We are always barefoot. I try to explain this to the police officers who arrive from the mainland. We’re quieter this way and we need to be quiet when we’re stalking wild animals in the pine forest. Heaven walks in front because she’s the oldest, then me because I’m the youngest, then Bluebird at the rear. When I tell the black policeman we were hunting, Heaven shakes her head. She tells him we were at home. He looks at me, then her, then back at me. We’re sitting at the kitchen table, the soles of our feet muddy and bleeding. Well, says the officer, which one is it?
We trap rabbits and small birds and fish. We let the birds go mostly. We go crabbing down by the mud flats. I always make a joke of wiggling my fingers in the bucket and pulling them back before the crabs can snip them off. Bluebird finds it funny but Heaven always tells me off. We help pull the net when the adults go down to the beach but sometimes we sneak out to do it alone, even though we’re not supposed to. We’ve made our own net from scavenged rope. We’re more or less self-sufficient, which is better for Bibi and Grandaddy.
Our grandparents are really too old to be looking after us anymore but it can’t be helped. They have to be our parents now, because the ones we were born with are gone. Our real daddy walked into the woods one day and became an oak tree. Soon after that, our real mama just turned into light and dust in the garden, right in front of our eyes. I was too young to remember but I was there, we all were. Heaven and Bluebird said her skin came away like ribbons cut from rainbows. Bluebird said she looked at peace. Heaven said her face was full of fear. I was swaddled against our mama’s back so that when she turned I fell to the ground and cut my head on a stone. That’s where I got this scar.
When I asked Bibi if all this was true, she said, Sure enough, I came outside and there you were, lying in the dirt with your head split open, blood everywhere, your mama gone and your sisters looking at me dumb as rocks. When I asked Grandaddy about it, he just shrugged and said, Your mama and daddy got free.
Bluebird goes missing when we’re in the forest. We’re tracking a deer. We’ve never caught a deer on our own before. We aren’t really supposed to hunt big game because the government designated the whole island a nature reserve, but we’re hungry and there’s been no grocery barge for weeks because it’s tropical storm season. Every day we eat microwave burgers with bright plastic cheese and washed lettuce from Bibi’s patch in the garden. We want real meat. I’ve been dreaming about eating raw flesh.
We’re deep in the forest when Heaven looks over her shoulder, past me, and says, I heard Grandaddy talking about you.
Bluebird says, To who?
He was on the phone. Telling somebody they’re going to send you away.
Yeah, yeah, they always say that.
He meant it this time. They want to send you to a correctional place on the mainland.
Why would they do that?
Miss Laura isn’t happy with you at all.
Whatever. She can suck a dick.
Where’d you even get the gun from? Grandaddy don’t keep guns in the house.
We walk a while longer in a growing silence. Eventually Bluebird says, They’re not going to send me away.
Heaven has always had a stomach for cruelty. It’s clear she’s joking, at least to me. If she really believed our sister was going to be turfed out, she wouldn’t talk so casually about it. But she shrugs and says, That’s just what Grandaddy said.
Miss Laura is our neighbour. We don’t especially like her. At church, she always has something to say about our mama. She’s always asking stupid questions like, Can’t you even get dressed up nice for Jesus? Didn’t anybody teach you table manners? What kind of names are those? Bluebird snapped at her once and said, The ones our parents gave us, dummy. Miss Laura had something to say to our grandparents about that.
Bibi always says don’t pay that busybody no mind. She disguises her condescension as concern. I’m worried, she tells Bibi, that your girls are always running around out there with no shoes on. Ever since your daughter went away, they’ve been acting like wild dogs. The little one’s practically feral. Hell, I saw her down by the water with no shirt on. Sister, please, you’re a reasonable woman. You’ve got to do something.
We have committed more than one crime against Miss Laura and her grandsons over the years. We used to untie their dog because he was always crying in their front yard. Sometimes we picked oranges from her tree, but only because she never picked them herself, just let them fall and rot in the grass and heat. We left most of what we picked on her porch. We didn’t go out of our way to antagonise Miss Laura but her grandsons were bullies. They deserved whatever they got. I bit the younger one’s arm at Sunday school. I ground my teeth in until I tasted blood. He wanted to play with the toy I was playing with and he’d pushed me over to get it. I pushed him back and then, for good measure as Bibi likes to say, I nipped him.
All our neighbours are of the general consensus that we’re not punished enough. Our grandparents are too soft to care for us properly. We need discipline. My week-long grounding after the biting incident wasn’t satisfactory for Miss Laura. Neither was the stern talking to we got when their dog ran away, nor the beating we got when she found the orange rinds we left fertilising under her tree. Miss Laura was just worried, she was always saying, about our lack of supervision. She never failed to call and inform our grandparents when Heaven was seen in cars with boys or when Bluebird beat up somebody’s brother or when she saw us coming back from the forest with a fresh kill.
Two weeks ago, Bluebird was at a party with Heaven. Somehow she ended up walking down the old forest road, barefoot and alone. She’d gotten into a fight at the party, which was regular behaviour for her, and had to leave. Miss Laura’s oldest grandson and his friends followed her. They were calling her names, throwing rocks. Bluebird pulled out a pistol, fired a warning shot and then, when it looked like they needed further suggestion, took aim at their heads. They legged it. She said they were just trying to scare her, but Heaven made me turn away when she rinsed her off in the tub. I got a glimpse of her back, the tops of her legs. Raw and colourful, like old meat. It took the boys over a week to rat her out and when they did, they made it sound like she threatened to kill them for no good reason. As soon as Miss Laura found out, she was on the phone.
Bluebird’s actions look reckless to outsiders but only because they can’t see the crystal web of her mind. She once built a sculpture out of the good china to calm me down from one of my fits, assembling a towering, precarious bridge on the dining table. As I watched her build it was like seeing music in the air. Something formless suddenly had a shape. I could breathe again. All Bibi said when she came in was, She’s methodical, alright.
I know my sister. Everything she does has a logic to it, and a purpose.
The police and our neighbours canvass the woods with flashlights and dogs. We can hear them calling out her name, even from the house. An hour ago they found a pair of her shoes, torn clothes. Nobody’s mentioned that they weren’t the clothes she was wearing earlier.
We’re still sitting in the kitchen. We’ve been warned by Grandaddy not to move, even an inch, and the evening’s general atmosphere dissuades us from testing how strictly we are to observe these instructions. I want to ask where Heaven thinks our sister would’ve gone but she’s angry at me for getting us in trouble. The room is wrapped in a cool stoniness. There is a tap at the window, then another.
Heaven says, It’s Walter.
She swivels in her seat and pushes the window open. Walter, is that you?
Are your grandparents home?
No, everyone’s out looking for Bluebird.
Walter lets himself by the back door, which has been left unlocked in the event of Bluebird’s voluntary return. Heaven rises to meet him on the patio but she doesn’t close the door behind her. They whisper, he kicks his shoes off. After a couple minutes, my sister follows him in. Her expression has relaxed.
How’s it going, Sage?
Not bad, I shrug. Wish Bluebird would come home already and stop all this fuss. I’ve got school tomorrow.
Yeah, I saw all them going out to look for her.
I’m sure she’ll be back soon. She just wants to give them a scare.
Yeah, says Walter, sounds like Bluebird. Well, I was just coming over to bring you this when I heard. I brought one for Bluebird too. He hands me a book with a rough green cover and one with a navy cover and a pretty dust jacket. I open up the green one and press my lips to the pages. The print is small and lovely, it has a musty smell that always reminds me of ink.
Where’d you get it?
Say thank you, Sage.
It’s alright, I found it at a house I was cleaning out with my dad. There’s loads more down at the dump if you want to take a look. Maybe tomorrow after school.
Heaven lifts herself up onto the counter in a way that she would never do if our grandparents were home. With one of her legs outstretched, she balances herself by gripping the edge of the kitchen island with her toes. She looks like a dancer. She cocks her head to one side and her neck clicks. She says, Did you see them all then?
Yeah, they were fanning out across the tree line down by where you normally set your traps. You were out hunting?
We were, says Heaven, but I wouldn’t have told them that. She looks at me.
Aw, you won’t be in trouble for that though, when they find her they’ll forget all about it.
That’s what I said!
How can you like her, Walter? She’s such a bitch.
Heaven sticks her tongue out at me. Walter laughs diplomatically and changes the subject. She just ran off then?
Yep, typical Bluebird.
You’re not worried?
No, she always turns up.
Walter says to me, Let us know if your grandparents or anyone come back, alright?
I want to say that it was Heaven who made her run off like that but I stay quiet. I let my eyes slide away as Walter takes Heaven’s hand and leads her down the corridor to the den. She starts laughing, then they close the door and the sound is strangled like the sudden hiss of an extinguished candle. The book Walter brought for Bluebird has gold embossed letters on the jacket. It’s a romance, exactly the kind my sister likes to read.
We’re very close to the deep heart of the forest. Here is where the pine trees give way to the old twisted oaks, the ugly branches dressed with lacy greenish moss. We see the deer standing in a small clearing. Heaven has the best aim. She raises the hunting rifle we’ve been loaned by Grandaddy. He always pretends not to know what we’re doing out here but when Heaven asks for the keys to the shed, he gives them to her and says only, Be careful with that now.
Bluebird and I crouch down carefully. I cover my ears. Heaven draws herself up to her full height. She likes to show off but it isn’t really necessary. At this distance, it’s a clear shot.
As Heaven squeezes the trigger, there’s a scream and a flash. Her aim falters. I look up. The shot grazes the animal. It runs into the trees with a superficial wound. Heaven spins around, ready to curse at the two of us. A flock of birds’ dark silhouette spirals into the air above. I wait for her admonishments but none came. Her eyes are bright but wide, hesitant. Heaven says, Where’s Bluebird?
We search without urgency. It isn’t unlike our sister to disappear, especially in the forest. I’m sullen. I know Bluebird ran off because of what Heaven said, because it’s true. Miss Laura and her grandson got a lawyer. Grandaddy and Bibi won’t have a choice, they’ll have to send her away for good this time. We wander in the same direction the deer went. There aren’t any broken branches. The pine needles that litter the ground are undisturbed. I suggest we circle back to ask our daddy oak.
Don’t be stupid, Sage.
I’m not being stupid, I say. Maybe she went there.
It’s just a tree.
Heaven calls me a baby but we go back to the big oak anyway. It’s the largest tree on the island. It sits at the edge of a deep pond where they used to drown our people way back before our grandparents were even alive. We came here all the time as little kids. At the water’s edge looking for ghosts. The tree’s bark has all these oval-shaped ridges pushing out of it, like faces. They’re the real faces of our people. I touch the one that looks like the pictures of our daddy, where its cheek would be. See? says Heaven. Bluebird isn’t here.
As she says it, we hear breathing. Short, frantic breaths that sound like struggle. We walk slowly around the tree, I cling to the back of my sister’s shirt. We see hooves—it’s just the deer.
The smell is suddenly overpowering. Powdery, sour decay. We cover our mouths and noses with our sleeves. The same deer we were hunting, blackened and writhing with small white worms. Its fur is dark green and slick. Its devoured stomach is still rising and falling. The deflated black eye rolls glossily in its head, as if it can see us. We take off running.
Three days after the last time we see our sister, the policemen carry a body out of the woods. It’s the older grandson. Everyone hears Miss Laura’s howling down the street and they stand on their porches like a vigil. They put him in a long black overnight bag and then into the back of an ambulance. He’s got blood on his clothes that isn’t his, and one of Grandaddy’s neat little pistols in his hand. The chamber’s empty.
Walter reluctantly describes it to me—it’s him and Heaven that find the body. He has little cuts all over his face, delicate curves like small moons. His eye sockets are hollow. A deep red that’s barely colour anymore. When the ambulance arrives, Heaven tells me not to look, to look at her. I do as she says, but in her eyes—it’s like I’m not there. She stares at me like we’ll never meet again.
It’s clear to everybody what happened. Somehow, Bluebird killed him. But they still can’t find her. The red and blue lights play off the evening-white walls of our neighbours’ houses. Eventually, somebody turns them off.
Grandaddy gets quiet and Bibi gets sick. She retreats to her room. She threatens to walk down to the beach and turn into sand, or a wave. We don’t hunt anymore. Walter brings us groceries. He claims he saw Bluebird at a gas station on the mainland. Heaven doesn’t believe him. She thinks he’s trying to cheer me up. Others have seen her too, but none are able to catch her. She melts as soon as they pull their gaze away, reaching for their phone. Gone by the time they start dialling.
Heaven goes out with Walter in the evenings and doesn’t get home sometimes until morning. But she starts coming in through the door instead of the window, no matter how late it is, because nobody tells us what to do anymore. Bibi doesn’t have the energy, and Grandaddy doesn’t have the heart.
At night, when everybody else has gone or gone to bed, I read the books from the dump. I’m a slow reader, even slower without my sisters to read aloud to me, but I keep going. I’ve left the pretty blue book on the nightstand. I won’t read it.
It’s Bluebird who comes in through the window now. She arrives as a flock of birds and perches on the windowsill. I wonder how our parents knew what to name her. This is why can’t nobody catch her. The bluebirds line the sill and weigh down the tree branches. I ask her where she got to but she won’t tell me what happened in the forest. She just asks, Which time? and I don’t know what she means. She says she’s in the same place as mama. She’s following the sun. It’s wild over there but it’s peaceful. She promises I’ll like it. Time folded down until it’s lighter than paper.
Eventually, says Bluebird, we’re all gonna get free.
Kandace Siobhan Walker is a writer and filmmaker. She was born in Toronto to a Jamaican-Canadian mother and a Gullah-Geechee father, and raised in Britain. Her short film ‘Last Days of the Girl’s Kingdom’, produced in collaboration with ICA and DAZED, was aired on Channel 4’s Random Acts. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Bough, Prototype and The Good Journal. She lives in Wales, and is currently working on a novel. Twitter: @kandacesiobhan
MISE EN PLACE:
the preparation of dishes and ingredients before the beginning of service
Though he might not like to admit it, my dad has always been good with food. He has a talent for improvising kitchen cupboard scraps into a meal, transforming stale bread and old sun-dried tomatoes into delicious bruschetta, or producing delicate crudités from vegetable drawer remnants. He has an innate sense of what flavours pair well together, and an ability to plate things in the artful way they do in restaurants. He often denies this gift, brushing off compliments by saying he can only make snack-food, which is really just his way of saying he doesn’t want to cook for the household.
Our relationship hadn’t always been easy. We fought, seemingly, about everything; he would pester me about not making enough of an effort to connect with my wider family, or the benefits of meditation, or how I should get an MBA instead of an arts degree. I in turn would yell at him about his disengagement with politics, his inexplicable love of the British monarchy, or the way that he treated my mother. But food was neutral ground for us.
The night before I was due to begin jury duty for the first time, I asked him to help me make a sandwich to take with me in the morning. We had argued about something recently, though I can’t remember what. It was impossible to keep track. So when I asked him to help me make the sandwich, I was partly extending an olive branch, but partly just seeking a non-hostile interaction with my father.
My mum would always stock the house with the same Polish rye bread, packaged in orange and white with chleb polski scrawled across in black. Toasted, it is crispy, airy, and flavourful. Untoasted, it is spongy and tastes a bit like baking powder. This is the main issue with turning it into a sandwich.
My dad knew exactly what to do. He diligently butters both slices, adding just a smear of English mustard. Next, he folds some pastrami onto the bread. Then, a few thin slices of cheddar cheese. And it has to be thin, you don’t want to overpower the flavour of the meat, he said. Then, he slides a large jar of pickles out of the fridge.
I balked. I hated pickles. I would toss them out of my hamburgers automatically; they had committed the crime of being slimy and sour, and appearing uninvited in my food. I even resented the pickle jar for being in my fridge, for taking up so much space and being inedible to me. Mrs Elswood (whose pickle brand it was, apparently) would grin at me from the top shelf, radiating self-satisfaction from where she was pictured on her forest-green label.
My dad picks out some of the smaller spears and lay them on the chopping board, slicing them up wafer-thin, and tucking them into the folds of pastrami so that they wouldn’t soak pickle juice into the bread. Just for texture, to add a little crunch, he says. I am suspicious, but take his word for it. He wraps the sandwich up in foil and I put it in a box in the fridge, along with a bottle of water and a bag of fruit and nut mix I had bought as a healthy civic-duty snack.
We pack away the bread and turn off the lights. The house is warm and a little humid, but the grey tile of the kitchen is cool on my bare feet. I watch him get into his bed in the dining room. I feel good, even a little excited about tomorrow. Thanks dad, I say, and I think about hugging him or kissing one of his stubbly cheeks, but I do not.
to simmer slowly in a small amount of liquid for a long tim
Statistically, there is about a 35% chance of a person living in England or Wales being chosen to perform jury duty, but because many people are never called up while others are summoned repeatedly, there are several theories about how the selection process works. Some people think it has to do with details like how long you have lived at the same address, or whether you’ve kept the same job for a number of years; this is the sort of thing that establishes you as a steady, reliable citizen who will get called up to serve again and again.
But there are no such processes at work. The Jury Central Summoning Bureau just selects a name from the electoral register at random; if it’s yours, you go. Unless you want to pay the £1,000 fine. However, there are circumstances under which you can delay when you serve your jury duty. For me, this was the fact that my service was scheduled to start on the day of an important exam I had in my first year of university. I had received a summons to Isleworth Crown Court to serve on a jury for a minimum of two weeks. I called the number on the government website, filled out an unnecessarily complicated form, and worried a whole lot more about it than I needed to. I managed to push my service to mid-July, a time when I was sure nothing interesting or important would be happening.
It was an accurate assumption. Most of my friends had flown home for the summer after being kicked out of their student halls, or gone on holiday elsewhere. Being back in my family home was lonely in a lot of ways. I missed my flat and my flatmates and the chaos. The suburbs felt almost entirely empty, but at the same time overly-warm and suffocating. Because I didn’t have a job, all the compensation I was getting from the council for my time was comped travel and a five pound lunch stipend, which I figured I would save by bringing my own food.
The things that I had prepared in anticipation of jury duty included: this lunch, and a backpack. I packed a notebook and pen, a novel I had to read for a class, and a book of poems to read for fun (although this was Undying by Michel Faber, written as a memorial collection for his wife, so perhaps ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the correct word).
The things I had not prepared for included, but were not limited to: the obscenity of waking up at 8am in the middle of the summer holiday, how quickly I would get hungry having had an early start, and the sheer amount of time spent waiting to be assigned a case.
That last one’s not quite true. I was aware that it was entirely possibly to serve jury duty without ever being assigned a case, and this was something I even hoped for. Your service could easily go on for longer than the mandated two weeks if the case you were assigned demanded it, for whatever reason: new evidence, unexpected witnesses, disagreement between jurors. This meant that if you bided your time long enough, the court couldn’t knowingly give you a case that would extend your service
further than the allotted two weeks, and would perhaps even end your service early. I suppose what I was actually not prepared for was how difficult waiting out that time would be.
When people have asked me to describe what jury duty was like, I often liken the experience to being halfway between waiting for a flight and being in prison. The layout of the waiting room is very airport-like, with several banks of wide chairs with itchy blue seats. There are a few pallid wood tables scattered around, bearing ancient board games and peeling puzzles. The tiny patio, connected to the room by a glass door and full of wilted plants, is the saving grace of the place, for smokers and Internet-addicts alike.
The first day, I am excited about the time I am going to get to myself. Who cares if there’s no Internet, I think to myself as one of the court’s employees apologises for the lack of WiFi, and promises that they are trying to get a router installed soon. Everyone needs a detox now and again. I try the sandwich my dad made for me and it’s delicious. The flavours complement each other perfectly and the slivers of pickle add a satisfying crunch to each bite. I make a mental note to thank him again later. I start and finish the novel and the poetry collection and, feeling inspired, begin to write my own poem, about summer in different cities and wet hair and being in love.
I start sketching on day two. I haven’t drawn anything since finishing GCSE Art five years before. I look through the photo album on my phone for inspiration. I try drawing a picture of my boyfriend’s cat and accidentally give it a giant head. I decide to draw a picture of a crème caramel dessert because it looks uniform and straight-forward and end up with an image that looks exactly like an upside-down Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I go back to writing the poem.
On day three, I eat my lunch and some handfuls of fruit and nut mix at 10am and promptly fall asleep in my chair. I wake up, disoriented, with a horrible taste in my mouth and tinny music leaking out of my earphones. I go to the patio to message my friends, but it’s too hot and bright to stay outside for long. The court dismisses us early. I go home and search ‘what happens if you call in sick to jury duty’ on the Internet and find a news article titled Juror Matthew Banks jailed for seeing West End show, and think better of the impulse.
I get put on a case on day four. It’s a miracle. There are eleven other people on the jury with me, and we’re all buzzing with excitement, regardless of age. It takes so long to get sworn in that all we learn of the case before we get dismissed is that the charge is for fraud. The defendant is a tall Chinese man. His lanky frame shrinks in his suit, and he wears black square-frame glasses that are simple and unfashionable in a way that reminds me of what kids wear in middle school. An interpreter stands beside him, dressed in all black, relaying every single thing he says.
Fraud cases that come to the Crown Court must involve a sum of money greater than £5,000; an offence involving less money will be resolved earlier than this, at the Magistrates’ Court. I lie in bed that night wondering what he had done; what he had stolen, and from whom.
a mixture of ingredients cooked or eaten together
Several months ago, a man, who I’m going to call Bai, walks into a train station in West London.
He is a student from Beijing, studying for a master’s degree in a specialised sector of engineering at a prestigious London university. He has been living in the country for less than a year. In that time, he has made friends in a somewhat unconventional way, although perhaps not in our times: Bai has met almost all of his UK-based friends through WeChat, a hugely popular Chinese social media platform. There is a group chat for Chinese students living in London, moderated by two men who organise occasional meetups, pay for trips to the cinema and dinners at pizza restaurants.
During one of these trips, one of these men makes a business proposal to Bai. His name, according to Bai, is Blade. He wants Bai to become a buyer for him. Blade says that it is totally legal, a very easy way to make money. People in China will pay a premium price for designer goods if their authenticity can be proven, and one way to do this involves importing the products from the West. This way, they receive a stamp of authentication from customs; they can be sold to wealthy buyers who no longer have to worry that their purchase has been produced by one of China’s famed
Blade will put up the money for the transaction, and Bai will make a small
commission for his role as a buyer. The men agree to meet at Shepherd’s Bush station, and this is where we find Bai waiting, on a cold and clear February morning. When Blade arrives, he gives Bai two brightly coloured credit cards, one red and one blue, along with the details of the products he is to purchase with them.
That afternoon, Bai leaves the back room of a Cartier shop wearing a pair of
handcuffs that only bear a passing resemblance to the watches they sell there.
to flavour and moisturize pieces of meat, poultry, seafood or vegetable by soaking them in or brushing them with a liquid mixture of seasonings known as a marinade
The Chinese have a gambling culture, you know, Glynis says, halfway through day six. She smooths her floral-patterned trousers down with trembling, wrinkled hands, and says, he probably thought he could get away with it.
I don’t know how to rebut such a nakedly stereotypical statement so I say nothing. I am looking at two credit cards through a clear plastic bag, one red and one blue. The holograms flash too quickly, and the lettering is printed in a font thicker than the regular sans serif. As it stands, we have a hung jury, split right down the middle.
It is clear that goods have been stolen under false pretences. The judge has told us that we are to not to decide whether or not a crime was committed. The question is rather, do we believe that these crimes were committed intentionally? If we sentence the defendant – and all twelve of us must agree to do this – his student visa will be revoked.
He’s at UCL, says Mike, an imposing, intimidating man with a pink face and a snarky voice. He’s at UCL doing some rocket science degree, he’s smart, and he definitely knew what he was doing.
At this, I start to laugh. I go to UCL, I say, and I know plenty of stupid people.
Including me actually, last week I tried to post a letter through a bin. Either way, you can be a genius and still make mistakes. They’re really not mutually exclusive things, I trail off, I can feel myself starting to babble.
Then, Arushi pipes up. She speaks clearly and calmly, but only makes eye contact with the table we are all sat around: I had a friend go through a similar thing a couple of years ago, it seems quite easy to get sucked into. These people, they target students who don’t know anyone, they seek them out and buy them things, and then they start asking for favours. It’s a whole operation.
Someone else says, so, why aren’t we going after those guys?
Well, we don’t know who they are, and the police don’t either. They’ve definitely used pseudonyms, what kind of fucking name is Blade anyway?
The deliberation room starts to feel smaller and hotter, and the sunlight through the windows like the heat from a slow cooker. I feel for my phone in my pocket like a phantom limb – everyone’s electronics have been confiscated to protect the secrecy of the deliberations. We aren’t even meant to discuss the case outside of the court house, but it feels like a safe rule to break.
to separate and remove solids from a liquid, thus making it clear
Pav bhaji is one of the only Indian dishes I know how to make. I usually describe it as a spicy vegetable mash to people who haven’t tried it before, but I know that it doesn’t make it sound very appealing. The ‘pav’ of pav bhaji refers to the soft rolls of bread you eat the mash with. They can be golden brioche or day-old hot dog rolls or sesame-speckled burger buns. All that matters is that you fry them in butter, or better, in ghee, until they are properly saturated.
‘Bhaji’ is actually a Marathi word that means ‘vegetable gravy’, but that doesn’t really make sense when you think about onion bhajis, round, crispy balls of fried batter and chilli, or aloo bhajis, little circles of potato bronzed with spices and oil. The bhaji in pav bhaji can definitely end up being more of a gravy depending on the ratio of potatoes to cauliflower you use. More potatoes will make the mash fluffier and solid, but it might lose a bit of its flavour. Put in too many cauliflower heads, and your bhaji is at risk of becoming watery and grainy. It’s all a matter of preference. My dad
favours cauliflower in his pav bhaji. My mum likes to go rogue and add sweetcorn to hers, or whatever other vegetable she’s trying to keep from going past its expiry date. My version has extra carrots because I have a sweet tooth, probably.
My dad is holding a potato peeler and laughing because he’s remembered the time I accidentally boiled the chillies with the rest of the vegetables. You’re meant to fry them with the onions and the tomatoes and the rest of the spices before you add the boiled vegetables to the pan. Obviously. Since he moved back in after their divorce, my mum wanted to make sure she didn’t get stuck with all the housework again, so implemented a cooking rota, among other rules. It’s his turn tonight.
Poor chap, he says, chopping up a green pepper. What happens now then?
I tell him I don’t know, someone has to change their mind. Everyone is so racist though, I’m not sure how it’s going to happen.
His eyebrows prick up. Race and racism are not among our ‘safe’ conversation topics. This is a man who has told me to avoid getting into a relationship with a black person because ‘they smell funny’ and ‘their food is very boring.’ My mum is only a little better, frequently criticising Indian women’s driving. (But mum, you’re an Indian woman, I say. She replies: I know, I’m a terrible driver.)
My parents had divorced seven years ago and, aside from the occasional explosive row, were on decent terms with each other. My father had managed to get himself in a rather strange financial situation two years ago, and needed a place to stay. He owned three different West London flats, but could not afford to live in any of them, as he said the rent money was going directly back into the properties’ mortgages and their upkeep. I am suspicious about how true this is.
He had quit his job as a project manager at a charity when he found that the role was becoming increasingly IT-focused, and he was gradually finding himself out of his depth. It seems that if you are an Indian man, regardless of your profession, people will inexplicably expect you to know a lot about computers. This specifically is a form of discrimination that he can understand.
Do you want your father to end up on the street? Because that’s what will happen, my mum would say whenever I asked her if he was leaving. One month had turned into six, and six had turned into there being no end in sight.
He had been able to stay for so long because, despite all the arguments, my mum felt guilty about making him move out. She feared that, despite him being a 50-year-old man, he would not be able to take care of himself alone. I think she also feared him.
What do you want me to do? I’ve asked him to leave already. He won’t leave. Do you want me to call the police? You really want me to get the police involved?
I think: sometimes I feel like he’s going to stab you.
I say: you can’t keep using the police as an excuse.
to allow the flavour of an ingredient to soak into a liquid until the liquid takes on the flavour of the ingredient
You may be wondering, how exactly do you expect to buy a luxury watch with nothing more than a glorified piece of plastic?
Certainly, Blade didn’t intend for Bai to get arrested just for the hell of it. The idea was to fabricate an American ‘signature-only’ credit card, meaning that the only verification process the card would go through would be a call to the bank to confirm the legitimacy of the account. Bai would arrive at the shop early enough for the time difference to mean that the bank would be closed, and unable to pick up the phone for several hours. It’s a risky method, yes, which is why you would ideally get someone else to do it.
But the first time around, it actually works. Bai goes into the first store, called OMEGA, picks out a chunky, silver watch, and hands over a fake credit card to pay for it. No one picks up the call. The store manager tries again and again for almost two hours. Eventually, embarrassment gets the better of him. This strategy, it seems, depends almost entirely on the weaponization of awkwardness. He tells Bai that the bank has approved the transaction, and apologises for making him wait, even gifting him a bottle of champagne as compensation for his time.
Bai moves on to Cartier, whose security measures are unfortunately a bit more rigorous. Bai is held in a room until the banks open. The call goes through, and he is arrested shortly after.
The main point of contention between the jurors who want to declare him guilty and those who don’t is that Bai did not tell the police about the first watch after he was arrested. Some think this suggests that he thought he could slip away with it. Others believe he probably just didn’t want to cause more trouble for himself. The language barrier certainly doesn’t help to make things any clearer.
Jurying, to me, becomes an exercise in compassion. With a gridlock of evidence and non-evidence, how are you supposed to forgive a person for their choices? It comes down to questions like: do you like the the way they look? Do they seem trustworthy to you? Who you respect more is more than likely who you align yourself with. Is the shouting man in the curly wig a no-nonsense barrister or a loud bully? In this way, it is an incredibly inefficient tool of the justice system. Because these answers are so very dependant on little more than absolute chance.
It is day seven, Glynis is complaining about her hip, and I am just about fed up of arguing with her and eating the same sandwich for lunch every day. I think about saving my sandwich today, heading down the road for lunch and spending a little money instead, but the foreman tells us that because this is our first full day of deliberation, we are not to leave the room, except briefly for using the toilet and taking smoke breaks.
After about an hour, it transpires that several other people have not read this part of the jury summons guide. They have not brought their lunches with them. Incidentally, this situation exclusively affects people on the side of ‘guilty’. A unanimous decision is quickly reached.
The judge agrees with our decision. In a way, the whole fanfare of a public jury is just posturing, because the judge can overturn any verdict that comes out of it. But you can tell that this is what he wanted all along. Judges often give hints. Bai puts his hands together and bows several times, thanking us through his tears. There is only one person in the benches designated for public bystanders and she is crying even harder; she is standing with her whole body trembling, but on her face is a smile. I
think she looks a bit like an angel in her long, ruffled, white dress, and I wonder if she is Bai’s girlfriend. I smile at both of them purposefully, and quickly realise this is a mistake when I feel like crying myself.
I take the train back from the court house. The station closest to my house is a National Rail stop. The trains are owned by South West Trains and their colour scheme has always felt like home to me: warm red and yellow, rich, deep blue, like an exotic bird. The carriages are roomy and stable, and I like that you can still use the Internet on your phone in them, I like feeling connected. I tell everyone who will listen about the court verdict like it’s my victory.
to leave a product over an extended period of time (often months of years) to aid in improving the flavour of the product
When my dad finally moves out, I am not living at home. It is September and he texts me pictures of the room he’s moved into, in an apartment in the same town, incidentally with another Indian family. Their flat is smaller than ours, but it’s all beige carpet and bright white walls and abstract art prints, just like our home.
He runs out of money by October. I visit him before he leaves for India, to stay with family. He gives me a duffel bag full of old CDs and books and unused candles, as well as two plastic boxes containing all of his paperwork for safekeeping.
In the months that follow there are lots of angry emails, and even more angry texts. I know that he blames me for making him leave. Eventually I told my mother that if he didn’t go, I would, and I wouldn’t come back. I know that he forgives me when he can. He sends me Youtube clips from The View , Hindi music, and photos of kulfi ice cream sandwiches. I’m not sure whether the distance has been better or worse for our relationship.
On one hand, I can ignore him if he says strange, provocative, upsetting things. On the other hand, the instant messaging format allows him to send me those things in very quick succession, and then attempt to counterbalance them with twenty pictures of baby animals. I think the Internet in general offers a kind of anonymity to people that makes them less careful about what they say.
When I get my first real internship at a magazine in the summer, it is unpaid, save for comped travel and a five pound lunch stipend. I text my dad to say that I’ve started making his jury duty sandwiches again. I tell him I’ve bought a jar of pickles for my flat, and that I am finally an adult. He tells me that I will be an adult when I start being able to eat baked bell peppers, my absolute least favourite.
Jenna Mahale is a London-based freelance journalist and recent UCL graduate. Her work has been published by VICE, Dazed & Confused, and Brainchild Festival. She is currently writing for the Critics of Colour x Roundhouse collective. Twitter: @jennamahale
The summer before our family fell apart, a legend started on our estate. I was ten at the time, and like every other ten year old, all I wanted to do was spend summer riding around on my bike at the park near our house. The climbing frames in the park were rusty and completely discoloured – unless whoever built them had intended brown to be the colour of childhood excitement – so it didn’t appeal to many parents as an afterschool site. Also, I’m pretty sure that drug dealers used to hang out there but I never met any, so how much of a presence could they have been really, you know?
“Hooligans,” my mother would say, shaking her head as the plantain simmered in the frying pan. She was cooking three things at once, as per usual, and the plantain was always the loudest, though no match for her voice. “That’s what you want to be, abi Marcus? One of those ye-ye boys who hangs around this place, anyhow?”
I didn’t know what a ye-ye boy was; man was really just out here trying to ride his bike with his friends, but mum wasn’t having it. In the end, the only reason she let me go on these apparent daytime terror rides was because of Omar.
Omar was the older brother of my best friend, Yusuf. At 16 years old, he was a God among boys; we – myself, Yusuf, Caleb and Jacob – worshipped him. He could score a goal on anyone, thrash anyone on Playstation and I swear at one point, he was seeing two girls at once, without his parents knowing. He was the coolest guy I had ever known.
Any lesser mortal would have used our complete idolisation to their advantage – had us running errands for him all summer, making us his little worker bees, but Omar was cool. He liked us. He would hang out with us and look after us and instil any Nigerian parent with the confidence that their child was in good hands.
“Don’t worry, Aunty Uwa,” he would tell my mum with the easiest smile. “I’ll look after the boys. We’re just going to walk to the chip shop and go to the park. I’ll bring them back before you get back from work.”
In her defence, it was only a matter of time for mum to agree; Omar just had that power, even at that age. Like he knew everything was going to be okay, even if you didn’t. It was only later that we’d all realise that he hung out with us not because he wanted to, but because we needed it. Four ten year olds left to their own devices could fall into a lot of trouble in South London in those days.
On those slow, summer days, time would bend itself in loops and we’d do some things twice. There was always time. A lazy wander to the chip shop, double back through the park, finesse some 10p sweets from the corner shop…The journey was the same but never boring. There was time enough to make up legends.
Omar would collect all of our coins and exchange them for greasy red boxes of chicken and chips at the local shop. We’d climb onto the high chairs with the peeling red leather seats and lavishly sprinkle salt on our feast and then go back to sit around the park. If the Last Supper had been set in Deptford, Jesus would have had a box of chips, a snapback and an easy smile.
“Is the story about the Cotton Socks Boys true?” Caleb had asked one day as we devoured our food. Omar frowned.
“Of course it’s true.”
“I don’t think it is,” I announced. The Cotton Socks Boys was the story of the biggest legend around at the time. A group of teenagers, notorious for committing crimes without shoes, had been said to have hidden money they stole somewhere in Deptford. Nobody knew where, nobody could even say if it was true. Nobody except Omar. “Where would anyone get £1 million, in Deptford? And where would they hide it?”
“Somewhere only the smartest kids can find it,” Omar said, leaning forward with a glint in his eye. We all looked to him. “They say that there’s a treasure map out there somewhere and if you figure out all the clues, you’ll be the richest man in Deptford. No one could fight you for it, because you found it fair and square. They say the Cotton Socks Boys left it so that whoever found it would be their successors and be the protectors of Deptford.” After a moment, he leaned back, sticking another hand into his
box of chips. “But what would I know? It’s just a story, innit,” Omar shrugged and glanced up at the sun. “Come on, it’s getting late, let’s head back.”
“Quick, before Kwadjo sees us,” Omar would whisper conspiratorially as we reached the block of flats, and we’d all sneak our bikes quickly past the bottom right window of Rose Tower. My parents had lived in Rose Tower since before me or my younger brother, David, were born. Each block of flats in the area had a beautiful name. Daisy Tower. Buttercup Tower. Sunflower Tower. Bluebell Tower. Perhaps the council thought that the names would influence the place – that it would dull the smell of cigarettes and alcohol that filled the stairways, or that it would mask the always-broken lifts and always-peeling paint. 50 Rose Tower sounded like a fairy-tale address but the building left much to be desired.
Kwadjo, the object of our avoidance, was another man of legend. He had one green eye and one light brown eye and he walked with a slight but urgent limp. He never really smiled but he never really frowned either; he was what I imagined true neutrality looked like. Every day we would go to the park behind our house and every day he would come to the window and water his plants, and talk to himself – no doubt, in the minds of four 10 year olds who didn’t understand eccentricity, incantations he was using
to curse the locals into giving him what he wanted. Everyone would speed up when they got to Kwadjo’s house, and the same legendary rhyme would ring in their ears. If you see the man with two different eyes, say a prayer and look to the sky.
“You know, they say Kwadjo was one of the Cotton Socks Boys,” Omar told us once as we wheeled our bikes back. “It was his idea for them to take their shoes off and run from the police when they stole the money to make them silent.”
“No way,” I had laughed, and Omar shrugged faux-sheepishly.
“I don’t know for sure, I wasn’t there. But have you ever seen the guy wear loud shoes?” And from then on, we were all forever avoiding Kwadjo’s eyes and looking at his shoes.
On the other side of the flat doors, also on the bottom floor was Dionne. Dionne was in Omar’s year and she had the shiniest hair I’d ever seen. White teeth that shone bright against dark skin. She was everything four ten year old boys knew about beauty, and we imagined she and Omar were in love. One time Yusuf asked him and he’d snorted, putting down his playstation controller. “What does a ten year old know about being in love?” he laughed, picking Yusuf up and tickling him. Yusuf squirmed and
struggled and dropped to the floor, convulsing in fits of laughter that spread to the rest of us. In the ensuing chase, we forgot that the question lingered unanswered. Of course he loved her. You only kissed people that you loved, that’s what the movies taught us. And Omar kissed Dionne all the time.
Anyway, this was how it was from when I was seven to when I was ten. Summer was always the same. Days were always endless. Time was always bending. The chips were always good. We’d follow Omar the way the animals must have followed Noah onto the ark, sure of salvation. I’m stressing the metaphors here (biblical – can you tell I went to Sunday school?) to say that Omar was everything that we knew about being teenagers and being cool. This particular legend, the legend of this story, in which Rose Tower began to fall from the sky, would be impossible to tell without Omar, but equally impossible to tell without Tunde.
Tunde lived in the flat opposite mine. The first words I ever heard him say were let me carry this for you and I think in some form he was always saying that forever after. He wanted to help everyone – he carried the shopping bags for mum, he got the post for our neighbour, Mrs Olatunji, he even got peppers from the market for Kwadjo, unbothered by the man’s strange behaviour.
I remember the day that Tunde told my mum he had a girlfriend – it was the same day Omar had explained a book he was reading to us– The Three Musketeers – and we’d all scrambled to figure out which ones we were. Turns out there were actually four musketeers, a fact which pleased the four of us greatly. We were talking about their names, and I had happened to mention hers in the ever-growing list of strange names
“Her name is Princess?” Caleb said in disbelief and I nodded.
“Tunde said she’s a hairdresser. Aunty Zena doesn’t like her though. She acts like she does, but she always kisses her teeth behind her back.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Jacob whined. “Kwadjo is always kissing his teeth at nothing. Like, there’ll be no-one around and he’ll be kissing his teeth.”
“Yeah, but Kwadjo’s just weird, innit,” Yusuf said. “Have you seen his eyes? They’re so weird, man.”
“Heterochromia,” Omar said lazily from where he was lying on the floor by the bench, letting his chest rise and fall as he stared up at the sky. His arm was strewn over his face to protect from the sun, and he was fiddling with a tennis ball he’d found around his house days earlier. We all looked over at him from our hierarchical positions on the climbing frame. I was second from the top – of course, Yusuf was only at the top because
he was related to Omar, and Omar was the undisputed king. Even at this age we understood nepotism.
Jacob snorted from the bottom rung.
“Yusuf, what’s your brother speaking gibberish for?”
“It’s not gibberish,” Omar said leaning up on his forearms, and facing us. “It’s science. That’s what they call it when you have two different coloured eyes.”
“So he’s not cursed?” I asked and Omar grinned.
“Nah, he’s definitely cursed. Why else would he willingly cut his hair like that? All lopsided and everything.”
“I don’t understand,” Mum was saying to Tunde when I got back home. “Tunde, what time do you have for a girlfriend in your house? Is that not a distraction? Why don’t you get your degree first and then she can move in? Where are you rushing to?”
But I love her.
You can’t love her later?
No, ma. She has nowhere else to go. And I love her.
Then mum shrugged and said, “Well, it’s your own. I have said my own.”
A month later Princess moved in with him and his roommate, Emeka. It didn’t take long for Emeka to move out though – he got a job in West London and moved in with his brother there. So it was just Princess and Tunde in 49 Rose Tower, with only each other to look at every day.
I should mention Princess didn’t have a job. Nah, actually, that’s not fair. She was a hairdresser without a salon, so people had to come to her. Sometimes they did. Sometimes Princess just sat at home all day, in the silence of their flat, looking at letters with someone else’s name on them, in a flat she didn’t own, waiting for a man who wouldn’t marry her. Even though he’d moved in with her, he still took what mum said to heart. Get the degree and everything else can come later. Tunde wanted to be an
engineer. Princess wanted to be an engineer’s wife.
I’d walk downstairs every day to meet Omar and Yusuf and Caleb and Jacob, and Tunde would be in the doorway arguing with Princess about what time he got home the previous evening. They’d quieten down whenever they saw me – they probably thought I would snitch to my mum about their relationship if I saw anything, but I was just ready to go meet the boys. Besides, their relationship snitched on them more than I ever could.
Tunde had wanted her to make friends with our family, but it didn’t take. Princess was too loud, she was too rude, she was too much like the village girls my mum and aunt had worked hard to leave back in Nigeria. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t educated it was that she didn’t want an education. They had nothing to say to each other apart from good morning. Even my dad, as absent as he was, and as jovial as he was to everybody,
knew to stay away from Princess.
After a while, Tunde wasn’t much better. School in the morning, working at a security firm in the afternoon; by the time he came back all he had to say was hello and goodnight.
First Princess was confused and then she was sad. And then she was angry.
Fam. When I tell you Nigerian girls invented anger. Jeez.
Princess knew exactly how long it took Tunde to get from school to work to home, and if he walked in the door a minute late, she wanted to know why. Tunde was a proud man (Did I bring myself to this country, or did she bring me, he’d yell to my dad on the evenings when they’d had a fight so bad he had to leave) so she’d ask him questions and he’d shut down. After all, did she pay for anything in the house? Maybe she’d do someone’s braids once every two months and collect £40, but wasn’t Tunde putting food on the table every day? He’d tell her she needed to relax with the questions and she’d tell him he was a stupid mongoose destined to be an eternal student. Nigerians are imaginative with the insults like that.
Tunde and Princess fought, man. They would scream at each other from the moment Tunde walked in to the moment he walked out the next morning. Back then I didn’t know that love could be glamorous or kind or patient. From my parents all I knew was that Love was indifferent. Love sat five feet away from itself, in silence. It ate jollof like there wasn’t anyone else in the room.
Then Princess moved in with Tunde, and love changed. Love was sweet at first, and was always happy to see you. Until it wasn’t. Then it fought and screamed and woke the neighbours up, and held your front door open so Hate could come in while Love quietly slipped out and you never noticed the difference.
Then, one day, Hate wrote a legend that would make us forget all about the Cotton Socks Boys.
“We shall not, we shall not be moved!” We sang in a chorus from the climbing frame. Omar sat opposite us by the bench at the entrance, and he watched in entertainment as four young boys refused his simple request of returning home for the day. Yusuf had spearheaded the song, and pretty soon all four of us were singing at the top of our lungs, as Omar sat back, bemused at our deluded belief in our own power.
“Is it?” he called. “How are youse lot getting home then? Yusuf, you got house keys now?”
Yusuf glanced at me, wavering for a second but our resolve was strong. If we went home now, we wouldn’t get to hang out again for days – Omar was going with his father to visit their uncle in Manchester.
“Oi, listen,” Omar said, finally standing up, clearly having had enough of our songs. “Anyone who’s not ready to go in five minutes, you’re forfeiting your chips.”
“What’s a forfeit?”
“It’s when I eat all of your chips. Chicken too,” he announced, then clapped his arms. “Come on man, sharpish, I’ve got things to doooooo.” He dragged the end of the word out and we all begrudgingly got off the climbing frame.
As we rode our bikes back, the sound of yelling caught our attention. We all stood staring up into the sky, hands raised against the sun looking for the source of the disembodied voices.
Omar saw the source first. He looked over to me.
“Hey, Marcus, let me walk you up, yeah?”
The lift was broken, so the walk up to my floor was long but Omar didn’t complain. We didn’t speak really – Tunde and Princess were yelling enough to drown out any potential conversation.
As we got to my door, Tunde was leaving his own. He glanced at us once, then shook his head and carried on down the stairs, too annoyed to even try the lift. I looked to Omar, who wiggled his eyebrows as if to say how weird was that. I laughed, and Omar knocked.
Mum opened the door, and if she was surprised at Omar accompanying me up the stairs she didn’t show it.
“Thank you, Omar, you’re a good boy,” Mum said in the tone she always used to address other people’s kids. She glanced towards Tunde’s door, and ushered me inside. “Some people don’t respect themselves. How can you be living like this? For what?” she said, shaking her head. Omar shifted uncomfortably.
“I can’t take the boys to the park tomorrow, Aunty Uwa. My dad and I are visiting family.”
“Ah, it’s okay, my son. It’s so good of you to look after the boys during the holidays. I know you’re a busy boy.”
“It’s okay,” Omar said with an easy shrug. “I don’t mind.” Then he disappeared back down the stairs.
It was two days after that the event happened. Like I said, this was the story of Tunde and Princess, and two days after this things reached boiling point. Why, you ask? After all the arguing, all the insults, what finally made Princess snap?
A bloody laptop.
You see, Tunde, the eternal student had decided enough was enough – he was going to get that degree, get a job befitting of a graduate and maybe even marry Princess. He was going to get serious about his education. But to do that he needed to stop with the internet cafeé shit and buy himself a laptop.
I don’t know the specifics of the argument – all adults who were involved as witnesses have different versions of the story, but apparently Tunde had told her he didn’t have any money because he spent it on the laptop. He didn’t ask before he did this because it was his money after all. Then she, finding this unacceptable, had grabbed it and held it out the window and Tunde had started yelling. He opened the door and called for my parents, who came out expecting a fire. I followed them, also expecting a fire, and having never seen one.
The scene could not have been better if it had been painted. Princess, arm outstretched, the thick 2004 laptop dangling from her perfectly manicured fingers, the breeze from the window blowing her hair back. Cut to Tunde, standing on the other side of the room, hand outstretched, as if he could grab the thing from where he was stood. Cut to my parents, watching in horror, wanting to intervene but unsure of the best way. Cut to me, at the edge of the frame, sneaking in behind them, too young to see this iteration of Love. Cut to a long shot of all of us, frozen.
No sound. At least, I don’t remember the sound. I don’t remember much of what happened in the moments before she dropped it. Only that she did.
We all watched as the laptop flew out of Princess’ hands and if my stomach could have risen out of me, flipped and dropped again it would have. I see the moment and I wish I could have moved, could have caught it…but it’s too late. Already it’s flying out of her hands, already it’s soaring through the air, and Tunde is yelling and the laptop is crashing to the ground and Dad is running to the window, and the legend is forming
before our eyes.
Rose Tower is falling from the sky. I see the moment of the legend in my mind a lot.
I never see it from below, though. That’s where the real action was.
You see, at that same exact moment, Kwadjo is watering the plants in his ground floor apartment, and Dionne is leaning out of her window on the other side, and Omar is riding up with his bike, about to collect his young squadron for their daily chip stroll. Had he not slowed to see Dionne, to flash her the estate-famous smile, he probably would have been knocked out by the rapidly speeding laptop cutting through the sky. But as it happens, he was moving so slowly, riding up and not sitting on the seat, so
when the laptop hit the ground next to him and shards of glass flew into the wires and into his arm, he was only partially thrown off. It was the falling that did it though. An awkward fall onto the ground onto shards of glass that broke his leg in two places. Dionne screamed. Tunde screamed. My mother screamed. Omar groaned in pain as his wrist snapped out of place and his leg took on damage. The legend formed itself. Rose Tower is falling out of the sky. Check your head before you walk under it.
I don’t remember how I got back into my own flat, in my own bed. Maybe Zena came and got me, maybe mum yelled until I disappeared back in, but in my next conscious moment, I was sitting in the room I shared with my brother, watching anvils fall from the sky in Looney Tunes, trying to figure out why my heart was beating the way it was. At some point, I heard an ambulance in the distance but I was already drifting to sleep. I dreamed about the park in the summer and saw a man in cotton socks sitting patiently underneath the swing. He turned to me and smiled toothily and when he spoke the words caught on the wind and drifted away. He glanced to the sky and looked back at me and when he did, two different coloured eyes stared back. One green and one brown.
I picked up my bike to ride away, but suddenly the earth was shaking, and I was shaking and it was my mum, shaking me awake. Omar had been taken to the hospital. He was fine but she was going to make him some food and take it over to Yusuf’s house, and Aunty Zena was going to look after us while she was gone. Rose Tower is falling from the sky.
A few days later, Caleb, Jacob and I were riding our bikes back home from the park, but now we were aimless. There had been no chips. No legends about the Cotton Socks boys. As we were coming up to Rose Tower, something made us slow down. Maybe it was the screams of Dionne, Tunde, my mother and Omar all ringing in my ears, but suddenly I was dismounting and looking up to the sky for falling objects.
By the time we reached just outside the door, we’d all stopped talking. There, on the cracked, discoloured pavement was the remains of The Days Before. Broken laptop pieces were strewn about, though the crucial components had gone.
We looked down at the broken parts, and Kwadjo laughed, the disembodied sound catching on the wind as we looked over to him. His smile was wide and toothy and he leaned out of the window on his thin, bony arms.
“You see how they picked it apart? Took all its parts and left the base? These people will take anything, you know!” He cackled again and looked up at the sky. I gripped the handlebars of the bike tightly and swallowed uncomfortably, before I began to push the bike up the small incline away from the park. “You boys check your heads always, you understand?” Kwadjo called after us. We wheeled our bikes faster.
The day I went with mum to visit Omar as he got out of the hospital, she’d sat me down and told me sternly that I wasn’t to say anything about how he looked, or ask anything about the surgery and definitely couldn’t mention The Cane. I nodded along, eager to see the leader of our gang. Abandonment had started to weigh heavier and heavier and all I
wanted to know was when he’d be back. I’d even been to the shop to get his usual six wings and chips, and now I was clutching the red box, still warm from bossman’s fryer, ready to present it to Omar. I knew he’d like it. He’d grin and douse it in ketchup and start telling me stories about the hospital and other legends about the Cotton Socks Boys.
Omar, who always manoeuvred us onto the inner side of the pavement. Who always made us ride ahead of him, and lined us up before he could give us all our chip boxes. The big brother we all shared, bonded by experience if not blood.
He didn’t grin. He didn’t douse it in ketchup. He didn’t even look at me as I came in.
He had been set up on the sofa by his parents, installed with blankets and pillows onto which to elevate his leg. His wrist was in a cast, and the right side of his face was all cut up, and grazed. There was a line of stitches right by his eyebrow. But the thing we noticed first was the scowl – a now seemingly permanent fixture that had apparently appeared the moment the doctor had produced the cane he would be forced to walk with for at least the next couple of weeks. No more bike rides. No more seeing Dionne. All because of a laptop.
Instantly, my mum goes to his mum, who busies herself cleaning things around the house. My mum hands off the dish of food, and his mum gratefully accepts. Seamlessly they move towards the dining table. Omar doesn’t look at me, doesn’t even seem to register me or anything outside of the TV show he’s watching. He has a look I’d never seen before. Perhaps anger. I’d never seen Omar get angry. Maybe this is what it looked like.
Hesitantly, I stepped forward.
“I brought you some chips,” I said in my meek, ten year old voice. Omar looked at me then, with emotionless eyes, before his gaze flitted down to the red box I put on the table beside him.
“Thanks,” he said, but his voice doesn’t believe it. Neither do my ears. I look at Omar’s mother, who has come back over and shifts uncomfortably before going to sit down next to him. She looks smaller somehow, even though to me she’d always been 100 feet tall.
Omar’s mum stroked his head. He jerked his head away, like her touch burned him. He looked away. She sighed, the love in her eyes wasted on the back of his head. Let me carry this for you. He turns the volume up on the TV.
After a couple of hours of nothing, mum and I head back home, and I dreamed of the park.
That night mum announced that we were moving. Just announced it, like it was nothing. Like she wasn’t breaking up the Knights of Deptford Market, as if we hadn’t just lost our King Arthur and could afford to lose Lancelot too. (Yeah I was definitely Lancelot, I worked it out. Yusuf was Percival. Caleb was Galahad. Jacob was all the other ones, I guess.)
I had to tell the boys as soon as I could. We had still been going to the park, although our mums would only let us stay for an hour – and there was no walk to the chip shop. Mum seemed to cover up her dislike of our journey by sending me on errands. This time, it was to get peppers for Kwadjo – since the incident, Tunde had been otherwise occupied and had apparently forgotten to get him some from the market. I had worked it into my
journey back from the park.
When I got there, they were already around.
“Is Omar okay?” Caleb asks me. Nobody is sitting on the climbing frame. I shrug.
“I think so. I don’t know.” I shifted on my feet. “I’m moving.”
No-one spoke. We sat in silence for a while until our allotted hour of time was up. I picked up my bike and rode to the market.
“You got something for me, boy?” Kwadjo said from where he was sat outside the block as I rode up. He’d brought out an old looking deckchair, apparently to watch the estate and had placed a CD player next to him. It blared tunes in a language I didn’t understand. Silently I walked my bike over and handed him the bag of peppers. “You’re a good one, you know. Tell your mother I said thank you.” He put the peppers down and seemed to
produce a half-peeled orange from nowhere. “Something new with you?” he asked me. Kwadjo never asked us anything.
“We’re moving,” is all I can think to say and Kwadjo peers at me strangely for a moment, so long it started to look like one of his eyes was shining brighter than the other. Then he shakes his head, looks back down at his too-bright orange and continues peeling.
“Your mum thinks she’s clever. But the sky falls everywhere, no matter where you are, you understand? Things always fall from the sky.” He looked at me like he wanted an answer, on his faded deckchair throne.
I didn’t know what to say so I just wheeled the bike on.
The next time mum goes to visit Omar with food, I steel myself for what lies ahead. I had convinced myself that he only needed reminding of the legends of Deptford. He only needed cheering up, and what was a musketeer for if not to help those in need? That’s why I brought another box of chips, took a deep breath and told him what I’d been thinking about all week.
“I think it’s under the climbing frame,” I said finally. Omar frowned at me, face still emotionless.
“What?” he said, his voice dry. The TV was still blaring in the background, a show that Omar wasn’t watching. He had barely said three words since the accident apparently, not even to Yusuf. Instead, Yusuf just hung around waiting for his brother to go back to the guy he was, to jump up and throw away his cane and declare that it was a day for eating chips and riding bikes. But he didn’t. He sat in front of the TV and watched
Deal or No Deal.
“The Cotton Socks Boys’ money. One million pounds. I think it’s under the climbing frame. I had a dream…” I trailed off.
Omar looked at me, and his eyes didn’t light up with adventure. His was the voice that launched a thousand missions, and yet when it spoke this time, it was full of something else. Disdain. Anger. A final realisation that the 16 year old mind was above the 10 year old’s.
“It’s just a story, Marcus,” he said finally, and looked away back to the TV. “Someone probably did that as a fucking joke.”
I dreamed about the market when I got home. In the dream, the man at the till had a massive bald spot and when he turned around to get me the peppers it only seemed to grow. “Come again,” he said in the dream, though his voice didn’t sound like his at all – it was strange and distorted. He handed me the blue bag when he said it, and he was making bare eye contact and it kind of looked like one of his eyes was green and shining brighter than the other, but my bus was coming, so I thanked him and made my way home.
I know right.
Maybe I’m projecting, but swear down, when I see him in my mind, I see two different eyes.
Anyway. That was how the legend of Rose Tower falling from the sky started. Of course, in the coming years, the legend would become that the building was crumbling, falling apart and killing those who were undeserving. If you walk under Rose Tower watch your head. Rose Tower is falling from the sky.
In a year my parents would be divorced and I’d be sitting in a cinema watching a
Shrek film with David while mum changed the locks. Yusuf and I would stop speaking. I’d never hear what happened to Omar and Dionne and Kwadjo. I know about Tunde though.
Aunty Zena came home from church one day and told us she heard he had a heart attack. He’d broken up with Princess as soon as The Event happened, and she’d been arrested and let go for some minor charge. She moved out and got on with a hairdressing business. Life moved on I guess.
The last day of summer, mum had made me take David to the park with me before she came to pick us up on the way back from work. The last thing I wanted to do was go to the park with my little brother, but he’d been inside watching Looney Tunes all week with Aunty Zena and it was driving her crazy. We walked down to the park together, him buzzing with energy, me feeling melancholy. I didn’t know that was the feeling at the time – melancholy is a big word for a ten year old. All I knew was I didn’t
want to be there.
When we got to the park, David ran to the swing, and I drifted towards the climbing frame. I looked at it for a moment, in all its discoloured glory, before walking towards it and slipping underneath it. On the bottom of one of the rungs someone had carved something. CSB. And an arrow pointing down.
“Marcus,” David’s singsong voice came out behind me. “Mum said you have to watch me. I can’t go on the climbing frame if you don’t watch me.” It’s just a story, Marcus. I sighed, and pulled myself out from under the climbing frame. I stood up and dusted my trousers off and then gestured to his backpack. “Give me that,” I said, tapping it. He slipped the heavy thing off his shoulders and ran ahead of me freely. I slipped one arm through the strap and let it hang off my shoulders. Then I sat down on the bench opposite and waited for mum to come pick us up.
Oluchi Ezeh is a recent English Literature graduate from Oxford University. She worked as the first Film and Theatre Editor for Onyx Magazine, a magazine for African and Caribbean students intended to encourage participation in creative fields. She has also worked in theatre as an assistant director and an actress, performing in Ntozake Shange’s ‘For Colored Girls’ in Oxford, and is currently working on other writing projects. This is her first short story. Twitter: @Olu30
1964: the year his marriage ended. The year his record stopped spinning, the needle in his groove lifted haltingly, and with a snap returned his tone arm to its cradle.
He had never wanted Marilyn. Not her prim-girl curls hot-combed into place on her head. Not her full-moon face so earnest that the sight of it irritated him. He hadn’t wanted to hear, I’m eight weeks gone! We have to marry, the corners of her mouth drooping. He hadn’t wanted the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, his signature and hers in the register (but he had wanted the tonic mohair suit that made him look like a prince). He hadn’t wanted to live in rented rooms above a shop, with Marilyn asking, But where will the baby sleep? He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had come to England to find work, to do something with his life, to send photographs of his handsome Jamaican self back home to his Grandma, make her proud. Dear Granny, I hope that when these few lines reach you they will find you well…
You’d think, having worked for 40 hours a week standing on the platform of a Routemaster trundling from Tottenham to Victoria and back again, and back again, with him turning the handle of the ticket machine to give out tickets, and the English dropping coins into his hand because they don’t want to touch his skin, that he would be able to spend a little bit of the money he’d earned on himself. Indulge in a little flutter on the horses after work. Buy a new shirt, some smart shoes from Reuben’s near Bruce Grove. Take a trip to R&B record shop in Stamford Hill to find the latest jazz and bluebeat cuts. You’d think that would fine and fair. It wasn’t as if Marilyn was a housewife earning no money, though she was only a student nurse. But Marilyn said it wasn’t fine, or fair. She asked, Have you paid the rent? The water rates? How much in the bank now, in the savings account? You home late, you been in the betting shop? Have you?
Team Spirit thundered home and made him a winner. So this is how it feels to be a rich man, if only for a day. He celebrated by buying drinks in the local for all his workmates, and then left them to catch R&B before it closed for the day. He wanted to get his hands on The Cat, and paying for it with some of his winnings would make buying it all the sweeter.
On the way home he thought about Marilyn. He thought about her puddin’ rice, her corned beef and cabbage that always lacked seasoning. How she liked to wear calf-length skirts, thick tan tights and flat brown brogues. How she preferred to read novels rather than watch television or go dancing. How she’d had to stop going to church once her bump started to show and the congregation began to whisper, How she get so big so soon when they only been married a few months? How she missed her father, and made it clear that he was no match for that upstanding Trinidadian pastor. How she never, ever spent money on anything that wasn’t essential because she was saving, saving for a deposit on a house. How she would not, under any circumstances, agree to live in a flat provided by the London County Council. Picturing that moon-face, he wondered whether he would ever be able to like her, let alone love her and live with her for the rest of his life.
The Cat by The Incredible Jimmy Smith was a US import LP that cost the equivalent of one-fifth of his weekly wage. The sleeve was a conspicuous red, with a photograph of a black cat slinking into the foreground. When he got home he slipped it, still in its paper bag, into the record rack inside the radiogram.
Marilyn was revising for her nursing exams. He knew it was a delicate time for her, as the baby was due very soon. Leaving to give birth before receiving her certificate would spell the end of her career. He thought it best to keep his latest acquisition a secret for now, to leave it for a few weeks before playing The Cat when she was at home. He was looking forward to Smith’s smooth Hammond organ melodies keeping his thoughts company as the bus drove from one end of route 73 to the other.
Unfortunately, he had forgotten what a scrupulous cleaner Marilyn was. She had a forensic eye for dust and dirt. Her mother’s helper from an early age, Marilyn knew how to keep a home clinically clean. He used to watch from the comfort of his armchair as she dusted the corners of the ceiling, dusted the edges of skirting boards, dusted windowsills, their coffee table, their black and white television. She polished the brown teak radiogram, an extravagant purchase of his that she had actually approved of because it was an elegant piece of furniture in its own right. There was no surface in their home on which dust could settle for long. He really should have known that Marilyn would find The Cat, still in its tell-tale paper bag, sooner rather than later.
You! You spendthrift! You worthless so-and-so. What make you think your music and the horses are more important than the baby, than the house we need? You force yourself on me and now look at the predicament I’m in.
The tragedy was that Marilyn was standing right at the top of the stairs as she said these things. And the tragedy was that the features of her moon-face contorted as she spoke, her skin turning plum-tomato red, and it repulsed him. And the tragedy was that his blood began to simmer and it made his heart pump with rage. The tragedy was that the only woman he had ever really loved was his Grandma, not this woman, or any other. It was tragic that when he pushed Marilyn down the stairs he had only meant to silence her. He hadn’t meant for Marilyn to end up in hospital and miss her nursing exams. He hadn’t meant to bring about a funeral awash with grief and sorrow over a miniature white coffin.
And when he came home from work one Friday night to find a note on the kitchenette table saying that she had forged his signature, withdrawn all their savings and spent the money on a flight home to Trinidad, he was sorry for everything except Marilyn leaving him.
Sonia Hope is a North-East Londoner of Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage. She is a Jerwood/Arvon mentee (fiction) 2019/20, mentored by Nicholas Royle. Her stories have appeared in The Nottingham Review, Flash Flood, Flight Journal and Ellipsis Zine. She is the Librarian at the Heinz Archive & Library, National Portrait Gallery.Twitter: @soniamhope
‘Check the time and date properly on the ticket. I don’t want us getting a fine. I’m still paying off your brother’s overdraft,’ said Mum, as she pulled herself out of the car.
I was pleased they had come. When they called this morning, I thought they were calling to cancel. It being a Saturday and we all knew what usually kicked-off on a Friday night. The police were well versed to the goings-on. But here they were. ‘This is a Bengali area – Tower Hamlets. You know, there were race riots here,’ I said.
‘We had them too, in Southall, when you were little; Dad was there…they had to board up the shops,’ said Mum.
Dad strolled ahead. He reminded me of a lion assessing his new territory – West London boy checking out East-side. He had worn a kurta pyjama and his Nehru style waist-coat. Mum too had made an effort, freeing herself from the invisibility of the colour brown, a much-loved attire of the older Indian matriarch. ‘There’ll probably be food at this place. I hope so. Indian events are good like that,’ I said.
Inside the building it was reassuring to see other Indian faces of all ages, with a sprinkling of Caucasian folk. My theatre experience reversed, I thought. We smiled at fellow guests, acknowledging that we were all part of some secret. ‘Hola-Mela’ doesn’t really get much publicity in the UK, but it is a huge event in North India – a festival attended by thousands of Sikhs from all over India, which show-cases their martial arts and horse-back riding skills.
The screen came down and suddenly we were transported to a dusty crowded field in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. Watching a sea of Nihangs donned in their midnight blue loose cotton clothing, and their one metre plus turbans, adorned with Sikh symbols that could also be used as weapons, if required. ‘There’s Gill Chacha!’ said dad.
‘Is it? Is he there?’ said Mum with equal high volume.
‘SSShhhh. You’re making too much noise,’ I said, as I slouched low into my chair.
‘It’s him I tell you,’ repeated Dad.
‘I think it is, you know. He said he was going.’
‘Mother, will you please speak quietly. Are you even wearing your correct glasses?’
‘Nothing wrong with my eyes. It’s him. I wonder how he got there. Wasn’t he going to have a hip operation?’
‘Oh, there is again, did you seem him? Doesn’t he look smart?’ gleamed Dad.
‘I can tell these samosas are Bengali samosas. Our Punjabi ones are much bigger,’ said mum as she added two to her white paper plate and dabbed a teaspoon of chutney on the side.
‘You’re only saying that, cos I told you the area we’re in. You wouldn’t have guessed otherwise. Get a seat, I’ll bring you chai,’ I replied.
‘They’re not bad, these Bengali samosas. Isn’t that woman’s suit nice? Wished you’d made more of an effort. You look lovely in your salwar kameez.’
‘See Dad’s made a new friend.’
‘No doubt, your father will be telling the man his own Hola-mela experience. Go get me another samosa please, they’re not bad these Bengali ones, even if they are on the small side.’
‘See, good we went, isn’t it?’ I said, as I switched the kettle switch on.
‘Wasn’t that Black girl good. With her high kicks and sword carrying spins. She knocked the shield right out of that guy’s hands. She must do a lot of exercise,’ said mum, as she began unpacking her food drop.
‘Is the chai ready? We’ve been getting late phone calls …. did your mum tell you? …last night there were two young lads, came knocking at the door. Late it was…10pm. They ran off when I opened, shouting it was the wrong house.’
‘Is the number blocked? Did you call the police?’
‘Numbers were blocked. The police don’t do anything. They don’t care, said he’s an adult,’ said Dad.
‘That’s because you both keep letting him back in…. How many times? How much time… energy…. ’
You know what happened at Christmas. You saw it yourself. He got worse outside the house. What was the point? And all that money wasted, we’re still paying it off. Why can’t they just send him to hospital? Make him better.’
‘Because they can’t. We’ve been through this, Mum… and you supporting him… paying his debts…doesn’t help.’
‘Well at this rate there is no other way. Either he will be harmed, or he will harm. I don’t know how he can put so much drink away. I mean, we drank back in the day. But not like that. I found white powder in his pockets, you know. In a paper ball,’ said Dad.
‘He was surrounded by the drink, as a kid. That’s what happened. Your side, that’s all you lot did. Morning till night. Drink, drink, drink,’ said Mum, as she put her empty Tupperware into her bag and started reaching for her coat. My head was beginning to ache. I knew what was coming next. ‘I’ve lost my son.’
‘Mum, you know he’s not well. It’s no-one’s fault.’
‘How can it not be? He grew up smelling booze.’
‘See this is what she does. All day. Bloody every day. As though she’s the only one pained. What respect do I have when she’s screaming at me in front of him?’
‘Well, perhaps you should have thought of…’
‘Mum. That’s enough. Stop. Please.’
‘I know where it is. I’ll meet you there.’ With those words Dad had hung up.
That was a week ago. Now we were standing in an inconspicuous car-park, in front of a unit, that looked like a grown-up’s lego construction, that could be easily transported to other places as and when needed. I was sure the woman on the phone had said it was an old church because the words had immediately filled me with dread, thinking Dad would be inclined not to attend.
Dad had dressed up with a shirt, tie and blazer, the colour of the shirt complemented his turban. Appearances mattered to him, they always had. ‘A man must appear in the world as he wants to be respected. We’re descendants of a martial race: warriors.’ Those were the stories he had nurtured us with. Mother had her own stories. ‘Bone-idle-lazy and poor is your father’s blood-line.’ She had a point, to a degree, especially when there wasn’t enough flour in the house, and Dad would stride in with his mob on a Friday and Saturday night, after the pubs had closed, fuelled high with the brown liqueur dancing through his veins and gallant Punjabi folk songs blaring through his vocal chords. I could recall the record player, the needle poised momentarily inspecting the spinning record below like a general
inspecting a line of saluting soldiers in uniform. The next morning our front-room would be littered with record sleeves with the portraits of sturdy turbaned men, with a defiant index finger raised in the air imitating portraits of men before them who had gone off to battle, together with empty whisky bottles and glasses still aching from yesterday’s abandoned dreams.
But that was then.
Inside it was light. With colourful posters and messages on the walls. Welcoming. I looked for the politically-correct messages in other languages but didn’t spot any.
Dad and I waited, hesitant, not sure which of the rooms to enter.
‘Are you here for the 10am?’ a woman in her 50s, with soft blue-eye shadow, inquired.
‘I think so. Are you Daphne? Sorry, this is my dad,’ I said.
‘No, Daphne couldn’t make it. But she passed your message onto me. I’m Jane.’
We shook hands and followed Jane. I was no longer sure if this was a good idea. Daphne had said she would be here. Already, I sensed Dad’s interest waning.
We entered what reminded me of a classroom – many desks joined together with chairs. Dad and I unsure which seats were already allocated, sat to one side.
There were nine people. Majority women, apart from two other men and Dad, which made three – the Musketeers, the thought made my insides smile: one Indian and a Caucasian man, who made no eye contact. I was surprised, yet relieved to see an Indian face.
‘Hello everyone, a warm welcome, both to our new and existing friends.’ Jane looked our way and smiled.
‘Daphne couldn’t make it today, so, I will chair today’s meeting.’
Some of the women looked over at us and smiled sympathetically. I felt like an animal at the zoo and I wondered if they’d ever had one of our kind, at such meetings before?
Books were being passed round. I hoped it wasn’t the Bible. Not that Dad had any cause with Christianity – he often politely heard Sunday worshippers, at our front door, give their spiel, stood patiently waiting for them to finish, and then respectfully took what-ever leaflet they had, even though he told them at least ten times he had his own faith. He especially felt concerned for the Jehovah witnesses, wondering why they didn’t check the weather forecast, as they always tended to pick the worst weather to come knocking. He once made the mistake of inviting them in, for tea, out of the rain, and three hours later they were still trying to ‘show him the way’. After that our net curtains twitched a hundred times before we had the all clear to open the door on Sundays.
‘Please turn to page 45 – Chapter 4. Who would like to start us off, do we have any volunteers?’ asked Jane.
The room recoiled.
I remembered Mum’s words that we had to always sing for our supper, and I felt obliged to volunteer. But I didn’t.
Jane started reading and Dad had opened the book to the advised page number. He couldn’t read English well, and hadn’t brought his glasses, but he held the book open, as an actor wanting for his part in an audition.
I tried to follow Jane as she read, but my mind wondered back to bedtime stories with Dad. It was a book like the one I was holding now, perhaps slightly larger, that was used to hide a gun to assassinate the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. That was how my siblings and I were first introduced to the unforgettable story of Udham Singh. My eight-year old heart, like that of my younger siblings, was giddy from anticipation holding onto Dad’s every word, our duvet pulled high up to our chin, we lay as still as the blades of grass that refused to bow under the weight of early morning dew. As our bedtime story unfolded, we were right there beside Udham Singh, as he crawled out from under the bodies of the dead, as he searched for his family – we too knew what his anguish felt like, for had we not also, weeks prior, lost sight of our parents at Heathrow airport. We rooted for Udham Singh, as he plotted to take his revenge against British colonialists, responsible for the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Dad’s stories carried us away from our working-class streets, where Irish pubs blared out revolutionary songs late into the night, away from rows of sad looking houses, to Amritsar, to the golden temple/Harmandir Sahib that was built within holy water that we were told had the magical power to make all our problems disappear. I used to dream that the waters would heal my eczema. Now I was recalling our first family trip to Amritsar. Dad wanted us to see for ourselves what the British had done on the 13 April 1919. We had entered the court-yard, where the massacre had taken place. As I squinted in the hot sun, I tried to visualise where Udham Singh had hidden, for he would have been the same age as my brother then (9 years old). We made our way slowly, curiously, to the deep water-well, described in Dad’s stories, and we looked down into the dark water, our staring reflections scared us, as we thought we saw the ghosts of the children who had drowned, as they fled angry bullets – a swarm of deadly flying cockroaches. I had wondered if the bricks could speak what would they say? They still carried the gun-shot wounds, deep scars like chicken-pox marks that never fade.
Later we would proudly tell Dad how we raised our hands high in our history lessons, and informed infuriated red English faces that they were forgetting crucial details, educating them on stories they refused to learn, and with facts that stung their ears.
But that was all a long time ago. Our one and only holiday, all together. We haven’t been on a family holiday in a long time. Not since the disease.
Jane continued to read to the end of the verse. Dad waited patiently for the cue, and together in one synchronised movement we all turned the page, an army of albino-one-winged butterflies fluttered helplessly in the air.
‘Are there any sharings or reflections? asked Jane as she looked around the room.
Dad and I looked down, avoiding her gaze.
It was the Indian man that broke the silence.
‘I was reading this chapter during the week. It provided me with solace. It’s been a tough week… my daughter… she was doing so well…she had enrolled in an evening course…my wife…we all were so pleased…thought it would be a positive turn in our road… she dropped the kids over at ours…on her first day…, you know she was such a bright girl at school. So smart. Before she got sick…before the illness…she was going to go to uni…sciences, that’s what she said ‘not enough female scientists’ …so she came over last week, dropped her twins off. ‘I’ll be back soon’, she said… ‘Wish me luck’…we haven’t heard from her since…been five days now…’
He had a gentle voice. Educated. I took in his demeanour. His blue sweater, the rimmed glasses, his slight parting, his carefully clipped finger nails. I took it all in, ready to feedback to Mum. ‘See Mum, the disease…it’s not just us, there’s others suffering too…it doesn’t discriminate.’
‘It’s hard, mate. It’s bloody hard. The demons come in. I’ve been there. There ain’t nothing you can do,’ added the English man.
I hadn’t expected the English man to respond first, or to sound like he did. His voice had a soft Geordie accent. He reminded me of a truck driver in a Yorkie chocolate advert, with his big bulky hands, and the belly of a man well practised dart playing.
The woman opposite me, with the white/grey hair tied up loosely in a French roll cleared her throat. ‘Thank-you for your sharing. I have a daughter too. She had her birthday last week. You know she never liked birthdays, ‘all that fuss,’ she said ‘for just one day’… No, she’s never enjoyed them. I love birthdays. You know…it’s a celebration isn’t it? Take some photos… memories… But even when she was a little girl, she didn’t take to them, even when she knew she would get so many presents … easier days… those earlier ones. I knew she wouldn’t want a fuss, I told her da… So, I thought I’d invite her for tea a few days before her actual birthday… you know just the three of us, her, her da and me. She’s been doing ever so well… and we just wanted her to know how proud of her we are. It’s been a journey…I made a cake, just a small simple one. I stopped baking years ago… no one to bake for… her da weighed the flour… my eyes are going, can’t see the numbers on the scales, so well… and we waited, thinking maybe she was caught in traffic. You know, the traffic up Hanger Lane can be brutal on a Friday evening. At first, we didn’t call… what with her driving… be dangerous… but then the hours went by… so we tried but the number… wouldn’t go through. No bell…’She probably hasn’t charged it’, I said to her da. The battery goes ever so fast, off these new ones… The 9’ O clock news came on, so we watched that, I had the volume down low, one eye on the door, so as not to miss the bell… Her da grew tired… he’s an early riser… I said I would be up, have another cup of tea, thought I’d look over the cross-word once more…there was no word from her…I eventually went to bed around 11pm, only to be woken with a call at around 4.30am. I didn’t know who it was at first. Thought I was still in a dream … didn’t recognise the voice ‘… is that you…Ma… Ma?’ and then it started, ‘Happy Birth-day… to me, Happy Birth…day to …’ ‘Lisa, Lisa is that you?’ I couldn’t find the lamp switch… I was fumbling in the dark… all the time hearing her sing… 34 now…20 years I’ve been coming here. 20 years… I have my own celebration here now… the anniversaries of coming…I would be lost if I didn’t have this place…’
I sat admiring how her eyes never once got watery. Her voice never faltered. Calm. Yet, I had had to bite my lip and blink hard, to push back the water gathering in my eyes. She turned her wedding ring, and then looked straight at me. I wasn’t sure if she expected me to respond. ‘How are you both?’ she asked.
Dad mumbled ‘Ok. Everything ok.’ I half-smiled. But she waited and so did the others in the room. I was suddenly conscious of outside sounds, the sound of a distant ambulance, as we sat in the silence. I had once wet myself in class, as a kid, and this was what it felt like, sat in my own warm piss, too scared to get up. ‘So…erm.. yeah, ermm… thanks to you all… errmm.. you know for sharing… your experiences… I’m sorry to hear about your pain… errrmm we can relate… in ways… erm.. well Dad… my dad and I… we’re here cos of my brother, who we love very much. It’s just…these last few years.. well things have gotten outta hand and …eermmm well… you see… we no longer recognise him…errmm it’s been really hard, you know.’ I searched their faces, hoping someone would stop me, as I knew I was going to start crying. I caught sight of Dad’s hands folded together, resting on the table as he circled his thumbs, something he did when he was nervous.
The woman with the French roll continued to nod and smile sympathetically.
‘Well, eermmmm… just we want my brother back, you know… to how he was… back to how he was … it’s been a long time… and well, I feel like my brother, my real brother… well I feel like we’ve lost him… forever. It’s hard… it’s really…. The person he is now… it’s hurtful. Cruel. You know…ruthless. It’s very hard…. For my parents. For him… for all of us I s’pose. And well, just I thought… we thought…. maybe… be good to come here… thank-you.’
And then I started crying and digging into my pockets in search of a tissue. The French roll woman immediately handed me one. I tried to not look at anyone, especially Dad. So much for being a warrior.
Let’s turn to page…72, said Jane.
She began reading, and I lifted the book higher to use it as a buffer from the faces in the room. Then there was a tin being passed around, a collection. Luckily, I had brought some change.
We held hands. Odd, I couldn’t remember the last time I had held Dad’s hand.
The meeting ended and then the woman with the French roll came over. She smiled, gently patting my forearm.
‘I hope you will consider coming again. It was brave of you to come today,’ she said. ‘It helps you know. You think it doesn’t in the beginning. But it does.’
The Indian man came over to join Dad.
‘Namaste,’ he said as he brought his hand forward to shake Dad’s.
‘Good to see you here. We don’t get many of our folk here. It’s the shame, I guess. We all blame ourselves, don’t we? Or western culture… or we did something wrong. I’m sorry about your son… There’s lots of anger…isn’t there? I used to get really angry… so much anger… I couldn’t sleep… eat…angry at everything. Everyone. Anger at my daughter. Anger at why she kept relapsing…. Why couldn’t she stop…. Why didn’t she want to be happy… make her family happy… her kids…anger at things… life… what happened… why?…always asking why?.. why us? why my family… my child. I never used to speak…. Not to my wife… not to anyone… just seething anger… All the time. It’s different now. I read now. Read these books… they help… help you away from the anger…’
‘Sorry about your daughter. But I’m fine. I have my God, you know. I don’t need this. I just came because she… my daughter says. No, no I’m ok. Really… I leave everything to God. I pray to God. I feel OK. He makes me OK. I only came because my daughter. No, this is a time waste for me… I’m OK. No, I don’t need this. Pray to God, everything be OK.’
I looked at Dad. Wishing he would stop talking. Things were not OK. So not very OK. We wouldn’t be here if things were OK. He wouldn’t have to repeatedly delete and re-enter postcode addresses, with his fingers too big for the letters on his phone screen and drive to countless spiritual-healers, completing never-ending rituals, if things were OK. As the sun rose, he wouldn’t be on the phone to his village elders in Punjab, urgently pleading for cures, quietly putting on his coat and softly closing the front door as he rushed to get the bus into town to send money via Western Union, silently praying ‘let it work this time,’ as he filled out bank details. If things were OK, he wouldn’t come around saying ‘He’s high, I see it in his eyes, he’ll kill me if I stay home tonight.’ I wouldn’t have to use my annual leave to sit in courts, or watch ticking clocks in GP waiting rooms, or hear my stomach rumble outside prison gates if things were OK, or write letters, so many pointless letters, to email addresses that bounced, to local MPs that never replied, to addresses of health professionals that were discovered in the early hours of day-break, as blackbirds too crowed their despair; or run to switch off the radio if a certain track was played that stabbed open my bolted memory chest leaving me haemorrhaging for days on end, if things were OK.
But I didn’t say all of that.
Dad and I walked towards the car. ‘It’s a time waste. Those people, sitting. Reading. Holding hands. They need to do something. Get an allotment. What’s the point? Reading, reading. Total time waste. I thought they would give proper help, a name of a doctor, medicine. Help. Proper help. They can’t sort their own kids out. How’s that going to help us?’ said Dad.
‘That’s not what they do. No-one can sort anyone out. No-one has that power.’
‘Waste of time. I don’t need it. Your brother will be fine. He will get better. God will make it better. God has power.’
‘When? When will that happen?’
‘In time. It’s in the hands of kismet. Let’s get home. I’m hungry. Your mum’s making samosas.’
Jameen’s arrival on earth fell on a New Year’s Eve as fireworks exploded above Crawley hospital, UK. She has since had the good fortune to live and learn in different regions of the world, while following her passion to strengthen justice and equality for women and girls and people living in poverty. She passionately believes in the power of story-telling as a connector and healer of people. She has previously published some of her poems ‘Dear Mrs Bhullar’ and ‘Mind the Gap’ and continues to seek opportunities that nurture her writing. She holds a Masters in International Human Rights Law. Twitter: @day_night200
The rainy season brought rumours. Whispers of poison after a mass recall of Indomie noodles. A girl in Form 3 reappearing after several months with family in Maryland, withdrawn. Lurid headlines warned of cults, front pages daubed with blurry corpses. There were mutterings that the pastor of the Shining Light Ministry had not succumbed to a brief illness as had been announced to his congregation. Suicide. A word breathed into neighbours’ ears along pews. They said the body would never have been found if the hyacinth had not bloomed so late.
When I met Ọláídé, I was on punishment duty. Nabilah’s doing. She was being particularly vindictive after we stopped speaking; becoming a prefect had gone to her head and she’d banished me to the field to cut weeds. The elephant grass was thick, itchy against my calves as I thwacked at stalks furiously. The cutlass was too blunt. Wet ground underfoot sucked at
my trainers, spat mud up my legs and spattered the hem of my skirt. I straightened up, and peered at the school building behind me, stark white against clouds that threatened showers. My classmates would be in the canteen by now, gossiping over fried rice, cool in the air conditioning. Taking a water-warped book and an apple from my satchel, I moved towards the shade of a flame tree.
‘Aren’t you on punishment?’
A girl was looking down at me, arms crossed, a pink chit crumpled in one hand.
I shrugged and nodded upwards at the chit. ‘What did you do?’
‘Nothing! Mrs Adeyemi sent me out after I fell asleep in English.’ She stooped to pick up the discarded cutlass, gingerly pinching the blade between her fingers. ‘Isn’t this like a health and safety risk?’
I stared blankly at her. Ah-day-ye-mi. She mangled syllables.
‘I haven’t seen you around, which year are you in?’
‘Form 6. You’re Ọláídé, right? Bísí’s cousin.’
‘She’s not my cousin.’
She let go of the cutlass and dropped down beside me, loosening her tie. Ọláídé’s skirt was several inches above regulation length and when she crossed her legs, I caught a flash of black lace. I pretended not to see. She picked up my book, turning it round to read the blurb. To anyone watching from the school, we might have looked identical: two girls in in uniform,
bent over a book, hair plaited neatly in cornrows.
We’d first caught a glimpse of Ọláídé the week before, running through the veranda before she disappeared into the chemistry block.
Ngozi and I had been bickering. We were holding court in the rec yard, leaning against a low wall that fenced the pebbled square. It was the best spot for people-watching. From our perch, we could see the intricate dance of groups eddying across the yard. Girls shrieking, parting and reforming; a rippling tartan-checked shoal.
‘It’s like Parent Trap,’ Ngozi had teased, flicking through a magazine. ‘Maybe you were split at birth, Fèyí. But they sent her abroad because she’s the fine one.’
Ngozi loved reading the tatty copies of Hello and Teen Vogue that were passed around the class, even though she went on and on about feminism in Civics. She wore her hair plaited up in two tight shuku, which gave her an air of permanent scepticism. I shoved Ngozi playfully but accidentally spilled Fanta on her pressed white shirt. Priya cackled.
‘What would Chimamanda say?’ she said in a sing-song voice. ‘Not very feminist behaviour, arguing over looks.’
Priya was the class beauty. Everyone knew it would have been Nabilah if she wasn’t so dark. I’d told her this last summer, before we fell out. She’d shaken her head, leaning in close to press her finger to my lips. I was surprised by a flush of warmth in my cheeks.
Seeing Ọláídé up close, I had to admit we did look similar. Same complexion. Both lanky, quick to scowl, with slim pointed noses. But like twins, no. Her eyes, wide-set above slanting cheekbones, were a colour I had only seen on television. Later Ọláídé would tell me, laughing, that they were contact lenses.
We didn’t have any classes together, so I invited her to do yearbook committee with me so we could hang out at lunchtimes. Ọláídé liked telling stories about London. Ngozi, like me, hadn’t left the country much so we drank it all in. During these sessions, Priya made a point of tapping out messages loudly on her Motorola, flicking her hair and laughing to herself. Once, in the middle of a story, Priya put down her phone and snorted, ‘Wait, you lived in Peckham?’
Ọláídé didn’t miss a beat.
‘Well we both live in Ikoyi now, so does it really matter?’ She continued, sweet as syrup. ‘Or will you be moving to the Mainland soon? I was so sorry to hear about your Dad’s legal troubles.’
Ngozi sucked her teeth. It had been in the papers but we didn’t bring it up. Priya’s lips thinned, and her knuckles were white where they gripped the phone. I thought she would hit her.
‘At least he’s not crazy,’ she said finally.
Ngozi and I watched her as she launched herself from the wall and stalked off towards another group. Ọláídé’s smile was needle sharp. Ngozi gestured at me to follow and I felt my chest tighten. Without thinking, I drew closer to Ọláídé. Ngozi looked between the two of us, her gaze resting on Ọláídé. It was like she was seeing something for the first time: the gleam
of a shark’s fin surfacing from dark water.
‘It’s true,’ said the driver. ‘Dem take body and use for charm. My brother see them snatch one girl in Nsukka, they only found–’
‘What rubbish. Abeg, Mr Solomon turn on the radio,’ Ọláídé snapped. She could sound very Nigerian when she wanted to.
We had been spending a lot of time together. After school, we would walk the twenty minutes to the mall arm in arm, gisting about the day. I’d never been one of the girls who haunted the place after school. Ngozi used to call them mall rats, rolling her eyes at the daily migration of the pack. Now, I taught Ọláídé how to hiss when conductors leaned out of danfos shouting, baby girl! Ibejí! She taught me to how to roll up my skirt; where to accidentally place a hand when we bumped into St Gregs boys at the food court. I’d seen Nabilah there once. She was with a group of prefects, queuing for ice-cream at Mr Biggs. I pretended to brush something from the shoulder of a boy who until then had unsuccessfully been trying to toast me. Encouraged, he puffed out his chest and made a show of paying for my suya. Nabilah was watching and I caught her eye. She turned away. Guilt soured my stomach.
Ozumba Mbadiwe was a river. Churning water the colour of Milo rose to knee height, soaking pedestrians unlucky enough to be caught in the wake of okadas that wove through the traffic. The jeep crawled through muck, front end dipping as it hit submerged potholes, cresting waves high enough that they splashed the windows. Goosebumps prickled across my arms as I studied Ọláídé, wondering if everyone from abroad was impervious to cold.
The traffic eased up as we hit the bridge, and I looked out the window to see the bloom of water hyacinth on the lagoon. Tendrils and vines snaked across the water, multiplying across its surface and transforming it into a meadow of shifting green. It looked like you could walk across it from one end to the next, easy as crossing the road.
And people had tried. Not there. Four years ago, on the Mainland. We were miles away but I was woken up in the middle of the night by my bed itching beneath me, the horizon lit up with white flashes, low booming louder than thunder. The radio blared broadcasts about bombs, our neighbours were screaming that it was a coup. Remembering the Abacha days Mummy dragged me and Daddy into the sitting room, kneeled down and prayed with a fierceness that brought tears to her eyes. Fleeing the flames, hundreds of people stampeded across what looked like scrubland in the darkness. In the weeks that followed, fishermen as far away as Snake Island hauled in schools of bodies in their nets, flesh sliding from bone.
Ọláídé lived on a tree-lined street in one of the older parts of Ikoyi. As we drove through the gate, I gaped at the house: four gold-veined columns fronted the façade, the portico’s roof intricately decorated with a relief of the crucifixion. A fleet of cars was lined up beneath sunbleached awnings, each covered by dusty tarpaulin. Water trickled from the mouth of a stone lion crouched in a large fountain. Things clicked into place. The only people who live like this are pastors and politicians.
The car stopped and I thanked the driver, hurrying to undo my seatbelt. Ọláídé had already slammed the door behind her and was running through the front door.
‘Mummy! I’m back!’
I hovered in the hallway, unsure whether to take off my shoes. Everything was shiny. A plump woman in a starched adire uniform tried to take my bag. She called me ma. More sharply than I intended, I refused and held my satchel tight to my chest. She looked old enough to be my grandmother.
Voices floated down the corridor, the clack of high heels on marble. I felt soft arms around me and I was wrapped in a cloud of scent. Cloying, like too sweet roses. And underneath that, something sour; a smell like hospital corridors.
‘Good afternoon, Aunty.’ I tried to disentangle myself and greet her properly, but she pulled me up.
She and Ọláídé had the same slanted eyes, the same heart shaped face. But something about her features was indistinct, like I was looking at Ọláídé through fathoms of rippling water.
‘My dear, don’t do that. You make me feel old.’ She pronounced every word carefully, as if she was trying to hide a speech impediment.
‘Mummy, can’t you stay?’ Ọláídé, wheedling, her arms crossed, petulance making her look five years younger.
The corners of her mother’s mouth twitched upwards, attempting a smile. I noticed that her wig was slightly off-centre and tried not to stare.
‘I’m going to be late for my appointment. Lovely to meet you, Fèyíkemi,’ she said, ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’ She floated down the hallway. The front door shut behind her with a gentle click.
Ọláídé showed me around the house, listing off the rooms with studied disinterest. Kitchen, guest room, dining room, games lounge, laundry room. She pulled me away from the study when I tried the door. I wanted to see more, but she insisted on showing me the garden. It was large, fringed by a low hedge dotted with bright red flowers. I listened to the rhythmic clip of shears mingling with waves that lapped against the jetty at the end of the lawn. The sound of horns carried faintly across the lagoon. And above that, a descant trill of bird song. I didn’t know Lagos could be so quiet.
Flame-like petals lined the path to the jetty, releasing soft clouds of scent when they were crushed underfoot. Gravel gave way to planks, half-rotted with age. Worn tyres were lashed to the jetty’s foundation, home to colonies of small fish that darted in and out of torn water sachets, fragments of coloured plastic and squashed takeaway containers that rose and sank
with low swells. We sat on the edge, thighs touching, and swung our legs out over the water. Ọláídé produced a packet of cigarettes and lit up.
Since the incident with Priya we’d taken to smoking behind the equipment shed at lunchtimes. Ọláídé figured that if we were ever caught we could say the smoke came from rubbish burning in the compound next door. It was one thing to sneak smokes in school. I’d never heard of anyone who would dare to do this at home. I would be slapped into the afterlife if Mummy knew what we’d been up to. Ọláídé seemed unconcerned and passed the
cigarette to me. ‘Did Emeng really knock her gateman?’
I laughed, ‘It’s knack not knock.’
‘Well I get points for trying.’
‘You’re so oyinbo, they didn’t teach you anything in Jos.’
‘I learned some things,’ Ọláídé smirked at me. I passed the cigarette back and she took a long draw, tilting her head back as she breathed out long coils of smoke. Then she blew a perfect ring.
‘Our dorm captain taught me that. She could be a real bitch, but she was cool.’
This was more forthcoming than she’d ever been about her stint in boarding school. We’d all assumed she was fresh off a plane since she joined halfway through the term, but she’d actually moved to Nigeria over a year earlier. Bísí had been tight-lipped when I’d asked about it in the canteen.
‘It was because of a family thing,’ she’d said, not looking up from her plate of puff puff. Bisi was fair enough to look Igbo, but had a thick Yoruba accent.
‘Is she actually your cousin?’ I’d pressed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girls sitting next to us nudge each other. The volume of their conversation dipped noticeably.
‘Ehn, but not by blood. Shò mó pé Jand people are so stand-offish. Her Mum married –’ She clocked the eavesdroppers and caught herself. ‘Shébì ọrè ẹ nì? Ask her yourself.’
I put the cigarette to my lips and didn’t inhale. I could taste Ọláídé’s strawberry lip balm.
‘Tell me something you’ve never told anyone before.’
Ọláídé looked at me, amused. ‘Like what, my pin code?’
I shook my head, ‘No. A secret.’
She was quiet for a long while, staring out over the lagoon.
‘My step-father didn’t die the way they said he did. In the news and stuff.’
I had figured that much out. The lion in the garish fountain at the front of the house was a giveaway. It was part of a crest that until recently had been splashed across billboards and posters all over the city. Always beside a bearded man who gleamed with the offerings of a devoted ministry – Rolex on his wrist, Bible in hand.
Ọláídé fingered the beads of her bracelet. I gave her a sympathetic squeeze.
‘People here…they don’t know how to talk about these things,’ I said, struggling to find the right words, ‘You know, mental issues.’
She gave a short laugh, ‘The bastard didn’t kill himself.’ Ọláídé waved at the house behind us, ‘Doesn’t all this tell you what kind of a person he was? He was the reason we left London. Mum wasn’t even religious. He was all smiles and presents when he visited.’ Her jaw tightened, ‘As soon as we moved here he started hitting her. I told him if he did it again I would kill him. That’s when they packed me off to Jos.’
There were clouds rolling in from the direction of the Island, heavy with rain. The wind picked up, carrying with it the scent of brine.
‘And did you? Kill him.’
Ọláídé lit another cigarette.
‘Tell me what’s going on between you and Nabilah and I’ll answer that.’
I froze. A spike of panic almost doubled me over. How did she –
‘Jesus, chill out,’ she put her hands on my shoulders, shaking me, ‘I don’t care dummy.’
I felt the tension leave my body. Ọláídé handed me the cigarette and I looked at my feet as I inhaled, not wanting her to see the tears pricking.
‘You know my Mum told me a story about the water hyacinth. How they got here. When white people came to the creeks, a long time ago, it pissed off the gods. Yemoja in particular.’ Ọláídé’s voice was dreamy, eyes far way. ‘These were her waters. They choked up her alters with stinking oil, and killed her fish. Polluted her temples with the blood of innocents. In a rage, she wept for forty days and forty nights. Her tears turned to vines that wove themselves across streams, rivers and lakes. Every year, she remembers the insult of the invaders and the hyacinths bloom again.’
‘Isn’t that like juju?’
Ọláídé sniffed at me, ‘You watch too much Africa Magic.’
And then the clouds broke, soaking us with warm rain. That night I would dream of the pastor, empty eye sockets trailing leaves, hyacinth vines ensnared around his suit. Of lagoon water filling a mouth that spat hate and fishes nibbling fists that broke skin. It was a sweet sleep.
Arenike is a London based writer who grew up between Lagos and the UK. She is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. Her writing is influenced by the work of Akwaeke Emezi, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Twitter: @arenikea