Chapter 1 – Keep the Blinds Closed

2004

The duvet covers me twice over because it’s been flung onto my side. My body is too heavy and the pillow holds me in a headlock. I reach my hand across and can feel the emptiness on the other side of the bed. The clock tells lies. It can’t be 2pm. I don’t like to wake up alone, even in the late afternoon, and I don’t like when Stacey’s body is so long gone from the bed that her warmth has been lost from the sheets. If I were to never see her again, if she had decided today to leave me for good, I would never again feel the comfort of her warmth. And worse yet, all I would remember of her is the cold I feel now.

‘Dammit. Where’s my cigs?!!??’

She’s there. She has not left me. But her shrill voice reminds me of my toils with her and I’m unsure about wanting her – I want her warmth, but do I really want her? I close my eyes again, breathing deeply, willing the alcohol wrestling within me to calm itself, to give me some peace.

Last night, brandy in hand, my mate Phunk was telling me that old story again, the story about his nickname. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if he has amnesia as it’s only the tenth time he’s told it to me. We were counting cash, flipping notes through our nimble fingers, never daring to question where the money came from. We weren’t there just to be witnesses to each other’s mysterious wealth, though. We were there to share stories. So I listened to him as hard as I could while flattening the dog-eared ends of my notes.

He was nicknamed Funk back in primary school because his sweat glands were highly evolved and produced yellow gunk way before the other kids even knew what it was like to be tickled by armpit tears. His mother told him it was manly to sweat and deodorant was too expensive to waste on a little boy. So the kids started calling him Funk. And he hated it. He would punch anyone who called him that and had his mother called in twice because of nosebleeds, It led to a few pocket-knife incidents in the park playground.

‘She ain’t give you some armpit spray or potpourri afta that bruv?’ I always ask Phunk the same question. He says those things were luxuries and the only smell his mother ever offered him that was overpowering enough was that of her pancakes soaked in butter, that the time he tried to use the men’s deodorant he found lying next to his mother’s bed one morning, the class had to be evacuated because all the kids were distracted by a ‘sour, pungent smell’. He hated the nickname Funk. It almost got him expelled from school. Until the day he learnt about the ‘ph’ sound in class.

I particularly like this part of the story. Last night, during this part, I stopped counting my cash and looked at the way he made the sound with his mouth and was astonished when it sounded just like the ‘f’ sound. He would say all sorts of obscene words yet not be obscene at all, because he was using ‘ph’ and not ‘f’.

‘So I owned da name Phunk afta da mate. Tings aint always da way de people see dem. Just ‘cause it sound like a ‘f’ I aint have to be da. You see me, you smell me, you aint know nuffin’ bout me and my life. I’m Phunk, innit?’

At that he slammed down his wad of cash and said it was £2300. It sounded like ‘f’ but was it really ‘ph’? We didn’t debate it, just challenged ourselves to a drink off, throwing equal values of notes at the bartender and not taking the change. We drank Vodka, and Whiskey and then Brandy. Phunk outdid himself and was still sober enough to deposit me around the corner at the front of my flat, knock on the door, probably hit on my lady, and then walk himself home. I, on the other hand, collapsed onto my bed and didn’t wake up until now.

I feel paralysed in bed. I blow some of my breath onto my thick bottom lip and it pivots into my nose causing a smell that Phunk himself couldn’t top.

‘Martin, get up and go buy me some cigs. Your bloody friends nabbed my ones!’

That woman. Always harassing me.

‘Martin! If you don’t get your drunk arse out a that bed I going to leave you!’

I close my eyes. No threat could be greater than the burning sensation in my stomach and the soreness in my arms. Nothing could be more important than my recovery from this wretched hangover.

Splack. Stacey’s pillow isn’t as soft as I thought, the force of it against my face, twice and then four times, forces spit out of my mouth and a horrid gust of fiery breath that causes me to jump out of the bed.

‘Woman!’

I step past her to go to the bathroom to brush my teeth.

Her eyes get so wide when she’s angry. I move my head about until the spots on the bathroom mirror blur out the reflection of her irises. I brush the life out of my teeth, not because I know anything about hygiene – I actually hate the taste of toothpaste and wish it were mango flavoured – but because the noise the brushing makes in my head drowns out her repetition of the words cigarettes, alcoholic, inconsiderate, waste of a life and fed up.

Ahh… my breath is fresh once more, I can use my words at will. I look into her blurred eyes and ask her how she could look so gorgeous when she’s so angry. I turn around, step towards her and fling my hand around her, grabbing her butt in my long fingers, those same fingers I used to count money with Phunk. I pounce on her lips while I try to remember where I put last night’s wad of cash. Two boxes of cigarettes wouldn’t put a dent in my earnings, if I could call them that. This is easy – I’ll buy the cigarettes and my lady will shut up quicker than a dog put down. That’s if my kiss doesn’t do the trick first. She’s already leaning well into my body. How she manages to say the word cigarettes with her tongue in my throat baffles me though. I let go of her bum and feel her smile as I walk towards the door and throw on my jacket and hood. She’s swooning again and says something about putting some patties in the cooker for me. She knows I love my beef patties.

I play that game people usually play with flower petals to find out if someone loves them, but I use my steps instead. First step out the door – I love her. Second step towards the stairs – I love her not. Third step down the stairs – I love her. Thirty-ninth step past the resident vagrant Loopy – I lose track of the loves and the not loves. Fortieth step in front of the Off Licence… fortieth step… fortieth step???

There is no fortieth step.

Instead, I find myself faced down, on the floor, my hands screaming in pain from breaking my fall, my feet twisted beneath me.

I move my feet around to search for any objects on the pavement that might have caused my fall but there is nothing. My face is so close to the pavement that my minty breath mingles with the stale smell of everything and anything carried by people’s shoes, and the dullness of the old, blackened chewing gum spotted about like connect-the-dots. I can’t connect the dots. I don’t know how I fell.

Young versions of me, piglet plaits, too-big shoes, limped walks, dirty mouths and all, point and snicker at me and call me old and crazy and a drunkard for tripping over my own feet. The ones that recognise me think I am taking the Mickie, trying to be funny, and they are applauding me. A kind, older Caribbean woman offer to me help up in her singsong way, making a calypso out of my clumsiness. But I don’t respond to anything. I don’t try to get up. I can’t.

I can’t help but think that something grand and unrecognisable caused my fall and I feel weighed down by it. Cheeks hot with embarrassment, my brain pounding my skull and my hands chalky with dirt, I find myself wishing.

I wish I could take one step back…

****************

1974

My cousin Deryck’s fat hand held onto mine as we twisted about; I was trying to turn the rod that opened the blinds and he was trying to stop me. Nan had closed them a few minutes before that and had us sitting with our backs straight saying ‘yes Nan, we pwomise not to open it’. Deryck seemed to think she was a sharp-toothed dinosaur able to chomp our heads off the moment the room brightened with the streetlights that slipped through the supposed-to-be-closed-shut blinds. He was squeezing my hand like his life depended on it, like he was doing some sort of humanitarian deed.

I knew though, or at least I thought I knew, that Nan was as soft as the fat on her bum; she knew little about how to chomp or whip or smack or even curse. Once she tried to say the f-word but instead blurted out an entire new language of words starting with f like fablabutlatootahh or something like that. She went on for a good minute in that strange language, shaking her head, her hair staying in its exact place when she did so, the frayed ends of it looking extra perky. I knew I had upset her that time, but I was more concerned with if she would ever speak English again than what she was going to do to me. Nan was soft, real soft.

Nan was beautiful too, and much younger than some of the Nans of my classmates. The Nans around my block looked around the same age and still held hands with unfamiliar men or went to church only once a week and carried large yams all the way from the market. But the Nans of some of the boys in my class, well some didn’t have hair, and some couldn’t remember things. Like Tommy’s Nan. Tommy said his Nan thought she was kidnapped by hooligans and used her large hairpins to try to escape through their front doors. I told Tommy he was mistaken, Nans weren’t supposed to be so old, maybe she was kidnapped. He cried a lot that day. My Nan, she was young and the skin on her face was smooth and clear. Her smile was eternal and her cheeks rested on top of it like ripe plums. I always found myself blushing when my Nan looked right into my eyes and smiled.

Deryck really needed to let go – he truly was overreacting. Being such a coward under those very mild circumstances was not becoming of someone from our bloodline. If I didn’t knee him in the crotch hard enough to take away his breath then he would have lived the rest of his life picked on for being afraid of round women with nice smiles who asked things politely. He needed to know that there were much worse things in life and he shouldn’t waste a fight on something like that. He surely shut his eyes tight when I kneed him, as though he was sifting the pain he felt in his crotch out through his curly eyelashes. Tears came out too, with that pain, and a faint bit of spotty red appeared on his cheeks. I knew it wouldn’t last too long once I got the blinds open.

With the rod free of Deryck’s grasp, I turned it once and used my fingers to move one of the blinds up a few centimetres more. Immediately, as I looked through the space in the blinds, I saw an orange bird with flames for wings, coursing through the air like it was escaping something. Indiscriminately it flew straight into a metal dustbin cover held up by a white, wimpy copper. It exploded into shiny pieces, pieces of glass all over the pavement. I saw another fiery bird, and another and another. They were gorgeous. I wanted to make one. I was going to ask the guys to show me how to do it as soon as the fight was over and I was allowed to go back home.

Earlier that day, when Nan was pulling us from the Notting Hill Street Carnival into her home, I was pushing my heels into the ground to stop her or at least to slow her down. People were pushing us and falling over me but I liked it. I liked the swell of people like that tense feeling you get before a storm. What was the difference really? I saw ladies pelting their waists onto men during the carnival and groups of men hugging shoulders and jumping up and dancing until their shirts were soaked in mud and sweat. And nothing could be scarier than the masked devils who came up to my face and tried to steal my smile. My Nan let me watch all those things without ever putting her hands over my eyes like I saw the white kids’ Nans do – the few white kids I saw at the Carnival. I didn’t think it was right for her not to let me watch what was happening next, to see why people were running and shouting and why the air suddenly began to choke us and all of the bright colours were covered with a thickening grey.

‘Hurry Martin, come on, we need ta get home now, we might get hurt and your mother will have me hang.’

`Even though many unfamiliar lines appeared on my Nan’s face as she expressed the urgency, I just couldn’t stop feeling excited and wanting to be brave while everyone else ran away. I kept digging my heels into the ground, gripping every bump in the pavement and trying to pull my hand free of Nan’s grip. But soon enough we were in front of her flat on All Saints Road and then in her living room, on the couch below the window, looking out the window at what later I learnt was no longer called a riot, then not looking out the window because Nan told us we couldn’t, then a few minutes later looking out again because I wanted to and I had to.

There were no more ladies making men smile by moving their backsides to and fro on the streets. Their beauty was replaced by those fiery birds, and larger clear barriers and more coppers in tight black outfits like they were going to dinner with the big Queen. The fighters were lucky, the guys throwing the fiery birds, the ones I felt were my brothers, their jackets were looser. They could swing those fiery birds long distances because their shirts weren’t buttoned to their chins and they didn’t have big, funny hats to block their vision. They had nothing really, except bravery. And I respected them for that. Some of the guys looked a bit wobbly like they did in the Carnival, not able to walk straight lines. They still pelted whatever they had, stones, bottles, bricks. The smoke was amazing too. There was a lot of it rising from one overturned car. I watched that car for a good while, fascinated by the crumpling of metal as it burnt, and the way it blurred the scene and made it look more artistic, an array of blacks – black skinned boys throwing things, black-clothed white men hiding their faces and black debris and ashes falling to and covering the ground. All I wanted was to make one fiery bird and throw it at one buttoned up copper.

‘We miss out Der’

‘Yea’

Deryck had already wizened up, mesmerised too by the fearlessness of the guys.

‘I throw one and boom, copper out’

‘No, you out’

‘No, copper’

‘You too small and tin’

‘No’

He knew he was wrong. My father told the two of us once that if you had to be black, it was best you were thin on the outside and strong on the inside – like me. He seemed to have forgotten how much pain he was in when I kicked him in his private parts just a few minutes before. Just because Deryck was using his fat hands again to prove his point, wrapping them around my ankles almost twice, didn’t mean I couldn’t be just as scary as those guys. I moved my legs under my body and sat on Deryck’s hands. I dug my buttock bone into his wrists and then wrapped my arm around his neck and rubbed my fist into his scalp. I imagined he was a copper, with his fancy clothes and pale face, saying ‘don’t do this’, ‘stop doing that’ or ‘what you kids up to’. I rubbed my fist harder into his head as if to say ‘we ain’t doing nuffin’, just having a laugh’.

But Deryck wasn’t having a laugh, he was screaming by then, until Nan’s wide shadow was upon us changing the light in the room, and until she leaned over us, her breasts and stomach momentarily stifling me, and ran her hands down the blinds to shut them.

‘Whyyyyyy?’

‘You too young tah understand. That’s it. To your beds. No dinner for youze two.’

‘But Naaaaaan, It’s Martin, nah meeeee.’

‘Nooooooo. Deryck too.’ I let my skinniness shine through, lowering my jaw so that my cheekbones poked out a bit more, opening my eyes and calling on those emergency tears to wet them enough to woo my Nan.

But then I looked at Deryck and saw how red his neck had gotten and the way Nan looked at him with pity. He was rubbing his neck with one hand and his tearful eyes with the other. I nudged the soft part of his bicep with the side of my elbow and moved my body closer to him, leaning my head on his shoulder.

‘Nan Der tha coppa, he losed. But he fight hard.’

Nan tried not to laugh but I saw her periphery jiggle and I felt the mini earthquake. The plums became ripe again and full, and perched themselves back onto her beautiful smile. I knew dinner was back on the cards, and I was happy, because all of that defeating of pretend coppers made me hungry. It only took her 30 seconds to go to the kitchen and bring the scratched-up Winnie the Pooh plates out to us, stacked with eggs and onion, her signature dish. I took both plates from her and then handed one to Deryck, miming the words ‘sorry’ to him as he looked at my hands, trying to decide if to say thank you or not. He took the plate and said something inaudible. Nan kissed me on my forehead.

‘My bighead grandson, so curious eh?’

I smiled at her. But I didn’t tell her what I was thinking. I didn’t tell her that all I could think about were those fiery birds and how the first thing I wanted to do when I got back to my estate was to ask one of the guys how to make them, and practice throwing them high up in the air, aiming at the drawing of a white man’s face on a wall, maybe. I ate my eggs and onion and I enjoyed it as I usually did, but nothing could get that flying flame out of my mind, nothing could take away the things I saw when I snuck open those blinds.

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