Read Brenton Brown Online

Authors: Alex Wheatle

Brenton Brown

Brenton Brown

Alex Wheatle





Brenton Brown

Chapter 1


South London, February 2002

Brenton thought, but it failed to match the intensity of making love with his half-sister. Of all the women he had slept with in those twenty-odd years since he and Juliet had their brief but passionate affair, no woman had ever got close. And in those quiet morning hours, when a partner was gently snoring, curving her shape into his, Brenton would feign sleep. He would think of Juliet. Always Juliet.

Rising out of bed, Brenton could hear the ugly sound of the water gurgling through the pipes from the bathroom. He made a quick mental note to deal with the problem later as he pulled on a pair of boxers he found on the floor. Then he heard his girlfriend, Lesley, brushing her teeth with her battery-operated toothbrush. The noise irritated him so he switched on the mini-stereo beside his bed and inserted a CD. Carolyn Catlin’s
Peaceful Woman
sopranoed out from the small speakers and Brenton started to nod his head, his mind filling with long-ago blues dances and parties. His memories morphed into making love to Juliet.

He didn’t bother to smooth the bedsheet. Instead he simply flattened and spread the duvet. The Gong stared intensely at him from a framed poster hanging on the wall opposite the bed. Shelves fixed to the sidewalls were filled with reggae CDs and DIY books. In the corner of the room stood a desktop computer that Brenton rarely used and next to this was a pair of black leather slippers that had seen better days.

It was a good night. He had taken Lesley to a revival session at
the Ritzy in central Brixton and the DJs had spun some serious lovers’ rock tunes that had the forty-somethings pining for a lost time. Lesley had yet to reach forty but she could grind and crub with the best of them. They returned to Brenton’s flat just off Brixton Hill where they shared a couple of spliffs and a bottle of wine before making love on the sofa and in the bedroom. But now Brenton wanted to tell her it was over.

He acknowledged the Gong with a slight nod before taking in a deep breath. He then pulled out a towel from the top of his wardrobe and stepped to the bathroom.

Wearing a black bra and black panties, Lesley accepted the towel from Brenton, smiled and kissed him on his left cheek. She was humming along to the music in the bedroom before she filled her mouth with water to gargle. Brenton half-grinned and wiped off the spittle of toothpaste that was now on his face. ‘We have to talk,’ he said.

Lesley spat out the water. ‘Oh?’ she said. ‘About what?’


‘T’ings?’ Lesley repeated, her toothbrush poised two inches away from her mouth. She tried to read Brenton’s face. ‘Your mum? You want me to go to the hospital with you today?’

Brenton eyed her, appreciating her toned legs and fit
. Her breasts were kinda small, he thought, but they looked nice and round in a clingy T-shirt. For a woman of thirty-seven she was pretty enough and intelligent too. She didn’t mind him watching football if she came around on a Saturday evening and he didn’t have to step to some stush wine bar and greet and smile with her permed and weaved-up friends. So why was he thinking of breaking up with her?

‘Get dressed first,’ Brenton said finally.

‘No,’ said Lesley, now rinsing her toothbrush under the cold tap. The horrible gurgling sound started again. ‘You know I hate suspense. Tell me now.’

Putting down the toothbrush, Lesley placed her arms around Brenton’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. She always
about the nasty-looking scar that was four inches long and shaped like a slim S. It was just beneath his right jaw but she learned not to ask about Brenton’s past. He would get defensive and evasive.

‘How was she yesterday?’ Lesley asked, her expression full of concern.

‘Not good.’

‘She’ll pull through. Don’t fret, man.’

‘She won’t,’ Brenton said flatly. ‘It’s just a matter of time till we get the bad news.’

He returned to the bedroom where he picked up the clothes he had been wearing the night before. On one side of his double bed was a rosewood-coloured bedside cabinet. Half covered in shadow was a framed picture of his half-sister Juliet and
niece, Breanna. Brenton was also Breanna’s father. The snapshot was taken on Breanna’s eighteenth birthday and now she was only days away from reaching twenty-one. Next to this was another framed photo of Brenton’s mother, Cynthia. The picture was taken in the sixties and it reminded Brenton where Juliet got her perfect looks. Cynthia’s beehive hairstyle,
dress and long white gloves made Brenton think of Diana Ross and the Supremes in their heyday. And now Cynthia lay in a hospital bed, her forehead heavily lined and her eyes full of dreams that were never fulfilled and loaded with hurts that were impossible to mend. After seeing her yesterday, Brenton told himself that he would never have
haunted look on his deathbed. No, he thought. I’d rather go out with a bang. Fuck all that waiting to die in a hospital.

Driving Lesley to her flat in Norbury, Brenton kept his gaze on the road and said little on the journey. Lesley glanced at him every now and then, sensing something was wrong. Johnny
Ice Cream Love
boomed out from the cranked-up car stereo. ‘You’re very quiet,’ she said. ‘Are you gonna come in when we reach? Rachel and Leon should be home soon if their dad drops them off on time.’

‘No, I won’t,’ answered Brenton, his eyes still fixed on the road ahead. ‘I’m going to the hospital as soon as I drop you off.’

‘You sure you don’t want me to come with you? I can call the kids’ dad and tell him not to drop them off till later?’

‘No,’ said Brenton. ‘In fact … t’ings are not working out. I need a break.’

Her mouth open, Lesley was too stunned to reply. Instead, she glared at Brenton but his eyes were on the road. His square jaw was still and his almost-bald head still had red blemishes from his last visit to the barber’s. ‘But, but…’ Lesley managed.

Brenton’s mobile phone vibrated. He flicked it open,
Lesley’s blazing stare. ‘Hi, Juliet … Oh no … Another heart attack … Just now? … No, wait till I reach …Yes, I wanna see her before they take her down. I’m in my car … Yes, I’m alright … We were expecting it … OK, I’ll be there soon … Juliet … Sorry.’

Lesley placed her hand upon Brenton’s arm but he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. He finished the call and replaced his phone inside his jeans pocket.

‘She gone?’ Lesley asked delicately.

Brenton nodded.

‘You sure you don’t want me to come with you?’


‘Call me if…’

‘Yes, if I need anything I’ll give you a ding. Now, I have to make my movements ’cos Juliet’s saying they won’t leave her in the ward for too long.’


As Brenton walked through the corridors of King’s College
hospital in Camberwell he wondered about all the personal stories the walls in the building had seen and heard. The joy of birth, a football career abruptly halted because of a busted knee, the expression on a patient’s face when they have just been informed that they have incurable cancer, the worry etched on a mother’s face as she watches her teenager being wheeled into theatre following a stabbing. While I was growing up I never saw Mum with a worried look when I hurt my knee or broke my arm, he thought. I hate her for that. How am I supposed to react now that she’s dead?

Arriving at the ward Brenton saw that his mother’s bed was ringed with a blue curtain. He slowed his walk as he approached and before entering he paused and took a deep breath. He could smell Juliet’s deodorant. Composing himself, Brenton entered the curtained chamber and his gaze found Juliet first. She was sitting quietly beside the bed, head bowed. She was wearing jeans and an oversize pullover and she looked desperately tired. Her mother’s right hand was between her hands and she was gently caressing it, a half-hearted attempt to keep it warm. Brenton then looked at his mother. She seemed at peace, regal almost. The lines in her forehead didn’t seem so deep and the stress lines that crossed her eyebrows seemed to have disappeared. The
of her expression masked the incredible drama of her life and Brenton felt that although he was staring at his mother, she wasn’t there. He didn’t feel any fear, just a feeling of mystery, as if he was peering at something that wasn’t quite real. He switched his glance to Juliet and she raised her head.

‘I knew it was coming but it’s still not easy to accept,’ she said. ‘She just closed her eyes and let go.’

Finding words hard to come by, Brenton walked slowly over to Juliet. He spread his arms just a little but Juliet saw the
. She stood up and comforted herself in Brenton’s embrace, the top of her dreadlocked head nestling under Brenton’s chin. 
She squeezed tight as Brenton closed his eyes, a sense of warmth and belonging filling his body. They hadn’t hugged for over twenty years but to Brenton it felt natural and right. This is how they were meant to be, he thought.

They remained in their clinch, tears now falling from Juliet’s eyes, until a nurse interrupted them.

‘Er, sorry to interrupt, Mr and Mrs Hylton,’ the nurse said. ‘Hospital policy is to move the deceased to the mortuary as quickly as possible.’

‘This is
my husband,’ replied Juliet, quickly removing her arms from Brenton. ‘This is my brother, Brenton.’

‘Sorry,’ said the nurse. ‘As I was saying we need to take your mother’s body to the mortuary. There will be a post-mortem because your mother passed away whilst in hospital. I’m very sorry.’

‘I understand,’ said Juliet. She glanced at Brenton and he nodded.

of the funeral service and much of the day was ruined by a JCB earth-digger creating a hole in the frosted February ground. It whirred and it clunked and its
exterior was so out of sync with mourners wearing black suits, black coats and black hats. When they finally lowered
mother into the ground, it wasn’t the coffin that Brenton was looking at. He was watching Juliet being supported by her husband, Clayton. Brenton wanted to catch Juliet’s attention. A glance would have been enough just to acknowledge what they had once shared and what was still secret. Clayton’s right arm was around Juliet’s waist and he was being so protective of her, showing everyone how much he cared. He was wearing a tailormade black suit and a black camel-wool coat that Brenton had to admit looked good on him. His black brogues seemed much more appropriate than Brenton’s dull black slip-ons. Fuck him, Brenton thought.

To Juliet’s left was Breanna. She was dressed in a short black coat, long black skirt and black boots and her gaze was distracted by other mourners, as if she was wondering who most of them were. Brenton thought she had his eyes but Juliet had told
that Breanna got her eyes from her grandmother. Another fucking cover-up, Brenton said to himself. She looks like
. Why can’t no one else see it? She’s old enough to know the truth, Brenton convinced himself. I’m sick and tired of this fucked-up lie! Breanna’s
daughter. Not
or anybody else’s. Mum took our secret to the grave. Fuck if I will.

Two hours later mourners gathered at Juliet’s home between West Norwood and Streatham. Guests were sipping wine and spirits, eating curried goat and rice and reminiscing about Juliet’s mother. Ray Charles, Ms Massey’s favourite singer, was singing about Georgia as Breanna and her parents played the perfect hosts. Brenton was brooding in a corner, only exchanging the odd word with other guests when approached. What could he add to everyone’s memories? He can’t say to them that his birth and existence caused his mother the most anguish in her life. Guests might shake his hand and offer their condolences but he felt they didn’t really mean it.

Brenton spent most of his time looking at framed photographs of Breanna that were resting on an expensive-looking redwood coffee table. He reflected on the first time he had set eyes on his mother and how much he had hated her back then. Once he got to know her he realised she was just an ordinary woman who had made bad choices and mistakes like everyone else. He grew to respect her but he never loved her. He wanted to understand Juliet’s loss but he couldn’t. He wanted to offer her words of comfort but he didn’t know what to say. He looked at the floor in frustration.

The tiled wooden flooring throughout the house was Brenton’s work and so were the fitted cupboards in the kitchen. Brenton wanted to punch Clayton when he offered him a bonus for his handiwork. ‘No, it’s all sweet,’ Brenton said, declining the offer. ‘Juliet’s my sister, innit.’ What he really wanted to say was ‘You really think I done this shit for you? Take your raas money and fuck off out of Juliet’s life. She’s always been sweet on me, not you.’

Looking up, Brenton spotted Juliet approaching him with a can of cold beer. Brenton instinctively smiled as she moved closer to him. ‘You alright, Brenton? You’ve been very quiet.’

‘Yes,’ Brenton replied, accepting the beer and opening it immediately. ‘Just thinking about Mum.’

‘So am I,’ Juliet nodded. ‘You know, it didn’t seem real until they lowered her coffin into the grave.’

‘Didn’t seem real for me either.’

‘I thought Clayton said some wonderful things about Mum at the service. Didn’t you? He’d been working on it for the last two days. You should’ve stood up and said something.’

Taking in a deep breath as he always did when anger was growing in him, Brenton said, ‘You know me. Don’t like
in front of a whole heap of people. And yeah. Clayton said a few nice t’ings about Mum. I’ll thank him for that later.’ Like fuck I will, Brenton thought to himself.

‘You sure you don’t want anything to eat?’ asked Juliet.

‘Not yet,’ replied Brenton. ‘But we need to talk.’

‘About what?’

‘About t’ings.’

‘You mean Mum’s will?’ Juliet guessed. ‘It’ll be sorted out in the next week or so.’

,’ Brenton snapped, just keeping his voice in check. ‘Not the will. Breanna.’

Juliet glanced around her to check if anyone was listening. She then walked to the kitchen and Brenton followed her, sipping his beer. Opening a back door that led to a patio, Juliet sat down on a white plastic chair that was set around a white table. Plant pots were spaced neatly on the patio but the life within them was cold, withered and dry. The garden was tidy and the lawn was trim. Everything in their life is so fucking ordered, Brenton thought to himself. His skin pimpled in the cold
air but it didn’t seem to bother Juliet. Clayton glanced at the siblings through a kitchen window. Brenton thought he looked suspicious, like he knew something. Nah, he concluded. He would’ve said something years ago. Can’t a brother have a quiet word with his sister without that prick always checking on us?

‘Brenton, I thought we decided to leave it,’ Juliet started, her tone angry. ‘She’s happy. You want to spoil that?’

‘She deserves to know the truth.’

‘Brenton, I haven’t got time for this today. We’ve already had this argument.’

‘And you always get your own way.’

‘No,’ Juliet argued. ‘You want
way. Never mind the fact that if Breanna finds out it could destroy her life.’

‘You mean it would destroy your life,’ Brenton countered. ‘Life’s all sweet for you, innit. Mrs Deputy Leader of Lambeth Council. Wife of Clayton Hylton. Mr Fucking Perfect who brings home nuff money from his banking job. The man who orders a fucking tailored suit when his mum-in-law dies. What will he buy if I suddenly keel over? A fucking remembrance ring? I know you don’t love him.’

For a moment Juliet could not utter a word, as if Brenton’s last words had knotted her tongue. She glared at him and saw the endless anger and pain in his eyes. She wanted to hug him. She wanted to hold his face in her hands. But she knew she couldn’t. ‘Grow up, Brenton,’ she snapped before she stood up and
to leave.

‘That’s just your way, innit,’ Brenton argued, still trying to check his temper. ‘Walking off when the truth hits. Go on then, walk off.’

Juliet stood her ground for a long moment with her eyes blazing. She then sat down again. ‘Whether I love him or not is not your business,’ she countered.

‘It is my business if he’s playing daddy with my daughter,’ Brenton argued.

‘Look, Brenton, I haven’t got time for this. Why are you bringing this up again anyway? I’m getting tired of this. There are guests to be taken care of. And since Clayton’s been in my life he
a father to Breanna. That’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it is.
with it.’

‘Guests can look after themselves, they know where the food and drink is. That’s why most of them come anyway.’

‘Always cynical,’ accused Juliet.

‘Always naïve,’ retorted Brenton. ‘You know what? Go back to your fucking guests. I’m gonna stay out here, drink my drink and fuck off home.’

‘You do that!’

Juliet marched off into the kitchen and fake-smiled at the guests who were milling around there. Clayton, sipping a glass of wine, approached his wife. ‘Everything alright?’ he asked. ‘Seems like you and your brother arguing again.’

‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ smiled Juliet.

‘What’s it about?’ Clayton wanted to know.

‘Oh, it’s just that Brenton feels left out of things,’ explained Juliet. ‘He’s complaining that we organised everything and he feels that we should have let him contribute more to the funeral arrangements and all that.’

‘OK,’ nodded Clayton, glancing at Brenton through the window once more. ‘Is he alright out there? It’s freezing.’

‘You know my brother,’ smiled Juliet. ‘He hates crowds. He’ll be back inside in a minute.’

‘Maybe I should go …’

‘No, Clayton. Leave him. He’ll be OK. Let’s get back to the front room, people must be wondering where we are.’

Lighting a cigarette, Brenton pulled on it hard. He felt the adrenaline rushing through him and after his first exhalation he shouted, ‘Fuck it!’ He finished his beer, left the empty can on the trimmed lawn and returned to the house. He ignored guests’ condolences and made his way to the front door. There he saw Breanna with her boyfriend.

‘Going already, uncle?’ Breanna queried.

Brenton looked over Breanna’s boyfriend before answering. He was wearing a black polo jumper and black jeans that were
dropping off his waist. His black trainers looked like the bastard offspring of seventies platform shoes and he owned a number one clipper haircut. Brenton didn’t like him.

‘Not feeling too well,’ Brenton finally replied. ‘Gonna step home and rest up.’

‘It’s been a mad day,’ Breanna said. ‘So many people I’ve never met. Don’t think I’ve ever cried so much.’

‘Yeah, it has been a mad day,’ nodded Brenton.

‘Oh, this is Malakai,’ Breanna introduced.

‘What’s gwarnin’?’ Malakai offered his right hand.

Brenton scanned Malakai’s face again before accepting the handshake with a vice-like grip. ‘Good to meet you.’

Not showing the pain he was feeling, Malakai said, ‘Good to meet you too.’

Turning to Breanna, Brenton said, ‘I’ll catch up with you later.’

‘OK, uncle.’

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