Society places expectations on others; I place expectations on myself, thought Kunle, recrossing the sunlit communal kitchen on his way to doing the dishes. It was his twelfth time of doing this – the recrossing – within the past half hour and he did so when he was either alone by himself or there was nothing else to fill the long, empty morning with besides his musing. The washing was itself another way of passing time. He had descried the plates – some with streaks of mingled mayonnaise and ketchup, others with the rancid remains of last night’s supper – from his position beside a stack of discarded chairs. On getting closer, he found they were his neighbours’ and moved to wash them. That was what he found himself doing in moments like this: showing kindness to people he really did not like. Idleness made him kind; it brought out that side of him little known to others. His trouble had come from retired Second Lieutenant Alan who, besides reminding him of the eviction notice the night before, set his nerves in motion with the news of his own departure.
Alan was moving to Barking, East London, to take up a job as a CCTV controller on an amusement park security team. He was leaving here following the thirty months interrupting what could have been a smooth ride from twenty years’ military service to a decent civilian life. But Kunle hadn’t been thrashing in and out of consciousness, beside the back wall window early in the morning because his closest confidant and the man he had roomed with since they both left the army, was leaving him. This emotional state wasn’t due to Alan letting him into his plans only at the butt end of his stay. Neither did it have to do with the coming of month end which, coinciding with the expiration of the eviction notice, meant he too was leaving Three Oaks.
He had spent the night in fits of insomnia, under a heap of bedding as usual on the floor between a wall-high wardrobe and Alan’s sofa bed, the storm of spring soughing in all night long despite the shutters. Only his large round head had been spared of covering as he often did for ease of breathing and to enable him fall asleep quickly. Yet, whenever he did drift off, a certain cold moisture fell on the nape of his neck at the lower end of his crew cut and he found himself thrashing about under the covers so that the whole night rest seemed to him a sequence of catnaps strung together by restlessness. The heating had been turned off longer than he could remember to enable them to save up money for food. As far as he knew, it was during an unseasonable spell of warm weather across London when the basement room, which ordinarily made summer feel exactly like winter, had its walls speckled with mildew as its great cream paint began to come off.
Within those hours of insomnia, he found time to think things over before dawn. Alan had barely raised himself up on his elbows and let out a yawn before Kunle told him of his decision. He was going to make things up with Theresa. Theresa was his wife for four years before he went alongside a British land invasion troop to Kirkuk, Iraq in the winter of 2003 and soon forgot almost everything about her. They had met only twice since his return to London, first during a chance meeting at an all-night pub, the second at the request of their only child who had insisted several times on seeing his father. Other than that, they spoke a couple of times over phone. Alan’s opinion, before Kunle hopped out of bed to come spend time alone in the kitchen, was that it was not the perfect moment for him to reunite with his family. Doing so now, he said to him, would make him lose his dignity in the eyes of the world. Alan had found the whole idea ridiculous – his friend appearing before his estranged wife talking her into taking him back because he could not endure his miserable life any more like the prodigal son returning home after a binge of riotous living.
Now he was done with the dishes and, having rinsed them, began to wipe them with a dish towel. On the tiles around the sink, there were splashes of egg yolk and the drying soap suds interspersing oily finger marks were illuminated by a dusty sunbeam. He hunkered down before his compartment in the kitchen cabinet and drew out, from among other things, a hunk of bread under a film of wood dust. The bread felt rough as he ran his thumb over it, only to discover rats’ narrow toothprints along the crust. With their incisors, they had chiselled their way through the bag, then down to the edge. To be double sure, he thrust his head back into the cabinet, pushing plastic bags to one corner and reordering the contents from left to right. He was able to find, within seconds, where the rats had gnawed the loose wooden board of the left side and gained entry into the cabinet. He had only recently removed the bread together with a small bag of rice from their usual position on top of the microwave after discovering grains were beginning to drop from the latter without being opened. That one must share everything with them was what irked him most and this was particularly painful this time around, for they had eaten more than he could part with, his breakfast half lost to them. And it seemed to him now more dreadful than the sight of them – rats the size of a plantain – skittering from behind a pile of Evening Standards at sunset into the crepuscular garden.
Alan came to the door and watched him slash off the eaten surface of the bread.
‘Ready to go?’ said Kunle, laying down his knife across the worktop.
‘Not yet. Say in thirty minutes.’
‘When is Neil moving?’
‘I’ve got no idea. Any moment from now, perhaps.’
‘Thought he was coming with you.’
‘Coming with me?’ Alan took four steps forward and placed his crossed arms on the worktop, looking him in the eyes as he did so. ‘Can’t remember telling you anything like that. Neil and I are not heading the same way.’
That the two men were going to the same place was Kunle’s sheer assumption. To cover up his blunder, he said, ‘Oh, sorry. I must have mixed things up when he said East London last night.’
‘Yeah. We’re both going to East London. But East London is big. He went on to say he’s going to Stepney. I’m going to Barking. That part of the conversation probably escaped your notice.’
‘No. I don’t think so. He must have mentioned Stepney when I stepped out to answer the phone.’
‘By the way, what’s he going there for?’ He looked right through his friend to see if he was in any way suspicious of his line of questioning but Alan’s face, etched with the wrinkles and folds of midlife, remained as stolid as ever.
‘Well, he’s got new accommodation. A free one he said. There’s this housing aid put together for veterans who have got no home or find it hard to get a stable accommodation. They offered him a room.’
Neil, also an ex-serviceman, who lived two flights up had talked about this as the three men sat over the game of rummy last night and not when Kunle went out to receive a call as he made Alan believe. That Alan announced his move only shortly after Neil mentioned his gave him reason to suspect that Alan was moving to the same place as Neil but did not want to let him know. He still found it hard to believe that Alan truly had got a job and that this was the reason behind his relocation. On impulse, he had shut his mind up to the possibility that everything could be a coincidence.
‘How come everyone is fed up with this shithole and leaving only me to rot in it?’
Alan did nothing for a moment but lowered his head a little and ran his finger through the breadcrumbs on the worktop then, without meeting his face, said, ‘I know I ought to have told you about it earlier than I did but the company contacted me only last week and said I got the job. They expect me to start at short notice. And I didn’t know how you would take it if I had told you immediately.’
‘It’s alright, mate.’
‘I’m not sure whether I’ll be allowed to share the bedsit with someone else. You could have moved in with me.’
‘Never mind. It’s nuffin really to worry about.’
‘Come to think of it, Neil could be of help. He could show you the same process he followed to get his room.’
‘You want me to take a charity accommodation? You must be kidding, man. If at all I want to do that, there is nowhere for me to stay when the rent runs out on Tuesday. The processing takes forever…applying, filling in forms, waiting for reply, you name it. You know how it works.’
It took Alan time for his words to sink in. In such a situation, with only three days left for Kunle to be thrown out of Three Oaks, Alan wondered how his friend thought taking emergency housing was below his dignity. ‘Don’t tell me you’re still gonna beg Theresa to take you back.’
Kunle’s chest heaved and widened against his cardigan as he prepared himself to speak. During the Iraq campaign, an air strike on his platoon one evening near Kirkuk as they made to bypass an enemy line had left his windpipe severely damaged. So whenever he found himself in tense situations like this or had just finished climbing a flight of stairs, his words became wheezy and most often could not be pinned down between a stammer and a grunt. It seemed to him the war gave every soldier something strong to remember it by apart from the general grief across the British army of the loss of one hundred and seventy nine servicemen and women in the hostilities. In Alan’s case, he sustained a long cut and dislocation in his left leg when a concrete pillar tumbled over it where he lay face down during the explosion. Afterwards, he found himself walking with a limp for the rest of his life.
‘Listen to me, Alan. I’ve not been with this woman, with my family for years. You know all about this.’ His words came out blurred, still roughened by fierce breath. He had to pause one more time to calm his nerves before he continued. ‘Instead, I’ve been an absentee husband and father, fighting for this country dutifully, risking my life, putting national interest above mine. I bet I wouldn’t be able to pick out my own son among a bunch of kids if asked to do so. It’s that bad. That’s what this country has done to me. I’ve been bloody mean to everyone.’
One hand in pocket, Alan walked towards a warm side of the room, close to where the stack of chairs stood almost touching the ceiling. ‘Have you been thinking this for long or is it recent?’
For a moment, Kunle, who was beginning to notice Alan’s cynicism, found himself poorly armed for a defence. ‘That’s not really important. The point is this woman needs me. I know my son needs me too.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know so.’
‘Have you talked to her about it?’
‘See. Theresa and I have spoken a number of times… and I can tell from the tone of her voice she still wants me back.’
‘You think that’s enough? You think talking her into taking you back is the best way to go about a reconciliation of this nature?’
‘It’s not about talking her into it. This is about mutual understanding. It’s about the two of us understanding that we need to come together again for the benefits of each other and more importantly for the sake of the child. Agreed. I’ve not been there for her especially when she needed me most. But it wasn’t really my fault. Was it? I did my best for this country. I gave my whole time as a loyal citizen, laid down my damn miserable life for this country and all I have to show for it is to end up in this shithole with a pension barely enough to feed a toddler for a week.’ The veins in his head and throat flicked out at once, sharply defined against his skin as he voiced his lamentation to Alan, making the latter wonder if he was the one that had treated him so.
‘You don’t expect me to stay back while you and Neil are gone. Do you?’
‘I thought I made this clear enough. You sound like the whole thing is deliberate, like it’s a sort of conspiracy.’
‘If it’s not, what then is it?’ This was a sort defence. Underneath, he was convinced Alan and Neil were not going to the same place. He saw the printed email version of Alan’s employment letter days ago where he left it folded under his pillow. What he intended doing by blaming Alan and by not openly acknowledging the coincidence of the men’s relocation was to weaken Alan’s courage to question his proposed return to Theresa.
Yet, from this exchange, Alan could realise Kunle wanted the reunion not out of remorse or genuine feeling for his family. Here was a man, he remembered, who all his life, out of an odd personal principle, would not deign to apologise to a woman for anything now ready to relinquish that notion.
It’s not when you’re in agony that you remember a family. You don’t do things that way. You remember them out of love, out of the need to keep your home going.’
‘Who says I’m not doing it out of love?’
‘You don’t get it, Kunle. It’s all about doing it the right way. You can ask everyone about it. I bet it what you’ll get from most of them is that this is not the right time for it. If I were you, I would wait till things got better.’
Pensively, Kunle glanced down at the open kitchen cabinet at the small leaking bag of rice. When he raised his head back to see Alan, he folded his arms and shot him a look of discontent. ‘So when do you consider the right time?’
‘You can stay with Neil for the time being. He’s got a room to himself. And as far as I know, he’s permitted to take one person in.’
‘Don’t even go there. Charity accommodation of all places.’
‘Anything wrong with that?’
‘It’s never crossed my mind. Not even for once. It’s for those who are nearly picking crumbs from street. Like beggars. Not for me.’
‘Believe me. I’m not against your plan. What I’m saying is you don’t do such a thing because…’ he paused to find neutral words to express his thought but found himself sounding rather frank, ‘because you’re facing a hard time. You should…’
‘Listen, old boy. There can’t be a better time than now. Anyway, is there a perfect time for anything in this world? By the way, why are we holding this conversation in the first place? Who’re you to counsel me about family matters?’ This mild scorn was not so much a way of telling Alan his opinion didn’t count as a reminder that he had never been married and so lacked authority on how to run a family. Remembering his friend was much older than him, Kunle felt inclined to speak more respectfully as he continued, ‘spare a thought for this woman, mate.’
Alan stared at him with a deep frown and wondered if this was coming from him or someone else. ‘So you care this much. If that is the case, where was your sympathy all this while?’
‘Don’t be sarcastic,’ he said without meeting his eyes.
‘If you’d made up your mind, why then did you bother to tell me?’
To make himself clear as soon as possible, Kunle swallowed the whole piece of bread in his mouth at once without bothering to chew it then said, ‘I didn’t tell you to seek your advice on it. I told you because I felt I should, because you happen to be the closest person to me at the moment.’
Not one for a lengthy argument, Alan sighed and said, ‘well, that’s fine. It’s up to you, his face quizzically calm.
Time passed and the silence thickened, interrupted moments later by tinny water-drops falling from the ceiling into a mixing bowl beside the stack of chairs. They knew one of the students on the floor above their heads had splashed water on the bathroom floor but both were united in not mentioning it. A brown drop fell on the rim of the bowl, sending a splash that hit Kunle in-between the eyes. He brought his chin slowly down into the hollow of his throat and pressed his lips together in disgust, cursing the unknown culprit under his breath. He looked up to face the ceiling. There had been layer upon layer of coating added to it over the years but the damp-browned ceiling had resisted every struggle to make it white so that the caretaker had given up altogether. Up from the overgrown herb garden came the surge of the sun and the wind drifting into the kitchen, leafless though it was, was heavy with the presence of leaves – bay, basil, camphor and fennel. But it was soon to be diluted in mid-air where the sickening presence of a neighbour’s long-eaten, microwaved garlic bread still lingered. Alan, sensing his stomach had begun to churn and seeing Kunle’s face wrinkle around his in-drawn face in repulsion, gestured to him to let them go into their room.
He offered to walk Alan to the train station. Along Lewisham High Street, they picked their way through the chaos of the Saturday crowd. Alan was limping forward more carefully now to avoid colliding with kids running into their mother’s arms. Kunle, with Alan’s suitcase, struggled from further back to push past a fat elderly couple walking arm in arm in his front and draw level with his friend. When he pulled ahead, Alan was waiting for him, holding a small rucksack in one hand and digging for a lighter with the other where his butt cocked against a telephone booth. Without a word, Kunle reached behind Alan’s ear and plucked a cigarette. Alan was swift to oblige him by lighting it. They stood face to face on a yoghurt-smeared flagstone, cigarettes between their lips, exchanging smoke. His back to the road, Kunle stared past Alan at the 99p Store in front of him. It was here they had taken to shopping for their groceries on discovering their savings were barely enough to pay their next three month rents. These were the days when every pound mattered, when life made them know the difference choosing to buy a pint of milk here could make. He knew he and Alan were not in the struggle alone. Beyond the train station, a few metres away from blocks of flats under gentrification, Tom Robertson, former infantryman and recently a rough sleeper, had built a tent for himself beside a copse of birch and it was clear his survival skills from the front would last him through a lifetime.
Alan once told him also of an ex-driver in the expeditionary force, who spent his day walking the streets and passed the night on a canvas filled with discarded clothes behind a pub on Morley Road. He was done smoking now and turned to quench the stub on the edge of the pavement with his foot. In doing so, he came face to face with the figure of a man with long, curly moustache in front of the butcher’s on the other side of the road. Even though the man was standing metres away away, his gaze never left them for a moment. Involuntarily, Kunle’s face met his but the former was quick to look away. Kunle, striving hard to ensure the man’s face did not meet his again, held Alan by the arm and led him towards the station.
Back in the room, he staggered to regain his footing as he stepped on the edge of the mattress. His plump self seemed to have grown to twice its size and made the room narrower. On his way back, after seeing Alan off, he had bought recharge card and decided to ring Theresa once he got home. He would tell her about his decision and then ask her if it was possible for him to start coming immediately. Thereafter, he would pack his belongings and set forth. There was quiet everywhere save for the wind which, having been muffled by the sturdy shutters outside, was funnelling through a gap in the window frame. For minutes, he was standing with crossed arms, his eyes roaming the room, not knowing where to start the packing from. Everything was in the same way he left it this morning. The bed clothes were furled away from faint patches of sweat on the mattress corners. Only the nearly full laundry basket had been shifted from its position. He remembered Alan pushing it further between the wardrobe and the wall when he was looking for his phone.
Again, he was wedged between the choice of calling Theresa first or beginning the packing immediately. But this time around, he wasted no time thinking things over before opting for the former. Before he picked his phone, his hand was in his pocket, pushing further the only money he had – a five pound note.
‘We’re pretty fine. Only that Mark’s kind of crazy about seeing you and kept pestering me about it.’
‘You know kids do have strong attachment to their fathers also.’
‘Perhaps. And I said to him ‘you’ve got to really wait because what you are asking for is like birthday presents that you get once in a year. That is if you are lucky to get one anyway. But the kid hardly knows he’s got an absentee father here. Absentee father as you once said.’ Theresa’s laughter – her usual way of getting into the spirit of a conversation – coming with this jovial response, made the discussion easy for him to begin. Shifting his butt a little to the left, he propped his chin right above his palm.
‘I think the boy needs company.’
‘Well, whose fault is that if he doesn’t get any? But it’s got to do with his holiday. About, em… sixteen days gone already and he has been without me while I was at work. Just took some days off because of him.’
‘Great. His father is willing to see him and to see you too.’
‘Interesting,’ said Theresa incredulously.
‘Yeah. You see, dear. I keep getting this feeling that things can’t keep going on this way.’ Through a flash of thought, he realised he had not called her ‘dear’ for years.
‘Of course, I do. You see, dear, I keep having this feeling that we can’t keep on living like this.’ Meanwhile, on the other side, Theresa seemed to be sighing in response. ‘You know we’ve been apart for years. That’s not even helping the child.
‘Don’t even go there. I hope you’re not putting the blame on me. Are you? You don’t know the hell I went through to raise this child to…’
‘I’m not putting the blame on you in any way, dear. The fault is actually mine,’ he said this slowly to make the interruption less direct. Kunle remembered the day he asked her out on the fifth month of his arrival in England from Nigeria at Richmond Park. After the usual introduction and compliments, he had followed her and squatted next to her as she fed grains to two herons beside a pond. He longed to relive the moment now as he glanced at the ceiling, trying to re-enact the scene on phone though the words kept eluding him.
‘I’m like we should think of getting back together. I know I’ve really hurt you and there’s no amount of explanation can make up for the past, for what I did.’
Theresa’s response to this was a snicker, a low one roughened by distance and spontaneity. ‘Haven’t heard you sound this serious before. It’s pretty incredible. What’s the score?’
‘I still love you Theresa. Just as I love Mark.’
‘Well, you’ve always been the one never to give way. Always pig-headed. Only God knows what’s always wrong with you.’
‘I dunno if this evening is fine by you?’
‘It’s okay. Whichever way you want it.’ Her words were in no way hostile yet there was a certain distant force about her voice that made compromise difficult to make. But, with him giddy with expectation, expectation of a solacing, new turn in life, which gave him no room to think of anything else, there was no way of registering this.
‘Can I ask for something, dear.’
‘Can I come with my stuff?’
‘If I hear you clearly, you mean your luggage and belongings?’
‘Yes.’ The barrier of silence which this imposed at this point of the conversation made Kunle picture what might be going on in Theresa’s mind. She could be making plans about moving Mark’s toys from one room to the conservatory to create a place for him to stay. It could be the wild expression of delight on the little boy’s face, his powerlessness to hold back the thrill of the moment when his mother would be breaking the news. Or could it be that she was still angry with him?
He had been sitting all along and stood up and attempted to organise his thoughts coherently. As far as he could remember, Theresa was often ready to forget about hurts done to her, to let things go quickly. But that also was a possibility.
‘You want to come today with your stuff. It’s rather too early. Don’t you think?
‘I don’t think so. You know we’re long due for this.’
‘Okay. Let’s see how it goes.’
Carrying his suitcase down and turning round, Kunle saw nowhere to place it. He could have folded the mattress and put it where the laundry basket now was in order to create a space to put it at the centre for him to pack his things. But somehow, the thought never crossed his mind for once. At last, he set the suitcase on the mattress, pulling out its sole content, a cool plaid magenta shirt (his favourite) long hidden here within a fort of mothballs. Appearing in his favourite shirt might make Theresa’s reception more welcoming. It came as a gift from his wartime mistress, a short, bosomy widow although it had been originally purchased for office use by her husband who did not get to use it much before his death. The woman had taken him in on descrying his hunched figure, coughing up blood over a moonlit barrel along her garden on the night of the strike. Whenever he told the story, he embellished it with gritty details and often preferred to say ‘saved my life’ rather than ‘took me in’ as if she was the one who really giving a second chance of living.
He came to admit now, alone by himself, pulling on his trousers and smiling, that he held the woman in this estimation because he considered her the most pleasurable woman she had ever slept with. None of the displaced schoolgirls he and six sergeants ambushed and raped in a tent while conducting the officers through a private drilling three weeks to the end of the war could match her ferocity in bed. Not even Theresa whom he had lived with longer than any other woman. He laid the shirt on the sofa. Turning around and seeing the iron leaning precariously on the radiator with its downy fluff and dust, he saw the need to press it first.
It took him just five minutes and a half between ironing the cloth and putting it on. Packing was no different either. He put the content of the laundry basket into the deep brown suitcase. His mind did not register the heaviness of the damp towel, the rankness of unwashed socks, the patches of grey dirt on the flies and pockets of the two trousers as he zipped the suitcase and made for his canvas haversack. Having poured the remainder of his possessions into it, he strapped it to his shoulders and was going to pull the suitcase into the passage. He looked over his shoulder at the room again. He was going to wait for the iron to cool though it was not very hot. Whether by design or by an act of forgetting, one was bound to leave a thing behind in a time like this. Then, he bounded up the stairs to the fourth floor to hand in the keys to the lady the caretaker told him to leave them with.
By the time he regained the street, his face was burning with the excitement that Theresa was only slightly angry. He still couldn’t believe his luck. This made him not to notice the hot, dry wind as it continued to blow past. Across from the side he and Alan walked earlier, he ambled on with ease in his movement as the day lay baking under the bright sky. He toyed with the idea of getting something for Theresa but realised the five pounds on him was barely enough to buy Mark a box of chocolate. He remembered his travel ticket was still enough to last him a week. Right from while the going was good, he was always willing to get them something nearly every day. So he went into the shopping centre and got one.
He paused at the entrance on his way out, remembering he failed to ask Theresa if he would meet him home.
‘Hi dear. Sorry I forgot to ask the other time if you and Mark are at home.’ What he heard next made his lower lip tremble. His spirits plunged in reaction to the noise in his head, which gave it a new heaviness. ‘But dear, I thought you asked me to come only few minutes ago.’
‘Agreed, I did. Listen to me young man. This is where you keep having problems. I knew it would come to this all along. You have always been the streetsmart type. The restless one. Full of energy like a youth but lacking in sense.’ Even over the phone, Theresa’s voice was not relenting in the full force of authority that asserted itself when power changed hands.
‘I’m very sorry for everything. What I want to, to say is that,’ wind swept into his chest as if from bellows, building up around the ribs and he found himself stammering again. ‘I’m already com-ming with my l-l-load.’
‘What do you want me to do about that?’
‘I’m sorry Theresa. I’m very very sorry.’
‘If all what you spend your life doing is mucking around, at what age will you grow?’
For a few minutes, he stood listening to Theresa’s aspersions but felt powerless to talk back. Shame had his lips in its grip. Along his chubby cheeks, his face creased as his mouth formed a pout. He looked in the direction he had come as if to turn back but recalled he had handed in the keys and now was holding what his last money had bought. There was no getting away. How hardship can point us in the path we have sworn never to take. This leap of thought came to him and, like never before in his life, made him realise the humility that he thought he never had. She went on and talked to him as a father talks to a child and he listened as a child listens to a father.
‘I promise you, Theresa. I’ve changed. You don’t know. I’ve really changed. God is my witness.’
‘You have not changed much since I knew you. Remember the day you were raging on the phone. Have you forgotten? You said you married me in order to obtain a British passport. All of you male immigrants are all the same. The same bloody hungry lot. None is any good. You know where to find us if you want.’
Theresa’s words sank deeper and deeper through him and his legs, which had been numbed by the weight of her words, seemed to wobble at every step forward. Well into his anguish, Kunle didn’t recognise the time he went past a salon and halted only a step away from bumping into a man in apron streaked with blood around the neck.
‘Hi mate, what’s up?’ It was Jamali, the man in front of the butcher’s who was staring at him and Alan few hours ago now looking him from his bag to his suitcase and back again.
‘You opened a bit late today,’ he said, intending to distract him.
‘No. I’ve been around. I saw you and your friend passing. Where are you headed with these?’ He pointed to the haversack and the suitcase.
‘Oh. I’m travelling.’
‘You’re travelling? I saw your friend, whatsitsname, with luggage. You too are going. Everybody is going.’
‘See, Jamali, I must be on my way. I’m running late already.’
Jamali stepped in his way as he made to leave. ‘I’m not stopping you from going. But what about the money?’
‘I’m afraid we have to talk later. I’m not in the mood for that now.’
‘That’s ridiculous. You’re not in a bad mood all this while when you came to take my meat. It’s when you saw me that you’re in a bad mood.’
‘Okay. Fine. How much do I owe you?’
‘Eighty pounds, man.’
‘Eighty pounds?’ ‘That’s a bloody rip-off.’
Jamali was looking at him without flinching. Shock had worked blood into the skin of his face and his eyes now were swollen with rage. ‘You call that a rip-off? If I had not stopped giving you meat on credit you could have ruined this shop.’
‘To be frank with you, I’ve got no penny on me.’
‘You must be kidding. I won’t take that crap from you. All this while, you’ve been feeding off my meat – my turkey, my mutton, my oxtail, my gizzards, my kidneys, my, my … what type of meat have you not taken from this shop on credit? He looked around across the stalls. ‘Like that pumpkin on Ganesh’s table.’ Kunle followed the movement of his finger in the direction of a massive yellow pumpkin – the Californian type – standing alone, given a pride of place above other fruits at a stand few metres away. Out of the greengrocers’ stalls, customers were trickling into the sun and the juice of bruised cherries thickened about their hasty feet like newly spilled blood. White pigeon droppings, the size of paint, globules dripped down the tarpaulin edges lazily onto flattened cigarette stubs that were trapped in the gaps between the paving slabs.
He turned back from the stall and came shoulder to shoulder with Jamali who, at this point, was trying to wrench the suitcase’s handle from his grip.
‘What the hell has come over you? What has your money got to do with this?’
‘You can’t gimme the shit that you don’t have money.’
It was becoming a wrangle but the response from passers-by was no more than glances. In hauling the suitcase from Jamali’s grip with a ferocious effort, the bag he was carrying, still unlocked, fell on an empty crate and the contents strewed across the floor. Jamali lunched forward and picked up what he saw first. It was his Kunle’s Op-Telic Medal, his memento from the Iraq campaign.
‘Do you realise what that thing you’re holding is?’
‘I will realise it when I get to the pawnbroker’s,’ said Jamali as he turned the medal in his hand, causing the pebble-smooth cupronickel to cast a glint as it met the dazzle of the sun. He had gone beyond the fruit stalls. Kunle felt the urge to run after him but he saw shame coming and futility in doing so.
He crouched to retrieve his personal effects one by one. Head bowed, he shuffled across the pavement. His only pride for eighteen years of service was gone. He forgot about the medal for a while and concentrated instead on what Theresa told him. When it came to survival he was like everyone else: a creature of habits and routine. Nothing much has changed. He had not denied this. Society had no place. He placed expectations on himself. When at last he gathered himself and looked glumly along the shops and stalls, still throbbing with the ebb and flow of the weekend crowd, he did so for seven minutes without registering the souls around him. He was deeply evaluating what Theresa said: ‘let’s see how it goes,’ the tone with which she said it and her long hesitation before she gave that reply. For the first time, it seemed to him she had not given him a definite answer. She might be tricking him into bringing down his loads first then send him back immediately. Could Theresa be up to something? Could she be up for vengeance? He looked over his shoulder in the direction he had come. But what he saw again through his mind were the kitchen and the rats, the damp, chilly room and the end of the month, hurrying near. He thought of turning back. His heart considered it briefly but his body rejected it on the spot.
Towards the clock tower, the sun beat down harder, sweeping over a sea of close heads with its fickle flush of heat. Coming out of the crowd into the fruity air, Kunle lifted his grubby cuff to mop the grime in his face. The movement of this effort shook more sweat from his armpits down his spine. He touched his shirt at the back to straighten himself up but the slippery, silk material clung to the small of his back like dog’s turd to a bare sole. He had gone past the roundabout and, with stiffness in his stride, stepped into the train station.
Image: Oh-Berlin.com via Flickr (modified)