I hear the shout first. It’s high-pitched, searing; then I hear the cry. I get to my feet; suddenly, I feel as though the room itself is moving as my father and then my mother crash down the staircase, almost tripping over each other; my father straightens up against the hallway wall, wincing, biting his teeth, his lips; he reaches for his jacket on the stand by the stairs. My mother mutters beneath her breath, a low, continuous mutter that I can feel in my stomach. I can’t make out what she’s saying, but when she turns to me, her eyes are red, raw, leaking, wet; when she turns to look at me and I look at her, I feel my belly drop and my hands clench and I don’t know what to do; it’s happened, I think it’s finally happened.
“Terry’s had another fall, Chenille. He’s dead.”
So it’s happened. They leave without me, my father first; I hear him shout from outside, into the cold black night. My mother stands there watching me for a moment, as though stricken, like she’s sizing me up. I look down at my feet, bare and dry, at my legs, then up at her eyes again, but she’s gone now, out through the door which closes with a slam that reverberates, the harsh gust of air from outside filling every corner of the hallway, every nook, corner, cranny.
So I’m alone now. There will be so much to do. I can see it all now, from my spot there, alone in the living room. My parents will return in a few hours. My father will be supporting my mother on his shoulder, maybe whispering softly to her, anything to get those tears to stop falling. Mother will not hear him. She will be in her own world, looking at nobody in particular, her eyes darting this way and that. I shall still be here, alone, thinking of Terry; none of the million things that must be done, the messages to send, the calls, the patient listening to cries and tears on the phone; none of that will have happened; I am alone, I will be alone, Terry is dead.
Terry is my father’s friend. He’s the nicest white man I know. Everytime we go to see him, it’s like a different variation of the same story. What usually happens is that Mother and I will drive over first; Father usually joins us after work. When Mother and I go over there his house is always dark. Terry likes to pretend that no one is at home. It’s a cheap trick, but I at least always try to act surprised when his face suddenly pops up from beneath the window, his yellow teeth sparse but gleaming, a small pink tongue running over them and through the gaps, his golden hooped earring, set within one of the smallest ears I’ve ever seen, and fitting there despite the lack of any discernible earlobe, glinting softly in the muted light of the hallway bulb, which he switches on suddenly with a throaty cackle.
Then we go inside. Terry’s place is small, and he lives alone. There’s not more than four rooms in the whole place, all set on one floor. It has a smell, not unpleasant, but it’s there; it’s the faded tobacco scent that still lingers in the air and in all of the floral wallpaper even after he’s gone around spraying it over, in preparation for our arrival, with a mixture of air freshener and his own cheap cologne.
Then he’ll look at me. He’ll turn his head toward me and smile and raise his hands stiffly toward me. I’ll ignore the sweat stains beneath his armpits and I’ll hug him, and I’ll feel his belly protruding against me, and then he’ll say:
“Christ almighty, Chenille! What’s yer mam been feeding yer? I say, yer better give me some of whatever she’s got. I bet it’s that jer-loff rice. I love that rice there; it’s a crying shame I didn’t have any of that when I was a lad. That’s why me and all my kin are so short and squat-like. Give it a few years, kiddo; I’ll have to creak my neck all the way back just to get a good look at yer.”
Then I’ll smile, a small, tight smile, but Mother will laugh and we’ll all go inside. His living room walls are dominated by Newcastle United jerseys. He must have at least eleven in there, from the whole first team. Newcastle will be on the television as well, without fail. Even if it’s not a match day, Terry will just put on a replay; if they won the last match, his joy will still be apparent. He’ll drag me into a dance, shifting me back and forth and then lowering me to the ground, like we’re in a ballroom, and he’ll say:
“4-1! 4-1! 4-1 to the mighty Toon Army!”
But if they lose or draw, his reaction will be different. Sometimes if he thinks they went down valiantly, like heroes, he’ll stand in the middle of the living room, one hand on his chest, and say to me with the utmost solemn sincerity that history, truly, had never seen a finer hour.
If they lost without honour, however, he’d switch off the television as soon as we entered.
I always liked going to Terry’s house. I didn’t really know how my father met him. If you go through all of the old photo albums that my father has, he’s there in a lot of the pictures. There he is on the day I was born, his grey sparse hair now brown and full, grinning while holding me, next to my exhausted mother. He also came on holiday with us once, inexplicably. I remember we were in Calais, on one of those wine-hunting jaunts that my parents used to revel in. We thought we’d found a quiet, genteel cafe; I remember thinking how elegant and dainty the waitress looked, in a smart little blouse and a nice skirt. I ordered a coffee even though I wanted hot chocolate. I don’t think I’d taken two sips before I heard, out of nowhere:
“2-1! 2-1! 2-1 to the mighty Toon Army!”
We all turned around as one, and, lo and behold, there he was, dressed in his ever-trusty Newcastle shirt, stretched tight over his belly, his neck reddened, his arms held aloft in the air, one golden half-drunk pint of lager in his right hand. Two other men, identically dressed, were also with him.
And now he was dead. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that it would be good to talk, to say something to someone, anyone. I didn’t trust myself, being alone with my thoughts. The house, empty, abandoned, seemed unreal; just a further outpost of the bottomless depths of my imagination. The silence loomed before me, cloaking me. I went to my room, looking for one of the books Terry had given me, years before.
It was a history book. It was huge, ornate; I had always wondered where he’d found it. It was the perfect antidote for boredom: on the toilet, at the dining table, on my bed, if I was unable to sleep. I felt the weight of it in my hands. I opened it up to a random page and felt the paper between my fingers. It seemed to me as though I could see Terry buying it, a decade ago. He’d still be wearing his Newcastle shirt, of course. But he’d be thinner, his face would be less lined, fleshier, the skin not drawn tightly over his bones, like a corpse. He’d probably have one of his perennially changing lady friends with him. That was a running joke between us; how every time we saw him he had a different woman on his arm. Blondes, brunettes, redheads; he loved them all. He said women were his weakness, his only true weakness. But I was his favourite.
So he’d be in a supermarket, somewhere, with his latest conquest. He’d be rushing, pushing the trolley like a madman, utterly unfamiliar with the whole process of shopping. He’d be dragging the woman behind him, saying that this was important, lunch could wait. She’d sigh, she’d huff. He’d pull down all sorts of things from the shelves: small toys for toddlers, shiny magazines, lipstick, eyeshadow. But he’d put them all back. None of them were it. None of them were right. He’d grow more panicked, his neck would mottle red; he’d mutter under his breath, he’d curse. Mothers would pull their children out of the way when they saw him coming. Finally, he’d see it. He’d see what it was that he knew that I’d love, what I didn’t ever tell him that I wanted, but which he knew that I’d love all the same, just as much as he knew his own name.
He’d pull the book down from some distant shelf at the far end of the supermarket. He’d turn it over in his hands, he’d assess its weight, as though it was a cut of lamb at the butchers, and then he’d hold it up to this girlfriend, like that old photo of Bobby Moore holding the World Cup aloft in 1966.
She’d be perplexed.
“That’s what you dragged me all over this bleedin supermarket for? A book? Who is this girl anyway?”
“Don’t worry, we’re done now,” he’d say, ignoring her confusion. “We can go.”
I put the book down and lie back on my bed. The curtains are tied back; moonlight rushes through the open window. I feel the cold breeze rush over my face, raising the tiny hairs on my arms. Terry is dead. I say the words out loud, tasting them, savouring them. I remember how when I was young, I would say a word again and again, repeatedly, until all meaning was lost from it. I did it out of boredom, when I was at my desk in the study, trying and failing to memorize something for school. I try it again now.
“Terry is dead. Terry is dead. Terry is dead. Terry is dead.”
That was how my parents found me; there, alone on my bed. I hadn’t got up. I hadn’t changed; the windows were still open. The history book was still open on my chest.
“Terry is dead. Terry is dead.”
Ifedolapo Apampa was born in the UK to Nigerian parents. He grew up in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Kent, and now lives in London. He enjoys reading. And writing.
Related country: Nigeria