As a boy growing up on the south coast of England, Howard Cunnell's sense of self was dominated by his father's absence. Saved from self-destruction by love and responsibility, Cunnell charts his journey from anger to compassion, as his daughter Jay realizes he is a boy, and a son.
'Bold, brave, beautiful - much more than biology. This is life itself.' - Jackie Kay
Brixton, London, 2003
I need to tell Jay that I'm not her blood father.
I want her to have a little more time not knowing everything, before I take certainty away forever. This was the world, Jay, now it’s changed. I’m scared that if I take away her dad a black hole will take the place in her heart where her love for me is growing now.
That’s what can happen when you don’t know who you are. If you let it, your life’s story becomes about what isn’t there, not what is.
I have to make a new story – really, it’s urgent now. I can’t wait any longer to tell Jay.
She runs in sunshine, close to where I stand watching, Che and Krystian on her heels. The boys love her but it’s complicated. She’s a mate, one of the gang, the best at football though Krys won’t admit this. She can run the fastest, beat them at any game, but she’s a girl, with long hair falling past her waist, and a flawless, heart-shaped brown face and bright red lips. The boys love her, even as she races past and beats them again. My strong and light-footed daughter is full of grace.
Sometimes Che and Krystian have to have boy talks and they exclude her, or meet secretly. When that happens Jay sits alone at the top of the little fort in the communal garden and plays on her Game Boy. She doesn’t want to be different to them and doesn’t think she is, but the boys feel a difference. There are things they won’t do or can’t say in front of her.
I wonder about this. How she outboys the boys. If she was a boy she’d be the leader, but when Krys – a long-haired, stocky Polish boy who’s a head shorter than Jay – comes to call for her, you can see by his mooncalf gaze how her beauty blasts and disturbs him. I don’t think he can quite understand how he’s supposed to feel.
Our ground-floor front door opens to an arch straight onto the communal garden. I stand under the arch that is always in shadow and watch Jay run. I could watch for ever but it’s time for Jay to come in and have a bath with her little sister, Rose.
I leap out and grab her around the waist and pick her up and swing her. She screams happily. She loves to fight me. She likes to see how strong she is – to test herself and test me. I know she thinks that every time we fight is a time closer to when she’ll be able to beat me. She’s so good to hold and look at.
She struggles to get free and I hold her closer. I breathe in her young animal smell. I kiss her neck and blow a raspberry through her hair and against her warm skin.
Arggh! Get off me Dad!
She’s strong, all long, hard muscled legs and wiry arms. It’s all I can do to hold her to me. She wants to get back to Che and Krys and the game.
I hold her tighter and she pretends to bite me, snapping her teeth at me and being a zombie.
She’s panting. Hold still Jay.
She has drawings all up her arms. Dolphins and daggers (there are dolphins on her T-shirt, too). Her jeans pockets are stuffed with Pokemon cards.
If I don’t do it now it’ll be full of knots later – then it’ll be ten times as bad.
Lemme go Dad!
I pick her up and turn her upside down. A Pikachu card falls from her pocket. She screams and grabs for it but I hold her higher so she can’t reach. Her hair falls in a shining cascade to the ground. I pretend to beat her with the plastic back of the hairbrush. I turn her the right way up. Hair covers her face and she’s laughing all the time. She parts the curtain of hair and sticks her tongue out at me, shrieks and closes the curtain.
She stands in front of me all hunched up, her arms raised in a monster pose, panting and laughing at the same time.
Come on Bear Bum, I say, I really need to do this now. Something in my voice makes her snap to attention. Sir! Yessir! she says.
She stands straight as a knife, arms by her side. She’s trying to keep a straight face.
I put one hand on her chest to keep her still. Her heart is thumping. The fingers of my other hand harrow through her hair, looking for the worst of the knots. When I find them, I gently try to untangle them with my fingers and then brush the hair.
Jay tries not to cry out when I find a knot. When her mother does this, Jay screams the place down. With me she’s trying to be a good soldier. More than this, she knows the boys pretending not to watch will tease her if she makes a fuss.
She pushes her body out until it makes a bow.
She makes animal shapes with her fingers, and then reaches back to attack me.
OK stand still Bear.
I begin to brush Jay’s hair. From the top of her head, I push the brush all the way down to past her waist. Static electricity makes her hair start to frizz out, and wild filaments are softly illuminated by the last of the sunshine. She’s quiet now, tracing on the arm that holds her the patterns of my tattoos. I’m humming as I pass the brush through her hair over and over.
She’s a kid. She’s used to being acted upon, to having her life paused and controlled. I hope and feel she’s being soothed by her dad brushing her hair, but mostly she is waiting to be released.
I think of Gary Snyder’s poem ‘Axe Handles’. Snyder teaching his son, Kai, how to shape wood into an axe handle. Look, the poet says to the boy, we’ll shape the handle by checking the handle of the axe we cut with. Snyder remembers the Chinese saying, centuries old: when making an axe handle the pattern is not far off.
Shaped and shaper, what kind of axe am I?
Che and Krystian carry on playing but their hearts aren’t in it. They’re arguing about whose turn it is to go in goal. They need their Jay back, especially Krys.
Carefully, I separate Jay’s hair into three thick and roughly equal parts. I place one strand over each narrow shoulder. The central strand hangs down her back. It’s too thin, and I borrow hair from the outside until I’m satisfied the parts are equal in thickness. I start brushing again and Jay sighs and kind of softly deflates.
Hang on, I say, won’t be long now.
Jay slowly raises her left leg and holds it raised, lifts her arms, holds them raised, her hands joined together and pointing downwards. She makes a squawking noise.
A crane? I say, braiding her hair, pulling the braids tight against one another.
Hah, she says quietly, good Dadda.
She puffs out her cheeks. Sticks her belly out. Makes little ears out of her closed fists and puts them by the side of her head. She growls.
Course, she says.
It’s now – her young heart beating hard against my hand – that Jay, beyond everything else she is, feels most strongly like a gift.
What comes to me as I stand brushing Jay’s hair is that because there is no shared blood, the strength or otherwise of the connection between us will always rely on love and love only. The love I show to Jay and her two sisters and to their mother will always come back to me amplified.
Love is the shaping axe.
Watch Howard reading from Fathers and Sons.