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Rainbow Milk: A Novel

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Nominated for a 34th annual Lambda Literary Award An essential and revelatory coming-of-age novel from a thrilling new voice, Rainbow Milk follows nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities against the backdrop of his Jehovah's Witness upbringing.

In the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso has immigrated to Britain from Jamaica with his wife and children in order to secure a brighter future. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient but are all too aware that their family will need more than just hope to survive in their new country.

At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London, escaping a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community, and his depressed hometown in the industrial Black Country. But once he arrives he finds himself at a loss for a new center of gravity and turns to sex work, music, and art to create his own notions of love, masculinity, and spirituality.

A wholly original novel as tender as it is visceral, Rainbow Milk is a bold reckoning with race, class, sexuality, freedom, and religion across generations, time, and cultures.

ISBN-13: 9780593313077

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 05-31-2022

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

PAUL MENDEZ was born and raised in the Black Country. He now lives in London and is studying for an M.A. in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been a performing member of two theatre companies and worked as a voice actor, appearing on audiobooks by Andrea Levy, Paul Theroux, and Ben Okri, most recently recording Ian Wright's A Life in Football for Hachette Audio. As a writer, he has contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and the Brixton Review of Books. Rainbow Milk is his debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

SEPTEMBER 13, 2001

"Have we entered the Great Tribulation?”
Brother Thomas Woodall, the congregation’s presiding overseer, a tall, broad, blue-eyed painter and decorator with dimples, white teeth and thick golden hair, spoke with a soft,
low voice that refused to compete with a baby mythering, or an elderly Sister unwrapping a boiled sweet. A special meeting had been convened to deal with the congregation’s needs after watching the fall of the Twin Towers, and the deaths of three thousand people, live on TV. Tipton Kingdom Hall—hand-built by members of the congregation to a basic single-storey architectural model—was packed full of beatific smiles, white with black, old with young. Two extra rows of seats had been added. Fringe and erstwhile members came in and sat on the back row, and were welcomed further forward. Disfellow-shipped persons, shunned by the organisation for their unrepented sins, slipped in at the last and sat by the door, ready to disappear at the end of the closing prayer. Jesse’s mother, sullenly pulling her cardigan tighter and folding her arms over her chest, was in attendance for the first time in weeks. A group of Sisters, concerned by her latest bout of depression, had coddled her as soon as she’d arrived, telling her how well she looked and asking her if she’d lost weight.
In the navy blue suit he’d bought for his son’s recent wedding, Brother Woodall introduced from the rostrum Mark 13:1–8, holding his Bible up and out on the palm of his hand, broadening his chest like the bearded Christ on the board illustrating the scripture of the year. In the gentlest of Tipton accents, Brother Woodall read slowly and deliberately, looking up to address a different member of the congregation with each phrase.
“As he was going out of the temple one of his disciples said to him:
‘Teacher, see! What sort of stones and what sort of buildings!’ However Jesus said to him: ‘Do you behold these great buildings? By no means will a stone be left upon a stone and not be thrown down.’
“And as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives with the temple in view, Peter and James and John and Andrew began to ask him privately: ‘Tell us, When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are destined to come to a conclusion?’ So Jesus started to say to them: ‘Look out that nobody misleads you. Many will come on the basis of my name saying “I am he,” and will mislead many. Moreover, when you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not be terrified; these things must take place, but the end is not yet.’
“For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes in one place after another, there will be food shortages. These are a beginning of pangs of distress.”
Jesse kept glancing at Fraser Hammond on the front row between his mother and brothers, to see if he was paying attention. It was hard to tell. His head was always down as if in study, yet when the speaker—trying to get Fraser involved more—picked him out to read a verse aloud, Fraser simply shook his head, leaving the speaker to look awkwardly elsewhere. He’d graffitied his Bible with band logos, right across the holy scriptures, and his parents—arty types who’d moved up from South London when Ian Hammond accepted a placement at a Dudley GP surgery—didn’t seem to mind or care. Fraser had revealed to Jesse that he was dyslexic, and had trouble reading, especially out loud. Jesse was flattered that Fraser would share such information with him. Fraser liked to do things with his hands, and found the ideal professional home in the Black Country, working as a fabricator.
“So what do we learn, from Jesus’s words, to his apostles?” asked Brother Woodall, rhetorically. “If we expect to put a date on God’s coming day of judgement, perhaps we should say, Remember September 1975.”
Sister Doreen Charles, sitting on an end seat in the middle, her black beehive wig blocking the view of the Brother behind her, nodded her head in agreement then shook her head at the memory. Jesse had heard her story many times, of how she had finally run out on her abusive, non-believing husband, she was so convinced, as most Witnesses then were, of the imminence of Jehovah’s Day of Judgement.
“We all thought, then, that the world was going to end on that specific date,” said Brother Woodall. “We sold our houses and left our jobs. We thought we were clever, with our mathematics”—Jesse glanced at Fraser’s brother, Duncan, a recent Maths graduate, who was unmoved—“and assumed we could predict when Jehovah God would act. Even before that, we thought that the Great Tribulation began in 1914, with the Great War. Not so. That was just the beginning, of pangs, of distress. The Bible tells us of five situations we’ll face, that will come together to announce we are in the Great Tribulation. The first of those five will be an attack on false religion, as described in Revelation, chapter seventeen.”
Jesse knew it all already. He didn’t have to listen. He was the darling boy of the congregation. Baptised for three years now, about to become a ministerial servant, halfway to elderdom, at nineteen. He manned the roving mics. Gave important talks from the platform, encouraging and admonishing the congregation, scripturally. Was considered to be a Brother of quite high standing, whilst remaining, almost shockingly, youthful. Brothers and Sisters saw in him the power of Jehovah’s love. They saw in him what a relationship with Jehovah can do for a young man: give him direction, make him satisfied, happy even, with his lot. A suitable wife was being sought for him: a mixed-race girl who had been introduced to him from another congregation, and when she stuck around him, shy and smily in her cream mohair turtleneck, moist little curls hanging from her forehead, he knew what was happening. She was pretty. They got on, but through no fault of hers he felt uncomfortable. He went home and scratched at his body as if he wanted to break out of his own skin. He prayed to Jehovah, but it was no use. He didn’t feel as if he was actually speaking to anyone. His words, as he spoke them in his head, died. He knew that something was wrong, and hoped to God his real truth would not find its way out.

Jesse didn’t know, when he went out to preach from house to house on September 11, 2001, that a different option, a different way of thinking, was waiting for him in the front room of an unassuming Victorian two-up, two-down. It began on a simple Tuesday afternoon, and despite his inexperience, he conducted the field service briefing because Sisters weren’t allowed to if there was a baptised Brother present (in the absence of a senior male, they could ask a prayer, covering their heads). Unprepared, he read 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 for the Sisters—mostly single, childless women in their late twenties who like him had dedicated their lives to the full-time ministry:
“Moreover, this I say, brothers, the time left is reduced. Henceforth let
those who have wives be as those who had none, and also those who weep be as those who do not weep, and those who rejoice be as those who do not rejoice, and those who buy as those not possessing, and those making use of the world as those not using it to the full; for the scene of this world is changing.”
They must have been wondering where he was going, but it all made sense by the end. They were an odd number, so the Sisters paired off and Jesse worked alone, one of those estates of terraced houses whose front doors opened into a staircase and sitting room. The first he knocked on was answered abruptly by a skinny young man, topless in jogging bottoms and with a face like he’d just seen something life-changing. Jesse was about to go straight into his spiel with the current issues of the Watchtower (Can Anything Really Unite People?) and Awake! (Depression—A Generation at Risk) when the young man interrupted him to say back into the house, It’s just a Jova, then turned to Jesse and said, You int sin the news av ya, mate! A plane’s crashed into a skyscraper in New York!
The young man left his front door open and went back to his seat next to a stubbly South Asian man in a polo shirt with the collar up, sitting awestruck in his slippers on the edge of a sofa, smoking what smelt immediately like a spliff and drinking a mug of tea, so Jesse, hesitantly, stepped in, closed the door and crossed in front of them to sit in the matching armchair. True enough, a cloud of grey smoke poured out from a great crater near the top of a New York skyscraper, as if from the mouth of an active volcano, obscuring the crown of its identical twin, a gruesome sight against the pure blue sky. Joypads, DVD video games and their cases were strewn across the floor in front of the TV.
“What’s actually ’appened?” said Jesse.
“They doe know, yet,” said the South Asian man, through his cigarette smoke. “We just turned on the telly to play a game, then the . . .”
“The announcer,” said the skinny man.
“Yeah, the announcer said we’re gonna interrupt the programming schedule . . .”
“To bring a special news report,” said the skinny man, trembling with nervous energy.
Jesse’s heart thumped as if he had been caught stealing. He had always imagined, that when the Great Tribulation began with the global banning, by the United Nations, of all false religion—executing Jehovah’s will—it would be announced, like this, by a news report interrupting the regular scheduling. The Asian man passed his spliff to the skinny man, who dragged on it desperately as they both stared at the screen in widening horror. A camera at ground level, watching the building on fire, immediately switched its gaze up to the sky. A man screamed Oh shit! as another plane careered stupidly over their heads and smacked right into the second tower with the sound of an empty can being crushed underfoot. The whole world gasped at once, and then for a tiny, frozen moment there was utter silence, as air rushed into the cavity of the building before a fireball boomed out from the wound.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuckin’ hell, man! What the fuck’s gooin’ on!”
The skinny man sprang up from his seat, ash flying everywhere, his dick lolloping around in his joggers.
“We are awaiting confirmation from the White House that the American government is now treating this incident as a coordinated attack,” said the reporter.
“Hundreds of people am dying, Carl, right there,” said the Asian man, as the skinny man backed onto his seat in shock.

“Jesus foretold,” Brother Woodall reasoned, “that the broad attacks, by the United Nations, on false religion, will not go so far as to destroy our true religion. What, then, does Jesus tell us we should do? Let’s turn to Matthew, chapter twenty-five, verse thirteen. One of the shortest verses in the Bible. Brother Jesse McCarthy, would you like to read that out for us?”
Jesse was suddenly nervous. He had a hard-on. The soft, loving tone with which Brother Woodall said his name didn’t help. An attendant, with a roving mic, hung it in front of Jesse’s face. Jesse kept his Bible on his lap.
“Keep on the watch, therefore,’ he read, “because you know neither the
day nor the hour.”

Jesse stayed with Carl and Abdul as long as he could without being feared missing, all three transfixed by the news—and he left them a copy of Awake!, which at least offered more practical answers to life’s questions than the dogmatic Watchtower. He drank their tea and breathed in their weed smoke, dreamed of being forced to suck their dicks. They shook their heads and thought silently of those who had lost their lives, even as they watched their bodies burn. Armageddon was coming, someday, but if he’d been on that plane or in that building he would already be dead. What kind of God lets people die so horribly? He was shocked at himself, at that thought, but more than anything, confused by something he’d never previously questioned.
He found the Sisters—who themselves had all been invited in by householders to watch the events unfold—similarly shock-faced in the next street, but still almost felt he had to lie when they asked him where he’d been and prayed they couldn’t smell anything on him. I was invited in by a couple, he said. Nice people, but I don’t think we should call on ’em again. Abdul had described how members of his family had threatened to kill him. He and Carl lived far enough away from their childhood homes to feel safe but not so as to become isolated. They lived together in that little house as a couple. Two men. They ran a window-cleaning business together and had finished for the day. Various sexual configurations went through Jesse’s mind. They were both masculine; he thought he might be able to understand it better if one of them was like a girl, but these two—men—lived together. They seemed so free. They spent afternoons in their slippers and jogging bottoms, playing computer games, drinking tea and smoking weed. They had a kitchen and a garden, and upstairs, probably two bedrooms—plenty of privacy—and a bathroom. Jesse used their downstairs toilet and thought to himself, I’m having a wee in the house of two men who live together like man and wife. Lived together. Two men. In such a cute little house with a red door, one sash window at the bottom and one at the top. All they needed. Carl was a skinny white man, like the skinny white boys Jesse went to school with who said racist things to South Asian men like Abdul, calling them dirty fuckin’ Pakis, but now, this skinny white man, and this South Asian man, probably in their mid-twenties, had found love, with each other. It was the first time Jesse had ever met a gay couple, and he didn’t run away from them in disgust. Perhaps he would’ve done if they had not experienced together, he and them, the unfolding of such a cataclysmic event.
The way Carl and Abdul looked at each other, the way they held hands, Jesse found electrifying. They sat next to each other, watching something far more destructive to the world than their love. He left with a foretaste of Armageddon, and wondered whom he would want to experience it with. These are a beginning of pangs of distress.

“Did Jehovah God intervene,” Brother Woodall concluded, “to bring things to a conclusion, after the Great War and Spanish flu killed twenty-five million people, between 1914 and 1919? Did Jehovah God intervene, to bring things to a conclusion, after World War Two, and the Holocaust, killed an estimated seventy-five million people across the world? Will Jehovah God intervene, because three thousand people just died in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia? We cannot say no, but nor can we say yes, because the time Jehovah God will act is known only to Him, and all we can do is keep our faith, go out there on the ministry, and comfort those who need the support only we, as God’s servants, and His voice on the Earth, can give. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a hundred years. In the meantime, mankind will continue to do what mankind has constantly done since it broke away from God’s favour, and that is, to divide itself into tribes, and go to war.”