BAME Prize 2017: TEDDYBIRD by Jimi Famurewa
Ned was licking stones again. Hidden within the raised interior of a space rocket pockmarked with aggressive lighter burns, he sat cross-legged and assessed the neat row of six small rocks on the floor below him. He selected one, lifted it to a protruding tongue, then grimaced at the taste – shaking away the unexpected flavour – and returned the stone to its position. Three metres away, Wyatt watched his boy, transfixed by this geological tasting platter as other kids sprinted and squalled, climbed and waddled or squeaked bootheels down the cold metal slide, followed all the while by servile adult accomplices.
‘Neddy,’ Wyatt said, looking up from his phone. ‘Leave those, buddy.’ A few heads turned. One mum – expensive polar explorerʼs coat, steaming travel flask, pink-hatted baby drooling in a nearby swing like a punch-drunk welterweight – offered a smile, a ʻKids, eh?ʼ chuckle. Wyattʼs lips crumpled into what just about passed as a reciprocal smirk. Then Ned briefly looked up at his father, taking on this new information with the sleepy half interest of a bus driver spotting that a set of traffic lights had changed to green. After a mildly diverted beat, he returned to his rocks, picking up a mottled pebble. But this time, instead of having a taste, he started humming to it. Progress, thought Wyatt. He sat back in the bench and nudged his phone awake as Polar Mum retained her smile, turning it slowly towards a tree.
Spring was approaching in a technical sense but the day had a bright, chilly bite, borne out by the quilted coats, bunched scarves and askew woolen hats obscuring all those freewheeling snotty faces. There were still bare branches on the surrounding oaks, pointing to an odd glitch in Mother Natureʼs seasonal programming, and the playground was strangely barren this afternoon too. The period between 2pm and 3pm usually represented a magic hour where Wyattʼs new tribe – the mothers, the scant dads, the energetic crop-haired grandmothers in box-fresh trainers – availed themselves of Maggie Parkʼs worn seesaws and spidery climbing frames before school kick-out brought a tide of teenagers, glowering near the perimeter fence with livid love bites on their necks. Ordinarily, at this time, nap-refreshed under-threes would swarm on every available structure, bottleneck the top of the slide, upend buckets of damp sand onto the floor and generally engender yelping chaos as they tried to escape the gaze of their crab-walking senior protectors.
Today, the ragtag chorus operated below full capacity. Six or seven kids ran circuits of the limited attractions, rhythmically hitting the same spots like house flies locked in a rectangular holding pattern – up the slide, down the slide, sandpit, zip line, climbing frame, sandpit – as Ned continued to appraise his haul of minerals. The kid seemed happy enough, Wyatt thought, glancing up from a job ad he was dutifully wading through. In truth, Ned Alfred Wyatt already seemed an odd boy. Pretty despite his pimpled mouth and blessed, thanks to the Antiguan genes of Wyattʼs errant father, with a dry bundle of sandy curls that were a magnet for curious liver-spotted hands, Ned, nonetheless, seemed tuned into some unknowable frequency. Famously placid and reliably inscrutable, the kid would be two in June and had so far shown very little interest in talking.
Not that he was silent. In the last few months, he had been suddenly equipped with a
limited compilation of noises – a pleased hum of some mysterious tune, a dissatisfied, high birdcall that accompanied rare moments of anger, a distinct, pleased ʻmm-mmʼ while reaching out for another fluffy hunk of Wyattʼs morning croissant – that formed a dialect of sorts. Wyatt had grown to know these noises. Heʼd even, in the four months since the grim, predictable ejection that was his job loss, grown to love them. But something he saw in the eyes of others upon hearing Nedʼs wordless groaning unsettled him. On more than one occasion, he had loaded up the faded fabric of Nedʼs buggy and departed the café or park they were in purely because of some onlookerʼs simpering glance. But Ned hummed happily now – swapping one rock for another, with Teddybird, his beloved, matted plush owl, gazing blankly at his side – until his gentle tune was drowned out by the approaching growl of a car on the road that bordered the park at the east.
Wyatt looked up. The assembled carers all looked up. Even Ned, momentarily diverted from his stone serenading, looked up. The noise came from a hulking, high-performance chariot wrought in glimmering dark red. Wyatt, who wasnʼt entirely sure where his licence was and hadnʼt driven since nervously piloting a hired hatchback around potholed Sicilian roads a million summers ago, didnʼt know much about cars. But even he immediately recognised that this thing was absurdly expensive. Beads of melted morning frost turned its contours into perspiring muscle, and despite its family-car size, it looked long, lean and animally desirable. Its windows were tinted, which gave the impression of some lavish dictatorial motorcade, and its unexpected height meant that its slow, purring passage could be seen above other parked cars. As the driver nimbly reversed the carʼs bulk into a parking space in front of the playgroundʼs east gate, other gawpers looked away – perhaps betraying a whisper of distaste at something so noisy, gauche and very probably eco-unfriendly invading this land of sensible estate cars and hybrid saloons – but Wyatt still stared. The personalised registration read: T7 HEC. Again, Wyatt knew almost nothing about the intricacies of vanity plates, but he took this as another sign of imposing wealth.
The driverʼs door opened and Wyatt saw a flash of the buttery interior as a man – tall, white, lavishly outfitted in leather gloves, thick navy coat and glossy mahogany brogues – bounced onto the curb and made his way to the rear door. He swung it open and reached in, quickly retrieving a young boy, blond-mopped and equally decked in unbobbled cold weather finery, before planting him on the pavement. Instantly, the boy ran at the gate, his arms outstretched like twin battering rams, and whipped it open with such force that it clanged back against the railing. Heads turned again and Wyatt, a scholar of these encounters, expected some stern reproach from the dad. Nothing. The man either didnʼt see or didn’t care and simply turned his stubbled, deep-lidded features back towards his car, blipped the lock with a thick key fob, and made a show of warming up, half-jogging to the vacant spot on the bench next to Wyatt. Wyatt shifted slightly and tried to focus on Ned, who was now humming as he took Teddybird up and down the row of stones; a feathered major assessing his lumpen troops before a battle.
‘Hector Wickham,’ said Car Dad gently as his son, who had a pudgeless frame that marked him out as three or perhaps even older, clambered onto the middle portion of a seesaw, effortfully attempting some dangerous, unsteady approximation of surfing. Father and sonʼs eyes met. ‘Watch yourself.’
The voice, thought Wyatt, was a surprise. Higher than youʼd expect, given that bristled cowboy jaw, and nakedly public school, which Wyatt hadnʼt anticipated given the blustering swagger of his transport. Inevitably, Wyatt conducted a comparative audit of his own appearance – dwindling continent of close-shaved curly hair, snub West Indian nose, chunky black glasses, begrimed jean-thighs, canvas day bag slumped at his plimsolls – and felt uncomfortable. He tried to discreetly shuffle further away from Car Dadʼs attentive, crotch-airing position but this backfired horribly and made Car Dad turn to Wyatt. A black leather mitt came out.
‘Rory,’ said Car Dad, making pronounced eye contact. ‘Nice to meet you.’
‘Dan, well, Wyatt,’ said Wyatt, wishing he hadnʼt bothered with an amendment that necessitated a story about another childhood acquaintance called Dan, and a quasi-nickname that had stuck.
‘Nice. Wyatt. I like it,’ said Rory, with real enthusiasm and, blessedly, no further questions. ‘He yours?’ Rory flicked his bouncy hair towards Ned, who was trying – with limited success and the puppeteered assistance of Teddybird – to stack his stones on top of each other.
‘Yep, the master builder,’ said Wyatt, instantly feeling bad about this admittedly light joke at his boyʼs expense.
‘Ha!’ said Rory, pronouncing the word and grinning, rather than actually laughing. ‘That
reprobate is my one,’ he added, glancing in the direction of Hector, who had made for the space rocket and was now above Ned, straining for the ungoverned area by the nose cone. ‘Totally tonto. Like me at his age apparently. Four stitches in his chin at Christmas after running into a cupboard and he still doesnʼt give the tiniest shit.’
Now it was Wyattʼs turn to laugh and the muffled snort that escaped from his face took him by surprise. Car Dad, or rather Rory, spoke at a sprint but seemed to have an open, nerveless honesty that didnʼt tally with the other playground fathers that Wyatt very occasionally engaged with. There was no throttled anger or sleepy faraway gaze, no performative chirpiness or schoolyard meekness. What was it that actually made him say hello? Even the small act of knowing someoneʼs name and telling them yours amid the spongy floor and fading transfer tattoos felt like an exhilarating breach of the established code.
‘Weʼve just moved here, actually,’ said Rory, breaking the silence with an answer to Wyattʼs unasked question. ‘Like, literally got our stuff in on Friday. Boxes everywhere, still half a building site. Had to give his mum a break or sheʼd have gone into early labour with number two, yʼknow?’
‘Well, itʼs a nice area,’ offered Wyatt, after another pause. Shamefully, he couldnʼt help but wonder about the hugeness of Roryʼs new house, the attractiveness of his wife, the specifics of a job that accommodated both an expensive car and the ability to be free on a grey Wednesday afternoon. Was he a high-powered sports agent? A privately educated drug lord? Some shiftless heir to a revered old viscountcy? There was little time to ponder it longer or tactically chip his way to an answer. The hiss and pop of underpowered phone speakers made Wyatt look over his left shoulder to see a vanguard of school kids approaching, already beyond the tumbledown public toilets, purposefully slurping giant cans of energy drink. It was a reliable alarm clock. Nedʼs dinner would be the next waymarker of the evening, followed by Rina, clattering her bike through the hallway as she arrived back from work.
‘I think thatʼs probably us for the day,’ said Wyatt, feeling oddly guilty as he stood and shoved the canvas bag into the fraying basket below Nedʼs buggy. ‘But hope the unpacking goes well. And whatever you do donʼt order a Chinese from The Rising Sun.’
‘Ha!’ The laugh again, big and generous. Rory stood and reoffered that leather bear paw, shook Wyattʼs hand vigorously. ‘Good man. Hope to see you soon, Wyatt.’ Hector had reached the summit of the space rocket and was repeatedly yelling ʻBlast off!ʼ at no one in particular.
‘See you Hector,’ said Wyatt, scooping up Ned who, true to form, didnʼt question that it was time to go, but simply nibbled at Teddybirdʼs beak and balled his other hand into a fist. Wyatt strapped his son into the seat and, with rare, grace, kicked up the brake before swinging it around, through the gate and past a lone school boy idly rattling a clarinet case against the fence. They headed up a cracked pathway. Ned reached his balled fingers up and Wyatt realised it wasnʼt a fist. He had formed his small hand around a smooth mud-caked stone, and now he was handing it to his dad. Wordlessly, Wyatt took the stone and clicked it into his jacket pocket to join the others.
‘Oh, I think itʼs cuuute,’ Rina said, smiling at Wyatt from the chaos of the dining table. ‘You have a playmate.’ The sly smile widened as she brought a tumbler of red wine to her lips and brushed paste onto another layer of the papier-mâché planet she was constructing for her reception class.
‘Yes, yes, very funny,’ said Wyatt, accepting the teasing as he set down the crackling baby
monitor and poured himself a glass from the screw-top bottle on the mantle. ‘Really wish I hadnʼt said anything.’
This was Rinaʼs way. He remembered it from those first days, nine years ago, when a job working the bar at the same upscale cinema had brought him into the orbit of the cool Lithuanian girl with the nose stud who at least three other members of staff – two male, one female – were pursuing. That constant look of mild amusement, the jagged self-cut fringe, the impish responses to simple questions about ice or breaking up a £20 note or covering shifts. The playfulness was contagious, of course – a private joke that you scrambled to be on the right side of – but it was also a window to a tough, unsentimental core. When Wyatt felt the sting of naive over-expansion at the organic snack company he did web design for, and took the period of redundancy consultation so badly he ended up with a terminated contract and no severance money, well, it made perfect sense that Rina would return to work as a supply teacher, with Wyatt looking after Ned until he was eligible for nursery. There was love and understanding sent Wyattʼs way, yes, but there was also little sympathy for prolonged whimpering or his vague reveries about maybe purchasing a superior camera and giving his dormant photography career a proper go. Just a cool appraisal of the situation and a quick decision, garnished with a kiss on Wyattʼs ear and a joke about making sure dinner would always be on the table when she got home. ‘Ack, Ekaterina, always with the claws,’ as Dimi, the Panoplexʼs Bulgarian bar manager was prone to mutter wistfully.
‘But Iʼm serious,’ Rina said now, snapping off latex gloves and leaving her new layer of paste and paper to dry. ‘I think it will be nice for you to have another dad to meet, maybe. Someone to talk to.’
‘Rina, come on! You hate that parental pals bullshit.’
‘Not totally,’ protested Rina, clambering onto the sofa and wriggling, cat-like, into the space behind Wyattʼs horizontal legs. ‘Just those shiny kvailas bitches that still act like theyʼre making gangs at school. Itʼs good to have company.’
‘Yeah, Iʼm not sure me and this guy have much in common.’
A low moan came through the speaker of the baby monitor and Rina and Wyatt both looked at it, as if it were a person. In keeping with his general low-wattage demeanour, Ned had been a fairly sturdy sleeper since the first months of his life, schooled early by his mumʼs tender toughness. But occasionally he roused early in the night and emitted this faintly unsettling moo. The only successful method of resettling him that theyʼd stumbled on involved a complex combination of rocking, singing and the low lullaby of one of Rinaʼs rusted old music boxes.
‘Iʼll go,’ said Rina, rising to her feet as she let down a loose updo of the punkish dyed black hair that she still very occasionally trimmed herself. As she ventured to Nedʼs room at the rear of their narrow basement flat, Wyatt felt himself reach for his phone. He fruitlessly typed the name ʻRory Wickhamʼ into a few social media apps.
In the end, Rory and Hector caught them by surprise. Wyatt and Ned had drifted back to the Maggie Park playground at the same time the following week – hoping vaguely to fall in step with Rory and Hectorʼs routine – only to find them absent from an even thinner playground crowd of unsteady new walkers and penitent, phone-scanning parents. It was the following Saturday morning, pushing the pram past the park to their normal café while Rina was at pilates, that Wyatt saw the unmistakable silhouette of Roryʼs square-shouldered topcoat and wave of chestnut hair. Wyatt froze, considering whether it was odd or embarrassing to change course so dramatically.
‘Shall we pop in the playground Neddy?’ Ned was slumped to the side, slobbering on the steel frame of the pram. Wyatt took his silence as assent and made for the gate, pushing through and heading forward until he was in Roryʼs peripheral vision. As he bent to unclip Ned, Wyatt only now noticed that Rory was using an earpiece to make a phone call that, from the furrow of his forehead and downward slant of his caterpillar eyebrows, was a tense one.
‘…well as far as Iʼm concerned, heʼs actively making our job harder… no, no, well I just think heʼs shown his true fucking colours and thereʼs no way that we can move forward, knowing what we now know… uh huh, yeah. OK, well tell him that, or a nicer version of that, and then… uh huh.’ Rory glanced over and spotted Wyatt, or rather, spotted that Hector, who had been frenziedly pushing himself round on a miniature roundabout, had seen Ned and sprinted over. ‘Listen, Georgie, let me call you back. OK. Yeah. Buh-bye.’ Rory pocketed his black earbud and smiled broadly.
‘Wyatt! How are you?’ Again, when the voice came it was high but huge; unapologetically loud. Another nearby dad wheeling a tricycle turned and Wyatt briefly wondered if he should have just kept walking.
‘Rory, hey. Thought maybe you wouldnʼt remember us.’
‘Pfft. Not bloody likely. Good to freeze your arse off with a friendly face.’
‘Daddy, daddy, daddy.’ This was Hector, cutting in and tugging on the edge of Roryʼs coat. ‘Can I play with the baby?’ He tipped his head towards Ned who, with Teddybird in hand, was making his way on sleepy legs to the still-twirling roundabout.
‘Course, big guy,’ said Rory, newly distracted by a buzz on his phone. ‘But weʼve only got five minutes OK, Gan-gan gets here at 11.’ Rory gazed at his phone screen, tapping out a message at speed with ungloved hands.
‘So whatʼs your game, Wyatt? Your job, I mean,’ said Rory, not looking up from the phone or his hurdling thumbs.
‘These days? Nappies and tantrums mostly. Heh. But I used to do web design for a food company. Might get back into it. Might not.’
Roryʼs eyes stayed down so Wyatt looked over nervously to Ned and Hector. Ned was sittingon the roundabout and, to Wyattʼs surprise, Hector was spinning him around with slow, considered care. Teddybird, oddly, had been stuffed into Hectorʼs gilet pocket but Ned, who had a habit of growing bored of prolonged company, wore a dumb, satisfied smile.
‘Web stuff? Really?’ said Rory, looking up finally. ‘Should get your deets, dude. My firm works with some tech guys. Slippery fuckers but I bet theyʼll pay well.’
‘As someone who got their P45 recently, I can probably believe both those things.’
‘Ha! Good man’ A firm hand came to Wyattʼs back. It was unexpected but not unwelcome and they went on like this for at least 10 minutes, watching the boys play and punctuating comfortable silences with bursts of uncontroversial conversation – the troublesome American client at Roryʼs law firm causing him to take work calls at the weekend; Wyattʼs recommendation of a surprisingly excellent local Italian restaurant; their joint speculation about what form of contraband the late night ice cream van on Granwell Road was selling – before Rory checked the smudged onyx face of his smartwatch and realised they had to leave.
‘Hector, letʼs go big guy. Say goodbye to Ned.’ The two boys had migrated to an unoccupied corner of the sandpit and, as Ned let the grains trickle through his fingers onto a new pile of stones, Hector set about using Teddybird to tamp down a separate molehill of sand heʼd constructed. ‘Crash, crash, smash,’ he said, puffing his little pink cheeks to add some explosions for good measure.
‘Careful with that, Hector,’ said Wyatt, surprised by the detectable strain of annoyance in his cracked voice.
‘Yeah, give it back Hec,’ said Rory, only barely interested as he scooped up an immaculate wooden balance bike that presumably belonged to Hector. Then Hector scrunched his eyes shut and screamed. A deafening, ear-piercing shriek that was all the more shocking for its sudden arrival. Wyatt even looked him over to double check he hadnʼt injured himself by snagging a leg on a hidden shard of glass or something. The playground was even quieter than it had been that first day but every one of the parents there looked over before quickly turning away, their faces a study in a specific kind of remote solidarity. ʻBeen there,’ said the sad smiles. ʻGood luck’, added the averted eyes.
‘Oh, not this again,’ said Rory. ‘Are we really going to do this again, Hec?’ Hector took a deep, blubbering breath and screamed once more – just as loudly as the first time but maybe an octave lower in pitch. The effect of a relatively grown-up boy – today decked out like a shrunken fashion model in grey rollneck, sturdy blue moccasins and slimline indigo jeans – losing it in such a sudden, theatrical manner was truly unnerving and Wyatt felt sure it would prompt tears from Ned. But he was wrong. His son had stopped trickling sand into the rock pile between his legs and simply looked blankly at Hectorʼs reddening face, seemingly unmoved by the performance as the screams turned into a frantic, animal bark. ‘Yaagh! Yaagh! Baagh!’ said Hector, as Rory approached and failed to prise Teddybird from his grasp, impeded slightly by the balance bike in his other hand.
‘Oh Christ,’ said Rory with a forced laugh and grin. ‘Can I just buy this thing off you?’ It sounded like a joke, and it was delivered like one, so Wyatt offered his own nervous laugh. But now, as he looked at Rory, there was the flicker of a cognitive breakthrough in his hazel eyes. Wyatt looked around for the usual backdrop of eager playground eavesdroppers but, perhaps fearing a scene, and not wishing to appear judgmental, they had drifted away, towards the general vicinity of the zip-line at the other end of the playground.
‘Seriously,’ said Rory, relinquishing his grip on Teddybird and walking purposefully towards Wyatt. ‘If itʼs something you can just buy again, let me take it off your hands and save our eardrums.’ Hector, possibly scenting a personally satisfying conclusion to his primal display, lowered his stabbing cries to an audibly exhausted, but still persistent, whimper. Wyatt laughed self-consciously again and thought of where Teddybird had come from. It had been a gift, if he remembered rightly, from Carl and Una, university friends who lived in the countryside now. But he had seen other kids clutching identical plush toys with enough regularity to suggest that, if he wanted, he could acquire a whole aviary of Teddybirds with a few taps of his phone.
‘You canʼt be serious,’ said Wyatt finally. He tittered again but both he and Rory now saw that a transactional door which should have been slammed shut was instead left ajar. Hectorʼs cries grew louder and stranger.
‘Deadly serious,’ said Rory, pulling a slender square of dimpled leather from his pocket. ‘£50? £100?’ he offered, easing the red notes from a lined fabric pocket and revealing that, of course, he was one of those people who carried large sums of cash. ‘Here we go,’ he said, conclusively. ‘Everything in here. £170 for an easy life and to apologise for the scene.’ Roryʼs smile was still there but it had a new edge and Wyatt felt some line was being forever crossed. His heart, he realised, was racing. Again, he looked around, initially to spot a sane observer to the madness but ultimately, he had to concede, to see if anyone would witness him taking a sheaf of notes from a relative stranger in a kidʼs playground.
‘Rory, this is crazy,’ said Wyatt, somewhat pathetically.
‘Yes, it is,’ said Rory, smiling, holding Wyattʼs gaze and then wincing slightly as Hector barked anew. ‘Baagh! Baagh! Graagh!’
A stipulation entered Wyattʼs mind and he looked at Ned. ‘Neddy mate, is it OK if Hector borrows Teddybird for a little bit,’ he looked up at Rory, ‘just until tomorrow?’
Ned ‘yam yammed’, nodded and happily went back to dropping sand on his pile of stones. Wyatt saw the money go into his hand and then his cagoule pocket as Rory swept up Hector, and by extension Teddybird, and quickly made his way for the gate, the balance bike dangling from his left hand.
‘Good man Wyatt. See you soon,’ said Rory, not even turning his head as he went. Hector looked back and fixed Wyatt with red eyes, the adrenalin of his successful freak-out still leaving his little body. Even so, it looked as though a small smile was blooming on his face. Wyatt ran his fingers over the whorled pattern on the notes in his pocket, trying to remind himself that this was really happening.
Nedʼs lack of words meant that weeks later Wyatt was still not sure whether his son had understood just what had gone on at the playground that day. The replacement Teddybird had been ordered online for less than £10 and picked up from one of the high street shops with the astroturfed tables of gnarled produce. Wyatt, fearing that Rina would notice the difference, had scraped the new owl along the floor a couple of times and raked his keys up and down the fluffy wings. This hasty antiquing may not have been necessary but it made Wyatt feel better and neither Rina nor Ned seemed to notice any difference. The boy still idly fiddled with the new Teddybirdʼs stumpy feet, still occasionally sucked on the small leather beak, still animated the bird with a surprisingly accurate waddle. Wyatt had not even spent the money Rory gave him. It was stuffed in an old shoebox at the back of his wardrobe. In his mind, the only thing he could justifiably splurge on would be a present for Rina. Perhaps one of the expensive, spiced candles that were her only weakness when it came to useless luxury. Or maybe not. Maybe those notes would stay in the box forever.
Of course, one definite change brought on by the incident with the old, original Teddybird was that Wyatt had been trying hard to avoid another meeting with Rory. Staying away from Maggie Park, and instead traipsing to the newer playground outside a boxy new housing development twenty minutes’ walk away, seemed to have worked.
So it was doubly concerning when, rushing back from their new spot as a grey Tuesday afternoon dribbled into early evening, Wyatt spotted Rory and Hectorʼs car parked close to the kerb. It was unmistakable – the muddy blood red, the T7 HEC licence plate, what looked from up close like TV screens in the headrests – and it made Wyatt stop walking. Roryʼs smile and Hectorʼs final gaze were in his mind and he found himself waiting for a man in a thick bobble hat with a lolloping Irish Setter to pass. His hand went to his left cagoule pocket, to Nedʼs stones. He pulled out a sharp-edged nugget and, not pausing to consider this fresh madness, scraped it across the full length of the driverʼs side of the car, all the way over the divot between the doors and up to the retracted wing mirror. He stole a look at the thin silver fault line in that immaculate ruby sheen, then pocketed the stone again, grabbed the handle of the pram and walked away, the pace of his brisk steps matching his heartʼs new rhythm.
‘Come on then, Ned,’ he said, looking down at the flakes of dry skin at his sonʼs hairline. ‘Letʼs go get you your dinner.’
TEDDYBIRD by Jimi Famurewa
Download the New Voices audiobook read by all the shortlisted writers from this year’s Guardian 4th Estate BAME Prize.