Okay, I am going to do something that you’re never actually meant to do, which is to share a novel before it is finished.
In February last year, I began writing a novel, Make Us Human, about race and immigration. There were only two problems with this. The first problem is that I hate writing about race. The second problem is that I hate writing about immigration. Like, I absolutely hate it. With a nuclear intensity. I took that intensity and started to write.
And then, 7,000 words into that novel, I stopped. Why did I stop? Because I hate writing about race and about immigration, and I knew that, if I finished this novel and it ended up being published anywhere at all, I was in danger of becoming the Race and Immigration Guy for the rest of my writing career. And I would hate that. And, most of all, I was too angry. And I really mean angry – I was clattering away at that poor keyboard. I would sit down in that flat and the fury would just come pouring forth, and it felt unhealthy. It didn’t feel like writing, it felt like rhetoric.
So why am I sharing this now? Because of Brexit. Yes, I know a lot of people voted Leave to regain the sovereignty of the UK, and yes, I know a lot of people voted Leave due to their disillusionment with the political establishment and their fears over pressure on local services. But there were also a lot of people who voted Leave because they just hated foreigners, and I’m not even going to sit here and argue that case anymore, because it’s pretty much all that I have done in much of my political commentary for the last few years and I am tired of falling out with my friends on Facebook.
So here it is. The opening chapters of “Make Us Human”, a novel I was too angry to finish; if you find it of interest, please share it. The story is based in the late 1990s in West Drayton, a dull suburb of West London; it’s the tale of a British Ugandan family quietly trying to make their way in the UK. It’s also the tale of two teenage brothers, Danny and Michael Okello; Danny, the narrator, is fully aware of the growing anti-immigration sentiment in the country, but Michael, to his cost, is oblivious.
Make Us Human.
You don’t fucking want us here. It’s OK – we get it. We know. And we know that you never really did. What it made it OK before was that we were only a few drops of rainfall to you, as irritating yet ultimately tolerable as the damp toes of either sock. But there are more of us now, the water’s higher, and you have to pay attention. And you fucking hate it. Don’t worry – don’t worry. We fucking hate it too.
The only problem is that there’s nowhere for us to go. We can’t go back to Africa – that wormhole’s fucking closed. Back to Uganda, if you really must know. Idi Amin came after my parents with machetes and they took the fucking hint. Came here and kept a low profile. Studied hard and sucked it up, just like the good immigrants do. Got solid jobs and always smiled the brightest at office parties. “Look at that cute black couple”, their colleagues probably thought. “They might look different but underneath they’re just like us.” Except they weren’t just like them because Mrs. Carter who sat opposite my mum in the typing pool never had her best mate dragged out in front of the class and raped and Mr. Williams who played with my dad in the law firm five-a-sides had never seen what Ugandan dictators slowly and gleefully did to footballers they didn’t like. And Mum and Dad never told Mr. Carter and Mr. Williams anything, not really, they spared them, and I actually said to them once, I can’t believe I was this bold, I said to them “one day you’ll pay for this, we all will. Because we make them think it’s been easy. Mum, Dad, you make it look too easy. Maybe you should complain. Because all these people around us think that the pain wasn’t real. And why should they? None of it’s been written down. None of it’s been on the TV. They don’t know how you’ve suffered. If they did they would respect you more.”
“Daniel, Daniel”, Dad had sighed, as Mum shook her head. “No-one gives you a medal for living a hard life.”
“Well, maybe they should”, I said, feeling stupid even as I said it, and looking across at Michael, who was suddenly studying each cornflake in his bowl in minute detail. “Maybe there should be – I don’t know – a national remembrance day for refugees or something. So people can actually know what you went through.”
“But what for?”, said Mum, sliding my empty plate away from me. “Why are we special? Everybody suffers.”
“But not like you, Mum”, I said, in a tone that was almost pleading. “Not like you.”
Not like us, I realise now. Not like us. Because this is what you did. You came and you told us all the rules, so fucking many of them, and we followed them all, we jumped as high as you ordered, we scraped as low, lower, than our dignity would go, and what did you do after all that? You took the very best of us, you soiled our jewel, you broke us, you really fucking broke us. And I warned everyone you would do this, I warned Mum, I warned Dad, I warned Michael, but they all gave me that look, that Daniel-you’re-too-paranoid, and now those who are left of us are still here, with the tears and the regret and the fists that aren’t strong enough to break the things that they need to, or strong enough to drag things back to the way they were. And things were good, they were so good – they weren’t perfect, and that was best of all, because they were improving, they were on their way somewhere. And now all that’s gone, and I’ve just gone through the hollowness of the horror, and the rage is with me, the fucking rage, and my eyes and my nose are filled and the blank page is cowering underneath me because though it knows that though I need to write I don’t want to, I want to take this pen and stab the fuck out of it but, but I must write, I must write through the grief, because people need to know how hard this was, I must write, I must write. Because people need to know, and most of all you.
Michael had the top bunk. I don’t actually remember how that came about, the same way people still can’t tell you who was the true forerunner, the chicken or the egg. The top bunk was Michael’s and that was that. This was how big brothers worked – they asserted their view of the world and all their surrounding inferiors fell dutifully into line. Often, too, they would even alter certain uncomfortable truths, in order to fit a more satisfying narrative. Now, I’m not saying that Michael behaved like some unscrupulous imperial historian, but every now and then he did display a flexible relationship with the facts. For example, anyone who attended Langley Grammar School with both of us in the early 1990s would know that it was I, and not he, who first snogged Theresa McClean. Theresa, argh. Half-Jamaican and half-Scottish, golden skin and amber curls. Skirt stopping halfway down thighs, calves pulsing through the tops of her socks. Are you mad? No way she should have looked at me over Michael but one afternoon she did. There were three of us standing about having a cigarette and we each wanted a second and I offered her my last. She looked in the upturned packet and saw that Marlboro Light in there all by itself and something in her must have turned because Theresa was hard back then, not yet mean, that came later, and she said “fuck, Daniel, you’re alright you know, you’re really alright.” And right there, in front of Kelly Ripley, you can call her as a witness, she took my neck in the crook of her right arm and pulled me towards her, into the long slow syrup of her tongue, and for all all of six breath-held seconds we were beyond the spiteful afternoon wind and Kelly wailing “what the fuck, he’s only a kid”, and I was in a place of softness and kindness so terrifying not only because I feared it never existed, least of all in a heart like Theresa McClean’s, but also because I feared once we came apart I would never find it again. And sure enough – when our lips separated, the taste of that warmth was gone, as sharp and swift as the aftermath of a mouthful of cranberry juice. She snatched that cigarette, and finished it, and I didn’t see her again for two weeks.
In the meantime, Michael had quickly heard about all this, and given his own designs upon Theresa was suitably devastated. Of the two of us, Michael was the more obviously romantic, and so was both frustrated that I had beaten him to it and appalled by the opportunistic nature of my conquest. “So that was it – you just snogged her?” he asked, bewildered. “You didn’t even take her to see a film?” I shook my head. “Or – or bowling?”
“Nope”, I shrugged, somewhat smugly. We both knew it – if you were a teenager in Slough at that time, kissing Theresa McClean carried the same kudos as if you’d first set foot on the Moon. For days afterwards in the school corridors, older boys who’d never noticed me before gave me solemn nods of acknowledgement. People offered me fist-bumps and pats on the back, each of which I graciously accepted. Of course, Michael found all this infuriating.
“So you’re famous”, he said one afternoon, once it had got too much. “Theresa is out of your league, you know.”
“Obviously not,” I said proudly.
“Obviously not, obviously not.”
“Look, take the piss all you want. But what happened, happened. Facts are facts.” At which Michael had frowned. “No, see, that’s the thing”, he replied. “It didn’t happen. I don’t want to think about a world where it happened. So it didn’t.”
“Michael that’s ridiculous.”
“Exactly, it’s ridiculous. There’s no way Theresa McClean could have chosen the younger, uglier Okello brother while the handsome one was on the same campus. So, it didn’t happen.”
“Michael – ”
“How many witnesses were there, anyway?” he asked, stroking his chin as he looked away into the middle distance. Only Kelly. And Theresa’s not talking about it.” This was true. Theresa was notably monkish in discussing her sexual exploits, widely rumoured though they were.
“But Kelly – ”
“Kelly’s not credible either”, continued Michael. “Kelly was so ashamed that her boyfriend had dumped her as soon as he got to uni that she told everyone that they were on a break while he went travelling round the world. Which was news to everyone who saw him a week later in a Reading nightclub with his hand up the new girl’s shirt.”
“But Kelly wouldn’t lie about her friend’s business like that – ”
“Why not? Kelly likes a story as much as the next student”, argued Michael, saying student as though he were a disapproving magistrate. “And who says Theresa is Kelly’s friend? Theresa doesn’t have friends. That girl is a ghost.”
This was true. Looking into Theresa’s gaze was like peering over the fence into an exquisitely-kept private garden: it was beautiful to behold, but you knew you had no business there. Wherever Theresa went, she floated without trace, as elegant and fleeting as a late-autumn afternoon.
“Look Michael, say what you like about Kelly, but this is stupid. I know what went on. I was there.”
“Were you?” He smiled, slyly. “Are you sure you didn’t just make it up? Being eager to please?”
For a moment, I was suddenly, strangely unsure of myself.
“Haha, piss off”, I laughed, perhaps too loudly; because, somewhere in my certainty, Michael had pulled a thread loose. And so the weeks went by, and Theresa reappeared but ignored me; and whenever I brought up the kiss Michael denied, denied, denied, and I quietly found myself wondering if it had ever even occurred at all.
For the first five years of my life, I wasn’t entirely sure that my father existed. He seemed as much a myth as the kiss I had allegedly shared with Theresa McClean. If I woke early enough or stayed awake sufficiently late I would hear the front door creak apologetically open, the signal that he was heading to or from the office that claimed most of his days. As I grew older, I treated his appearances at home with the reverence some would reserve for celebrities. Looking back, I’m not sure how much he or Mum appreciated this. Mum worked more reasonable hours, and so she saw Michael and I all the time, and therefore at our worst; while Dad encountered us mostly at weekends, and though perhaps flattered by my attention was too exhausted to do anything meaningful with it. Instead, he spent most of Saturday and Sunday next to the radio, where he silently and slowly recharged with the aid of huge servings of red kidney beans, chupati and chicken. He spent the rest of those afternoons asleep, with my mother often wandering in to remove his shoes long after he had dozed off. As a result, it was often very difficult to extract any information about this stranger in my living room, and so for answers I pestered Michael, who was three years older than me and for whom the novelty of Dad’s presence had long since worn off.
“Michael, what’s Dad like?”
“What do you mean, what’s Dad like?”
“I mean what’s his favourite colour. What food does he like.”
“Daniel that’s a stupid question.”
“Questions. I asked two questions.”
Michael rolled his eyes.
“Questions. Stupid questions”, said Michael, in a tone that was presumably supposed to be firm and final, but I was undeterred. “They’re not stupid”, I said.
“Well why don’t you ask him?”
“Because he’s never awake and when he is awake he gets angry with me and I get shy.”
I had drawn Dad something once – a tractor. It was red and and yellow, like one of those Tonka ones, and I had left it out on the living room table for when he got back from work. I labelled it with his name, which I had assumed was Dad, and wanted to see what he thought. It was there for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine days. After five days I asked Mum if she could tell Dad it was there and after ten days she gave it back to me. “You should take care of this Daniel, you’ll lose it”, she said, pressing it back into my unwilling palms.
“But it’s for Dad.”
“I know”, she said, cupping my cheeks in her hands, “I know. You should save it for when he is less busy.”
But Dad was never less busy. And Michael had known this, which is why he had looked across at his five-year old brother who was asking stupid questions and realised that he had better get there quickly or he was going to do the first thing that boys learn to be ashamed of. And as I saw Michael run across the room towards me, I realised in horror in turn that the speed of his feet was not as great as the speed of my tears, and the room drifted away from me through a warm, humiliating glaze.
Over the years, I came to see that Dad was best communicated with via Michael. At times it was as if my father was a disobedient piece of technology and Michael was the only mechanic who could activate him. I could wander over to Dad three or four times during the same Saturday afternoon and ask him how the match was going, receiving either a grunted reply or silence. Meanwhile, all Michael would have to do was yell “Score?” from the hallway and Dad would suddenly sit upright, reeling off a two-minute summary of the match thus far. Mum would notice this, though not without a smile. “Your father spends so much time in his own head”, she explained to me once, “that often the only person he speaks to is himself”. Michael looked so much like Dad that sometimes that’s what he thought he was doing.
Mum would laugh at how alike Michael and my father were. We were all tall, the three men in the family, but it was only my brother and Dad who shared the same expression when at rest – a frown into the middle distance, as if they had just seen smoke advancing over a distant hill. Dad’s nose for trouble was notorious. Back in Uganda, when people were only slowly waking to the terror of Idi Amin, Dad knew. “Stay away from the dormitories today”, he’d told four of his schoolmates, as they’d sat in town on their lunch break. “Don’t go back. Let’s hang out.” Everyone had laughed at him, except Alfred Agoga. Dad and Alfred had remained in town till the next day, skipping class, playing cards and then sleeping in the shadow of the local bus stop. Meanwhile, the other three had returned earlier that evening, to find an escort of soldiers awaiting them with bayonets. They were never seen again.
Mum had told me and Michael the above story, like most of the others about our family: in the old days, back in Uganda, she would have been one of the tribe’s oral historians, capable of flawless recall of decades-old conversations. She had a Jay-Z of a memory: I never saw her write anything down to help her remember it, not shopping lists, nothing. Yes; in more momentous times she would have been hailed as a great sage, maybe even a prophet, dutifully bearing the secrets of entire worlds between her ears. Here, though, in the West London suburb of Yiewsley, Mum’s gift was mostly a pain in the arse. When she went on holiday, her fellow secretaries at the local health centre would often call the house in various states of agitation, since Mum had yet again failed to leave behind a copy of that week’s rota that she assumed everyone else carried round in their heads.
But back to Dad, who always managed to slip out of the picture if you let him. It’s not fair to say that I didn’t resemble him at all; just that I looked like his nephew rather than his son. My skin was slightly lighter than his, and my nose was a little broader and flatter in definition, as if Nature was telling me that I would be even better able to sniff for danger. I also had his hands, those Okello hands, with which I could easily palm a basketball. But as for Dad and Michael – their similarities were uncanny. It was as if God had fallen asleep when supervising the production line and had accidentally churned out a clone. When I ate too much, you could see the weight race to all corners of my frame, with the same urgency of a drop of ink over blotting paper. But Dad and Michael were eternally thin. It was incredible that two figures so skeletal could consume such large amounts. Watching them feed was akin to witnessing a physical miracle, like seeing a sack of flour being successfully stuffed into the top of a bamboo shoot. “Where does it all go?” Mum would ask, though not without pride. “Eh! You boys can eat.”
That’s as closely as me, Michael and Dad ever bonded: when we leaned back in our seats after a sleep-inducing feast of kwon, red kidney beans and chicken in peanut butter sauce, pimples of sweat around our temples, exhausted as men who’d just uprooted a field of sugar cane with their bare hands. The smiles we shared then were a thing of rare elation: “we did good, lads”, it said, “we did good”. After such Sunday afternoon triumphs, though, Michael and Dad would evaporate with my mother’s blessing, off to watch a local game of football: an obsession that they shared, and a plague that I had largely avoided.
Out of guilt, I would help Mum with the dishes, and then the two of us would sit in the living room, accompanied by a stack of books. Mum would typically read something about history, whilst I would opt for a detective novel, the Hardy Boys or Hitchcock. I never understood Mum’s fever for studying the past, given that she had spent so much unpleasant time in it already. If I’d seen what she’d seen in Uganda, you couldn’t have catapulted me into the future fast enough. Once I’d subtly tried to steer her reading habits forward by a few thousand years, casually passing her some short stories by Isaac Asimov that a friend had lent me. After browsing a few pages, she’d handed the collection back to me, glaring at me over the top of her glasses with the hostility of a traffic warden.
“This is science fiction”, she’d said accusingly. “Robots and what-not.”
“Yes”, I’d admitted. “I – ”
“New things, new things. You people always want to think about new things.”
You people. She always said that! You people. As if there were billions of other Earth-dwellers, oblivious to their folly, and it was only Mum, in the dimly-lit corner of her own lounge, fighting the world’s good fight.
“Asimov is very good”, I’d said, suddenly feeling as though I was giving a book report at school. “In his writings, he predicts all kinds of things that come true.”
“Predictions, predictions. What does he predict about Uganda?”
“What – what do you? – well, nothing! But that’s not the point – ”
“He doesn’t care about Uganda? That doesn’t sound like any kind of writing for me.”
“It’s not that he doesn’t care about Uganda, he just doesn’t write about it – ”
“You people don’t write about Uganda, and you don’t think about it.” She’d tapped her stack of books. “All the things that have happened there are still happening there.” She’d waited for me to answer, but I had nothing. “Well then”, she’d said, returning to her book with a triumphant snort. “Asimov.”
Mum could be stubborn as hell. I suppose Michael and I owed our existence to that. Years ago, when she and our father had first met, she’d had what you could call a reverse Rosa Parks moment. When travelling down from Gulu to Kampala to start the school term, boys and girls were allocated their seats on the inter-city coach by alphabetical order. My mum, whose surname began with A, ignored this minor inconvenience when she saw that Solomon Okello, of whom she decidedly liked the look, was due to sit several rows behind her. And so, in protest at this absurd state of affairs, she promptly went and sat next to him at the back of the bus.
“Akot!” called the coach driver, when they were shortly due to set off on the six-hour coach journey. “Margaret Akot.”
“She’s here, she’s here”, called Clara Ocheng, in a voice that barely hid her anguish. She had her own designs on Solomon, and the fate of the alphabet seemed to have brought them together. But here, right in her seat, was Margaret Akot, arms folded and scowling obstinately out of the window, spoiling all of Providence’s well-laid romantic plans. Solomon, my father-to-be, saw that there was to be no negotiating with Margaret, and stared forwards and upwards, presumably at an approaching cloud of smoke. Clara, distraught, was dispatched to sit alongside the far less eligible Godfrey Bwoyo.
Mum and Dad had got to know each other on that odyssey south; though, as Mum later recalled, it hadn’t been easy going. Solomon, whilst initially flattered by Margaret’s attention, had no idea what to do now that he was in the crosshairs of her desire. The first few questions that she asked him were met with two stages of silence: first confusion, as he pondered how best to evade this irritatingly attractive new travelling companion, and then resolution, as he decided that, no, he would not entertain this threat. Looking back, I think Dad knew even then that the moment he opened his mouth it would be over, that the second he spoke he would succumb to the narrative that Mum had long since planned. And so he spent several hours gazing over her shoulder as the countryside of Northern Uganda rattled past, and his monkish vigil might have lasted all the way to Kampala if Mum, by now somewhat desperate, hadn’t brought up the subject of football.
“You like football, don’t you”, she’d said, almost resentful that she’d had to refer to the sport.
“Yes”, he’d said, refusing to make it easy for her. Still, thought Margaret, at least he’s talking now, this is progress.
“You have a favourite team, don’t you.”
“Which one is it?”
Guess, he dared her with a sideways glance. She thought of the few names she thought she knew. “Gulu FC.” Solomon shook his head. “Sporting Jinja.”
“Those last two weren’t even real names”, he’d smirked. “You don’t know a thing about football.”
“Solomon!” she’d said, in a sudden blend of anger and anxiety. “How is this supposed to work if you don’t even try?”
Wait, what? How was what supposed to work? thought Solomon. Were they already part of a thing? What was that thing? To his dismay, he was already answering.
“Margaret, I’m so sorry, I – ”
“Solomon I’m going to be in so much trouble when we get to Kampala because there are such strict rules on where we’re meant to sit, and I made such a fuss to sit next to you because I thought it would be so nice. And all you can do is mumble at me.”
Solomon now wanted to speak more than ever but his mouth was overcome by an unaccountable dryness. He heard sniggers from the seats around him. James Obee, who was sitting in the row ahead of them, turned round and knelt on his seat, tapping Solomon lightly on the top of the head. “Come on Solmon”, he said, smiling broadly, “talk to her”. And then, with a devious wink in Margaret’s direction, “or I will”.
“OK, OK”, stammered Solomon, to both James and Margaret, but mostly to himself. “What do you want to know about football?”
Margaret beamed, and relaxed. As she did so, her shoulders dropped a full two inches, and Solomon realised that they must have been that taut the entire journey. “I’m sorry”, he said, almost under his breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” She put one palm on his forehead, and drew it back over his scalp. “And I want to know whatever you know about it. Just talk.”
“OK”, said Solomon, “OK”, and then he saw his father loom into view outside the coach window, furiously waving a raised fist at him from among the racing trees, don’t you dare answer me back Solomon, don’t you DARE answer me back; and then he looked back at Margaret, and her eyes were deep as pools of stars, and his old man disappeared.
“Ha,” he sighed. “Well, there is one player my father loved. His name was Okot p’Bitek.”
Okot p’Bitek: among our tribe, he was as acclaimed as a plate of plantain or posho. A poet, singer, dancer, drummer, dissident, teacher, lecturer, theatre director, international footballer and Olympic athlete, he was the son every parent wanted and the man every younger brother silently resented. His peers regarded him as a folk hero, and it was over tales of both his sporting feats and his acts of political mischief that Mum and Dad eventually bonded. Okot was renowned for his mockery of authority, which in that intensely murderous era made him one of the bravest practical jokers who ever lived.
Mum and Dad still loved Okot now, and had a large photo of him in that most sacred of Northern Ugandan cultural spaces, the front room. There he was, just a few feet above the television, peering out of that silver-and-bronze setting like some kind of African Han Solo. Every now and then, when you caught eye contact with him, you felt though he was about to begin and then win an intensely academic argument. His enviably resilient hairline and his soft cheekbones framed an accusing stare, the type a teacher might give you if you suspiciously slurred your speech just after your lunch-break.
Though Okot hadn’t been that much older than Mum and Dad, they ended up outliving him by several years. He’d died back in 1982, at the age of just fifty-two, succumbing to a stroke. In doing so, he was yet another one of Africa’s proudest sons who passed away with perhaps decades of their best work still ahead of them. Okot’s early demise seemed especially unfair. After the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979, he’d returned to Uganda and had just settled into a teaching role when Fate came for him. In some of her more nostalgic moments, Mum would wonder aloud how different the continent would have been if some of its greatest leaders had made it to old age. “Eh! Oyite-Ojok!” she would say, referring to the remarkable commander who had deposed Amin. “So clever! You could not catch Ojok.” She shook her head. “And Biko, Lumumba, Sankara, Luwum! They were impossible.”
It was maybe strange to see Mum and Dad still taken by Okot’s revolutionary zeal, given that their faith and politics were one that he would probably have rejected. My parents were monarchists, who would venture out to a rain-whipped central London to attend a royal procession; while Okot had railed against the effects of colonisation with every cell of his being. By the time of his death, Okot had long since left religion behind him; while every Sunday morning, Mum and Dad attended Yiewsley Methodist Church as faithfully as the sun attends the sky. And so here were Mum and Dad, two God-fearing suburban Tories, watched over in their living room by Okot, a fiercely leftist secular saint.
Though they shared Okot’s passion for Uganda, they had a far greater stomach for exile than he ever did. In many ways, their adaptation to their new habitat was remarkable. They had come from a land of slowly-baked sandstone to one of snarling concrete; in Uganda, the end of a street had meant the beginning of a rustling, sugar cane-filled field, and in England the end of a street merely meant the beginning of another. Mum complained so little, though, that you would have thought she was living in terraced heaven. Meanwhile, Dad showed slightly greater signs of his discontent. Sometime, when the sun briefly deigned to emerge over our suburb, Dad would gaze up at it with a look of pained betrayal. Sadly, the sun had been a reluctant immigrant to British shores. Perhaps it felt more welcome elsewhere; maybe it was having a better time searing the soil of more accepting countries. Whatever its reasons, it was one of the few who hadn’t packed its bags for less violent climes during Amin’s years. Instead, it had stayed to witness him slash his way through the flesh of his enemies, to warm his shoulders as he worked.
Unimpressive weather aside, life in West Drayton really suited Mum and Dad. It was that most British of locations: it was convenient. It was pretty much the first stop that any newcomer found when they tumbled out of Heathrow Airport, and no-one had heard of it. There was a West Drayton, but no North, South or East: this was because, as someone once cruelly joked, that after finishing work on the West the builders simply gave up in horror. This may have seemed unfair, but it was notable that the town did have suspiciously excellent transport links, almost as though it was constantly encouraging you to leave. There was a train line that rattled swiftly into London or out towards Cornwall, there were buses aplenty, you were only a few miles from the borders of the M4 and the M25; and, if you were feeling especially desperate and flush with cash, there was for many years a Concorde that could spirit you away to New York.
Despite all these slightly aggressive hints to escape West Drayton, not that many people actually did. That’s why I think Mum and Dad liked it. When you’re raising a family, one of the understated qualities of an area is the consistency of your immediate surroundings. Where you live may not necessarily be peaceful, but it’s good to know what you can expect for your children on a daily basis. West Drayton was great because it was a place where black people could go under the radar. There weren’t enough of us for the bulk of white residents to feel that we were staging some kind of gradual conquest, that we were trying to terraform the town into Uganda-upon-Thames.
Well – I say under the radar, but that’s not strictly true. Something seemed to have been happening the last couple of summers, like all of a sudden people were paying attention to us. And by people I mean police, and by us I meant me.
So, me and the police. I guess it began in about 1994. One July afternoon, sitting with my older cousin Janani at a local bus stop, I saw one of their cars slide up the high street. Seeing us on their way past, they slowed and turned back on themselves, rolling into the vacant bus lane.
“Christ”, said Janani, sucking air in through his teeth. He’d known how this was going to go. “Look, Danny”, he said, “keep calm.”
“Keep calm, for what?”
Janani looked at me as though I’d just suggested skipping barefoot through a minefield. “Trust me, you’ll see.”
The two police – a woman, probably in her early thirties, and a man, a few years younger – got out of the car. The man was on the passenger side, and so he was closer to the pavement, and to us. He was almost five-nine, which at that point was an inch taller than me, but he didn’t look likely to grow any more in his life. His pectoral muscles looked like they were trying to punch their way out of his white shirt, and his slightly-too-short black trousers flared out over the ankles of each dark, sullen boot. He hadn’t bothered to close the door, and his peaked cap rolled about on the vacant car seat behind him. His hair was a soft, milky blonde, a brimming field of lambswool, and his eyes were a surprisingly gentle blue.
“Have you ever been arrested, Sir?”
He was looking directly at me. He had one thumb tucked behind his belt, and as he spoke he opened out and extended his right palm, as though hoping to catch my reply.
“What?” I almost coughed.
“Danny – ” hissed Janani. “Remember – ”
“I said have you ever been arrested Sir?”
At once I became aware that there were other people at the bus stop, and that they were all listening. Apart from Janani, who was simmering to my right, there were three others: an elderly white man, who was staring ahead with such intense indifference that he was clearly straining to hear every word, an elderly white woman, who was gazing at us in bemusement, and a white boy, about my age, who was dressed as if on his way to an idle day on the beach. He was chewing his way through a cluster of bubblegum, and watching me as if through the glass of an aquarium.
The policeman was still awaiting a response.
“I’m fourteen”, I said, in a tone that sounded something like begging, and for which I immediately hated myself. The policeman smiled and allowed his right thumb to join the other one behind his belt.
“I’ve arrested younger ones like you.” He tilted his head back slightly, his mouth streaked with something like pride.
“Can we help you?” asked Janani. He addressed his question to the man’s partner, who had sauntered round the side of the patrol somewhat deliberately, as if waiting for my interrogator to make the initial attack. The policeman looked up at Janani.
“Big lad”, he said thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” said Janani, and then paused, looking down. “Someone’s got to do it.”
The elderly woman burst out laughing. The old man stared furiously ahead and the boy gulped his gum. The policeman flinched forward and was about to say something back but then he noticed the policewoman grinning and checked himself. I looked up at Janani too. Yes, he was big; and he never made any effort to scale it back. You could most often find him in his Houston Rockets tracksuit, an outfit of red, gold and white that he wore in vague homage to his hero Hakeem Olajuwon. He was nineteen then, and looked just too short to make the NBA; he was a humble six-foot-four, rounded off by a thicket of dreadlocks that added an extra two inches.
Janani peered down at us along those jagged cheekbones of his, the ones his ancestors had given him to jut out at times like this. Yes, big lad; and Janani was very dark-skinned too, the kind of dark that either made you preemptively and perfectly polite to police officers, or which meant that you just didn’t give a fuck.
The policewoman had now arrived alongside her partner. Unlike him, she was wearing her cap. She must have been about five-ten, and had these large hazel eyes which blinked so little that looking into or away from them made you feel equally awkward. The sharp edges of her auburn hair rattled down over her collar like the teeth of a portcullis. She spoke.
“Can you let us know what you’re doing in the area?”
She was looking at me but Janani answered.
“We’re cousins”, he said, reaching around my back and softly palming my left shoulder in his left hand. “He lives here, I’m visiting him.”
“Where do you live?” she asked me. Janani nodded.
“Just off Falling Lane,” I said. “You know near Rabbsfarm school? Just by the fields.”
“Yes, yes, I know it”, she said, somewhat irritated. There was a clear severity in her voice which, weirdly enough, almost made me warm to her. At least she was being honest about trying to screw us. I was going to say more, but she impatiently waved away my next sentence with her hand. “Where are you visiting from?” she asked Janani.
“London”, he replied.
“That’s a big place”, she said, hoping for more detail.
She sighed, and then looked at her partner, who shook his head. Their little show had lost momentum. Up the road, our bus was beginning to draw into view.
“Better get going, Brenda”, said the policeman, which caused her to glare at him. “What?” he said, retreating towards the car.
“You”, she said, pointing first at me then Janani, in a suddenly comical manner that seemed straight out of primary school. “Stay out of trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am”, said Janani, breaking into a smirk, and holding it. She got behind the wheel, and moved off. The policeman stared at Janani, even turning back towards him to maintain eye contact, until the patrol car was out of sight.
Relieved, we clambered aboard the bus to Uxbridge.
“That was nuts”, I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“You OK, Danny?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, but my shoulders were shuddering. I could still feel the white boy’s eyes on me, quietly judging. “I mean, I guess, they must have thought we looked shifty, or something.”
“Shifty”, said Janani, shaking his head. “Bruv, you’ve got a lot to learn.”
“I mean”, I said, “I mean, you have been in trouble with police before Janani. Graffiti and stuff.”
“Haha, Danny. Danny,” said Janani. “As if they would know that! That was in Camden. And look who they came after. They came after you. Why was that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they just – ”
“Whatever, Danny,” he interrupted. “Don’t act like you don’t see it. You already do.”
I wasn’t ready to say the truth out loud, and I couldn’t find a conveniently comfortable change of subject: and so we settled into silence, as the bus meandered through the backstreets.
Do you know what being a refugee is like? No? Well, neither do I, really. I was born in the UK. But from talking to Mum, and from watching Dad, I think that leaving your home country has all the trauma of talking a walk in space. I don’t know if you’ve seen that film – 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. There’s a scene towards the end of that movie which, in my view, precisely depicts the refugee experience. The hero, an astronaut, is trapped outside his ship; and in order to save himself, he has to drift towards the ship’s airlock, through deep space, without a helmet. For a brief eternity, he floats through that vicious void, the vacuum clawing each breath from his lungs: and then, desperate yet undeterred, he somehow reaches safety. That astronaut, David Bowman, knew what it was to be a refugee. You set off from a familiar shore, and you grope through oblivion in search of a calmer harbour; and you know, all the while, that you’re probably not meant to make it.
Auntie April didn’t make it. I mean, she arrived in the UK straightforwardly enough, but after a few months here the person she was was long gone. April was Dad’s older sister, by a couple of years; a smart student at school, she had been slated for some kind of elite career, probably in the diplomatic service. The war had caught her during her second year at university, and she had been forced to evacuate a few months after Dad. Judging from that old headshot of her in our living room, propped up behind a crystal bowl near Dad’s drinks cabinet, she was something of a village beauty too. She had a shimmering afro, a soft, dark halo that reached tenderly out into the air around it; and she didn’t quite have the family nose, since hers was slightly longer and thinner (“you’re Sudanese”, they’d teased her at school). Her widened eyes were fixed in a sort of oddly knowing sorrow.
Having been separated from her friends and family during that war, April hadn’t contacted Dad till almost a year later. Having just started university, he’d received a call in his halls from a detention centre near Heathrow, and had jumped in a taxi at once, thus busting much of his budget for that week. He had found her there, but she was not herself: her hair, now the colour of rust, was short and patchy, as though afraid to make its way out of her scalp. His sister, a debating champion whose voice had once seared the timber of Kampala’s finest debating chambers, now spoke in a parched, cracked whisper; and the only thing Dad had truly recognised about her was the melancholy of her eyes, which finally made perfect and heartbreaking sense.
Maybe April was a prophet: maybe she’d known all along that the guillotine would drop towards her future one day, and that she wouldn’t be able to get her neck out of the way in time. The council had moved her into a flat near Dad’s home, and every Sunday they would take her to church over in Yiewsley, where she’d arrange flowers for a couple of hours before the service. April loved flowers. They were the only thing left in the world as gentle as she was. Seeing this, Mum would go round to hers every so often with a fresh supply of daffodils and lilies, April’s favourite; Dad pretended to be upset about the bill that Mum was running up, but that was just his way of showing vigorous enthusiasm. Whenever Dad was outraged at your behaviour, it was his coded way of saying: Look, my old man would have killed me for this, but if you defy me that’s just another step towards freedom. (At least, that’s what I learned to tell myself; it made his disapproval so much easier to absorb.)
Each Sunday Mum would help April to get dressed, and on a pleasant day would walk her part of the way to church before catching the bus. It was a little sad to see that April, even though she only had five years on Mum, faltered along as anxiously as an ailing grandmother, as if grateful for every new step she was allowed to take. She always had the same combination of clothing – black penny loafers, a long skirt of bright, corrugated nylon, and a blouse with a floral pattern, over which she wore a cardigan of thin, white wool. Lastly, in a concession to whatever ordeal her hair had suffered in Uganda, she wore a cream headscarf that shrouded everything from her neck to the very beginning of her forehead.
Of course, Auntie April’s experiences in Uganda were not freely discussed with Michael and I – in fact, they were not discussed with us at all. She sat with us at family meals, and I thought I saw in her timidity an embarrassment at who she now was. Dad didn’t make it any better. As if to impress upon Michael and I that April really had been a big deal in her youth, he would start telling stilted, rambling stories about what a wonderful pupil she had been. “Ah, ah, April”, he would say, in that plodding bassline of his. “The other girls and boys used to fear her. In class she was always the best! Everyone else was fighting for Number Two.”
Whenever Dad went on like this I could see Mum wince, and Michael try to divert the conversation. It felt unwittingly cruel, as if Dad was sitting with an ageing, punch-drunk boxer and playing him tapes of himself in his prime. Once I saw Auntie April raising her soup spoon to her mouth, and it had got three-quarters of the way there when her eyes glistened with something: maybe the thought of a world where her life had surged gloriously forward, untouched by the monsoon of blood that Amin had brought down upon Uganda. As Auntie April had quivered her spoon towards her mouth, maybe she saw it all, what she could and should have had: her well-polished Mercedes gliding silently home after work, where she was awaited by her husband, a successful playwright, and their charming young daughter. Seeing her eyes, I had to release her somehow.
“More bread, Auntie?” I had asked, offering her the basket.
“Oh, thank you Daniel,” she’d said, almost scrambling across the table for it.
“Very good”, Dad had said, similarly relieved. “Very good”.
Dad wasn’t always awkward around Auntie April, though. I just think he felt he had to put on a show for us. Sometimes, so that Auntie had company, he would bring her over and they would sit in the living-room together, while Dad put on those old soukouss records that she’d adored in her youth. They’d rest on the same sofa, shoulder to shoulder, gazing out into that peaceful suburban side-road, and we’d leave them to it: two tranquil siblings, with something slightly torn but unyielding between them, both clutching at something of home.