Walking I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.
– Linda Hogan
There was a line somewhere. It was faint, like cutting through a patch of mist, and crossing its threshold effected no immediate change. But there was a line, and it was there that it began.
On a day in late January 1986, a strong wind moved to the East of England, paving the way for an ensuing storm. Inside Barking hospital on Upney Lane, my mother delivered eight pounds and nine ounces of baby. A mass of soft brown layered in skin, I slept and suckled, healthy and well with the exception of the two littlest toes curved under the fourth, the last little parts hiding from being exposed to the world.
And the home of her womb, which had stretched as I’d grown and left marks as her skin spread, was replaced by a home of brick walls in a high rise building in Islington. Soft and brown and growing, I suckled milk as the wind outside tapped the glass and white snow clung to the top floor window pane, and trees bowed and spindly branches snapped and it was dozens of degrees cooler than the places my parents referred fondly to as back home.
My name: my father and grandfather, sandwiched by my given name and the family name that was changed by deed poll for palatability. The new name I chose to take: my father, and my father´s father, next to a name which is weighty in the mouth and rooted in an ancestry that can be traced back centuries, but is not mine.
Mine stops being traceable at my paternal grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my father was young and whose stories I do not know. It ends too with my living maternal grandparents, who did not raise my mother, whose stories I do not know because my tongue cannot wrap around the language deeply enough to search for the right words to ask.
Promises of stories weighed down my shoulders. I held my sadness tightly, cloaked myself in its buffer, and it grew like vines that held me together and held me in. It whispered to me many ills, but most of all, back home. Back home, a place, a feeling, a party observed from the sidelines.
My roots began in a place I cannot go back to, because to return is to revisit a start that was not fully mine, where the way my mouth trips on the mother tongue makes sounds that bounce white between the brown skin that we share. Back home, in a place where time has weathered the imprints my forefathers made, where their lives just dissipated into the wind like footprints in sand. The vines tightened; I clung on as they wrapped around me and sang a dirge to the loss of things I would never know.
We left the high rise for a new build in the corner of a cul-de-sac, where the dark brown front door vibrated a clang in the frame when pushed, and the greeting of sweet incense and the sound of shoes scraping against the coir doormat and the song that went “We are home” that my parents made up, and me, sat between my mothers knees, trying to keep still, looking ahead at the oranges and yellows of the fire fluttering black smoke up the chimney…
Peeling back hot air balloon curtains to hoist myself onto the brown windowsill, where snow fell onto the street below and my hot breath made a spreading cloud of white on the glass. Later, a tape player on that same windowsill, now white, as Whitney Houston sang “I Will Always Love You” to my cousins and I, and how hearing it later hurt in a deep part of my stomach that would rise to my throat.
The memories now meander and stick, rich like appetisers, indulgent, fleeting moments pulsing through the vines.
My family’s London, loud colours of graffiti tags and trodden gum-dominoed slabs of pavement rolling endlessly together, like the jagged teeth high-rises lining the horizon. All the metal bars and spikes that to me made it look like a playground, and kitchens that opened into living rooms and circled back round to the hallways, 360 degree spaces to run through in circles. Those memories spin now, always moving, flashes of blue carpet, sweaty laughing faces, games of ‘hide and seek’ and ‘it’ and a world lived at arms’ length by forced otherness.
Without the roots of my ancestors I clutched at the vines around my chest and ran between memories through time, trying to dig an anchor with my feet. The vines held me in, and pushing for a view beyond their grasp made the branches tighten so hard my skin wept itself numb.
Inside Barking hospital on Upney Lane, my mother delivered eight pounds and nine ounces of baby.
Except I was not born in a ward at the Barking hospital that now sits on Upney Lane. The place I was born was knocked down, moved, repurposed. The memory sheds. I walk into the mist.
And looking again at the photograph at the flat in Islington, snow was not tapping on the window like I remembered. It was not even Islington at all, we lived in Ilford. I cross the mist.
The tape player sang “I Will Always Love You” but it was not the same room as the window sill with the hot air balloon curtains, and the ledge never turned white, and the feeling in my stomach is not stirred by the song but the too-white powder on his lifeless brown face in the open casket.
The vines wrapped tighter and tighter as I’ve floated, trying to take root in collected memories that move ghostlike through space and change through time. I don’t have a list of names to trace, or photographs or paintings to look to and compare the genes I may have shared with relatives past. I won’t find any notebooks with clues to the paths that have been travelled, and the battles that have been fought, and the dangers that were evaded so I could exist.
I crossed the mist and the vines’ branches started to loosen, going unnoticed for a time until its grip was not a part of me but instead could be brushed away. Suddenly, exploring new spaces was not a comparison to things lost, but a collection of smells and sounds between me and the vines, little pieces that stuck and grew, nudging its branches softly away from my body.
Something pulls my feet towards that which cannot be told or remembered, only experienced. It lingers behind certain smells, like sweet roasting cassava or shallow frying plantain. The kick to the nostrils of a sudden burst of humidity, hot salty air on sand. Like my hair allowed its full volume, properly oiled and bouncing with gravity defying lustre. Feeling the lure of a drum beat in time with my heart, like every part of my body is at ease. I leave in my wake a trail of masks, fallen one by one from my face to the ground.
There was a line I crossed, like passing through a mist, where every tiny droplet carried a thousand voices whispering “be still,” and as I unravel my vines I hear them all.