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.

How did it all come to this? I can’t help thinking that when we were small the three of us were very close. There are only eighteen months between each of us. After five years without children, my mother suddenly had three boys in quick succession. We were brought up in the same household, played together, shared a room when we were small, went to the same school, slept outside under the same stars. It would be wrong to say we were treated equally. All parents may aspire to impartiality, but in the end factors like character and affinity play a role. They tried, I suppose, but I always thought my father was harder on me as the eldest, and favoured my younger brother because he was small and cute. He had a nickname for him, whereas he often mocked me. Perhaps that’s just the way I remember it. I left home early and my brother stayed late. Our middle brother found his own course, marrying into a rather conservative and wealthy Egyptian family that adopted him wholeheartedly. Not so much gaining a daughter as losing a son, my mother would say. Under their influence he turned to Islam, something we had not been encouraged to do as children. Neither of my parents were firm believers. My mother was at best a sceptic. She hated the hypocrisy of pious people right up to the very end, while my father became gradually more observant, doubling up the five daily prayers to make up for lost time, and making the haj to Mecca.

How can three souls, born to the same parents within such a narrow time frame, and brought up in identical surroundings, find themselves so alienated from one another that they can no longer bear to see each other, and rarely even communicate? This is the question that I keep coming back to, the one I can never quite explain. Only three people in the world shared that specific experience of growing up together, and yet we cannot get along. Whatever bond or allegiance was formed in those early years, it was not powerful enough to overcome our personal choices.

I wonder what measure of this is mine to bear. I wasn’t there, after all, in those crucial years when my brother went from a teenager to an adult. I had been awarded a scholarship, which I saw as my ticket to see the world. I was determined to travel as widely as possible, and shut the idea of home out of my mind. I assumed it would always be there for me to return to. But those intervening years were key for him. He discovered a new kind of notoriety, hanging out with people who were older than him, expats for whom Sudan was just a dangerous playground. He fell in with an English guy who set up an illicit bar. Alcohol was banned at the time, but they brought booze in overland from the Eritrean port of Massawa. There were checkpoints on the roads, but it was easy enough to circumvent them by cutting across the desert. Through that gateway came other things, including heroin. When things got too hot for him, he came to London to join me. By then he already had a problem.

In the end, my mother had no need for my warning. She worked it out for herself. She had just been diagnosed with melanoma and was in London for treatment. She threw herself into trying to understand my brother’s problem. She attended meetings for parents of addicts and read countless books on the subject, believing there had to be a way to cure him. It’s a natural instinct to try and protect your children from harm, but it was already too late. People get clean because they want to. You can’t make them do it. I see now that I had been doing the same thing. Those visits to Earls Court were my attempt to understand. And like my father, I was trying to normalise the situation. Perhaps subconsciously I even believed that I would find the cure, that I could fix the problem. I was also looking for a way to forgive him, for what he’d done to the family, to our parents, for squandering the opportunities he’d been given. When eventually I stopped going, it had become clear to me that I was deceiving myself. I could never forgive him. This thing would always be there between us. I would never understand, and I could never save him from himself.

Eventually he resolved his addiction problems, or at least brought them under control, but he remains caught within the narrow confines of his choices, still unable to move on. He burrowed down into the idea that this was meant to be, this was what marked him out as being special. His acceptance of his fate and those broken dreams he’d made so little effort to achieve, contains no small degree of martyrdom, which is tied to a notion of redemption. The reason it is so hard to forgive him is that although he cannot deny the pain he has caused, he cannot really bring himself to admit it. Underlying everything there rankled a feeling of injustice, a sense that life had let him down, dealt him a bad hand. In his narrative he is always the victim. Our parents are to blame for not instilling in him more discipline. If he lacked inner strength it was because they had been too easy on him. This obsession with self that borders on narcissism goes some way to explaining the resentment, towards me, towards our parents, towards the world for putting obstacles in his way. It’s what makes it impossible for him to have more than a passing interest in anyone else’s life. In the end, the only subject left to him is himself.

For a number of years he persisted in the belief that he could somehow vindicate himself, turn his plight into noble sacrifice. With his share of the inheritance, which wasn’t a lot, he invested in the stock market, something he knew nothing about. In due course all the money was lost but for a long time he would tell me, rather dramatically, that if something should happen to him, the financial documents were in an ugly old briefcase he kept in a corner of his room. That was his plan, to finally make good on everything by paying back what was, in his mind at least, some kind of fortune. Ignoring the fact that no amount of money would ever make up for the heartache and pain he had caused.

I hold no illusions about us being reunited. All of this has gone on for far too long. The threads that connected us have been shorn off. All that remains is the memory of it and the unresolved mystery about what it all means. Maybe we were simply too close. We know too much about each other. There is a time when we were at school in Khartoum that always comes back to me. We used to have extra Arabic lessons in the afternoons. My father would drive us over to the teacher’s house and we would sit in the yard, which was just a small, bare space between the rooms and the whitewashed outer wall. We sat around a table covered with a plastic sheet. One afternoon my brother made a lot of mistakes. I think we were doing dictation. The teacher told him off for not working hard enough. Without a word, my brother got up and ran to the tall metal street door and pulled it open. We watched in amazement, then we all got up and went over to take a look. The house was surrounded by sandy streets and opposite was a football pitch. Again, just a dusty space with a goal frame at either end. The lines were marked in chalk. There he was, halfway across, running through the bemused players with no regard for the shouts that followed him. Where’s he going, the teacher asked, speaking our thoughts aloud. The teacher’s younger brother took off and eventually brought him back. It was a funny story at the time, but it always made me wonder. We were far away from where we lived and he didn’t have a clue how to get back home. So where was it he thought he was going? I don’t think he knew. All he wanted was to get away from where he was and maybe never come back. It was as simple as that.


Photograph by Judith Mahjoub, Jamal Mahjoub (left) and his brothers, Liverpool, late 1960s
Courtesy of the author

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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