21 December 2009

David's Dad by Afam Akeh

I am in a bicycle shed with some of the parents. Others spread out in talking groups around the school grounds, enough parents to fill several classrooms. Closing time at Gotham Primary is busy. I feel strange, almost removed, as if here and not here. I can hear every sound or think I can. It feels that way in my throbbing head.

There had been warm greetings. I responded to the How are yous? with cheery Fine, thank yous. A smile is always possible. They all know I have been away from the school for the past week because of David, my son. Some are surprised to see me now but no one is making me talk about him, about the trouble they think I must be going through. It is polite society at the school. No one wants to be seen as prying, or going too far.

I hear a familiar voice and turn to look at the woman with the voice. All the parents know Julie’s Mum – or know her voice. And some dread it. But, really, Julie’s Mum is easy listening – doesn’t talk politics, talks the weather. I focus on her. I hear her and also hear the pounding in my head. David had pointed her out to me in his first week at school so I could thank her for inviting him to Julie’s birthday party. I notice she is wearing a casual pink top, the one she frequently wears to Gotham. I look briefly at her pointing fingers, and then at her face, and again at her dress. Something about her distracting presence is soothing, almost pleasant. Pink is one of the favoured colours among the parents. There is a lot of black too. And white. I am dressed in black.

There are thrice as many mums as dads at these gatherings. Parents who come to drop off or collect their children at the school are known by their children’s names. There is Julie’s Mum. Peter’s Mum. Tonia’s Dad. Sometimes for Sagasi a Step-Dad, or for Marie, the Nan. I am David’s Dad to everyone at the school – teachers, pupils and parents.

Here and there, classroom doors open and release uniformed children to
their parents, but David’s classroom door remains shut. Some other parents,
including Julie’s Mum, are also waiting for that door to open.

“I now think our children are the cause of these delays.”

Julie’s Mum is speaking to Gavin’s Mum, who seems distracted or displeased, and not really interested in conversation. Taller, in sober black and white dress, Gavin’s Mum is not like Julie’s Mum. She is standing closest to me, mostly silent, her eyes fixed on a group of toddlers, who are hop, skip, jumping at the play field. A few are kicking a ball and running, or playing ‘Tag’ and running, or just running. Children are always running.

“I used to think it was the teachers but Miss Gobson has been doing better with the time since our children passed out of her class.”

“Yes,” says Gavin’s Mum, craning her neck to get an improved view of the activities at the play field. She is doing what some parents do to Julie’s Mum. If they do not want a conversation with her, they might nod, even say “Yes” to her, but that does not mean their thoughts are with her, or that they are listening to all she is saying.

“Yes,” Gavin’s Mum says again in automatic response to whatever Julie’s Mum is saying. But Julie’s Mum now knows Gavin’s Mum is not really listening to her. She continues speaking, but makes it known she is no longer speaking just to Gavin’s Mum. She is speaking to anyone who may be as troubled as she is by the frequent late closing of some classes at the school.

“Our kids will be having late dinners at this rate...”

The brief silence following this last word from Julie’s Mum makes it clear to all Gavin’s Mum is now out of it, and that she is passing on her turn to respond. I wait, and Julie’s Mum waits too.

“You may be right too about our kids. They’ve got to be the ones slowing down their teachers. I know my David takes his time getting ready.”

“Julie’s the same...”

David. I light up suddenly and look around at the mention of my son’s name, as though roused from some guilty nap – like one caught sleeping on duty. Then I realise the woman now speaking to Julie’s mum is referring to her own David, the other David at the school, David Vorrel – not my son, David Drabble. David Vorrel’s mum is dressed in pink like Julie’s Mum, and seems quite happy chatting with her, unlike Gavin’s Mum. I notice that Julie’s Mum now has her back turned to Gavin’s Mum and is leaning away from her and towards David Vorrel’s Mum. I wonder briefly whether Gavin’s Mum is being punished for her earlier attitude to Julie’s Mum.

My head aches. I shut my eyes to cushion the pain. My head is where all my hurt has gone, and I feel like it wants to stop thinking, stop calculating and understanding, stop making sense of anything the eyes are showing to it. It feels heavy, or feels like I am forcing it to work for me.

“My Julie’s a real peach, she is... except when you want her to hurry down her cornflakes... hmn!”

Julie’s Mum has found her perfect listener in David Vorrel’s Mum, and is quickly growing into her subject.

“Go on, Julie, I says to her. Go on darling… Eat your cornflakes or we’ll be late to your school this morning. I push the plate close to her, you understand? ‘Cause all she’s doing is dippping her spoon into the bowl, bringing it out, putting it into her mouth – without even a flake of cereal in it!”

She wags her right hand in mock exasperation for the benefit of the attentive Mrs Vorrell. Then she begins a reprise of some earlier dialogue with her daughter, first mimicking Julie’s voice, then speaking as her own self...

“I don’t like milk, mummy... It tastes disgusting, mummy.

“Milk is wonderful, honey. Milk is good for you.”

“Milk is yucky!”

“Really? But you have milk in chocolate, and you like it, don’t you?”

“Chocolate is yummy... But milk is yucky!”

David Vorrell’s Mum is finding this performance by Julie’s Mum really funny, and both women now collapse in giggles over the expert opinion of the young Julie at breakfast as played by her mum.

“Milk is yucky… but chocolate is yummy!” David Vorrel’s Mum is taking her turn at being Julie, triggering off another round of giggles.

Even Gavin’s Mum seems to join the fun, but it is not clear that she is laughing with the two women rather than at them.

I crave this distraction from those around me. It hurts my head but what is already in my head hurts even more. A child suddenly screams in the play field and everyone turns towards that direction. Gavin’s Mum is already half-running or quickstepping towards the fallen boy. It is Ben. I know him by name but not by face. Ben is Gavin’s younger brother, too young to be in the school himself but usually with mum on her school trips. I learned all this from my son David.

Attention is drawn away from the field as a classroom door opens and another set of pupils is allowed out.


Julie’s Mum is pleased. These are the children we have been waiting for. The girl Julie is first out. Her mum wants to draw our attention to this. But parents have eyes only for their own children when classroom doors open at closing time. I wait and do not move from where I stand. David, my David, would usually come out at the end of that disorderly queue. Sometimes he would come out tossing bits of school uniform on his body or dragging them along. I wait and watch Gavin’s Mum fuss over her two boys, especially Ben, who had fallen in the playground. I watch them leave.

“Bye, David’s Dad. See you next time.”

It is young David Vorrel, being pulled along by his mother. He attempts to stop, staring up at me, as if I might somehow help to unravel some mystery. But his mother is in a hurry. She smiles apologetically at me, rolling her eyes.

“Bye, David,” I respond, waving.

Some parents do not leave immediately with their children. I watch them at play, becoming children for the benefit of their little ones. David had not come out of the classroom with his classmates. I let it come slowly to me – the finality of it. In the past David would walk out at closing time with his classmates, crying “Daddy!” as he dumped his bags and lunch box, and all the warm clothing he would not wear, into my willing hands, trundling off as I followed slowly behind.

I observe the emptying school grounds and slowly accept that I have to move from my rooted spot and go home without David. I move a first step and walk with slow feet towards the school gates. There is much noise from the street but what I really hear is the struggle in my head. I continue in this way, thinking my steps along. Outside the school gates I stand for a moment looking at the spot in the public park where I would habitually leave my car. It is not there now. It was towed to a garage by a salvage truck. I suffer a relapse and see a flash of the moment I crawled out of its wreck, then tried to pull David out. I breathe in heavily, thinking for the moment I might still need a doctor. Then I breathe out dismissing the idea.

“It’s only stress,” I say, loud enough to hear, not meaning to. The last doctor said so.

Stressssss... I hear the word echo in my head.

Now that the distractions of the school are over I feel again that sensation of not owning my head – as if it owns itself, as if it can make itself stop doing what I want, and do only what it wants. David’s face flashes into memory but I walk on. I think – because that is what comes readily to mind – if I can get home and have a hot bath I will feel better.

David's Dad was written by Afam Akeh.

Copyright Afam Akeh 2009.

Afam Akeh is the author of Stolen Moments (1988), a collection of poems. His poems, stories, essays and work in journalism have won awards and appeared in various journals and anthologies.

He has qualifications in Political Science, Publishing and Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Ibadan. Founding Editor of African Writing, he is working on new projects for the development and promotion of poetry from Africa.

Letter Home, a second collection of poems, and How to Read African Poetry, a collection of personal and literary essays, will be published in 2011.

Parade Boys is from a collection in progress with the working title Oxonians, intended as a centenarian tribute to Joycean aesthetics and the achievement of his collection, Dubliners (1914).


Myne Whitman said...

What a sad story, especially at this time of the year. So what happened to David?

This is a good use of the stream of consciousness style, I liked the voice and the lyrical style of writing. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Happy Christmas to you and all, Myne, and thanks for your comment. Where is David? Hopefully in a better place, as I dare to think the story does indicate. And,yes, it is as you say not a story for the seasonally merry. Blame our dear Ivor and Storytime for featuring the story at this time... Ha! Ha! But does it perhaps speak at different levels to those for whom Christmas is also about coping or dealing with the memory of beloved others not there to celebrate it? And just like Easter, Christmas in its founding theological signification or teleological consideration is about marking transitions, both about joyful comings and rather painful departures, about presence and absence, these and the other related dualities of experience, the human zones of uncertain or unsettled consciousness between them.


Jude Dibia said...

Afam, I do love your writing! This particular story was quite melancholic but the details were so rich. I loved the way you used David's father's eyes to wander and observe, giving this reader a detailed picture of the surrounding and the action taking place. Well done. Well written.

Sarudzai Mubvakure said...

A sad story. I love the element of surprise close to the end. Choice of a black and white photo adds to the effect of the story as well! Brilliant. I enjoyed it.

bankattorney said...


I just ran into your biafran story and it dawned on me that you and grew up in Issele-Ukwu in those tragic years that you talked about.

Your story could have been told by me. Those were the years of inequity committed by guile and atrocious men who were bent on ethnic cleansing of our Igbo people.

We were coerced into "go on with one Nigeria" but even as children, we knew that there was something wrong with that pseudo nation called Nigeria.

I remember witnessing some of the humiliations suffered by our people that you described; and I wanted to run away to Biafra and fight in defense of my Igbo people.

For me at less than 10 years old then, it was "give me liberty or give me death." Unfortunately, young age precluded me from making the choice.

Nevertheless, as you may remember, we extracted our pound of flesh using whatever weapon we could find mostly stones, you know what I mean!

By the way I remember you very well from those days. I am also from ohuno Umuobi.You may contact me at omonuan@hotmail.com for me info.

StoryTime: Weekly Fiction by African Writers.
All works published in StoryTime are
Copyrighted ©.
All rights reserved.