Francis was my older brother. His was a name a toughened kid might boast of knowing, or a name a parent might pronounce in warning. But before all of this, he was the shoulder pressed against me bare and warm, that body always just a skin away.
Our mother had come from Trinidad, in what parents of her generation called the West Indies. It was a place that Francis and I, both born and raised here in Canada, had visited once and could recognize vaguely in words and sounds and tastes. It was a place that accounted for the presence in our house of certain drinks like mauby and sorrel and also the inexplicably named Peardrax, which Francis had once fooled me into believing was bathroom cleanser. Somehow, we felt that the West Indies made sense of other equally strange objects in our home, like the snow globe of Niagara Falls, or the lurking threat of Anne Murray’s ‘Snowbird’ 45. It was a place populated by relatives we had met only briefly, who existed now in old black-and-white photographs, ghostly images that were supposed to explain our eyes and way of smiling, our hair and bones.
There was another old photograph in the house, one that Francis discovered when we were small, shelved secretly in Mother’s bedroom cupboard. It showed a man with a moustache groomed so carefully it looked painted on. He wore a thin light-coloured jacket, the open collar of his shirt slightly kinked up. Old words like suave and debonair came to mind, or at least they do now. This man was our father, who was also from the West Indies, and who now lived somewhere in the city, although he had left our home when Francis was three and I was only two. The photograph wasn’t perfectly focused, and I remember Francis and me as children looking hard into the blur of the man’s face for something recognizable. His skin was much darker than Mother’s, but we had been told that he was not black like her, but something called ‘Indian’ – although this identity seemed lost in the poorness of the photograph, or in the trowel-thick application of Brylcreem in his hair, as artificial as the black snap-on do of Lego Man.
In truth, none of us, not me, Francis, or Mother, had much interest in the grey pasts of photographs. We had more than enough to explore right here and now, and most of all we had the running challenge of what our mother called ‘opportunity.’ Mother worked as a cleaner in office buildings and malls and hospitals. She was also one of those black mothers, unwilling to either seek or accept help from others. Unwilling to suffer any small blow to her sense of independence or her vision of eventual arrival. And so if a job suddenly arose in some distant part of the city but held the promise of future opportunities, or if, just as suddenly, the opportunity for time-and-a-half beckoned, she would accept the work, though it meant leaving her two young boys alone at home.
She was never happy about abandoning us, and if she learned the evening before of an impending night shift, she would spend precious sleep time cooking and worrying over the details of meals and activities for the following day. If we had homework, she would set it out on the dining room table beside plates of cook-up and greens, or rice and stew chicken. There was tenderness in the dishes she prepared, love in a dish made perfect with the fruity bite of Scotch bonnet. But by the time she started putting on her coat and shoes, she would be in a state, exhausted, almost overcome with guilt, yet expressing it in bitter scoldings and fantastic threats. Her voice, schooled harshly in the Queen’s English, now articulating threats mined from the deepest hells of history.
‘No answering the door or turning up the heat. No turning on the oven or stovetop at any time. You hear me, Francis? I will strap your backside red if I come back to find you or your brother hurt. Absolutely no TV after eight if I’m not back until then. No A-Team or Mrs. T or any other gangster foolishness in my home. Oh you smiling now? You think is joke? You feel you too harden to listen to me? Then you both go right ahead and touch that stove dial. Just answer that front door once. I will string you up by your thumbnails from the ceiling. I will skin you alive and screaming. I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel!’
Francis and I would nod and shake our heads all at once in urgent promising. Mother would neat up her uniform and hair in the mirror by the door and then leave without looking back, locking the door and testing the doorknob several times before we heard faintly among the noise of traffic her feet clopping quickly away on the sidewalk. In the hours that followed, Francis and I would try to be good. We would eat our dinner and put away the dishes and only afterwards find high up in the kitchen cupboards the other tastes we craved. Thick mouthfuls of corn syrup sucked direct from the yellow beehive container. The tongue-stinging green of Jell-O powder licked slowly from a spoon. We’d do the homework Mother had laid out for us, but, later, we’d learn equally important life skills and facts about the world from Three’s Company and The Dukes of Hazzard. When we were a bit older, on those Friday nights when Mother was away we’d watch late-night Italian comedies with the enticing parental guidance warnings. Francis and I each suffering patiently through intricate plots in a foreign language for the promise of a couple seconds of boob.
‘They’re showing!’ he once shouted from the living room. ‘Both of them at once! You have to get here now! Right now!’
‘Wait! Wait!’ I called from the bathroom. Stumbling, falling, then crawling with my pants still around my ankles until I reached him and could see. But nothing. Only that late-night infomercial for the Ronco food dehydrator.
Francis’s laughter. Stupid beef jerky.
In every case, he would have the decency and respect to wait for at least an hour before making his move. And the first time Mother left us alone, it was magic. When the sun had begun to set, my brother dragged a chair from the kitchen to reach the deadbolt on the front door. He clicked the lock open, and pushed at the door, and here it was before us. The freedom of Lawrence Avenue. Security lights and rust-stained apartment buildings.
‘Remember,’ Francis told me. ‘We never answered the front door.’
The world around us was named Scarborough. It had once been called ‘Scarberia,’ a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city. But now, as we were growing up in the early ’80s, in the heated language of a changing nation, we heard it called other names: Scarlem, Scarbistan. We lived in Scar-bro, a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life. Our neighbours were Mrs. Chandrasekar and Mr. Chow, Pilar Fernandez and Clive ‘Sonny’ Barrington. They spoke different languages, they ate different foods, but they were all from one colony or the other, and so they had a shared vocabulary for describing feral children like us. We were ‘ragamuffins.’ We were ‘hooligans’ up to no good ‘gallivanting.’ We were what one neighbour, more poet than security guard, described as ‘oiled creatures of mongoose cunning,’ raiding dumpsters and garbage rooms or climbing up trees and fire-exit stairs to spy on adults. During winters we snowballed cars on Lawrence Avenue, dipping into the back alleys if the drivers tried to pursue us. A Pinto Wagon once shaving past my face, its wake tugging hard upon my body, Francis’s hand upon my shoulder pulling me safe.
During the day, we had more formal educational opportunities. Our school was named after Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation. But we the students of his school had our own confederations, our own schoolyard territories and alliances, our own trade agreements and anthems. We listened to Planet Rock and carried Adidas bags and wore stonewashed jeans and painter caps. You could hear us whenever there were general assemblies in the auditorium, our collective voices overwhelming whatever politely seated ceremony we were supposed to be attending.
Hey Francis, homeboy, my man.
Rudebwoy Francis! Gangstar!
Francis and I each served out long sentences in classrooms beneath the chemical hum of white fluorescent lights, in part out of fear of our mother, who warned us, upon pain of something worse than death, not to squander ‘our only chance.’ But Francis actually liked to learn. He read books, and he was a good observer.
And after class was out there were other institutions to learn from. A dozen blocks west of the towers and housing complexes of the Park, at the intersection of Markham and Lawrence, there lay a series of strip malls. There were grocery shops selling spices and herbs under signs in foreign languages and scripts, vegetables and fruits with vaguely familiar names like ackee and eddo. There were restaurants with an average expiry date of a year, their hand-painted signs promising ice cream with the ‘back home tastes’ of mango and khoya and badam kulfi, a second sign written urgently in red marker promising that they’d also serve, whenever asked, the mystery of ‘Canadian food.’
Also the Heritage Value convenience store, run by that asshole who framed his useless foreign degree, despised the dark stinking guts of every other immigrant, and bullied his wife and two daughters into endless hours at the cash register, advertising lottery tickets and low phone rates to Kingston and Saigon and Colombo and Port of Spain. The father hated Francis and me, recognizing the look of ‘no money’ on our faces. We had little chance of sneaking into his store when he was working. But if his wife or daughters were on shift, we might slip in and buy a few singles of Double Bubble and maybe a pack of three-flavoured Fun Dip. We’d scope out the freezer section with its Klondike Bars and Eskimo Pies frosted thick with crystals, their prices always out of reach. We might even be allowed to steal a few moments at the comic book display, pretending to debate a buy but actually reading as quickly as possible. Those stories of heroes masked and misread. Their secret origins, their endless war with darkest evil.
Francis had nightmares. He’d be lying in the bunk above me, and I’d listen to his breathing, the soft wheeze he might have from allergies or a cold. He’d be on the edge of sleep when some terror would visit him. He’d wake screaming a deep body scream, all cracked throat and emptied stomach, and it would take me a while to realize that I’d been screaming too. If Mother was home, she’d offer comfort. She’d lie beside us, and with the warmth of her body push back the fear. We’d lie quiet and awake, the three of us, for a long time, watching the wind blow ghosts into the drapes and cars passing by on the avenue cast moving lights upon the walls and ceiling.
Never speaking. Listening for things.
What scares two boys aged ten and eleven? Sometimes, in the midst of our play, a siren would cut the air and cars with flashing lights would brake screeching on the avenue, a neighbourhood kid soon cuffed on the sidewalk, his face turned away from us in shame. There were tales about boys jumped and beaten, faces ruined, jaws wired shut. ‘I saw it myself,’ claimed one; ‘I did it,’ claimed another, and we were never sure if either ought to be believed. Always, there were stories on TV and in the papers of gangs, killings in bad neighbourhoods, predators roaming close. One morning, I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces.
From the age of seven, Francis could read. He read books, of course, regularly and well into his teens. But he could also read the many signs and gestures around us. He could read the faces of the neighbourhood youth hanging around outside 7-Eleven and know when to offer a nod or else a sly joke or else just to keep moving and not just then attempt to meet a bruised pair of eyes. But especially, Francis could read our mother. He recognized her pride, but also the routes and tolls of her labours. He knew that for work as a cleaner, and sometimes a nanny, she had not only tough hours but also long journeys, complicated rides along bus routes to faraway office buildings and malls and homes, long waits at odd hours at stops and stations, sometimes in the rain or the thick heat of the afternoon, sometimes in the cold and dark of winter. He understood that there is a specific moment during the trip back home from work when a mother’s body threatens to give out. A specific site in the bus loop at Kennedy Station when exhaustion closes in and the limbs feel like meat, and it takes every last strength from a mother to make the two additional bus transfers home.
When Francis was still not quite a teen, and Mother returned home in a state, he would go to work. He would casually offer her a cool, damp cloth for her head, maybe even a pan of water and Epsom salts for her feet. He would fetch a blanket in winter, or a fan and a glass of water in summer. He was careful never to overdo his concern, and so wound her pride, or otherwise to break any of the household rules she had established to help us through lean times. But one hot summer day, when Mother collapsed on the couch, shaking her head at all offered food, unwilling to take a sip of water or even to open her eyes, twelve-year-old Francis dared big.
He went to the kitchen and took from the freezer a can of orange juice concentrate. We had been warned repeatedly by Mother never to touch such stuff without her permission. And if she allowed us to touch it, we were to use five cans of water to dilute the concentrate, never three as the fool instructions on the can said. But on that day, Francis used just one can of water, mashing it into the frozen lump of concentrate with a wooden spoon, and pouring the slush bright into a glass. He gently lowered the glass into Mother’s curled fingers, her eyes still closed. I braced for all hell to break loose as she tasted, her mouth moving as if eating pudding.
‘I made it sweet this time,’ explained Francis.
‘Sweet,’ Mom said, a tired smile.
She touched his face. She cupped his chin and touched the growing shadow of his moustache. She pinched his earlobe lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf, then reached to gently pluck something from his hair. A burr from the Rouge Valley.
The Rouge Valley. It was a wound in the earth. A scar of green running through our neighbourhood, hundreds of feet deep in some places, a glacial valley that existed long before anything called Scarborough. It had been bridged near our home, turned into a park with a paved asphalt walkway running alongside the creek. When we were very young, and Mother could spare the time, she would take us there for picnics. But soon Francis and I preferred to visit it on our own, scorning the paved walkway down into its parklands, opting instead for the footpath that we ourselves had broken through the undergrowth and down the steep slope until we reached the floor of that deep green valley.
When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken pieces of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle. One summer we used a stick to corner a crayfish, blue-red and mottled, and Francis explained shiveringly how it grew by cracking its own body open. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down from the fast-food joints above. Our hair camouflaged with mashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces already the colour of earth.
The Rouge was not ‘nature,’ not that untouched land you could watch on wildlife shows or read about in history books. The Rouge wasn’t the sort of place you could pretend to have discovered, nor imagine empty and now your own. But it was the place we knew, and the place, even as we grew older, we kept returning to.
Late one evening during the fall Francis turned fourteen, we visited for the last time. It had been a long time, perhaps more than a year, since we’d gone to the Rouge together. We walked to the edge of the bridge and spent a bit of time rummaging along the guardrail, trying to find the head of our path amidst the brush and fallen leaves and blown trash from the road. Twice passing cars honked angrily at us. Finally, Francis said, ‘Over here,’ and we began edging carefully down the steepest part of the valley’s slope, slipping wildly and only slowing down by grabbing brush and low branches. Eventually, the ground levelled and we broke out into a small clearing. Francis had a green canvas backpack with him, and when we were seated by the creek he surprised me by pulling out a six-pack of Molson Canadian. He broke one from its plastic ring and opened it with a soft whisper crack and passed it to me. I sipped carefully, trying not to make a face at the bitterness. We were quiet for some time as we drank our cans and the trees turned to black shadows against the night sky.
The above is an excerpt from David Chariandy’s novel Brother, available now from Bloomsbury.