Baba preferred to sit and eat by himself at the nearby dining table. From his perch, he’d fire questions at them, or riddles or proverbs. Underlying them all was a moral fable to be unravelled. To Doreen it had seemed an extension of his classroom grilling, yet another examination. Doreen could never relax her guard. On home visits at Easter and Christmas, years later, she’d been shocked to find Baba lounging (lounging!) on the sofa with Mama and Philo, eating with them and watching TV, quietly too, content to let even advertisements slide on by without comment; Baba conversing in Dholuo instead of English; Baba chuckling when Philo picked the best piece of fish for herself, teasing him for being old and slow. Although it was what she’d once yearned for, how let-down Doreen had felt by the way her father had relaxed his standards. And now there was no-one to talk with about it - that history buried along with her brothers.
Darkness closed in. Intimate. Probing. Was this scraping sound she heard inside or outside her head? It was like something trying to get in. Like the voice of her father, but creaky, ancient, asking again and again, “Doreen, my daughter, what is this, what is this thing you are telling me?” Then the scraping developed into more of a rustling, like the sound of bugs gathering. Dudus closing in. Doreen reached into her bag, and wrapped her hand around the hard, firm shaft of the Doom can. When the rustling took on a big, physical timbre, Doreen began to wonder what other game Philo and Mr. Cartwright were playing down there on the floor.
To distract them, and herself, Bella prompted, “How to tell if swimmer is sinking or swimming?”
“What if the swimmer shouts, ‘Help’?” asked Mr. Cartwright.
Doreen shook her head.
As though he could see her in the dark, Mr. Cartwright spoke up again. “What if he throws up his hands, gulps water?”
“I’ll give you a clue,” Philo said, “It’s never the obvious answer.”
“What if his head stays under?”
To Doreen, Mr. Cartwright sounded like their eldest brother, straight-line Ambrose, who never clicked their father’s riddles and proverbs unless they were spelt out for him. But he persisted in trying out answers until their father lost his temper and shouted that even the little children, Doreen and Caleb, were cleverer than his stupid first-born. Ambrose would stalk off, long-faced. In the silence that followed, something would squeeze Doreen’s heart. The pain was so palpable that Doreen felt their presence. Right there in the enclosure with them. Ambrose. Her father. Even her mother’s reverential voice, saying, “Yawa, my dear husband, you can’t say that to our child. You can’t.” And Caleb, pretending to fall off the sofa, peddling his feet in the air, his giggles easing the tension.
“You can’t,” Doreen said, too loudly.
“Can’t what?” asked Mr. Cartwright.
“That’s the answer,” said Philo. “You just dive in to save them.”
‘I can’t,’ Doreen wanted to tell the ghosts in the room. So many ghosts. So many bugs. So many.
“Is it hot in here or what?” asked Philo. “And you office people insist on ties and tights! Aren’t you boiling?”
“I got stuck in a lift once…in New York during a power blackout in the summer of ninety-seven. Lasted four hours.” Mr. Cartwright said. “Now that was hot! We took off our shirts...”
“You and who?” asked Philo.
“Actually I was with this woman. She also worked for Global, but we’d never met.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Couldn’t tell. Dark in the lift, you see…”Philo giggled.
Per Contra Spring 2007