Lewisham Half-Breed

As far as I know I’m the only Apache in Lewisham. Not a full blooded redskin, more an SE13 half-breed. My mum came from Penge and lived there for most of her life, but my dad was from Arizona, some place called Butte Rock. That was how I came to be driving through the desert, wondering what kind of creatures could live out there and beginning to feel nervous. Five hours driving couldn’t have helped. I had left Tucson at seven in the morning, and as noon approached I was feeling stiff and sweaty. We were staying with my Maureen’s cousin; Maureen comes from a big Irish family which is scattered everywhere from Gravesend to Santa Barbara, and the cousin and her husband had moved to Tucson earlier that year. It had led us to break the month in California with the uncle for a few days in Arizona, and it was only when he had made that plan that I began to think about Butte Rock.

I suppose the journey had begun twenty years before that, when I had begun to look for my real parents. It was nothing against Alf and Renie – they had given me a happy childhood and told me from an early age that I was adopted – but I had always been curious and I felt at the time that my life was unfolding, with the business doing well and Maureen having our first kid. I felt I had to know more about myself to fully appreciate what I had achieved. Tracking down my real mum wasn’t too difficult. The social services were co-operative, confirmed she was still alive and, after she had been unsure about meeting me, suggested that I write her a letter. It told her that, whoever she was, she didn’t have to feel any shame or guilt. Nothing happened for a few weeks, but then I received a reply that we could meet. When the time came there was no great show of emotion. It’s weird meeting someone who’s so close but also a complete stranger, and the meeting was cordial but awkward. She was in her early fifties and already suffering from the first stages of the cancer that took her a couple of years later. It must have been hard for her to suddenly find me in her life, especially as she had married and had a couple more kids, and I suppose it was brave to face up to her past. At first we just told each other a bit about our lives, my business, her husband’s job, the kids’ names, and I didn’t press for any details about how I came along.

We carried on seeing each other maybe once in six weeks, and although we never became really close we did some sort of relationship, and she began to reveal her secret. It turned out that I was illegitimate, which was no great surprise, and that my father had been a GI stationed near Croydon during the war. At first that had surprised me. My features are regular Anglo-Saxon but skin has a pale brown tinge, and I had always supposed that one of my parents was from North Africa or Asia, maybe Arab or Persian. Then she told that she had had a fling with an American private who was an Apache Indian. She was still living with parents in Penge, it would have been 1943, and working in a factory near Croydon, and sometimes she would go for a night out near work and stay with a mate. It was a usually a dance hall packed with GIs, a long way from home and ready to spread the charm and empty their pockets in search of female company. That’s where she met her Apache, swept off her feet by the illusion of a noble savage who rode bare back, worshipped the land and fought to the death against the Cavalry – in other words the old bull she had seen dozens of times at the pictures. They went out with each other for a few weeks, and I suppose they couldn’t have done the act many times. Obviously I never pried into that detail – who wants to hear about their mother getting a knee trembler behind someone’s bike shed – but enough went on to create me. When she realised that she was carrying she did a runner, told everyone at home she was joining the Land Army and would be away for a while, then got a train down to Sussex and the home of an old school friend she could trust.

I can understand her wanting to hide it from the family; it was a serious stigma in those days and, whatever she thought of the father, the Indians weren’t regarded as regular GI Joes in those days. They were practically segregated along with some Mexicans in the camp and were allocated all the filthy jobs that no-one wanted. The white soldiers used to put it about that decent girls didn’t go with blacks or Spanish types or redskins, and some English people began to repeat it. When she had been dating my mum had been brave, turned up her nose at the other GIs and told herself that her man was special, but being pregnant frightened her. The thought of giving birth to a half-breed took her over the edge.

She never actually saw my father again. She wrote to him from Sussex, told him she was pregnant and asked him to go and see her, but there was never any reply. She didn’t know if he ever got the letter, whether he remained in ignorance or took fright, but she found out later that he company was shipped off to Italy soon after she left for Sussex. By the time I was born her dangerous romance was all over. I was given up for adoption and she went back to Penge, where her parents were kept in blissful ignorance for the rest of their lives.

For a long time she wouldn’t tell me the GI’s name – I reckon she didn’t want me digging any further while she was still alive – but when she knew that she only had a few weeks she let on. His official name was Jeff Caliente, but his Apache name was Grey Eagle. A couple of months after she died I began to make enquiries. I contacted his old Army outfit, but after six months and letters to four officers all they could tell me was that he survived the war and was demobbed in 1946. The American Embassy wasn’t much help, and it took the best part of a year to obtain a contact in the States. Finally someone gave me the address of an office for electoral registration on the Butte reservation in Arizona and told me its population was almost entirely Apache.

A few weeks later I received a courteous letter from a clerk telling me that a Jeffrey Caliente had been registered on the reservation in the early sixties under an address in Butte Rock, but that the name had not appeared on any more recent registers. He also gave me the address of a town clerk there and said it may be worth writing. I sent two letters three months apart, but there was never any replay. I thought the most likely reason was that Jeffrey Caliente was not there, and I know from business that plenty of people don’t bother to reply if they can’t help.

Soon after that our younger daughter was in a car accident, although she recovered completely the hundreds of hours we spent in the hospital, and the thousands worrying about whether she would walk again, drew too deeply on my emotions. I effectively gave up looking for my father. It was only when we made plans for the holiday and decided on a few days in Tucson that I began to think about it again. The plan was drive over for the day and nose around. To get to Butte Rock I had drive about forty miles on a tarmac road after I left the freeway, then another five or six on a dirt trail sprinkled with pebbles and the odd pothole. I had half-expected a bumpy ride and prepared myself to find that Butte Rock was just a collection of shacks, but it turned out to bear a passing resemblance to a town. It had one of those signs announcing ‘Welcome to Butte Rock’, but the flaked paint and chipped woodwork didn’t make it look very welcoming. Behind it was a street around a hundred yards long line with buildings, none of them more than two storeys high and all in need of a coat of paint, and behind them other buildings and a few side streets. At the end of the street was a massive corrugated iron shed, like an aircraft hangar but with a couple of chimneys sticking out of the top.

I drove along the road slowly, noticing outdoor toilets in the alleys between houses, cars that looked ready for a breaker’s yard, chickens in front yards and windows that threatened to fall out of their frames. Half-way along I came to a building which was cleaner than most, with a porch out to the road and a sign which read ‘US Post Office’. Next to it was a scruffy little diner with a Budweiser sign missing the ‘w’ and people inside. I figured it was as good a place as any to start.

As soon as I got out of the car I felt awkward, conscious that it was months old with just a couple of thousand miles on the clock and the contrast against the tatty surroundings. A few people were sitting outside houses along the street and I felt eyes on me, a stranger at best, an intruder if their mood was sour. I walked into the diner trying not to look like a tourist. A young woman with shoulder length hair a cold sore was behind the counter, two young guys in jeans and white T-shirts sat at the counter and an old man, his face a mass of wrinkles below a patterned headband, sat at one of the tables. All of them had pale brown skin, jet black hair and boney, hungry faces, and none of them pretended not to look at me. The girl asked if she could help with something resembling a smile, and although I wasn’t hungry I asked for a hamburger and a coffee and took a seat at the counter. They all looked away but no-one spoke. The silence said they didn’t welcome the unfamiliar and I was worried that I would be violating some local code to speak first. Someone had left a newspaper on the counter, and for a minute I glanced over a story speculating on whether a guy named Clinton could knock off President Bush in that year’s election. After a minute I couldn’t keep up the pretence and decided I had to break the tension.

“Excuse me, I wonder if you can help?”

“Maybe,” said the girl, still short of a smile.

“I’m looking for an old man. I understand he may live around here, if he’s still alive.”

“We got a lot of old men.”

“I ain’t old!” The wrinkles in the corner was looking out of the window but it was clear he was speaking to us. “Only seventy-two!”

“Never said you was.”

“I heard ya nodding toward me.”

It raised a laugh from the girl and the two young guys, enough to make me feel easier.

“His name’s Jeff Caliente, or Grey Eagle.”

The girl shook her head and looked at the two young men, who shook their heads.

“Is there anyone who may know?”

“Everyone knows each other here I guess, but there’s a few people, mainly old folks, who live around the old mining camps in the canyons. Some of them drift in sometimes. Tell you what, the clerk in the post office might know.”

I stayed at the counter when the hamburger came up, even though the two guys didn’t look to be in the mood for conversation. I realised I was tolerated but not welcome. While I was eating the girl started chatting with them again, something about a cousin getting arrested in Albuquerque, although when she noticed my cup was empty she topped it up without asking.

The hamburger disappeared quickly but the coffee kept me for a few minutes, long enough to be around when another character entered. He was middle aged, dressed in a clean white open-necked shirt and pale blue cotton trousers, with hair much shorter than the others and a smile for everyone in the diner, including me. He sat two seats along and called for a sandwich and coffee.

“Sure Burt.” The girl caught my eye. “He’s the guy.”

“I’m the guy?”

“The guy from the post office. This guy’s looking for someone he thinks lives around here.”

He told me his name was Burt Aracko and leaned over the empty seat to shake my hand. I told him my real name but didn’t want to tell him the real reason I was there. Instead I came out with a story about delivering a message from a friend in Tucson, that I had volunteered because I fancied a drive in the desert. It was vague but feasible, and Burt was too polite to pry for details. I gave him the names of Jeff Caliente and Grey Eagle. He looked up the ceiling and was quiet for a few seconds before speaking.

“Oh yeah! Caliente. That’s old Lock-Up’s real name.”

“Lock-Up?” The girl smiled. “I never knew he had a real name.”

“Yeah. He’s been called Lock-Up for as long as I can remember, but there must have been a time when they called him something else.”

“LockUp?” I was trying to get my head around the name.

“Yeah, it goes back to his young days, probably just after the war. He and some other guys from the reservation were working up in Socorro, in the railyards, and he picked up a reputation for going on some wild drunks. Seems he used to spend most Saturday nights for two or three years locked up in the sheriff’s cells.”

“My mom told me he used to work in the sorting sheds,” said the girl.

“From the time it opened, round’bout 1950. That was when he settled down, got married and had a couple of kids. Worked in the sheds until the closed in ’72.” Then he looked at me. “How does your friend know him?”

“Socorro,” I said. “An old guy who knocked around when he was younger Lives in Tucson now.”

Then Burt told me that old Lock-Up lived by himself in a shack at the end of the street, but that he still hung around his old shed a lot, “‘cos he ain’t got nothing better to do”.

After that we made polite conversation for twenty minutes, mainly satisfying his curiosity about England, and at the end of the meal we both insisted on picking up the bill until he let me pay. We left the diner and shook hands again, and as he turned towards the post office I turned the other way, towards the big shed.

Walking along the street I wondered how many people were left in the town. A couple of washed out old men lingered in doorways and I heard shouting from inside one of the shacks, but the place reminded me of a ghost town from an old western; apart from the inside of the diner it looked like a place waiting to die. There was a wire fence about ten yards in front of the big shed, and I had to walk half the width to reach the gate. Above it hung a metallic sign that had gone grey with dust, but on which I could still read SOROCCO MINING CO., Butte Rock Plant. I pushed open the gate – it couldn’t have had a lock on it for years – and went towards the doors. It was one of those massive doors which open at the middle but have a smaller one cut into one side, and I could see that was slightly ajar. Maybe the sight exaggerated the sense of the unknown ahead, because I felt my chest tighten a little and wondered, just for a second, if I should turn back. Then I pushed gently and looked inside.

At first it was too dark to see and I felt my nose tickled by a stale, tinny smell tickled my nose, but I pushed the doors a little wider and became aware of frosted windows high at the far end of the shed. My eyes settled into the gloom, and for a few minutes I nosed around. The shed has less life than the rest of Butte Rock. Three metal frames ran from end to end, nothing that I recognised but enough to suggest lines for making or sorting stuff, and there were rectangular patches on the ground where crates or bins must have stood. I didn’t have a clue what they had done in there, but I guessed they hadn’t done it for a long time. At the far end was a long room running crossways, maybe for storage, and the pitch black inside deterred me from looking too closely. Two offices looked out into the working area, one empty except for a table, a carpet which was literally curling at the edges and a dirty yellow calendar from 1969. The other was still in use. It was dark and tatty, but there was a chair pulled up at a desk with a battery lamp, a magazine and a Coke can too clean to be a relic. I had a quick look, saw that the magazine was a ‘Newsweek’, recent enough to have a picture of Clinton on its cover, and shook the can to find it was empty. Suddenly I felt unsettled, as if I was intruding in another person’s space, and reckoned it was time to go. I was approaching the main door when the old man appeared in its frame.

“Hi!”

I jumped, but one look at his face told me that I wasn’t going to get any stick. He was old alright; he stood about five foot seven with a mild stoop, as if he had once been bigger, his light brown skin was twisted into a rug of wrinkles and his eyes and cheeks were shrinking back into his face. Although his white hair was down to his shoulders it was thinning in large patches. There wasn’t much of an expression among all that, but I could make out that he was curious. I managed to mutter a hullo and wondered what on earth I could say next.

“You interested in this place?” he asked.

I was dumb for a few seconds, but he was patient.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “I’m doing a survey, mining history in New Mexico. It’s for a university in England.”

I lied without thinking about it, as if instinct was telling me to conceal who I was.

“You look after this place?” I asked.

“Could say. Not that there’s much to look after, but I hang around. Got a room in the back.”

“You didn’t mind me looking?”

“No. D’ya see much?”

“Not really.”

“Not surprised. The company took all that was worth taking when they pulled out. Step back inside. I’ll show ya what there is to see.”

He walked me around and told me what used to go on, while I pretended to be interested and asked a couple of questions. “Ask his name,” I kept thinking. It was only when the tour was over and we stepped outside that I found the courage.

“Most people call me Lock-Up,” he said.

“You must have another one then.”

“Yeah, Grey Eagle, that was my Apache name. And there was a time I was called Caliente.”

A big sinking feeling hit my gut. Forty-nine years and I had finally found my father, and I didn’t have a clue what to do next. I followed him towards the gate and dragged some words out of my mouth. Had he always lived there?

“Near enough. Had a few years away in the forties, but came back when the plant opened. For a while we thought this place was gonna be a proper town. You’re English, aren’t ya?”

“That’s right.”

“I was there for a while, when I was in the Army.”

“You like it?”

“It was okay. The beer’s brown and it rains a lot, but most of the people were fine.”

“Stay in touch with anyone from there?”

“No.”

I tried but couldn’t read in his face whether there was a memory, a regret that I had touched. He didn’t seem inclined to say any more on the subject and I couldn’t think of a discreet way of prodding, so as we walked away from the shed, aimlessly I thought, he started talking about the reservation. As far as he was concerned there had never been much there apart from the mining company, and now it was gone there never would be anything there.

“So why have you stayed?” I asked.

“It’s home.”

We turned into one of the side streets and he pointed to what looked like an outsized garden shed with a porch.

“My place is there,” he said. “You want coffee?”

“That’s nice of you.”

I kept trying to find something in his face, but now even the curiosity seemed to be subsiding. It struck me that he was much the same as one of those lonely old pensioners at home, the type who shuffle around quietly, making it easy for people to ignore them. The red check shirt and jeans didn’t quite fit the image, but the dried out face and stooped walk matched perfectly, and the state of his shack was no surprise. Even from outside I felt the atmosphere of decay, and as he opened the door I was hit by a stale smell, a mixture of dust, old cooking and the faint tinge of piss. It was nearly as gloomy as the shed, but an old rug was on the floor, its pattern sinking beneath a layer of dirt, and a formica topped table and wooden chair stood against the window. A bed was against the wall, covered with a quilt almost as dirty as the rug, and a small TV stood on a stool in the corner. A door led to a kitchen, but I didn’t even want to think how that appeared.

He told me to sit down, so I placed my backside on the bed while he went into the kitchen. I noticed that on one side of the front door was a tall wardrobe, though I couldn’t imagine that he had many clothes, and on the other was small table with three framed photos, the details hidden in the poor light. I told myself three or four times, “That’s my father in there”, but the thought didn’t strike any note of reality. All this was too alien to me. After a few minutes he shuffled back from the kitchen and gave me a cup of black coffee, not asking if I liked milk, then sat on the chair by the window. For a minute we sat in silence, long enough to make me
uneasy.

“You must be retired now,” I said.

“Nearly everyone around here is retired, even the kids.”

I realised it had been a bad question, but couldn’t think of a good one.

“So what have you done in your time, apart from work in those sheds?”

He told me he got shelled while he was in the Army, but never actually attacked anything. The only time he ever got hurt was in Rome, when he tried to use a brothel and some white boys from Texas dragged him into an alley for a beating.

“That was something I used to good at. Getting beaten up.”

It was the only thing either of us said that made him laugh. He had been beaten up in Socorro a few times, usually the result of playing the Apache brave when drunk. Always five or six white guys ready to take him on, and a deputy ready to make sure it was him not them who spent the night behind bars. I realised he hadn’t had much of a life, not when the most remarkable memories were beatings. It probably came with the brown skin and Indian name – lousy education, lousy jobs, and taking shit from whoever was in the mood to dish it out. The fighting had been knocked out of him by the time he returned to Butte Rock and started sorting the rocks in the shed.

“Not much of a job,” he said, “but it kept the wife and kids for a few years.”

“You’ve got family then.”

“Wife died four years ago. That’s when I moved out of the old place into here.”

He got up, shuffled to the table in the corner and took one of the pictures to show me. It must have been almost forty years old, a grainy black and white with clothes long out of fashion, but it was clear enough to recognise him. He was taller then, and although his face was already worn it had the life to make his smile convincing. He was standing in front of a house with one arm around a woman. She also had the brown skin, thin cheeks and dark hair, but it looked fresher; not a beauty but a young woman who would have been pursued by plenty of young men.

“Her name was Ilara,” he said. “I used to call her Desert Bird.”

A flicker of a smile again, and I realised that there was still some emotion behind those shrinking eyes – but it was all tied up in the past.

“Beautiful woman. She was eighteen then, and still beautiful when she died.”

It was clear that she was what had counted in his life, and I suddenly wondered if he even remembered my mother. Then he held the picture in his hand and began to talk about his wife. I can’t remember much of what he said, just that he had stopped boozing and fighting when he met her, and he had nursed her for over a year when she had developed some condition and died. By the time he had said enough to satisfy himself I had finished the coffee.

“You said you had kids,” I said. If I was going to tell him about me this was the way in.

“Yeah, two boys.”

He walked back to the table and swapped the photos for the other two. As he offered them I took one in each hand and let my eyes move between the two. Both were little more than kids, around eighteen, dressed in smart US army uniforms. Both were upright with smiles not quite wide enough to break the decorum of their uniform, probably posing on the day they passed out of training. Both looked like Apaches, except for the short hair, but there was something in their faces, especially their eyes that reminded me vaguely of what I saw when I looked in the mirror.

“Brothers.” I kept the thought to myself. “I’ve got brothers.”

The old man pointed to the picture in my left hand.

“That’s Terry, the oldest.” He pointed to the other. “And that’s Cody.”

“They got Apache names?” I asked.

“Nah. No-one bothers now. Not here anyway. We ain’t got no tourists to impress.”

“Where are they now?”

“Both dead.”

The blankness slipped over his face again.

“How?”

“Vietnam. Terry got it in seventy. He’d only been there two weeks, musta been his first time in the field. Cody lasted three months, then he trod on a mine. They couldn’t even find enough to put in a body bag.”

There was no sorrow in his voice, it was empty of emotion, but I felt my stomach turn in reaction to something I couldn’t explain. Everything he had told me sloshed together and rose in an emotional nausea. Suddenly I was conscious of having a dad, that he had never known me, that now he was a sorry old man who had lost everything, and that I had two half-brothers who had been wiped out before they had the chance to become men. I wanted to cry and I wanted to throw up, but I kept my mouth shut, my eyes dry and my stomach locked.

“I’m sorry, ” I said after a while. “It must have been hard for you.”

“Yeah.”

He took the photos from me and moved slowly back to the corner. If there was anything he could say he wasn’t going to say it to me, probably not to anyone. He placed the pictures back on the table, moved over to the window and stood with his back to me looking outside. An awkward silence settled. I was still churning up inside, but for a second I realised that if I was going to tell him about me it had to be right then.

“Thanks for the coffee,” I said. “I’ve got to be going now.”

He looked round at me, a shrivelled little figure from another world. I reckoned that he couldn’t grasp the truth if I told him, and I knew that I couldn’t handle it.

“That’s okay,” he said. “Nice to meet ya.”

As I stood he came towards me and offered his hand, then surprised me with a question.

“What’s your name?”

I told him, but it was my foster parents’ surname I used. Then I stepped into the street and began walking, still suppressing the churning in my stomach. After a few steps I turned and looked back towards the shack, but the door was already closed. I began to walk more quickly, fighting the urge to run. I noticed the post office just beyond the car and hoped that Burt Aracko didn’t see me. Sooner or later he would run across Grey Eagle and ask if I had found him, and probably learn that there was no message and wonder why I had told them different stories. He would probably guess that both had been lies. They would think I was strange, but it didn’t matter, as long as I wasn’t around.

When I got to the car I turned it around and pulled away quickly. My mind was already beyond Tucson, running all the way back home to Lewisham.

Leave a Comment