Coconut by Florence Ọlájídé
Part One: Brown Shell
Chapter One: My Earliest Memories
Somewhere between the ages of four and five, I realised I was different. Everyone around me flaunted skin as pink as candyfloss, hair as soft as silk and eyes the colour of the sea, or perhaps the occasional brown like mine. In contrast, my walnut skin stood in sharp relief and there was nothing remotely silky about my wiry hair. Those early memories whizz in and out of my mind like clouds on a breezy day. Some, I remember with a vagueness that suggests they were not real. Others are so stark, I don’t doubt their authenticity.
I lived with Nan and her family. Nan was old enough to be my grandmother, although she wasn’t. She was my foster mother, someone my parents paid to look after me while they studied during the day and worked at night. My parents were from Nigeria, a former British colony that had only recently got its independence from Britain. They were studying in England to get the qualifications needed to man the post-independence jobs vacated by British expatriates. Most African students of their generation could not afford live-in childcare. Hence, a private fostering industry mushroomed in England and beyond, whereby, for a fee, Black children resided with White families.
I saw my parents when they visited me at Nan’s, or I went to them at weekends. Dad was a handsome man with toffee-coloured skin. His hooded eyes bore a slight hint of the orient, although as far as we knew there were no Asians in the family tree. Of slender build, he was shorter than most men. Yet, he walked with a jaunt that belied his compact frame. By the time he hit his thirtieth birthday, he was already half-bald, which meant whenever in public, he always wore a tweedy flat cap. Soft-spoken, but vivacious, Dad loved socialising with friends over a pint.
At five-foot one, Mum was slender and almost as tall as Dad. Her skin tone was much darker than Dad’s, a flawless mocha that gleamed in the sun. What made people stop was the irresistible draw in her smile. Mum was hardworking and liked to be busy. If something needed doing, Mum was your woman. Like Dad, she loved company and both of them enjoyed a large circle of friends. When people met us, they said I sported my father’s face and my mother’s skin tone. I thought I was a delightful mix of both.
Before I lived with Nan, I had two prior carers. The first, a childminder, looked after me while Mum worked. One day, my mother missed her train home. She turned up an hour late, and to her dismay found me lying in my cot in the minder’s back garden. The minder’s husband had arrived back from work earlier than usual. He didn’t like Black people and didn’t want a Black baby squalling in his home, so she put me in the garden. That it was the middle of one of the coldest winters since British records began and I was only three months old, didn’t seem to matter… Click to read more.