The Stripping of Threads | Jamal Mahjoub | Granta

The Stripping of Threads

Jamal Mahjoub

When my brother first came out, I would make an effort to go and visit him. Back then he was living in a grotty house in Earls Court – an area he had no connection to, but where he would remain for the next twenty years. All of his stuff had been lost when he failed to pay his former landlord. The guitars, records, books, clothes: all of it was either thrown away or sold when he went to prison. He was given a tiny room at the bottom of a house inhabited by other ex-convicts. In the hallways you stepped aside for former offenders with no idea of what they might have done to wind up here. Some of them were violent, one threatened my brother with a knife.

The room was a self-contained flat with a filthy bathroom that you had to squeeze into sideways. It had an old sash window that offered a view of a brick-lined light well. High walls you had no chance of seeing over. Compared to prison it might have been a step up, but it was a short one. These places are meant to give people a foothold in society, a chance to improve their situation. He never tried. As if the will to move on had somehow deserted him, he settled there, signed on for unemployment benefit and collected his daily methadone. That was it. In the beginning I suggested he move out of London, which is expensive, especially if you have no money. I suggested the south coast. Fresh air, less congestion, probably a better chance of finding work. He wasn’t interested.

He was completely isolated. He had no friends that I knew of, no family nearby, nothing around him. Old friends he had known back in Khartoum would ask after him. One or two even tried to look him up. It never came to anything, and eventually they stopped asking. Distant relatives would enquire, but they too stopped. It was basically understood that every family has one who goes astray. Bring him back here, they said. We’ll take care of him. But going back to Sudan was the last thing he would do. Go back home with nothing to show for it. So he remained there, lost in the transit hall that is London’s maze. The most regular employment he found was volunteering twice a week at a charity bookshop, but that was the zenith of his ambitions. His education was wasted. There seemed no chance of him recovering his vocation of being an architect. And the dreams he’d once had, of becoming a famous musician, were now never mentioned.

Our parents were gone by then. When my father passed away, we contacted the prison to see if we could break the news in person. We all sat in the visiting room on plastic chairs that were bolted to the floor. It was clear that he wasn’t happy to see us. The resentment was palpable, clinging to him like stale sweat. He had guessed why we had come, he said. It was as if he couldn’t wait for the visit to be over and for us to leave. We were a reminder of a previous existence, one that he had turned away from and that was painful for him to see again.

By the time he came out my mother had also passed. Whenever I was in London I would mark off a day to go over to Earls Court and visit him. We would go for a drink, or maybe a meal. He was my little brother after all. When my children were small I sometimes took them along with me, though they didn’t really understand who he was. He rarely showed much interest and had trouble remembering their names. I felt I owed this much at least, if not to him then to the parents who had created and raised us. I was bearing the torch for my father, who used to visit him every Friday after mosque. At the time I had been angry about this. It seemed to me that my father was trying to pretend that everything was the same as it had always been, rather than face the facts. My brother, after all, had arguably contributed to their ill health. One of the hardest things I ever did in my life was to tell my father that his son was not only taking hard drugs but probably selling them, and that he and my mother needed to be careful. My brother was living with them at the time. I had witnessed the shame my father had felt to see his own son tried and convicted in a British court, a country in which he had spent much of his life trying to prove how civilised and respectable a Black man could be.

In the end duty wasn’t enough. My brother saw through my efforts. He accused me of trying to fulfil an obligation, and of course he was right to an extent. I also realised that I, like my father, wanted to pass a couple of hours with him in something resembling normality. The meetings became more strained, and gradually they tapered off. There came a point when it was no longer worth making the effort, when our conversations would invariably veer into argument and bitter acrimony. And so it ended. Since then we have not had any direct contact. I don’t see him. He doesn’t write or call. He never replied to my emails so I stopped sending them. I have no telephone number for him. From time to time I hear from my middle brother that he is still alive, but that’s about it. And the same goes the other way. I am, I think, literally dead to him.

Jamal Mahjoub

Jamal Mahjoub was born in London and has lived in Sudan, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. He has published literary fiction and non-fiction, as well as crime fiction under the pseudonym Parker Bilal. His writing has won prizes including the Guardian African Short Story Prize, the Mario Vargas Llosa NH Hotels Short Story Award and the Prix de L’Astrolabe. His latest novels are The Fugitives and The Trenches.

Photograph © Jannah Loontjens

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