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From Conjunctions 79
For breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On slices of rubbery white bread buttered with margarine so that the marmalade slides under the spreading knife. In the glass jar, the orange jelly with bright shavings of orange peel absorbs light and invites hungry eyes. And so, dreaming of marmalade, the brothers, always in need of sustenance, arrive on a snowy March morning at Heathrow. Their mother stands at the bottom of the aircraft boarding stairs, her arms full of four gray wool coats. She’s given special permission to stand by the plane with the coats because of the snow and the fact that her children, categorized as minors in the state’s eyes, materialize with no protection against the English weather. The boys file down, the eldest, age thirteen, holding the hands of the youngest, age five, and the two middle boys, eight and ten, in single file, not touching. Their teeth chatter. Their heads swivel, take in parchments of light.
     The youngest opens his mouth and tries to catch snow, his neck extended. His face juts this way and that as the flakes dodge his mouth. The eldest tries to pull on his youngest brother’s arm but it slips from his grip. Halfway down the steps the youngest stumbles. Though the eldest grabs at him, he just misses a sleeve and the five-year-old tumbles, as if boneless, so soft are his landings by hands, shoulders, knees, backside, and elbows, down the flight of stairs all the way onto the black tarmac, flecked with white. His mother shouts three joined-up names first before she gets to the correct one, Gavin-Neil-William! Tony! She drops the coats and drags him to his feet and folds her arms around him. Two airport officials rush over, pick up the coats, and check with her that the boy’s unhurt. She nods and she distributes the coats to the children, from the smallest, which she helps onto Tony, upward in size, using one free arm and hugging each in turn with a quick kiss and a smile. She keeps her grip on little Tony, bruised with embarrassment.
     They collect four suitcases helped by a man who is neither Guyanese nor British and who their mum introduces as Uncle Iqbal, which causes the three oldest boys to raise their eyebrows, while the youngest seems oblivious. As they march to a van, stamping on the snow as if the ground were showered with insects to be obliterated, the eldest asks, Where’s Dad? Their mother says she will explain later and she invites them to take in the sights of England. The boys, all except the youngest, Tony, who is engrossed in following the things his mother points out to him, look at each other and at the man introduced as their uncle, and again at each other. There is nothing discernible in their expressionless faces; there is everything in the way they catch each other’s eyes.
     The drive to the house takes a long time measured by streets of joined-up houses, low walls at the front and a patch of greenery, cars parked bumper to bumper, the stop and start progress of traffic lights and their mother saying, Not far now, every time the Ford van with three rows of seats gathers momentum and jolts the children. The sky narrows and leans in close with a mix of low, gray clouds, dull light and moisture, no sun. The children take in everything, though their eyes burn from lack of sleep. They see people in long coats, shoulders hunched, heads down, a slight crouch to them as they walk at a brisk pace. The people look pale, ashen. Some of them push prams whose contents remain invisible under thick covers. Others carry bags of shopping. Couples grab onto each other for dear life.
     The driver sings quietly and glances over to the boy’s mother in the front passenger seat. He searches for the boys in the rearview. They try not to look but cannot help listening to his sweet voice. He pauses and explains it is a song by Iqbal, no relation, he adds, a great poet from his home country, Pakistan. He sings on, So sal la pe hel le, mu jay toom say pyar a tar, mu jay toom say pyar a tar, sal la pehe . . . Then translates roughly, though no one asks him to, he says, I have loved you a thousand years and I will love you a thousand more. He says this and looks to his left at the boys’ mother. He takes his eyes off the road again and again. She blushes and her hands fiddle with her headdress. The boys stare ahead in alarm as the van careens toward stalled traffic. Uncle Iqbal slams on the brakes. The boys slide off their seats. The oldest three suck their teeth—a loud intake of air through clenched teeth and pursed lips—and their mother asks the youngest if he is all right. He nods. Says he wants to wee. Uncle Iqbal apologizes and pulls over in front of a fast-food place, where he turns on the hazard lights and leaves with Tony. They return with burgers and fries and drinks. The boys’ mother asks, What do you say, children? They say, Thank you, in unison. She asks again, Thank you who? They reply, Thank you, Uncle Iqbal. As they eat, everything changes from lethargy to a jittery animatedness. Uncle Iqbal drives in silence for the rest of the journey.
     At last the van with its musical driver pulls into an East London side street and parks about halfway along it in front of houses that all look alike, the net curtains, the sepia wood tones, unadorned brick and concrete. Uncle Iqbal runs from the driver’s side to open the passenger door for their mother and next the back door for them. He splits open the van’s back doors and unloads the four suitcases. He rushes to the gate and pushes it open and gestures to the house for their mother to proceed. She calls on her children to follow her. Tony runs to her side and takes her hand. We’re home, she says. Again the eldest asks, Where’s Dad? She says back to him with a forced smile, Gavin, be patient. I’ll explain everything in a moment. Gavin catches the eyes of Neil and William. This time their mother sees the exchange and she adds quickly, We can talk as soon as we settle in, I promise. The owners of the house, a young and corduroy-wearing English couple and their daughter, Jennifer, greet the boys, their mother, and Uncle Iqbal at the front door. They offer to help with the suitcases but between Uncle Iqbal and the boys there’s nothing left to carry. They retreat to the upstairs portion of the house. Jennifer waves at Gavin. He returns a barely perceptible nod and the merest wisp of a smile since all eyes are pasted on him. The boys’ mother ushers them into a front room with a table and sofa, a sewing machine and clothes rack and television. She opens a curtain separating the room into two to reveal a pair of bunk beds and barely enough room for a chest of drawers and a clothes rack. She tells them space is limited and they will have to keep the place tidy. She says they can decide where they want to sleep but she does not want the youngest on a top bunk. She rubs the top of Tony’s head as if dusting it and skims it with a kiss.
     After she leaves the room, they hear her talking with Uncle Iqbal in the corridor. The words cannot be discerned, just the interplay of two tones, one male and the other female. The front door closes and she walks along the corridor, quick steps with heels resounding on wood, to the kitchen. The boys hear aluminum, water, glass, and steel all banging against each other as their mother hums and adds her voice to her one-woman orchestra. They put away clothes, one drawer for each of them, coats on hangers. They pick out beds with a rhyme. Gavin, the eldest, says each syllable and chops the air in the direction of each brother, Apten-dapten-dee-kalapten-daddy-kalapten-dee-do-es-kamoody-skalam-askoody-apten-dapten-dee-kalapten-daddy-kalapten-dee-do. The nonsensical rhyme ends with Gavin pointing at Neil, who is the first to pick a top bunk. Gavin launches the rhyme again and this time he ends it by pointing at himself. He shrugs and chooses the other top bunk. William stops Gavin launching into the rhyme for a third time with a quick nod at Tony to go ahead and take a pick of one of the two remaining lower bunks. They complete the sleeping arrangements just as their mother returns with a tray loaded with four glasses of hot orange juice and marmalade sandwiches. She explains about the orange juice. You’ll get used to it. It will warm you up. The children screw up their faces as they sip the drink. They maintain the same expression as they bite into the white bread caked with marmalade. She watches and keeps on smiling. She sees the empty suitcases and nods approvingly. They eat and drink everything. She tells them that they share the kitchen and bathroom with the Dunstans so they need to exercise especial care when they use both, to keep both tidy. The boys nod. Tony follows whatever his older brothers do, which leaves him a couple of moves behind them, still nodding after they stop.
     Where’s Dad? the eldest asks.
     Your father left me. He said he didn’t love me anymore. He loves someone else. I asked him about you children. What was to become of you? He said that it was up to me. You could stay in Mahaicony or I could bring you to England.
     Neil and William look at Gavin for his usual leadership. He places his hands on his hips and straightens to his full height of perhaps five feet. Tony interrupts. Where’s Dad? He does not understand her explanation. She pulls him close to her and kisses the top of his head. Gavin asks, Why didn’t he come to meet us? She cannot stop her eyes from flooding, looks away and wipes her face. She replies that she asked him to come but he said he did not want to. Her words meet four puzzled faces. They hear her words but they cannot square what she says with what her words mean. Tony asks, Where’s Daddy? And this time Neil raises his voice at his young brother without really meaning to. Can’t you hear what she’s saying? He doesn’t want anything to do with us. Gavin and William shoot stern looks at Neil. He adds a quick and quiet Sorry. Tony starts to cry. His mother hugs him and he buries his face in her chest. What did we do wrong? Gavin asks. His mother shakes her head. It’s not you boys. It’s your father. Don’t blame yourselves. I am proud of every one of you. She barely manages to get these words out between heaving to suppress her upset. She hugs Tony so tightly that he looks up at her to be sure she is not attacking him and he pushes away from her. Gavin, William, and Neil rush close and encircle her and Tony with a big untidy hug, little arms searching for a place to rest, lifting, alighting, and settling on part of a back or shoulder before the whole bundle rocks back and forth, all of them crying aloud.
     At last their mother breaks the spell. All right, that’s enough. He doesn’t deserve our tears. You want to sleep or shall we go for an ice cream? The mention of ice cream flicks a switch in the room, casting away the gloom and stillness. The children break from their embrace and spin on their heels and run for their coats and return in no time to face her. She tries to move fast to match them. She grabs her coat, her purse, and her keys and they leave the front room and step out into the March air. You must walk in pairs and hold hands and no running on the pavement and never cross the road without first stopping and looking and make sure you stick together. They nod and walk along with William and Tony holding her hands and Gavin and Neil in front, side by side but not touching. The two in front glance back at her. They forget how tired they are and breathe out hard, or smoke, as they call exhaling in the cold. At the small café they file into a corner booth. Their mother explains the menu and the waitress takes the orders for four ice creams and one tea. The boys gobble and lick their spoons.
     Eat slowly, boys. It’s not going to run away.
     Their mother laughs and sips her sugared tea. Neil says, Uncle Iqbal seems nice. She says, Yes, he is a kind man. He likes children. They switch to talk about how the ice cream needs to be warm like the orange juice and that would crown the occasion. Neil thinks warm ice cream could make someone a lot of money but William wants to know how the ice cream would work in scoops if it were warm. It wouldn’t be ice cream if you couldn’t scoop it, he says. They shiver and smile and scoot closer together. Gavin tries to convert the cost of the cones into cents and the others marvel at the expense of the treat. Their mother says things are expensive and she has to be careful since money is scarce but England is a good place for education and opportunity. They nod. Tony says, Opportunity, as if the word means another flavor of ice cream. He falls asleep before he finishes his ice cream and his three brothers dip their spoons in his cup and clean it out. Their mother carries him. The others race back to the house not by running but with rapid, small steps, toe to heel, stopping at the curbside for their mother to catch up and cross the road with them. That night they sleep like logs and well into the next day. She rises early and spends the morning listening to her children snore. She hums a Bible tune and unpicks the stitching of clothes sewn the wrong way. She leaves them to go shopping for groceries and the boys get into a big pillow fight of all three younger brothers against the eldest. They are so noisy that the corduroy couple from upstairs and their daughter descend the stairs and knock on the door. The woman and the man offer broad smiles and speak together as though they had rehearsed. Boys, could you please be quieter? Please? Gavin apologizes on behalf of his brothers, who hide behind the sofa.
     Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Dunstan.
     He smiles at Jennifer, who looks at her stern parents and decides it is best not to smile back. Their mother returns, hears from the couple upstairs, and reprimands her four boys. She singles out Gavin, gazing at him through narrow eyes. He straightens as if called to attention. She says that she expects better from a thirteen-year-old and the eldest at that.
     This is how their mother sees things as the weeks unfold: hard days ahead, her unfaithful husband who abandons her and the children ends up losing the most by missing out on moments exactly like this one, life lived at close quarters in these two rooms crowded with her and her progeny. She would not change a thing. Her children rise and shine for her. And for her they pitch in with the unpicking of clothes sewn the wrong way, which she resews, this time the right way. Uncle Iqbal comes with more pieces of garments and leaves with finished dresses and jeans and jackets. He takes them to the zoo, for more ice cream, to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus for little tin trinkets of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. One bright Saturday he buys each a shining bicycle, one without gears for Tony, one with three gears for William, one with five for Neil, and one with ten for Gavin.
     The boys’ mother asks, What do you say, children? They say, Thank you, in unison. And before she can ask, Thank you, who? they add, Thank you, Uncle Iqbal.
     The two adults argue late at night in hushed tones on the pullout sofa bed.
     Mavis, your boys need a father figure.
     They can make do with me. I’m their mother.
     Aren’t I allowed to have an opinion?
     Yes, but not so quick with the father stuff. They’re not bad children. You talk as if they’re delinquents or something.
     I think they need a clear path and a firm hand in this lax country.
     She fumes. He tries his magic touch and Urdu poetry delivered in whispers and saves the evening. Another time the same subject of her rowdy children arises and this time she does not shut him down. His inquiring tone matches the one used for his poetry delivery. She wants to hear more from him.
     Boys need a firm hand.
     What more should I do? I am alone.
     You have me. We should be together in this. I think Islam can provide them with strong guidance and make them successful in this difficult country.
     But I want them to be happy.
     Islam fulfills the spirit and leads to great happiness.
     She sees that the man cares and decides to give his system a try.
     On another Saturday he asks the four boys if they know what a Muslim is and if they might like to see what Muslim children do with their Saturdays. They nod and he drives them to a house full of children sitting in rows chanting the Arabic alphabet and lines from the Quran. The eldest smiles at the chorus of unknown words and imagines a flock of geese lifting off the wrinkled face of a lake. They eat with the children, boys divided from girls, and enjoy the day so much that they come back for a month of Saturdays.
     The day arrives when Uncle Iqbal discusses the need for a small medical procedure to be done to them to complete their embrace of Islam. Their mother nods and repeats the word for Tony, who cannot get past two syllables, Cir-cum. She says it slowly and a little too loud, Cir-cum-cis-ion. The three boys look alarmed, and Tony, seeing the look on their faces, drops his smile and adopts a frown. Gavin asks, Is there no other way? Iqbal says, It will be painless and over in a jiffy. Their mother repeats, Yes, over in a jiffy. The boys resign themselves to the idea of losing a small portion of their bodies for a huge helping of spiritual well-being.
     Uncle Iqbal chauffeurs the four brothers in his Ford van to the brick house with a menorah in the front window. Be brave for Mummy. They nod. They cannot speak through teeth clenched. London frost forces them to rub elbows when all they want is breathing space once outside their rented rooms. Their breaths boil and dissolve in brittle air. Ice repairs the cracks in the pavement. How can sun ever come back here? They take turns peeing in a wallpapered cubicle in a back room. Each of them stands there for a while and stares down at himself, trying to imagine how he will look after the operation and seeing for the last time a configuration he must bid goodbye. Each one presses two fingers to his lips and touches the end of his penis but thinks better of saying anything.
     Up until now, Saturday mornings meant they were in someone’s front room learning the Quran and Arabic, and Saturday evenings were spent in bed listening for Uncle Iqbal’s late-night visits with their mother. Clothing in piles of separate pieces that she sewed together for him for a price led to this. They find prayers bewildering: their plosives ricochet in their heads and settle like marbles rolled into the sockets of their eyes. They genuflect countless times in a corner of the living room that doubles as their mother’s bedroom and sewing room, guided by a little compass that tells them where to face. They plant feet on a mat woven with the Kaaba in ruby and cobalt and cushiony on their foreheads. Moisture from their ablutions keeps the air cool behind their ears. After prayer, the outside seems washed too—all the roofs and all the trees and a buffing of the light.
     They take turns lying on the improvised operating table, converted from a dining-room table with a plain white tablecloth thrown over it. Gavin goes first. He raises a smile from the rabbi when he asks him not to take away too much since he wants something significant to please the girls. His bravery evaporates and he gasps when he sees the rabbi hold up a long needle and flick the tube full of the local anesthetic. The whole operation pivots on one swipe of the rabbi’s pristine scalpel. In the middle of hearing the call to prayer, of seeing crowds at Mecca circling the black stone, of conjuring the feel of the prayer mat on their foreheads and the smell of a front room of children reciting the Arabic alphabet, each feels a tug and a burn that radiates and grows in intensity.
     Uncle Iqbal seems to hit every bump in the road on the drive home, although other drivers honk at him for taking his sweet time. The children are, after all, precious cargo. Their mother says over and over how proud she feels, and how brave they are, until Gavin asks her through gritted teeth to please shut up. The rest of the drive they listen to traffic and each other’s groans. They walk to the house and their bunks with feet wide apart, on tiptoe, with a rock and roll from side to side, as if the rabbi added to their girth rather than subtracted from it.
     Who will be the first to try and pee? Each holds out by avoiding fluids. Tony relents first. As he pees he screams so loud the others think he might burst a blood vessel in his temple and open his wound afresh.
     The challenge for the rest of the boys turns out to be how to keep from screaming. Neil stuffs a sock in his mouth. But when he emerges from the loo his eyes show so much white the others worry that his eyes will pop from his head. William sucks in air fast and fills his chest to bursting as he pees a scalding rope of straw. Gavin sees himself as if he has burst into flames and the fire brigade’s engine number one hose happens to be operated by him as well. All he has to do is turn it on himself.
     Their mother feeds them whatever they ask for and she grants permission for them to stay up late and watch TV. From now on they cannot socialize with girls. And to Gavin, she says, Especially Jennifer from upstairs. The boys lie in bed, unable to sleep. They hear their mother and Uncle Iqbal crooning in the next room. The two giggle from time to time. Gavin thinks about Jennifer and how he might fraternize with her, as his mum puts it, without contaminating his pure mind and body. It will mean talking to her but facing the opposite direction, looking at her in his mind’s eye and making shapes with his hands in the air as if the air took her shape, and that way there would be no contamination of sight and touch. When the two adults fall quiet the children listen harder, but all they hear is their blood tuned to the pain between their legs.
     The children force themselves to lie awake until overcome by an imperceptible slip and slide from their aching bodies, first the youngest, Tony, and next, William and Neil, and last to hold out because the eldest must always be first or last in everything, Gavin. He whispers each of his brother’s names and no one answers. From their slow and even breathing he guesses they must be asleep. He releases a little boat on a lake with Jennifer seated in it and waves at her as the boat drifts from him. He performs this goodbye task by looking askance at Jennifer, at the lake’s reflection of the boat with her in it, and so no pollution of himself. He sees himself seated before a sewing machine and applies butterfly touches to the pedal with his foreskin under the needle as he labors to reattach himself to himself. He floats off, no boat nor water, just his body lowered into a dark that shuts down his conscious thoughts, replacing them with more rhapsodic alternatives.
     Uncle Iqbal, how come a rabbi circumcises Muslims?
     We are all cut from the same cloth, son. He and I are in the same clothing business, I trust him completely. And there’s less of a drive. The imam lives all the way across town.
     What did the rabbi do with our foreskins?
     Buried them in his back garden before sunset.
     Upon hearing Uncle Iqbal, the boys become pure muscle and weightless. They curve around the city on bicycles at the ten speeds of light. They pray so hard they make their foreheads darken with a spiritual bruise. They discuss Muslim names and try to come up with ones that sound close to their Christian names. Soon they stray toward the most famous name, Mohammed. They all want it. Their mother tells them, You can’t all be Mohammed. Imagine if I’d named you all Tony, or Gavin, then what? It would have to be followed by a number, Neil offers. But their mother is firm. How about Shaheen? Too girly. Uncle Iqbal interrupts with a suggestion that the name might be best if it came from the imam, someone with the authority to confer a name for all time.
     It does not matter that their mother breaks up with Uncle Iqbal six months later because he proposes to her that she become wife number two. What a cheek, she tells her confidant, Gavin. She lines up the boys and they shake hands with Iqbal, and together they thank him for everything, barely able to say the Uncle part that’s synonymous with his name. She throws a sheet over the sewing machine and uses it as shelf space, its ornate metallurgy mothballed for a season of futures. They never see Uncle Iqbal again and never mention his name. Maybe one of them remembers the tune of the song he liked to hum in the van. If so, no one mentions it. But their mother remembers. Her memories made up of him touching her in the dark front room, breathing in deep to stop herself from making any sound that might wake her kids in the other half of the room, and his poems in Urdu, whispered in her ears and sometimes fragments of it translated.
     On Saturday mornings the children switch from Quran class to watching Looney Tunes. Bowls of cereal, drowned in boiled milk, and hot orange juice, swell their bellies. Marmalade sandwiches for lunch and sometimes supper too. They sing in helium voices, resurrected as Hanna-Barbera animals, armed with boom, bam, and ka-pow, Acme bags full of tricks. No more left hand for toilet, right hand for eating. No more always lead with the right and let the devil take your left hand. Truth turns ambidextrous for the boys, and for Gavin it takes the form of Jennifer, in her yellow cotton print dress and brunette bangs. Her parents leave the house and she invites him up to a bedroom that she has all to herself.
     Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
     You go first.
     No, after you.
     Promise to show me yours if I show you mine first.
     I promise.
     Gavin’s impatient to take his turn as Doctor. Jennifer gently touches Gavin with her index finger and asks him how he got his scar, and if it still hurts. No, he says. But too quickly. So he adds, Maybe. He yearns for her touch once more. She traces the scar with her middle and index fingers. His head falls back and he pulls in his stomach involuntarily. Not a needle’s deep puncture, nor a scalpel parting skin, but the flock that rises from the Quran as its throat opens and the menorah’s many-limbed flames, and his mother in the arms of her first lover, and only love, his father, with Iqbal’s song on his lips, father, who wants nothing more from her than the four children she has given him: Alif, baa, taa, tha.


Fred D’Aguiar’s books include the novel Children of Paradise (2014), the poetry collection Letters to America (Carcanet Press, 2020), and the memoir Year of Plagues (Harper, 2021). His first publication in our pages was in Conjunctions:27, The Archipelago: New Caribbean Writing (1996).