In my perverse mind it’s summertime: that hot summer of 1976. Which it could not have been, since Lukey was born in January. Even so, I persist in seeing it this way. Seeing my mother, in bikini and tie-dyed sarong, drifting from shaded bedroom to sun-scorched balcony, a whiff of coconut suntan lotion wafting through time to perfume this dull autumn afternoon. Bob Marley is playing on the record player, Running Away running through my head. Though, again, I am conflating an early memory with a later one, a time when Bob’s words were blasted full volume, blasted beyond the grave, my mother grieving her double loss.
These sounds, these scents, I will always associate with my first sight of Lukey, lying on a fluffy white towel, spread out on the rainbow-coloured quilt of my parents’ bed. Seeing him there, evidencing no sign of blood or breath, I thought him a lifeless doll-baby. Thought: this ugly-sweet creature cannot be my brother. He looks like the toy baby my grandmother gave me for Christmas. I imagined Lukey’s body to be floppy-soft and his pale, smooth head – showing none of the white-blond hair to come – to be as hard and as fragile as porcelain. Suspected that beneath the white nappy drawn up between his colourless legs, my alleged sibling’s sexless-doll status lay hidden.
Take him, Arlene! my mother would urge me, Hold your brother! He’s as light as air. Come on! Take him in your arms!
Hands clasped behind my back, fingers nervously entwined, shaking my head, I would offer some lame excuse and back out of the room, refusing to hold Lukey for fear of breaking his ‘doll’s’ head.
I was five years old that winter and had been at Whitehouse Primary for four months. And yet no rose-tinted memories of a favourite teacher or a much-loved playmate have travelled with me through life. All the childhood memories I own, all I can recall, have Lukey at their centre. From the start, my brother was the centre of my world.
Stop, Daddy! Stop!
I was fearful, too, should I catch Lukey being swung in my father’s long, strong arms; his tilting carousel swings had a frightening energy, a degree of danger that caused my heart to race, my voice to yell, Please stop. Think of Lukey’s baby brain!
He always called me Lennie, because, as my mother later admitted, he had hoped for, had wanted me to be, a boy.
He’s a flesh-and-blood baby. He not made of glass. He won’t break.
Unconvinced by my father’s assertions, I would continue watching fearfully, hoping my agitated presence would calm the trajectory of those rock-a-bye swings. Waiting until, safely back in his cot, I could pull the honeycomb blanket over Lukey’s fragile body.
And throughout that first year I believed my brother to be no ordinary flesh-and-blood baby. Believed him born of a more mysterious alchemy than the everyday love that had made me. Imagined he came from some faraway, fairy-tale land: a land of snow palaces, white knights and whey-faced princesses who slept on goose down and bathed in milk. To me, Lukey was too pale a creature to possess such life-giving, life-taking liquid as blood. My whiter-than-white brother. The child I see now, swinging in his father’s dark brown arms.
Our father came from Grenada.
Do they have snow there, Daddy?
It was Lukey’s first summer.
Do they have rivers of milk?
No, crazy chile. Grenada she have sunshine, she have blue sky, she have nutmeg an cinnamon, an ginger… looking out at the grey July day, then turning to beam down at me, with an enthusiasm that made me want to taste it, An she have rum!
Had it been just me, my father and my mother, had Lukey not been lying in his white cot, I might have said, Can we go there, Daddy? Can we go live in Grin-nay-dah, with its blue sky, its sinner-man and rum? But somehow I knew, before I knew why, that my mother would not sanction Lukey going there.
Dad must have known it too, because, sitting on the nursing chair beside Lukey’s cot, he said, Come ere, Coffee Bean (I was either Coffee Bean or Lennie. Never Arlene). These locks is comin undone. What’s your mother doin these days? Not plaitin that boy’s hair, for sure. And I stood between my father’s long legs, my hands on his knobbly knees, as his bony fingers deftly plaited my unruly hair, feeling safe in the pincer grip of his long-limbed presence. Y’know, Lennie, he said, blue sky can get a bit borin day after day. An a man can have too much rum.
Even a sinner-man?
Specially a sinner man. Those sinner-men would ave done well not to ave touched it in de first place. But men is weak, Lennie-girl. Men is weak.
But Lukey won’t be weak!
His big hands gripping my small shoulders, my father turned me round to face him. Lennie. Your brother is special, like any chile is special, an he’ll need to be strong, for sure, but that boy won’t be no saint, an I hope he won’t be no sinner-man either.
He won’t be, I said, with all the certainty of the innocent, He can’t be. Lukey’s special.
Back then, I think my father might have loved Lukey more than my mother did. Loved Lukey in the way he needed to be loved. Perhaps, foreseeing the dangers of a boy like Lukey having we two worrying women always about him, my mother knew that too. Maybe that was why, despite loving my father with a forgiving passion while he was with us, she hated him with an unforgiving passion after he left us.
My brother became my mother’s precious possession, her prized piece of porcelain. One to be kept in a box, in the dark, lest it break. This boy whose skin more closely matched her own winter flesh was an embarrassment. He was not brown, not coffee-coloured, not black, but white. Whiter than the winter breasts to which she pressed his new-to-the-world head, Lukey’s bleached mouth reluctantly accepting the watery milk leeched from her dark nipples. This pigmentless boy had let the side down. The beautiful woman from Grimsby who had fallen for the beautiful man from Grenada had wanted, had expected, another coffee-coloured baby, just like me.
My! she would say, rubbing cocoa butter into my legs, What a fine colour! I’d love skin like yours, Arlene. No more sunbathing. Ever. You are such a lucky girl.
I considered myself neither lucky nor unlucky, while, in spite of the stories I would tell him of snow queens in cloud-covered ice castles in the sky, knowing Lukey to be the unlucky one – especially after Dad left. For who would treat him like a real live boy now?
My mother had a job by then. On and off. Which meant I would sometimes have to skip school to look after Lukey. Our curtained flat a stuffy mausoleum in which I conjured frozen wonderlands to escape to.
The Ice Cream Giant, Arlene! Tell me the story of the Ice Cream Giant again!
He was five years old and about to start school.
Three years later, I by then in my first term at Windsfield Comprehensive, Lukey ran away from Whitehouse Primary.
I wanted to go to Iceland, he told the policeman who found him sitting on a wall opposite the supermarket of that name. Wanted to meet the Ice Cream Giant and the Frosty White Knight… managing to say before bursting into tears, But they weren’t there.
I wasn’t overly concerned then. For didn’t all small children have such fantasies? And surely Lukey needed a make-believe world where milk-washed boys were superheroes to be worshipped, not weirdos to be scorned.
Think I’ll go there someday, Lukey said, apropos of nothing.
We had just got home from school. I was in the kitchen filling the kettle.
Despite everything, I had made it to the sixth form. Lukey had recently joined me at Windsfield Comp. Although, according to his form teacher, most of the time Lukey was ‘in a world of his own’.
Think I’ll stay there, Lukey said, shuffling into the living room.
Where? I asked, following him.
North Pole, he answered, wandering out onto the balcony.
Luke Williams! our mother jumping up to expose her bare breasts to half the street, Get your sunglasses and your hat before coming out here!
Yeah, Lukey said, I’ll definitely stay there.
Hey there, Coffee Bean, my father wrote. I could hear his voice: dark and deep, and bittersweet. Yer see, Lennie-girl. A man can be a sinner-man without even takin a drop a rum.
He had sent a photograph. His dreadlocks had grown longer and his skin looked darker against the dark blue sky. He missed us, he said, but had t’get a bittah sunshine for a while. He would come back in a few weeks.
He came back in a few years.
He wore neither scarf nor gloves, and his coat was way too thin. I could hear his teeth chattering as he shivered at the graveside, my mother an angry distance away, managing to be both grief-stricken and indignant.
As Lukey’s coffin was lowered into the ground, snowflakes floated from the weighty winter sky to settle on the gleaming walnut.
I reached out for my father’s hand.
Don’t you have any gloves? I whispered, touching his frozen fingers.
Don’t need no gloves, Lennie-girl. Need to feel the pain of it. Need to hurt more, and he squeezed my hand so tightly I thought my fingers would break. But I didn’t wince, did not withdraw my hand from his, thinking, Break them, Dad. Break them all. Let me hurt forever.
I wrote a story on Lukey’s back once. I can see my brown finger now, moving across the sweaty whiteness of his parchment skin. A scorching summer’s day. He was seven years old.
Our storytelling game had begun three years before.
Give me your hand, Lukey. No, don’t look! You’re to feel the letters.
O-N-C-E… U-P-O-N… I shaped the words on his palm.
Dad had left that March.
Wuh-un-sah… Once upon a time! Lukey cried out. I can do it, can’t I, Arlene. My skin can read!
Sure you can do it, Lukey. You are the cleverest boy in the universe.
I was away at university. A year of retakes and I’d finally got a place. Though not the place I wanted: not a place close to home, close to Lukey.
It was snowing again. The previous weekend I hadn’t managed to get home. And, that week, hadn’t spoken to Lukey for five days. He’d been in hospital for three of them. His eyes again.
How’d it go?
It was a Wednesday evening. Mum was out. She had been out a lot lately, he said. I hated to think of him alone in that claustrophobic little flat.
Oh, y’know, Lennie, Lukey said.
He’d not called me Lennie for years, our mother reinstating Arlene soon after Dad left.
Same old shit.
He sounded cheerful enough, in that world-weary way of his. Lukey, not having a great deal to smile about, not one to smile a great deal.
I’ll be with you Friday, I said, The weather forecast’s pretty good.
You’re always with me, Lennie-girl.
He was barely fourteen, but his voice had a deep resonance that reminded me of Dad.
Always, he repeated.
He was found spread-eagled in the snow, his eyes (unprotected by the sunglasses Mum insisted he carry with him at all times) gazing up into the crystal-clear blue that had followed the sub-zero temperatures of the previous night, his mouth frozen in a smile.
I hope that’s of some comfort to you? the doctor who had attended the scene said.
It wasn’t. But has since become so.
Maybe you’ve gone home? I whispered, as I touched Lukey’s hand. May I? turning to the doctor.
Of course, the doctor said, I’ll be outside.
L-O-V-E… Y-O-U… A-L-W-A-Y-S my finger wrote on my brother’s bloodless palm. Maybe, I thought, somewhere where the sun shines down on everyone, Lukey’s skin might ‘read’ these words, might never forget them.
Let’s go for Christmas! my husband says. Your father still writes Come visit on his cards. And think of Nat, Lennie. His grandmother can carry her bitterness to the grave, but the boy should get to see his grandfather before he gets too grown-up for grandfathers.
Our eight-year-old son has his father’s fair hair and his maternal grandmother’s sun-loving skin. He is bright and sporty, has several friends, several of whom treat our house as their own. He even has a ‘girlfriend’.
Let’s get ourselves some winter sunshine!
Well, I say, I suppose I could at least write to him.
Uh-uh. You could at least call him. Break the ice, Lennie. Call. Call and say we’ll go see him.
Go see who? our very own superhero asks, dumping his schoolbag and slumping down beside me on the sofa. My fingers ripple through the sun-bleached waves of his hair. Pretty soon, I think, you’ll find this too close for comfort.
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