cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also By Fred D’aguiar

Dedication

Title Page

Remembering

1 Whitechapel

2 Mr Whitechapel

3 Sanders Senior

4 Cook

5 Chapel

6 Plantation owners

7 Lydia

8 Cook

9 Lydia

10 Lydia

11 The Virginian

12 Great granddaughter

13 Sanders Junior

Forgetting

Copyright

About the Author

Fred D’aguiar was born in London in 1960 and raised in Guyana and south-east London. He now lives in Florida, where he teaches English at the University of Miami. Author of four novels and four books of poetry, he has been awarded the University of Kent’s T.S. Eliot prize for poetry, the Guyanese National Poetry Award and the Malcolm X prize for poetry. He also won the 1994 Whitbread First Novel Award and the David Higham Award for The Longest Memory.

About the Book

Written in taut, poetic language, The Longest Memory is set on a Virginian plantation in the 19th century, and tells the tragic story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave who breaks all the rules: in learning to read and write, in falling in love with a white girl, the daughter of his owner, and, finally, in trying to escape and join her in the free North. For his attempt to flee, he is whipped to death in front of his family, and this brutal event is the pivot around which the story evolves.

ALSO BY FRED D’AGUIAR

Poetry

Mama Dot

Airy Hall

British Subjects

Bill of Rights

Plays

A Jamaican Airman Foresees His Death

Fiction

The Longest Memory

Dear Future

Feeding the Ghosts

Bloodines

For Debbie

I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all

the pots.

Zora Neale Hurston

unless

You become acquainted now

With each refuge that tries to

Counterfeit Atlantis, how

Will you recognize the true?

W. H. Auden

The Longest Memory

Fred D’aguiar

REMEMBERING

THE FUTURE IS just more of the past waiting to happen. You do not want to know my past nor do you want to know my name for the simple reason that I have none and would have to make it up to please you. What my eyes say has never been true. All these years of my life are in my hands, not in these eyes or even in this head. I woke up one day before the estate stirred, tiptoed over my workmates, former playmates and bedfellows and everything else to do with robbed intimacy, unlatched the door, confronted a damp, starlit morning and decided that from this day I had no name. I was just boy, mule, nigger, slave or whatever else anyone chose to call me. I have been called many other things besides. My eyes are bloodshot and rheumy. I have not been crying: I don’t do that anymore. The last time I cried was over the pointless death of a boy I loved as my own. I swore it would be the last time because it hurt more than any pain I’d felt before or since. I never knew crying could take over a body so, rock it, shake it, rattle it, thump it so that the body feels wrecked and cries without tears or movement of any kind, out of sheer exhaustion, except for that moan, groan, hoarse, bass wail. That was me over the whipping of a boy who had to know better somehow and would have learned with a good talking to, or even a beating in these circumstances but not this, not this. I don’t want to remember. Memory hurts. Like crying. But still and deep. Memory rises to the skin then I can’t be touched. I hurt all over, my bones ache, my teeth loosen in their gums, my nose bleeds. Don’t make me remember. I forget as hard as I can.

1    WHITECHAPEL

THAT MORNING I faced the world for the first time as a nobody, nameless. Because I had no name I was able to return to my body-shaped space on the straw mat on the floor, clear a few limbs out of the way and sleep so deep I was the last to rise, when before I’d lie there and listen to the others breathe, snore, talk in their sleep, cry out, whimper, shield their heads from a blow, contract their bodies to receive a lash, kick and punch as if bloodhounds were upon them, grind their teeth so loud it sounded like two huge stones rubbed together, whinny like horses and bray like mules, grunt like hogs, howl like wolves, or just plain die with a gasp.

I did this going to sleep last and waking first routine for too long. The bags under my eyes are sacks of worries, witnesses of dreams, nightmares and sleep from which a man should not be allowed to wake. The last breath is not exhaled as the body releases its hold on life and the bones relax into the shape of sleep. That’s wrong. The last breath is fought for. Air is sucked in. The chest heaves and swells with the effort. The eyes are flung open as the dreamer realizes this dream of death is real and his last. He literally wakes from sleep startled that this breath is final and instead of relief he registers fear more akin to surprise. Had he been prepared by some marvelous counsel, then he would have welcomed this last breath as if he were being fed honey and died with his eyes closed and a smile on his lips. But the fight for air instills panic. The thing we have talked over countless times as our only salvation creeps up on us and catches us by surprise. All the laughing we did over it becomes the last laugh. Death’s last laugh. My feeling is mixed. The breath should have been mine. Why must I be the witness to something I deserve more than anyone on this plantation. I’ve seen enough for one life, several lives. I forget if I’ve dreamed an experience or really remember it. I put most recollection down to fantasy. That boy of mine was not whipped to death for running away, for getting nowhere, not even to the next town. He jumped into my head in a whipping scene because I’d sat through too many to recall with exact order and sat because each stroke of the whip buckled my legs from under me and drained me of every ounce of my energy just to watch without sound with my hand over my eyes. If I look away I risk inviting a beating. So I look with these bloodshot eyes that see without seeing, witness without registering a memory or sensation. The boy’s two hundred lashes lasted no more than twenty minutes but he was gone half-way into it all. I saw when he switched from screaming at each blow, tensing his body for the next, screaming on impact again, relaxing his body for a moment to catch his breath and groan and then tensing again. Sometimes he would tense too late. The whip seemed to cause the nerves to tighten as if it imbued the body with life rather than draining that life away. His screams were louder then and simultaneously a little weaker than before. That’s when I learned how to live without being hurt by life, sensation, this witnessing of things taxing. I literally saw the boy surrender to that whip, those blows, the whole rhythm of lash, pause, lash and tense, breathe, tense. I saw it in his eyes. They looked at me, at us all, for one last time, and clouded, misted, glazed themselves. For the rest of the beating we begged with greater intensity and risk to ourselves for him to be spared because we had all seen him cross from our world to the next, but when his name was called he always answered clearly and nodded, which was taken as good grounds to resume the punishment. The whip ate into him, but like all gluttons who have gorged themselves to their fill, it bit and chewed without swallowing and simply bit and chewed some more, until its mouth was so full that food seeped out its corners to make room for more. The whip fed on him until the count reached two hundred. We cut him down and called his name throughout and he found something somewhere to nod and answer just as before but his look was distant, removed from the events perpetrated on his body, not in the least bit interested in our fuss and worry and open grief for him. I took on his look from that moment. We dressed his back with balm that took away feeling and stopped blood in its tracks. We talked to him and he nodded, but he stopped answering to his name. Then his head hardly moved, then not at all, and his eyes which remained the same told us nothing. That’s how I know he was gone half-way into that beating when he stopped screaming ‘father’ because he could see I was being held down and was no good to him. The eyes became less wide and still and the tears that continued to stream from them did so in a steady flow, whereas before they seemed to appear in floods as the whip tore into him. I closed those eyes after one last look at them. I said sorry and closed them and turned away from them into their exact look in my own eyes. I was crying up till then, uncontrollably during the whipping, then as I tended his back, almost noiselessly, in order to steady my hand whose touch made his flesh recoil. ‘My hand is not the whip son,’ I said or imagined saying to him. He nodded to everything, then nothing. I had to have no name to match this look and the remainder of this life.

Sour-face, they call me. There are lines, two of them, on each side of my mouth, turned-down lines, two short strokes that run from the corner of my lips down my chin, as deep as any scar but earned over nights of lying awake staring at the dark and the dark staring back, unblinkingly, and listening to the hut turning in its sleep, and then hearing the turns without thinking, ‘turn’, because the looking and listening had become numb and the brain had emptied itself, gone numb too as a result of so much hard attention to nothing and everything. I feel a trickle of saliva unburdening along the left sour line at the side of my mouth. A little trickle on wheels relocating to a more joyful place. My hand should come up to my face, and swipe it out of existence. But I think of the action, see it even, and nothing happens. So the trickle continues over my chin and along the stubble of my neck, slowing down and reducing in size as each inch of the trail it leaves behind subtracts from its mass. Worry cut those paths in my face. I let it happen because I didn’t feel it happening and only knew it was there when someone called me Sour-face one day and I looked in the mirror for evidence and found plenty staring back at me.

What was I before this? I forget. Did I smile? Laugh out loud? Don’t recall. To laugh. What is that? I think of a donkey braying. That is like a big laugh, involuntary, involving the whole body, noisy and long and toothy. What could lead to such behavior? There is nothing in my past to make me bray. Knowing this, I can say I will never laugh again, if I ever did. Sour-face, that’s me. Not Dead-eyes. Not Black-head. Not Ancient, though I’ve earned ancient. But Sour-face. The lines were chiselled there without my permission. I must have worried and called it by another name. Like thinking. How else could I have done it for so long without worrying that I was doing something that would exact a toll on me? Thinking things over I see now how I made my life harder than it needed to be and longer than necessary.

My face says life is sour. A life that was fresh to begin with but one left out too long turned to this: counting the hours that drag through the dark, biding the minutes that hop and shift and hobble along the days. When I lie still at night I am those hours refusing to pass. Getting around the plantation one of those minutes has a sour face and returns my sour mouth inside the rim of a cup of water.

I have buried two wives and most of my children. I am surrounded by grandchildren and great grandchildren. They think I am a Judas and an old man who can make a great pepper stew when goaded to do so. They leave me alone most of the time, fuss over me from a suitable distance at meal times, check to see if I am still alive first thing in the morning with a tug or a prod, then disappear for the day into the fields.

One of them ran into me once. We both rounded the same corner of the house thinking it was a river flowing one way. I was going at my minute pace, he was running full pelt from a stick wielded by someone with authority over him. He knocked me off my feet and I rolled for several yards before stopping face up in the stars. He carried on running and the stick bearer came over to me and helped me to my feet then whacked me on the legs for delaying him, before resuming the chase. That knock that brought out stars in broad daylight recurs. I walk far from corners I can’t see around, though I’ve never met anyone in that way since. Suddenly I’ll be stopped in my tracks by a knock in my head and the stars will come out and if I can’t reach out and hold something to steady me I’ll slump down on the ground for my own good or keel over. At first they, the great grandchildren, fussed over me and argued I was done for, but I always recovered so fast they left me alone. My great grandchildren started calling me Sit-down Grandfather. I liked that more than Sour-face. Sometimes when I saw one coming, I’d wait until I was sure they saw me, and then I’d sit down deliberately, as if the stars had forced me off my feet, and when the look of worry and alarm made them dart to me, I’d wave them away impatiently. They would laugh. I mean like a donkey. I can’t laugh, so I’d shake my head at their pleasure and at how easy a laugh came to them.

Perhaps I laughed with my first wife and daughters, and my second wife and our son, if not with their children and children’s children. They laugh at me. There is no evidence in my eyes to show me that I laughed at any point in my past and certainly nothing in my twisted mouth. A nose is neutral. A nose gives little away, betrays nothing. The temper in a flared nostril might be a warning never to tease that person but it does not say that the bearer of flared nostrils once did something cruel or murderous. Not so with my eyes and mouth. They telegraph my past, my present and my future. Sour-face; dead eyes. Do not meet him at a blind corner. If you do, carry on running, do not hesitate or look back at those eyes, that mouth. Run as if from a big stick. Sour mouth is contagious. Dead eyes turn to stone. Run, even if you share the blood of those eyes, words of that mouth. Eyes that have seen all, mouth that has said nothing but kept silence. Sit-down Grandfather. Laughing stock. Obstacle. Burden, soon. When the red eyes blacken. When the stars I see are from a knock that recurs and the sky is close and black, always black. When I sit it will be for no one but myself. I will not rise and dust my pants off and shake my head at the pleasure given to someone else at my expense. My wife will call and I will answer her the one way I know how, in silence and with a gesture. Now that we speak across the years, without words, across the darkness of this life and her death. She asks me to hold her. But she was already too heavy with death for my arms. The pillows behind her head and back were compressed by her dying over weeks. A slow death that took so long I willed it to come, get its work done and get out of my life. My son held her for me. He looked away to hide his wet eyes. I leaned to her with my ears brushing her nose and mouth to hear her last wish. She said, ‘Don’t keep me waiting too long.’ I finished her sentence for her. She got as far as ‘too’ in her breathy sentence and I said, ‘long’, but she said nothing in reply and my son looked at us with a jerk of his head and I knew she was dead.

The next dawn he was gone and by dusk that same day, caught, and before night set in, he’d joined his mother with me leaning over him because he was too heavy to hold or cradle as I imagined I must have cradled him when he was young. I promised her I wouldn’t be long but I sent my son in my place less than a full day later. Now I can’t die because I can’t face her blaming me for sending him ahead of me, or in my place, or at all. My years since her death and his are stolen, cowardly, seen through bloody eyes, felt with numbed skin and aching bones, stale aired, black in the sky and hard in the heart and sour in the mouth. When my great grandchild came round that bend at the back of the house and knocked me off my feet and carried on running, it was from the stick as much as to avenge my son on me. That’s why I said nothing to him and he nothing to me. I see the stars of that day each time a little longer than before. One day I know I’ll see them and they will be the last thing I see and Sit-down Grandfather will be no more and glad because of it, and a smile might turn up my turned-down mouth: something approximating the beginning of a donkey’s bray might escape my lips, if anything.