Writing by Rosie Ofori-Ward // photograph by Paolo Baretta
I grew up in a small town, not quite rural, not quite country, not quite suburbia, just small.
There are more churches in my town than shops, more schools than there are bars or cafes and more historical bridges, (two) than there are black families (one).
I say black family because as soon as a white person has children with her black partner, they become a black family.
Due to the unforeseen circumstances I will just call 2020, I find myself home, in this same town, in this same house, in this same upstairs bedroom with its single bed and liquorice all-sorts walls.
Working from the kitchen table, I find myself distracted by memories, surrounded by the life of a girl who never quite fit. My childhood is everywhere here, as is my isolation.
Going through old photos one afternoon, I find myself easily. There is no struggle to spot myself or my sister in grainy images of old forgotten friends at the bottom of the box, the sea of white that is our school photos.
I go to a local cafe with a friend, one I had been to as a child hundreds of times. As we walk in a group of women in the courtyard look me up and down, identifying me as the outsider over my olive skinned and blonde best friend. As the sun blares down, I recount stories about times here with my family. I would order the vanilla milkshake and my sister the ice chocolate. A waitress directs her question at me as she asks if we have been there before, if we know to order at the bar. I want to tell her I’m a local, I want to yell that I could recite their menu back to them, that I remember when it was just pieces of paper, we were given crayons to colour in, but instead I smile and nod.
The first rule I learnt in this town of mine was not to step out of line, not to kick up a fuss and it’s one I remember still.
In the evenings we watch Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness or one of the endless British panel shows, who’s formats we know so well. For here is the side of myself I can hide. Apart from my sarcastic sense of humour and the accent inherited from my mother that slips out after a few glasses of wine, my British identity is something I can hide away, something not made clear by the melanin in my skin or the kinks in my hair.
Later on, in the evenings we jump out of our skin at the ring of the phone. Looking at at the complicated number on the caller ID I answer with a ‘Good Morning.’ A habit from years of calls from relatives overseas, Ghana, the UK, the US. They’ve gotten more frequent recently, anxiety levels at an all-time high across the globe.
I found yesterday in the back of my cupboard, a thick red and white patterned headband. At age fourteen I took to wearing headbands almost every day inspired by Blair Waldorf. I wonder if it has been there since the afternoon I cried, throwing it to the back of my cupboard, furious I didn’t look like the pale brunette girl on my screen.
While clearing out under the bathroom sink, I throw out the collection of products once used on the straightened hair that I begged to acquire.
I could tell you the names I was called or the ways I was left out, but that wasn’t what hurt the most. It was how I stood out. Relaxing my hair just one of the many ways I tried to fade away.
When I made a mistake, I bunked off school or got drunk in a park with my friends. I was always found out, always recognisable to onlookers. There was that curious melanin again, that made me stand out in this town of mine and still does.
Now returned I walk the streets I’ve known my whole life and try and convince them this is my home. I smile large at passers-by, hoping I am still recognisable as the little girl whose mum runs the shop up the road because the alternative is that I’m seen as an outsider in my town, a tourist in my home.
On the weekends when me and family go on bush walks or make our way through town, I walk between my parents, I feel safe there, I am the product of their two halves. Between them I belong.