Brothers be­yond

How the le­gacy of Win­drush took its toll on two brothers grow­ing up in the UK

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

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 guardian­book­

‘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

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