’t work, “You won’t know until you try, Lydia”.
How odd that it would be now I would need her advice the most, when as I child I barely needed it at all.
As the weeks dragged on, I became more and more apprehensive. I had still not been able to contact the Turners. Mom and Dad were watching me like birds of prey. I was only allowed out to go to the library and to school. My little television had been confiscated. And my escape was coming nearer and nearer.
But, on the third Tuesday, there came a beacon of opportunity. Both Mom and Dad were going to be out that day – all day. It would be extremely easy for me to slip out of the house for quarter an hour to talk to Terry Turner about my desire to go to Chicago for the protest march. They would never have to know – as long as I didn’t run into any of Mom or Dad’s friends on the way. I would be dead for sure if I was caught by anyone who might relay the tale to my parents. But, as I’ve said before, it would all be worth it. All I had to do was try.
When I came home from school, there was a note on the kitchen table – just as I had expected. I didn’t really need to read it as I had a pretty good idea of the kind of thing it would say, but I scanned through it quickly anyway.
We’re going to be out for a while so fix yourself something from the refrigerator for dinner. Your father and I should be home around 7pm depending on how everything goes.
YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED OUT OF THE HOUSE.
I sighed and put the note back onto the table. Yes, I wasn’t allowed out. But I was going to go out anyway. I was going to disobey my father deliberately and leave the house, and – against his dire warnings – go into the slums of the black people. I didn’t care if he ever found out – but I wouldn’t worry about that, because if I played it right, he never would find out.
Deliberately disobeying my parents gave me a kind of adrenaline rush. It was something I had never done before until now – being young and naive and taking the world as it appeared – and I have to admit, it was exciting. Up until now, I had been a good little girl, done whatever my parents told me to do, never got into any real trouble. But the needless murder of Dennis Turner had put the last nail in the coffin and set everything in motion. I wasn’t prepared to sit back and take it anymore. I wanted – needed – to do something about it. I couldn’t leave these things to happen.
I looked at Mom’s note again. Then, with a surge of determination that I wasn’t entirely sure belonged to me, I picked it up off the table. Crumpled it into tiny ball in my palm. Then launched it into the trash can next to the refrigerator and smiled as it landed with a dull thunk.
There was no time to wait. I had to strike whilst the iron was hot. So, giving myself no time to change my mind, I grabbed my jacket from the peg in the hallway and set out into the town, walking determinedly. I was doing this for justice. I was doing this for equality. I was doing this for fairness.
I didn’t look back as I walked the now familiar streets to Mae Turner’s block of flats. Despite being autumn, the sun was out and hot on the back of my neck. I soon didn’t need my jacket and I shrugged it off, tying it around my waist. I had worried that there would be too many people, too much of a risk of being seen – but there was hardly anyone on the streets. They were all in their houses, cleaning or listening to the radio or else out in the family car, on a day trip to the next big city or out of Alabama state altogether. I got lucky, really – I had picked the right day for my little excursion.
Because of the sudden, uncharacteristic heat, it took longer to get to the house then it had done that first night. Subconsciously, I touched the spot on my head where my father had struck me that night. It wasn’t sore anymore, but there was a tiny scar underneath my hair, invisible if you didn’t know it was there. I fanned myself with my hand as I walked, grateful when I turned into the cool shade of the litter-strewn alleyways of the slums. No one had been to clear up the trash from the overflowing dumpsters so there was more trash than ever covering the cobbles. All the curtains in the windows of the flats were closed – all the windows that were intact. Several were smashed and broken, and most were boarded up. As I passed one block of flats, racial abuse had been scrawled across one grey, peeling wall, and the front door had been kicked down and was hanging off its’ hinges. More racial insults had been scribbled across the inside of the porch and on the steps leading up to it.
The closer I got to Mae Turner’s block, it got worse; one door and porch had been doused in gas from someone’s car and set alight. The wood of the door was black and the smell of burning and gas lingered in the air still. A mailbox at the end of the alley had been uprooted and thrown into a nearby dumpster. Bricks had been thrown at the doors and through windows; bottles lay smashed either side of the alley; and more gas was poured onto the porch steps and on doors.
When I reached the block of flats where the Turners’ lived, I held my breath, expecting the worst. Here, an overturned trash can near the door spilled litter onto the front steps and several bottles lay broken around the porch. Someone had scrawled racial abuse here too; I swallowed convulsively and tried to ignore it as I went to open the battered, peeling front door. At least they hadn’t tried to set it alight.
Inside, it was just as I had remembered it; dimly lit, the grey paint peeling, cold and damp. Once I closed the door, it was dark; the single bulb hanging from the ceiling had blown out. The stairwell was stained and the stone chipped. So the attackers hadn’t managed to force their way inside the flats. I put my jacket back on and began climbing the steep stairs, my heartbeat quickening. I was suddenly nervous – what would I find? Would they feel up to talking to me? Had the recent attack – I could barely think the word – on the flats have scared them into staying hidden?
Higher and higher I climbed, the stairway getting darker and darker as the light dimmed and then disappeared completely. A tiny window I hadn’t noticed before was so thick with grime that hardly any daylight came through it. The rough stone walls were icy where my arms brushed against them. No heat. No electricity. Had the cables been ripped from the mains? Had the oil tank been emptied? Probably. When I reached the hallway, it was so dark I had to squint to make out the numbers on the apartment doors. Quite a few were hanging off their hinges. Others had been doused in more car gas, and others were covered in paint. From what I could make out, it was red paint. At last, I reached Mae Turner’s apartment. I only found my way because of what I remembered from my previous visit. Timidly, nervously, I knocked on the door very lightly.
And nothing happened. The door didn’t open. There was a still, eerie silence on both sides of the door. Accompanied with the darkness, an icy chill prickled the back of my exposed neck. I was suddenly afraid. Were the Turners out? Or were they hiding from someone? I knocked again. I could hear the faint sounds of movement on the other side of the door and my muscles unclenched a little. At least they hadn’t been forced out of their home – yet. Then I heard the distinct shuffle of feet on wooden floorboards, and the soft clinking of a chain. A flickering orange light filtered through the gap where the door opened a tiny sliver, and in the virtual darkness I could make out Mae Turner’s squat, watery-eyed form.
“It’s me, Lydia” my voice came out as a dry rasping noise. My throat and mouth were dry. “Can I come in? I’m not going to do anything”. Silence. The flickering orange light threw dark shadows across Mrs. Turner’s face. There were tear tracks stained on her wrinkled brown cheek.
“Oh, sure” she replied. Her voice was a timid whisper. Her head turned nervously from side to side. Checking for eavesdroppers, intruders. “Mind your step - there’s been a power failure”.
I crossed the dark threshold and followed Mrs. Turner into the apartment. The tiny living space was alive with candles; on top of the prehistoric, spindly table, next to the metal basin, winking from shelves and on top of the single chest of drawers. The books on the shelves had been removed to make room for them. As before, two thin mattresses were lying sideways across most of the floor space, a jumble of thin, scratchy blankets heaped on top. There was a rusted pan next to the basin, and one small can of baked beans. There was the distinct smell of burning; they had tried to cook using candles, as they had no oil for heat.
“Are your sons here, Mrs. Turner?” I asked her, mostly to fill the heavy, sad silence that the room had induced. She turned to me from where she was relighting a candle that had gone out.
“Oh, no, dearie. They’ve gone to fetch more candles for me – some o’ these are burnin’ low” She replied, and she pointed to one red candle, barely a stump of wax, the flame dangerously close to giving out.
I didn’t know what horrified me the most; the things that had happened, or the matter-of-fact way in which Mae Turner reacted to them. I guess it was a bit of both, though I couldn’t be sure. I took a deep breath in.
“I want to go to the Chicago protest with Terry” I announced, as confidently as I could under the circumstances. I wiped my palms on my t-shirt, my eyes darting around the room restlessly. The photograph of Dennis Turner caught my eye. I looked away before the picture could put a lump in my throat.
“Are you sure?” Mrs. Turner gasped. Her tone was wary – but her eyes were hopeful.
“Yes” I replied. I had never been surer of anything in my life up to now. It was something I wanted to do, something worth the risk.
“I’ll let ‘im know when he gets back” Mrs. Turner said. “Then – then you can talk to ‘im, and make some arrangements, y’know? Sort this out. But how’re you gonna get there?” Her wide, brown eyes searched my face worriedly. Like a parent might search the face of their child.
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I even have enough for a trip that long” I confessed. I bit my lip. What if I didn’t have enough, and then had to come all the way back? Then everything I’d done would have been for nothing. No. I couldn’t think like that. I had to be strong.
“Well, I’m sure glad you’re tryin’ anyways” Mrs. Turner sighed, and a smile briefly lit up her grief-withered face. “Heavens, the world needs more people like you, Lydia”. I could only just bring myself to smile back. Suddenly the concept of what I was going to do was daunting, frightening almost. But I couldn’t let it bother me. I had to be confident, calm and secure in the knowledge that without efforts like mine, there may never be a difference made.
The door clicked open behind us and Mrs. Turner’s sons appeared. I turned, but I could hardly make out their profiles in the darkness. Terry, the younger brother – I only knew it was him because he was shorter than his brother – smiled at me so widely that it almost split his face in half. He must have realised why I had come here, that I was agreeing to go with him to the protest. His sudden happiness made me happy.
“You’re comin’ to the protest? You’re really comin’?” Terry asked in disbelief.
“Yes, I am” I replied. There was a snort from the older brother.
“Brave of ya” he grumbled. “Talk ‘bout the lion’s den”.
“You keep your mouth shut, Andrew” Mrs. Turner snapped, reaching for the bag he was holding. The dull clacking of candles could be heard as she put the bag on the floor and bent over it. “Lydia here is doin’ us a very kind thing, you’ll do well to remember that.”
Despite his brother’s rebuff, the smile had not faded from Terry’s face. However, he turned to me and his expression became a little more serious.
“It won’t be cheap” he said.
“I’ve got money” I answered.
“You migh’ get screwed over yourself” he warned me.
“I can handle it, trust me” I insisted. Terry sighed, but it was not a sigh of defeat – a sigh of triumph, if there was such a thing.
“Well, then, Lydia. They’ve arranged tha’ we can travel from here ta’ Chicago on Thursday the seventeenth – that’s Thursday comin’ – and everythin’ is taken care of. The bus park – where it’ll stop for us to get on it – is just outside the post office, d’you know it? On the South side. It’ll be there at 1PM” Terry explained. Yes, I knew the post office on the South side. The ‘Colored Persons Only’ post office. It made sense that the bus would stop there.
“Yeah, I do. Do I meet you there?” I asked. I could almost feel the adrenaline in my veins. It gave me thrill just to talk about it. It was actually happening. I was actually going to do it!
“If ya’ could, then yeah” Terry replied. “Best not risk it any other way”.
“Don’t worry” I said, gleaning strength from seemingly nowhere. “I’ll be there. It’s what’s right. I’m not going to give up my chance”.