Tapestries of the Dead and Dying

Cover of Tapestries of the Dead and Dying

Fading pictures in dusty albums. 

Sepia prints without the filter, tiny black and white fragments of time sheaved in plastic, glue seeping through to tea-stained pages. Maps of long departed travellers. 

I sit on a city bench looking out at myself, face full of cheek, draped in shades of pink, not smiling as is customary, instead my eyes are dark with intent, a sombre expression. Too sombre for a child aged four, an unearned awareness. My brother sits beside me puffed up in blue, naturally. He looks up at my uncle next to him. They are encased in a bubble of amusement. But I sit apart. Rapt with the effort of holding the attention of the man behind the camera, tugging at the rope that links us, a rope that began to unravel even before my first untethering—another cord cut, that one proof of self-sufficiency. We are surrounded by cold grey concrete, an icy fountain behind us, the chilly claws of winter scratching into my living room, grabbing at the sunshine. 

Years later I would walk past that same bench, re-tracing footsteps, re-living realised dreams forged in faraway places. But today I stare back at myself, seeing what is not contained within the frame—my father conjuring stories, binding me to him. A longing knot tightens its grip. 

My life has had many iterations; a chitenge blazing social entrepreneur, a feminist blogger, a book-toting commentator, a generation Africa Rising—Occupy Movement—Returnee, a nappy-headed big hair don’t care advocate, an opinionated television talking head, and now I am the sum of them—a storyteller.

I have not always woven these seemingly disparate lives. The tapestry began to take form during the seven long days of my father’s funeral. An enforced awakening of grief. Waiting around open fires for his body to be repatriated, crying and then laughing, and then crying again, sitting in silence only long enough to elicit comfort from another mourner. And there were many mourners. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues marching day and night, a sombre troop battling our tears. Unrivalled African rites. And with each greeting and introduction I learnt my identity. Eyes widening with recognition at the mention of my name. The writer

Writer. Such a loaded term. Wrought with an insecurity that stems from incessant introspection. I called myself anything but. A blogger, vlogger, or at best, a freelancer. Even when others deemed fit to pay me for my words, I still did not dare to call myself a writer. And yet here it was—my father’s rendering of me.  

I grew up nestled between my father’s bookshelves, exploring the world through passages in the pages of encyclopaedia, embarking on adventures with swashbuckling spies, unravelling mysteries alongside grey haired female sleuths, and swooning over swathe, sophisticated men whose conquests were of no consequence to my quivering teenage heart. 

And when I had rifled ravenous through his shelves, my father and I went on book hunting expeditions. We dug through crates at garage sales, solicited texts from departing expats, and procured meagre supplies at local bookshops. 

Long after I’d moved to my own home, my father would call before every trip abroad, reminding me that I had not yet sent him my list of required reading. 

He read less fiction as his job became more demanding, and I read only fiction, so at the exchange, often at dinner, always with a glass of wine, he would ask me about the books he was handing over, and I would regale him with florid reviews. 

Books were sacred and therefore scribes remained holy figures; shuffling among rows of dusty pages, hushed words spoken sparingly, hidden away from the common man by impenetrable stone walls. How could I purport to count myself among them?

My father was a man of science, chemistry to be precise. They say it has a sense of order, an illumination of the intangible, a certain __ poetry. Or is that physics? I never was a scientist. Sure, my heart fluttered at the solving of a quadratic equation, eyes widened at the mystery of a chemical reaction and breathe steadied at the certainty of statistics, but numbers and symbols did not tug at me like words, and I always had the niggling suspicion that this veering away wedged us, shrouding me in mystery. But maybe that was the certainty of youth, and now, with the fuzzy clarity of age, squinted at through tinted glasses, I spin a different story, deciphering metaphors, detangling knotted thoughts, and stringing sentences. My syntax, another sort of alchemy. 

A wet veil obscures my view of the bench, but a smile treads softly through as I remember how I re-traced my father’s footsteps in that foreign city. He went to Birmingham to study metallurgy, I went to study law, we shared tales of university adventures through cobbled paths lined by ageing buildings. I scratched the silver off of calling cards and waited, bated to list familiar neighbourhoods and test his eager memory. I craved that connection, clung to it. And now it’s here without the effort. 

My father’s documentation of me began at birth. I lie in my grandmother’s palms, swathed in a white cotton shawl, eyes closed, head full of shiny black hair. Indian hair, they called it—or at least that’s what the ones who are still here to tell the tale tell me. The snapshots continue until I am a moody teenager asserting my deep, enduring, eye rolling, disdain of the camera; crawling at my mother’s feet, frolicking with my baby brother, side-eying my feisty little sister, streaked in mud at the annual, school obstructathon (a clever teachers even cleverer play on an obstacle course), arms stretched wide as I strike across the stage (no, really, I played lightning in a play) and then there were the birthdays and Christmases—cousins, each with a bottle of fizzy soda, dancing to some long-forgotten tune, a home bursting at the seams with family.   

As a self-absorbed youngster, I’d focused on the albums with photographs of myself, but now I flip through the full canon; The Complete Works of Jackson Sikamo. Village People, Young Man Abroad, Children I, II and III, and Still Life (in which all other undefinable moments are placed). Other available volumes are New Bride, Children IV and V, and A Life of Luxury, but I do not have access to those.  

I heave the volumes off the bookshelf, dust them, and sit on the floor surrounded by them, a cup of tea to my side, notebook at hand (always notebook at hand). Pausing for reflection, caressing each page and noticing the order—my mother always first—at one of our last dinners together Sheryl Crow came on and we both had it pegged as one of our favourite songs; his was the version by Rod Stewart. I summon names from faces, and read the inscriptions in the borders, every page a different observation, the meticulousness of a scientist. 

The albums begin before I was born, of course, his story predating mine, he a witness of my beginning and I of his end. I imagine him taking rolls of film to the studio, eager to see the results. The faith of an analogue photographer mirroring that of an intuitive writer who types the first word with no inkling of the last, every story a revelation. Scribbling frantically, I fill notebooks with scrawling cursive, and stare intently at the blank screen, words seeping through my fingertips, my mind swirling with a myriad of ideas. There’s no telling what might develop from all my day dreaming; fantastical historical fiction, African magical realism, essays steeped in mundane reality, scripts also destined for film, discovering both myself and my voice. 

I see that he called himself ‘Jack’, and me ‘Bibi’, an informality belying a man who answered the phone not with Hello but rather always, Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Evening. 

The captions are necessarily cursory and often cryptic—“It had rained for 10 to 15 minutes”, “Arm wrestling; guess who was in the finals!!!”, “A most unusual advert” (reader, I can confirm that the advert was indeed unusual), and “The boat race” which apparently took place in a heaving pub, pictures turning hazier with each flip of the page. But, most intriguing of all is “Charmaine”—a lone, unfamiliar name in a sea of nameless photographs. 

The oldest picture is also the smallest. A tiny black and white shot taken in a studio somewhere with only a year inscribed on the back of it, “1961”, my father would have been two. A woman stands proudly facing the camera with her three children in tow, two tugging at her flowing skirt and a third in the crook of her arm, body tilted towards the camera. Only one of the people in the picture is still alive, my grandmother died many years before my father and his brother (the baby in her arms) when I was a child. The oldest of the two at her side is now a matriarch of multitudes—children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  

The last picture I have of him is not in an album. The passage of time necessitated a shift from analogue to digital and my father became an avid user of Facebook, plying us with seemingly endless streams of photos sent to heaving WhatsApp chats. 

It took me almost 3 years to revisitThe Complete Works of Jackson Sikamo” but there remains one book I still can’t bear to read again and so I must recall it from searing memory. He stands in a hospital room dressed in regulatory blue, clutching a medicine laden stand, the smile on his face twinkling in his eyes. Proof of a successful operation. He died a few days later, leaving us his stories  and giving me permission to tell mine.

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