A Brief History of Seven Killings

Marlon James

September 15, 2015 
The following is from Marlon James’s novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, shortlisted today for the Booker Prize. James was born in Jamaica in 1970. James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, and John Crow’s Devil. He lives in Minneapolis.

Right after they told me at the gate that nobody can come in but immediate family and the band, a man rode up right behind me on a lime green scooter. He rode up the same time I walked up and said nothing, just listened to the guard talk to me without shutting off his engine and then took off without talking to the guard himself. Was that a pickup or a delivery? I said to the guard, who didn’t see it funny. Ever since news broke about the peace concert security here tighter than the Prime Minister’s motorcade. Or up a nun’s panty, my last boyfriend would say. The man at the gate was new. I knew about the peace concert, everybody in Jamaica knew about it, and so I expected guards or police, not these men who looked like the very people you would want to keep out. Things was getting crucial.

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Maybe it was a good thing, because as soon as the taxi dropped me off, the part of me that I like to shut off after morning coffee said, What do you think you’re doing here, skinny-legged fool? The great thing about a bus is another one is right behind it, ready to sweep you away as soon as you realize you’ve made a mistake. A taxi just drops you off and it’s gone. I would start walking at least, but damn if I could think of a better idea.

Havendale is not no Irish Town, but it’s still uptown and if we didn’t think it was safe we still didn’t think it was sorry. I mean, this is not the ghetto. Babies aren’t crying in the street and women aren’t getting raped pregnant as what happens every day in the ghetto. I’ve seen the ghetto, been there with my father. Everybody lives in their own Jamaica and damn if that was ever going to be mine. Last week, somewhere between eleven p.m. and three a.m., three men broke into my father’s house. My mother is always looking for signs and wonders and for her the fact that the newspaper last week said gunmen crossed the Half Way Tree line and have started picking off targets uptown was a very bad sign. The curfew was still on and even decent uptown people had to be indoors by a certain hour, six, eight, who knows or they would be up for grabs. Last month Mr. Jacobs from four houses down was coming home from night service and the police stopped him, threw him in the back of the van and sent him to the Gun Court lockup. He would still be there if Daddy didn’t find a judge to tell him that this was straight foolishness when we start to lock up even proper law-abiding people. Neither man mentioned that Mr. Jacobs was too dark-skinned for police to assume he was proper people, even in a gabardine suit. Then gunmen broke into our house. They took my parents’ wedding rings, all my mother’s figurines from Holland, three hundred dollars, all her costume earrings even though she told them they’re worth nothing, and his watch. They punched my father a couple times, and slapped my mother when she asked one of them if his mother knew that he was sinning. I asked her if any of the men had their way with her but said the rosebush was growing wild like a leggo beast, and I pretended I was talking to somebody else. The policeman didn’t come until the morning even though they called the station all night. Nine-thirty in the morning, long after I got there (they didn’t call me until six), and he took a statement on a yellow pad with a red pen. He had to say perpetrator to himself three times just to figure out how to spell it. When he said wuz h’any h’aggressive weapon brawt into play? I burst out laughing and my mother said I should excuse myself.

This country, this goddamn island, is going to kill us. Since the robbery Daddy don’t talk. A man likes to think he can protect what’s his, but then somebody else comes and takes it and he’s not much of a man anymore. I don’t think less of him, but Mummy always talks about how at one time he could have bought a house in Norbrook and he turned it down because he already had a safe and sound home with no more mortgage to pay. I’m not calling him a coward. I’m not saying he’s stingy. But sometimes when you’re too careful it just turns into a different kind of carelessness. It’s not that either. He’s from a generation that never even expected to get midway up the ladder so when he got there he was too stunned to dare climb higher. That’s the problem with midway. Up is everything and down just means all the white people want to party on your street on Sunday night to feel realness. Midway is nowhere.

Back in high school I used to have him stop at the bus stop or pray for the light to go red so that I could get out before he dropped me off at school. Kimmy, who has yet to visit her parents even after they’ve been robbed and her mother possibly raped, never caught the drift and always cussed when he said you get out too. Fact is Daddy was not a fourteen-year-old girl at the Immaculate Conception High School for girls, trying to act as if she had as much money and as much right to stick her head out and walk like an air hostess as anybody else who showed up in a Volvo. You couldn’t just drive up in a Ford Escort in front of those little bitches who were always lying in ambush at the gate just to see who drove up in what. Did you see Lisa’s father drop her off in some jalopy? My boyfriend says it’s a Cortina. That’s what Daddy have the maid use. What really boil me blood is that it’s not that Daddy didn’t have money, but he never could think of a single good reason to spend it. Which is why in a way, it makes sense that he would be robbed, but it also makes sense that the robber didn’t get away with anything much. That’s the only thing he would talk about, that the sons of mangy bitches only got three hundred dollars.

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Can’t play it safe when nowhere safe anymore. Mummy say at one point they held my father by his two hands so that each could kick him in the balls like they playing football. And how he’s already refusing to see a doctor even though his stream not as powerful as it was only a week . . . good God, now I sound like my mother. The fact is that if they came once they could come again, and who knows, they might even do something bad enough for Kimmy to call her goddamn parents after they’ve been robbed and her mother possibly raped.

This socialist Prime Minister’s latest ism is runawayism. I must be the only woman in Jamaica who didn’t hear the Prime Minister say that there were five flights to Miami for anybody who wanted to leave. Better must come? Better was supposed to come four years ago. Now we have ism this and ism that and Daddy who just loves to talk about politics. That is when he’s not wishing he had a son, since men would actually care about the fate of the country and not being a beauty queen. I hate politics. I hate that just because I live here I’m supposed to live politics. And there’s nothing you can do. If you don’t live politics, politics will live you.

Danny was from Brooklyn. A blond-hair man who came down to do research for his degree in agricultural science. Who knew that the one thing Jamaica created that was the envy of science was a cow? Anyway, we were seeing each other. He would take me around to Mayfair Hotel uptown for a drink and suddenly there would be Caucasians, men, women, old, young, all as if God just waved a wand and poof! White people. I am what they call high brown, but even with my skin colour seeing so many white people was a shock. Somebody must have mistook this for the North Coast for there to be so many tourists. But then one would open his mouth and patois would tumble out. Even after going there too often to remember, I would pick my jaw off the ground every time I overheard a white man chat bad. Wait! Ho ho ho, is you that, busha? Ho ho ho, can’t see you these days, man, you get rich and switch? They didn’t even have a tan!

Danny would listen to really weird music, just noise that he would play loud sometimes to piss me off. Just noise, rock and roll, the Eagles and the Rolling Stones and too many black people who should just stop acting white. But at night he would play a song. We broke up almost four years ago, but every time I look outside the window I sing two lines over and over. I do believe. If you don’t like things you leave. Funny, it is because of Danny that I met him. Some party that the record label had all the way up in the hills. Bush people and white people are all that live up here, huh? I remember saying. Danny said he never know black people could be racist. I went to get some punch, poured it slow to kill time then saw Danny talking to the label boss. I was exactly what these workers thought I was, some uppity naigger fucking the American. Right beside Danny and the label boss was him, somebody whom I never thought I would meet. Even my mother liked his last single, though my father despised him. He was shorter than I expected, and me, him and his manager were the only black people there not asking if we would like our drinks freshened up. Standing there he was like a black lion. How the sexy daughter just come ’pon the man so, he said.

Fifteen years of schooling on how to talk proper and that is still the sweetest thing I ever heard come out of a man’s mouth.

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I didn’t see him again until long after Danny went back and I followed my sister Kimmy, who has yet to call her parents after they’ve been robbed and her mother possibly raped, to a party at his house. He didn’t forget me. But wait, you is Kimmy sister? Is where you was hiding? Or you was like Sleeping Beauty, eh, waiting for the man to wake you up? The whole time I’m splitting in two, the part of me that I like to shut off after morning coffee said yes, reason with me my sexy brethren, the other part going what do you think you’re doing with this lice-infested Rasta? Kimmy left after a while, I didn’t see her go. I stayed, even after everybody left. I was watching him, me and the moon when he went out on the verandah naked like some night spirit, with a knife to peel an apple. Locks like a lion and muscles all over and shining in the moon. Only two people know that “Midnight Ravers” is about me.

I hate politics. I hate that I’m supposed to know. Daddy says that nobody is driving him out of his own country but he’s still thinking gunmen are somebody. I wish I was rich, I wish I was working and not laid off and I hope he would at least remember that night on his balcony with the apple. We have family in Miami. The same place Michael Manley told us to go if we want to leave. We have a place to stay but Daddy don’t want to spend any money. Damn it, now the Singer is so big nobody can see him anymore, even a woman that know him better than most women. Actually I don’t know what I’m talking about. This is the dumb shit women always think. That you know a man or that you’ve unlocked some secret just because you let him into your panties. Shit, if anything I know even less now. It’s not like he called me after.

I’m across the road, waiting at the bus stop, but so far I’ve let two pass. Then a third. He hasn’t come through the front door. Not once, not for me to run across the road that instant and shout, Remember me? Long time no see. I need your help.



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From A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. Used with permission of Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2014 by Marlon James.

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