Here's a short story for Black History Month. Enjoy!
Dapo shuffled into the dingy apartment, flicking on several switches as he passed by, before sinking into a soft chair. Pulling off his woollen gloves, he rubbed his hands vigorously, hoping to infuse some warmth into fingers so stiff he could barely feel them. He sighed deeply and watched as his breath danced ethereally before his eyes. Now that his fingers were springing to life, he quickly removed his hat, followed by his scarf. He shivered and felt the goosebumps rise on his neck.
Dapo hated the cold and was thankful for his apartment's central heating. He was one of the lucky few. Many of his friends lived in apartments heated by gas fires or worse still, wood fires. Moving deftly, he rose, crossing into the small kitchenette to the left of the front door. The worktop housed a stove with two cooking rings. Underneath was a small fridge for milk and groceries. He filled the old teakettle with water and lit the stove. A faint whiff of cooking gas filled the air before dissipating. Arms folded across his torso, as if to hug himself, he rocked gently on the spot, the soothing movement creating a sense of calm.
He now understood why the English liked their tea. Nothing could warm the bones quicker, well, except for a bowl of Nigerian hot pepper soup. He closed his eyes and imagined his mother's pepper soup, the aromatic spices combined with the explosive heat of hot chilies. Just thinking about it made his mouth water. He hadn't had a chance yet to scout out the West Indian grocers at Turnpike Lane. Hopefully, he'd find some of the spices he was missing from home.
Moments passed, and a slight sheen of sweat beaded on his forehead. He made short work of taking off his coat, tossing it onto the sofa, before crossing the room to draw the curtains close. For a moment he paused, peering through the drawn curtains. The pitch black outside echoed the room’s drabness, the brown and grey floral-patterned wallpaper making it appear smaller than it really was. The apartment's only saving grace, the two large Victorian windows, overlooked the garden. He had placed the sofa next to the windows to allow what little sun deemed to show its face to stream, unfettered, into the room. On a whim, he had splashed out on some pale-yellow curtains. They brightened up the room and made him think of the warmth of the African sun.
The whistling kettle drew him out of his reverie. Quickly, he made a cup of tea before settling back into his favourite chair, well, his only chair. Holding the steaming mug in his hands, he stared longingly at Sola's photograph, his fiancée of fifty days. That's how long it had been since he arrived in London, armed with a suitcase, a few pounds in his pocket and a scholarship offer. Leaning forward, he lifted the framed picture off the trunk next to the sofa. His gaze fixed on her serene smile, which showed just a hint of the gap between her two front teeth. She was shy about the gap, but it only enhanced her beauty in his view. Wide-set, almond-shaped eyes the colour of mahogany greeted him. Her snub nose and full lips were typical of his race. She wore an English dress for the picture and the dainty scarf covering her plaited hair completed the look. He'd laughed when she pulled out the scarf. It seemed so incongruous, sitting on a head full of plaits. But that was his Sola, always with a mind of her own.
Gently, he drew a finger across the face, remembering the last time he had touched her flawless mocha skin. Asking her to marry him on the day he left had been a calculated risk. He meant his promise to send her a ticket as soon as he could. He just didn't know when that would be. Would she wait for him or go off with someone else? She was always joking about the young soldier who sought her affection. He knew Sola only had eyes for him. But now that he wasn't physically there, the young rascal might double up on his efforts to win Sola's love. Eyebrows pinched together, he slumped back into his seat. Would she wait on a promise of a ticket? Out of the corner of his eye, he spied a writing pad jutting out from underneath the edge of the sofa. He grabbed a pen and his makeshift stool and started writing.
3 Clifton Road
March 22, 1962
My Dearest Sola,
How are you? I hope you are well. How are all the family, Mama, your parents, brothers and sisters? I miss your lovely face and sultry voice. Forgive me for not writing sooner. It has been a struggle to settle down in England. Everything here is different. Even the way English is spoken is different. I am still learning to understand white folk when they speak, and I have to work hard to get them to understand me.
I have found a tiny apartment. It is called a bedsit because your sofa turns into your bed at night. Get it? Bed and sit. The sofa bed is quite a contraption, really. I have started at college, and I have a job stacking shelves at the local greengrocers. It doesn't pay much, just enough to cover my rent, buy food and much-needed woollens, and stash something away for your ticket.
So, let me tell you a bit about England, the land we all thought had streets paved with gold. Ha! There is no gold here, but there is plenty of grey. The buildings, the pavements, the sky, all grey! And the cold! I have never felt anything like it. I wear several layers of clothing under my coat, but still, I feel the cold. As I huddle to work in the morning, I swear I can see my own breath flying back to Nigeria. How I long for the warmth of the African sun. If not for the scholarship, I would not tolerate this weather.
The bedsit has no bathroom or toilet. I have to share the toilet across the corridor with other tenants. Ah my dear, bath time, which happens once a week, yes, once a week, is hilarious. Doyin, who lives in the adjoining apartment, usually helps me heave a large basin into the apartment. Unlike at home, there is no outdoor shower room where you can simply use your bucket of water to wash. Here, you fill the basin called a bath with water and then sit in it to wash. I know, sitting in your own muck! The apartment has no running hot water so for a warm bath, you have to boil the kettle several times. Sometimes, the water in the bath has cooled even before the next kettle of water has boiled. The rest of the time, you do what white folk call 'top and tails'. You dip a cloth in water and use it to wipe down your body as best as you can. Fortunately, the white man is clever, and they have figured out how to heat the buildings so that we do not freeze to death indoors.
The English tolerate us Black folk, but they don't like us, really. Many pubs (the equivalent of our beer parlours) have signs outside that say, 'No dogs, No Irish, No Blacks'. Yes, my dear, in their eyes we are no better than dogs. Still, we have the Irish for companionship. Most of them treat us kindly enough and leave us alone. Walking home from work at night can be scary. There are reports of Black people being attacked because of the colour of their skin. For this reason, we now carry sticks of dried stockfish under our coats, for use as impromptu weapons if need be. Don't laugh! My coat smells fishy, and I get funny looks. But it gives me some comfort, that I have the means to defend myself if I need to. Also, if stopped and questioned by the police, I can say it's an ingredient for my pepper soup, and that would be no lie.
I am working hard to save enough money for your ticket. The good thing is, I don't need to spend too much on food. I found out that English people do not eat chicken feet or the innards of the animals they kill for food. Apparently, they process them and use them to make tinned pet food. Fortunately, I have found a butcher who sells bags of the stuff to me for a pound at a time.
God willing, you will join me soon. I look forward to hearing from you.
All my love,
3 Feyike Cottage
26 April, 1962
My Dear Dapo,
It was with joy that I received your letter. I was beginning to think that perhaps you had forgotten me. Your Mama is well. I visited her just last week and took her some yams and fresh fish. She is in good spirits although I am sure she misses you. She is proud that her only child has gone to the land of the Great Queen and misses no opportunity in telling everyone so. My parents and the rest of my family are well too.
It is good that you have found work and an apartment. I cannot imagine the kind of cold that you speak of. I can only compare it to the harmattan season here, but if you have to wear many layers of clothing and you still feel cold, it must be much worse.
I shall prepare to join you and I hope it will not be too long before you can afford to send my ticket.
PS. You know you don't have to worry about the soldier. I was only teasing you!
A month later Dapo's eyes sparkled as he skimmed the contents of Sola's reply. It warmed his heart to know she was still his. Still, something was off about that letter. He read it again, twice. She sounded happy enough, but it was unlike Sola to be so brief and to the point. Her usual manner was to talk about everything under the sun. She was usually at the centre of activity. People gravitated towards her naturally. She was beautiful in spirit and body. In the past, when he lived in Lagos, her letters were full of chatter, about which uncle had married a second or third wife and which wives were trying to kill each other. His heart told him something was up. He just didn't know what. He decided there was no point worrying about it. Sola would talk when she was ready.
Five months later…
It was a bright September morning, the yellow leaves on the horse chestnut tree across the street signalling the beginning of autumn. Dapo bustled around the bedsit, tidying up as he went. He cast a critical eye over the room. Would Sola like it? He had bought a stool, another chair and a tiny dining table so the two of them could have breakfast together. Those, with the two chests of drawers for storing clothes behind the sofa, summed up the entirety of his furniture. There had been no point in dressing up the room. Sola might not like it. Moreover, that was women's stuff. She could redecorate as she liked when she arrived, he reasoned. All the bedding was neatly stowed in the trunk. He salivated as he thought about what he would do on that sofa tonight. His radio, his pride and only indulgence, sat on the stool on the other side of the sofa. It was currently tuned to BBC Africa, his favourite station. He could hear the dulcet croons of Dele Ojo singing of his love for Christiana. He knew that feeling. It was only befitting that his favourite radio station was playing his favourite song when he was on his way to meet his favourite person. The radio announcer interrupted the song to share the news. The weather forecasters were predicting a big freeze for the 1962 to 1963 winter. It was a good thing he would have someone to cuddle up to. With a happy jaunt in his step, he headed for the airport.
Sola's plane had landed fifty minutes earlier. He scanned the passengers as they emerged through immigration one at a time. There were squeals of excitement here and there, as loved ones caught up with each other amidst the hugs, kisses, and tears. He wished he’d arrived earlier so he could take up a spot right next to the exit. As it was, his five-foot-two frame barely allowed him to see over the shoulders of the people in front of him. Then he spied a woman, who for a moment looked like Sola, but quickly dismissed her waddling form. A second glance, however, made him stop, and his jaw slackened. It was a heavily pregnant Sola! judging by the size of her stomach. His heart plummeted, drumming a staccato right down to his gut. He hadn't seen that coming. A quick calculation in his head told him she was at least seven months along. Several thoughts crowded his mind. He knew the baby was his, but how was he going to feed a baby, Sola, and himself, on what he earned? Sola would have to get a job, but then, who would look after the baby? Oh well', he thought, ‘we’ll manage just like everyone else does.’
The other West Africans had found a perfect solution in the private fostering system. They would have to search for the best foster parents they could find, ones who would love their baby just like they would. He shoved his worries aside as a new reality imprinted on his consciousness. He was going to be somebody’s father! His heart soared and a slow grin replaced the frown lines. There was a reunion to be enjoyed, two, counting the baby, and with arms open wide, he went to meet his future.