You call him your Ol’Man. The Ol’Man. It’s a hip moniker. You don’t recall that uber hip person who first ran with it but may the Good Lord bless your funky soul. Imitation, after all, is the best form of flattery.
When you saw him last, your Ol’Man, in January, the weekend before he stuffed a few shirts, vests and underwear into out-styled hold all that once served as his briefcase, he told your Moms that he’d be in shagz for a week tops. He needed to tie up some loose ends of his biashara. But he didn’t use that word, biashara. The word he used was a Kale word that means things, affairs. It’s too clunky for context.
He didn’t bother to fold his clothes – each was canon balled into a careless mess of collars and cuffs that touched on hems and waistlines and vests. A neat freak’s version of hell. Your Ol’Man’s new version of efficiency.
Your Moms insisted that he take more from his wardrobe. But he said he had other clothes in Kamirai, he didn’t need to.
He finished packing in under five minutes. He laced his shoes, straightened his beret and readjusted his luggage before he was out the door in a flash. He didn’t say bye. He never says bye. He said OK then he bounced. No handshakes, no hugs.
You didn’t hear from him again. You called him a few times because you realized you’d missed the Ol’Man; you wanted to tell him so but you couldn’t. Your conversations were mostly airless, and always started with the line, Yes fra?
Then last week Tuesday, he pitiad your office to say wsup.
(Oh yeah, it has taken me over four weeks to finish writing this story so time and other events have made a majority of these details outdated and fuzzy. The tenses are a bitch. And writing in the second person is making the story’s flow bumpy. Stay with me.)
There he is, your Ol’Man, standing in the middle of the pavement right outside your office building in a slight stoop. Isn’t this new?
He has the aura of, I don’t know, an extension officer: knackered, fulfilled and unabashed by urbanity. Or of someone who’s here to sell you something you don’t need: a Bible. A set top box maybe. A 2014 diary. Or a home-made concoction he brewed himself out of herbs he grows from his kitchen window, a concoction he promises will soothe your baby. Something misplaced.
The first thing you catch sight of is his beret. Tan but faded. Kangol. It used to sit atop his afro. On most days he had to pat it sideways then flatten it with a comb for the beret to fit. The afro is now gone, his hair is white and thinned. The beret swivels around his head so much so the kangaroo in the label gets dizzy, hehhe.
He’s wearing the same suit – or rather jacket and pants – that he wore the last time you saw him in January. His coat seems unfashionably long, unnecessarily over-buttoned. His pants sag a tad too much, collecting in a pile of fabric around his shoes. Unpolished shoes. You pause. What happened to you?
(He’ll later tell you that he’s now a dairy farmer. You will beam in response. He’ll tell you that he’s lost so much weight his pants no longer fit as they used to. That he’s switched his belts for suspenders. He’ll also tell you that his body is now in tune with the labour and the sunny days that define the bucolic routine of life in shagz. “I’ve never felt healthier,” he says with triumphant emphasis. He clenches his fist to show just how tight his heart muscles are. Phalanges poke from beneath his skin.
He’ll tell you he’s here to file his tax returns. He’s doing it manually. He opens his briefcase to chomoa the forms he’s filled in by hand in ink. Classy. His pen is nestled in his iPad.
You’ll ask about your Moms and about Edu the caretaker and about the calf and about his other biasharas. He’ll tell you they are all peachy.
He’ll speak about the hellish traffic coming into tao and what a whirlwind your kid brother home alone has become, “What will we do with him?” He’s really concerned, you can tell from his change of tone.
You’ll ask him how his journey from Kamirai was and he says it was alright, “The shuttles are quite comfortable. I had room for my legs.” You will crack a wry smile at his humour. Your Ol’Man. Heehe. Hadn’t you missed him?)
This isn’t the look GQ was after when it presented ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Wearing Suits’. His pairing doesn’t check the boxes of ‘How to pull it together with aplomb’. GQ would cringe if it saw my Ol’Man right at this moment.
But no matter. He’s wearing the one thing you recognize and love the most: his smile. His half smile, half laugh. That wide unpretentious smile that makes his eyes sparkle and crinkle at the side. His teeth are yellow. Like a Briton’s. Proud and yellow.
You smile back when you see him. You have to stop myself from running across the pavement into him. You are bloody happy to see him, your Ol’Man.
Freeze that frame.
I need to put this into context, I need to tell you why this is unfamiliar to me. Why it’s odd that he’s here, standing, standing outside my office building in this, uhm, suit.
When I think of classy gentlemen, my Ol’Man features in that list. He is the paragon of the modern and working Dad of the ‘90s. Urban and urbane. Tall. Worldly. An engineer. Smart. A thinker with all the answers. Courtly. A man who had learned early to live within his means and thrive from the strictures of his own habits.
My Ol’Man didn’t buy stuff off the streets or out his car window. He didn’t buy anything second-hand. No trade-ins or bargains either. He was too refined for hand-me-downs.
His suits were woollen, the type that absorbed more light than they reflected. Tailored to fit. No extra fabric. GQ was proud of him back then. Hehhe. And they always smelt of the dry cleaners. That was the scent of my Ol’Man, the dry cleaners.
Ties were in woven mosaic threads, not printed. He had one trench coat he got from Washington in ’92. He didn’t wear short-sleeved shirts or t-shirts or golf shirts or those cheesy sports shoes Kale guys like to wear on casual Fridays with pleated khaki pants or with very stone-washed, very baggy blue jeans. (I see you, Tembur. Hehee.)
If shit ever went down for my Ol’Man, he would have liked to go down when he was in one of his suits. The company is axing? I need a suit. I have a terrible tummy ache? I need a suit. Your seventh child is due next September? I need a suit. The Peugeot is acting up? I need a suit.
Remember that scene from Catch me if you can? Where the FBI officer is at DiCaprio’s house and his Dad thinks he’s here to take him in? Do you remember what he said? “If you’re going to arrest me I’d like to put on a different suit.”
He wanted his shirts laundered and draped on the clothing line in particular way, in only a certain section for only certain hours. My Moms had the patience of 10,000 mums to baby those shirts. I swear.
He didn’t suffer fools. There are very few people my Ol’Man considered competent. Or intelligent. Hell, I doubt there was anyone he actually admired. Or imitated. He didn’t trust anyone, he didn’t play dirty. All men were liars. Snakes in the grass, he said. People were always after their own interest, their own selfish goals. Nobody had your back.
I would have loved to see him at jobo – to see how office politics disgusted him, how a tight-lipped team leader made him wonder if they were joboing for the same side. Prats too big for their own breeches. I wonder if he ever begged for disassociation from the chaps that put those suits on his back. Did the culture and ethos of corporate world unsettle him for its callousness? Did he ever want to bite that hand that fed him? I bet he did.
My Ol’Man wasn’t sociable but he made few friends.
He didn’t drop by people’s digs (or offices) without real cause.
He didn’t hug us.
Sitting down to chat with us came later. Much much later.
I look at my bro with his son and I think to myself, Nah, you’re not a real dad. He with his buttoned-up print shirts. Desert boots and chucks. Dreadlocks tied in a loose knot at the back of his head like Ziggy Marley. A clotheshorse who spends more time shopping than his wife does, hehhe. This ilk of the modern Dads who make parenting look so sexy. My Ol’Man made parenting an arms-length affair.
My Ol’Man had two pens: a Cross ball-point pen in a gold casing and a Parker ink pen in silver. He used only black ink. Parker. No Bics, no Speedos, none of those cheap Aihao ink pens I buy from Uchumi. I remember once my Uncle handed him a biro to sign a cheque. He held it in his hand as if insulted, as if his words were beneath being written in such pedestrian choices. He excused himself to return moments later with his Parker pen. Offended, much?
Suitcases and briefcases were only in Samsonite.
He didn’t jav. Nah, let me rephrase that. He never javed. Never. Even those weeks his Peugeot was at the garage, he’d hitch a ride to jobo with our neighbour down the street. Javs were for hustlers. Speaking of, I remember there was a time he changed his shoes before he drove – he didn’t want the heels to get frayed from the car mats. Or something like that. He’s the only dude I’ve seen to date who changes into driving shoes.
My Ol’Man wanted things the way he wanted them. And I admired how insufferable he was. I understood him, even stole some of his quirks and pet peeves.
He retired early and relocated to Kamirai for three years some more. And that’s when all of it crumbled. Most of the strictures gave in and gave up to age. They were no longer useful to the man he now was. But some of them remained: GB and I were in shagz one weekend early July, and I saw traces of that insufferable urbane gentleman in him – my Ol’Man still eats with a fork and knife. He changes shoes when he’s leaving the digs. Nails are still clipped every week. The Parker pen lingers. The trench coat is somewhere in his bedroom.
You feel like a little girl again. You run to him and he pauses to look at your ballooning belly before he says, “I have to give you a hug.”
You go inside and sit down for a chat.
It’s not a moniker anymore. He’s changed. Your Ol’Man really is an old man.