I don’t think my dad ever told the truth, but to himself, I know he never told a lie. He spoke in stories, never complete, one leading into another, pulling you from distraction, and if you tried to interrupt he would raise his hand and threaten to bring it down on your cheek. If you don’t let me finish, he would say. Always a slow crawl to a conclusion, his tongue flailing, as if it was drowning. But I never saw him lay his hands on a soul. Well, except for me, but then I couldn’t bear witness to that. I imagine his palm coming down, the movement an image overlaid on itself, each one a cause to flinch. My dad denies any violence, and when I bring it up he explains his character, and how this memory of mine contradicts who he is. But I have many memories of him, each one the backdrop to a changing man. He lived various lives, depending on who was with him in each moment, who was observing him. And in any one of those moments, I believe, he could have laid hands on me, or my mother even, transfiguring us, our relationships, into something else. It was a change that always felt possible, even without a soul ever being touched.
If I were spiritual, or endeared to myth, I might think my dad altered my memories of him, because I don’t resent him. I want to understand him, his stance and gait, why an unrequited wave would hurt so much, why he slowly stepped in so many directions away from me. My dad could layer a narrative to a point that you’d begin to doubt reality, accept indifference at the effort required for recollection. It wasn’t the possibility of future savagery that kept me at a distance, no, that wasn’t what sealed the outlines of my emotional memory. It was the question: why? Why had he brought his hand down on a nature like mine? Without force or jest? I believe there were two reasons: one, he was an alcoholic, who liked to think all people would change but him; and two, I had tried to kill a tiny spider in front of him. The most far-reaching, strange and enduring lie my dad ever told was that he was Kweku Anansi. And that this was the reason nothing would ever kill him.
Most days my mother walked around a playground, still unused to being called ‘Miss’, singing the gospel songs of her childhood in a low tone. At home, she had to choose between the radiator and the radio cassette player, and so she’d sit, cold, waiting to recognise the melody of one of the songs that was the background of her girlhood. My grandmother cooked, a world unto herself, a matriarch rolling cassava and yam with ease, no fear for her fingers though she might not have pressed them together in a while, hungry children eclipsing church, humidity casting each face. And then here was my mother, waiting to be full, arched back aching and imprinted with the plastic carpet prickling into her skin, eyes closed and patient, knowing the Call of Christ would come to her again. Listening, touching every note, ready to push down the two buttons that would capture the remote faith bestowed by the voices of her village chapel. There were many repeated gospels, but when finally a song was hers, she could rest her eyes. She would climb into bed and try to sing the song from memory; my dad, asleep beside her, would often wake with a voice sleepy and supple as silk to gift her the words she struggled to remember.
I only have one photo of my dad. My mum is in the same one. I wish I had separate images. They’re sitting opposite each other on a coach to Brighton. It’s a church trip. In the left corner of the photo is the waist of another one of the devoted – slightly blurred due to movement. Loud, I’ve always said of this image. The other corner holds an elbow, a captured clap.When we looked together, my mum found it difficult to argue against my description of abstract clamour: both my mum and dad are holding cans of Foster’s, smiling and saluting the camera, a moment of farewell and of triumph. The last drink, my mum said, before she gave her life to Christ. My dad claimed to remember that day, and would describe the singing as out of tune, clashing with the prayer. My mum says she has prayed every day since, only the more she prayed, the more he consumed.
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