An Island Presence

As we come down the steps from the Recreation Centre, and into the street crowded with men and women talking, I look at Jay. She wears a baggy black T-shirt and black shorts. She gets up, jogs back over towards the action and then makes a run forward into a tiny space – that’s it! After her bath, I watch Jay drawing manga faces in her sketchbook, a tough but paper-sensitive kid, made of hot blood I can see pumping through thick veins under her skin, and wonder, what’s she thinking about? Next summer. Headman, his eyes blazing, says: I know it’s tough, but you must be tough right back. Run fast and for ever. She’s also bigger than everybody else.   Why am I living in this place and time? Is that possible? Jay is scared of him, she flinches when he shouts. And money, we always worried and fought about money in those days. She’s known nothing else. I’m careful not to hug or kiss her in front of the boys. You can tell which is which by the clothes they wear (the male hedgehogs wear dungarees, the females have pretty frocks). Does he think Jay’s soft? For many of the boys, these are the only men who try to teach them discipline and self-respect.  
In the street, a young barefoot black woman with close-cropped hair, eyes too big for her face, wrapped in a Portuguese flag, weaves past us holding a can of White Lightning. She doesn’t like it. Jay’s knocked over again. Her eyes aren’t seeing things the way I’m seeing them. These men have been finding and training players for over twenty years. I have my hand on her back and can feel the heat through her hoody. Jay: It was good. I’d guess her head is where we’ve just come from, the basement gym inside the rec where for the last hour and a half she has played football with and against boys. Her hair’s all wild and frizzed at the front. ‘What has happened to me?’ Gregor Samsa asks when he wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Maybe she appears as a vision, maybe they’re all used to her. She’s got kayaking tomorrow. When they see how good you are they’ll want you on their team. Dirty pigeons eddy at my feet and I kick them away. Somebody says, ’Low it man, she’s a baller. Rose likes to undress them and jumble them up so that rabbits live with squirrels, dogs with hedgehogs. Is that what Jay wants? A man in the sun shouts: This could be the last of it. When her body began to change I saw only a greater beauty. Do the kids have all they need for tomorrow? Joyous. Headman’s head is so smooth – like he shaves it twice a day. Brixton, London, 2005
In late sunlight on Brixton Station Road, Jeff the Chef cooks jerk chicken on the oil-drum grill that stands beside his food wagon. What about the wildflowers – cowslip, St John’s wort, yellow rattle – somehow quivering in light between the brickwork and train tracks above us? I want to shout at her: Demand the ball! I wish I’d had somebody pushing me when I was her age. Because I want to see how good she really is. I love it here, I say, as we walk through the market at Popes Road and turn left onto Atlantic. Tony is putting everything away. The hum of many voices speaking many languages. She wanted to disappear into the anonymity of boyhood. Was one of the reasons she began to cut herself so she could decide when she would bleed? Fearfully, or for help? She’s busy discovering and assembling the component parts of herself. Some of us are like that more than others, especially when we’re kids. How good the beer must taste after history. Does she think about the people on the trains passing above us, where they are going and what they’re dreaming? Often she is an island presence. How many friends can Rose have to stay for a sleepover? Does she even hear the trains above all this different music, soaring hymns from Beautiful Books Bible shop, roots and culture rumbling from Bushman’s Kitchen? If Headman says you’re good, scouts from the big London clubs will want to check you out. Is everything radiant where she is, softened by a golden wash? You enjoy it? It’ll help her. We walk past bright stands of flowers, zinnias and forget-me-nots, red poppies and cornflowers, growing in boxes made from old furniture. New people with more money are moving in. Tony says, Get up and get on with it, son. I know you’re good, but are you tough? His look says: why are you bringing her here? She has her own visions. When’s the next World Cup Dad? I take nothing she does for granted. Next, Dionne ploughs through a field of panting, disorganized boys, plays a one-two with Jay. What are you saying, you don’t want to go back? ‘It was no dream.’
All this is not mine, Jay said, and taped and bound herself, and fought her body with kitchen knives hidden in her room. Did that even matter, where will she be happiest? About her blood father, now that she knew I wasn’t him? What’s he thinking? I understood too late that what Jay hated was her girlness being noticed – and in the sessions in the rec all the boys were also black, it’s true, which is only to say, because no two boys looked alike, that her light skin made her doubly visible. These warm days are deceptive. Why? I think that what I’m doing is for the best – if she can play here then getting into a good girls’ team will be easy. With a big slurp sound the carton collapses in on itself as Jay empties it and sucks the air out. She sucks down hard on the straw. I give Jay’s silences heavy weight and shade. Which part of me is Greek (her blood father was Greek), which part Ghanaian? Phones and prayer beads. The smoking meat makes my stomach growl. Here’s a spray of marigolds in an open drawer. Dionne, the other girl here, has speed and power. Once familiar places and people are gone before you miss them, but you do miss them. A couple of times Jay had to fight back tears when she got chopped and the foul wasn’t given). Jay’s heart-shaped face relaxes as we get nearer home, but her skin is dark around her eyes. This hot, subterranean hall contains many hearts in need of love. You have to earn the right to play your own game. A week of unbroken Indian summer. It scares her. Sitting on the pavement outside Herbal Town, shirt open to the waist, his back against a wall (he’s Ethiopian, I think, there’s a Coptic cross tattooed on his wrist). She is soft-looking, but protected somehow – some force field made of the innocence she projects, even in the state she’s in – or by her pimp, if that’s who that is, and who I overhear saying to another man: It is not a she, it is a he. Moving forward, scattering boys, the ball sticks to her feet. Because she’s really good, but she’s too self-conscious when she plays with kids she doesn’t know. Tony starts collecting the balls and putting them in the big mesh bags. I need to find a pair of neoprene gloves. That night Araba says: She goes because you want her to. From where she’s playing on the floor with her Sylvanian animals Rose says: I hate football Dadda. Tony: You did good. I’m always saying things like that. For now, men whose shops and food wagons are in shade sit in the sun on the other side of the street from their businesses, on holiday from their lives. It’s clear from her naked shoulders and the way her body moves underneath the sheer material of the flag that she’s wearing nothing else. I’m waiting for her to say I’m not her dad. I’m one of the few men here. She smashes it left-footed, the ball whacks against the foot of the post, then flies away into the crowd of people watching at courtside: mums, aunties, nans, loaded down with food shopping hanging from pushchairs, more kids – really little ones – running around and straying onto the court, their yells amplified under the vaulted ceiling, rushing to collect the ball when it gets kicked out of play. I think he only cares about the boys, but then what about Dionne? My arm is still around Jay’s shoulders as we cross onto Railton Road, where we live. I can almost believe in the permanence of these warm days, this unchanging child whose hand fits mine. She’s silent the rest of the way home. There’s no fat on either man, not a speck. All the different stories. she says. Tony is kinder.  
I think if Jay could have stayed as she was, she would have. No they won’t Dad. Disturbance transmits from her as spiced smoke stings my eyes. See how he gets up and down the pitch, I tell her. Jay almost comes up to my shoulder. Yay. Why this skin and body and not another? Fulham are already asking about her. Maybe she thinks the same. Now there’s something Jay’s not saying – I can almost hear her talking to herself, to me. She wasn’t to know this was a dream. Some have beers open – bottles of cold Sagres, I’d love one. She looks over at me. Soon this will no longer be the place I know. She loves and takes for granted what her body can do. Men coo and talk after her but nobody tries to touch her. Cold and darkness are closer than we think. I put my arm lightly round her shoulders and we walk over to Headman and Tony. She needs to toughen up. He loses the ball and sits on the floor, rolling his knee socks up and down and moaning loudly to Headman and Tony. I wave her forward. He’s finding lost shoes for kids, and talking to the mums. We don’t talk about it. Both have shaved heads. You have to go in there and win the ball. But I can feel the cold and the darkness coming, and I can’t help noticing how the streets and the faces around me are changing all the time. The boys don’t pass to me Dad. Keeping some, discarding others. Jay puts her hoody on. She’s not you. Look at the flowers Bear, I say. Jay trudges over to me. Where should Lee go to university to study Spanish? Not so good tonight. I praised her when she got her period, and because she loved me she tried to smile. Does he think I’m soft? I dream about her playing for Arsenal. When Jay was little I’d always tell her to watch Vieira. I shake her hand and give her a carton of Ribena.  
At courtside, Headman’s eyes blaze. Stopping in the middle of the court, head up, she easily holds off the four or five smaller boys who buzz helplessly around her, and then fall back, complaining when she beats them. The little animals – red squirrels, dogs and rabbits – come in family groups of four: mum and dad, boy and girl. I don’t think she has a pimp, though maybe that’s him, there, sitting on the wall a few yards away from her, watching her from under a sharp felt hat. Is it worth it? Jay won’t do anything she doesn’t want to, but with me she’ll still do things she might not like to get my praise. Jay laughs, but she’s still inside herself. She’s sweaty and panting. Headman looks disgusted. How did they get up there? Where should Jay play football to be the best player she could be? All this is home for her. While she plays I have to bite down on the urge to call out or shout at her. Mostly she’s just a kid playing and dreaming. You never know, another man, unseen, says. She doesn’t complain, doesn’t roll around or throw her arms about.  
An excerpt from Howard Cunnell’s memoir Fathers & Sons, published by Picador. At last a ball gets through and Jay’s there! The boxes are painted: Malcolm X, a red parrot, tropical vines. Maybe it’s just me he doesn’t take seriously. The oceans people have crossed to be here, the people left behind. Dionne sits deep and starts looking for her, but either the ball or Jay’s run is blocked. Keep a football under close control, use a table-tennis bat – a cricket bat, a tennis racket, anything, pilot a kayak. When did you get so big? That if she doesn’t do what I want I won’t love her. Cigarettes on the table. Here, here, she says quietly, hands palms out.  
This was what we worried about in those days. In play, Dionne’s face is set in a hard, dark mask, but whenever Headman shouts praise she smiles a dazzling, melt your heart smile. We have great wrestling games that are dances of pure love. She doesn’t answer. Jay begins making arcing runs into the box, her thick plait swinging high. Headman’s just standing, his eyes spitting fire. Does Jay notice how the red plastic chairs outside Max’s become ruby-coloured in shadow, or wonder what the upright, turbanned Rasta in pressed cords is thinking as he stands guard – or maybe just having a smoke break – outside Ashok’s off-licence? She’s really thirsty – so am I, my mouth is dry. All your countries are in it. She’s self-conscious because she doesn’t want to be
there and she’s afraid she’ll upset you. Far away even when close by, haloed by an isolating light. Watch this boy in black knee socks, short Afro, shunt the boy in grey Adidas sweats off the ball (at the beginning of the session, Headman won’t blow for a foul unless the boys are actually attacking each other. His fibrous arm and leg muscles gleam under the gym lights. When she outgrew her football boots she didn’t want a new pair. I didn’t know enough, then, to realize she was always free from my projections and obsessions. Spiced smoke drifts past men drinking coffee out- side Max’s railway arch cafe as a commuter train rumbles over their heads. I thought it was. There’s some that will fit her around here someplace. Headman blasts on his whistle. I’m shy with my authority because the more I become her dad the more terrified I am that she’ll say I’m not. She’s familiar, you’ll see her most days, sometimes with other drinkers or users, walking out of time with everybody else. Jay’s return pass is perfect, soft, and without breaking stride Dionne slams the ball past the keeper, in a Barcelona shirt, so hard the mini-goal is knocked back a foot. She wears 4 and VIEIRA on her shirt. Afro has the ball, but he won’t look up, and he’ll never pass, certainly not to Jay.