1. someone to kill me. or is it you, brother?
One of my earliest memories is of a stranger trying to kill me. It’s a memory from a world I thought gone—racist, violent London in the seventies—a parallel universe world that however much I try to explain to friends, I’m met with blank stares, not disbelief so much as the disinterest people give to tales of faraway lands they know they’ll never visit. This is not quaint England, with its pubs and hedgerows, its tea times and scones, nor any incarnation of cool England, whether with miniskirts or resurrected Minis, this is England as fist, England as headbutt, England as belly–deep yawp of tribal resentment and rage.
To be brown in England in the 1970s was to be subject to three almost continual slurs: blackie, wog, paki. It came at you from all directions. Crossing the street, a young tough casually spits on your parka as he mouths wog. You pass a flower-bed fringed home and out of a window a middle-aged woman screams blackie go home. A group of kids surrounds you at school and chants paki in your face. These were not uncommon experiences, some variation happened monthly, sometimes weekly.
In that memory, I am three, maybe four, and playing with my brother in the dirt in our front garden in London when the shape of a man—nothing more than a dark shadow disappearing over the far side of the garden hedge, or perhaps simply a gray London winter coat moving along as if by itself—walks past on the street. A second later a knife flies through the air and lands blade-down inches from me and, incredibly, between my brother’s splayed fingers.
A black-handled paring knife—it sat there, stuck into the dirt, as impossible a memory as I can imagine. The man, whoever he was, didn’t say a word, vanished the moment the blade landed. I would find that same blade in the kitchen, and watch Mom use it to peel potatoes or cut onions, and as an adult use this fact to support the notion that the story was make-believe. Mom must simply have purchased it at one of the cheap local markets. But that was later. During my childhood, whether such a knife, thrown haphazardly, really could have killed me or my brother, or seriously hurt us, didn’t matter. It was not the physical reality of the knife, but the sense of threat it represented, a threat that enfolded my entire life, that at any moment, a stranger could jump out of nowhere and try to kill me. Years later, when I began to question the memory, I also began to question my need to create a childhood England as fairy tale forest where the wolves were all too real.
I never told my parents about the knife. Even at that age, I had internalized the subjects I was allowed to speak to my parents about and those I was not. The everyday and not-so-everyday dramas of childhood were ones my parents had no time for as they gained a foothold in a new country—anything uncomfortable, anything that might require a real response, or action, on their part was in the forbidden category. I’m sure my brother never told them. He already said little, was already sliding into that silence of his which subsequently would last years, that exists as a kind of ocean, unmapped, untraversed, between the brother I knew as a child and the brother I’m coming to know as a middle-aged man.
As an adult, the story moved into personal myth and, as I had no means to verify it, was deposited among the apocrypha in my Book of Childhood. I eventually convinced myself I invented it, that no way could this have happened, it was too neat, it responded too precisely to my need to paint a violent England and its dangers into every corner of my memory, to take a gallon can of English bigotry and upend it over the canvas of my youth.
So it’s four decades later, my brother and I are walking along a Brooklyn street in winter, our first real meeting in years, and I’m certain the memory of the knife is nothing but a fantasy I conjured to reinforce the ugliness of old, racist England. In the blunt ferocity of a cold wind I tell him the story and ask if by any chance he remembers. He stops suddenly and looks at me, genuinely rattled.
A heavy snow had fallen a few days before, lies piled against cars, muddied, ugly, while sheens of ice and frost cover much of the pavement. He does remember, he tells me—the knife, the dirt, the fingers, everything, even his surprise at Mom using the knife later in the kitchen. Like me, he told himself over the years it was a dream, a story he invented, false memory as toxic byproduct of a toxic reality, and is as surprised as I am at learning it’s not, that in fact all those years ago a real knife spun through real air and landed blade-down between real fingers while behind a hedge, a real man vanished into the ether and came to populate our nightmares.
We talk, our breaths spilling in white gusts, and that old, fairytale London, where the wolves were very much real, comes back as vivid as a story whispered in a child’s ear. And something else, something surprising, begins to happen. For the first time in years, perhaps the first time ever, I’m sharing memories with my older brother.
2. saved by movies. no, not really
It’s been years since I really talked to my brother, that is if we ever talked above the level of teenage grunts about music, movies, what to do on Saturday night. Sometime in my teens, he vanished, moved out of the house, left me an only child to immigrant parents locked in their own battle, a ceaseless war of attrition that left us all collateral damage. By the time my twenties hit, when I telephoned, he wouldn’t pick up. I’d leave a message, and usually, anywhere between six months and a year would pass before I heard the phone ring and his voice, guarded, distant, saying, “Hey, returning your call.” The conversation would never last more than five minutes, and if I broached anything close to a personal topic, his tone shifted and he’d say he was busy and had to go. The line would immediately click off. Another year or two might pass before we spoke again.
Over those two decades, the couple times I raised the subject of our childhood, that it might not have been the rosiest, he cut me off sharply. He didn’t know what I was talking about. “I don’t remember anything bad happening,” he’d insist, adding, “I think it was pretty happy,” and seconds later he would make an excuse and vanish once again.
His opinion mattered to me enormously. There was no other living soul on the planet who could validate what I experienced growing up in the merciless London of the 1970s and the sometimes equally merciless world of our parents’ marriage. As my parents struggled to find a way into the middle class, we moved house so often that I retained few friends for more than a year or two. When we emigrated to the U.S., sponsored by an uncle in days when such moves were far easier and almost commonplace, my father threw our personal belongings into the trash. Everything. Books, comic books, drawings, notebooks, posters, knickknacks, toys, audiotapes, Super-8 home movies, you name it, it was gone, a portmanteau stuffed with his kids’ entire worlds set upon the trash heap. He was not a sentimental man, I doubt it ever crossed his mind that there are people in the world unlike him, people who find in objects a connection to past and memory. Children didn’t have needs, that his sons might want to hold onto something was unthinkable.
All I carried were memories, and the only person I could discuss them with, the only witness who might echo those memories, help tease the real from the not real, and excavate together what we couldn’t remember, was a brother who had long since gone AWOL.
What filled the vacuum were movies, or should I say rare islands that appeared in that ocean that was my brother’s disappearance, only a handful over the years because what has Hollywood or Whereverwood ever had to say about growing up brown in working class England? Not much. Basically nothing. Actually zero. But you hold onto what there is, look for connection in whatever you can find. Ken Loach’s Kes for example, or Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (which I watched four times the week it was released in US theaters), but neither genuinely held my world in them, one being about a northern kid, truly deprived, way beyond myself, and the other about a bourgeois child in turn of the century Stockholm whose world is overturned by his father’s death. Not that we should search in art for some exact mirror, or even inexact mirror, to ourselves, that’s not art’s point, quite the opposite, that it’s in the well-drawn specific—a specific very much not ourselves—that we find ourselves reflected. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes ache for a flicker of our own face, our own life, for validation by art.
One movie did bump shoulders with my childhood, Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette with that screenplay by Hanif Kureishi, a middle class boy who could speak for the rest of us. I say that screenplay because really, it’s astonishing, as is the movie, because it held, as if in amber, a gone world recreated perfectly. The way women walk through a room, the way men sit on a sofa drinking tea, the small phrases spoken in understated anger, the way someone glances across a street, even the wallpaper, clocks, knickknacks on shelves. Everything. Not a detail false, not a word off-key. It’s bizarre to find yourself painted up there, on the big screen, so intimately, so perfectly, at least for someone who never expected it, and makes you wonder why, why the need, why search for a childhood you lived through already? It happened after all, and to you, and there it is, a carpet unrolled behind you, just turn your head and look why don’t you. Why did I need someone else to tell me that the past that happened truly happened?
Another flick I lost myself in, or found myself, was Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, from J. G. Ballard’s childhood memoir made into a novel, a childhood in wartime China, from mansion to prison camp to death march to bomb. Memory become fiction become big-screen drama, and there I was, Jim, the English wannabe American wannabe Japanese kamikaze pilot kid, lost as lost as lost could be, no parents, no future, a prisoner in a foreign land, sympathizing with the devil, I mean enemy. I could never help bursting into inexplicable tears during the death march scene, or when he finally meets his parents again, or at any number of scenes. Hello internal melodrama, hello sympathy for hopeless causes, hello gut-deep yearning for the lost to be found, even after years, even after decades, even after centuries. I was Jim, the outcast, the traitor, the searcher for something different, the orphan, the lost, or so I told myself as I watched the movie, or a part of me told a part of me, body speaking to body, the way it does when you have no idea what’s happening inside you, imagined trauma speaking to half-remembered trauma, the way it does.
I had high hopes for Shane Meadow’s 2006 meditation on skinheads, racism, and the awful inside us become manifest, This Is England, that it might answer questions, but I was left cold, indeed squirming, at its failure to see what was in front of our eyes, its tuneless anachronisms, skinheads talking like post-naughts therapy survivors, all performed against a hyper-aesthetic that made the real unreal, pain beautiful, hate you could frame and hang on a wall. And in the eighties, in England, let’s face it, no matter what Shane Meadows might want to believe, feelings didn’t exist. (Feelings arrive in my version of England on August 31, 1997, with the death of Princess Di.) To say the word marked you an outcast, and that’s among the working class boho wannabes, among the racists forget it, it’d get your head kicked in and worse. So what was I looking for in that movie, what answers in general? That childhood validates our present? That to know who we were is to know who we are? That childhood, being another country none of us will revisit nor hear news from, is still the ground we stand upon, where our first passport was indelibly stamped, the soil that makes us, and not to know it is somehow to unmake ourselves?
Or is it simpler? To want to understand basic principles of Headbutt England and its Rage. Where do racists come from, after all? And who are they, who are we in their eyes? And what does it mean to say they and we? Or that word racist, which as a kid I didn’t understand. Did it mean you were for me or against me? Did it mean you hated or didn’t hate? Because without knowing, without empathy, which is another word for knowing, we fill the void with our worst imaginings, make monsters out of puppet goons, turn ourselves into lost souls, the unfit for society, that they tell us we are. A single assault, a single curse word, a single moment when someone spits on you and calls you wog is never a single moment, it never can be. It’s an explosion, it radiates out and buries everything for miles, you live with it, for years, it covers all, distorts memory, until all you have is that pinprick assault that speaks for weeks, months, years, while all around is silence, as if you’ve been deafened by the blast. The memory of another life, a life where you are not called wog, which is a memory of every second of your life except that second when you are called wog, is gone.
Perhaps the closest anyone came to prying off the lid of English virtue and revealing the rot within was an American, Sam Pekinpah, in his 1971 pastoral grotesque Straw Dogs, where the bucolic becomes cruelty and we see, in the in-bred provincialism and thuggery of a group of rural dolts, the violence at the heart of the English soul. Or that’s what I told myself when I first watched it, amazed at Peckinpah’s outsider instinct to find in Cornish rusticity a mirror to that part of Englishness that the English want to hide even from themselves. This wasn’t Peckinpah’s view. In on-set interviews he pushed against such a reading, saying he’d “found insular and in-bred people all over the world. Some of my own family, I think,” and added after all, “we’re all a bit in-bred.” I saw the specific, Peckinpah imagined the universal. But who listens to artists? Not me. Still I ask myself, was I wrong, was my reality the reality, or was I lost in some backwater, shunted off by unfortunate luck onto some other, brutal siding of English life, did I simply not see the other England, or were those pinprick, or not so pinprick, assaults enough to flood my visual field, knock out my sensors, leave me tapping my blind man’s cane along ever narrower lanes of the English vicious, thinking this is all there is?
3. in which i marry roger livesey. almost
On that Brooklyn winter’s day, my brother and I talk about the paring knife, and how strange it felt seeing it in the kitchen, and other memories. In one, walking home together from school, we are set upon by a gang of local thugs, who pull us apart. They torture my brother, punching him in the belly and bringing a burning lighter to his face, while they coddle me, the younger, wrapping arms around my neck and whispering how much they like me as I watch my brother squirm in pain. It’s joint humiliation, one I felt for years afterwards: my brother’s powerlessness at their attack, my own at their praise, praise I knew was about turn into something much nastier, and I wonder now, decades later, as I wondered then, without knowing the words, how do kids understand instinctively how to murder a soul, or is it just that it’s easy ultimately to fall into the lowest groove of our common inhumanity and follow it to the end?
But just then (as this story has a sort of happy ending), as if in a movie, an old lady dressed in tweeds, carrying only umbrella and handbag, comes charging at the boys out of nowhere and beats them on their heads. “Get away with you,” she shouts, banging away with her umbrella, “get away!” It’s comical, as if Margaret Rutherford herself has come roaring to the rescue. The boys scatter and I don’t remember what happens next, whether we talk to the lady or not, or if she, and we, go about our business and move on now that English decency has reasserted itself, but I am forever thankful to that lady, not just for rescuing us, but leaving a trace of another England, giving me something to hold up in the face of all the ugly memories and shout, See not everyone’s like you!
If English decency has a sound, it’s the voice of Roger Livesey, especially the Roger Livesey who starred in several of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s greatest movies. Think A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway To Heaven in the US) or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I don’t have the verbal felicity to describe the plummy virtuosity of that voice, where a simple no holds a dozen or more different levels of meaning. Go listen on YouTube if you haven’t already. It’s like sinking into warm butter, but butter with heart, and soul, and something else, something equally essential, an idea of England, of Britain, as English, say, as Sam Elliott is rattlesnake and oilpan Yank, ringing as much of the bells of Canterbury as it is of a highland ceilidh. A voice that manages somehow to crowd a whole nation inside it, not just the nation but its best ideals, the land of Vaughn Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ alongside Kate Bush’s ‘Oh England My Lionheart,’ the England we dream about when we dream about things we know don’t exist.
So who was that old lady dressed in tweeds if not that other England, that other Britain, the personification of Roger Livesey’s voice, an idea of the good, though not the respectable, and this is important, because to charge along a London street waving your umbrella high in attack formation is not respectable, but it is, or can be, decent. As George Orwell wrote: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.” It’s a quote I’ve often wondered at, because it was an England I suspect I glimpsed, over the shoulder perhaps of the bully obstructing my view, but there nonetheless, in small encounters on train station platforms, in back-and-forths with chip shop owners, in the way the corner store would hold copies of my favorite comics, sometimes for months, until I saved the money to buy them. Why should one England, the petty, vicious, narrow-minded England of my imagination, stand as the only England, push with its wide shoulders all others aside and remain rooted, glaring at me, the schoolyard tyrant England reveling in its victory over memory? I don’t have answers to this question, except at times I grab hold of Roger Livesey’s voice and grip it desperately like a lifeline, hoping it might reel me in to another England, to a world of memory that Headbutt England tried to erase, and think of myself married, if not to Roger Livesey, then to his voice, to that idea of an island that cannot be real and for that reason must be, or we must make it real, at least in our dreams.
4. talking, or not talking, about hitler
My brother and I are sitting, having beers at a cozy old bar on North 8th in Williamsburg, a 19th century survivor that has weathered countless New Yorks, and I wonder why, after all these years, he is finally talking to me. It’s not a question I ask. I still sense a no–go zone around every word he says, as if signs warning of landmines are posted around each sentence. A part of me wants to cry. Another wants to punch him, like I have for so long. Why wait all these years and suddenly talk? I had long ago given up hope of us ever having a conversation, and there were nights, where I felt so utterly an orphan, that I wept at the loss. None of this I tell him.
We were never close. Like many siblings we held each other in varying degrees of contempt. I remember longing for closeness, a longing that never quite ended but became, at times, a species of resentment, as unrequited longing often does. I wonder now how much the toxic, racist air of London contributed to our being pulled apart. Did we both retreat into our shells, paranoid and defensive? Did we look at our childhood together as a zero-sum game of survival? There were other factors. Our parents’ fractured, angry marriage. The unsettling strangeness of immigrant life. The icy malaise of English cities. It was a difficult, hostile time. The openly racist politician Enoch Powell was giving Trump-like speeches demanding all “blackies” be sent “home,” speeches my dad happily echoed at night, threatening us, and relishing the threat, that we’d soon be swinging from tree to tree in India like apes. Britain was staggering through a decade of economic failure, endless strikes and occasional riots, all under the shadow of death of empire. Even if you were white, it was more than likely you’d get your head smashed in for walking down the wrong street or looking at the wrong guy.
My brother turns to me over a second round and says he has another story to tell. He builds up to it, claiming he has never said this to anyone, was too ashamed to tell a soul. “Do you remember that poster?” he says, “The only one I ever put up on my wall.” I already know the story he’s going to tell. The poster is of Adolf Hitler. It came free with a comic book, in a series that included Winston Churchill and, I think, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, possibly even Benito Mussolini, leaders of World War Two. He tells me how he had no idea, at that age, who Hitler was, thinking he was just another leader, the defeated enemy, and how, when Dad came home and saw the poster—at the time our beds filled one side of a cramped living room in a two-room apartment—he tore it angrily off the wall, crushed it in his hands and threw it in the trash can. He’s carried the shame of that story for decades, for being the kid who put a Hitler poster on his wall not knowing what he was doing.
There’s a problem with the story. This is my memory. I’m the one who buys the comic book—I was the fan of wartime comics, not my brother, who had little or no interest in them—and I’m the one who sticks the poster on the wall, and it’s at me Dad comes exploding, and it’s from my wall Dad tears the poster, shouting but never explaining his reasoning. My brother was nowhere in sight. It’s a story I’ve told friends, amazed as an adult that comic book publishers would give away free posters of one of the world’s great mass murderers, using the story as cultural capital. Look at me, look at the world I came from, and look at where I’ve arrived.
We talk about dueling memories, the nature of memory. I remember an important detail. The wall the poster hung on was blank, there were no posters near it. My wall was packed, hardly an inch free: Spider-Man, Abba, fast cars, my own drawings, Bruce Lee, The Incredible Hulk, whatever. The memory had to be my brother’s, the story I told all those years not mine, a story I somehow made my own.
But why? To echo something of the simple-minded bigotry of that era, that publishers gave no thought to giving children free posters of Adolf Hitler? To use as one more crutch to suspend an image of the tyrant god my father as somehow solely my tyrant, with my brother painted out? Or did I just want to steal all childhood stories for myself, refuse them to a brother I was in a drawn-out and bitter fight with?
5. oh, i forgot. i’m the racist. yes, really
It occurs to me later that I must have been the one who bought the comic with Hitler’s poster stapled into the centerfold, it had to be. My brother didn’t read comics, he was the one who saw the poster and chose to pin it up, the one and only poster he ever, in all those (and these) years, put on a wall, a poster that hung at best an hour before being ripped down and trashed. I would learn about the Holocaust in high school, but not, surprisingly, from a teacher, but from another poster hanging in my class, which listed blandly a figure of six million Jews dead at the hand of Hitler and his regime. I remember reading that number, staring at it again and again, returning to it day after day, and not fully comprehending the shock. (Passing that classroom during breaks, the door often open, I’d almost invariably see teacher sitting there, on his desk, laughing with a fifth former or prefect perched on his lap, her ass pressed into his groin, but that’s another story, about London in the 1970s, which was, let’s be honest, a giddy little pedophile paradise.) And later, or perhaps the same time, the TV miniseries Holocaust, which had us all glued to our sets whatever weeknight it appeared on. There are people who remember these things, the night this or that happened forty years ago or so. I’m not one of them. I don’t even remember names.
I remember stories. Here’s one. Or maybe it’s anecdote, to illustrate a larger theme. I don’t know these things, anecdote, story, yarn, sketch, tale, how they differ one from the other. I was a dumb kid, and while I often suspect I’m a dumb adult, I’m certain about the kid, it was official, as close to stamped on my forehead as could be. In junior school (don’t ask me what it was called, but wander through Google maps for Wembley and you’ll no doubt find the likely suspects) there were five classes for each year into which students were tracked by so-called ability or promise. Class One. Class Two. Class Three. Class Four. Each ranked accordingly. And then there was my class, the fifth, called simply Class D. They made no bones about it, D for Dunce, the letter deliberately refusing to track numerically. We were a ragtag jumble, black kids, brown kids, white kids, all urban poor, who’d found ourselves somehow deposited in this back of beyond class where not for a moment was anyone ever afraid of us overachieving. Or achieving. Anything. Low, or to be precise no, expectations were the rule, we were simply housed, like furniture, hoping that one day we might be useful (perhaps to carry real furniture up and down stairs, or more likely someone might want to sit on us, it was all the same really).
Mom, who didn’t understand these things, (and why should she), was concerned because she’d heard children were supposed to get homework. My brother did, (he had been in Class One, a star pupil!, a fact my teacher pointed out to me almost weekly), and she wondered why I didn’t. Not only was homework rare for me, it never happened, not one time in whatever extended saison en enfer I attended that class. Mom decided one day I needed to ask my teacher—I had to go up to her and ask for homework, that’s what school kids did, they got homework, they took it home and did it, it was how they learned, so my mom believed. Dutifully, at the end of class one day I do just as my mom asks, walk up to the teacher (whose name I forget) and ask her, Miss, my mum wants to know why we don’t get homework, and can I please have some.
She looked at me, this teacher whose name I don’t know, I mean stared, just stared, without saying a word, then the oddest thing happened, or odd to my childhood self. She burst out laughing. Not a giggle, not a snicker, it was a deep, full-throated laugh, throwing her head back into the bargain. She picked up her bag and turned, and still laughing walked out the door and along the pathway leading to the exit. I heard her laugh all the way out, and I can still hear it, all these years later. I didn’t say this to Mom, I didn’t say anything I imagine, and I don’t remember what I thought about that laugh, except I know I understood it, deep down, in ways that would only become clear as I grew older. She was stating the obvious, in the simplest terms possible, and I wish then I’d chosen after to stay home, spent my days watching afternoon movies, no doubt I would’ve learned more, or something.
The make-up of the class, looking at an old photo, is this: six white kids, five brown, two black. One of the black kids was my desk mate, and we spent days chatting, doodling, staring out windows, because I don’t remember actually having a class or being taught anything. We were best friends in that class. I felt not a jot of racial difference, not with him, not with any of the kids as far as I remember. But this is where it gets interesting. Because when we move to high school, something happens. My desk mate, whose name I can’t remember (I wonder if I’ve deliberately blocked out all these names), hangs with other black kids, and I hang with brown kids and white kids, and for the first time in my life I feel a sense of racial fear, which really is nothing more than a sense of racial superiority. In high school, I discover, I’m afraid of the black kids, and I’m also better than them, at least officially. He remains tracked into the bottom rung while I’ve moved up (I spent two years at a different school because we moved so often and it turned out I wasn’t such a dumb fuck, apparently). We cross paths maybe a couple times a term (it was a huge school, a thousand kids or more), and talk politely, but the old friendship has fizzled. I feel its loss, and his new friends—local toughs, or so it seemed to me, but probably just regular kids with a bit more energy and life—intimidate me, or I allow myself to be intimidated. I’d think back later and realize he had some form of learning disability, clearly undiagnosed or treated, at the very least a stutter, and so perhaps thought himself as dumb as the others, in power, who classed him as worthy of the trash heap. That doesn’t change the fact that somewhere along the line I picked up a sense of the world’s racial ladder, white at the top, brown in the middle, black at the bottom, and I placed myself securely in my rung.
Racial dynamics were stark in high school. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the lowest tier class was black, as far as I remember, a small group of kids the powers that be chose to casually discard. We discarded them too, their peers, because it was as if they weren’t really there, it was easy not to see them, we wanted not to see them, because we had made a lucky escape, or as if they had a sickness and we were afraid to get close, chose to shun them because that’s what you do with the sick, congratulate yourselves on not getting it, and I remember them as bodies that appeared every few days or weeks in the corner of an eye, aware with a mixture of guilt and relief that I wasn’t among them, happy, for a change, that I’m not the kid who will one day carry furniture up and down stairs, or be the furniture for someone else to sit on.
6. snow falls faintly on childhood as it does, faintly, on adulthood
Night has fallen and my brother and I have been sitting for hours, round after round of beer, until finally he turns to me and tells me his earliest memory. It too is of a stranger trying to kill him.
I’m a baby, or stepping stones into toddlerhood, and again we’re playing in the front garden, but of a different house, one I don’t remember. He’s three, maybe four years old, and as he recalls it, one of our openly racist neighbors sets a dog on him. The dog comes roaring at him and clamps his jaws around his throat and won’t let go, while the neighbor viciously eggs the dog on. We are three families squeezed into a two-bedroom house at the time, think all the worst immigrant nightmares of working class racists, with our smelly food and strange, far-too-colorful clothes and languages all our own, not proper languages like English, but weird, indecipherable, guttural squawks, the brown nightmare on Main Street, that is us, and one day, our National Front neighbor decides to snap, and seconds later, my brother’s neck is on the way to being snapped by a dog’s powerful jaws. It was an aunt who saved him, he says. She was home, and came bursting out on hearing the commotion. I can almost see her as he tells it, in her flowing shalwar kameez, battling the dog, pulling its jaws free from his neck, and releasing my brother. He really shouldn’t have lived, but the racist neighbor didn’t count on a Punjabi auntie coming between his dog and my brother’s neck.
“It’s why I was afraid of dogs,” he says matter-of-factly, finishing his beer. “Still am.” It’s one of the most personal admissions I’ve heard him make. Memories return of walking with him to and from school, his body contracting in fear whenever we pass a house with a dog. He’d pull away from the sidewalk and we’d walk in the middle of the road until we were well past, never explaining why we were doing that. Even on our walks through Brooklyn earlier that day I noticed how he hesitated at the sight of an approaching dog owner with their leashed mutt.
I want to hold him. I don’t. I know him well enough to know he’ll recoil at the gesture. Together, over a single day and night, we’ve traveled to that parallel universe that was our childhood. It feels extraordinary, like finding a lost land. There’s so much I didn’t say, about kids trying to kidnap me, set me on fire, cut my throat, in one instance skin me alive, and think the same must be true of him, about all he left unsaid. I leave it for later, or maybe just leave it, because I ask myself, now, pulling these threads together, why it matters, who it matters to. If one England exists, my land of English vicious, why not others, why not conjure England out of Roger Livesey, Kate Bush, Margaret Rutherford and Ralph Vaughn Williams, a land of English decent, and use that as my template, for if it’s pinprick, or not so pinprick, assaults that paint themselves wholesale over memory’s retina, why can’t we let that larger world, the more decent world, nudge, no shove, it out of place, send a knife flying between the fingers of Headbutt England and watch it scurry away? Naïve, I know, but trauma leads to narrow thinking, fear of stepping out of line, or lanes, suspicions of the complex, and I wonder at the lanes I’ve trapped myself in, the blinders I’ve worn, knowingly or not, and is English decent just another backwater lane for memory to be crushed into.
We say goodbye on an icy corner, fresh snow coming down in shallow gusts. My brother pulls away before I can shake his hand. I watch him walk into the night, white flecks sticking to his coat, breath spilling from his mouth and circling his head before he disappears.