Laura is a writer and editor based in Birmingham. She is mixed race, with two Jamaican grandfathers and two English grandmothers, which always makes for an interesting conversation about identity. She has an MA in Literary Studies from Aberystwyth University. In 2020, she was a finalist in the George Floyd short story competition and shortlisted for the Leicester Writes competition. Follow her at @LauraJBlake on Twitter.
Home Is Not Here
When she was seven years old, Birdie Brown left Jamaica with her parents to begin a new life in England. Now, at the age of seventy, she faces being deported back to a country she barely remembers.
Birdie Brown sat in a plastic chair and stared at the clock on the wall, paying little mind to the sweat pooling into her elasticated waistband, the ache in her tired legs or the numbness of her backside. The letter in her handbag warned that lateness would not be tolerated, but she had been kept waiting for sixty slow minutes and frustration had supplanted the fear that had sat heavy in her belly ever since the rahted summons had arrived.
Really, she thought, if dem a gwine kick mi outta de country dem could at least be on time.
The waiting room had not been designed with the comfort of its temporary inhabitants in mind. She was wedged between a woman bickering with her companion in hushed Chinese, and a pale, twitchy man with dark rings around his eyes. She could smell instant coffee, and weed, and Chinese food; the woman had retrieved a lunchbox from a carrier bag with a defiant air. Birdie’s stomach rumbled. She’d been too nervous to eat breakfast.
“Here,” she called, feeling as self-conscious as a schoolgirl. A young woman, with greasy hair and a smattering of spots across her forehead, gestured indifferently. Birdie heaved herself to her feet and shuffled after her, fanning out her blouse and mouthing a silent appeal to whichever god might be listening.
“Thank you for coming in today, Ms Brown,” said the woman – her nameplate read S. Jenkins, Immigration Officer – as she slid behind her desk. Birdie forced a smile (she thought, but could not be sure, that she could hear someone crying) and lowered herself into a chair marginally more comfortable than the one she had just vacated.
“Letter told me to come,” she replied, sensing that the woman seemed to be waiting for a response. “So I come.”
S. Jenkins tucked her lank hair behind her ears and made a noisy show of re-arranging the papers on her desk.
“Letter said my appointment was at twenty-past-eleven too,” Birdie said innocently. “I apologise for the wait,” the young woman replied automatically. “But unfortunately due to a staffing issue we can’t guarantee exact appointment times.”
Why yuh give mi an exact time fi an appointment den, Birdie wanted to say, but she bit her tongue, a little nibble, right on the tip. A childhood habit. Her mumma had laughed until she had cried when Birdie, at the age of five, explained that she had been trying real hard not to backchat no more because it hurt to bite her tongue so often.
The immigration officer cleared her throat and set down her pen, suddenly business-like, and Birdie blinked away the memory of mumma, bent double in hysterics at the kitchen table, trying to explain the concept of figure of speech through her tears.
“Ms Brown, you were invited here today to discuss your immigration status and determine if you are legally permitted to remain in the United Kingdom.”
“I’ve been here since 1955 –” Birdie began, but the woman raised her hand.
“There are procedures in place to ensure your claim is reviewed correctly and fairly,” she said stiffly. “And these procedures have to be followed. Do I have your co-operation? It will go much smoother if I do.”
Bewildered, Birdie nodded.
“So,” the immigration officer opened a manila folder. “You arrived in the United Kingdom in 1955, is that correct?”
“And you were seven-years-old at the time of your entry?”
“It was two weeks after my seventh birthday. My mumma – mother – told me it was the best present a young girl could ask for –”
“Please, Ms Brown, just the facts.” Birdie bit down on her tongue, hard.
“It says here that you left Jamaica under the care of your mother and travelled on her passport –”
“I didn’t need a passport of my own.” Her stomach churned; the fear was back, a mass of snakes that threatened to slide up her gullet and spill out over the desk. She forced them back down before speaking again. “No pickney – no child – needed one. You came with your parents, and because they could stay so could you. It was allowed.”
“It was allowed then.” S. Jenkins sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose, revealing a patch of pink skin beneath her glasses. “As outlined in the 1971 Immigration Act, all those who entered the country without the correct documentation prior to that date do not have the right to remain in the UK indefinitely – though I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it’s been trying to solve all these decades-old cases. It’s been a nightmare, actually. I’ve been rushed off my feet –”
Birdie didn’t respond.
“But no matter. It’s my job to establish whether or not you are permitted to remain.” “This is my home.”
“I understand that may be how you feel –” S. Jenkins faltered, and looked down at the slim file. Birdie was grateful; it gave her a chance to chase a tissue from her sleeve. The disembodied sobs got louder.
“Let’s start again,” S. Jenkins said, in what she clearly thought was a gentler tone. “You and your mother arrived in England in 1955, correct?”
“And your father was already residing in England at the time?”
“He sailed over sometime in 1954. My mumma – mother – and I followed about a year later.”
“Why did you not travel with your father?”
“He needed to find work here first, to pay for our fare. It was common.” “I see.”
Do yuh? Birdie asked silently. She doubted the woman had any idea how common it had been for families to be split up in such a manner. If she did she wouldn’t be asking such chupid questions –
“Do you have the exact date of his arrival in the UK?” “Not an exact date, no, but –”
“So you can’t prove he arrived in 1954?”
How to prove the pain of separation? She hadn’t thought to save her tear-stained hankies. The only consolation had been the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long, no time at all really, before she and mumma left for England too, and they’d be with puppa, and they’d all be so happy, and England would be so good to them.
Will it really, mumma?
It will, chile.
Birdie hadn’t any reason to doubt her mother’s words. The promise of Life in England had been packaged up so neatly, like a parcel tied up in crisp brown paper. You tore off the wrapping and the gifts tumbled into your lap – plentiful work, more money, better opportunities for your children and your children’s children. The newspapers said that the Mother Country needed to be rebuilt after the war, and those that were willing to get off their backsides and pitch in would be rewarded beyond measure.
Did yuh hear? Bout de ship?
In 1948, the news that the Browns had welcomed a baby girl was nothing compared to the news that four hundred and ninety-two Jamaicans had secured passage on the Empire Windrush. Her puppa had known he was witnessing history in the making – and he’d known, upon holding his daughter for the first time, that he was going to be a part of it.
Can yuh imagine? England’s doors thrown open. An shi calling. Shi wants yuh.
Six-year-old Birdie couldn’t imagine. The balmy days of her youth were occupied by much more pressing issues; mastering a particularly difficult skipping step, for instance. Hiding the tear in her school skirt from her mumma. No, the fierce debates that echoed throughout the small timber house, the arguments for and against leaving everything and everyone behind to start again in a foreign land – none of that concerned the small girl singing softly to herself as she played on the veranda with her ragdoll.
That is, until Niecy Campbell opened her big fat mouth.
“Mi daddy sailing to England,” Niecy said with a pompous sneer, tossing her royal blue hair ribbons over one shoulder. It was a blazing morning in 1954 and Niecy was holding court in the school yard beneath the shade of a coolie plum tree.
“An when he get dere, he gwine send money fi new dresses an shoes an ice creams an wi gwine be rich an den he’ll send fi mi an Junior an wi will live inna palace like de Queen herself.”
The other girls gasped in admiration and Niecy grinned, a reptilian smile that stretched across her ugly face. To Birdie’s dismay, Niecy Campbell remained the centre of attention for the rest of the day.
That evening, Birdie swung from the veranda railing as she waited for her father to come home, pouncing on him before he’d had the chance to knock the dust from his boots.
“Why yuh nah guh to England?” “Wha dis?”
She put her hands on her hips. “Niecy Campbell’s puppa gwine to England an shi gwine get new dresses an ice creams an –”
“Get back inna here an set de table like I told yuh to,” her mother scolded from the kitchen.
Birdie reluctantly complied, but as she polished the cutlery on the hem of her dress she plotted her next attack. Later that night, when Winston Brown went to say goodnight to his daughter, he found her sat up in bed and ready to strike.
“Why yuh nah guh to England?” “Yuh want to get rid of mi, baby?”
“No,” Birdie fidgeted impatiently. “But Niecy say her puppa say dere nah nuff money pon dis rahted island an over in England dey begging fi wi to guh an work dere –”
“Is dat so?”
“Uh-huh, an dey will have so much money dey nah gwine know what to do wid it. Dey’ll have ice cream every day –”
“Dat sounds mighty nice,” he said casually. And then he paused and fixed her with an arresting stare. “Look here. Do yuh really want to move to England?”
Birdie nodded eagerly.
“Den I tell yuh a secret. I want to guh too. But,” he wagged a finger. “If I guh, it might be a long, looong time before yuh see mi again. I would need to find wi a house, an save up fi yuh ticket. Might take mi a year. Maybe longer.”
“Oh.” Niecy hadn’t said anything about a lengthy separation. Suddenly the idea didn’t seem quite so appealing.
“An besides, yuh cyaan eat ice cream in England every day, it’s too cold –”
She trusted that her puppa was telling her the truth (not about the ice cream; how could it ever be too cold for ice cream?) and said goodnight. No more was said of the matter; Niecy left school in a blaze of triumph (the child was being sent to relatives in Kingston until her parents could afford to send for her), and Birdie found that she wasn’t even a bit jealous – the freshly baked coconut cakes her teacher bought to mark the sad farewell proved to be a wonderful distraction. She was happy in her little life. She was content.
Puppa wasn’t though. A few months later, Birdie arrived home from school to find her parents seated at the kitchen table, a gleam in her father’s eye that she didn’t recognise. She’d never seen him home from work that early before, either.
“What de point inna waiting, Precious? Dey nah want mi at de factory nah more, fine. I’ve enough money saved up –”
“But what about school, shi cyaan just leave –”
Her father tutted. “Schools are better over dere, everyone knows dat.” “It’s all so sudden –”
“An I can earn more inna year in England than I can here in five. Nah sense waiting.” Her father looked up and caught sight of Birdie in the doorway.
“An yuh want to guh, don’t yuh baby? Yuh said so yourself.”
Birdie opened her mouth, then closed it again. She didn’t know how to respond; yes, she’d told puppa that she wanted to move to England, but that had been months and months ago.
And that was only because of stupid Niecy and her boasting. And then Niecy had left and she’d forgotten all about it. But here was puppa, with silver dollars shining in his eyes, asking if she wanted to go to England after all…
“I do,” she declared, and Winston hollered and caught her up in his arms.
“Whoooee! Dat settles it! Wi a gwine to England!” Birdie giggled dizzily as he swung her round the kitchen. Her mother tried to remonstrate, but Winston pulled her to her feet and enveloped them both in a tight embrace.
“Have nah fear; England gwine be good to wi. I promise yuh dat.”
It didn’t take long for him to secure his passage by sea and organise an agent to help him find lodgings and work. A month after Mr Brown lost his job at the sugar plant, they sat down to eat their last meal as a family under a Jamaican roof. Scraping his plate clean, he had smiled and said he’d send for them as soon as he could.
It took him a year.
At first all Birdie did was cry; it wasn’t fair that he was gone and that there were more chores to do, what with her mother taking in washing and sewing to earn a little extra money where she could. But her grief gave way to punch-drunk excitement as their departure drew closer, as tantalising as the smell of Sunday stew. Two other girls in her class left the island for prospects new and she bided her time as patiently as she could, consoled by the promise of coconut cakes on her last day (her teacher was regretting this increasingly expensive tradition) and dreams of her shiny new life. She pinned a picture of Buckingham Palace, carefully torn from the Daily Gleaner, above her bed and every night she leant out of her window and looked across the sea to England (or so she thought – her bedroom was south facing) to say goodnight to puppa and bid God to help him make enough money to send for her soon.
“And I see in your file that you don’t have your landing cards.”
“My mother probably kept them. Where they are now, I couldn’t say.” Birdie felt another flurry of panic. “I’m telling the truth.”
“I just need to tick every box, Ms Brown.” S. Jenkins scratched her ear with her pen, surreptitiously checking her watch. “You claim to have arrived in the UK by plane on the eighth of September 1955 and resided at 44B –”
“Richmond Street,” Birdie garbled. “My father found it for us. When he first got to England he shared rooms with other men; it was cheaper that way. But he found us a real good house –”
Puppa had met them at the airport, with gifts for them both. For his daughter, a smart blue anorak, with shiny red buttons, and a coat of unassuming beige felt for his wife.
“All de white sistren wearing dem,” he’d said with a grin, draping it around her shoulders and pulling her in for a kiss. Then he’d turned to Birdie and opened his arms.
Birdie was struck with sudden shyness. Puppa didn’t look quite the way she remembered… he was thinner. Shorter, almost. So, instead of looking at him, she had buried her face in the front of his shirt and inhaled.
Coffee, tobacco. Home.
And then she was crying, but she didn’t know why. Her father chucked her gently beneath the chin and smiled.
“Tears fi yuh old man, eh? Wha, yuh nah happy to see mi?”
Birdie shook her head, still clinging to his shirt. She was overjoyed to be with her father again and felt immediately wrapped in his protection. A strange woman at the baggage claim desk had curiously touched her hair and then walked away before mumma had had the chance to remonstrate.
He gently loosened her grip and gestured to their trunk. “Come. Let’s guh home.”
Birdie spent the first half of the taxi ride wedged into puppa’s armpit, but even the overwhelming happiness at being reunited with a long-lost parent could not rival a small child’s curiosity. Soon she was sat with her nose pressed against the window, her breath fogging the glass. she wiped the condensation away impatiently but even then, there wasn’t much to see. Just road after road of grey buildings, stacked beneath a grey sky. A few umbrellas, all of them black. Trepidation bubbled in her stomach, but she mistook it for hunger.
After driving a considerable distance, the taxi stopped outside a squat brick house. All the houses look the same, she thought, shivering on the pavement while her father argued with the driver over the fare. Like a row of glum children lining up to see the headmaster.
However, she was pleased by the size of the house – two whole storeys, and a glossy black front door with a smart brass knocker – until her father pointed out that the bottom floor was occupied by someone called Patricia.
“Why yuh let someone live inna wi house?” Birdie asked, affronted. “It nah our house, baby. Wi rent de top floor; Pat has de bottom.”
Birdie was ushered into a dim corridor and up a flight of stairs. There she found a kitchen, two narrow bedrooms and –
“Toilet wi share wid Pat. It’s outside.”
Birdie explored her new home while puppa hauled the trunk up the stairs. The kitchen window overlooked the privy, and beyond that, a high wall topped with shards of green glass. The paint was peeling around the window frame; she scraped a patch of mildew growing in the corner of the sill with her fingernail. Her nose itched. The kitchen smelled like burning fat. She was confused; everything in England was supposed to be better. Was this better?
For the second time that day, she burst into tears.
Birdie shuffled in her seat, trying to shake off the guilt forever tied to that memory. Her father had worked tirelessly for a year to send for her. She hadn’t been raised to be ungrateful. “It was a good house,” she repeated determinedly.
Her childhood had passed by in that flat. They were lucky, she realised, many years later.
A lot of other black families had been forced to move around, to escape the prejudice that followed them from house to house, street to street. Pat became a good friend to Precious, whose exceptional skill with a sewing needle helped sway the opinions of the other white women who resided on Richmond Street, but Puppa warned his wife and daughter that not everyone in England was going to be so kind to them.
“White people cyaan be trusted,” he’d said, and it hadn’t occurred to Birdie to ask how he could speak with such certainty. She’d figure it out for herself, in time.
First it was the resentful glares when they caught the bus into town, then slurs that were muttered when they were almost – but not quite – out of earshot. Grocers pretending not to see her and mumma waiting for their turn to be served; an off-key chorus telling them to go back where they came from. Birdie hadn’t reckoned on England being anything other than the England of her propaganda-fuelled dreams, and the reality was as shocking as her first experience of snow.
School had been a particularly confusing experience. Bridget (“Birdie,” her teacher had said, with an upturned nose, “is not a real name”) had always excelled at literature and history, but her giddy enthusiasm for the Queen’s English and the Queen’s England alienated her even further from her peers. They laughed every time she opened her mouth to speak, and then her teacher would admonish her for causing a disruption, so alongside the three R’s she learned it was best to stay silent – even when she was cornered by a gang of boys from the upper school, who had tried to look up her skirt to see if she was different ‘down there’ from white girls. There was one other black student in her class, a boy named Arnold, who she gravitated towards. He was a sullen boy, with big ears and a nauseating habit of picking his nose. She didn’t like him, but it was easier to pretend that she didn’t care what her classmates thought of her when she had someone by her side who was pretending just as hard.
The others left the darkies to it.
They weren’t even from the same country.
A phone trilled. S. Jenkins apologised for the interruption and answered it, speaking in bored, bland tones to the unseen distraction.
Slowly, it had gotten better, Birdie silently rationalised; as more and more immigrants ‘flooded’ the country (as her headmistress had once put it) the tide turned, and she went from being rejected to accepted. But even then, acceptance didn’t come with tearful apologies and open armed embraces; instead, it came begrudgingly. You’re here now, they seemed to say. You might as well stay.
But she hadn’t always wanted to stay. She could admit that to herself, couldn’t she? She could admit that it had been hard, to watch in silence as her father’s faith in the motherland turned into something else entirely – resentment, as hard and bitter as a bad ackee. But he refused to give up. A conversation, overheard when she was twelve:
“Would it really be so bad if wi went back?” “An have dem all say I failed?”
“Nah one will say dat. Dere’s people over dere dat care fi wi –” “Enough. I am staying here as is mi right.”
“I said enough.”
As she lay dying, Precious told a middle-aged Birdie that it had actually been Winston’s dream to migrate to America, but just as he’d seriously begun to think about setting aside some of his earnings for passage, the United States had closed its borders to Caribbean immigrants. Puppa was a proud man, Birdie had to remember. He’d told his mother that he was leaving the island and so by God, he would – and if America didn’t want him then it fell to England to make his dreams come true. And besides, any Commonwealth citizen who settled in the United Kingdom was automatically granted British citizenship. It made so much sense he couldn’t be argued with.
“Sorry about that.” S. Jenkins replaced the receiver with a careless clang. “Now, where were we?”
“I assume your parents are no longer living?”
Birdie swallowed. “My father died in Jamaica twenty-something years ago. My mother’s dead too, only she never went back.”
Her parents separated shortly after her seventeenth birthday, though ‘separated’ implied that her mother had had an equal say in the matter. Winston simply chose not to climb the stairs to the flat one evening; as it turned out, his distrust of white people did not extend to white women, and following the row he moved to Coventry with Pat.
Birdie had little to do with her father after that, and in her twenty-ninth year she heard from her mother, who heard from Miss Lucille down the road, who heard from her aunt Daisy that Winston Brown had abandoned his white family too. He was – can yuh believe dat man? – in Jamaica, where he’d taken over his dead mother’s house and coolly settled back into life in Saint Catherine’s Parish like he hadn’t been gone for over two decades.
Birdie sometimes wondered what had happened to Pat, and her two half-brothers, whose British citizenship would never be questioned, but by then she had a family of her own to take care of, and she didn’t see what good it did to dwell on it. She wished, however, that she could ask her father if he’d managed to find contentment in the end. Or had he always been blinded by a vision of a better life that didn’t exist?
Perhaps her mother might have gone back to Jamaica too, but first came grandchildren – how mi a gwine leave yuh now? Yuh nah know what yuh doing – and then breast cancer – if it be His will den so be it – and in the end Precious Brown returned to the place of her birth in an urn, carried home by a distant cousin at Birdie’s request.
“And do you have any dependents?”
“I have children. And grandchildren.” Birdie tilted forward in her seat, desperate to prove that she had living, breathing, flesh-and-blood ties to the country. She didn’t add that those dependents no longer depended on her.
One of her children was twice divorced and the other had never found the right woman, though Birdie suspected that her son’s biggest mistake was looking for a woman in the first place. Scott lived in Toronto and did something impressive in engineering and Carmen had moved to Wales following the breakdown of her second marriage; a strange choice to her mother, who remembered the annual arguments and the sweary refusals to go camping in Wales one more bloody time, mum. Nevertheless, Carmen and her fourteen-year-old twins had settled down in a pretty village near the coast and no one, to Birdie’s knowledge, had told her daughter to take her children and go back to where she came from.
There were two other grandchildren; Declan, who was at university, and Saffie, who was twenty-five and the one most dear to her. Saffie had ended up in New Zealand following a nasty bout of wanderlust and video-called her grandmother once a week. In recent conversations Birdie had taken note of a handsome young man with a crooked smile hovering in the background; Saffie had blushed and said that he was just her flatmate, but Birdie knew her granddaughter and so had been saving a little of her benefits each month to buy the nicest set of wedding china she could afford. Now, her benefits had been stopped and she might need to use the money she’d saved to set up house in Jamaica. The thought made her want to weep.
“It says here that you never married… or applied for a passport.” S. Jenkins smiled insipidly. “You don’t seem to be overly fond of any form of official documentation.”
“Never needed a passport.” Birdie shrugged. “Or a husband.”
S. Jenkins frowned. “You never wanted to go on holiday? Or visit your home?” “It’s not my home. I don’t remember anything about it,” Birdie replied quietly. “Nothing at all?” To Birdie’s dismay, she detected a hint of pity.
It was a lie. Like the sun on a hot summer’s day, memories of the island still shone brightly in her mind; the dust plumes that billowed into the air as the iceman pedalled his bike up the dirt lane, a thick sheen of sweat covering his face as though he’d gotten into her mother’s pomade. Biting into the first mango of the season, so sweet it made her teeth itch. The little white shoes, strictly for Sundays, how pretty they looked – a reward for sitting quietly through Pastor Johnson’s sermon when she’d rather be playing with the Williams children, who weren’t God fearing folk and had the creek to themselves while everyone else was in church and sweating through their best clothes.
But the older she got, the harder it became to see the island through the mist that settled high on the mountain tops in spring. Time had worn away at the edges of her memories and she was no longer sure that she could trust them; had she really found an injured tody hiding under the veranda, or did that happen to another girl in her class? Could her puppa really throw her as high as the house? Had she spent the first seven years of her life on Anslow Lane, or were the Anslows the family next door; absent father, proud mother, and a baby son, the one with velvety skin and a mouthful of shiny pearls? Jamaica came back to her in bits and pieces, and that’s what they wanted to send her back to. Bits and pieces of a life she was taken from. Fragments of a girlhood.
“Well.” S. Jenkins set down her pen, her face impassive.
Birdie realised for the first time just how young the woman on the other side of the plywood desk was. She didn’t look much older than Saffie.
“Thank you for coming in today, Ms Brown. You can expect to hear from the Home Office in the next twelve-to-fifteen days outlining the results of –”
“Wait –” Birdie clutched the edge of her chair. Was that it? She hadn’t had the chance to defend herself. All she had done was answer some banal questions. That couldn’t be it, they couldn’t send her back –
I am seventy years old. I bin here since I was seven. Wi was invited, an wi made dis place our home. It was hard, no lie – dere were times when I wanted to guh back, and dere was times I wished wi had never stepped foot on dis rhated island. But mi family is here. Mi whole life is here.
Jamaica nah mi home. How can yuh sit dere and say it is? How can yuh think to send an old woman back to a place shi nah seen since shi was a girl? How can yuh be so cruel?
“Ms Brown, if you have nothing to add –”
Please. Don’t send me back.
Birdie found herself on the steps to the building. A man pushed past her, grunting an apology without making eye contact. Somewhere in the depths of her handbag her mobile phone vibrated; another missed call from her daughter, each voicemail increasing in agitation.
Birdie had convinced Carmen not to come. She couldn’t afford to take a day off work, Birdie had said. The twins needed to stay in school. And she could handle it by herself, couldn’t she? It was just a formality. Her claim to stay in the country she called home couldn’t be refuted, surely.
Birdie stood on the steps and wept.