By Kamaria Muntu
From the first moment I saw his fiancée I knew my father’s death was imminent…”Say partner, can I git a light?” The out of left field voice gave me a start. “Sorry man” I say almost under my breath, “I don’t smoke.” The dishevelled looking guy seemed a bit menacing, but perhaps it was just me who was all edge manouevering the trash and glass glittered streets as I hurried to my own West Baltimore house of haunted bliss. I was thinking as I unfastened my top jacket button in the stifling and drizzly dusk, that it could never have been as simple as the presence of glossy raven hair, movie-star curves, or even the perpetuity of chronically dissatisfied doe eyes, batting long girlish lashes as to ever beckon appeasement.
Having known the man almost thirty years now, I was certain that no triviality of pleasing physical façade could have rendered my Pops this sprung.
I put the key in my door and see that Bernadette is either passed out on the sofa in the front room or maybe she’s fallen asleep naturally. The whole place is enshrined twilight and competing with the bent raga of unremiting police sirens, is KoKo Taylor layin’ down “Tired of That.” I’m diggin’ the sentiment as there are empty bottles of port on the floor, crummy pie plates and hairstyling magazines damn near knee deep. I enter the small kitchen that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since I left, and pull one of three chairs from a table with almost every inch covered by one article of crap or another. Dragging the chair into the living room, I seat myself in front of the sleeping or passed out Bernadette. I light a cigarette, the last secreted away in an old Camel pack in defiance of a promise. Bernie had vowed to quit her daily red wine habit for at least six months. I of course would give up smoking for good. Inhaling with gusto, smoky curlicues rising high, I think again of my father. He was one of those men who thought he was fortunate to have had the great love of his life, and since the passing of my mother had been content to partake of a woman’s companionship on occasion, emphatically laying out the rules of engagement from day one. He was kind-hearted with a giving nature, but he was nobody’s fool. He was not much of a talker, but he was a good listener and fastidious problem solver. He was a hard working man who could clean up nicely if he did say so himself. And he especially loved to see a woman enjoy her food…
But – he would never marry again. No one could replace my mother in his heart. Any woman who came into his life had to content herself with that.
On the right hand side of the couch, above Bernadette’s head, a boxy window. The only one in the tiny front area. The late evening room begins to brighten and I note the strands of sunlight and stir of dust issuing from the drawn but thin wrinkled curtains. Bernie swipes at her nose as if swatting an unknown bug, her full mouth parts and her breathing is loud and rapid for a few seconds, then it levels off and she begins to lightly snore.
Dad met Mum when he was stationed in England in the seventies. It was during the time the PM, ‘Sunny Jim’, was at the helm. The sobriquet referring to James Callaghan and his inexplicably cheery outlook under the most sobering of circumstances – in this particular case, an extraordinary winter that disabled a city and brought two strangers close. My mother had been a hairdresser working in Bow. Dad and some mates were carousing in an area pub when they met. The way he would always tell the story was that Mum had been with two other girls that evening, both of whom would have been easily considered more striking than she. Dad was just a ‘ young buck’ then, having a few laughs, letting off some steam – primed as he always was in them days for the catch. My mother had tried her best to get him to pay special attention to her, and upon recognising the futility of the effort, she abruptly stood up from the bar and announced she was going to the loo. Before walking off she made it a point to glance back at Dad with a sprig of mischief in her eye “I reckon I won’t be missed”, she said. The crew had snickered. “Cheeky cow” a fellow soldier remarked – “I think she fancies you.” But dad’s uniformed buddy didn’t have to say a word, because that quick, a kind of soft and not altogether painless urge stabbed at his chest. The boy dad knew himself to be must have fallen and died right there before he could finish his pint, because things were very different in the way he would feel about everything from then on. “There are beautiful women son – then there are women whose lack of obvious beauty slays a man right there on the spot.” And because I knew they had whimsically named my eldest brother James and would catch each other’s eye in a most private and intimate nostalgia when their James (who was similarly prone to inappropriate giggling) ignited a mutually palpable account in their minds. Because I had grown up on stories of their courtship, Mum’s flat above a tiny shop in Shoreditch – the roads blocked and snowy, the High Street markets short of food, and the two of them hold up together, keeping the other warm, you can see how surprised I was when Dad brought Monica home not quite a year ago. Mostly I was surprised by the different way he was acting around her. He was more than his usual nice he was… solicitous. And I detected a kind of tension, a veiled insecurity as if he could say or do something that would cause her to fly out of any unhinged opening with the scantest provocation – this in keeping with the airy and ill contained bird she appeared to be.
When she awakened, Bernie and I took a shower together. I liked to soap the sponge up real good and cream the ivory suds all over her remarkable skin. The contrast always made my heart beat faster. Bernadette was sitting now on the edge of our bed obsessively drying her thick woolly hair with a towel. I knew she needed a drink, so I went into the kitchen again, this time returning with lemon-water. “Thank you” – then to heap on gratitude, she inquired about my father.
The doctor termed it a mild cardiac episode. I had flown down to Savannah a week ago, and finding Monica abuzz with teary-eyed concern beside my father’s hospital bed was somehow not what I’d expected. She was the culprit to my way of thinking, so how could she just be there at the scene of her crime, proprietarily hovering like some middle aged madonna? He was my father after all, and still the bereaved husband of his one and only Constance – my mother.
Mum passed six days after my twenty-seventh birthday. Throat cancer was the disease that took her. I called her Mum even though I was born in the US. She never regretted leaving London she said, but since she was a little girl she had always wanted to be a Mum. Dad’s new love, Monica, wore too much make-up.
The entire time I was in Savannah she smelled of onions and counterfeit perfume.
In general Dad and I never judged each other’s women, not since I’d been grown. Now watching this one with the tight spandex jeans, plunging red studded blouse and one toe high heel sandals, I had to wonder if I should have spoken up before it came to this.
Bernie slaps me on my butt, puts on some reggae, Steel Pulse’s “House of Love”, slips out her robe and crawls under the sheets. I follow suit leaving my shorts on.
My father was eight when he came to America from Barbados with his parents. They lived in Harlem at first, and then uncharacteristically migrated south when his father had saved enough money to open a barbershop in Atlanta. That’s where Dad grew up until he joined the military at twenty against his father’s protestations. Jimmy Carter was president – it was peace time, so his mother gave him her Confirmation Rosaries to keep him from sin. He brought mum back with him to Atlanta – they married and he made plans with a childhood friend to open up an auto repair in Macon, as this was the skill he acquired while in the service.
One hot moonless night coming out of some dance hall joint in the Georgia boonies. In high spirits and a bit liquor woozy, Dad, Mum, his business partner Harold and his woman, noticed a pickup truck screech to a jolting stop as they staggered to Harold’s station wagon. Five locals jumped out. Two had been riding up front and three in the flatbed. Before dad or the others could even spy the Confederate flag insidiously fixed to the vehicle’s antenna, they were being brutally attacked. Harold who my father always described as a lady’s man – handsome, muscularly built and coloured the deepest Black – a deeper Black than my father’s even, seemed to be getting the worse of it. They had ambushed him – striking him with a heavy metal pipe from behind. Two of the rebels held him while another continued to pound him with the sawed off pipe. Harold’s lady Fula, a pretty brown thing from the Sea Islands is how Dad usually described her, managed to escape to the station wagon and lock herself in while dad was fighting off the remaining two – one of whom in the morass had grabbed mum, ripping her dress until her bare bosom was exposed. That night my father would tell me … “must have looked to the gods like hell sued for murder.” The four heaved and groaned and fought for their lives, both men battling fiercely to protect the women. But the racist’s blows landed savagely, exacting pernicious injury – the blood drenching and darkening their clothes in a panicked rain gushing from inside to out.
The criminals battered them physically and with the most foul and gruesomely violent language they had ever heard or would ever hear again, “What’s a gal like you” one said to mom, doing with that…”
Locked in the car, Fula had managed to tap hysterically on the window after sighting a few lingering dance hall patrons just milling out. She got their attention and sent them running for the law. Dad had to be hospitalised for almost a month, but they had beaten Harold so badly he was comatose. “When he come to he was neva right”. My father would put his head down for a long time when he said this.
Dad sold his interest in the business and my grandparents suggested they come to live with them in Atlanta. But Atlanta was not far enough away from Georgia for Mum, so they eventually moved to Maryland where he got on at Amtrak – beginning the part that I know first-hand of his life.
My mother hardly ever left the house except to go the doctor’s and the funeral of her mother when she passed away in East London. In a way she blamed herself I think for that horrible night.
She smoked two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and looked to have gained at least eighty pounds
compared to the picture I kept of her, posing in shorts on the hood of my father’s Chevrolet when she first arrived in Atlanta. Mum did people’s hair in our home when the family needed money, especially for Christmas and back to school. She got a kick out of cornrowing and braiding the hair of the neighbourhood girls as she never had daughters of her own. She did their hair so expertly they rumoured her to be a mulatto and not the daughter of a Welsh single mother who had made it all the way to Shoreditch. When we were little, Dad did most of the shopping, then my brother and I when we were old enough. Dad wasn’t around much after that. He worked long hours on his job and became a shop steward.
Bernie developed a real fondness for pub food once she got use to it.
After showing her how much I missed her while I was gone, I dashed out to get some groceries for dinner.
She understood that I could be both doting and preoccupied at the same time. So while I was searching for my wallet she whispered in my ear, “don’t worry bout it baby, yo daddy’s found somebody now.” I must admit, before I left Savannah he had seemed to reconcile himself to my somebody. “How is she?,” he had said regarding Bernadette. An acknowledgement that suggested maybe he was willing to call a truce when it came to bad-mouthin’ the woman I lived with. In the past he had raised objections to her age – she was fifteen years older, and also to what he described as her basic lack of ambition. Perhaps Monica genuinely cared for him? Hell, I didn’t know. I just knew I wasn’t ready to lose him too. As expected Bernie raved about Mum’s unrivaled recipe for Shephard’s Pie with lamb and well salted chips with vinegar.