Brixton, London, 2005
In late sunlight on Brixton Station Road, Jeff the Chef cooks jerk chicken on the oil-drum grill that stands beside his food wagon. The smoking meat makes my stomach growl. Spiced smoke drifts past men drinking coffee out- side Max’s railway arch cafe as a commuter train rumbles over their heads. Cigarettes on the table. Phones and prayer beads.
A week of unbroken Indian summer. These warm days are deceptive. Cold and darkness are closer than we think. For now, men whose shops and food wagons are in shade sit in the sun on the other side of the street from their businesses, on holiday from their lives. Some have beers open – bottles of cold Sagres, I’d love one. The hum of many voices speaking many languages. All the different stories. The oceans people have crossed to be here, the people left behind. How good the beer must taste after history.
A man in the sun shouts: This could be the last of it.
Sitting on the pavement outside Herbal Town, shirt open to the waist, his back against a wall (he’s Ethiopian, I think, there’s a Coptic cross tattooed on his wrist).
You never know, another man, unseen, says.
As we come down the steps from the Recreation Centre, and into the street crowded with men and women talking, I look at Jay. All this is home for her. She’s known nothing else.
Why am I living in this place and time? Why this skin and body and not another?
Does Jay notice how the red plastic chairs outside Max’s become ruby-coloured in shadow, or wonder what the upright, turbanned Rasta in pressed cords is thinking as he stands guard – or maybe just having a smoke break – outside Ashok’s off-licence? Does she think about the people on the trains passing above us, where they are going and what they’re dreaming? Does she even hear the trains above all this different music, soaring hymns from Beautiful Books Bible shop, roots and culture rumbling from Bushman’s Kitchen?
What about the wildflowers – cowslip, St John’s wort, yellow rattle – somehow quivering in light between the brickwork and train tracks above us? How did they get up there?
Often she is an island presence. Far away even when close by, haloed by an isolating light. Some of us are like that more than others, especially when we’re kids. I give Jay’s silences heavy weight and shade. I take nothing she does for granted. She has her own visions.
I’d guess her head is where we’ve just come from, the basement gym inside the rec where for the last hour and a half she has played football with and against boys. While she plays I have to bite down on the urge to call out or shout at her. Now there’s something Jay’s not saying – I can almost hear her talking to herself, to me. Disturbance transmits from her as spiced smoke stings my eyes.
We walk past bright stands of flowers, zinnias and forget-me-nots, red poppies and cornflowers, growing in boxes made from old furniture. Here’s a spray of marigolds in an open drawer. The boxes are painted: Malcolm X, a red parrot, tropical vines.
Dirty pigeons eddy at my feet and I kick them away.
Look at the flowers Bear, I say.
She doesn’t answer. I’m always saying things like that.
When’s the next World Cup Dad? she says.
Next summer. All your countries are in it.
I love it here, I say, as we walk through the market at Popes Road and turn left onto Atlantic.
Jay laughs, but she’s still inside herself.
I can almost believe in the permanence of these warm days, this unchanging child whose hand fits mine. But I can feel the cold and the darkness coming, and I can’t help noticing how the streets and the faces around me are changing all the time. New people with more money are moving in. Once familiar places and people are gone before you miss them, but you do miss them. Soon this will no longer be the place I know.
Jay almost comes up to my shoulder.
When did you get so big?
Jay’s heart-shaped face relaxes as we get nearer home, but her skin is dark around her eyes.
Jay won’t do anything she doesn’t want to, but with me she’ll still do things she might not like to get my praise. I’m waiting for her to say I’m not her dad. I’m shy with my authority because the more I become her dad the more terrified I am that she’ll say I’m not. Maybe she thinks the same. That if she doesn’t do what I want I won’t love her.
We don’t talk about it. We have great wrestling games that are dances of pure love.
At courtside, Headman’s eyes blaze. Jay is scared of him, she flinches when he shouts. Tony is kinder. There’s no fat on either man, not a speck. Both have shaved heads. Headman’s head is so smooth – like he shaves it twice a day. His fibrous arm and leg muscles gleam under the gym lights.
These men have been finding and training players for over twenty years. If Headman says you’re good, scouts from the big London clubs will want to check you out.
Watch this boy in black knee socks, short Afro, shunt the boy in grey Adidas sweats off the ball (at the beginning of the session, Headman won’t blow for a foul unless the boys are actually attacking each other. A couple of times Jay had to fight back tears when she got chopped and the foul wasn’t given). Afro has the ball, but he won’t look up, and he’ll never pass, certainly not to Jay. He loses the ball and sits on the floor, rolling his knee socks up and down and moaning loudly to Headman and Tony.
Headman looks disgusted. Tony says, Get up and get on with it, son. For many of the boys, these are the only men who try to teach them discipline and self-respect.
Dionne, the other girl here, has speed and power. She’s also bigger than everybody else. She wears a baggy black T-shirt and black shorts. Moving forward, scattering boys, the ball sticks to her feet. Stopping in the middle of the court, head up, she easily holds off the four or five smaller boys who buzz helplessly around her, and then fall back, complaining when she beats them. In play, Dionne’s face is set in a hard, dark mask, but whenever Headman shouts praise she smiles a dazzling, melt your heart smile. This hot, subterranean hall contains many hearts in need of love.
Jay’s knocked over again. She doesn’t complain, doesn’t roll around or throw her arms about. She gets up, jogs back over towards the action and then makes a run forward into a tiny space – that’s it! Here, here, she says quietly, hands palms out. I want to shout at her: Demand the ball!
She looks over at me. Fearfully, or for help? I wave her forward. Jay begins making arcing runs into the box, her thick plait swinging high. Dionne sits deep and starts looking for her, but either the ball or Jay’s run is blocked. At last a ball gets through and Jay’s there! She smashes it left-footed, the ball whacks against the foot of the post, then flies away into the crowd of people watching at courtside: mums, aunties, nans, loaded down with food shopping hanging from pushchairs, more kids – really little ones – running around and straying onto the court, their yells amplified under the vaulted ceiling, rushing to collect the ball when it gets kicked out of play. I’m one of the few men here.
Next, Dionne ploughs through a field of panting, disorganized boys, plays a one-two with Jay. Jay’s return pass is perfect, soft, and without breaking stride Dionne slams the ball past the keeper, in a Barcelona shirt, so hard the mini-goal is knocked back a foot.
Somebody says, ’Low it man, she’s a baller.
Headman blasts on his whistle. Tony starts collecting the balls and putting them in the big mesh bags. Jay trudges over to me. Her hair’s all wild and frizzed at the front. She’s sweaty and panting. I’m careful not to hug or kiss her in front of the boys. I shake her hand and give her a carton of Ribena. She sucks down hard on the straw. She’s really thirsty – so am I, my mouth is dry. With a big slurp sound the carton collapses in on itself as Jay empties it and sucks the air out.
Jay puts her hoody on. I put my arm lightly round her shoulders and we walk over to Headman and Tony. Tony is putting everything away. He’s finding lost shoes for kids, and talking to the mums. Headman’s just standing, his eyes spitting fire. What’s he thinking?
Tony: You did good. You enjoy it?
I have my hand on her back and can feel the heat through her hoody.
Jay: It was good.
Headman, his eyes blazing, says: I know it’s tough, but you must be tough right back. I know you’re good, but are you tough?
Does he think Jay’s soft? Does he think I’m soft? I think he only cares about the boys, but then what about Dionne? Maybe it’s just me he doesn’t take seriously. His look says: why are you bringing her here? Because I want to see how good she really is. Is that what Jay wants? I thought it was. I think that what I’m doing is for the best – if she can play here then getting into a good girls’ team will be easy. Fulham are already asking about her. I dream about her playing for Arsenal. She wears 4 and VIEIRA on her shirt. When Jay was little I’d always tell her to watch Vieira. See how he gets up and down the pitch, I tell her.
In the street, a young barefoot black woman with close-cropped hair, eyes too big for her face, wrapped in a Portuguese flag, weaves past us holding a can of White Lightning. It’s clear from her naked shoulders and the way her body moves underneath the sheer material of the flag that she’s wearing nothing else. She’s familiar, you’ll see her most days, sometimes with other drinkers or users, walking out of time with everybody else. I don’t think she has a pimp, though maybe that’s him, there, sitting on the wall a few yards away from her, watching her from under a sharp felt hat. Her eyes aren’t seeing things the way I’m seeing them. Is everything radiant where she is, softened by a golden wash? Is it worth it? Men coo and talk after her but nobody tries to touch her. Maybe she appears as a vision, maybe they’re all used to her.
She is soft-looking, but protected somehow – some force field made of the innocence she projects, even in the state she’s in – or by her pimp, if that’s who that is, and who I overhear saying to another man: It is not a she, it is a he.
Is that possible?
My arm is still around Jay’s shoulders as we cross onto Railton Road, where we live.
Not so good tonight.
The boys don’t pass to me Dad.
You have to earn the right to play your own game. You have to go in there and win the ball. When they see how good you are they’ll want you on their team.
No they won’t Dad.
What are you saying, you don’t want to go back?
She’s silent the rest of the way home.
That night Araba says: She goes because you want her to.
I wish I’d had somebody pushing me when I was her age.
She’s not you.
It’ll help her.
She doesn’t like it. It scares her.
She needs to toughen up.
Because she’s really good, but she’s too self-conscious when she plays with kids she doesn’t know.
She’s self-conscious because she doesn’t want to be
there and she’s afraid she’ll upset you.
From where she’s playing on the floor with her Sylvanian animals Rose says: I hate football Dadda.
The little animals – red squirrels, dogs and rabbits – come in family groups of four: mum and dad, boy and girl. You can tell which is which by the clothes they wear (the male hedgehogs wear dungarees, the females have pretty frocks). Rose likes to undress them and jumble them up so that rabbits live with squirrels, dogs with hedgehogs.
After her bath, I watch Jay drawing manga faces in her sketchbook, a tough but paper-sensitive kid, made of hot blood I can see pumping through thick veins under her skin, and wonder, what’s she thinking about? About her blood father, now that she knew I wasn’t him? I didn’t know enough, then, to realize she was always free from my projections and obsessions.
Mostly she’s just a kid playing and dreaming. Joyous. She’s busy discovering and assembling the component parts of herself. Keeping some, discarding others. Which part of me is Greek (her blood father was Greek), which part Ghanaian?
She loves and takes for granted what her body can do. Run fast and for ever. Keep a football under close control, use a table-tennis bat – a cricket bat, a tennis racket, anything, pilot a kayak.
She’s got kayaking tomorrow. I need to find a pair of neoprene gloves. There’s some that will fit her around here someplace.
This was what we worried about in those days. Do the kids have all they need for tomorrow? Where should Jay play football to be the best player she could be? Did that even matter, where will she be happiest? Where should Lee go to university to study Spanish? How many friends can Rose have to stay for a sleepover? And money, we always worried and fought about money in those days.
I think if Jay could have stayed as she was, she would have. I understood too late that what Jay hated was her girlness being noticed – and in the sessions in the rec all the boys were also black, it’s true, which is only to say, because no two boys looked alike, that her light skin made her doubly visible. She wanted to disappear into the anonymity of boyhood. She wasn’t to know this was a dream. When she outgrew her football boots she didn’t want a new pair.
When her body began to change I saw only a greater beauty. I praised her when she got her period, and because she loved me she tried to smile. Was one of the reasons she began to cut herself so she could decide when she would bleed?
‘What has happened to me?’ Gregor Samsa asks when he wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. ‘It was no dream.’
All this is not mine, Jay said, and taped and bound herself, and fought her body with kitchen knives hidden in her room.
An excerpt from Howard Cunnell’s memoir Fathers & Sons, published by Picador.