Shadow

Fading memories of a young boy with a bad temper and skinny legs. Never been short of food but my brothers and sister don’t have enough to eat, call my name and my hair thins. I open my eyes to a blazing sun and a ripe mango, the juices dripping down my chin.

My island remembers me, forgets me, keeps my family safe until I can bring them home, to my arms, my, our new home a place where we can be who we wanted to be back on our island before I left and tore apart a dream to begin anew. My beautiful wife worries, the letters blotched, ink spreading over 4000 miles and a sea littered with the bodies of my ancestors. A grandmother I hoped to know. An aunty who will never get to meet her nephew. A cousin, a brother, a friend.

Where I go I don’t know. The pub on the corner doesn’t allow people like me, people my colour, with accents like mine, protruding lips, large noses, curly hair, demon. Demon dreaming in this land where all it does is drive the bus. Back and forth. My brother calls me, a home to call our own.

He shows me a new route along a road where the greenery never ends and the grass is always greener on both sides. If I hurry I can make another shift. The clock always lies when the manager sees my face. Add another hour. Close my eyes and count to 15.

My beautiful wife. My children; a photo of them in the cab of my bus painted yellow like the flesh of the fruits I no longer get to taste, traded for boiled vegetables limp and grey.

My home is cold, radiator leaking brown fluid, smells of piss and the room is too small to hold anyone except me. For a few weeks after I arrived bread and eggs were all I could afford. Take a threepenny and some tomatoes. Not a diet I can sustain. Tomorrow’s meal just the same, saltier if I can add a can of sardines when will I get my pay.

I’m £2 short. 

My manager says I’ve been paid enough, did overtime of my own volition. Liar. Add more hours take more money from the hard work I constantly do. And what if I can’t send enough back to my children, they can’t afford their shoes. My daughter becomes a seamstress to help her mother, to hide the embarrassment of my failings. Tailored clothes look better with wide stitches holding the scraps together.

A winter arrives bringing with it fresh snow and fog so thick I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I thought the autumn was cold but this is a new hell, a new method of torture. The first snow fall arrives just after my brother and I change towns, moving further north, following the work, and the women. The white women go wild for a peek at some unclothed black skin, excites them in a way I know borders on a perverse fetishization but I’ll clean up my act when I save enough money for my family to arrive. I hope to send for them by plane so they don’t have to take the arduous 2 week journey my brother and I and countless others had to.

My wife had already started her life by the time we met. I was busy being a no-good tearaway – I fully admit – and she already had 2 children. I fell in love with her, not at first sight, maybe 2nd or 3rd. She captivated me with her thick accent and golden-brown skin. Her sisters were protective, understandably, but I was, am determined to keep her mine. 

I was not a good person. Those morally grey days. I know I saw nothing wrong with keeping a string of girls attached like the pearls on my wife’s neck. These bus routes are familiar and I drive up and down the country, watching as men like me, men unlike me, brown and white, build the country up from the middle.

The streets are still gilded. The money comes in fast but I was lucky unlike Horace who I found out came in on the same ship as me, hoping for gold and silver only to find himself begging for copper. The reality of living this country is colder than the winter that took Horace’s life. He froze on the back of Mrs Butcher’s shop, the shop that sold cigarettes for a few pennies cheaper if a quick fumble was added onto the price just as dirty as the rest of us only her skin was white.

To get myself through I kept replying to my wife’s letters, lying to us both that life here was fantastic. I had never seen snow before arriving here and my fascination quickly dwindled. Nobody should have to deal with a cold so inhumane. I would seal each letter with a kiss, a real one, and head out into the night to post it for first collection. 

Ellis Walker

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