Natalee Grant, Contributor
He added water to the pot and stirred. The porridge bubbled as the baby wailed, he picked her up and tried to soothe her, she screamed into his face and grabbed little fistfuls of his corn-rowed hair. He wiped her snot away with the edge of his undershirt and balanced her on one arm while he stirred the pot. She cried herself to hiccups while he prepared her breakfast.
It was clinic day; the last time he had been late and the nurse had taken him to task, all the while with a hint of a smile on her face, everyone knew him at the clinic, everyone knew his pretty baby girl Alisha. The nurses handled him with kid gloves and all the mothers would congregate around him to dote on his baby and on him. He wasn't the typical picture of a loving dad; long corn-rowed hair, stony expression that he had perfected over time, puppy- dog brown eyes that he had invested with the fierceness of a tiger, gruff baritone-babbling baby talk. He poured the porridge into her bottle and waited for it to cool, testing the temperature on his arm; by now her wails had been reduced to whimpers. They locked eyes. She was her father's daughter, she held his gaze, little hands still grasping his hair. Her gaze revealed so much - she needed him, expected from him, her little mouth puckered and he knew what was coming. He shook the bottle again as she released her anger. She had a temper; her little five-month-old temper reminded him so much of Tandy; she had learned so soon how to shape her mouth into a pout. Her brown eyes had already begun to form deep searching wells of emotion that trapped him into complying with her every wish.
He dressed her and packed the bag - a pink frilly thing with angels playing hide-and-seek and all the pretty stuff that said 'baby girl'. Francois and Danae's morning diatribe greeted him from the radio in the taxi. The crammed route taxi smelt like pine cone and flowers and he shared the back seat with four other people, though it was meant to seat only three. The early-morning traffic was intensely irritating on account of the cramped conditions of the taxi, but the experienced taxi driver proved his knowledge of the city streets by using short-cuts, creating a third or fourth lane and just generally re-interpreting traffic rules. Alisha kept quiet, the steady rhythm of her father's heartbeat soothed her as he cradled her head to his chest. He remembered the first time he had held her. Tandy had unceremoniously left Alisha at their place and post-labour, post-swollen feet with heavy lactating breasts, she had boarded a plane to Atlanta and Alisha had become his world. His initiation as her father had been harder than his initiation into the street corner gang whose insignia he had been so proud to wear.
A sharp expletive alerted the passengers to the taxi driver's anxiety, that and his sudden stop along an embankment. He opened his glove box and was sweating profusely at the approach of two policemen; all the passengers alighted from the car and assessed how much of the journey they had made and how much farther they needed to go. With the baby bag slung across him like a sash and Alisha held upright in his arms, he crossed the street and decided to walk the rest of the way. He passed a group of people at the bus stop and felt their stares follow him even after his long, bow-legged gait had taken him to the corner. Anomaly was the word the nurse had used to describe him he wasn't sure what it meant, but he understood; he understood that a former thug who thought his daughter was the greatest prize he had ever been given was different. To his former friends, he was weak but he couldn't explain to them or anyone the pull he had felt when he saw Tandy for the first time. He could still remember she had stopped him mid-sentence when she got out of the taxi, she had looked at him and looked away but his eyes had followed her up the walkway, the snickers of his friend faded to the background as he heard her knock and he had been so glad when her friend came out and helped her to take her bags inside. He had known that day that their lives, for good or bad, would be intertwined. It had taken awhile to convince Tandy, but when he did they were inseparable.
Tandy had changed him, he watched her stomach grow and it did something to his heart. Her smile was enough to make him brave the wrath of his cronies and abandon the thug life he had once embraced. With Tandy he had found a new dream, seen the inadequacies of his Casanova routine, they were a family. They created their own living situation commandeering one of the bedrooms in his grandmother's two-bedroom house as their bedroom/baby room, living off his grandmother's pension and the weekly money Tandy's parents sent.
"Daddy, cover up the baby head."
He looked up, jerked back to the present, the smiling newspaper vendor motioned to Alisha's head.
"Don't make the sun burn her, Daddy, yuh nuh have no umbrella?"
He shook his head and covered the baby's crown with his hand, accelerating his pace. Alisha whimpered and he held her closer, mentally chastising himself for not getting an umbrella, the line of vendors selling everything from cool drinks to cooked lunches was an indication that he was nearing the clinic. The 11 wooden benches offered for seating in the crowded clinic waiting area were lined with people. He struggled to find Alisha's card in the bag, collected his number and wormed his way onto a crowded bench. Alisha fussed as he dried her sweaty face and settled her against him, he did a cursory diaper check to make sure she was cool and dry, she snuggled against him and they waited.
The ambience of all the public-health institutions was the same; the acrid smell of industrial disinfectant, the walls decorated with charts demonstrating the stages of various diseases. He focused on the malnutrition chart, read the symptoms of malnourished, of babies, he knew his girl was OK - she might be in danger of over nourishment, if there were such a thing. He slid down on the bench as was customary - he called it the clinic slide as each person went up, a space was available on the bench. The clinic nurse, a robust woman in her 50s, monitored the benches, her crisp white shoes squelching on the semi-dirty clinic floors, she carried an untidy binder which threatened to fall apart releasing all the precious bits of information she had been collecting all the years she worked there. Wally the porter, a loudmouth, know-it-all whose starched uniform matched the pale blue colour of the walls, was well-known for his short temper and his authoritative attitude, he occasionally gave out medical advice (behind the nurse's back) and would "work something out with the doc" if you were able to do something for him.
"What a sweet baby!"
He looked up and into the eyes of an elderly lady; she had a metal ring of various snacks made from peanuts on her forearm, a cache of dollars peeking out of her bosom and an apron stained with the sweet scent of peanuts and sugar. She smiled obligingly down at Alisha.
"What she name?"
"Alisha," he answered gruffly, he looked around and noticed their little conversation was attracting attention.
"Peanut cake, Daddy?" she asked adjusting her makeshift confectionery display. Something about her reminded him of his grandmother, perhaps it was the plaits in her hair or the gold plate on her dentures. There was something that made him long for his grandmother's gentle words again. He looked down at Alisha saddened that she would never know her great-grandmother. She would have no memory of the sweet East Indian lady with long plaits who held her and sang to her every night even when she was too sick to do much else. She wouldn't remember the red dirt at Dovecot that ruined her father's shoes as he watched them lay his grandmother to rest, his sweet girl would never know.
Copulating mosquitoes swarmed around them and he looked past the peanut vendor to see if it would be his turn soon. Noting his disinterest she walked away looking for her next potential customer. His attention was divided between the nurses' station and keeping pesky mosquitoes at bay, Alisha squirmed uncomfortably as he swatted this way and that. He soothingly touched her brows with his calloused fingers smoothing away her irritation.
"Dah baby deh pretty, eeh!" a young mother declared, all the while looking directly into his eyes.
"Weh har mother deh?" she asked coyly, adjusting the buttons on her blouse and swaddling her young child. He noted the look in her eyes, he sensed a thirst that he had no interest in quenching and he smiled in response and looked away. The only lady in his life was snuggled comfortably in his arms waiting for her appointment.
The love of his life was somewhere in Atlanta "figuring out" what she wanted to do with her life. He remembered their last conversation (the week after his grandmother had passed). She had initiated the 'conversation' in the middle of the second half of the Manchester United vs Manchester City derby. Rooney had just secured a hat-trick and in the middle of his celebration, while the Red Stripe beer was half-way to his lips, he had caught the last half of what she was saying. The word 'leave' had stopped him mid-celebration. The syllables wafted over him and froze him in place. His eyes glued to the green pitch of Trafford, the noise of the Manchester crowd, the bitter taste of the beer as it blessed his tongue. He refused to hear it, he would not acknowledge that he heard it. She said it again, the most hateful word in the English language - leave.
"I have to leave," she repeated, "this was not how I saw things going for me, I never planned for this ..." she trailed off. His mouth was dry, incredibly dry, in spite of the beer, his hands were shaking and he couldn't look at her, he couldn't for fear that he would break down. He heard her opening drawers, mumbling something about a taxi coming to get her and he kept his eyes on the match, though it had become a blur of red and blue. He ransacked his mind for something to say, something that would keep her there with him, but the truth is he had known for awhile that she would leave. What American-born, uptown girl would be willing to live 'downtown' with a former thug indefinitely? His life was unstable, she had goals and dreams that would not be usurped by an unplanned pregnancy. Tandy was going places and it was clear there was no room for him and no place for Alisha. Still she occupied his thoughts constantly, he had text the number she had left with him, kept her abreast with everything Alisha did, keeping the lines of communication open. Hoping that there was the slightest chance she would remember the sweet moments they had shared in that little house on Gem Road.
"Alisha Jagaroo," the nurse called.
He looked up and smiled.
"Game time," he whispered.