How the legacy of Windrush took its toll on two brothers growing up in the UK
It was the summer of 2008. I had not seen Ronald for 10 years. I had not seen him since I escaped to university and became the only one of five siblings to get a degree. I had been running away, acquiring bits of paper to prove I was not like my older brothers.
In the time since I last saw him, Ronald had been sectioned at least once, and imprisoned multiple times for petty crime. He had been in and out of rehab. This is what the paperwork of his life would show. Me? I had acquired a BA, an MA and a teaching qualification. I was also two years into a PhD. I was still running. But on that day in 2008, I acquired a piece of paper that I didn’t expect. It was our eldest brother David’s death certificate.
I had to stop. I had to go to Weston-super-Mare and find Ronald. I had to tell him that after years of sleeping rough in London, Babylon had finally killed his brother. David was dead.
If it wasn’t so sad, I’d say it was rich with metaphor, this story of how the great-grandchildren of those rendered homeless by empire and defined by their lack of a nation ended up literally homeless and walking the streets. In British Guiana (now Guyana), where our ancestors arrived from India to work on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, they needed a pass to leave the estates to which they were indentured. To be found without one would mean being charged with vagrancy.
The majority of Indians chose to stay in Guyana after completing their period of indenture. Of those who stayed, many realised that the only thing that could safeguard their children from the sugar plantation was education. In colonial Guyana, this meant British schools and British literature and British history and British every-damn-thing. Thus the colonial structure that tied you to the plantation was also, perversely, the means by which you could escape.
Education is how my father became British enough to think of England as home, to emigrate as part of the Windrush generation. Yet we were invisible to people here who knew nothing of Guyana, never mind the story of indenture.
Three of us identified David’s body: my dad, my youngest brother and I. At some point, we agreed it should be me who would leave London the next day and find Ronald, that I should be the one to tell him. He and David had been close when they were young. They shared a room and guarded each other’s secrets for nearly a decade. I was the youngest and least close to David. I had been indifferent to him for much of my life, this guy who spent most of his time in his room and who I remembered as moody and sardonic; who had to die for me to realise how much I loved him.
I think about the last time I saw him. I was coming home from the British Library, walking towards Euston station. There’s a large grassy space in front of it. I saw a man talking to a tree. I kept walking. I saw a can of lager at his feet. I kept walking. I saw him pointing to the tree, remonstrating with it, accusing it. That man is mad, I thought. And then I realised I knew him. “Oh fuck,” I thought. “That’s David.”
It turns out that membership of the British Library does not save you from your past or uncomfortable present.
I wanted to run towards him and shake him back into the world, but I was terrified. I watched him for five minutes as he continued his discourse with the tree.
Eventually I walked away.
Two years later, I came home late with my husband. As soon as we walked through the door the phone rang. It was my dad. He said that David was dead.
I set out to find Ronald on a train out of Paddington, not really expecting success. A fire had broken out on the pier in Westonsuper-Mare early that same morning, and I could still see the smoke as I walked towards the town. It added to the strangeness of the day.
When I knocked on the door at the address I was given, a young guy told me Ronald no longer lived there. It emerged that he had been kicked out of the house, one of the many rehab spaces in Weston-super-Mare, for drinking and taking drugs.
Since then, Ronald had been sleeping in a public toilet. The man told me that the two of them had become mates while sharing the house, but that he had to keep away from Ronald or he wouldn’t be able to stay sober. He told me that if I walked around town, I might just run into him.
I understood this young guy completely. Ronald was
a hurricane who blighted my childhood. He began drinking when I was a little girl and he was a teenager. He would come crashing through the front door, into inevitable pained confrontations with parents for whom his behaviour was unfathomable. I was never angry with him because I never believed he had a choice. When he was sober he was a different man. He was charming, funny, kind and streetwise. He was the dual-heritage Artful Dodger.
I walked through Weston-super-Mare for a few hours. I walked by the sea, stopped for coffee, wandered in and out of shops. Then, when I was close to giving up, possibly after I had called my dad to tell him that I’d had no luck and would be heading home soon, I saw Ronald walking towards me from the seafront.
I can’t explain the look he gave me. As though he was asking himself, “Am I dreaming? Is she there?” It all came out so quickly. “Do you remember me?” I asked. “Of course I do,” he said, stunned. I could see he was fighting through chemicals to be with me, in a moment that he knew held something terrible.
I told him I had bad news and just like that he said:
“It’s David, isn’t it? He’s dead?”
We ended up walking around town, but we kept running into people he knew. It was almost comic. I was half holding him up as he cried, and then he transformed as he greeted an acquaintance and whispered to me: “They send all the old criminals from London here now. It’s like a reunion.”
I left him after a couple of hours. He did not come to the funeral and we did not hear from him for months. Then one day my parents received a postcard in his handwriting. It simply said: “I am broken-hearted about David.”
There is a narrative of the Windrush generation that emphasises their success, their compassion, their tenacity and capacity to give. Even in the face of ugly hatred and baseless contempt, they wrote novels, joined the armed forces, became bus conductors and tube drivers, delivered babies, taught children, wiped arses in hospitals, served food, entered the civil service, went to university and even joined the police force. Those narratives of success are true, but promoting only these narratives means we occlude the stories of those who slipped through the cracks, denying the experiences of the victims and the culpability of institutions.
Ronald and David, born in the 1960s, did not stand a chance. Their school was so bad it closed down shortly after they left. For young men of colour in this period, victims of institutional racism, there were many obstacles.
You had to be creative to survive, or you could be slowly driven mad. By the caretaker who addressed you as “Half-Jack” instead of using your name, or the elderly white cockney ladies who “affectionately” called you Abdul. Every black and brown boy knew another for whom a police stop had ended in an attempted “fit-up”. From the life-threatening to the petty, these acts combined to tell young men of colour, like my brothers, that their lives had no value.
When my husband came home after I’d returned from Weston-super-Mare, I was standing in the shower, shocked and exhausted. I was thinking, if I stayed there long enough, I would be able to wash it all away. The joy of seeing Ronald and the despair at his situation; the fear of what would happen to him after I left him alone with this awful news.
I asked my husband to take my clothes and put them in the washing machine. I told him where Ronald had been sleeping and that he had kept hugging me. “Just wash everything, please. Please just wash everything.”
David does not have a gravestone, and no plaque marks the dates of his life and death. His ashes were scattered in the rose bushes of a west London crematorium because, short of any other place to call home, this is our gaff. He is one of the many children of Windrush who were broken by the system. While his name will not be listed in the defiant roll call of “successes” who triumphed in the face of adversity, he will be remembered by the people who loved him, and to whom he was never invisible
Names have been changed. The author chose to remain anonymous.
This is an edited extract from an essay that appears in Mother Country: Real Stories Of The Windrush Children, edited by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and published by Headline on 18 October at £20. To order a copy for £17.20 go to guardianbookshop.com
‘I saw a man talking to a tree. I kept walking. I saw a can of lager at his feet. I kept walking. That man is mad, I thought. And then I realised I knew him’
The writer with her brother David, in 1976