Airswimming wasn’t even the stuff of dreams when I last saw Dada, but I didn’t know then that I would never see him again. He stood with his back to us in his black trousers and white shirt, washing his hands. Flies crawled over the worktop and flitted into the pot of rice and peas on his stove. Mum and I exchanged a glance and she nodded at me.
“Don’t you think that’s enough, Dada? Your hands will get sore,” I said.
He continued to scrub at his skin until Mum leant over and turned off the tap.
“Come on, Dada,” I said, leading him through to the other room.
Dada lowered himself into his brown leather armchair, and Mum and I sat on the matching sofa opposite.
“Imani’s finished her exams,” Mum said, putting a hand on mine.
For a while none of us spoke. I watched him examine his bleached fingers as though discovering them for the first time, then he picked up the Bible from the table next to him and clutched it in his lap. Overhead the air conditioning hummed to the tick of the clock trapped in its glass dome. The dogs barked outside.
“Spoken to Mum recently?” my mother asked.
He shook his head.
“She’s been trying to call you,” Mum said.
Dada looked into the distance as though he could see beyond the living room walls across space and time to the moment he and Mama were last together. His fingers traced the lettering on the cover of his Bible.
“How’s Joseph and the family?” Mum asked.
“He’s well, they’re all fine.” Dada’s face was so thin that his ears seemed far too large.
He stood up, smoothed down his trousers, and held out his hand to me.
“Come,” he said, and gently led me back through to the kitchen, where he picked up the pan of rice and peas and headed out into the backyard. The dogs started jumping and straining at their chains when he appeared.
“I saved them,” he said, putting the pan down on the yellowing grass.
I watched skinny, sand-coloured dogs fight over the food, preventing the smallest one from getting any. Dada picked up the pan and moved it to the other side of the yard, then he patted the little one’s head and untied her so she could eat. He smiled the way he used to when he lived at home with Mama and would let me sit on his lap and eat boiled dumplings, pumpkin, and yam from his plate. The little dog ate her fill and then trotted over to Dada and started licking his hands, wagging her tail all the while.
Dada bent and scratched between her ears. “Neighbours complain, but God shows me the right path,” he said. “I’m going to send them to heaven.”
My body stiffened. “No, Dada. If you don’t want them anymore, give them away or set them loose. You mustn’t hurt them.”
He nodded and I squeezed his hand.
When light began to drain from the sky, Dada showed us to the spare room. “This is your bed,” he said to me, gesturing to the single on the left. “And this is yours,” he told Mum.
The sheets were ironed and neatly folded back.
“We’re not staying, Dad. We’ve got a room in the guesthouse, and we leave tomorrow for Alicia’s wedding in Grenada,” Mum said.
“I’ll call a taxi and pick up your bags,” Dada said.
Last time we visited the island, he’d taken in a homeless woman and her son. Aunty Paulette said strange people were still coming and going, though she’d tried to persuade Dada not to let them in. There were no flies or strange people in the guesthouse and no talk of sending dogs to heaven.
“We’ve got to go now, Dad. We’ll see you soon,” Mum said.
“Shall I come with you to fetch the bags?” Dada said.
“It’s okay,” Mum said.
Dada looked small as he stood at the door and watched us walk away.
I was back in London and still waiting for my results when I got the first call. It was Uncle Joseph wanting Mum. She was at work, so he left a message with me.
“We’re worried about your grandfather. He told Paulette that he was going to send the dogs to heaven and when she went round there, he was digging a grave for them in the backyard.”
“But he hasn’t killed them?” I said, thinking of the little one wagging her tail as she looked up at Dada.
Uncle Joseph was silent for a moment. “Just thought you should know. Tell Shirley,” he said.
I felt a painful clutching in the pit of my stomach and tears ran down my cheeks. When Mum came back from work and I explained what had happened, she pulled at the skin on her neck.
“Shouldn’t he be in a home, Mum?”
“His spirit’s too free to be locked up like that,” Mum said.
“Then Mama should go back and look after him. She’s his wife.”
“She won’t do it,” Mum said.
I was getting over the disappointment of a 2:1—a good 2:1, but still a 2:1—when the second call came, informing us that Dada had died.
Afterwards Mum sat with her head in her hands and kept saying that it didn’t make sense; Dada was strong as an ox and fitter than men a third of his age. None of the relatives on the island had an explanation then, but slowly over the next couple of weeks we began to piece it together. He’d let someone into his house, one of those he was apparently giving his money away to, and the man, not satisfied with the handouts, had taken a belt and used it to choke the life out of Dada.
Every time I thought of Dada I saw his thin frame and childlike eyes. He wouldn’t have understood what was happening to him alone in the house that night. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of someone to whom he showed such kindness hurting him like that.
After we flew home from the funeral, I sat with my mother against the wall of jasmine in the garden and we talked about Dada.
“You know I can’t stand worms?” she said.
“Well Dada hated the way I’d cry if I saw one.” She chewed her lip. “When I was five he picked a long writhing worm from the garden and put it down my back.”
“One day I found a rat in the bath, and I was so frightened that I filled the tub and watched it swim until it drowned.
“When they got home, Mama called me creature and Dada beat me so hard I couldn’t walk for a week.” My mother wiped at her eyes. “I was taken into care after that.”
I held her hand while she cried, but my tears wouldn’t come. I didn’t know whether hers were for him, for the horrors he suffered, or for what he and Mama did to her. I felt tightness in my throat, like it was being sewn together from the inside.
Food became a struggle. Something about chewing and swallowing didn’t feel right anymore. I started to skip meals and began to lose weight. At first everyone said how good I looked, but as pounds turned into a stone, Mum said I had to go and see someone.
“I’m not seeing a shrink. I’m not crazy,” I said.
“No one thinks you’re crazy. It would just help you work through some things,” she said.
Every time she suggested it, I refused. Then a couple of weeks later she showed me an ad for Epiphany, a charity for people bereaved by murder. It was for their “transformative, life-affirming island retreats in Southeast Asia.”
“It’s happy-clappy bullshit. I’m not going to sit round a campfire singing Kumbaya,” I said.
“Think of it as the gap year you never had,” Mum said. “You only have to commit to it for a few months and it’s free.”
“I’m not going.”
“Either you sign up to it, go see someone, or move out. Those are your choices.”
The retreat was nothing like I’d expected. The Epiphany mantra was “Healthy body, healthy mind,” so to heal we had to get fit. There was no time for singing by the campfire. Once we’d relinquished our electronic devices, we were put on an intensive training programme. It started with running round the lake at the heart of the botanical gardens and cooling off with a swim and then they added sit-ups, press-ups, and climbing the trees at the edge of the rainforest that encircled us. Each day we also had “sharing sessions” under the wild bananas where we were encouraged to talk, in our groups of four, about how we were feeling.
A month into the programme, one of our trainers told us to meet her down by the lake at dawn for a demonstration. I stood there yawning and willing Celeste to make it quick so I could get back to bed, when she bent her knees, pushed up, and started to swim through the air as though the sky were a clear blue sea.
As I squinted, looking for the hidden ropes, she told us to pair up and make arches with our arms. Yasmin and I interlocked our fingers and with the others we formed a tunnel. Celeste swam down to us with a graceful breaststroke and then glided between our bodies and sculled out the other side.
“I’m going to teach you all to airswim,” she said.
Despite weeks of training, airswimming still hadn’t clicked for me. I woke up late, pulled on my kit, and rushed into the botanical gardens. I’d just crossed the bridge over the part of the lake that’s choking with lilies when I spotted a thin figure walking towards me. She had long black hair and looked like she was in her late teens, but I guess she could have been twenty. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt rather than her training kit.
“Hi, I’m Imani,” I said.
“Fei,” she said.
“Your group not training today?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows, which I wasn’t sure how to read.
I walked into class when it was well underway. Celeste glared at me and then nodded at Emma, who bent her knees, pushed down, and floated three feet into the air. When she landed, she turned to me, one side of her lips stretched into a smile. At Celeste’s cue, I bent my knees and pushed, but stayed rooted to the ground.
“Should you even be here?” Emma whispered. “Losing your grandpa don’t compare to my fiancé’s murder.”
“I didn’t lose my granddad, he was strangled—”
“But it’s not the same though, is it?” she said.
“What do you know—”
“Enough!” Celeste said.
After the session, Celeste took me to one side. “You’ll get there, Imani. You just need to focus on letting yourself go.”
I headed back to the treehouse and locked myself in my room. I could hear Jason’s voice coming from one of the loungers on the balcony by my window.
“They always get the opportunities, whether they deserve them or not,” he said loudly.
He knew I knew what he meant by “they.” It was nothing new. Those were the things that made him who he was.
I sketched the palm trees on the other side of the lake with thick charcoal strokes, only I imagined they were on my mother’s island, rather than wherever we were. I was smudging the palm fronds when there was knocking at the door; three raps, so I knew it was Yasmin. She popped her head round with the smile that made Jason forget where she was from.
“We’re going to practice in the barn. You coming?” she asked.
I shook my head. I’d have gone if it were just her.
She studied me for a few moments. “Maybe next time,” she said, leaving with a swish of her ponytail.
I should have been training too, focusing on what happened to Dada and how it’s changed me. I stood up slowly, but I could feel the muscles in my neck tightening. I tried to relax my shoulders and picture his deep brown eyes and the way he held onto my hand, but the tears didn’t come.
I grabbed my sketch from the table, crumpled it up, and flung it against the wall. The sound was muted, pathetic, so I picked it up again, unfolded it, and tore it into tiny pieces.
I’d taken to watching the macaques from the balcony in the evening, but today Celeste came to fetch me.
“Eating together is part of your training,” she said.
“I’m not very—”
“Your team’s waiting for you. The longer you take, the longer they stay.”
I hurried down the stairs and made my way across to the dining hall on the pier. The room was filled with the clicking of chopsticks and animated voices. When I sat at our table, Emma said, “Might be hard for you to get it, but we need to work together. I’m not having you ruin it for the rest of us.”
Jason glared at me, and Yasmin studiously avoided catching my eye. I toyed with my food for a while: the sauce had too much chilli for my liking and the noodles were cold. I looked around the dining hall at the others sat in their groups, then I spotted Fei eating by herself in a corner.
When dinner was over, I went to the lake and sat dangling my feet in the water, watching the light ghosting on the surface. The rainforest on the other bank looked wild and unruly. I was dreaming about what it would feel like to swim beneath the stars when I heard rustling. I turned to see Fei emerge from the dense prayer plants. We looked at each other for a moment, then I said, “The water’s lovely.”
Fei slipped off her trainers and sat beside me, dipping her toes in the lake.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Six months, give or take,” she said.
“Wow, that’s a long time.”
Fei smiled and let the silence stretch between us.
“I saw you at dinner. How come you don’t eat with your team?” I asked.
Fei pulled herself straight. “They left me behind,” she said. “Seems grieving comes easier to some.”
I was about to speak when Fei said, “Night,” and headed back into the undergrowth.
As light streamed through the trees, I followed the path from the botanical garden down to the training barn nestled in the rainforest. Emma, Jason, and Yasmin were standing opposite Celeste on one of the springy mats that covered the floor. The walls of the barn were padded and there was a web of ropes on the ceiling, as though a giant spider lived there.
Celeste beckoned Emma forward. “You’ve got the basics, so I’m going to push you now. Close your eyes and think about the moment your fiancé was killed.”
Emma was silent for a while. When tears began to stream down her face, Celeste said, “Bend your knees and push up.”
Emma rose a couple of metres off the ground like there was a secret puppeteer somewhere above, but when she opened her eyes she descended again.
Celeste turned to Jason, who didn’t wait for his cue before pushing up into the air. He made a big show of going higher than Emma, but then collapsed into the padded mats. Celeste gestured to Yasmin, who airswam around the room as though it were a giant aquarium.
“Well done,” Celeste said, turning to me.
I closed my eyes and bent my knees, but nothing happened. After a while I opened them again. Celeste was watching me, frowning.
In our next practical class, Emma rose four or five metres, sculling all the while with her hands. She couldn’t stop beaming after that. I was grateful that Jason was there, but when his turn came, he closed his eyes, bent his knees, and swam high into the air, then sculled back down. Celeste nodded at him. I could feel the sweat on my back. I closed my eyes and pushed, but my feet didn’t leave the floor.
“Told you they can’t swim,” Jason whispered.
Celeste sighed. “I’ll book you in for an individual session.”
“I’m not going to ask you to talk about what happened to your grandfather. Unless you want to?” Celeste said.
I shook my head.
“How do you feel about him?” she asked.
I remembered my mother’s stories about being taken into care.
“It’s complicated,” I said, frowning.
After an aching silence, I said, “I feel guilty I guess.”
“Because you couldn’t save him?”
I buried my fingers in my curls as though trying to untangle generations of knots. “I should have done more.”
I thought of Dada laid to rest, while somewhere out there his murderer roamed around. I examined my hands, a smaller version of his: the same walnut brown, the same long fingers.
“You’re not to blame for his death,” Celeste said.
I remembered my delight when he gave me my first bike—shiny and pink with a silver bell—and how proud he was when he held the back of it as I pedalled up and down. I remembered the way he used to take me into the back garden to see the runner beans growing and how he let me “help” him pick them. My eyes welled up.
“Bend your knees and push into the air,” she said.
My stubborn feet didn’t leave the ground.
“In rare cases, it doesn’t click,” Celeste said, standing by the window in her office. “No one knows why.”
As she talked, I watched the curtains swaying in the breeze and a lone butterfly flitting above the orchids outside.
“There’s nothing more we can do for you,” she said.
“I’m going home?”
She shook her head. “You need time to readjust.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I can’t say. Everyone’s different,” she said.
“But are we talking days or weeks?”
“I can’t say,” she repeated.
As I made my way down the tree-lined path towards the treehouse, I was conscious of eyes watching me from the branches above. I didn’t look up.
It didn’t take long to pack. I left the room as though I’d never been there. As I neared Celeste’s office, she appeared.
“Ready?” she asked.
Celeste took my backpack and led the way past the cluster of trainee treehouses to a small wooden hut hiding in the vegetation at the edge of the camp. I watched some macaques rooting about in a pile of purple mangosteen on the ground. When I looked up, Celeste handed me my bag.
“The other girl will show you what’s what,” she said.
Inside the hut there were three rooms with mattresses on the floor and a small bathroom. The fourth room was locked. I sat on one of the thin, worn mattresses, hugging my knees. After a while, Fei appeared in the doorway.
“So it didn’t work out for you either?” She raised her eyebrows at me and smiled.
I shook my head and looked at the bare wooden walls and floor.
“What do you do all day?” I asked.
“It depends, but mostly work in the botanical gardens.”
In the morning, as light began to steal through the canopy and the forest twitched with insects and restless birds, Fei took me to a tree laden with fruit like tiny blood-soaked hedgehogs.
“We have to pick rambutan for the camp,” she said, breaking off clusters and putting them on a trug.
As the heat bore down on us, Fei used her shirt to wipe her face and I saw the constellation of scars on her side. I turned away when she caught me looking. Thought about my mother.
When Fei said we’d picked enough, I helped her carry the rambutan over to the pier. She invited me to join her for a swim afterwards, but I declined. With a few rambutan in my pocket, I fought through vines and climbed over fallen trees as I followed the fence around the camp. It was impossibly high.
“There’s no way out,” Fei said, when I returned to the hut. “Unless you can fly,” she added with a faint smile.
I looked up at the filigree of branches.
“How did you end up here?” I asked.
“Lost my parents,” she said.
I didn’t ask how and she didn’t say.
We sat together in the canteen at lunch. Emma and Jason kept looking over and laughing. I pretended not to notice. As soon as we’d done, Fei took me through to the kitchen.
“I usually grill my own fish on Friday night. Do you like snapper?” she said.
I nodded and she spoke to a man wiping down the surfaces, who handed her a bundle wrapped in newsprint I couldn’t understand.
As the light faded, Fei started a fire and began to cook. I was drawn to the smoky aroma of grilled snapper and caramelised onions. I helped her arrange the meal on banana palms and then we ate, looking out over the shadows on the water.
As I swallowed my last mouthful, I realised that it was the first meal I’d finished since the funeral. I thought about Dada and closed my eyes for a while, focused on my breathing. I told myself that after what he did to Mum, I owed him nothing; that was why I wasn’t there for him.
I grabbed a branch and stoked the fire.
“After everything he did, he’s the victim,” I said, throwing in bark and twigs to feed the flames.
“Like Mum,” Fei said, shoving more sticks into the fire. “Growing up with her and Dad, the things they did—” She shook her head.
The flames tut-tut-tutted and raged orange yellow.
“And she never stood up to him, never protected me.” Fei closed her eyes. “Then he stabbed her and stabbed her and stabbed her. Twenty-seven times. I hate feeling sorry for her.” Fei stroked her side and I thought of the scars that peppered her skin.
When I glanced over at Fei, she wiped at her eyes.
I blinked back the tears. “Didn’t know anyone else felt like that,” I said.
Far above us the moon gleamed like a scythe.
“What kind of person could kill an old man?” I wiped my cheeks. “If I’d been there, Dada would still be alive. None of this would have happened if he and Mama hadn’t done what they did to Mum.”
Fei held out a hand to me, and we stood side by side watching the flames. Neither of us noticed that we had risen off the ground until we dropped down again.
After that we practised each night, getting higher and higher until, just before dawn one day, we rose up and kept rising. It was like flying into the air on a trampoline, like floating in a sea that was warm and still and gliding through a river as clear as glass. It felt like we were outside time and weightless.
We airswam through a faint mist and the lightest drops of rain, which glistened like jewels on the foliage. We glided above a carpet of ferns, up past the banana palms, and into the trees with their vines like locks of hair. Through layers of green we rose, wet leaves brushing against our skin. We disturbed a lizard, which darted away, and a pair of hornbills that disappeared in a flurry of black and white, and continued rising until we broke through the canopy to the expansive sky above.