“Masuhun!’ He says my name loudly, ‘Masuhun! I never told you. Your name, the name your mother and I and your grandfather chose for you.’ He still held me, pinning me ferociously by my arms as he looked into my eyes. I felt his strength. Many times, he had had to defend our shop against intruders I never understood, and here he was now, holding me and loving me, his eldest son. ‘Your name means, “He who has been anointed.”’
I felt the hairs bristle on the back of my head; why I don’t know. It was as if all my daydreams about my destiny, the kind all boys have, were suddenly about to become true.
‘Papa, does a name truly mean anything? After all, it is normally just a random choice or taken from other relatives of the same name.’
His mask had fallen back into place, and he again became the man of easy demeanour, gentle and patient; the man we all knew and held dear.
‘What do we know, boy? What do we know? Only what is revealed to us. How many parents, upon discovering the meaning of the given name of their child, wonder how it is possible that the child bears most of the characteristics attributed to the name, to its meaning? I believe that in many cases the child already bore the name long before birth.
That night, late, they came again, many of them. When I heard voices raised in argument, I pulled on my robe and ran to the front of the house. As I peered from the balcony, I saw them around my father, striking him, and he was punching and knocking them down. There were so many, it was like a pack of hungry wolves worrying a buffalo. Screaming, I leapt from the house and threw myself at one and then another, flailing wildly with my fists, striking flesh and bone, but there was a blinding flash. Later my mother woke me with wails and kisses, followed by exclamations of relief when she saw I was alive. They told me he had fought like a tiger, but they’d left him for dead. The house was filled with men, cousins, uncles, and brothers. When I awoke, I screamed at them, ‘Cowards, bastards, where were you when the killers came?’
They said he was dying. They had come, the Amazigh, our people, but they were too late. I ran crazily through the house, saying he was not dying; they wanted him dead, but he was not dying. I reached the bedroom where he lay, and they took me in to him. He spoke to me as I kissed him, asking him not to go.
‘Masuhun, find the place on the stone where the blessed mother comes.’
I fought against the tears. I didn’t want him to die; I wanted to walk with him, fish together, ride, sail; I just wanted to be with my father. I swiped angrily at my face—at the tears—but they were flowing fast and free now, blinding me.
‘No papa, don’t go; please, papa, papa, papa.’
‘Masuhun, ask her to protect us again as before. She will listen to you, you are named for her son.’ -----------------------------------------------------------------------
She was pulling to one side; I pushed the tiller over to right her, but nothing happened. Maybe the tiller was fouled. Then I saw him hanging onto the rear, his fists were big and closed on the bar and he just dragged out behind. It looked like one of those African fellows off the beach. The boat was pulled down at the back by the extra weight pulling on us, and the waves were starting to buffet us side on. She was just a tiny cat and the waves we had to climb to get out of the shore area were big. If I couldn’t get her nose down and straighten her out so that she met the waves head on, we would be overturned. So I leapt forward, having fastened the sail, and jumped out onto the starboard hull as a counterbalance—like with a patin catalan, a sailing boat whose only steering mechanism is the sailor using his body weight. Well it worked; we rode the breakers, albeit more sluggishly than usual. Out beyond the waves, where the swell diminished and the waves were wide, I relaxed the tension of the sail. The boat slowed down and the man clambered aboard. He seemed quite sheepish about things and didn’t look me in the eye.
I shouted at him, ‘Qu’est ce que tu veux? Es tu fou? Qu’est ce que tu fais?’ (What are you doing? Are you crazy? What do you want?)
‘I don’t spik da lingo. I spik English.’
Thanks to my father, who always insisted we speak English at home and that we studied and read English classics and newspapers, English was as much my mother tongue as were Arabic and French.
‘What do you want? Why have you come onto my boat?’
‘My name is William. I have come all the way from Ivory Coast to get to da Europe, and here at da last step, I am held back by this beet of wata. And so I saw you and your bag, and I knew at once you are going to cross to da Europe.’
‘Sorry, friend, better you return to the beach. I am going on a mission, a quest, from which perhaps I will not return.’ Even as it came into my mind that I was being pompous, I knew I was speaking as much to myself as to him, and for the first time, I realised as I spoke that following my normal impetuosity, I had embarked on a voyage to cross one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world. ‘Jesus, be my light, help me,’ I silently uttered, but it mustn’t have been that silent, as William burst out.
‘Then we are braadas, you and me. We are braadas. I also am a Christian. I will come with you. Together, we will be OK.’
‘Are you a strong swimmer?’ I asked him.
‘Da best. I can swim like a shak, don you worry none abbaht William. I can swim foreber even in da heavy seas.’
I liked him; he was so natural. Pictures flashed before my eyes of William out at sea hanging onto a piece of wood, so I pulled the sail tight and laid her side on to the increasing wind. The cat suddenly went up onto one fin; a trick I had learnt and perfected with constant practise. In fact, I could actually sail on one fin for as long as five minutes. William slid off the wet canvas and into the sea as the boat forged ahead.
‘Why, my braada?’ he wailed. ‘Why you do dat?’
‘Because you seem a nice man and I don’t want you on my conscience. I will come to find you when I return,’ I shouted, and whether he heard me or not I don’t know. I did know, however, that he could easily regain the shore in just a matter of minutes. He was, after all, a swimmer as strong as a shak.
Then a big one came right where we were and I paddled vigorously to stay with her till I got to just beyond her crest so that I was no longer powering, it was the wave that was carrying me forward. I got the feel of it at once, it was all a question of riding in just the exact spot, not too far forward nor too far back. I could feel the need for maintaining the right balance as the wave was holding me up and driving me forward; adrenaline rushed through me and I felt incredible. So with my instant confidence, I tried gingerly getting to my feet, kneeling first, then falteringly standing on wobbling legs. Suddenly, whoomph! The whole thing went and I was caught up in the wave, my board was wrenched from me. I was tumbling, seawater going up my nostrils; the sea was holding me under. I felt a spasm of panic; I just couldn’t get to the surface and breathe, then just as suddenly, my unexpected ride was over. I found my feet, stood, and drank in the fresh delicious air. I looked around for my board and saw a bearded guy smiling my way. A guy with a face like, well, the archangel Gabriel. I mean, he just looked sort of ultra-biblical. He wasn’t that big, but his shoulders were wide and his face sort of radiated goodness, so I smiled back