Anansi, the weight of the world can never fall on the sky, so this is why your father has no empathy for me. Does he sleep to my stories or are you weaving words without care? Creep to his bedside and wake him with these pleas, and I’ll wait for the raindrop that proves his sympathy.
The distance behind us pulled itself into shapes in motion – something trying to be free and the night exposing something troublesome. The four of us stopped as the pacing got closer, the urgency in the stride frequency preparing us for a loss. ‘Phones, phones.’ My white friends pulled out their 3210s and Nokia face- offs while I felt in my pocket thinking I could assemble a cellular on a cellular level, use shaking fingers, the feelers drawing attention to the coins in my pocket, to bend reality. In this moment I was the shelves I had stolen from and the purses I had pillaged, justified, I thought, because it was unfair others had things and my material wants endlessly sought satisfaction. ‘You’re safe, you don’t need to worry.’ They said it like I should know better, like they were tired of explaining this. Slowly, they headed back into the half light that housed them. The four of us continued on our walk home, them feeling naked and robbed, not because of their loss but because I was safe. ‘Bad boys’ weren’t just mindless men morphed from the darkness, but people like me. I looked at my friends and for the first time I felt a power I was sure they could see – I was no longer worried they would leave, now there were others just like me.
I watch a little black boy standing outside a shop, pretending not to be bothered by his white friends inside spending money. I walk over and give him a two pound coin and remind him to eat whatever he buys before he gets home. My mum wouldn’t approve so I know his mum wouldn’t either. Wide, his eyes look like mine and I fall in love with how grateful everything about him becomes. ‘Safe, man!’, he says. He smells like cocoa butter and DAX and I follow his scent up to the door and watch as he stands in front of the colourful sugars with snappy names. I know he’s savouring being spoilt for choice; I’m sure when he takes a bite of whatever he buys I too will be satisfied. And a memory comes back to me of the first time I held a pound coin, given to me by a stranger who smelled like cigarettes and Blue Magic.
My mum carried around the ultrasound now come to life – an image swollen with my future – to show me nothing’s black and white. I imagined a fragile sticker on her stretch-marked stomach and always walked behind her as she climbed the stairs. We’d fall asleep together, me supposed to be watching over her but getting caught up in the lethargy of her movements. I would wake before her and lift the kente from her stomach, the cloth getting acquainted with who it’d hold up, and imagine the smile of my soon- to- be sibling. And as I’d fall back to sleep I’d ask the bump for their name and glide my fingers over stretches and paths, trails to a world and a body’s resistance to the light. Dribbling in the womb became spittle in a bucket, only my hands touched it, and pouring it out was simply wiping the baby’s mouth. When my father walked out, I walked in, with a Cornetto in one hand and my pocket smelling of Deep Heat. Then my mum grabbed my hand so I could feel the kicks, but as I touched her stomach I knew it was a palm trying to connect with me through the skin, and my bond with my brother touchingly began.
She says she can’t get up, that my dad looked down at her and walked away, his steps silent, like a stranger, like no one, only hissing sounds between his lips as he sucked the evening’s meat from his teeth – just another day. Her hand is on her hip, a position she’s used to, dancing alone to a beat she doesn’t own. My bedroom door is open so she crawls across the floor, metamorphosis to tεfrε my father has chosen to ignore. She reaches out, one hand on the bed frame, weak, but it shakes, trembling like it fears it’ll have to cover where she lay. But she reassures it with a second hand and slowly, she stands.
A ward like this gave me my brother, memories where I could see life contributing to every colour, but today the sedate shuffling of nurses is different, lacking, less, there are no hearts left, and what was once a fast beat is now slow feet dragging with grief. I hear no babies crying but whimpers of a soul worn out – the hospital holds no excitement; who am I holding this time? My mum, she’s too weak to hold her head. I lean over and let her hear the heart she brought forth to beat out her sadness, a child soaking it all up. She cries like gentle hiccups, trying to open her mouth to speak; I lift her to see her cheek and give it a kiss intended for two – Mum, I’m sure she would have loved you as much as we do.
I’m on first- name terms with my dad, the man my mum says should be on my birth certificate. I see him sometimes, usually once he returns from Accra, business trips that require Primark gifts and six months’ saved salary – this mouse-like miser of a man would suddenly open up, speaking and giving enthusiastically when a runway crossed his mind. I’ve been building the courage for years, trying to pull my voice from a well that deepened with every strike, intimidated by the width of his arm when he wore traditional garb. As a child, I wished the colours of his kente would soak into him and give me a father whose personality was luminous; instead he’d pass on darkness to my eyes. But now I have the courage, just enough strength to go against the awkward, ominous silence that will follow my questions. A few years ago, I would have shielded my face hearing a feather float – a silence spoke of violence, an oncoming slap or a fist, a release to appease a broken heart for a life that God didn’t give. I ask why he didn’t show us any love, behave like the fathers who teased me as a child. ‘K, I’m incapable,’ he says. His head is low and I can see he is balding and for the first time his Ghanaian humility betrays his Nigerian features. ‘My dad, you don’t know,’ he says, ‘when he used to see me on the market he would ignore me. I don’t know.’ And for a moment I’m soft enough to let the weight of his confession mould me, leave an impression I’d carry round with me from now until the end. But then, I remember, years ago, a man’s voice from our bathroom telling someone on the phone he loves them. My mum was asleep upstairs and the next day was my dad’s fourth trip of the year to Ghana.
The hospital visits were every six months. Time off school isn’t as fulfilling when you can’t blink without pain, move your hand or cough without feeling the pressure of living. Tests showed no allergies but my dad returning stopped the symptoms that started with his departure. His presence felt oppressive but without him my body reacted the way I wouldn’t allow my emotions to. On regular days, I’d greet him and take his groans or yeahs: but returning salutes, akwaaba, revealed a truth: a, ‘How are you?’ or ‘You takin’ it easy?’ Was a panacea brought back from his home.
He’d had enough practice – you could tell by the dark stains on the tops of his shoes. I wouldn’t let him get used to dragging his feet, so I lifted him out of his stroller, pushed him up overhead, his soles gliding back and forth faintly above my shoulders, giving him a taste of what it felt like to be above me: he has to be, my saviour – my reason for living. He baptised me, saliva on the top of my head like syrup spreading across my thoughts, my brother so lovable. He came forward, swaying, or maybe the floor shaking but in the moment I couldn’t tell, so focused on the miracle of teaching that anything else seemed possible. He stood a few centimetres in front of me, one foot forward, his left, but I’d seen him beat his bowl of baby food with his right. He remained in that position, his torso teetering, a boxer learning to stay in the fight. Our local shopkeeper called him Tyson, my brother, big for his age and his chubby balled fist resembling a baby boxing glove. But here before me, his hands were open, stretched out in front of him because he wanted to be picked up and lay his head beside my neck. But, as I had, he would have to work for affection, nothing would come to him. He brought his left leg back and started again with his right. My smile at his discovery excited him and added to his unbalanced shaking, the unsteady jittering of laughter and weak legs. His left foot followed, and then another step; and then another, and another. ‘P, you’re doing it!’ His joy from the journey nearly toppled him before he fell into my arms, Mike into D’Amato, a victory for us both.
The USA & Canada edition of That Reminds Me will be published by And Other Stories on June 27, 2023. It can be preordered here.