Stephen Morrison-Burke shares High Dust and Donkeys, an extract from his novel in progress. He also talks to Alison Hitchock about winning the Kit De Waal Scholarship and his plans for the future
Given half a chance it would’ve nailed our skinny, black frames to the floor. We were safer indoors staring out at it, sheltered by the zinc roof and the satisfaction that we were indoors staring out at it. Thunderstorms like that only ever happened in St Ann’s, Jamaica, nowhere else existed, and mattered none if it did. The view of those runaway hills from our tiny house shaped all the life we needed, all I was interested in. Come the morning, the sunlight would lift up our tiny bedroom until we arose from our beds in stages, torn between the dream world and reality before realising they were the same. That sun rise… You never did witness anything like it. Or maybe you have. I‘d pay good money that I haven’t got right now to watch the sun rise up like that once more.
Once awake, we three would sprint out of our bedroom, skate along the wooden floors, pass the floral sofa, and round the circular table stood centre of the living room, and then fling open the front door. The first one out would leap off the top step of the porch, the others followed. We’d race along the path beat out from footprints and onto the narrow lane that split those hills in two. Marcy would often be first to spot the donkeys before racing on towards them. She’d thrash those skinny arms double time, chest lifted towards an orange sky. With each stride she kicked up a faint veil of high dust, adding to the distance between us. When Marcy got going like that, Terrance and I would pull each other back to avoid last place. He did most of the pulling and didn’t like it in return, so would often trip me up. When close enough, we’d leap onto those donkeys, belly first, before trying to set ourselves up straight, gripping whatever fur we could handle. Those donkeys would bray and try to buck us off, running about in no particular order; it all helped push the excitement along.
This one time, Marcy ran up and dived on one of the smaller donkeys, slid across its back, then disappeared over the other side. The last thing I saw prior to hearing the thump were the soles of her feet. Not much could’ve been done to stop Terrance and I from falling down in a heap to laugh it out. We wriggled about the dust gasping for air, my stomach cramped. Terrance laughed much harder than me, his face in the dirt and butt up high, and so Marcy strutted back towards us and gave him one smooth kick in that butt of his, causing him to topple over and me to near cry from the giggles. Terrance lay somewhere between laughter and howling with pain, showing enough of the latter for Marcy to step back with reluctance. That’s one of the best memories I got so far.
There were five of us altogether: Nana and Papa who were our grandparents, my sister Marcy, my brother Terrance, and me. I’m the youngest – eleven months from Terrance, and two years from Marcy. But then Mango was even younger than me. Mango was my pet pig and best friend squashed into one. Being the smallest kid in the family made it easy work for me to feel forgotten about, but Mango would cheer me up by chasing me down, squealing and bumping into my legs all the while. He and I would run for miles across those hills in any one day. That’s a lie, it probably wasn’t miles, but we’d run.
The day of Mangoes birth still sits heavy in my mind, a day we kids crouched down low amongst the dirt in the basement beneath our house. Right down there in the shade is where the animals set up camp together – pigs, dogs, and chickens, too. Papa had his sleeves rolled up high, higher than usual, to pat down the sow and talk her through it whilst she wailed out. Terrance and Marcy were blocking my view, so I wrestled with them to get a good look in and lost each time. After shuffling round the outside of the action, I squatted down opposite Papa, right up next to the sow, and made sure to grin back over to those two when settled.
The piglets came out dizzy. Papa scooped one up in his palms, switched the new-born around a couple of times, and then held the piglet out and leant back. He tended to do that with most things when his glasses were elsewhere. Nana would always tell him to put those glasses on, and he’d just nod. Papa’s eyes stuck out much further than everyone else’s, and his nose was real flat too, and wide, much wider than mine or Nana’s, or Terrance’s, or Marcy’s, so I don’t know how come he had so much trouble seeing that piglet in the first place.
I crawled up when Papa called me over, my cradle arms lowering with the weight of the piglet before Papa repositioned them. He congratulated me on my school grades, and then turned to Terrance and told him he’d get the same when he did the same. Marcy began to call out for Milo, who then came bounding over, wagging his tail and heavy on the breaths. Marcy had been allowed to keep the stray mutt for the same reason a few weeks previous, dropping her eyelids to snuggle him tighter than usual once he took to licking her. It felt good to see her happy, Marcy was my favourite, out of the humans I mean. My sister then lifted her lids again, gazed across at me and the piglet behind a kind smile, laid a smirk on Terrance, and then got back to hugging Milo. I asked Papa whether the piglet was a boy or a girl, and grinned from Papa to piglet when discovering I had a new favourite brother. I cuddled Mango because that’s what I thought I should do, but he wouldn’t quit fidgeting, desperate to break free of me, which then caused Papa to let his laughter loose. His chuckle carved deep into the humid air, deep enough to cause an avalanche, and it did, as the high pitched laughter of Terrance and Marcy came tumbling after. I tipped Mango into Papa’s hands and watched him lay the piglet up close to his mother’s teats. Papa then backed away and beckoned me to follow him.
We made our way out of the basement to leave the hot stench of easy living behind, along with my brother and sister who knelt in to look on whilst the piglets took to the sow’s teats. Once outside in the open, the sun was quick to let us know she was boss. I lifted my arm at the elbow to push clear the bright yellow, twisting my neck away until I could see only my shadow. There and then I forgot all about the sun’s quarrel and spun back round to face the pigs. I put one more spin on top of that to face Papa before parting my lips. ‘Mango is the one with two black patches on him front leg’, said Papa, showing me the back of his head before the end of his sentence. My relief fired up a light skip towards Papa, as he passed the porch steps and eased his sixty three years into a front yard that had witnessed every one of them.
Once I realised where Papa was going I ran ahead of him, pulled up at the water pump, and began working the handle. The first push always made for the hardest, but soon I had that thing squeaking for mercy. Papa eased his giant hands under the fall, flipping them over once and once more. He rubbed his palms together before rolling them over and under one another. After splashing water against his face, he straightened up to shake out his hands. I stopped pumping to shake out my arm in the same way, and with more conviction. Papa smiled, stepped up close, and rubbed the back of my neck, causing a few dewdrops to trickle under my vest and slide down the waves of my spine.
Papa turned to walk some more, and I followed. We passed the latrine, which fathered the banana trees that rose strong due to the sewage free to saturate the surrounding earth and declare it fertile, passed the apple tree and the guinep tree, passed the orange tree and the ackee tree, and my favourite, the mango tree; Papa and I passed the star fruit tree we kids would often poke sticks at to free the carambola’s from their umbilical cord and catch them before they split open across the red soil below; we passed by Nana’s rose bush and the hibiscus’s, cut through the poinsettia trees, and came out loose onto the lane. The sound of Papa’s footsteps climbing one of Gibraltar’s many hills, washed green and tilted skyward, soon replaced the life coming from underneath the house, with Terrance’s moaning being the last thing I heard.
I watched on as Papa walked, each shoulder dipping low and only beginning its ascent when the opposing foot sat firm on the stony tracks. His back swelled up broad at the top, one muscle perched on top of another to denote five decades of manual labour, stretching wide his favourite sky blue shirt, which ran fast into his favourite grey, faded trousers. Papa walked as though he was tired of walking. He’d walk like that for many hours straight, keeping the same rhythm all the while. He whistled to that rhythm; he sang church hymns to that rhythm; even in his silences I could still hear that rhythm, and he was quick to find it once more as he ambled the lane, me close behind, so close in fact that wherever those size ten’s landed I made sure my bare feet hit in the exact same spot seconds later. It was hard work trying to be a man, and there were no happy endings as I trod on Papa’s heel. He kissed his teeth, stopped to readjust the sandal without looking back at me, and then began to slump into that rhythm again. I searched for clouds instead.
We passed the Lawrence’s house, and passed the Gibb’s, too, with my best friend Joe too busy jumping his sister’s rope to hear me call him out. We met Reverend Sharpe on the lane, him and Papa talking some before we got going again, and then eased on passed the church yard, set in the corner of the village and the centre of our lives. Nana would tell us the light reflected into our bedroom from the white, stone walls of the chapel was holy light; said Jesus was watching out for when we misbehaved. We kids were keen to keep the cedar blinds shut after she told us that.
The large green and white hut we called school was set on the same grounds as the chapel, which looked tiny in comparison. The steps leading down to Gibraltar High were as steep as they come. Terrance had fallen down them once – Marcy saw it. It caused the scar he still carries high on his left cheekbone. He used to tell people he got that scar in a knife fight with local rebels, with Marcy waiting until he’d dallied off somewhere before leaning in to whisper the truth beside the palm of her hand.
Papa and I climbed the lane as the sun worked our backs, the last droplet of water sliding behind my ear and resting on my shoulder, which must’ve been where it died because I couldn’t feel it after that. When we were half way up the hill and clear of our small village, Papa called me over. Whilst running to catch him up I watched his fingers interlink behind his back, thumbs rotating around one another, head dipped.
‘Yes, Papa.’ He didn’t say anything at first. ‘You call me, Papa.’
‘Would you like to hear a story?’ he said.
‘A story? Yeh.’
‘Well this story is about three little pig and-’
‘I know this one and I know all about that sneaky wolf.’
‘No this story is different. You haven’t heard this one’, said Papa. ‘So one day you have these three little pig, Mango, Django and Cango, and them go on an adventure to see the other side of the island. Each of the pig take only one item – Mango take a bottle of water, Django take an empty banana crate, and Cango take along him joke book. Them walk and talk and talk some more and walk for many mile with the sun beating down on them, hard – it’s the hottest day of the year.’
‘You mean hot like it is right now, Papa?’
‘Hotter. I’m talking hot. The three little pig walk over the mountain and across the valley, and soon Cango start to feel weak. Him tired and don’t think him can go no further. So Mango give him some water and it give him strength to carry on. So them walk some more, through the forest and across the river, then Mango trip up and hurt him leg. So Django pick up Mango and put him in the banana crate and push him along. The three little pig travel further and further, across the corn field and sugar cane field, and through the swamp, and then Django say him can’t go no further, and Mango bawl out in pain over him leg, so you know what Cango do?’
‘Cango open him joke book and start telling them a joke, and the other two laugh hard. Then he tell them a next one and them laugh harder. And then a next joke, and Mango laugh so hard him fall out of the banana crate and land smack in a swamp. But him don’t care. And even though Cango the one telling the joke, him can’t stop laughing neither. So now the three of them is covered in mud and laughing. Finally them come out the swamp and kneel down on dry land and pray them see the other side of the island. Feeling stronger than ever before, the three little pig then rise up onto them trotter and keep walking until them reach the steepest hill you ever know. Slowly them begin to climb the hill and-’
‘Is it steeper than this hill?’
‘Much steeper. It so steep them have to stop themselve from sliding back down it. Mango moaning, Django bawling, and Cango calling out for him mother, and then… then them reach the top. The three little pig freeze, right where them stand.’ Papa froze his rhythm to stare at me, his eyes wide. I didn’t realise I was copying him until I’d found the breath to speak.
‘Then what happen?’
Papa said nothing.
‘Papa, what happen?’
‘Nothing,’ said Papa.
‘What did the three little pigs see?’
‘Everything, but them can’t do nothing but look. Them look on the beach getting on friendly with the sea, and them look on the sea getting on friendly with the sky, and them know-say them finally reach the end of the island. Then all at once the three little pig run down and play in the sand, and them splash through the water, and them live happy ever after, just like that.’
‘I like that story.’
‘You know the moral?’
‘Never give up.’
‘No. Well, yeh-man, sort of. Never give up is one of them. The moral is when life get tough you got to help one another and pray, and everything will be bless in the end. You know that?’
‘What did I say?’
‘To help one another and pray.’
‘And pray, that’s right.’
Papa nodded his head as though he’d done a good deed, before kick-starting that rhythm again. Without stopping he bent down to scoop up an opalescent stone I’d not seen the likes of before. He held the stone out in front of him to get a square look at it, and twirled the stone around in his fingers as the sun danced life into it. Papa reached across to hand me the stone, and I accepted it, and I rubbed my thumb along the surface to settle on the notion that it was the smoothest stone in all of Gibraltar, if not the whole of St Anne’s. I held it tight in the soft of my palm and agreed with the voice in my head that told me it must be kept close, for a long time.
‘Is that where we’re going now, Papa, to the end of the island, to the other side of Jamaica?’
‘No, son’, said Papa with a smile, ‘the post office.’
While interviewing Stephen Morrison-Burke, the winner of the inaugural Kit de Waal Scholarship, I don’t want to be reminded of Billy Elliot, the boy desperate to pursue an art form that seemed beyond his reach, but there is something about Stephen’s story that is very reminiscent.
“I grew up in a destitute part of the city, so getting into literature, or being a poet, novelist or short story writer, they just weren’t options,” Stephen told the Bookseller when his scholarship was announced. “I didn’t read my first book outside of school until I was 18 years old.”
Now 32, Stephen hasn’t wasted any time making up for the years he missed; in 2012 he became Birmingham’s youngest Poet Laureate. Performing for the royal family and at The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, as well as teaching workshops for youth offenders and young carers, he is managing to straddle the divide between his roots and his new life.
Stephen is currently in his first term of his Birkbeck Creative Writing MA and he’s now the one being taught.
Q: It is early days in the Birkbeck CWMA course where your classes will have focussed on short fiction. What are you learning?
The course has been very interesting for me so far. I’m learning about various points of view, character development, narrative voice, etc. I said to my tutor the other night that I feel as though the course is filling in all the gaps left over from the many hours I’ve spent reading and writing over the past few years. I’m very optimistic about the future.
Q: The Kit de Waal scholarship was set up to promote the writing of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Tom Weldon, CEO of Penguin Random House UK, has recently said that the UK publishing industry will become irrelevant if it continues to ignore under-represented communities, including BAME. What is your response to this and how can your scholarship place make a difference?
A: Different cultures influence so many areas of British life – food, fashion, music, language – that it’s almost criminal, and borderline laughable, to keep ignoring writers of colour. Like any other industry the world over I believe those working within literature will have to adapt their thinking over the next two to three years if they don’t wish to be left behind. In the words of me old buddy Sam Cook, a change is gonna come.
Q: You recently quoted Colm Toibin, who said while being interviewed at a Birkbeck University/Man Booker Prize event, ‘I only write the exception, I don’t write the general thing.’ You said he is a man after your own heart. How is this reflected in your work?
A: It’s true, I don’t care much for the generic, I prefer to write stories that are unusual and will cause the reader to envisage what they may not have witnessed firsthand. For example, I’ve just handed in a short storyabout a nine year old girl who spends all of her free time shadow-boxing and an old man who hates daylight. Even during my time in poetry I talked about the beauty to be found in sadness, a homeless man who hands back the two pound coin he’s given, and a widower who goes home and dances with his dog. These stories aren’t as far-fetched as many would like to believe, and so I plan to keep bringing them to the surface.
Q: What are your ambitions as a writer?
I have short term ambitions, such as getting published and becoming a bestseller, but to be honest I’m not too bothered about money or attention – never have been. I want greatness. I want my writing to be up there with the greats, and if I’m willing to work as hard as those guys and keep making big sacrifices, then I see no logical reason why it can’t be. Kit has given me a fantastic opportunity to not only achieve my own goals, but to also keep standing in the assembly halls of inner city schools and let these kids know they don’t have to be defined by their environment or background.
The Billy Elliot myth, that the film and musical created a glut of working class male ballet dancers, has recently been debunked but Stephen is clearly a true supporter of what the Kit de Waal scholarship and Birkbeck are trying to achieve. The often ignored talent within disadvantaged groups in the UK couldn’t have a better champion.