20 March 2011

Parade Boys by Afam Akeh

The bells were ringing when they arrived. Above the noise of vehicle engines and other city sounds there was that clang clang of the church and college bells ringing from their different locations. The bells were close enough with their timing. It was about four in the afternoon when Max and Barry got into Cornmarket Road. Cornmarket was now paved for pedestrian use mostly, but it was still called a road. The people of the city were out in force. There was that Sunday buzz from family outings, tour groups, jugglers, mime and other pavement artists, aspiring musicians and their audiences. But these sights and sounds were not what the two friends had come for. They ignored displayed advertisements for the latest mobile phone gadgets, walking purposefully towards their destination and staying away from shop windows.

Max was nervous about where they were going. He no longer thought it would be as easy as he let Barry persuade him it would be. “We’ll just get in there and act like we are with them,” Barry had said. They were doing it because it was a fun thing to do, he added. As they waded through the crowd and went deeper into Cornmarket, Max wondered if it would be possible to divert Barry towards their favourite pie place at the Covered Market. But he gave up the idea. There was nothing new in that, no adventure, and adventure was what Barry wanted. That early buzz of a ‘Best Pizza’ or ‘Best Pie’ food hunt was all the adventure it could offer. Eating was not what Max and Barry were about.

They had walked to Cornmarket from one of the St. Aldates estates. Barry lived there, in a flat with his mum. She had said her cheery “Back soon, guys”, and waved them on. Max liked Barry’s mum. She was young and pretty, too young to be Barry’s mum, he thought. She was always well dressed, behaved like her son’s young aunty and spoke to the boys like adults. But Max liked her most of all because she smelled so nice. He visited their St. Aldates flat often, jumping on the Route 31 bus from Botley, because Barry was his closest friend – and he liked to see Barry’s mum smiling.

She did not look like someone who was capable of any anger, but Barry had warned Max to keep quiet about where they were going. He said his mum would “kick up a can” if she knew. So they let her believe it was just another Sunday walkabout. The boys, or at least her son Barry, would return, exhausted. If it helped to calm him down and work up his appetite for home cooking, she was for it. A man in his forties lived with them in that St. Aldates flat. Barry called him his step dad. Max did not like the man because Barry said many bad things about him. Barry had never seen his real dad, and often wondered if he was alive or dead. His mum did not like to talk about his missing dad so he learned not to ask about him. “Not worth your bother,” his mum said. “He’s gone, he’s gone.”

“He could be anyone, anywhere,” Barry once said to Max.

“He could even be the Prime Minister,” his friend joked, trying to find comfort in a subject he also found difficult.

“Nah, Max, he ain’t PM material, me dad. If he ain’t dead, he’s a lag somewhere, done for drugs or whatever. Maybe dyin’ in some bog with a bad liver. I know, I know...”

Max smiled. He understood his friend did not really know, and was desperate to find out. He did not really mean all he had said about a father whose face he longed to see, even in a photograph. At least Max knew his own father. He visited often, and Max sometimes went to see him in Cowley, where he lived with the new woman who became his wife. Max’s mum and dad never married but did live together for six years before their separation. Max and his younger sister were the products of that relationship in Botley. He remembered the day his dad moved out. It was the morning after his fifth birthday. He heard his parents quarrelling at night after the family celebrations. It was not the first time. Parents quarrel. Parents stop quarrelling. He was exhausted from all that birthday joy, and soon fell asleep. When he woke the next morning his parents were still quarrelling so he wondered whether the quarrel had something to do with him, or the celebration of his birthday. He had been woken up by the noise and listened in bed to his parents. He knew as his dad packed up to leave that it was not a good morning. But it was later, when his mum said dad would no longer live with them, he understood his mornings would never be the same again.

The Japs are back in town... The Japs are back in town...” Barry was singing. They had walked further into Cornmarket, passing the KFC restaurant, finally taking up a position at the corner of St Michael’s Street junction. Ship Street was the side street on the other side of Cornmarket, opposite to where they stood. It was the group of fancy-dressed people in that street they had come to see. But Barry’s song was a comment on the long procession of oriental students, which had snaked into Cornmarket from Broad Street. The students cut their way through the crowd into the HMV music superstore.

“They are not Japanese,” Max said confidently.


“No. They’re Koreans, South Koreans.”

“Really? And how did you figure that out?”

“I heard them.”

“Oh... You can speak Asian now?”

“There’s no such language as ‘Asian’, silly...”

“Well, whatever the fackin’ Koreans speak!”

“Some speak English. I listened, and heard them speaking English, talking about their home in Seoul.”

“That’s in Korea, right?

“South Korea.”

“Well, Korean or Japanese, Scot or French... all the same to me. If he ain’t English he’s bloody Johnny Foreigner! Irish or worse...”

Max was used to Barry talking like this, but he still turned to look disapprovingly at his friend.

“That’s racist.”

“Racist? Nah, just ‘onest, mate. Look around. There’s Johnny Bloody Foreigner all over the place! And he gets whatever he wants too… He wants the tar taken off Queen’s Street, or Cornmarket, sos they can fill up with tourists and foreign school kids, he gets his wish. He wants the Odeon showin’ some Bollywood, he gets that wish too. It pisses me off! It’s all going to Johnny Foreigner at the moment. Me mam says so, and she’s a hundred percent most of the time.”

“Johnny Foreigner! You’re talking about the likes of Dwayne, man.”

“Nah... Not Dwayne. Dwayne’s a mate... Top bloke. Born here, been here all his fackin’ life. Black as a mamba, yeah, but a right ‘un... He owes me one though, Dwayne. Next time we’re at the chippy, I ain’t the one paying.” He stopped, seemed to hesitate, and then added perfunctorily, “Dwayne... he takes it up the arse, you know?”

“You are so crude, Barry!”

“Wha’? Everyone knows about Dwayne…”

“Yes, everyone suspects... but no one has actually seen him…”

“Okay, mate... Awight? But it ain’t what you think. I don’t mind Dwayne being that way, you know...” He hesitated again, as if uncertain about how much he could say – what he could confide in Max. “I like Dwayne… He’s cool, man, knows this city better than I do... the hot places... and up Cowley. Night time is the best time, mate. Me and Dwayne... all tossed up like we was the mayor. I had me bowler last time. And was it fun, man, was it... argh! Adventure!” He pushed Max playfully for emphasis.

“I’m off to tell your mum.”

“Fack off,” Barry said with a grin, gently pushing his friend again.

What Barry said about his mum’s attitude to newcomers in Oxford disappointed Max. He tried to imagine that sweet-smelling woman of St Aldates, who was always nice to him, saying such crude things, couldn’t bear to believe it, and decided it was not her fault. She was most likely channelling the words of her man, the one Barry called his ‘step-dad’. He was rough, and Barry did call him the beast, so it was a case of Beauty and the Beast. It had to be that The Beast was the source of all that rot coming out of Barry’s mouth, and the heart of his beautiful mum. Anyway, there was nothing new in all that for Max. He was used to talk like that from Barry. It was just talk. Max did not think of Barry as a hateful person.

He was more worried about these nights out Barry said he was enjoying with Dwayne, but he said nothing about it. Barry could take care of himself, night or day. It seemed as if he had made up his mind that Max was his day-friend and Dwayne his night-friend. Max was not a night person, and on the rare times that he stayed out late, at a friend’s birthday party usually, there would be those phone calls from his mother – just to make sure he was alright, she would say. Barry was different. Nightfall seemed to light him up. It was from these nights out with Dwayne that Barry got many of the stories he told Max, always with a glint in his eyes, as if he couldn’t wait for it to get dark again.

This was Barry of the hidden night life, the Barry some of their school mates called ‘Wacky Barry’, the Barry of rebellion and fury, but not the only Barry known to Max. There was also Barry of the soft centre, troubled but willing to learn, the one Max’s mum thought she knew as her son’s friend. Barry only ever came to visit Max in Botley when he was “in the right mood,” meaning when he could bring himself to dress sensibly and behave in the way he knew would please Max’s mum...“like a polite kid.” You could reach the softer Barry, Max knew that. It had been a factor in bringing them together as friends. Max did feel at the beginning as if a cyclone had swept into his life, carrying him along a path determined by it. Everything was adventure. Every day. Barry drank, swore, and ate his chips in overflowing mouthfuls. He didn’t care much about speaking English properly. All the things Max’s mum preached against.

A shout of affirmation turned their attention to what was going on across the road in Ship Street. Before the boys arrived, the groups converging there had been moving from one street to another, in carnival procession. There were banners and placards distributed among them. Max read one of the banners: OXFORD PRIDE PARADE.

“Looks like fun,” Barry said.

“I am sure it is.”

“Well, what are we waiting for? I‘m goin’ in...”

“No, wait!”

“Why? Scared or what? I say we go in now and rock ’em.”

As Barry spoke, there was that familiar sparkle in his eyes. Max knew at once which Barry he was now speaking to. The aroma of deep-fried chicken wafted in from the take-away bags some were carrying out of KFC. An amateur juggler in front of the old St John and St Thomas Church missed a skittle, and had to start again. This parade in Ship Street was new to Oxford. When they spoke about it earlier, Barry said he hoped it would become big, “as big as a carnival”, like the much bigger parades in other parts of the world – “all good fun, really”.

Max had said no, instinctively, the first time his friend suggested that they should join the parade, just to see what would happen. That was, well, taking fun too far, he thought. His mum would go crazy with worry if she ever heard he was in a pride parade! Everyone knew about the parade. You did not join unless you belonged, or you were a campaigner, and neither he nor Barry was any of that. And they were not old enough. But Barry was persuasive. It seemed to matter to him. New experience. Another adventure. Max gave in to his friend’s wishes. He would accompany Barry in this adventure as a friend. He even allowed himself some curiosity about the parade. Why was there so much hugging and hand-holding? All that public show of affection…

Now they were in the city, within sight of the parade he realised that neither he nor Barry had come in fancy dress like many of those in the parade. He felt overdressed just watching them. Some wore naughty student or nurse uniforms, pyjamas, lingerie and extremely short PVC skirts. One participant wore a crown of feathers, a skin-coloured vest and more feathers providing cover around his loins. From where he stood Max could not easily see if he wore anything else under those feathers below… flesh-coloured tights perhaps? Some wore masks or face paints. It was one thing to find clever disguises for getting into night clubs, as Barry said he had sometimes done with Dwayne, or bribe your way through, or use older people to buy alcohol and other stuff shopkeepers were barred by law from selling to the underage. The parade was one trick too many. And what if the folks in Ship Street should identify them as intruders? No, Barry, no.

“Still scared, Max?”

“I’m not scared...”

“Oh yes, you are. You are shit scared! We had a deal, mate. This ‘ere is why we came, but you got the shivers!”

“But, Barry, what are we going there for? We are not dressed for it and not even old enough.”

“What’s ‘old enough’, mate? No one’s got fackin’ figure sixteen waxed on the forehead!”

“We are fifteen...”

“That’s nearly sixteen, mate... enough age to fill up yuh girl well good... if you had any. Watch... I’ll show you...”

With that he swaggered off across Cornmarket towards the parade. It was, perhaps, this restraint Max had that first drew Barry to him. But Barry was also often irritated by it. He liked the fact that Max was not wild. His friend was a blank slate he could write on, someone he could endlessly show what it meant to let go. Max inspired him that way. But there were times he thought of Max as a hopeless mummy’s boy. A wuss, yes, that was the word he was looking for.

Max followed Barry with his eyes until his friend’s departing form became one with the parade. He felt suddenly alone and excluded, but also strangely satisfied he was right and Barry was wrong. Then he began to worry that his friend would be found out, and there would be trouble for both of them. There were police officers staying close to the parade in an unobtrusive way, as they usually did with approved public gatherings involving masses of people. The parade may welcome Barry, take no notice of him, ask no questions, but what if the watchful police spotted him? Max rested his hopes on the fact that his friend was at least the right height. All he needed was a cap or some face paint to disguise his youthful face. But Barry did have expressive, streetwise eyes so that could help the face in looking the right age. He was also well practised in acting older than he was.

It became obvious to Max as he looked that not everyone in police uniform at the parade was from the police force. Some were just parade participants dressed up like the police, with batons, which they waved at intervals, or raised to hail the speeches and declarations of their colleagues. Max guessed that most of the participants were from the colleges of Oxford University, since it all seemed so controlled, without violent, drunken behaviour. Students were no angels, especially after a drink, but if you are a student and behave badly in the city you could more quickly be identified than if you are just anyone from possibly anywhere outside the university.

Well, Barry had chosen to go off on his parade adventure. Max decided he could not just stay rooted to one spot, worrying about him. He would spend the time on his own adventure. There were shops to enter, varieties of street performances… and girls in small clothes all over the place. With the girls he could do no more than just look. Barry was the daring one, with a sense of mischief. Barry could make anyone laugh, especially girls. Barry could chat up any girl… but he mostly preferred the adventures with his pals. Max accepted that he was not Barry.

His mobile phone rang. He fished it out of a pocket and read the identity of the caller. Mum… just being faithful as usual to her practice of checking up on him whenever he was out. It embarrassed and sometimes irritated him, but he understood it was for her comfort. She had become that way with Max and his sister since their dad left. He let the phone ring out, and then put it back into his pocket, deciding he could not risk a conversation with his mum. What if she asked him what they were doing in the city?

He counted out the time from another round of clanging bells in college towers, including the bell of St Peter’s College. An hour had gone since Barry crossed over to the other side of the street. He was either having the adventure he was seeking at the parade, or something had gone wrong. Max waited and then waited even more, deciding he would not go searching for his friend in the parade no matter what happened. He would wait. Barry was easily bored and would soon come out. His phone began to ring again. Mum. This time he decided to answer.

“Hi Mum...”

“Hi love. Where are you? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Mum. Still in the city with Barry. Be back home soon.”

“Okay, dear, take care… Oh, Dad is here. He’ll be staying for dinner. Bye love.”

“Bye Mum.”

Now that he had said he would be returning “soon”, a worried tone would creep into his mum’s voice if he was not back home in good time and she had to call again, as he knew she would. The sun was going west rapidly but his friend was still at the parade. He did not want to leave without being sure Barry was safe.

Max’s mum changed when her husband left home. Meal times and bed times were sacred. So was study time. Waking up time. And she got herself and the children involved with the St Aldates Parish Church. Max began early to do some of the housework his father used to do, helping his mum and keeping her happy. As the years passed, the word ‘forgiveness’ came into their home and gradually paved the way for the return of their dad – but only as a visitor. For Max and his sister, the years had brought their healing magic late, only after settling their father in a new family. They got both parents back but when they were together there were too many things everyone knew but no one would talk about. Max’s mum gradually eased the rigour of her watch over him, but ‘homecoming time’ was still important to her.

He had homecoming time in mind as he hurried back to the junction of St Michael’s, searching across Cornmarket Road for his friend in the opposite street. This was not easy because Cornmarket was busy. Max hoped he would see Barry from where he stood, because he did not want to cross to the other side of the road where the parade and his friend were.

The groups in Ship Street began to disperse, some in procession, still in parade mood, going towards Broad Street, perhaps home to their colleges down the street. Others just walked off in different directions, as couples or individuals. The police watch had gone in response to calls from real trouble spots in the city. The parade had its share of merry people but no trouble-makers, and it was closing anyway, another year of funny dresses passed without incident as far as the police was concerned. More people went away and Max could suddenly see Barry. He was part of a younger group that seemed to have organised themselves within the larger parade crowd. Max could see Barry at the centre of this group, which did not seem to have any desire to disperse and move on like others were doing. Max saw that he seemed even more animated than usual, waving his arms, and then strumming an air guitar. That was another trouble with Barry. He was always overdoing things, and could never easily walk away from trouble, or anything he found enjoyable.

Max called out his friend’s name and jumped with one hand held up. He hoped Barry would soon hear his voice, or see him, and come over so they could go home.

“Come on, mate, you’ve had your fun!” Max said, more out of frustration than with any hope of being heard by Barry.

Then he saw another boy snuggle up to Barry and both boys wrapped their arms affectionately around each other. Max knew who that other boy was. It was their friend and school mate, Dwayne. Being affectionate like that with other boys was not an unusual thing for Dwayne. But Barry! Had Barry been drinking at the parade? There was a moment in which Max was uncertain about what to do, then he decided to cross that forbidden stretch of road and go to the other side. He would take that step if it was needed to get his friend out, and take him home. He was convinced his friend had been drinking at the parade. Being Barry meant being up for any adventure or experiment. Max took one step forward and then stopped, tried to take another but was transfixed by what he was seeing across the road. Barry and Dwayne, who had been holding each other, were kissing. They were really kissing. Snogging! Barry and Dwayne… Barry and Dwayne?

His Route 31 bus was late. There were questions he could not answer bobbing up and down in his thoughts. Did he really see what he saw? Was he rushing to conclusions? Was it a planned or chance meeting at the parade – Barry and Dwayne? Could he have missed something about his best friend? Or about those night adventures Barry enjoyed with Dwayne?

He had walked from Cornmarket, after what he saw. He just kept going for some time without direction, or particular interest in the things around, until another round of clanging city bells reminded him of his waiting mum. He realised then he had missed the bus he could have taken. He got to a bus stop and read the electronic schedule. It indicated that the next bus would arrive later than expected. He imagined his mum at home pacing up and down, and phoned home to pre-empt another call from her. He was at a bus stop close to the railway station, hoping to be home by dinner time, he told her. The bus was running late but he still hoped to make it. His mum seemed happy to hear his voice, and repeated again the information that his dad was visiting, hoping to see him and have dinner with them. Did he want to say hello to him on the phone? No need for that, really. He was on his way home, anyway, so he would meet dad soon. His mum said bye, love you, and all the other things she sometimes said, and then was off. He switched off too and tried to put the phone away but it rang. It was a text message.

Bn lukn 4 U matey. Gone hom or stl around? D parade woz a blast, man. Neva bn zo appy! Cal bak. I wanna tok.

Max read the message once, then held his phone in front of him for what seemed like an eternity before putting it away. He did not respond to the message from Barry. The only other time he could remember feeling like this was the morning he woke up to discover his father would no longer live with them. At the bus stop a queue was quickly forming as people saw the red colours of the expected Route 31 slowly approach through heavy traffic.

His phone rang again. It was another text message.

Whereabouts a U? Wayne and I been up n down lukn 4 U. Fantastic parade. Totally changed me life. Shudda bn dia, mate. Gi us a buzz pls… xxx…

Again, Max took his time reading the message from Barry. Then slowly but resolutely he put his thumb on the off button. He put the phone in his pocket and joined the bus queue. Soon he was in his preferred back seat position. The evening was darkening and a train rumbled overhead as the Route 31 passed under Botley Bridge taking him out of the city.

Parade Boys was written by Afam Akeh, and is part of a forthcoming collection set around and about Oxford, with the working title Oxonians, intended as a centenarian tribute to Joycean aesthetics and the achievement of his collection, Dubliners (1914).

Copyright © Afam Akeh 2011.

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).


Anonymous said...


Colin Meier said...

Surprises and suspense! A well-told tale. Perhaps a bit of cutting wouldn't go amiss, but it's a gem nevertheless.

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