“Red or blue?”
He asked himself while staring into the bathroom mirror. A simple enough decision but he finds that he cannot make it. Not alone at least. Celia was in the next room. She would gladly have been willing to make the choice for him but no, this is his decision, he thinks. It has always been his choice. So he stands in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at his reflection, as he runs the options through his head. He stares at himself. He does not see a thirty five year old man, with slight traces of gray in his hair and age lines beginning to etch themselves, like words in a book, across his face. Instead he sees the image of his father. That alone makes him want to turn away from his reflection but he remains, steadfast, trying to make up his mind - to make a choice.
“Red or Blue?”
Finally, he settles on the blue. His father would have liked the blue tie. As a matter of fact; his father would have liked to have seen him in any tie at all - period. He still remembers the arguments they had had. About his future, his choices, his direction in life. His father had been so angry at him, so disappointed. Even though he had made up his mind that college was not where he wanted to be, he still felt something akin to embarrassment and shame when his father’s eyes ever met his.
“Jamal, you look nice”
Celia had walked into the bathroom without him noticing and his stray thoughts jumbled back on to the vivid reality of this moment. She was leaning on the door jam with her arms folded. Her hazel eyes looked up at him with those usual orbs of appreciation that he had fallen in love with; one of the two good things in his life that he appreciated above all others. Her eyes were mixed with a slight twinge of concern.
“Here let me help…” she offered. She moved towards him and adjusts his tie. She glances tentatively up at him as she undoes, realigns and finally ties it for him.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to come with you?” she asks.
Not the first time she had asked this question but even though she knew the answer had not changed she still pushed the query anyway. That’s what wives do. Say things that a man knows and carries within himself but doesn’t have the strength to say.
“No, I will be ok alone but…thanks.” Jamal responds with a smile
She accepts the lie that he provides without a fuss, smiles and heads back into the kitchen. If he was truly honest with himself, he would have wanted her by his side, each step of the way. He finishes dressing himself, heads towards the door, passing the living room where his beautiful three year old daughter was playing. She was playing with her favorite doll and barely noticed him standing there, watching her. She looks up at him and flashes a broad pearly white smile. He glances at his watch. He knows he has to go but he stoops down in front of her and asks her what she is doing. “I am playing “house” with Marley” she says as she continues to enjoy her favorite doll. This was the second thing that he was proud of- his daughter, Neasha. His pride was staring up at him with the brightest smile he had ever seen. His precious angel that had both his wife’s eyes and her radiant smile; a smile that was so open and warm, he couldn’t help but return it in kind. He kisses her on her forehead, instructs her to be good and heads out the door.
He walks into the warm sun. It is a beautiful day with clear, blue skies that stretched on as far as your imagination. It was indeed a great day but strangely it brought his mind back to the last time he had seen his father. It had been around ten years ago. He was still living at his parents’ house instead of his three bedroom home in West Terrace with his wife and child. Living with his parents had been difficult. From the time he was aware of himself he wanted to write. His father had not, to say the least, been pleased with his choice while his mother on the other hand did not openly condone or oppose his decision. She was the Switzerland in this constant tug of war that seemed to define his relationship with his dad.
“So you are going to a camp for three years...?” There was a tone of disbelief in his father’s voice as he said that. As if he could not believe that this is what anyone that sprang from his loins would even be capable of stating this to him much less they having an opinion beyond what he placed down as law.
“No Dad, it is a three year overseas creative writing residency, I have told you this about 100 times.” Jamal replied, trying not to allow himself to sound frustrated but he had mentioned what he had wanted to do several times to his father in the last month or so. Now that he had received his letter of acceptance it was all but confirmed - he was going.
“So this how you plan to waste your life?!?! By becoming some dead beat….artist?!?!” He spat out that last word like it was something dirty that he did not want to have remain on his tongue a second more than necessary.
“Why can’t’ you be more like you sister? At least she is not trying to make me go to meh grave before muh time.” His father prided himself on how well he spoke but whenever he got extremely angry, you could always hear his tell tale bajan accent come pouring out in his speech. His father was referring to the fact that his younger sister, Monet, (younger by about two years), had decided to pursue her career in business studies which had made his father nearly beam with joy. She was already on her third year, pursuing her bachelor degree and had full intentions to continue on to do her masters.
“Everyone is not cut from the same clothe as you, dad. I am not interested in running your business after you have relinquished your throne. It’s not my intention or my dream. I want to be a writer, is that so bad??” Jamal replied.
His father had started his garment factory from virtually nothing and it had grown to be one of the biggest suppliers of uniforms and clothing materials in the island. It is this that had insured his children had the best that he could offer – from the impressive roof that they were now arguing under to the best in education possible. He loved to state to anyone who was willing to listen, that he planned to pass on his empire to his children. It was a shame that all his children did not share that same sentiment.
“So you want to become a bum?!? Some kind of dead beat vagabond that will amount to nothing?!?! I will not stand for it!!! Not while you live under my roof!!!” His father roared.
And that was the end of that. His father was no longer interested in hearing anything but his own voice and it was a waste of both time and energy to even attempt to continue this one sided argument but Jamal’s mind had been made up. He was going to go in spite of how his father felt. He just didn’t know how he was going to do it quite yet. The tuition fee alone was fifteen thousand dollars so the hopes of ever pursuing his dream without the financial support of his father were now slim to near impossible. A couple days later his mother had approached him alone in his room and given him a check with the much needed funds of twenty thousand dollars etched across the dotted line. She never told him how she had acquired the money but had simply winked at him with a mischievous smile on her lips, told him to ignore his bull headed father and go follow where his heart leads. So, on a clouded Tuesday afternoon, two weeks later he was accompanied to the airport by his mother and his sister. His father had not spoken to him since their explosive argument. They passed each other like ghosts in the hallways of the house he had called home for the last twenty five years. They did not even maintain eye contact if it could be avoided. His father had chosen not to see him off at the airport even though his mother had pleaded with him in vain to do so but as a man with pride he would remain adamant in his mindset.
Jamal’s mind flashed back to the present and to the reason why he wanted to see his father today. He jumped into his car and drove off into the radiant calm of a nice sunny Sunday afternoon. A copy of his book entitled “Life and other Mishaps” neatly wrapped in brown paper and banded by white flailed string, tucked in the passenger’s seat next to him. The drive to his father would take about forty five minutes, so he allowed his mind to ramble again just to allow some time to pass. His thoughts wandered to the time when he had heard the news.
Jamal had been overseas for two years now and it was going well with his studies. He was not the best in his class or the most brilliant but his tutor recognized his commitment and his vivid imagination that tended to leap at you from ever story Jamal wrote. It was the best two years of his life. One day he was called to the administration office to receive a call from home. The rooms that the students occupied were not equipped with phones so most students had personal cell phones if they wished to keep in touch with family or friends. Jamal had no need for one. He spoke to his mother every weekend since his arrival, just to check up on her and every once in a while he asked about his father as well who still remained stubborn in his ways and refused to take up the line to even say a courteous hello to his prodigal son. It was a Wednesday so he was quite shocked to receive a call from mother. She sounded distraught and sobbed bitterly between each word.
It was his father.
He had collapsed at work. His mother had warned him to start to cut back on those long hours and to try to get some rest but he would not hear of it. “Who would run the company?” he said. “It can’t run itself, especially since there is no one here to help me” he said. All these things his mother told him in a quivering voice and he listened intently to each word. She told him that the doctors believed it was a combination of his long hours and his ailing heart but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
“I don’t know what to do. I...I am a complete and utter wreck right now. I need you right now Jamal. I think it’s time you came home” she said.
Jamal was on the next available flight to Barbados, hoping beyond hope he would make it back to see his father. Thinking of all the things he would tell him and share with him as he recovered from this set back.
It was too late.
At the funeral he didn’t cry. He didn’t allow himself to. As he stood there dressed in all black, holding his mothers trembling and suddenly feeble hands, he set in his mind that he had to be strong, not only for his mother and sister but also for his father. He would not have wanted to have seen his son wallowing in tears but instead he would have wanted him to be the back bone that his family needed right now. So, that is what he would be even now as the dark sky opened up and blessed them with a downpour of warm rain that blended perfectly with a salty taste that trickled down his cheeks.
His mother had become a shell of the vibrant, robust woman he had known. He had stayed with her a couple weeks to ensure that she would be fine. It was during this time on a strangely cold spring evening, while sitting in the family room with her, that she shared some more insight into his father’s passing.
“He loved you, you know” she said, still sipping from the cupped mug of warm vanilla flavoured coffee that she loved to drink every evening. It always seemed to perk her up and her eyes didn’t seem as sad and haunted after she had finished.
“Did he now?” Jamal responded sarcastically, not looking up from the book he had been reading.
“He did and he was also very proud of you as well. He just couldn’t...say it” his mother continued, shifting herself on the couch so she could turn and face him.
Jamal placed the book down on the coffee table and with a sigh, turned and faced his mother. Her dark eyes were intense and did not shift from his and at this time he saw the woman he had being calling mother all these years come alive again.
“How did you think that I got the money to pay for your tuition? He made me swear not to tell you but honestly, I am sure you knew that despite my resourcefulness, I did not have that kind of money just lying around.”
Jamal knew. Maybe not before she had actually said it out loud but deep down in some unspoken place he had known what she was telling him was true.
“I want you to go back and study and not give up” she said.
“I planned to go back but just wanted to make sure you were fine first.” Jamal replied.
“You know that wasn’t true. You were planning on staying here with this tired old woman and forget all about your dreams. You wanted to do what you thought your father would have wanted but he wouldn’t want this. ”
Jamal looked at her in astonishment, shocked that she had read his mind so well. He had actually considered just forgetting about the writing and taking over the company. His family needed him more than ever and even now, he still felt this need to please his father, especially beyond the grave. But the news that his father had approved changed things. Gave him a new perspective, so he took his mother’s advice and headed back to New York to finish what he had started - his sacrifice produced fruit. He moved back home and started to work on his first novel. The first couple years were not easy but he managed to survive and was taken up by one publishing company that dealt with Caribbean literature and saw talent in his work. It was surprisingly successful, well at least to him, and he was able to build his first home and marry his girlfriend Celia, who was pregnant with their first child, Neasha.
He pulled into the gravel filled dusty lane that led to his father’s final resting place. This being the first time he had been here the since the funeral three years ago. As he walked towards his dad’s memorial with the book tucked securely under his arm, he noticed all the graves that had been overrun by weeds, grass and time; some gravestones even falling to ruin from neglect and poor maintenance. His family had insured that would never happen to his father’s grave. They had placed that extra bit of money needed to ensure that a caretaker would clear any debris from the area, all year round. The grave stone had the legend engraved -
“A man of few words that moved mountains with his actions”.
Jamal could not think of a more appropriate phrase to describe his father and how he had lived his life. The idea of mortality hung heavily on Jamal’s head. If the choices he had made were right and if he had found favour in his father’s eyes were important questions to him that played on his mind. He felt the ghost of his father hanging around this place like an unspoken question.
“I always wanted you be proud of me, Dad, and to look at me not just as some bum but a man; a man that could stand on your level and walk the path that would not have left me alone in your shadow. Your boots were too big for me to walk in, so I decided to follow my own path. It’s not what you wanted, I know, but it was the only thing I could do. I brought my book for you to see. I did it and I would like to believe that you helped me write these words as well. But...my greatest regret is not that you were my father but that…I wasn’t a good enough son. Happy Father’s day, Dad”
He rested the book carefully on the tombstone and turned away. The light of the afternoon sun shone brightly and warmly on his skin. He felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders; that some great burden had been taken away. He felt light, warm and for the first time in a long while - free.
Simon Dolcy is a proud son of Barbadian soil. In 2011, he entered his first ever NIFCA (National Independence Festival of the Creative Arts) competition and won a silver medal for Adult Prose. The same story, "The Windowsill", was also published in the online magazine Bajan Sun Online.