The first time I saw Shankey he was illuminated in a shaft of lightning. It had been raining for hours on end- brilliant London weather- and we were standing outside one of those West End clubs that are so popular on a Friday night. A queue was formed from the rather auspicious front doors- engraved oak- right around to Piccadilly Circus. Everybody was huddled under what little shade the building provided at the side of the street, cursing the rain as it pissed down in fits and starts, never enough to really be called a downpour and never less than a steady drizzle. He was standing a few paces ahead of me with a group of chattering oyibo friends, flicking a stylish silver lighter open and shut as if keeping time, his left thumb and forefinger holding a roll-up cigarette that he smoked in long drags. He was tall, taller than I am but a lot leaner. His hair was in an unruly shock of almost-dreadlocks and facial hair sneaked up and down his cheeks and jawline in scraggly dots.
I was inexorably drawn to his aspect, the length of his shadow stretched almost unnaturally as he leaned nonchalantly against the concrete wall, the angularity of his features in a washed-out t-shirt and skinny jeans, the rugged calm about him. Just as the queue was about to move, the rain picked up and he stubbed out his cigarette quickly, glancing round in that quick flash that I remember like a camera shot. I was caught by surprise, staring at him almost in awe, embarrassed but still unable to tear my gaze away from him. He sent me a shy smile, (or perhaps that’s how I choose to remember it) and lingered a moment longer than he meant to before he followed his friends into the club.
It took considerably longer than I would have preferred before I was able to get into the club. I was filled with sudden brio and anxious to start partying. My girlfriend at the time was a smoky-eyed brunette who did not stop complaining about the fact that we were standing in the rain when we could be sitting in the swankier South Kensington club she had been invited to by her pals from Cheltenham who were visiting for the weekend. She was getting on my nerves and I wanted to be in the heat of the club where I would not need to sweat her whiny-voiced shit. Once we were in, I spotted Shankey again, in a corner of the club that he had, inevitably (as I would come to realize) colonised with an infectious groove that tailed through the joint like wild fire. He was shirtless, sweat-or-champagne slicking his taut, muscular chest. A bottle of beer was in his right hand swinging, presumably empty, in tune with the giddy wholehearted jig he was performing to the wild funk blaring through the joint. A group of girls danced around him and egged him on, unaccountably overwhelmed by his shut-eyed mania. He remained in his own world until he opened his eyes and saw me, my cautious eyes darting left, right, left, and surprised me as only he can. He made his way through the sea of gyrating bodies whose excitement was a by-product of the energy he had been expelling so freely in his corner colony.
“What a night!” His corneas were the bleary yellow of drug abuse and multiple malaria survival. His smile reminded me of Lil Ze in City of God, toothy and dangerous but very intoxicating. I shifted uncertainly at the proffered handshake. I do not normally subscribe to these random shows of camaraderie that most young people seem to indulge in. Especially not from an individual who is comfortable with removing his shirt in public. But there is something about Shankey that inspires anyone who stands in his silhouette to embrace the out-of-ordinary. So when the insistent strings of Keziah Jones’ “Million Miles From Home” kicked off, I did not resist his arm around my shoulder, and though I was still contemplating what this really was, I was unaware that my feet were already dancing.
That was how Shankey and I became fast friends even though we were so opposite to each other. He was constantly garbed in clothes and styles that spoke of his somewhat bohemian nature. I shopped on the King’s Road. He was athletic and had tried out for the university football team only to give it up prematurely upon being awarded the first team’s number nine shirt for his goalscoring prowess (he complained that English boys kick the ball instead of actually playing it, whatever that means). I, on the other hand, laboured for months until I finally claimed the position of President of the influential Debate Society at the end of a bloody (if I may call it that) hustings. Nonetheless, he was a first-year undergraduate studying Pure Mathematics at University College London whilst I took classes in Literature and African studies a stone’s throw away at SOAS so we managed to spend a lot of free time together on impromptu lunch breaks, doing touristy things, double dating, or sneaking off to his flat for my guilty pleasure of the occasional roll of weed.
The double dating was particularly satisfying. Shankey almost always had some new hot thing on his arm as we took in London’s more interesting restaurants (which I happened to have discovered in my time as a young London denizen), the cinema (our favourite pastime), and music- especially music. Once in a while, Shankey would get us surprise tickets to underground gigs through his rather dodgy connections in the London subterranean music neighbourhood. On these nights, as we stood next to our dates, drinks in hand, swept along in the musicianship of the artists onstage, I would look over at Shankey as I will always remember him, head thrown back, every wanton dreadlock frizzing with unchannelled electricity, his lids closed over those near-jaundiced eyeballs and shoulders sticking through his ultra- funky dashiki in all sorts of right-angles. The passion for music that till today remains unsettling to my memory but utterly spiritual in its fervour, made sure he was always moving his hand over the silver flicker of his lighter in the air, keeping time. He was always keeping time. Flick on and shut. Flick on and shut. Once in a while, Shankey would be invited to perform with the artist we’d come to see and he’d stride on stage and toss his dashiki to the platform in a gust of vim that would, in turn, blow over the audience. He was recklessly breathtaking with a guitar in his hands, always improvising. Once, the only night we ever fucked the same girl, we’d watched The Best Man and he saw Quentin sling a box guitar onto his shoulder and string out a three minute riff. Afterwards, he did the same thing in front of a hundred and fifty people at Medicine Bar in trendy Hoxton, strumming out a harmony that was as sensuous as a bedroom whisper yet with enough power to draw in the guys too. The crowd went mad for him and cheered wildly while Shankey stood there, the afterglow of musicmaking burnishing his bare chest.
That was the day I saw her. A simple turquoise dress stretched across her back and tapered into small, shapely hips. I was still staring at her legs, the slight curve of her calves, when she turned her head and caught me ogling her. She smiled knowingly, a dimple standing out in her left cheek, and inclined her head towards where she was standing. I was not entirely sure if she could really be beckoning me but, for once, I did not hesitate. It wasn’t hard to ditch the dates. They were enthralled by Shankey’s performance and did not even see me slip away. I pushed past a group that had stepped back into the space at the back of the joint to gain more dancing room. So I could not see her anymore until I bumped into her unexpectedly. She laughed and pushed a few tendrils away from her face. I was breathless.
“You’re exquisite” I stammered out. It was not what I would have hoped to say, in retrospect, say if I had more time to plan out my words. Such an uppity compliment. But she just giggled shyly again, her lips parting over even white teeth, eyes sultry in black eyeliner. Then she turned around before I could say another word and began to dance up against me, her arms up in the air, bum against my crotch, swaying in perfect synchrony with the song. I felt as if she were one with the music (Ok I know that sounds stupid). Every supple movement of her waist enchanted me. I was heady with the scent of her perfume. Michael Kors. There was no one else in the room, just me and her, dancing to the careless beats of her heart, the swish of her cascading curls, the tinkle in her laughter. She turned around to face me, looking at me like she could see all the helpless thoughts in my head.
“Who’s your friend?” Shankey was suddenly standing there. The music had petered out and the band was plugging their album to the crowd. I hadn’t even noticed when the music stopped playing. Shankey’s smile was firmly in place, dangerous and intoxicating, the fires of an untold past incandescent in his eyes.
“Kara” She was smiling differently now, in that way that people often reacted when they saw Shankey. There was an indefinable quality to him that held your attention. He took her in quickly and flourished his hand, ever the showman. She did not look overly impressed by him. Again, maybe that’s what I have forced myself to believe. But I saw a kindred flame dance lightly in the darkness of her make-up. She turned to me, though the smile was for Shankey “I’m here most Fridays. It’s a really good venue for fresh talent. I love music. You should come again”. Her eyes crinkled when she lengthened the “o” in love and I fell for her as hard as I had ever fallen for anyone. She hugged me briefly and I watched her walk out of the joint, vaguely aware of the open-snap of Shankey’s lighter mimicking the heeled click of her dainty feet across the nearly empty hall.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Winter in London comes in fits and starts, like a crazy temperamental lover. She hangs around for a while and the world seems warmer and then she disappears for weeks on end in a bitter freeze. Weather women predicted cold snaps every so often through the latter months of the year and for a week or two, the temperature would dip inconsiderately, wreaking havoc on my tropical conditioning. My first winter here, a fever hit me one night without warning or build-up and, as the winter quarreled with London, disappearing into a swirl of clouds and chill, I suffered as my own temperature shot off upwards leaving me feeling like a hot water bottle. Luckily, I haven’t felt that badly since then. Actually, since I discovered the pleasures of swimming from Haruki Murakami. After reading the very enjoyable South of The Border, West of the Sun, I decided to find an indoor swimming pool, like Hajime. I started swimming regularly, looking after my body, eating right, all that shit. At least it’s kept cold fingers from tickling the brim of my nose every time it gets a little foggy.
It is quite typical that I should imbibe mannerisms from fiction, as I am constantly indulging in fantasies inspired strongly by my favourite writers. And very often I catch myself imitating characters that are a figment of literary creation. When I consume myself in my work and theories- if you can call the scribbled philosophies that I paste higgledy piggledy on the veneer boards in my room theories- then I am Lord Asriel, disdainful of the conservative world around him, vowing to rid it of enforced myth and controlled reason. When I skip classes, which is rare, this wanton act of rebellion is not simply a student’s minor skirmishes, but rather my Achilles impression- I fight, work only for my self, only in the hope that my name shall be passed down the ages, a legend, so I do not need to join Agamemnon’s ranks in obedient toil. However, when I swim, there is no fantasy, no delusion. I cut through the water like a dolphin, like it’s my home territory. I am sure I could even swim in the Olympics if I trained hard. I once read that a swimmer’s wingspan- the length from fingertip to fingertip when the arms are spread horizontally- is the key to his ability. Mine is two inches longer than my five foot ten inch frame. So I can cut through the water with zip and speed, the way I used to see my mother scissor through wrappers. Even when I was a boy, back in Nigeria, when we used to visit the village every Christmas (the Igbo Man’s great Christmas Pilgrimage) the local boys would call me “mammywater”. Mermaid.
Today, I brought Shankey with me. We haven’t hung out together much since the start of this year. Mostly because I’ve been playing the ghost, white-sheeted in endless applications for a PhD and in the innumerable pages of poetry I’d been writing recently. I hadn’t even been to our usual haunts. Especially not Medicine Bar. Not since before Christmas when I argued roughly with Kara. I’ve been waiting sanctimoniously, and very childishly, for her to apologise to me. It’s not like we ever spoke regularly to begin with but as the winter deepened, we started to have actual discussions, almost as though the weather extremities pushed us to each other for warmth. The week before Christmas week when it snowed, an unexpected frosted topping on the exaggerated jolliness that seizes London like all big cities in the festive period, I had to pick her up thrice from Oxford Street where she was temping because Transport for London was also caught in a seizure: Trains could not cope with the snow on the tracks (all three inches of it!) and the buses took so many detours that London was completely re-mapped in their wake. I was still painfully shy of her: my lungs went through constrictions that had nothing to do with the snow and in turn restricted my thoughts to her mouth, like a blossoming bud ripening in the wrong season, and all the more beautiful for it; her hands splayed across the heating vents on the dashboard, petite and almost edible; her beautiful eyes like precious stones, iridescent in that perfect face. Talking to her made the blood flow smooth like honey in my veins, every part of me full up with delight. It was very different from talking to Shankey who had little handle on what the hell I was talking about most times and said little in return unless we were joking and talking about sports or music.
With Kara, it was different. We talked about food- our love for salmon- and red wine, English boarding schools, literature and London and life. She told me how she played the cello, how she wished she could play it professionally but her parents preferred that she did something more exactly professional and pushed her into medicine. She made sure to hit Medicine Bar most Fridays and get leathered in a small- and shall I say ironic- show of rebellion against her conservative parents. It reminded me of my own premature uprisings. Because we talked about her parents, the conversation segued into discussion about our roots. It was yet another thing we had in common, both being Nigerian. But that, in itself, was not as pleasant or surprising a discovery as the other things. Nigerians are, to borrow the words of one uptight pastor who used to lecture in Sunday school back when I was in Nigeria, legion in London. So many of them and so clannish. A whole separate species or at least a different race from other blacks. Uncouth, nasty people. There is an interior society of ‘Diaspora Nigerians’ in London that socializes together, everybody in everyone else’s arses, literally and figuratively, keen to smell each other’s shit and keen to put it out for public display. Ever ready to humiliate each other and themselves, devoid of the logic of live and let live. In short, bringing the many-headed beast of Nigerian nonsense into London.
Anyway, Kara convinced me to attend a Nigerian party even though I told her that I had sworn off these vulgar, barbaric affairs a long time ago. Me and Nigerians don’t really mix but it was her best friend’s birthday and she’d hired out a small club in Knightsbridge which seemed understated and classy so I did not see any harm in going. Seeing the place, only the oval- shaped bar at its centre pointed to its glamour, draped as it was in elaborate pale glass panels and exotic lighting. The rest of it was a toned- down mixture of dark leather and wood. I shouldn’t have relaxed though. The guests proceeded, as is their wont, to erupt in backslapping ostentation that belies the poverty crippling their countrymen. The guys popped open magnums of champagne and bottles of vodka nearly as tall as the vacuous girls who strutted around, clinging to the popular boys and sucking all the common sense out of them with empty eyes and adoring mouths. Kara seemed to be having a good time though. The music was very sexy, bass heavy variations of earthy afro beat fused with approximated hip-hop. I won’t lie; I wanted badly to join in. I wanted to feel the soft of Kara’s buttocks rounding into my crotch again. I wanted her heat pressed against my flesh, our souls set free by the music on the dance floor, a widening gyre. But my contempt for these people, supposedly my people, was my hubris.
“Let’s go” I whispered roughly to Kara, my lips closer to her ears than necessary, my voice, naturally deep, rolling off her face in a husky pitch.
She turned round to me, red wine had lent her starry eyes a stronger twinkle. It wasn’t merriment that was twitching her thyroid gland though. She was responding to this new-sprung rugged possessiveness. Or at least that’s what she had sensed. Stupid me, I fucked up the moment.
“I hate…this” I gestured at the madding crowd, searching for some familiar sympathy with my dreary estimations of Naija people. I missed the crystal edge her hardening eyes suddenly acquired and mistook the flutter of her lashes for agreement. “ I just want to chill with you”. I’d never really articulated a desire for isolated companionship with her before then and something definitely flashed lightning bright in her eyes that would have fooled anybody, not just me. Men are always miscalculating women, and I am a man. I could not have seen the thunder that followed coming.
“Well, I hate this” She pushed me, slipped and steadied herself, the alcohol suddenly in direct communication with her senses. “You don’t want to chill with me; you want an audience, an admiring fan. You want someone who you can feed your endless cynicisms about life and the human condition. You want a sounding board.” Her voice flew up an octave at this last sentence, the last word coinciding with a drunken hiccup. I could not believe my ears. I had never seen this side of her, never known she felt so deeply about what I felt. I was touched that I was the cause of her vexation. But people were starting to stare and this made me indignant. I would not risk embarrassment in front of this ugly, gossip mongering mob.
“Let’s go” The rough in my voice was no longer sexy; it was a ridge-tailed dragon. I gripped her arm, belched flame. “What would your parents say of their darling medical daughter, with her airs, cavorting drunkenly with these, these muumuus” I spat out the last word with every ounce of Nigerian there was in me.
“But don’t you see just there that you are just the same as them? You are the same! Gossiping and bullying just like them. Only you walk around with this pompous inflated vision of yourself as a saint. Why don’t you go off then and find a cure for this poison you always talk about. Go off on your own, since you are Jesus and they are Pharisees” She was shouting by now and her eyes had darkened. I was backing out of the room, my coat still on my arm because I had not bothered with the cloakroom (give one pound away in a Naija party? Never). My gaze was steady on her quivering form, still lovely though she was shaking with passion and anger. “Yes go, go! You didn’t come here for me anyway. Just to prove to yourself that your judgmental views of Nigerians are correct, that you are better than them. You think you feel so deeply about me-yes I’ve read your ‘secret’ poems- but you’ve never said anything to me that didn’t involve yourself you selfish fuck. You’re so sure you know everything. Dude, you’re blind to a few obvious truths. You’re Nigerian, I’m Nigerian. NIGERIAN. My full name, FYI, is KARACHI!” And with that, accenting the beats to her name with their proper Igbo intonation, she stormed off to the toilets, leaving that wintry chill behind her that I will always associate with those memories. I ignored the slavering looks on the swarthy faces of the mob standing open-mouthed, suddenly presented with such juicy jist. This one would spread like a California forest fire. Things fall apart. Man did you hear about Kara, and how she ex’d that guy who thinks he’s oyibo? I angrily walked out, vexed at myself more than anything else.
“Brother,” Shankey’s voice parts the curtains of my reverie with that emphasised West African up-down syllabic stress pattern. I’ve been swimming for thirty minutes straight, lap after lap, thrashing through the pool in continuous unbroken rhythm. Now I rest on the edge, panting, immune to my surroundings, thinking faraway thoughts. “How much more will you think about her, man?” Even as he stretches the final word in the languid style of post- colonial English, I’m struck by the way we’ve grown accustomed to reading each other’s thoughts in so short a time. His hands are smacking against his chest in a samba rhythm and I know he’s thinking about music. Just putting the world in tune, and making it spin to his tempo. I notice he is dry. He hasn’t gotten into the pool at all but is content to sit on the edge making circles in the water with his feet like a girl. I lift an eyebrow at him questioningly. He smiles his toothy, infectious smile like a little devil and splashes into the water beside me, tickling me in the sensitive spot above the hips between muscle and bone. It is too much and I laugh wildly, my kicking legs making the water ripple in much larger circles than Shankey’s feet did. He jumps on my back now and the sudden body contact is slightly unnerving but I ignore it. For once I set aside my passive aggressiveness (Is that what Kara called it in her text message? Yep. And self-absorption as well. And ‘fuck- headedness’. I just love compound words) to things that other people apparently find normal. For once I am hardly thinking about those things that are always so damn penultimate in my mind, lurking in the background and narrowing issues into funneled prejudices. In the water, I always feel able to disconnect, to go with the flow. I won’t let today be any different.
I notice that Shankey is not his usual uninhibited self in the water. He is tremulous, even though he clearly can swim. I can see the surety in his arms. But his eyes betray a fear. Not fear of the water but linked to it all the same. There is a soullessness in his eyes. I think being close to the water seems to have unearthed something in him. Something he would have preferred to stay firmly earthed. He frequently swims up to me, alongside me, God knows why. I am a bit irritated by the unnecessary rubbing against my leg, accidental though it may be. This is part of why I never played rugby, this liberated homoeroticism. I get fed up and I climb out of the pool, somewhat wary of Shankey’s eyes on me.
We are in the showers now. The part of using the gym I hate. Men seem to revel in the splendour of their nakedness for reasons I am unclear about. They carelessly lounge about the changing rooms as God made them, dicks swinging, towels tossed aside as if superfluous. Shankey is one of them. He absently slaps his penis against his thigh, can you believe it, in a melancholy rhythm, eyes amber. We are in the showers now, and he twists open a faucet, his lean form resting morosely against the ceramic tiles, a rumble starting in the many-muscled wall of his torso, and traveling like a memory through his chest and throat until the water bursts out to lance his skin like remembrance. He turns the jaundiced eyes to me, and opens his mouth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
”I was just thirteen when they took me five years ago. They drove up in their army truck to my house, shooting bullets everywhere. Everywhere. My father had warned my mother that it would happen soon. The soldiers were always looting and killing ordinary people. My father was a maths teacher and a palm wine tapper. My mother was a basket- weaver. They were both a little educated and had decided I would get an education by all means available. So they worked hard and used all the money for school. That day, my father was teaching me long division while we ate. My mother had gone to the market. Just like that, they took everything. Two of them, looking like zombies, came in with these big, big rifles, shouting violently. One of them shot my father in the leg while he was shouting my name, telling me to run, and jumping in their way at the same time. The other one quickly grabbed me and held his gun to my head forcefully, spitting on me. Then his partner beat my father mercilessly, and pumped thirteen bullets into his chest and skull. I counted it, counted it in the shivers in his chest, counted it in the explosive sounds of the gun.
“I counted other things too. The chickens outside screamed as well. Kukurookoo! Thirty -seven times. My mother ran in. They had chased her away from the market and one soja pick her up from floor, smash am down. He flog am with him belt plenty plenty. I bin count the flogging. Twenty- three flogging na im him flog her. Then him tear her cloth sharp, comot him fat prick, him want rape am my mama. I remove eye, begin watch the roof to count the wood. The soja wey dey behin’ me rush me one dirty slap. Then him hold my head make I look my mama. I cover my eye with my hand. The soja daze me another blow sharp and remove my hand. So I watch the other soja. I no want close eye because I dey sure say the soja go see am, daze me another blow. So I begin count the head on my mama wrapper. One one two. One one two. Na my Granma head wey dey on top that wrapper.” He shakes as the tears flow into the water running down his face, crumpling into the wall as he lapses deeper and deeper into the past, his tongue searching for ensconced thoughts with the familiar Pidgin of his childhood just like a mother who shouts out pet names when calling out to a missing child. Then he sees my stunned look and tries to regain composure.
“After the first soldier raped her, the one behind me put down his gun. My mother was no longer resisting. Then he entered into her. One one two. One one two. Her crying was like music. She was not crying for the bastard with his thing inside her. She was crying for broken life, for sorrow, a different pain. Then they took me and threw me into the back of the truck where two boys were already lying down. The rest of the militia men were already running towards the vehicle, their blood lust satisfied. I heard the fire of the gun give my mother wings to fly to heaven. I heard her flapping. One one two. One one two. I even saw her, flying with the rest of the dead women of the village, into the goldness of the sun. Their wings were white and shining against their old clothes. Then the sun touched them and they changed to gold.” He paused briefly, tracing the tattoo mapping Africa on his chest with one finger. “They jumped into the back of the truck with us, in a hurry. Their eyes were strange somehow. Almost like the icing on Krispy Kreme donuts, you know, but very yellow. Their uniforms were torn everywhere and their cheeks were marked with black paint like if somebody slapped it on their faces. I have never been so scared in all my life.”
He is still against the wall and trembling slightly now as if he is cold. I am transfixed. I could not know what made him tell me all this now, but it is clear that he has been carrying the burden of this memory around like a dead weight, like an albatross around his neck. The water gushing from the shower head seems to me to be apt. A ruptured dam of emotion crashing through its boundaries. I know that sounds a bit poetic, but that is precisely what strikes me at this moment. He shifts his form so his head rests against the wall, his voice muffled slightly so I’m struggling to hear what he is saying.
“They took us to…river camp. All of them with their other people…dancing, dancing to high life music. There was a small lake there and they were bathing …and there was a campfire. They tied us up. Left us around that fire- we boys- and it was hot. And they were shouting, telling us we must be… We must learn to be men… and they slapped us about, speaking Creole too fast for me to understand then…Then they took us to the lake. All the soja…dem dey shout like monkey, dem throway us for inside that water…we still dey inside rope so me I no fit move body…dem dip one boy inside the water for two minutes until him begin shake like jellyfish, dey scream, dey shake…When him comot from that water him dey cry bad bad so them drop am inside again, torture am…just dey talk say we must become men, we must become men…One big soja come comot. From where him comot, I no fit tell you. The man be like giant and him voice strong like one kin’ drum. Him look me as I dey wait for … I begin cry. Na the first time I cry that day. The man look my face come shout STOP…confusion, the sojaman dem dey look me like witch. Na so him carry me with one hand comot as I just dey cry, just dey cry.
“That man’s name was Major Bankole Hassan. He was a Nigerian soldier who had seen more money in trading diamonds than in the ECOMOG peacekeeping mission that brought him to Sierra Leone. So he deserted his platoon and went in to the bushes were he put together this group of militant rebels. He was a very cunning man; he used to tell me that he was from the Yoruba people who are very skilled in tricks and cunning. It helped that he was able to pick up languages very fast. I know that he spoke Yoruba, Hausa, French and even Spanish alongside English. He also spoke all the West African versions of these languages, I mean Creole, Pidgin, any bastard tongue that was used in the jungle. He was at home anywhere on West Coast of Africa. He taught me some of those languages. He taught me everything I know. He brought prisoners from the village raids so we boys could…kill them as, as training. But me, he took special care of me. He showed me how to fish, how to play one old guitar he had on him. He was my Mathematics teacher and he was very good at it- he did not want anyone to ever cheat him out of his money, so funny. Our group was always moving about and sometimes I did not even know which country we were in, because we were always shifting around the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone in two wars that are different but are the same. I became his lieutenant by the time I was fourteen because I had grown so tall. I was in charge even though I was younger than most of the group and they hated it. To control soldiers, you have to become merciless, tough, pitiless, strong. Major Hassan told me this. So every time they brought young boys to one of our camps, sometimes to replace the dead, there I was throwing them in the water and ignoring their screaming. I forgot what the fear had been for me in the beginning and…it was so easy when the igbo and the other drugs we smoked in dirty mixtures…were in the system…high, high all the time. Major Hassan showed me how to balance the drugs with kaikai- hot- I mean hard liqueur…can clear your head in a strange way so the drugs are not stopping your mind. He made me his executioner. Soldiers who betrayed us, the many Judases, he would torture them- flog them with barbed wire, leave them alone in the forest tied to a tree so that their fear would drive them mad. But it was me who would dip them in water over and over and over till they were so tired from struggling. Then I would shoot them.
Major Hassan had friends with a lot of power. He still helped out ECOMOG soldiers, tipping them off on the whereabouts of some of the other rebel groups. He also supplied the governments with some information about rebel hideouts. So they left him alone to trade in diamonds and roam free. He was a rich man but liked the dangerous life of the commando. The man was born to be a soldier. But with time, he wanted me to see a different life from the endless movement, sleeping in trees and feeding on bushmeat and fish. He told me I could get a scholarship, this scholarship that got me abroad here. I was getting very good at maths and he wanted me to do that, said that it was more likely to get me out than making music. You see, I was better than the Major at the guitar, and I could play local drums and the harmonica- all of them, Major Hassan taught me. That was the only way I could hold back the hatred the soldiers had for me, in a way. Almost like David in the Bible, the way he calms King Saul down with the harp, that’s how I calmed the soldiers. I was able to entertain them night after night, to cool them down, and to warm them up for battle. I have always been like that, able to make people like me no matter what. The Major called me his secret weapon. One time, I must have been thirteen, we went out to fight one rebel force that was fucking up the Major’s trade and I was the one who pretended to be a lost boy…a, a beggar…I played some drums for them around their campfire while they gave me food and clapped. They were not ready for it when my squad moved in for the ambush. Then we killed them.”
He paused again and I see he has started crying again, and as he starts to thud a fist softly against the wall, I know that he is getting to the most excruciating part of the story. To be honest, I am still flailing a bit in my mind, wondering what had been the trigger for this confessional and almost feeling weighed down myself by this emotional outpouring. Somewhere in me, I am starting to feel a twinge of fear; people with a buried past often have the ghost of those memories, unresolved, trailing them about. Shankey’s is a murderous ghost, bloody and ethereal and I can feel it in the darker parts of me inhaling my fears. I do not know what to feel other than a wariness that stands my hairs up on the dry parts of my back.
“Sooner than the Major expected, the war seemed to be wrapping up. He did not want his business to end so he started to ask for the means to set up as a legitimate diamond exporter with the full cooperation and support of ECOMOG and the new Sierra Leone government. He got greedy and his terms were really crazy, he would not accept anything less. But they couldn’t stop him, and they couldn’t smoke him out and kill him. He was too powerful. The Major had a secret though…and I was the only one who could prove it…and one of the soldiers came and whispered to me one day that what he was doing was bad…really bad, that it was not permitted amongst soldiers… if I didn’t help out, they could kill me…and they could get me out to England to study music if I cooperated…and he said that Major Hassan was too strong, so they couldn’t kill him anyway if I confessed it, they knew that I had been forced into it …so I confessed at a show trial…the different rebel groups had trials for internal crimes in the jungle…jungle justice I guess…mostly they were trumped up charges…but nobody had ever faced this kind of charge in my time. It was extreme…instant execution…but they promised they would not kill him…they said they could not kill him. Major Hassan attended confidently…he knew there was only one way they could prove it and …he didn’t expect me to be there…I can still remember the look on his face when I, when I nodded my head and they put the hunting rifle to his head…it was not anger, it was, it was disappointment.”
Et tu Brute. He collapses in a heap on the floor, now crying quite openly like a small child who has just seen his blood flowing from a gash. The gym is deserted. Unusual, because even at this early hour, there are always at least one or two men trying to catch the worm. I glance around belatedly, before sliding down beside him to offer comfort. The powerful fluorescent bulbs in the changing room lend a glow to the water along our bodies as we sit next to each other. He has turned off the shower so the only sound is of his sorrow ringing forth in peels of sobbing that clang violently between my naked thoughts. I want to ask him about Major Hassan’s secret, but he is distraught so I think instead about the strength of the human being, how much it can take without the spirit getting broken. I think about how much rehabilitation Shankey must have needed before his re-introduction to society. I think about the fear he must have felt playing drums to armed zombies in the jungle, waiting for the right moment to pounce, like a rattlesnake. I think about the pain he must have felt watching his mentor die, how it felt to have led somebody so important to him to his death. I think about how he has had to suppress this for so long. I think about others like him. I think and I do not know.
He leans against me now, his head in the crook of my neck, breath hot against my stubble. His hand is careless against my thigh and I can feel his heartbeat on my bicep. One one two. One one two. Are those his lips brushing against my jaw? I think about Kara and how much I just want to tell her that I love her. I’ve loved her since the day I met her when, eyes rimmed with turquoise stupor, I could not find the words to say it. I want to tell her that I suddenly feel it is crucial to enjoy the things in life that matter, now that Shankey has brought the entire fucked-up nature of the world we live in closer to home than it could have ever come. I want to tell her that she is all the things in life that matter to me. Are those hands actually tapping against my inner thigh, and am I really feeling that sensation? Whoa, a minute! His lips are suddenly on mine, intensely drawing from me with an untamed ferocity as his hands travel against my genitals. What the fuck!
“Are you fucking crazy?” I jerk up to my feet, wiping my mouth repeatedly with comic disgust and fixing him with a cold stare, anger sending the adrenalin pumping right through me.
“Sorry…sorry…but…but…” his eyes are confused and apologetic and full of longing all at once. I want to beat him till he’s cold, already forgetting everything he’s just told me. I always felt myself to be tolerant of homosexuals, but to be the object…personally? “Brother, forgive me, I’m not…”
“We’ve double- dated, you faggot prick!” I hear myself screaming things that have never crossed my mouth previously. Then I see a couple of men, bemused, on the threshold of the shower area and turn my glance to Shankey, rumpled on the floor where we sat together just a moment ago, his head in his arms. I hate him so much right now. So much it scares me.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After the incident at the gym, I was unable to sleep much. My thoughts were invaded by ghostly imaginings of boys at war, their feelings deadened by the hemp which ran their blood cold. My dreams were haunted by the shadow of a body lying against a tombstone, lightning flashing in the sky. I could never see the face of the person in my dreams, just a white shirt heaped over a spectral shadow that stretched long against the concrete grave, a bunch of red roses shivering beside it in the cool of dusk. In the daytime, I tried hard to work on my essays and the looming dissertation. It was that time of year when the school session becomes a blur of flat out work as final exams approach. Spring had folded back the pages of winter without actually turning them over so that it was not completely consigned to the past. Even though it was already March, the air still possessed a crisp edge and the sky was permanently wreathed in a forlorn grey.
I hadn’t spoken to Shankey since that February morning when he tried to rape me even though he left me several voice and text messages. Nor to Kara, or Karachi- whatever- since December. It was her birthday, though, in a couple of weeks and I wanted to give her a special gift. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I would do, I wanted to bury the hatchet before then so I would not seem phony. After all she would be turning twenty- one. Her words the last time we spoke had stung me and made me question myself thoroughly. I was not impressed with what I saw looking back at me. It takes courage to look at one’s reflection and spit, and then to go on and find a revelation in the broken mirror image. I know that I have tried to distance myself from Nigeria. I left the place a long time ago when I was ten and all it has come to represent for me is the land of my father. The man was a drunken bastard who beat my mom and had a heart attack with one of his mistresses wrapped around his waist. Even though I am studying Africa, I am more drawn to the continent as a whole, more an African citizen than I will ever be a son of the Nigerian soil.
Kara is so wholesomely Nigerian. Her seven years here might have rid her of the heaviness of tongue that immigrants bring with them but there’s a spice to her that is purely Igbo, genuine fondness for her people inflects every word she speaks. There is a tenderness to her character and a warmth there that challenges me to look out for others and not only myself. I want to change for her, not to illogically strip myself of who I am just to please her, but to alter my selfish pragmatism and fall in step with her patience for people. This feeling is novel to me. I want to love her straightforwardly; without complexity or pride so that I love her because I know there is no other way. Christ, I’ve even begun to think in verse (that couplet is from a poet whose name I do not remember).
I don’t even know when I started to feel like this. I only know that there is a thrush beating its wings with song inside of me and I want to share this music with her. So one overcast March morning, I put aside all my schoolwork and dressed with care, making sure my clothes, as my mom would say, hung well on me. Then I debated with myself whether to call her to say I was coming. It seemed a foolish thing to do, to ring someone you haven’t spoken to in months to say you are coming to see them, especially when the last time we spoke things didn’t go so well.
The car was temperamental, and spluttered into life reluctantly only at the third twist of the ignition. The radiator wasn’t working either so I drove grumpily across town from my flat in Canary Wharf- paid for with the only legacy my father left me, and mom’s shrewd business sense in managing it. Kara lived on Gloucester road, in one of those flats that gave away nothing of the grandeur within from their relatively modest exterior. I parked carelessly, suddenly in a haste to talk to her. The West End after-work traffic had made me even grumpier and I was a jumbled up mess as I walked up to hers. I was pissed off at my car, the piece of shit, pissed off at the weather and pissed off at the fact that I could not string my thoughts together to form anything coherent to say to Kara. The front door to the building was ajar, not unusually, there were three flats on the three floors of the property and the tenants were all students who typically had no security worries. So I walked straight in, no need to press the buzzer behind the Greek columns. There was a strong smell of curry wafting down from one of the top two flats, mingled with steak, a bloody steak The door to Kara’s flat was never locked unless she was out, so I turned the black doorknob, glad of the chance to surprise her and perhaps catch her in one of those man shirts that fanned out around her figure, leaving only a hint of the curves underneath. I prepared to have my breath taken away.
There was an r n’ b song playing that I didn’t recognize but it was very up- tempo and I found myself keeping time to the beat like Shankey. The apartment was dark but warm so I knew she was home. I could make out the vertices of the sofa, the funky cubic lamp on the side table, the Matisse copy that hung on the wall above the beautiful original fireplace. There was unfinished pasta in a funny-shaped oval dish on the dining table and I could still smell the Bolognese sauce. In the dark, all our senses crescendo. I had reached the door of her room and was about to knock when I heard a steady sound of tapping…or knocking, that I could not believe at first. There was some moaning interspersed between the knocking of headboard against wall which confirmed my initial fears. And an imaginary wrecking ball plummeted through me. I was wild, uncertain what to do. The bird in my chest flapped around in distress, its song gone. My knees buckled and my eyes stung. Then as I spun on my heels to leave I heard it.
“Shankey…Shankey” her voice was thick with feeling.
Et tu Brute. I would have screamed if the bile wasn’t so high up my chest. I burst into the room and saw a bit of her raised left leg in the sliver of moonlight breaking through a crack in the curtains. The way they stopped abruptly to spring apart in terror would have been comical if my sense of humour hadn’t shrunk behind the hawk-shaped rage crowding my chest now, wings full of revenge, beating furiously. I wanted to fuck the bastard up. There was little meaning to the pictures drifting about before my eyes. My vision had become an abstract mess of figures and shapes that made the soft song- Toni fucking Braxton! – discordant. I wanted to fuck the bloody bastard right up.
Kara was struggling to pull the sheets over her breasts at the same time she was trying to get her panties on. She was saying something frantically, my eyes making out the scramble in her face as they adjusted fully to the darkness. She was shaking her head imploringly. I turned to Shankey, and he was just sitting there, his almost-dreadlocked head bowed and the shaft of moonlight across his chest alighting on his other tattoo. The R I P for his mentor. It’s still so strange to me how my head emptied of thought and anger as soon as he looked up, the yellow of his despondent eyes appearing to me like pulping eggyolk. All I could do was count. One one two. One one two.
I turned and I ran and ran all the way to the car. The wheel was clamped but I didn’t care. I ran past the car in a steady jog, never too rapid because I wasn’t running away, I was just running. One one two. One one two. I ran a long way, going past the station and the Waitrose and farther, taking turns in awkward places until I didn’t know where I was. I saw a bench, one of those randomly- placed pieces of street furniture that clutter London, and I sank into it. The air was still and warmer than it had been when I left my flat. The sky was night as far as I could see, impenetrably black. Nothing stirred around me; Silence. I did not even hear the two men come up behind me. All I saw was the hem of a black coat emerge around the side of the bench and a fist traveling towards my face. I shut my eyes and realized I couldn’t even swing back because the other thug held my arms secure from underneath my armpits. The urgency of the whole thing delayed my reactions and the blow to my jaw ended any sort of response. I saw the compelling glint of steel rise above me as I tried to force open heavy lids. Knife! I said my first prayer in a long time amidst the expletives the thugs were tossing about and offered them my wallet. Take everything please.
Shankey came out of nowhere. He streaked out of a square of nothingness where only moonlight had been. Then the next few minutes were like an action movie. Shankey was smooth and fast and deadly and the knife clattered noisily to the floor within seconds. The thugs didn’t even have time to curse at him. One had the words stolen from his mouth with a very swift kick to the throat. I watched him smash the other’s nose, taking the breath from him with that blow and his consciousness with the other, a roundhouse punch of a power that was at odds with Shankey’s frame. All at once the other mugger, coughing and clutching his throat on the floor a short way away from my slumped form on the bench, pulled out a gun, an old school revolver. I was groggy. I could not get the warning out. A flash of lightning obliged, and Shankey must have caught some movement in his peripheral vision with his back turned sixty degrees away from us. The thunderclap tried, but could not quiet the gunshots that barked true in that silent night. He fell almost in slow motion, red dripping underneath his trenchcoat like dye. I was overwhelmed with shock. Nothing, absolutely nothing could have kept the scream inside me. I got off the bench and fell over his twitching body, every chord in me straining to get that beast of a scream out.
Lights came on in the homes around, windows ablaze with yellow as curtains were cracked open with cowardly caution. The second thug was already stumbling off. I screamed some more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It is drizzling and the sky is dark like a shadow of itself. There’s a moon crescent hanging there like an earring and just a few stars like little faraway freckles. The black- haired bitch of a sky. I’ve been feeling crazy recently. Since I moved back home temporarily to be with my mother and little brother and to get away from the evil hiding in my flat, the things I see when I close my eyes and pretend to sleep so that my mother will stop worrying are very surreal. I sometimes talk to myself on the tube when I have to go out to catch a class or to see Kara and people nervously point their features away from me, worried that if they back off completely I will be offended and pick on them. I write prolifically at night, hunched over my desk, drams of emotion spilled frothily like beer over the pages of my little notebooks. When I finally sleep through the haze of my insomnia, I wake up with a throbbing in my head. One one two. One one two.
Kara and I are together now, but it doesn’t feel right. When we sex I feel like I’m fucking a dead man’s memory. And she cries with the suppressed tragedy of that night. Grief is not an aphrodisiac. And it is hard to describe just how much I am grieving for Shankey. I feel responsible for his death personally. But every time I look at Kara, and see her startled- deer eyes, I feel like he deserved to die. He took away this wonderful feeling I did not know I could feel and replaced it with a permanent guilt. He was, though, really the only friend I have had in years and I miss him terribly. I feel like there’s something missing from me all the time. When I step out of my house I am conscious of the inadequacy of my garments. When I eat, there are empty stomachs in my midriff. But I also feel like he stole love from me, love for him and for her.
We are walking to the cemetery now. Kara and I. She’s dressed in a woolen black shift dress and a necklace with a guitar pendant on its end. The soft caress of streetlamps on her face makes her look so radiant yet so poignantly sad. She’s carrying a bunch of red roses and her ipod is going with a recording of Shankey playing sax and guitar. It sounds a lot like Keziah Jones’ “Million Miles From Home”, the song that was playing the night I met Kara. Over the weeks we’d spoken once about her and Shankey so I knew they’d only slept together that one time and that it had something to do with this song. One of those ‘things got out of hand- it just happened’ stories. He’d played his song to her that night as he told her about our fight and after that she kissed him as he cried, not understanding why he was so sad. I don’t know if she’d slept with him to prove he wasn’t gay. I don’t know if he was gay. I don’t care anymore. If he were descendant from Sodom and Gomorrah I could not care any less.
We are standing over the tombstone now and she tosses the roses down. I unravel a sheet of paper Kara gave me only yesterday. She could not find it before. Shankey had come to see her to ask her to give it to me when he met her that night. It was a short note to explain things a little bit. I am reading it now and I skip quickly over the lines about Major Hassan forcing himself on Shankey early on in the Sierra Leone jungle- the stupid big secret- and how it carried on till the Major’s death. That was part of why he betrayed his mentor. He is earnest and I can almost hear the voice of mathematical accuracy and rugged musicality speaking from under the concrete mound. He does not say anything about Kara. I guess it must have just happened. He is saying how much he loves me now. How I have been like a real brother to him, the only person he has known so well since the Major died. How he is sorry he loved me maybe too much so that I became like the Major to him, me being older and wiser in the new world he had come to. Then I see the last two lines there, fresh as moonlight, and searing:
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way (Pablo Neruda)
The last time I saw Shankey it was in a flash of lightning. And now I am the shadow of a body stretched over a concrete grave, beside me a bunch of roses shivering in the cool of dusk, crying under an unforgiving sky.
Oyibo- foreigner, usually a white person
Igbo- South Eastern Nigerian tribe, one of three major ones
Jist- Gossip, derivative of ‘gist’
comot- to bring out or to go/come out
kaikai- local hard liqueur usually hot