Did you have a little trouble getting here? he asks, chuckling, and shifts beneath his blanket. The balcony window is open, in spite of the cold breeze blowing through the apartment.
Philippa, who seems to have already taken my side in some unforeseen but inevitable conflict between us, says,
It was my fault really, Dad. I got the directions wrong.
I have to speak up.
The streets are so narrow, I tell him. And when it starts to get dark, it’s so tricky to tell them apart...
I never get lost, he says, with a touch of pride, and taps the wrinkled skin on the curve of his foggy eye. I can always find my way back.
This may be a false boast; Philippa, when I take her for an Irish coffee later in the evening, tells me about the day a gas main erupted in the street below. She came home to find him standing at the balcony, confused, his sense of the dimensions of the room altered by the shouting. He kept asking her how many were hurt; how bad it was.
He reaches out for his cup. His fingers don’t quite make the distance.
You’re white, he says.
Philippa rolls her eyes for my benefit and pushes the cup a little way towards him. The scarlet curtains blossom in the wind.
Getting harder to tell, he says, these days. Lot of black people talk like whites. Lot of white kids trying to talk like blacks. But there’s no mistaking you.
I consider telling him I’m black (I’m not). It might make Philippa laugh. But it seems unfair to alter his perception of me.
He gulps at the tea. He’s not practised, as you might expect; he seems to be concentrating hard to avoid spilling any. Philippa is watching him closely, from her hard-backed dining chair.
The black cylinder is waiting between the tea things. I have to begin.
Derek Whitman...pioneer in funk, jazz, spoken word, author, poet, musician- is there any end to your talents?
The question makes him chuckle. It seemed like a well-judged opener, scribbling in my notebook on the Underground. Now it comes across as fawning.
I don’t know about ‘no end to my talents’, he says. I don’t know about that at all. In fact, most of the people when I was on the circuit considered it an impertinence for a musician to be reciting poetry, and a sell-out for a poet to be playing concerts. So I was the upstart crow, in many respects.
Let the lull of his voice accustom you to the room. A blown-up rally photograph has been framed across the far wall. A younger, more recognisable face, leaning down from a podium, with microphone in hand. Finger and fist aloft. A number of books have been scattered over the carpet- a row between father and daughter, or just carelessness? The record piles on the dining room table, though stacked, are beginning to tilt.
It’s my turn to speak. But he catches the moment.
So what do you think, Mr Reporter, he says, his voice curling into a challenge, of your journey into the heart of darkness?
Philippa, like someone predicting a hurricane, leaps to her feet and goes to slam the balcony windows. A voice, crying below, is silenced.
More of a pilgrimage, I tell him.
He goes quiet for a moment. Later in the night, Philippa will complain of his childlike demands; the nights when he wakes up without any sense of who he is. She will sit beside him, no matter how tired the ritual, and whisper his name to him. A flightless bird, I will write in the final transcript of the interview, fed by chicks returning to the nest.
You like my music? he asks.
And of course, even now it makes sense for them to send a black interviewer down to interview a black musician who stood up for black rights. I had to fight to make this journey.
I tell him I even have an old second-hand copy of his novel. This makes him laugh.
I wrote that over six addled weeks, he says, after a kid in Chicago got shot running from the police. And I was so damn angry I forgot my one rule- you can be angry, but maintain your sense of humour. Otherwise- like these problems you’ve been having- you become a sense of anger and nothing more, your sense of self trickles away behind the anger. So I do apologise for your having to read that shitty, shitty novel.
A golden bead of tea falls from the tip of his beard. I didn’t even notice him spilling any. It makes Philippa tut in disapproval. I still haven’t touched mine.
A lot of what was in that novel, he says, was of its age. So I hope none of it was shocking to you.
Perhaps he doesn’t realise he’s even smiling as he says that. He loves to get a reaction, Philippa will confide to me, hardness creeping into her eyes, in the booth, even when he can’t see it. He just lies back in his dark little world and imagines it.
My daughter likes to tell me, he says, that I’m behind the times. It’s generally her chosen method of winning arguments. And, let me tell you, I agree with her entirely. When darkness falls, you’re only really left with ‘I’s.
Playing it back later, I decide that, in context, he must be saying ‘I’s and not ‘eyes’.
He fumbles for the cup of tea and finds the little black tape recorder instead. For a moment the sound of his voice is obscured by inhuman shrieks as his fingers work over it, determining its shape.
Back then, he says, with the Bomb, you had this sense...hanging over you...that any day everything might be wiped. You wouldn’t understand it. The papers and the television had the whole Chicken Licken thing going on, but for the rest of us...
His thought trails off.
Some nights he’ll decide he’s prepared for death, Philippa will tell me- breaking off momentarily as the waitress brings the bill- and that means he has to have his will altered, because of some acquaintance who’s passed away since the last one, and he’ll want me to play his old albums through. He wants to hear his own voice before he goes. And then other nights he’ll start to cry, because he’s afraid, and because he can feel that oblivion gathering all around him. He’ll talk about seeing Africa before he dies.
He’s never been?
Once. I don’t think he liked it much. He loves the sounds- the rhythms, the percussion- because there’s so much there for him to use. But I don’t think the place satisfied him.
He’s a fascinating man.
Fascinating to study, perhaps. Addictive personalities and musical genius don’t make for the most relaxing family dynamic. He likes this city, though- not just because of Mum. A few people still recognise him here. He’s a happier person when he comes home and some voice out of the darkness has told him they’re a fan of his.
I remember one time- one of the most upsetting experiences of my life- was last year, when we were on the Underground together. He doesn’t like it down there anyway; it feels cramped too him, and there are the noises- well, anyway, there were a bunch of kids playing their music loud. It was one of those shitty rap songs, without the slightest bit of wit or intelligence...and they’d used his chorus. They’d paid him for it, of course, and it was a beautiful song- one of the old love songs he used to write for Mum. And the melody played, and he perked up immediately, and then there was only a younger man’s voice, talking over the top of his. They didn’t know who he was, of course. He wanted so much to go over to them- or, better yet, for someone else to tell them it was his song.
He started to shake, and I realised how he felt; he was used to not being able to see them, but for the first time he was afraid that they couldn’t see him. I got back to the apartment, locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I had to bite down on my knuckles so he couldn’t hear me.
I don’t mind being a relic, he says. There is a requirement to be stoic about these things. Have you read Ben Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs? Of course not, because it’s gone. Time turns us all into traces...turns us into Turin Shrouds. When the world goes, nobody’s going to remember whether it was whites keeping down blacks or the other way around.
The thought makes him laugh again. Philippa rises to pour the tea, gently lifting the cup and saucer out of his grip. I decline the offer of more.
Do you feel, Mr Reporter, he asks, that you’re free from the ruins of slavery? That you’ve shed it, like a skin?
No, I suppose I’m not.
How about you, Philippa?
He cranes around in the armchair, waiting for an answer. Philippa replies, irritated,
Of course not, Dad.
Maybe the Bomb is what we all need, he says. Give us a chance to forget.
As I rise to leave, he tells me he’d like to give me a book to remember him by. When I ask him which one he’d like me to have, he only laughs and replies,
Take your pick; it doesn’t matter.
I can’t bring myself to take his gorgeous, embossed edition of Langston Hughes away from him, so I settle for an ill-treated textbook on scansion. He nods, apparently satisfied, when I tell him what I’ve chosen.
He extends his hand out into the emptiness of this small, cluttered apartment; I take it. His fingers tangle through mine for a moment; a man who’s forgotten how to give a handshake.
I’m taking Mr Green for a coffee, Dad, Philippa says, buttoning up her jacket. Would you like the radio on before we go?
I’m fine, thank you, he says. Enjoy yourselves. I look forward to having Philippa read me your article, Mr Green.
I suddenly realise he’s been waiting for that prompting to remember my name all evening.
You have to have hope for the future, he tells me, or says into the air. Things are looking bright again nowadays. You children are lucky to be born into this generation.
And he’s so naïve, Philippa will tell me, slumping against the shadow of the booth, oh, God, he’s so hopelessly naïve.
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