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Authors: Dayo Forster

Reading the Ceiling (6 page)

BOOK: Reading the Ceiling
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‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,' he says again, hitting the steering wheel with his fist.

‘Well, get the hell off the road then.'

He drives off to the hard shoulder, with heavily breathed sighs, full of curled-up emotion left to me to interpret.

When we arrive to park in a long line of empty road, next to a pavilioned pathway with lions and crests, the music has only lightened talk a little.

The beach is whipped with a gusty sea breeze. The pebbles stay soaked. We get out of the car and I try to huddle close to him as we walk up to the pier. It is empty. The funfair is closed. In the huge room with gambling machines, very few heads bob above the winking lights that fakely promise cash back. We buy hot dogs with mustard and ketchup that drip onto his suede boots. The boards of the pier clunk underneath our feet.

Some things you can only see a long time afterwards. Then they are as clear as a belt of stars in an empty sky. He used to make me tremble with pride as he talked about his country. ‘As if the Lebanese do not know how to govern themselves!' he'd say indignantly, his lips wet with talk, his hands flying before his face. He talked about food in open-air cafes and walks in forests of cedar. About orange streaks in the night air that would be explained in the news the next day. The thumps of bazookas and how the number of holes in buildings increased the further north you go. He even joked once about correlating distance to the border with the number of nine-inch mortar holes you could find, and how it would make a perfect example of causality. ‘Justice makes no sense,' he said, ‘when you look at the history of my country and all the nations that have messed about with it. They have stabbed at it, drugged it, dragged it through a gutter and now think it might be best to strangle it.'

‘Hey,' I say, ‘I have something to tell you.' We are in a restaurant, sitting across from each other in a badly lit Chinese-lantern corner.

My hands stretch across the imitation marble table and past the plate of white Styrofoam prawn crackers. I grab his right hand in both of mine, covering it with my oil-tipped fingers.

‘What?' he says.

I blather on. ‘Well, I haven't been all that regular with my little pills you know. Not intentionally, I wouldn't have meant it to be like this. It's late. My period. So, it must be.'

‘How late?'

I find myself giggling. ‘Two weeks. Not long really.'

‘When will you know for sure?'

‘I'll get a kit from a chemist on the way to college on Monday morning. Shall I pop in later to tell you the result?'

‘Sure.'

There is one last round of frenzied lovemaking in his flat that night. On Monday he's gone. There is no goodbye. There are no hysterics, no slow, reasoned explanations. He simply goes. No one answers the phone in his flat. Then he sends me a postcard. He does not use my address. He sends it c/o Annette, the departmental secretary.

Teaching summer school here, let me know if you need any help.

 There are certain confidences that are unshareable, even with a flatmate you've had for two years. Meena watches me and cooks me curries. Our Stockwell flat throbs with bubbles of stovetop-roasted cardamom and coriander and black mustard seeds. The heat of the curry warms my mouth, settles my stomach. My head, my heart, my fingers stay cold. Her concern and her cooking weave strands of safety around me. I go through days when my eyes smart for no obvious reason at all, just soul pain bubbling. Sometimes I manage to find those deep cloaky silences when the world goes blank, and I curl under my duvet and wait for the silence to bat the hurt away.

My body aches, every sliver of skin screeching to be touched by someone it knows. Like a crumpled can of beer once finished, my body – which had once promised pleasure – becomes empty, discarded, unwanted.

I am not pregnant. Life gets squashed flat.

*

Meena asks, ‘But did you not guess anything?'

Niet. Non. Nada. Not a hint of betrayal. This time round, life chose for me, regardless of what I wanted. I had been buoyed up with the excitement of what life could unexpectedly throw at you, and how you could cope regardless. I considered many paths on steps sprung with air. My mind sped ahead to talking to Prof McIntyre about my status (without mentioning any other party, of course), and how I'd bravely take my exams and still try to pass honourably. I had decided that it would be important for Kamal and I to ‘be together', but there was no need for marriage or anything. I'd accepted that things would have had to change. That life would be different. I'd not guessed this kind of different.

Exam time comes round. I try to retain bleak facts about world political economy. When the question comes up
In Lebanon and the West Bank, Israel is contravening international law with the connivance of the United States of America. Discuss
, I feel mocked.

 While I revised for my exams, the sun streamed through my bedroom window every day. Now they are over, it hides behind damp grey clouds.

Meena agrees to get married to a description of a well-brought-up young lawyer from a good Bombay family. They plan to have a long engagement so she can finish her master's degree.

‘What? When did you meet him?'

‘I haven't.'

‘That's ridiculous. Don't let your family force you into this.'

‘They're not. I chose him.'

I go Gambian on her, screw up my lips, let the hiss of saliva escape through my mouth. My Gambian
cheepoo
, and other international expressions of disapproval – tsking, tutting, harrumphing – have no effect on her. I am interested though, because someone else's life in motion means I can move my attention away from mine.

‘Don't try to sort my life out,' she says. ‘I don't need it.'

‘You're being silly. You didn't choose. They did.'

‘Only by consulting with a matchmatcher to draw up a shortlist. I'm telling you, I chose him.'

I get absurdly angry with her. Does she not realise that most men are pigs? And that the less you know of them, the more piglike they are likely to become? Was this the only thing my mother was right about? If Kamal was a pig, I had made myself a willing trough. And here was Meena, about to do the same, only in a different way.

‘Why did you choose him?'

‘I liked the look of him.'

‘You liked the look?'

‘Yes. He lives in America. I might as well go somewhere new. Further away from my family.'

‘Will you meet him before the wedding then?'

‘Of course. But the matter would have been decided by then anyhow. We will be meeting as two people about to get married.' She is beaming, with a quiet joy that I cannot understand, and cannot begin to fathom.

I like her. She infuriates me. She is peculiar. I am her friend. I understand only a bit of her.

On a rain-soaked autumn evening, with soggy brown leaves matting the pavement, we go food shopping. Meena pushes the trolley full of our weekly groceries towards the shortest queue in a crowded checkout area.

‘Let's move over to that queue over there,' she says urgently, clutching my arm and pointing towards a queue snaking into the aisles.

‘Why do you want to do that?'

She whispers back, her voice hiding among air forced low. ‘Look at the guy helping to pack the things.'

‘Yes, what don't you like about him?'

Her chin juts forward, her head nods impatiently as if I am the one being dim. ‘Him. It's a him.'

‘So?'

‘I'm buying tampons.'

‘Come on, Meena. Is it me being thick or you?'

‘He's Indian.'

I look at the stocky, short man in dark grey trousers and a shirt buttoned up to the neck. He has a side parting, with some hair falling across his forehead. His jowls extend downwards, even though I'd have him in his twenties. I look back at Meena. She bites her lower lip. She's never met this man. But her nervousness is real.

‘Indian girls, you know, we're not supposed to, I mean, be using them.'

Her eyes meet mine, but she drops hers right away, shifting her body slightly away from me, to stare at rows of butterscotch and bonbons.

I don't quite mean to, but a snigger cum snort escapes my nose, and I find myself laughing at her. Meena curls her eyebrows together in a frown. She folds her arms across her chest.

‘Come on, Meena. After all this time living on your own, away from home?'

‘You wouldn't like people to think badly of you, would you?'

‘If I don't know them and I don't talk to them, what they think about me doesn't matter. I'm too far away from home anyway.'

I elbow her out of the way and commandeer the trolley.

We stay in the queue. I put the tampons on the carousel. Meena lurks behind me for as long as she can bear it, then she edges past to loiter behind the shopping packer, where, with his back to her, she is out of his scrutiny. I pay. We push the trolley to the exit, where we unload the carrier bags, taking one in each hand, before heading out into a wall of grey wind speckled with rain to catch the bus home.

My mother phones to ask me to buy her a hat and send it home with Uncle Sola, who is going to Banjul in a couple of weeks.

‘I need a wide-brimmed one. I've already got a dark-green straw hat. This time I want a lighter colour, more like lemons than grass, with a wide ribbon and shaped silk flowers. Stylish, but simple.'

‘I'll do my best, Ma.'

‘Don't forget he's leaving on Tuesday night, with British Caledonian. You'll need to take it to his house in Richmond. That's not too far for you, is it?'

‘Just a bit out of my way.'

‘But you'd do it, won't you? And I've just thought – maybe you could add some stockings in the package. You know my colour – if you match it to the colour of your elbow skin, I think that would suit me.'

She keeps going as I interject with
Yes, Mas
. And then she finishes with, ‘Make sure you try to get a proper hat box. Uncle Sola won't mind bringing everything as hand luggage. I've asked him already.'

After our first set of goodbyes but before we put down our phones, my mother says, ‘You've heard the news about that Chinese friend of yours?'

‘Yuan?'

‘He died in a motorcycle accident two weeks ago. His parents closed their restaurant and went off to the States to sort out his funeral.'

‘Why didn't you tell me?' I interrupt.

‘I'm telling you now, aren't I?'

The next round of goodbyes is quicker, and ends our conversation. After I put the phone down, I squeeze my ear lobes together to block out sound, try to turn off the noise of traffic, of people outside on the street. We can't die yet, we're much too young. There's so much we want to do. I hate how time and distance are breaking me up from people I once cared about. I wonder how Remi is? Amina? Moira? Death has upped the stakes. A friend has ceased to exist, and I didn't even know.

I press on the bell to the right of the dark-brown door with the number
36
in gilt bang in the middle. There is a long trembling silence after the bell rings, as if the house itself is indecisive, unsure whether to reveal itself or not. I take a few steps back, onto the pavestones that lead up to the door, and look up. There are a couple of lights on upstairs. It's in the middle of the week, and I know the children will be in, doing their homework, practising their piano, life drawing... or whatever new project my aunt has thought up as an educating pastime.

I see a quick triangle of light, then a hurried shadow eclipses it. Soon I hear footsteps thudding down the carpeted stairs, and a few muffled steps down the corridor towards the front door. Ade opens the door with red-rimmed eyes.

‘We didn't know who it was,' she says by way of explanation.

‘I rang yesterday to say I'd be dropping off some stuff for your dad to take home.'

‘Come in. Mum's crying.'

‘What happened?'

‘A woman came to the door and now mum's all upset.'

‘Can I help?'

‘Go up and see her if you like.'

‘I'll leave these things on the dining room table, so your dad'll see them when he comes in,' I say, walking through the open door to the dining room, where I leave the huge green and white carrier bag declaring where ‘good things cost less'.

In Aunt Abi's room, the lights are turned low. She's in bed on her side, her checked pink and green Krio scarf skewiff over her set of bright purple hair rollers. Her face is puffy as she turns to my greeting,

‘Good evening, Ma.'

‘Ayodele.' Her voice is wispy, swallowed thin. ‘Sit down.'

I perch on the buttoned velvet stool she usually tucks in under her dressing table, and lean forward.

‘Is there anything I can do to help, Ma?'

She exhales in shudders and lifts up a shoulder.

‘Your uncle . . .'

I wait.

‘Oh, I can't talk. Let the children tell you.'

‘Can I bring up anything for you? A snack or a drink?'

‘Not now. I'll sleep.'

‘I'll go downstairs then, but I'll come back up before I leave.' She nods.

Back downstairs, Ade is waiting with her chin on her palms, elbows resting on the dining table. Her brothers have joined her. ‘What's going on?' I ask.

Ade starts. ‘About three hours ago, the doorbell rings, and I go and answer it.'

Olu fills me in. ‘She thought it was you.'

I ask, ‘What time was this?'

‘About three o'clock,' replies Ade.

‘And who was she?' I ask. The rest of the telling is a fast drama, with all three of them doing the explaining.

Tunde: ‘We don't know – this big fat screaming woman.'

Ade: ‘She just shouted at me – Do you have a father who can't keep his wiggly in his trousers?'

Olu: ‘Can you imagine that?'

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