Read Reading the Ceiling Online

Authors: Dayo Forster

Reading the Ceiling

DAYO FORSTER
Reading The Ceiling

Ayodele has just turned eighteen and has decided, having now reached womanhood, that the time is right to lose her virginity. She's drawn up a shortlist: Reuben, the failsafe; Yuan, a long-admired schoolfriend; Frederick Adams, the 42-year-old, soon-to-be-pot-bellied father of her best friend. What she doesn't know is that her choice of suitor will have a drastic effect on the rest of her life.

Three men. Three paths. One will send Ayodele to Europe, to university and to a very different life – but it will be a voyage strewn with heartache. Another will send her around the globe on an epic journey, transforming her beyond recognition but at the cost of an almost unbearable loss. And another will see her remain in Africa, a wife and mother caught in a polygamous marriage. Each will change her irrevocably – but which will she choose?

Praise for
Reading The Ceiling

“A fresh, vibrant first novel set in Africa and England, exploring the three different paths Adoyele's life could take”
THE BOOKSELLER

“The energy and verve of Forster's first few pages are breathtaking, and Ayodele is irresistible”
DAILY TELEGRAPH

“a... complex examination of potential futures... Forster has written a thought-provoking series of narratives”
FINANCIAL TIMES

“the tussle between fate and free will ... a warmly informed portrait of modern African womanhood”
OBSERVER

Contents

For my family —

my excuse for those weekends in Watamu

Prologue
1
Girl

In the slit between my bedroom curtains, I see a long triangle of sky more grey than blue. The light changes with each sweep of my eyelids. At this time of year, when the harmattan blows straight off the Sahara, not even the wide expanse of the River Gambia can add enough wet to stop it in its tracks. It has coated with dust the mosquito netting on my window.

Today is my birthday. It is also the day I have decided to do The Deed.

‘Remember, they are only after
one
 thing,' my mother says. She advises me to stay aware of what men want; that I need to practise light prancing, a la Mohammed Ali, keeping my butterfly just out of their reach. Keep myself. For what? At eighteen, why do I need to keep to the butterfly dance? Why exactly?

‘Otherwise everyone will think you are loose, cheap.' That's the answer my mother would give.

Ma thinks of me as a child-woman who does not know her own mind, and is easily influenced. At university, I'll be beyond her reach, I'll be able to do what I want. There's only one thing that's stopping me from throwing off childhood. And I plan to deal with that today.

Osman's radio starts a low-volumed griot wailing, a sound that always seems to be around, melding with the air. The plucking of the +kora  strings weaves around a mellow baritone voice. I find it strangely comforting as the sound soaks into my skin. Today the singer is telling of Sunjata Keita, a warrior king whose exploits in the savannah have been erased by tropical sand and hot winds. But whose history is played on, retold over the years in the memories passed through mouth and ear of the people who hold our past in their heads. The griot sings:

The Sunjata story / Is very strange and wonderful.

You see one griot, / And he gives you an account of it one way,

You see another griot, / And he gives you an account of it in another way.

Sunjata's life – one story that is now told in different ways. The radio moves and a clanking joins it as Osman picks up his kettle. The griot continues:

Cats on the shoulder / The hunter and the lion are at Naarena.

A minute later, I hear Osman at the tap. The water gushes into the kettle, sounding hollow against the metal, then the gushing is drowned by the weight of more water.

Osman is our family's night protector. He is paid to watch while we sleep. Now he has to greet the day with sleep-soaked eyes before getting ready for his real job, shifting sacks of rice, flour, or sugar at the port. A few ships dock this week, conjuring jobs for men with muscles who don't mind the work being irregular.

Both sides of this watchman deal are grateful. Osman gets extra cash for his family in Mansakonko, halfway up the river. My mother sprinkles in additional tight-lipped help when his unexpected emergencies arise. Such as:

1 the new baby has malaria

2 the middle boy was sent home because he didn't have his school uniform

3 the mama's leg isn't getting better from that dog bite.

In exchange, my mother gets the security of a man about the compound. Someone who can run to our rescue if a gang of toughs ever smash their way into the house. In case any of her emergencies arise, unexpectedly or otherwise, our muscular, manly, hired Osman is around.

So, here I am, one in a household of four females protected in the night by a wiry thin-faced man from Mansakonko. The drumbeats of other kinds of danger are in my ears while my sisters sleep, dreaming how my mother wants them to – like butterfly dancers.

The flame-coloured cockerel at the Salanis' is shrieking hoarsely. Its loud, nasty echoes fade into still air. My mother is soon awake. I hear her shuffle past, her bedroom slippers muffled against the tiles in the corridor. A yell out of the window: ‘Ozz- maaaan.
Demal jainda mburu
.' Go and buy some bread.

‘How many?'

‘
Nyeta
.'

 Number of hot, stub-ended stretched loaves needed for breakfast: three. Number of unloose women left in the house: ditto.

I plan to be loose today. But who with? I've been making up a list but find it scary to think through the options knowing I have to decide on
one
. My possibilities begin with Reuben. Why is he on the list at all? If the idea comes creeping that I need him as a fall-back, my failsafe option in case it turns out that the others don't want to be chosen, I will swat it away. He's there because, well I guess, because he fancies me. I'm not exactly breathless with desire, but a list is a list and therefore – it needs entries. So he stays. With one of his front teeth showing bigger than the rest, jutting halfway up his gum. With his thick-framed glasses that darken whenever the sun casts shadows over his even-toned, blunted oval of a face. Reuben has a plank-flat bottom and wears brown Crimplene trousers. A former Boy Scout, he's not ugly, but he's not what you could call a catch. Reuben does not know how to angle his arms and legs properly when he lounges on the low school wall. He's not yet safe in his own body. I wonder how he'll be about touching someone else's. But how can I ever know that kind of thing about someone without trying him out?

Another option is Yuan Chen. Last term, everyone at school kept saying he was my boyfriend because we were always together during break, but he's not really. He can seem sexy if I try. His Chinese father came over to teach our farmers how to grow paddy rice. Then he stayed and his wife eventually came over and they stayed some more. When our government got tired of Mao-style paddy farms, his parents started a restaurant called Green Bamboo where they cook a lot of white rice.

Last year, he asked my friend Remi and me over to his parents' restaurant as my birthday treat and he made sure we got a platterful of freshly fried spring rolls which are my favourite. I watched his lips form the words: ‘Good spring rolls need the pastry rolled so thin you can see through it. The filling has to be cold so it doesn't stretch the pastry and make it tear.'

Maybe it was then that he started to creep into my consciousness as a Possible. He knows how to be careful.

Remi protested that those instructions were not clear enough. ‘They never turn out right, even if I leave the stuff in the fridge overnight.'

He laughed, eyes bending up at the corners, his floppy black hair brushing his eyebrows.

'To cook,' he says, ‘the oil has to be really, really hot so it singes brown almost as soon as it reaches the pan.'

I think he'd be gentle. When we were at the beach after Tunji's party, me in my strappy dress, Yuan and I were leaning against his car as we waited for the others. It was quite dark as the moon was not yet up and stars pinpricked the sky's velvet. There was a bit of a breeze off the sea and when I said I was cold he took his sweat top off and put it around me. He tucked me in under his shoulder and it felt kind of cosy.

I don't want to wait for this falling-in-love business, or aim for passion, even though everyone everywhere – books, films, magazines – makes it seem like the ultimate. I want to get this sex thing over and done with so my life can move on. Some of my friends have done it – Amina and Mahmoud behind the school kitchens when we were thirteen and in the third form. She needed to go to the nurse for a spare uniform as stuff had leaked onto her skirt. I remember that after school, she walked funny all the way to the bus stop.

When we stand around after school waiting to be picked up, or sit tight in each other's bedrooms painting our nails, talk often turns to university and work, or . . . boys and men. Amina says sex can be mysterious or straightforward, it either makes you feel fantastic or is as simple as what dogs do. Her cheeks climb up her face, her deep dimples show as she talks. It seems as if she's defying life itself, as if the choice has been hers all along. She's able to brush off what my mother, and probably hers, might think. She's started to claim life in her own way.

Remi's found The One in Kojo. She doesn't want to go to university herself, but is willing to go with him when he starts medical school. They mess around but she says they might as well wait until they're married. That will be soon, and sex will be something to look forward to.

Moira also wants to wait for the right one, she won't do it until she's sure. She has a crush on Idris, who bounces on and off my list. When we've talked about him, she does that ‘oooh, he's so cute' thing. I can see that Idris obviously has the experience. And everyone seems to like him. Moiras giggle and Aminas look him up and down. Remis ignore him. The shape of his back, his shoulders in his white school shirt as he walks away down a corridor catch my eye. I tend to keep very still inside, not wanting to let any smoochy type of longing jump free. Sometimes I ache to be noticed by him, for him to show he wants me. Yet at other times, I feel like I'd just be another pair of knickers in his drawer, taken simply because I was there.

And the largest mango in my pile? The biggest
bonga
on my stall? My best friend's father, Frederick Adams, forty-two years old with a pot-bellied future, a short full beard, hair closely trimmed to his head, and fingers that make my skin sing. Nothing much's happened yet, of course. Just one leaning-over-to-open-the car-door touch. Just one let-me-introduce-this-youngster-to-Motown dance.

‘I bet you youngsters don't know about this kind of music. Want to dance?' he'd said at my cousin Tunji's wedding. He touched my arms to show me the dance step. Even after he'd moved his fingers, I could feel where they'd been. He's on the list because I think he might teach me quickly. This is so obviously one of the things that will have to remain secret, be doubly hidden and buried from my mother (and Remi), with me having to pinch my words. But just the once with him might be enough.

It's almost as if I can see a list of names in my head, with mini head shots alongside, each taken in a studio with a full glare of lights, so that as I peer into each photo, I can see the pimple above Reuben's eyebrow, notice that Yuan's eyes are set slightly too close together, linger over the pout in Idris's lips, observe the sheen on Frederick Adams's face. I can choose whether to put a tick, a question mark or an x against each name on my list. It's in my power, it's up to me.

My mother knocks on the door and enters with my birthday greeting. Behind her breeze blocks filter the day's early sunshine. As a child, I've sometimes seen Ma thin with worry, when her ribs have poked out of her side like the ridges around the seeds in a tamarind pod. But as her school has become more successful, she's filled out more. The skin over her cheekbones is smooth and even-coloured. This I have inherited from her, along with a hairline that starts high up on her forehead. We look alike – we just don't think the same way.

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