Life and times
Novelist Michael Donkor
AS WELL AS WRITING, to earn my keep I teach English part-time at a girls’ school in west London. The final few weeks of the academic year can feel a little shapeless, but the predictability of certain annual fixtures – sports day, for example – gives some sense of order. Because I’m not a member of the PE department, sports day is a jolly, relaxed affair. Rather than competitive, the mood is carnivalesque; rather than suited and booted, staff are short-ed and flip-flop-ed; the girls don weird and wonderful costumes – mermaid tails and unicorn horns; staff race against students, students win. This year’s festivities went with an especial swing: an IT support officer proved to be an able DJ, flooding the playing field with Abba, Britney, Michael Jackson. As well as, erm, assiduously attending to my ‘crowd control’ responsibilities, I spent much of the afternoon dissecting the power dynamics at work in Love Island and being taught how to do that tricky flossing dance by the Year 12s.
IT WAS THE LAUNCH PARTY for my debut novel, Hold, recently, so I went to Klassique, an Afro-caribbean barber’s in Brixton, to get myself smartened up. The scissorsmiths at Klassique are the only people I’ve trusted with my hair for the past decade. The familiarity is soothing and no one makes appointments; you turn up and wait, squashed in next to blank teens liking things on Instagram and elderly men eating patties sheathed in brown paper bags. Most men will be involved in debates in Jamaican patois or watching the television in the corner of the shop. Sometimes people stare out of the window at the craft beer shop opposite – that stalwart of the gentrified locale – and criticise the ludicrous pricing of pints.
When it’s finally my turn, because I’m almost always seen by Glen – a wise, wiry gentleman who calls me ‘Teach’ – I don’t need to give directions. Glen is a magical multitasker. While he expertly does my fade haircut, working the clippers around my scalp instinctively, he chats on his phone and shoos away the characters who walk in off the street to sell dodgy perfume. He flirts with the mums who bring in their little boys for a trim. He negotiates with his own kids as they demand sweets, coins. He welcomes in – and puts at ease – nervous white customers.
BECAUSE I’M IN my early 30s, I seem to spend all of my weekends at weddings – including my own. I got married to my wonderful husband Patrick in Lisbon in May. I wore a vivid purple suit and the whole day was luminous. In the frenetic run-up, composing my speech was one of the most agonising jobs. Friends would say, ‘Oh, but you’re a writer! You’re so good with words’ – but this unhelpful expectation of easy success made me feel even more nervous.
The wedding speech is an odd form. There’s a demand that it be concise but it can’t be glib. It’s got to bawdily entertain well-lubricated guests. It’s got to be personal but ‘relatable’. In the end, I decided to write about how the experience of grieving for my father, who died eight years ago, brought my husband and me closer together. I tried to phrase my thoughts in honest sentences that felt natural and would be easy to say. There are many things I will always remember about delivering the speech: the grounding embrace my husband gave me; the indigo of the sky overhead as I spoke. How fiercely I concentrated on the pages in my shaking hands. The moment I looked up and caught sight of everyone’s twinkling, tear-filled eyes. Michael Donkor’s novel, Hold, is out now (Fourth Estate, £12.99)