Sareeta Domingo’s Who’s Loving You: Love Stories by Women of Colour makes space for diverse voices in a sphere dominated by white people – read an extract here, Daniellé DASH’s luminous short story The Row
Romantic fiction as an institution has long rebuffed diverse, authentic narratives. History upheld the lionised and misty-eyed protagonists and their love stories which were wholly white. The publishing gatekeepers kept marginalised voices and their rich and textured narratives out, all while people of colour have frustrated at a culture that, when it actually lets their voices in, boxes them into stories that flatten their identity or are exclusively about their trauma.
In recent times though, urgent voices and stories are breaking through. Last year came Bolu Babalola’s fervent Love in Colour, which reimagined love stories and lore from history and mythology from across West Africa, Greece, and the Middle East, to centre Black love, fairytale, and joy. Now, author Sareeta Domingo has released Who’s Loving You, a celebratory, striking collection of love stories that traverse romance, desire, and intimacy for British women of colour with a myriad of experiences. Romantic fiction as a genre has, across the centuries, given specific archetypes of women the tools and the space to explore their hearts – now, Domingo gives women of colour the scope to express their tender and passionate desires.
The collection features a heady roster of contributors – Sareeta herself, Daniellé DASH, Sara Jafari, KUCHENGA, Kelechi Okafor, Amna Saleem, Sara Collins, and more. Their contributions hopscotch histories and cultures, from the mythical to classical history and the Snapchat generation. The loves stories oscillate from the queer, complicated, and fairytale-like, but all feel compelling and urgent, championing something vital for Black women and women of colour to see in the world.
Below is an extract from Daniellé DASH’s intoxicating short story The Row, a luminous capturing of Black queer love set in South London.
THE ROW, DANIELLÉ DASH
Edith stepped off the train in South London. Late-afternoon sun pooled around her. She walked out of the station onto the high road. She tipped her head up momentarily and it felt as if the sun’s warm, kind hands were holding her face. Yellow and orange melting into blue sky, the sun pressed its lips against Edith’s ear, urging her to complete her journey, to find somewhere to live.
The window in an off-licence displayed room-for-rent adverts handwritten on small cards. Edith stopped and scanned each one. She knew that the right one would call out to her.
There it was:
One double bedroom to rent in family home.
Six hundred pounds a month, reference desired but not required.
It was signed with the name Gardenia Franklin and a phone number, the penmanship elegant and clear.
‘Gardenia Franklin.’ It felt right in her mouth. She had nothing on which to pin her confidence, but she walked into the off-licence.
When Edith emerged, she held Gardenia Franklin’s card and a small box containing her new, simple mobile phone.
Gardenia closed the door behind them as Edith bent to take her shoes off. ‘As long as you no wear outside shoes in my house, we will get on.’ Every word, wrapped in a Caribbean lilt, was ushered from her lips by a laughter that was also a warning. Gardenia’s feet were snug in a pair of house slippers, the ones only old ladies owned. ‘How you no fall over with them small feet you have?’ Gardenia’s laughter was kind and fulsome.
Edith looked up from her feet and followed Gardenia into her kitchen. Her home was lived-in but clean. Every wall was covered with pictures Edith assumed were of the old woman’s family. Edith couldn’t tell if the house was big or if she felt small.
The bedroom was spacious.
‘My daughter move in with her fiancé.’ Gardenia sipped on her tea as Edith ran her hand along the wood of the chest of drawers. ‘I no really like people, but you seem sensible. You want to live here, Edith?’ When Gardenia said her name, the ‘h’ at the end went missing so it came out Eedit. Edith liked it. She liked Gardenia. Even though her eyes felt like suspicion. She nodded.
The early-evening air was thick and warm, coated with the heady mixture of weed and barbecue. The ice-cream van’s ‘Greensleeves’ called out like a pied piper summoning chil- dren, and adults too, for sweet, cold treats. Edith wanted to take her time getting acquainted with the South London area that was now home. But she was on a mission. She needed a job. Once she left Gardenia’s – no, her house – she soon came to a hair salon wrapped around the end of the road that opened into a tightly packed row of shops. Despite the late hour, the salon was alive. The low rumble of music carried laughter and loud voices, letting them fall out onto the pavement. Edith walked more slowly so she could see into the salon, but not so slowly that she’d be confused for a potential customer.
A woman with eyes so big and bright Edith could swim in them pinned her with a stare.
Edith stopped moving.
The woman’s face broke into a devastating smile. Edith felt her heart churn to a stop.
The edges of Edith’s lips tilted upwards. Reciprocating.
The woman’s eyes broke away from Edith’s. Her hands were in the scalp of another. Her wrists flicked with experience as she cane-rowed hair thick and high on her client’s head. Edith wished she was the woman’s client. She made her feet move.
Edith passed an off-licence. Boys in tracksuits tumbled out, giddy with excitement about their haul, carried in black plastic bags. They narrowly missed knocking into Edith. ‘Careful, beautiful,’ one of the boys called out to her. His friends all followed his lead and stopped so she could pass by unimpeded.
‘Thank you,’ Edith said in her most confident voice. ‘Ey, fam! Come on.’ And in a flurry of laughter they left, almost skipping away into their youth.
Edith walked past a West Indian takeaway. A man wearing a plastic tabard stood on the pavement jerking chicken in a steel drum balanced on wobbly legs. He gestured towards her, asking wordlessly if she’d like some. Edith shook her head but smiled. His teeth, big and white, preened for her as he nodded and turned his focus to the chicken that sent smoky succulence up into the air.
Edith pushed the door open to the bookies, tucked onto the end of the row of shops. A burst of light and sound jumped at her. Men sat on stools watching televi- sion screens that lined the walls. They shone with every sport Edith could imagine and numbers she couldn’t easily understand. This wasn’t a high street betting chain. To Edith it was like it’d been designed specifically for the area.
At the shop’s far end, a woman sat behind glass. Edith hoped this was Carmel.
‘Wanting to put a bet on?’ The woman’s voice reached out to Edith and pulled her the rest of the way to the counter.
‘No, miss.’ Edith held her hands behind her back and squeezed them, encouraging herself on. ‘Gardenia sent me. Said I should ask for Carmel?’
‘Oh yeah?’ A raised eyebrow. The woman hopped off her seat and got close to the glass. ‘That’s me. How can I help?’
‘I’m looking for a job. I’m really trustworthy and I’ll work hard, miss.’ The words chased each other out of her mouth. Now empty, Edith sighed. Relieved.
‘It’s Carmel, love.’ Her eyes flicked up to the clock on the wall. ‘You’re gonna have to step aside for a sec.
Edith did as she was told and a bell went off. Two men sat scribbling in front of the screens rushed towards the counter. Edith watched as they pushed their betting slips and money under the glass at the same time. Carmel’s hands moved in a flash; taking their slips and cash, her fingers flew across a computer keyboard then returned each slip along with any change to their owners. The men rushed back to the screens as a second bell sounded out. ‘So, you’re taking over Malika’s room?’ Carmel stepped back from the glass and out of sight.
A door to Edith’s back opened and Carmel appeared. Her locs, so startlingly grey they were almost white, were braided elaborately into a ponytail that swept at her shoul- ders. Carmel looked at Edith. Really looked at her.
‘Yes, I only moved in today.’ Edith squeezed her hands again.
‘You good at numbers?’ Carmel put her hand on her hip, leaned against the door, and Edith knew then that this woman was younger than Gardenia, despite what her hair suggested. It was hard for Edith to guess her age. Or maybe it felt wrong to try.
‘I am.’ Edith made sure to look Carmel in the eyes, those knowing eyes, even though everything in her wanted to look at her feet.
‘What’s your timekeeping like?’ Edith wondered if this was the job interview. She hoped she was impressing Carmel.
The door to the bookies clattered open. The woman from the hair salon ran in from the street towards the counter holding her own betting slip.
Carmel held her palm up. ‘No. Nope. It’s not happening.’ The woman’s run slowed into heavy steps like she was wading through water. Edith could see now that it wasn’t just her eyes; all of her was beautiful.
‘Come on, Car. Please.’ Edith wanted the woman to say more so she could identify every note that lent itself to her harmony.
‘The second bell’s gone. I don’t make exceptions for anyone. Not even you, Mariah.’ Carmel folded her arms and leaned back against the counter.
Edith felt awkward but excitement traced its way up her back. Now she knew her name. Mariah.
‘But that’s the last race.’ Mariah pouted.
‘You’re free to play on the machines.’ Carmel used her chin to point towards the colourful slot machines.
‘Car, I only wanna put on a fiver. All this talking when you could’ve just put the bet on for me. The race ain’t even gone off yet.’ Edith didn’t know where to look. This felt like an exchange she shouldn’t be present for but hoped she could stay and listen to.
‘Mariah, I’m not playing this game with you. You know what time the races go off. If you don’t make it before that second bell goes, I don’t know what to tell you.’ Carmel’s tone was firm but loving. Like a mother’s might be.
‘Next time you come in, I’m gonna do your hair so tight.’ Mariah pointed her betting slip at Carmel. A smile in her eyes.
‘Do what you’re doing, Mariah.’ Carmel’s face spread out into a smile as she moved to pick up slips abandoned on the counter.
Mariah balled hers up and threw it towards a bin next to Edith. Her aim was perfect. The paper sailed through the air and landed neatly inside. Mariah winked at Edith. ‘See you on Saturday?’ Mariah asked, heading back towards the door.
‘You know it,’ Carmel called out.
‘It’s month’s end. So, come early if you’re coming.
Unless you wanna be in there all day.’
Carmel kissed her teeth long and loud. The door clattered shut behind her and Mariah was gone.
“She thought so much about how Mariah looked when she had come in. Mariah took up space, more space than Edith would dare. The air around her earlier had been heavy with clouds threatening to burst into angry rain. The hours trudged forwards and sometimes, Edith swore, backwards too”
Carmel shook her head as she came back to Edith, hands full of discarded slips, and deposited them in the bin. ‘She’s right, though. I’ll get there early.’ She laughed then and fixed Edith with a stare. ‘So, you. What’s your name again?’
‘Edith.’ She squeezed her hands. ‘Edith Harris.’
‘OK, Edith Harris. Come back tomorrow morning at eleven. I’ll give you a trial.’
‘Really?’ Edith’s eyes gleamed.
‘Why not? And take Miss Mariah as your first lesson.’ Her head nodded towards the door through which Mariah had walked. ‘No let no pretty woman, no pretty man come make you break my rules.
‘Go on. See you in the morning.’
‘Thank you.’ Edith started towards the door. ‘Tell Gardenia I’ll see her at church.’
Edith pushed open the front door and was met by an aroma so tantalising she could taste it. She toed off her shoes and moved through the house.
‘Wash your hands and come sit down.’ Gardenia was dishing up at the stove and when she turned around she had two plates in her hands piled high with stew chicken, rice and peas and macaroni and cheese.
The table was set for two. Edith wanted to cry.
Edith was looking down at a jewellery box on a kitchen counter. Inside, a ring, simple and unremarkable. Its stone as unappealing as the proposition it posed. The jewellery box snapped shut, gobbling her hand in one bite. She tried to cry out, but the ring’s stone covered her mouth. The box continued eating her arm, then her shoulder, her torso then her legs. The jewel- lery box took bites of her neck then swallowed her head whole. Edith snapped upright in her bed. Her eyes tried to pierce the darkness. Looking for light. Her breath leapt out of her, sharp and ragged. Her shoulders sagged and she lay back down.
She didn’t want to go back.
Eleven the next morning, Edith was standing outside Carmel’s. She was punctual. She’d been there ten minutes already, examining the drawn shutters. On them, Carmel had let some graffiti artists spray-paint a mural. ‘Carmel’s’ swirled in bold, bright colours.
‘My sons’ work, that.’ Edith heard Carmel’s voice before she saw her. She was approaching with a coffee in hand, her keys out. ‘He’s a big, serious man now. With a big, serious job.’ Carmel pushed her keys into a lock and the shutters ascended. ‘Coulda been a artist. But he just do the art ‘ting on the side. So smart, is my Lucas.
Edith didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing and smiled.
Edith’s morning passed in a blur. Carmel’s induction was rigorous, and Edith had to keep up. Carmel wasn’t going to make it easy for her; she needed to know her business was safe in Edith’s hands. Edith respected her. Edith learned how to put on bets and watched as Carmel paid out complicated winnings. Carmel’s clientele were mostly men of different ages, all of whom she was on a first-name basis with. Edith liked the familiarity and wanted to be rooted in it. Maybe she could be like Carmel one day. A woman who, on the surface at least, was calm, didn’t wring her hands when she was nervous. Edith let her hands go and made a conscious effort to keep them on her lap.
Time warped when the door clattered open and Mariah stormed in. The lightness she moved with the night before was gone. She marched up to the counter with her betting slip and cash. Edith was sweeping and tidying up the shop. She paused and hoped against hope to catch Mariah’s eye; maybe she’d secure herself one of Mariah’s smiles.
Mariah, though, was thunder and lightning.
‘I made it before your bell, Carmel. Please, put on my bet for the one fifteen.’
‘Good afternoon to you too.’ Carmel made the transaction look effortless.
‘Thanks,’ Mariah said, snatching the betting slip from under the glass. She headed back towards the door, focused only on her escape. It was almost as if she didn’t notice Edith. Disappointment sprouted in her belly.
‘No mind her,’ Carmel called out. ‘A so she stay.’ It wasn’t comforting.
The rest of Edith’s day felt like she was swimming through batter. She thought so much about how Mariah looked when she had come in. Mariah took up space, more space than Edith would dare. The air around her earlier had been heavy with clouds threatening to burst into angry rain. The hours trudged forwards and sometimes, Edith swore, backwards too. The end of the day wouldn’t come fast enough. Edith thought about how she could unknit Mariah’s brow, make whatever it was better. Every so often, she’d shake her head. Trying to dislodge this absurd thought. Then, at five thirty, there she was. Sailing through the door, free from whatever had made her thunder and lightning.
Mariah floated up towards the counter. ‘Hello, Carmel. Hello . . . ?’
‘Edith. My name’s Edith.’ She surprised herself with how quickly she gave that up to her. She wanted to hear her name in the other woman’s mouth.
‘Hello, Edith.’ Mariah smiled.
The hair on Edith’s forearms stood up to meet the syllables rolling across Mariah’s lips.
‘Sorry about before.’ Mariah dipped her head, abashed. ‘Mmm-hmm.’ Carmel smoothly stood up and took the betting slip Mariah had pushed through the glass. Putting it in the machine, she began counting money.
Sixty pounds and a receipt were pushed back through the glass into Mariah’s waiting hands.
‘Thank you, Car.’ Mariah slid another betting slip through the glass with a five-pound note.
‘I’m gonna let you do this one, Edith.’ Edith’s heart pounded in her chest so hard, so immediately terrified, she worried Mariah would hear it.
Edith was flustered but quickly inspected Mariah’s handwriting.
Five thirty-five, Haybridge, looped and cursive.
Six to one circled twice.
Queen Seaton to win.
Five pounds underlined twice.
Mariah fanned out her winnings, turned her back to the glass and held her phone aloft ready to pose for a selfie. Edith, focused on the task at hand, felt Carmel shift beside her.
Only then did she look up and see what Mariah was doing. The first bell sounded out.
Edith smashed enter on the keyboard.
She ducked out of the way of the camera’s flash. ‘You OK, love?’ Carmel asked.
‘Yes. Sorry.’ She tried to regain her composure. ‘I don’t like taking pictures.’
Mariah quickly put her money and betting slip away. ‘I’m sorry. I should have asked.’
‘No, it’s OK,’ Edith lied.
‘I have to get back.’ Mariah laughed nervously. ‘I’m sure that perm’s ready to come out now.’ Mariah tapped the glass. ‘Thank you, and see you later.’ Edith hoped she was talking specifically to her.
‘Later,’ Carmel called out to the woman leaving her shop. Edith’s heart dropped to her knees.
‘You can go home now,’ Carmel said as the second bell sounded out.
Worry must have been stretched across Edith’s face because Carmel put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. ‘You did well today. Come back tomorrow with your ID and NI number and we’ll get your paperwork sorted out.’ ‘I got the job?’ Edith’s eyebrows arched up on her face.
‘Yes. Now go before I change my mind.’
Edith was running along a station platform that moved. It was alive. She was desperately trying to find a door that would open and let her onto the waiting train. Something grabbing at her ankles. The platform was made of hands. One reached out and pulled her shoe from her foot. Another snatched at her ankle. She fell over and the hands were everywhere, pulling her back down the platform. She fought with everything in her and made it to her feet. She was off again, sprinting. She stopped at the next set of doors and beat on the button, then banged on the glass, hoping that someone on the train would help her. A rope of pure, blinding gold snapped towards her, sweeping her off her feet. Her face smashed into the hands. She was pulled back across the platform by the gold lasso around her waist. Screaming, she tried and failed to find purchase. She was sucked into darkness, her hollering swallowed up by its infinity.
Edith snapped up in her bed. Her hand whipped up to cover her mouth. She hoped that Gardenia had not heard her. Her chest heaved as she tried to get her breathing under control. Her heart squeezed. A tear landed on her naked thigh. Her head hit her pillow and the last thing she remembered when sleep claimed her was the wetness under her face.
She didn’t want to go back.
In the morning, Edith met Gardenia in the kitchen where she’d pushed open the doors out into the garden. ‘Good morning, child,’ Gardenia greeted Edith as she came to stand next to her.
‘Good morning.’ The outdoor space was so beautiful. The flowers planted along the edge of the garden were unashamed and opened themselves up to the sun.
‘I want you to come with me to my church dance on Saturday.’ Gardenia heaved herself from her seat and moved towards the kettle. ‘Ask Carmel ’bout it. The music and food real nice. You meet lots of nice people.’
Edith’s hands squeezed one another. ‘I’d like that,’ she said, unsure if she really would or if she didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings.
‘Why you don’t go see that Mariah?’ Gardenia was picking mint leaves from her windowsill and putting them in two mugs that waited patiently. ‘She could do your hair nice. Maybe you could buy a dress? Or you bring one?’
Edith’s mind raced. She didn’t know which question to answer first. She wanted to live in the idea of Mariah doing her hair.
Gardenia sliced the last of a spiced bun and laid the pieces on two plates. Butter and cheese. She handed Edith her plate and her tea. ‘Sit down and go on, go eat this so you belly no empty for work.’
Edith did as she was told.
‘Oh!’ Gardenia clapped her hands together. Delighted. ‘A night on the town.’
Edith smiled widely then blew on the boiling hot tea she wasn’t sure she wanted. Her mind bursting with possibilities.
Who’s Loving You?, edited by Sareeta Domingo, is out now via Orion Publishing