FIRST LOVE

One of my earliest memories is from Notting Hill Carnival. It was the mid-Seventies. I was four, maybe five years old. My dad picks me up...
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"Ella."

He holds my hands and spins me round. Faster, so my body flies, almost at right angles to the ground.

I gurgle a giggle.

Colours spin around my head: golden sun splinters; costumes spilling streaks of purple, red and saffron into the blue of the sky; and at the heart of it all, the colour of my dad's face, rich and dark.

My arms and shoulders ache. My cheeks are tired from the creases of my smile. My side is sore from laughing. But I don't want him to stop. I don't want him to put me down. I want to spin forever. Faster and faster. Until we spin so fast that we take off and spin into the sky towards the sun. Me and him together. Holding hands forever. Our own little dance.

When he puts me down, I'm too tired to move and I sit and wait and watch the women grill fish that they wrap in silver foil.

My mum (who is white) was apprehensive about letting me go. For her, Carnival represented unrest, disorder, violence.

But my dad (who's black) was insistent; eventually she relented. My dad wanted me to experience the raw creative energy of Carnival. It was his gift to me. A life force flowing from my roots. For him, Carnival was (and still is) about freedom, the freedom to express yourself.

Suddenly I feel my energy coming back. I jump up and run into the crowd and lose myself in a shady forest of legs. Dancing rhythm, like wind shuffling trees. A skirt swirls and fans a peacock's tail.

I stop.

A face lurches towards me. A grinning mask. Pale and hollow. It seems it's laughing at me. I turn around. I want my dad. I can't see him. Another face swoops down, leering at me and I feel as if I'm drowning in laughter and colour. It is all too loud. It seems heavy. I feel suffocated. Feathers falling on me. Streamers licking the wind. Fingering my face and tightening around my throat. And the music rising and falling. Horns, drums, rattles. Echoing jungle calls. The screeches of macaws and parakeets. No melody, only a tirade of sinister beats, pulsing like blood from a severed artery.

I am distracted. There is a face looking down at me. In a house, through a window. A little boy, about my age, is watching me. His face is pale and white. Now, in my mind, the image is like a sepia photo. I can almost see it fading and curling at the edges. Next to the glorious Technicolor of Carnival, he seems almost phantom-like - until he smiles. His smile brings him to life. It swings down to me like a song and I bounce it back.

In my ears, the noise has turned to music and I'm swallowing it, gulping it down. It oozes inside my body, beating with my heart. Until I feel the music is coming from within me, not outside. I feel as if I am creating it and when I give it voice, I hear it whispering to my hips and limbs.

Move, shake, swing.

I listen and let it move me.

In the same way I caught his smile, the little boy catches my dance. His movements are strange and spasmodic as if he's watching me and copying how I move, rather than feeling the music for himself.

It makes me laugh.

But he is not embarrassed - he knows my laughter is not malicious. In fact he seems encouraged by it. He starts to play the clown. Mocking his own ineptitude, he waves his arms and legs fitfully.

I'm laughing and dancing. He's wiggling and shuffling and grinning at me.

I sling my hips from side to side. He imitates me, throwing his body forwards and back. It becomes a game. I lead. He follows - always with comic exaggeration.

Our laughter rings out like the peal of wedding bells.

Then his mother appears. She pulls him away from the window. Pulls his body away, but his eyes stay with mine, still smiling - a cheeky impish grin - until she holds his jaw and yanks his head towards her, eyes and all. And she pulls the curtains shut on her safe, solid house, shutting out the colourful, Carnival chaos. Before I have a chance to wonder why, my mum and dad gather me into their arms and together, we float down the street on a free-flowing river of music and laughter.

Special edition stamps featuring Tim Hazael's photographs of Notting Hill Carnival are on sale in Post Offices from Tuesday. Hatty Skinner's first novel, 'Wasted' (written under the pseudonym Krissy Kays) is out now. 'Dirt Dogs & Diesel' is published, also by Penguin, next spring.

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