Dreams, Mistakes and Memories of my Father – Hymar David

People talk to me about opportunities in ‘the abroad’ the way a favourite uncle visiting the village in the ’70s would have spoken about the magic of the city to starry-eyed nephews

“Nigeria no too get chances like that. If you dey UK now, you go blow fast fast with this your talent”

 “Just look for those writing scholarships for USA, from there, you are made. You sabi write pass most of dem wey use MFA enter”.

But there was no opportunity waiting for me when my plane landed at Heathrow airport on the morning of March 10, 2022. There was just the cold and the hurried strides of passengers trying to be at the front of immigration queues. There were the immigration officials standing in strategic corners, two of them, a menacing-looking Indian and an Arab at the front of the lines caught my gaze and stared me down.

It was my birthday. I was supposed to fly a week later, but I had it rescheduled so that my feet would touch UK soil on my birthday.

My father had passed away in March, 2020, a few days before my birthday, and I had spent the entire month under a dark cloud.

Standing in the queue, my passport in hand, I shuffled forward each time the line moved and tried to ignore the butterflies turning into dead leaves in the pit of my stomach. Ahead of me, people were taking turns to enter their biometric details into machines built like ATMs. Most people worked out theirs quickly and then a barrier flashed green and opened to allow them access past the rows of booths where eagle- eyed immigration officers waited and past the large ARRIVALS hovering up the ceiling. For some others, the machine kept flashing red as they attempted the biometrics exercise again and again, tilting their arms this way and that to angle their passports and bodies better for the monitors to catch. But their attempts almost always ended up being declined, and soon new queues began to form in front of the immigration booths

Finally my turn.  I tried to learn the workings of the biometrics machine the way I learned to read and write; sitting in a class of maybe twenty-eight pupils, in an unaccredited private school which the owner would abandon a year or two later; fleeing with teachers’ salaries and newly paid school fees.

Back then,I would stare at stuff: the teacher, the blackboard, the poster of the alphabets on the wall, another poster of numbers one to fifty, a map of Africa, willing everything to make sense. It was also the first place I learnt that nobody gave a shit. Nobody was coming over to stare at my notebooks to see if I was following classroom proceedings. Nobody was going to pause in the middle of lessons and try to see whether I understood what was being taught. The world was not going to slow down for me to catch up. The teachers weren’t paid enough for that kind of special attention my condition required.  So, after placing my passport under the scanners and watching the light flash red for the umpteenth time, I took my passport and joined the newer queues just as the last butterfly in my belly slowly fluttered into its place among the dead heap.

There was a feeling of deja vu as I stood in that queue, waiting. But then, that was how living for me generally was: a monotone of the usual, the unsurprising and the familiar. Even standing in the queue, passport in freezing hand, thousands of miles from home, the feeling that I’ve been here before was strong. The skins were lighter, the air was cooler and the queues had more order to them, but the feeling was the same.

It was the same familiar feeling of emerging from the temporary cocoon my parents had swaddled me in after I lost my hearing and my memory of numbers and balance at age seven. My parents withdrew me from school and the world as I knew it. Exciting school mornings competing with my brothers on who could walk the fastest, were replaced with mornings where I messed up the rug with vomit, my stomach rejecting food that I used to crave when my life still felt like it belonged to me. It was that the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach as the bus taking me from Lagos to Benin, drew close to the university gates. The same quiet panic as I sat in the crowded hall on clearance afternoons, my documents tucked in a file on my lap; waiting.

I have been here before.

Slowly, the queue in front of me thinned out until it was my turn at the  booth, facing an elderly immigration officer who kept pushing his glasses up his nose. He stretched his hand for my passport and peered inside. I kept my eyes on his face, waiting for his lips to move, waiting to catch a key word or phrase I could quickly turn over in my head and attach meaning to. But I knew inside me that when he finally spoke, I wouldn’t be able to read his lips. I wouldn’t be able to grasp his questions.  I wouldn’t be able to understand anything.

I have been here before.

He repeated himself and even though I didn’t hear his words, I knew he had spoken. They always do. I showed the printed letter from the university I was headed to for a writing programme. The man scanned the contents of the letter then stared at me, lowering his gaze to check the picture on my passport, before glancing at again at my face from above the rims of his glasses. I watched as he beckoned to a female immigration officer and handed her my passport. She glanced through the pages, the man whispering something into her ear. She shook her head at something he said, then looked up and motioned me to a spot away from everyone else.

I obeyed, feeling the anxiety building in my chest; growing and growing until it stopped being anxiety and became something deeper, something crippling, something more. I stood there, trying not to shrivel under the weight of hundreds of gazes pressing hard against my chest. I watched three immigration officials huddle together,  Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, debating  my fate between them as they handled my passport and occasionally glanced up to stare at me. I felt trapped as I waited, looking like yet another stereotype. Except I wasn’t just another African, I wasn’t just another black man. What made me different was just happened to be so well hidden in plain sight.

I watched the trio approach me. The tallest of them stood in front of me, the front buttons of his uniform near bursting. He waved my passport at me and mouthed something. In an alternate life, he could be somewhere in the Middle East, pistol strapped to his thigh, guarding a Saudi dictator.

I finally said it, allowing the words to fall slowly, very slowly, off my lips. So slowly that I think each word sounded like a sentence: “You. Are. Going. To. Need. To. Get. A. Pen. And. Paper. For. Me. To. Understand. You. Because…” I completed the sentence pointing a finger to my ear and wagging it.

The trio froze. I watched their faces, trying to read their expressions, but I have come to learn that white people are better at the stoic expression than the Nigerians I grew up knowing. There was nothing to read on their faces, just the sudden silence as three pairs of eyes stared at me as if they were seeing, really seeing, me for the first time.

However, I could tell when the aura of aggression left the tall man’s body and his buttons no longer looked like they were going to pop. I could tell the look in the other woman’s eyes when she finally spoke, addressing her colleagues, was a more human look, and I knew if I could hear it, her voice would be softer and less mechanical. It would also be kinder.

She motioned at me again and I followed her as she approached one of the booths I had previously been bounced from. I watched her lean close and whisper something to the bespectacled man sitting beside the glass, making little head gestures towards my direction, as if reluctant to point towards me. A small smile appeared on his face when our eyes met. I recognized the smile. It was meant to reassure me. I watched as he motioned me over and stamped my passport.

The unexpected appearance of kindness to the fore of the exchange, the favouritism I was suddenly a beneficiary of, the sensitivity with which they approached the new knowledge I threw at them; trying not to make me feel like an animal being circled was different.

I had never been there before.

There was little waiting for me in Oxford. Just new streets, polite faces, 24-hour gyms, stone houses that looked three hundred years old, buses that had signs screaming in bold letters: “NOT ALL DISABILITIES ARE VISIBLE”, speaking to me as I sat there, still invisible, but not unacknowledged.

But I wasn’t looking for a breakthrough, so it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because, to me, the trip was an experience; it was part of living. It wasn’t this grand escape that warranted the congratulations which flooded my Facebook page when I posted pictures. It wasn’t japa. I wasn’t running from anything. My friends would express disappointment whenever they talked to me about what I was planning  and if I was working on extending my visa after my six months were up and I told them it wasn’t that deep, that I wasn’t going to force anything. If something happens, fine. If nothing happens, bye-bye, baby.

So, there I was in this house on Cowley Street, and 3am in the morning would find me swaddled in thick clothes, fingers drumming on my laptop keys., the flickering lights in the room behind me telling me I wasn’t the only one awake in the house. Most nights, the only dreams that happened in the house were the ones we dreamt with our eyes wide open, sitting in front of our laptops.

Except, for me, the more I walk the writing road, the more these dreams start to look like mirages to wake from. I think most writers can relate.  There’s always this shadow hovering above you, whispering failure into your brain, slowing the pace of your writing and making the ideas in your head whirl and whirl till they become distorted streaks of unsellable madness. There’s always that nagging feeling that you are making a mistake.

My father left me everything: his library, his Christian Women Mirror magazines, his face and the memory of his disappointment the first time I told him I wanted to be a writer. I remember the evening well. I was bent over the table in our sitting-room, scribbling stories in sixty leaves exercise books which I had bound together. Occasionally, one of my siblings, or my mother, would enter and take the lamp to go do something in the other rooms. I was sixteen or seventeen and was waiting to get admission into the university. I didn’t notice my father had entered and was standing beside me, peering into what I was writing.

I looked up when I noticed he was there and I think I gave him this big smile.

There was a backstory behind that smile. After I lost my hearing at seven, I also lost my academic ability and my place at the top of the class. It was hard to learn. Nothing in class made sense, and, for the most part, I was lucky to get promoted on trial. Either way, I below-averaged my way from primary school to secondary school.  Then I got into SS1 and suddenly began to know things, to appear in the top ten, then top five.

My smile was coming off the knowledge of that history. I was looking at my father and I was expecting to see a proud smile. But my father just stood there peering at the open notebook on the table. I remember thinking maybe he didn’t really understand what he was looking at. So I said, “I’m going to be a writer.”

The light from the lamp wasn’t very bright, but I could see my father’s face clearly as he stood there. His expression was blank, but I grew up learning to read people’s faces, so I recognized the disapproval.  My father didn’t see a career or a future for me in writing because he didn’t see any money in it. He was a Nigerian dad of seven, and wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of sending his son to the university to study to be a writer. It was a waste. And it took me several years of living out his fears to understand. And forgive.

Some nights, I think about how I should probably have listened and tried to be a footballer, an engineer, or a tech bro, the things he believed I would excel at, but the problem is that in Nigeria, anything can become a mistake no matter how carefully you plan it out.

It was later, much later, after I was back in Nigeria, that it occurred to me that my writing was what brought me there. It occurred to me that my father would have loved that. He would have loved the idea that I had found a way to make something out of the life I chose. He would probably have been the proudest man alive and he wouldn’t have shut up about it. Not at work, not in church, not to my uncles and aunts. And me, I would probably have painted this grand, glorious picture of what I was in the UK for.

It had occurred to me as I walked towards the plane on my return journey, that if my father was still alive, I would probably have found a way to stay back, irrespective of how inconvenient it might have been for me. Some of us like to think our lives are ours, but, most times, we are just extensions of other people’s hopes, wishes and dreams.

That’s why there was nothing waiting for me the moment I stepped out of the plane at Heathrow airport. I was coming for myself, and there was no pressure; there was nothing I needed to prove. There was just me and my laidback dreams and the cold and the thin lips I couldn’t read and midnights in Oxford, my laptop in front of me, my writing fuelled by dreams which I sometimes pause to wonder at, to doubt. They were dreams my father thought were mistakes, but at least they were my mistakes, and they were enough to take me to a place he would have been proud to see me in.

**”Hymar David grew up in Lagos and Ogun States. He learned to write as a 12-year-old penning letters to imaginary cousins. His memoir “I For Don Blow But I Too Dey Press Phone” is due for release by December 2024.”

Catch him on facebook – https://www.facebook.com/hymardavid


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