Q “How did you fall down the stairs?”
A “They pushed me.”
Q “Who are they?”
A “My mum and dad.”
Q “Whey did they do that?”
A “They don’t like me.”
Q “Why do you say that?”
A “They pushed me down stairs.”
Timed at 3.17 pm, Children’s hospital, Hackney. May 5, 1994.
Q. “How did you get that bruise?”
A “My dad hit me.”
Q “Why did he hit you?”
A “It was the chess.”
Q “What do you mean, the chess?”
A “The chess what Simon lent me.”
Q “What chess was that?”
A “You know, it’s a game, on a board.”
Q “Why should that make your dad hit you?”
A “He said it was an invention of the devil.”
Timed at 5pm, Hackney Children’s Hospital. June 16, 1995.
Q “Why is your arm burned?”
A “My mum threw the kettle on it.”
Q “Why did she do that?”
A “Said I deserved it.”
Q “Why did she say that?”
A “To teach me to answer back.”
Timed at 2.35 pm, Hackney Children’s hospital, September 6, 1996.
Q “Why were you calling from the window?”
A “Cos we was locked in.”
Q “How long had you been locked in?”
A “Don’t know.”
Q “Was it hours, minutes, seconds?”
A “We were hungry.”
Q “Who locked you in?
A “Our mum and dad.”
Q “Why did they do that?”
A “Cos we’re not fit to go with them on the Church weekend.
Q “Why are you not fit?”
A “Cos we laughed at the breakfast table when the cup spilled.”
Q “What day did they go on the weekend?”
A “Thursday, to get things ready.”
Q “What day is it now?”
A “Don’t know.”
Q “It’s a Sunday.”
A “We must go back, they’ll be angry we’re not there.”
Timed at 4.15 pm, Sunday, Tottenham Police Station. May 31, 1997.
He remembered his grandmother’s hands, slowly peeling off the skin from the pigfoot. It was a delicacy in Guyana, pigfoot stewed with ginger and garlic and seasonin’. Sweet potato, onion, carrot, some green vegetable he didn’t know, rice and peas: his grandmother liked to cook real food, not the packets they warmed up in the children’s home. The warm smell filled the small kitchen. His grandmother hummed a tune through her dentures. She popped one of the little bones in her mouth, chewed it, spat it out.
“Here, Simeon, you try it.” He opened his mouth for the succulent dark morsel and slowly moved it round his mouth. It filled his mouth with the savour of sunshine, spice and deeply filling food. His stomach rumbled. His grandmother laughed, a comforting rumble. “It good, huh? Here, spit the bone in the bin, boy.”
Simeon was his name, his brother was called Curtis. They were names, she said, his mother had given them, but he couldn’t remember her at all and his grandmother always cried when she talked about her, so he had no idea, really, how or why he came to be living with his brother and grandmother in the small flat off the Seven Sisters Road. There was sorrow in the air, mixed with the ginger and the spices, and with the faint smell of pee from when Curtis wet the bed (he was only three) and dusty air from the road where lorries rumbled all night long. But it never got any worse, the sorrow, it was just one of the instruments in the orchestra of everyday life, playing its one-note tune along with the rhythms of shopping and cooking and learning to read at school. His grandmother really enjoyed hearing him read. She used to slap her legs and laugh along with all of the funny endings to the reading books he brought home.
“How they think of that, eh, boy?” she would say, looking at some highly coloured page on which cats and chickens and dinosaurs mingled in a triumphant dance. “The end” he would read out carefully, and they would tick the notebook that came back from school in the folder. “Next time, moving up a level? Well, I ‘clare .” And she would move off to the kitchen, chuckling. “You do good at your book learnin’, boy, you get on in life.”
When he sat in the rec room at the children’s home it was very hard to understand it all, to put together all the different parts of his life. How had he come through all these things? How could it be the same person, who had been in the flat, in the home, in his parents’ house (but he must stop thinking of those people like that) and back here. Then there was school and the life of the streets and where on earth his brother was just now. Why they neither of them even had the same names they started out with. And why, why had Mr and Mrs Awodele wanted to adopt them?
But, actually, he knew the answer to that. In many long nights of kneeling in prayer with Elder Awodele, hours of which passed if not quicker at least less painfully if he simply let his mind float into a dim dusty nothingness, looking at the cornicing running into the corners of the ceiling and how the two sides didn’t quite match up, Femi had had to hear how God had told Elder Awodele that a marriage not blessed with offspring was not a godly marriage and that if, God would not alter nature as he did for Abraham and Sarah, then the Awodeles had to help themselves conform to the will of God. And so they had sought for black children who needed saving from the pit of sin and who better than two little brothers whose mother was a scarlet whore of Babylon and who had been left to the local authority when their grandmother unexpectedly died in the checkout at the Coop, dropping her basket with its four tins of chickpeas, head of cabbage and three packets of teabags for the price of two. Her purse rolled away and was not found, her little worn black purse with the worn gold lettering on it: SMJ for Sarah Mary Johnstone. Perhaps someone took it for the money and threw it away, which was a shame: she had had it for so long.
Femi would have liked that purse but he didn’t have anything that belonged either to his mother or his grandmother. The Awodeles, when they were telling Femi and Fela (you couldn’t call it explaining because the telling made no concessions to their having difficulty understanding) why they were taking them home, why they had these new names, proper African names, not slave names no more, why they were to call them “Mother” and “Father” in church but “Mum” and “Dad” would be acceptable at other times, also told them that the only memories that could be kept from those earlier times were the Memory Books that the local authority insisted adopted children took with them into their new families. Femi remembered showing his to his class of non-comprehending ten-year olds. It wasn’t for the money he would have liked the purse, though many times when his stomach rumbled with no hope of a savoury pigfoot stew the money would have come in handy for chips. It was to touch something touched by someone he loved and who loved him. Even the food, so plentiful at the massive church suppers, so meagre at other times, never filled you up in the way that Grandmother’s food filled. It held itself separate from the digestive system.
You had to hold yourself separate, to survive. It was a lonely business. You couldn’t even touch your brother because of the fear of sin, unspecified. On the other hand, they were so often locked in together in that upstairs back bedroom with only the Bible and homework that they never gave up hugging each other against the world. Which made it so terrible that Fela spent so much time away now doing who knows what. Or, well you could guess what. Not good. No touching, that was a rule. No love, that was another. Or only the love of a wrathful God.
Touch and love were not in the picture. Spare the rod and spoil the child was a true proverb, said “Dad”. Femi thought of him like that, as “Dad”, in quotation marks. It was a part he was playing, trying to convince someone, or Someone, that he was worthy for the burden of Abraham. Mrs Awodele he could not term “Mum” except when she was not there and then only because how else can you refer to her? How explain to other teenagers that nothing about this frantic middle-aged woman with the badly straightened hair and the tip-tilted glasses frames meant anything maternal? Nothing went right for her: her cooking burned, her arrangements collapsed, her husband sinned against her in his heart (at least), she was disrespected in her community. All this she felt keenly. Her solution was to try and take on more and more responsibilities. Not just church suppers: church weekends, church flowers and, above all, these wicked, wicked children whom God had asked her to redeem.
The children were an unbearable reproach. Their existence, so clearly not from her womb, spoke of how her marriage was not blessed, was in fact a barren marriage, a late marriage and a marriage that wagging tongues had called a sham marriage. Their conduct, shine their shoes how they would, say “Please and “Thank You” as much as was humanly possible, fell woefully short of any Christian standard. And they cost money! They needed food, clothing, school money for outings (“What’s the use of them!”) and if they didn’t get these things they would not look right or act right. It was a bitter cup. Hadn’t she got enough to bear.
Femi stared at the cornices running into the corner of his room in the children’s home, It was dim and dusty up there, full of nothing that demanded anything. The main difference between the ceiling corner here and at 17 The Chime was the cleaning, or lack of it. Mrs Awodele skimped on cooking, to mortify the flesh, but never skimped on the cleaning. She was a demon with the duster, as she liked to say herself. Dusters lay idle at The Willows: Femi had seen them, sitting in a roll in the cleaning cupboard. There they lay from year’s end to the next, while the spiders got on with going forth and multiplying in the far dusty corners of the home. Femi preferred the spiders. At The Willlows, a care home, no one saw and no one cared. That was better than the all-seeing eye of God, which “dad” liked to invoke.
Tomorrow was the last of the A level exams. He looked again at his English notes. Milton. Lived a long time ago, but knew a lot about the devil. Not as much as “Dad”, though. He read books all night about the devil, who lay in wait continually to snare him. Sometimes the snares were apparent to others, like the warm open doors of public houses. Sometimes they were cunningly laid within seemingly innocent diversions, like a video of Harry Potter or a box of chess pieces belonging to someone else. Then those instruments of the devil had to be destroyed and cast into darkness: the fire or the dustbin. It was hard to explain all this to people at school and even harder to explain to the parents of people at school. The mum whose chess set it was had been really upset. She threatened to call the police and very reluctantly Mr Adowele had dug around in the bin and got most of the chess pieces out. He didn’t listen when she went on about how chess was a sport not an invention of the devil and a waste of the Lord’s time, how they taught it at school and it developed mathematical thinking and social skills. He didn’t listen but later he told Femi what he thought about chess and about children who showed up their parents by playing with the devil’s toys. Telling meaning telling blows. But Femi knew he was wrong. Inside himself he thought, as he had many times before, “You’re not my dad, you are not my parents, that is not my God.”
How long can you wait for love? What had happened to mum, that mythical figure that grandmother always talked about as “gone to the angels”, a wide-eyed girl in an orange glittery top in a big, framed picture on top of the television? Deep down, both brothers, and Femi knew Fela thought the same as him, kept hoping that one day she would turn up and take them home, wherever that was. Mrs Awodele kept her worst remarks for mum, some so bitter that Femi was surprised that her teeth didn’t shrivel up from her shrieking.
“Trash, just trash and sons of the devil.” “Born from filth, what can you expect?” “You got no goodness in you, bad to the bones.” That was just some of it. And, worst of all, “What kind of rubbish you are, boys, your own mother throw you away!”
And we did nothing, thought Femi, his fingers flicking through the anthology of poetry published by OCR. Nothing except try to please them, wash the car, make our beds, clear the table and stack the dishes, say “Yes ma’m” and pray, pray, pray. Still, we ended up in hospital a fair few times none the less, for all the good that did. One thing I’ve learnt, thought Femi reading the words of Wilfred Owen “Gas! Gas! An ecstasy of fumbling…” is that sticks and stones may break my bones but nicknames really hurt me. When people ask, “How are you feeling?” they really don’t want to know. They want a stock answer. They want to move on. They want to cross you off the list. They’ll list your bruises but the won’t look inside. And I’m glad. It’s private.
Like the memory book. Its set contents – photographs, a letter, a birth certificate, a swimming certificate, a personal statement – sat sadly in the red ringbinder. Memories are not, Femi knew, made of this. They were empty images, empty words without feelings to warm them into life. The feelings were the memories, and they were alive still.
Why did they get us for adoption? Was it because they were black? Probably that was the only reason, whatever the social worker said. It was amazing that anyone who had spent any time with Mr Awodele could think he would offer “positive role modelling” for young children. He was so angry, his angriness could hardly restrain itself from leaping out and punching you in the throat when he spoke. Even in church, no one liked to cross Elder Awodele. Certainly Mrs Awodele never did, though she had her own ways – the burnt dinners, the fiercely clean bathrooms – of getting back at him. But they agreed about the children. The children were bad, spawn of Satan. They had to be disciplined into a better life, washed in the blood of the Lamb, raised up but first cast down. This didn’t seem to be anything like what happened in other people’s houses, whether it was sitting watching telly with plates of kebabs on your laps or playing chess while Simon’s mum cooked soup. And it was nothing like grandmother’s flat, with the warm savoury smells and the warm chuckling and soft old person’s huggings.
Did mum throw us away like rubbish? Femi knew that when he was 18 he could find out. He was 18 now. Because the adoption had failed, because they did agree, after Femi and Fela had run away three times back to the children’s home in the middle of the night (“You devil’s child! You shame us again and again!”) to take them back into local authority care, it ought to be easy. His social worker had told him he could still call for advice, though he knew she was just another soft concerned voice and attentive posture, concealing not much interest and a desire to be somewhere else. Still, the pack they gave him told him that it was the law.
“Come on Fela, we’re going now.”
“We’re going back to The Willows.”
“You know, what we talked about, going back.”
“Look, do you want to stay here and be beaten again? And we didn’t get no supper again, aren’t you hungry?”
“Mm. Oh, ok.”
Just talking about supper got Fela out of bed even though he was too young to really remember…Savoury smells, pigfoot in the kitchen. But he did know burnt fish fingers, ashy toast. Every time she was cooking, the smoke alarm went off.
So they went. One time out of the window, in the middle of the night. That time it was exciting, new, with a feeling of hope. Could it be this simple? And no, it couldn’t. “Your parents want you.” Want us for what?
The next time, after school, meeting by the park gates, steeling themselves to what would happen if they had to go back, after all the hassle and aggro at The Willows. And they were right, it was bad and just had to be borne until it stopped. Which it did, they got tired of the beating and shouting and the neighbours muttering.
The last time, having worked out what they had to do, having been utterly determined never to go back, the bags concealed behind the bin at 17 The Chime, the sneaking back after going off to school, the whole day spent talking and talking to social workers and policemen and finally, Fela screaming and screaming every time someone said, “I’ll call your parents now.” And screaming and cowering when they came and making out like they were mental cases and rolling on the floor until they said, “All right, you can stay, just for now.” Probably, he thought now, knowing the staff and how drained and exhausted they generally were, just for a quiet life, or a fractionally quieter life.
And then, o Lord, how the Awodeles snapped, like so many times before at 17 The Chime, but never before such a white audience, and started calling the boys out, disrespecting their mum, never mind who was there, they hit the roof, all the terrible things shooting out of them like green pus from a wound, till the policemen said, “Well, I think there’s our evidence, don’t you?” So, back to this room, it came down to it in the end, the nothingness in the ceiling corners, the school books and where was Fela just now? Those were bad influences, they truly were, smoking dope in the park, running from the police, but no one could tell Fela nothing now, not after they’d got away from 17 the Chime.
How long can you wait for love? A whole lifetime in care. Some did. He’d seen them cry. The appointment was for two weeks’ time, but when you find out, what do you find out? More pieces of paper, even more photographs. What if there was an address? What if she really had thrown them away like rubbish? Tears came to his eyes, Gas, Gas, an ecstasy of fumbling. He felt as clumsy as that dying soldier in the poem, just a pawn of fate.. Back to the book. The book is the way out, according to his grandmother. “You get your book learning, good boy,” she said. He was going to do it.
On the morning of the appointment he woke up with a sick feeling. Something bad loomed on the edge of his mind. He got dressed. Soon he had to be out of here. They’d stretched a point keeping him on but next week he was going to look at a flat, a bedsit really. They were ok. No one hit you, no one called you names, no one had time for anything much. Some kids ran wild, some did not. They were the system and he was going to go by the system.
It was a small room up at the Council. He looked at the papers. He couldn’t make sense of them. There were two birth certificates, there were two marriage certificates – that was a surprise! He always believed the Awodeles who said they were two sin-begotten bastards – there was a death certificate for his grandmother. And there was a note of admission to a hospital for Esther Williams, his mother. And a power of attorney, giving over Simeon and Curtis to the local authority in loco parentis.
“So is she in a hospital?” He hadn’t expected this.
The social worker looked grave, in that concerned, stomach-lowering way he had seen all too often before.
“It’s a long-stay psychiatric hospital, Simeon.”
“Femi,” he corrected automatically.
“What does that mean?”
“It means she never recovered from the injuries she sustained in the car crash.”
The social worker pushed a newspaper clipping over the table. “As it says here, when Leon Williams, looks like that’s the father of your half-brother, Curtis,”
“He’s my brother.”
“But he’s got a different father, hasn’t he, Simeon?”
“He’s my brother!” Femi didn’t realise that he was shouting until the social worker backed away.
“Ok, ok, no need to get agitated, your brother.”
“When he, what?”
“When he crashed the car on the icy roads, up near Hatfield. They were going Christmas shopping, it says here.”
“Can I see him?”
“Sadly, he died.” The social worker, who looked more and more like someone from the moon, an escapee form quite another life, pushed the clipping back towards Femi.
“So where’s my mum now? Is she still in this long-stay psychiatric hospital?”
“Sadly, our records don’t go that far.”
“How can I find out? Can’t you see, it’s important to me.”
“I hear your concerns, er, Femi, but sadly that is not my remit.”
So, off in the summer streets with the photocopied papers dully burning in his plastic shopping bag. And finding out the hsopital’s number and explaining, explaining, explaining until at last the answer, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever will be: Dead. Dead all the hope and dead the worry of rejection too. Dead, finished, but never done with.
How long can you wait for love? You can wait forever; or you can know…like grandmother said:
“She never go for to lose you, child. She gone with the angels, my pretty baby. She gone, I got my lovely boys.”
I’m going to choose that one, said Femi. I am. I’m not going to be the one who just stares at the nothingness in the corner, who’s just trash and ending up no good. The old lie, gas, gas an ecstasy of fumbling.
And I never missed a day off school, even with the bruises. Only that one, where we went back to the Willows.
I’m going to choose the good ending, I am. The one where my mother loves me and I had some bad luck with some stupid foster parents but now I’m going to pass my exams, go to university, going to get a job, going to make my life ok and going to stick with my brother because you don’t abandon your own flesh and blood. People don’t.
I won’t. My mum didn’t. And I’ll never push no one down no stairs. He blew his nose. Dulce et decorum est. According to the notes: It is sweet and fitting. Not to push no one down no stairs.