Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor
gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father
feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
– Matthew 6:26
This is a story, much like any other, of ends and beginnings. Like any story, it is hard to know where to begin. But I think it makes sense to start at home, or a home. Actually, it might be more accurate to call it a house; one that stood alone atop Mount Zion, overlooking Leigh Woods, the Avon Valley and the muddy river that wound beneath.
‘Dis is the yard,’ I told Cuba, as we waited at its bourn, ‘the one man’s marge showed man when man was a young buck.’
The Bath stone house in the area known as Clifton was all original features; sash windows and working shutters. It had a vestibule and behind it a long plot of land that tripped and fell into the woods like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It could have been plucked from a fairy tale about two adventurers who had stumbled across the City of God. The front of the house was gated, guarded by statuette men from all nations clothed in white robes and carrying palm fronds. And in the middle of the driveway sat a fountain of living water.
‘It’s rah massive,’ Cuba said. And I understood his astonishment. It was a world away from the one we knew. Even if we owned the yard next to Nanny’s and knocked it through, it wouldn’t have reached half the size.
We left our pushbikes by the fountain and helped each other over the fence and into the back garden. ‘Do you know who lives here?’ Cuba asked. I shook my head. ‘Dey must be up doe, init?’
My mama used to bring me to this house when I wasn’t much older than a toddler. We wouldn’t come inside – she wasn’t as brazen as Cuba and me – we would only drive to the gate, and she would point up at the windows and tell me how she would imagine herself looking out of them when she was but a child herself.
She would cycle into Clifton and across the Suspension Bridge just to look at the yard. There were other houses on the road, for it was narrow with many mansions, but it was this one that caught her eye. It was the furthest from the street, she explained, as far from the hustle and bustle as one could get.
‘You know man’s gonna live here someday, cuz,’ I announced. Cuba screwed his face; he didn’t mean to doubt me, but he wasn’t accustomed to dreams. ‘How you gonna buy dis yard, akh? You need white people ps to buy dis – big man ting.’ ‘Don’t watch dat,’ I told him. ‘Man’ll find a way, truss me.’
Cuba put his arms across his little chest and huffed in the manner of a man about to embark upon yet another noble quest. ‘Say no more, g, but if you’re gonna buy it den man’ll help you, init. Dat’s what family’s for.’
In the back garden the sun caught in the shade and couldn’t strike the grass, but its efforts were rewarded with a mellow air that had paid no mind to the weather elsewhere. The grounds were vast, with streams that led from pond to pond, fruit trees and countless flowering shrubs.
‘You know deh’s horses in the woods, init?’ I said, repeating what my mama had told me all those years ago.
‘Yeah, fam. White horses. And my marge told man dat Jesus rides on white horses, blud.’
‘I bet dey would sell for ps den, init?’ Cuba muttered. We fell silent as we thought about how many packets of sweets we could buy for a white horse that even Jesus would ride. ‘You reckon we could sell dem?’ he whispered.
I shrugged, and climbed into the low branches of a tree close to a pond. Cuba picked fallen twigs from the base and threw them as far as he could; they broke the surface of the water and floated idly. ‘Only if you can catch dem first.’ We looked at each other, the fire in our eyes ablaze like jasper stones, then we raced to the bottom of the garden and through the cast-iron gate at its foot.
We spent the entire afternoon chasing the shadows of those white horses, but we didn’t catch the swish of a tail, nor the print of a hoof. We returned to the house-atop-the-hill downcast and defeated. I found my place in the tree again, and Cuba took up the twigs.
The water that ran from pond to pond had no foul smell. It was lazy, like a river of clarified honey. I thought if I knelt to taste it I might have refreshed myself after such a disappointing day, but Cuba had other ideas. He pointed towards the house. ‘Yo, you wanna see what’s inside?’
‘How?’ I asked.
He took a large stone from a rockery beside the pond and tossed it through the basement window. ‘Watch what you’re doing, blud!’ I yelled. ‘Don’t break man’s yard!’
Ready to run, we waited on tenterhooks for the sound of an alarm, but none came. ‘Dis shit’s so old,’ Cuba said after a minute, ‘man knew it wouldn’t even have no security, fam.’
‘What about my window, blud? Why’d you do dat?’
‘Dey’ll fix it before you buy it, g, don’t worry,’ Cuba grinned, ‘and if dey don’t, I’ll send you some ps to cover it. It’s calm, bro. We’re in dis together, remember? Come, fam.’ He swept the broken slivers from the window with his sleeve and we wriggled through a slit wide enough only for ten-year-old boys.
Inside were high ceilings, grand fireplaces, reception halls and drawing rooms. Whoever the owners were, they had spared no expense. Marble floors like sheets of glass. Huge chandeliers in each room. Cushions and carpets from countries outside of any I knew. The kitchen was stocked with an astonishing array of meats, a thousand jars containing every delicacy from marmalades to capers, an assortment of breads and cheeses, a cupboard full of sweet stuffs and an oven bigger than both of us.
And the bedrooms: they could have slept a hundred refugees. It was the first time I saw a pantry and a laundry room. The first time I’d travelled up four flights of stairs not in a block of flats. And that day I realised, more than ever, why my mama had fallen in love with the place; it was perfect – the perfect home. ‘What do you reckon dese man do to afford all dis, cuz?’ Cuba asked. ‘You reckon dey shot?’ He appeared in the doorway behind me with two watches hanging from his arm.
He’d had to push them up to his elbow to keep them in place. Cuba handed me one as I handed him some food from a cupboard.
The watch was gold like the sofas in the living room and had four faces that ticked at different speeds and pointed to different measures of time. I pocketed it because finders keepers and losers weepers.
We spent the evening exploring the house, eating from the fridge and napping on the beds. We lived like kings until the day grew old and voices came from outside, adult voices. Cuba gripped my arm and we crept to the front door.
Outside, grown-ups were pointing at the house and a fed was crouched over the bikes. The adults told the officer that they were good friends with the owners, who were weekending, and that they had heard a crash out back and nothing since.
Cuba’s grip tightened. ‘Yo, we need to cut, g,’ he whispered. We bolted back through the broken window and lost the law in the woods. From there we ran home, back to Ends. And a decade passed until I reached my twentieth year.
To everything there may have been a season, but some things remained unchanged and I wouldn’t rest until I owned that house-atop-the-hill.
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and
broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there
are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate
and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there
are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13 – 14
There are roads in neighbourhoods like mine all across the country. Broad roads. Without mansions. In England they have names like City Road or High Street, except this road was called Stapleton, and those familiar with her charm might call her Stapes. They were broad roads because they tracked their way from one side of Ends to the other. Ends was what we called our neighbourhood, or any neighbourhood like ours. I wasn’t sure of the reason, whether it was because it was where the downtrodden saw the light at the end of the tunnel, or because once you arrived you only left when those in charge wanted to rebrand. Either way, it was stuffed to the gunwales with people trying to make ends meet, so the name made sense. It was a far cry from Clifton.
The moment you left the city’s centre you could hear or smell Ends, whether you took a left after Stapes, or carried straight through Old Market. The sounds were disorderly. It smelt non-white. It was the other side of Abbey Road and industrial waste bins that were padlocked in other neighbourhoods hung and stank like open stomachs. You could find a million dreams deferred in the torn slips that littered outside the bookie’s.
I loved and hated this road.
It would always have a place in my heart, a certain fondness I kept in acknowledgement of how it had shaped the man I had become. I had grown to know Shona right here too, and for that I was truly grateful. Still, I hated it because there was nowhere I was better known, a fact I would soon come to find more troublesome than I’d ever imagined. And nowhere was there a greater example of how much pain we could normalise as human beings.
The road was patrolled by young and old: abtis arranged tables outside cafes, serving tea from pans; they peered into the faces of young hijabis, trying to find a likeness and match daughter to hooyo. Their sons and nephews stood outside corner shops and met at park benches, and together with my cousins, they were watched by the disapproving eyes of our respective elders.
I belonged to the Hughes family. The infamous Hughes family – known to police and hospital staff across the city. Except in truth, I was a Stewart. It was the name written on my birth certificate, and it was my papa’s name, but I owed it no allegiance.
Usually, the women in the Hughes family kept their surname if they ever married – which they did, several times – but my mama, Erica, had been all too quick to rid herself of such a burden. That was how my mama viewed any attachment to her maiden name. She twisted the familial bottle cap and poured past relationships down the drain like a wino intent on betterment. She had tried to impart her ideology on to me, but I was Hughes through and through.
A long time ago she had forsaken her desire for the house-atop-the-hill and, as a teen, had wed my papa, then a trainee pastor. And now, much to the mockery of our family, she was a pastor’s wife and worship leader and had inherited two names instead of one. Like new shoes, Sister replaced Mrs, and Stewart ousted Hughes.
I had more cousins than rivers had rivulets, and like a doting stepmother, Stapes took us all in. A few of my aunties had council houses on the offshoots, and I think I had a cousin or two in the high-rises that overlooked the toings and froings of the busy road. Those who didn’t live nearby could be found on Stapes more often than in their own homes – at Nanny’s, in Ladbrokes or one of the yard shops, buying cassava and plantain. My likkle cousins might be found at the blue cage playing ball, and the elders might be at one of the free houses tossing dominoes and talking about things they knew nutun about.
My cousin Winnie called the street itself home. She slept on the Baptist church steps and begged cigarette stubs from the gutter. She said she found the gutter more giving than the people passing, but maybe the people passing had nutun left to give.
I sailed the pavements in June as one accustomed to the breaks in the concrete. I swayed clear of batty-man poles and touched fists with those who knew me well enough to acknowledge me, but not enough to ask how I was. And even if they had asked, I would’ve lied and said all was well.
My cousin Bunny spotted me from across the street and touched his hand to his heart, then to the sky. I returned his salute and we kept it pushing.
Bunny was a funny one, unpredictable like the weather. If there was a child in Ends without a father, we said it was Bunny’s yute. He was to women what Vybz was to Jamaica’s youth – at least that’s what he thought.
He called himself the Garfield Sobers of infidelity.
Once, not long before my twentieth summer began, I had seen him sprawled across a bus stop, hair half cornrowed, tracksuit at his knees, with Winnie asleep on his thigh and a crack pipe in his hand. He’d looked at me through glass eyes but I didn’t tarry. The next morning I saw him at the helm of an empty pram, walking through Cabot Circus in a cheap suit with two of his yutes on either side. His arm was linked with a young woman’s who wasn’t either of their mamas, and he held a brick phone to his ear with his shoulder.
I didn’t take more than ten steps before bumping into my next relation. Sidestepping a shrivelled Kurd who shuffled with his head down and his hands held behind his back, I encountered the wide bosom of Aunty Paulette.
Aunty Paulette was my mama’s younger sister and she had spent much of her life inside. She wore a fistful of gold rings and one of them chains from Claire’s with the letter ‘P’ in bold italics. Her favourite thing to do was to jam her finger into older men’s chests and tell them that she was twice the man they were.
‘Wahum, Sayon,’ she said, busy picking sup’m from her teeth with her tongue. ‘Stand up straight wen mi ahh chat to yuh nuh man, yuh shoulders deh slouch an yuh look miserable, yuh just ahh ruin di day energy man, chuhh. Yuh see Bunny? Mi affi chat to im.’
I told her where I’d seen him. ‘Who im deh wid?’
I told her he was alone.
‘Good. Mi av ahh bone fi pick wid im, enuh.’ She then proceeded to pick the bone with me. Apparently Bunny had borrowed a twenty sheet from her last week and was refusing to pay her back. Aunty Paulette had been forced to borrow the money from Nanny and now Nanny was at her neck because she couldn’t play her numbers.
I struggled to appear concerned. I had some change on me, a little less than a grand – my aunty knew that – why else would she complain to her nephew? I took a ball of money from my pocket and unwound the elastic bands keeping the notes together. The house fund wouldn’t miss it, so I gave her two twenties and suffered the kiss she planted on my cheek.
‘Tenk yuh, Nephew,’ she drawled, tucking the money into her brassiere and pushing the words over and around the mint in her mouth. ‘Yuh keep outtah trouble now, yuh ear?’ And just like that, Aunty Paulette was gone. Gone to inflict an earful upon the next man that eyed her the wrong way or looked at her rear a little longer than she liked.
The end of a dual carriageway split Stapes in two. If the first part was mini-Mogadishu or bantam-Hargeisa, the second (top side) was likkle Kingston: more bookies, barbers and chicken shops, more billboards and men sat low in coupés with dark windows.
There was a Pakistani-owned wig shop selling Brazilian hair to West African women. Across the street, their ill-mannered Caribbean competition saw less custom. Further up the road, on the corner of a branching avenue, blue-and-white police tape cordoned off the footpath where I’d taken Cordell’s life not two days ago.
The difference between where I lived and where I wanted to be living was laughable. I wrung my hands as I walked and comforted myself with the knowledge that I would be rid of the filth soon; all I had to do was remain free.
The attending officers who were standing beside the tape scanned the crowds, looking for admissions of guilt in the dark faces of passing strangers, but I made it impossible for them, or anyone else watching, to read my trepidation. As ever, there was bop in my stride and a bounce to my gait, but my mind was split, contorted in a million directions, few of them fruitful. I’d worked hard these past years, and my boyhood dream was well within sight. If all went to plan, I would be able to offer the homeowners eighty per cent of the house’s last valuation. Eighty per cent. Cash. By the end of the year. And with the promise of more to come – surely they couldn’t refuse that? But it was just that which bothered me: if all went to plan. Because it was only June, and Cordell’s death had me scrambling.
I checked the time. I had an appointment to keep and would be late if I dawdled, but as I approached the crime scene I felt I needed something to ease my spirit; and good company, even brief, could do that.
On any other day I would have crossed the carriageway and stopped at the first corner shop for a patty and a bag juice, so in order to maintain the appearance of normalcy that’s exactly what I did.
The shopfront was painted a deep green and in a high, bright yellow scrawl the sign read: viv’s.
Viv was an old-timer in Ends. He had come to England with the first ships in the late forties, moved to Bristol for dock work and sekkled a community. Viv’s was open from March through October, when he packed up and went back ahh yard fi winter. ‘Back to di wife,’ he would always say. I would ask, ‘Which one?’ And he would wink and put a finger to his lips: ‘Whichever one nuh baddah mi, star.’
His family was the only one older than mine in the city. We knew each other well and demonstrated our respect through patronage. I gave him an extra tenner each visit and dropped a couple of pounds in the charity box I knew he took a cut from.
Going home wasn’t cheap; I didn’t blame him.
As I entered the shop I shouted his name, but I needn’t have bothered because the tinkle announced my entrance too. ‘Viv,’ I called. No answer. ‘Yo, Viv, yuh cyaan ear mi?’ I checked to make sure the officers hadn’t followed me inside, then dropped loose change in a box claiming the money went to starving Africans and leant across the counter.
Through a hatch behind the till, a small set of stairs led to a basement that ran beneath two properties. It was where Viv kept his ‘hexpensive liquors and hexcess stock’. It was also where he grew marijuana plants in a locked room. He hung the key around his neck next to a beaded chain and a rusted locket with a busted case. The exposed photograph in the locket was of him as a boy sat on his mama’s knee. He wore a white frock to match his mama’s sweeping hat and gown. Age had stained the picture pink, forcing rose-tinted spectacles on any who caught the young boy’s eye.
I assumed the old man was with the greenery and that he wouldn’t be long, so I tended the shop to pass the time. It would do well to take my mind from things.
Whilst I waited, two likkle yutes hustled into the store. They wore backpacks bigger than themselves and talked about footballing events from before they were born. They didn’t give me a second glance. When I was coming up, an older would have checked us for that. A nod of deference was required, at the very least. I had thought it stupid then, but I understood it now. It was about respect. It was the acknowledgement of something bigger than ourselves. Still, the two yutes were in a world of their own, so I left them to it.
I propped the door ajar and stood in its entrance. In the middle of the road a dread was slowing both sides of the traffic as he shouted sweet nothings at a larger-than-life white woman across the street. A mother took advantage of the temporary tailback and shooed her train of children between the cars. And behind the police tape I could make out the discoloured pavement where Cordell’s blood had dried.
Two officers stood beside the tape ready to hurry any gawkers along, but since this wasn’t Clifton, the scene was hardly worth much more than a passing glance.
I had never entered the adolescent stage of thinking myself immortal. My mortality was as real to me as the soil I shovelled onto the aunts, uncles and cousins we buried. That was one of the downfalls of having a large family: the funerals outnumbered even the weddings.
A reedy voice came from behind me: ‘Yo, scuse me.’ The two yutes were waiting to leave. The boy who spoke looked at me through hooded eyes, unsure of what resistance I would provide. The other yute hung at his arm and glared, but didn’t offer a word.
‘Unuh ain’t buy nutun?’ I asked. They shared a look.
‘Nah,’ the spokesman said. They each had their hands stuffed into their pockets, which were fuller than they had been when they arrived. I took my eyes from them and noticed the absence of a handful of sweets and chocolate bars from the counter.
‘Say no more,’ I nodded, opening the door for them to leave.
As they stepped on to Stapes and shared a triumphant smile, I recalled how close my ear had been to the streets at that age. ‘Yo,’ I called after them, they half turned, half made ready to run, but I beckoned them closer. ‘You man heard what happened?’ I asked, nodding towards the police tape. They followed my eye and shrugged. The spokesman reached for a Snickers, tore the wrapper and took a bite.
‘I heard it was one Mali yute dat did it,’ he said, but his friend was quick to disagree. He ripped a Skittles packet wide open and tipped some into his mouth.
‘Nah, I heard it was one ahh dem man from Pauls.’ They shrugged in unison again.
‘Could’ve been anyone, init?’ I replied, gladdened that the streets hadn’t attached my cousin’s name or mine to the hearsay. ‘Aight, say no more, enjoy the rest of your day you man; look after yourselves.’ They nodded and began to leave. ‘An stop teefin,’ I called after them. They laughed and skipped away, revelling in the adrenaline rush that being caught allowed.
It was all fun and games in the mind of a child. Consequences were butts of reefers to be flicked into the road and any interference was worthy of prejudice and scorn. But even in my youth I was far removed from a child, and after what had happened, consequences waited for me around the corner like chancers ready to pounce.
It didn’t seem like Viv was coming back any time soon, so I paid for the boys’ sweets and sought a moment’s comfort elsewhere.
If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother,
he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother
whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he
has not seen? – 1 John 4:20
St Barnabas Baptist Church was the largest building on Stapleton Road. It towered two storeys above Viv’s, and its spires climbed higher still. It was built during a time where the regulars would have covered their noses with handkerchiefs and politely moved from the pews where the current attendees sat.
Now it watched over the punters, trappers, drug abusers and mentally ill with the silent disapproval of a wayward father re-entering his child’s life and finding an adult far from whom he had imagined his child would become. In his children he had foreseen godly men. Men of the good book. Oh, what disappointments they had become: hypocrites and backsliders.
I found Winnie on the steps.
‘Yo cuzzy,’ she shouted, quickly moving to block my path. She wore jeans that stopped way shy of her ankles and hips, and a brown faux leather jacket with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. Her lips were cracked and her hair stiff like parched wool. ‘You got anythink for me fam anythink at all money or food I don’t mind I seent your girl’s dad a minute ago.’
‘Is he inside?’
‘Nah he just left in a hurry looking like that man that carries the world on his back what’s his face some Greek mythology person Antman or sup’m I don’t know I seent your girl and her mum last week too Shona’s real real pretty pretty like an angel she is ain’t she I think that every time I seen her enuh?’
‘Did her pops say anyting to you?’
‘Nah nah he didn’t say nothink to me but he gave me these.’ She showed me her palm. He’d given her five pounds in silvers, so I added another five.
‘You sure my man didn’t say nutun?’ I asked again. It was always best to check twice with Winnie. ‘Didn’t mention he was meetin man? What it was about or nutun?’
‘Yeah yeah I’m sure Sayon man I told you I’m sure he ain’t say nothink.’
‘Say nutun. What you sayin, you ate today?’
‘Nah nah you know sometimes I forget init.’ She shifted on the balls of her feet and repeatedly re-counted her change. She rarely paused for breath. ‘Just been busy you know praying talking to God making sure He know I’m all right cos you know Jesus cares about us init you me Midnight Hakim Shona’s parents Erica your daddy Nanny and the rest of our family too Killa Calvin we’re sinners all sinners you know but Jesus washed Jesus washed and washed our sins away you know dat init yeah you know that her dad let me inside his church the other day enuh?
‘Yeah, I seent him the other day and he axed me to help him move a couple chairs and gave me some food real food not your food that wouldn’t make any sense if Pastor gave me dat kind of food den he’d go to Hell not Heaven and dat wouldn’t make any sense cos dem guys done the place up nice since I last seent it init lick of paint does wonders init?’
I might have asked Winnie if she’d heard anything about Cordell – after all, bitties were the biggest gossips – but I didn’t want to keep the pastor waiting. If I didn’t leave, I would end up taking her across the city to collect God knows what from God knows who. I gave her the little food I had left and cut.
Like my papa, Shona’s papa was a pastor. The pastor of the Baptist church whose steps Winnie called home. And the pastor of the church whose eyes fell hot on my back as I travelled further and further down the road.
The right honourable Pastor Lyle Jennings.
A car sped past, almost hitting the kerb, and it drew me from the intimacy of my thoughts. It didn’t slow, but I glimpsed my cousin Cuba in the passenger seat. He saw me too and stuck his head from the window with a grin, signalling that they’d spin back in a second. I waved and crossed the street as the whip disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Cousins were raised as siblings in the Hughes family.
As the oldest living family member, Nanny was the matriarch and everyone did as she said. She bickered with the men in the yard and seasoned food with the women. And she told us to get along, so we did.
That was how Aunty Paulette’s second son, Cuba, became my brother.
Cuba and I were born a few months apart. I was in the year above at school, but age ain’t nutun but a number and neither of us cared. He was wise beyond his years. We were like twins, though I was red and he was black like treated sugar beets. The rest of our cousins were either red like me or lighter-skinned and they used to mock his blackness sup’m fierce; they called him A-Quarter-Past-Midnight, Midnight and The-Dead-of-Night. Nanny too. Cuba was dark like her papa and that didn’t sit well in her spirit, but since it got under his skin I never joined them.
Both Cuba and I were around the six-foot mark, with short hair that faded to skin. We could sleep for a matter of minutes and would never get bags under our eyes. Our skin was gloss, with or without lotion. We were smooth criminals and butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths.
Every one of my cousins was raised at Nanny’s and we all had spent varying degrees of time there as yutes, but none more so than Cuba and me. My parents were never much taken with this world, and by extension their only child. And when Aunty Paulette was free and sober enough to take care of Cuba, her unease with the responsibilities of motherhood made her beat him shades of blue like black boys in moonlight.
The closeness of our age and the vast amounts of time we had spent together were reflected in our kinship. We walked to school and back together. Ate and bathed together. We liked the same stories and sports teams, the same treats, and were drawn to the same people. We were close with the rest of our cousins, but that was always who they were to us: the rest.
When I was six and Cuba five, the two of us would make a game of climbing Winnie’s back and racing through the house like Black cowboys at high noon.
One time, Winnie tripped and knocked Cuba’s big brother Jamaal to the floor. Dazed, Jamaal reached for whatever his hand landed on and it landed on me. Whilst he mounted and begun beating me, Winnie took off upstairs and Cuba bolted for the kitchen. He came back with a knife and buried it in his brother’s leg.
Even at that young age, riding Winnie’s back, playing penny on the wall and pretending to be a grown-up, I knew that I could kill for him. After all, there was no one I loved more on Earth or in Heaven. Except I hadn’t thought that my conviction would one day be tested, especially against someone I’d once considered a friend.
Photograph © Chris Hoare, Usher, originally from London, flexes in the last light on Stapleton Road, Bristol, 2021