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4 July 2023

Black Man on the Run by Ira Mathur

This exclusive extract from Ira Mathur's pacy and piercing short story, 'Black Man on the Run', first published in Wasafiri 114: Windrush: Writing the Scandal, opens with a feeling, and a homecoming, one that’s stopped short at the border. Here, the protagonist, a ‘so-called Windrush man’, faces first an immigration officer, and later a lawyer, as his identity, citizenship, and rights are all called into question.

You can read the full piece online or in Wasafiri 114.

There is a black,

A black man on the run

Through a lonely Beijing Street,

There he goes,

My God he’s running again,

this time through Brooklyn’s Howard Beach,

And there he goes again,

Through the streets of Soweto

— David Rudder, ‘1990’

You know that feeling you get in your stomach as the plane swoops across the blinding silvery sheet of the ocean over the Northern Range’s misty rainforest? Oh God half a century ago I was part of this landscape, within it? It’s strange seeing it from a height — I was once drenched in it. I can still remember the feeling of hot asphalt beneath my feet, salt in my eyes, underwater with seaweed, sun filtering through trees. In a few seconds it’s all here again, Port of Spain backdropped against the hills, the deep soggy green of the Caroni Swamp. The plane stutters and we are on the runway. Is this home?

On landing I am asked to stay on board while the rest of the passengers disembark. I watch them talking, rushing, reaching, colliding, laughing. There is no resigned queuing. Yep, I’m home.

When the immigration officer arrives to escort me off the plane, I see myself as if from a distance, a skill that proved useful in my years in London: a thin black man in a shabby too-large jacket escorted to a small glass-framed office made to wait, treated like a criminal.

The immigration officer, a young man with smooth dark skin that makes me think of my son, questions me with a look that has already decided I’m guilty. ‘Criminal record in the UK?’ ‘No’ I say. ‘But you are being deported. Why?’ ‘I don’t have papers.’ He tosses his head to one side and the policeman by his side frisks me, asks me to hand over my wallet. The immigration officer examines credit cards, pounds.

‘How you get this rich?’

‘Have some respect eh. I ain’t have no godfather and I ain’t thief. I work like a dog for my foreign money.’ It’s funny how I revert to talking like a Trini after all these years. I should have known what was coming.

He says in addition to deportation papers there is a ‘Request to Hold’ against my name going back to 1970. An hour later two uniformed men arrive holding machine guns. The immigration officer summons me to the office, and says I am to be escorted to the Golden Grove Prison with these prison officers. I ask about my luggage, but one of the officers shrugs and the other says somebody will sort that out. I am numb while being frog marched out of the building and into a waiting jeep, wedged between men carrying automatic weapons. A red dust flies in my face and I wonder if there is something wrong with my eyes. As I feel the trickles of sweat run down my spine, I remember. Sahara Dust. How it can turn the place red, make you blind. But I look anyway at my country, a bronze landscape painting in this light. I open my mouth at the arc of the green gold hills, the immortelle trees dotted along the highway, the towering Mt St Benedict Abbey, where Irish monks welcome non-Catholics like me.

They take me to the remand prison where my rights are read by a large, severe-looking prison officer who informs me that as an inmate of the remand prison I have rights to a lawyer. After fifty years of living in England, the British have marked me as an illegal immigrant, a deportee.

* * 

I am in a cell with high ceilings and a single square window on the wall that lets in a square of light on the rough concrete floor and the officer says I am sharing the room. He gestures at a man lying on his bunk face up, his eyes closed. ‘He is a Veni refugee.’ The man turns his back to me, towards the grey peeling wall. I feel fatigue so deep I eat the peas and rice left by a man in a trolley outside our cell and fall asleep instantly.

In the morning, escorted by prison guards, I am let out to exercise with other inmates to a heavily guarded outdoors compound with the mingling scents of rained-on pitch and grass, crushed fallen mangoes, and the aroma of cooking. During the PT session, I figure out they are Venezuelan and Syrian refugees (their boats intercepted in the gulf), Nigerian security guards, Indian cooks, and Chinese vendors who have worked illegally and overstayed their visas. I feel like I have already walked the streets of Port of Spain. The whole damn mix is here again.

After being summoned to speak to a lawyer in a small room with neon lights and a prison guard, I am escorted back to my cell. Once again, the Venezuelan turned his back on me. Someone told me he lost his infant son on the boat. I look over at him, but he is as still as the dead. As my pen hovers over the exercise book in front of me I try to remember precisely what the lawyer had said.

‘Don’t worry,’ the Indian lawyer told me, his eyes round and protruding, large rings of sweat under his white shirt, his mouth dry as if unconvinced of his presence in the room. He was there on pro bono work. The lawyer was looking at a sixty-nine-year-old man, a man without a passport, a stateless man, a so-called Windrush man claiming citizenship in a country where he didn’t belong. He was peering at me over the table, saying the right things: ‘There are two issues here. We have an old “request to hold order” out for you that nobody has any information about and no updated or valid Trinidadian documents. The second is that you are an illegal UK immigrant and have been deported. Both problematic. Neither insuperable.’ He was like a man who had studied law in England. I nodded. ‘Speak in Trini English,’ I want to say. Don’t be pretentious. You’re not English and that’s a good thing. Be yourself, be proud of who you are. I don’t understand why we continue to ape the so-called mother country...

Continue reading the full piece online or in Wasafiri 114.

Cover photo by Yu Kato on Unsplash        
Ira Mathur is an Indian born Trinidadian journalist and columnist.
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