The Other Side of Knowing - Dayo Forster
The sudden change from the warmth of bodies, noise and gaiety to a brash ocean wind squeezes my skin closer to me. I rub my hands over my arms, flattening the landscape of hair tipped bobbles, only to have them peek up again in protest at the cold. My toes cling to each other for warmth as I crunch my way past the dread-topped coconut palms, past a few occupied benches shrouded in capsules of shadow. The bathrooms are at the back of the club.
A girl is leaning against the row of sinks. Her cigarette is tucked into a holder and her hair is pulled back off a face you would want to look at again. She holds and moves her body in a way that would make you want to look at her again. She drags her eyelids down, and keeping them closed, turns her back to me. Smoke wisps upwards and she says clearly, to the occupants of the first cubicle,
“You’d better hurry up in there. Someone’s come in.”
I had started the beginnings of a smile but now it’s shrinking. What it would have been is paused and reversed, so I can regain my face, keep it to myself, carry myself past her to a cubicle at the far end of the room. I walk past tiny scuffles, and little unhs.
The door won’t shut. My pee seems to come out all in a rush, too quick, too loud. The tap gushes out when I open it and splashes onto my dress. I look at the girl out of the edge of my eye. She has not moved. The cigarette is almost at the filter. The grunting has not stopped.
Outside, one of the capsules of shadow splits into two. I cannot see who it is at first. Then the girl says,
“It’s getting a bit cold. Let’s go back in.”
He says, “Let’s sit out here for a bit longer. I’ll keep you warm. Stay close.”
By the time I walk past them, they are locked into each other again, like a self-involved octopus. They do not notice me.
When I walk in, I cannot see anyone I know. I move into the shaded dark, edging along the wall, past clumps of people, with a few scattered pairs, all with parts of their bodies touching. The song changes and I hear Amina’s whoop as she drags Yuan to the dance floor. It’s not a tune that needs close contact.
Oh. I’m going to Barbados.
Oh. Going to see my girlfriend.
She flings her arms around Yuan’s neck, pulls his head down, and kisses him on the lips. He’s not pulling back. He’s not struggling. They stay intertwined for a long time. My heart squeezes itself tight and my eyes drum. Sadness, anger, bitterness, rage, all flash by, strobing with the disco lights – black, shiny, acid blue, blood red. Using my hands behind me as a guide, I find the rough wall to lean on, to watch from.
I attract the attention of a few beer stuffed young men, who detach themselves from their gang, only to stumble towards me and my frosty cracked smile, and then stumble back towards a raucous re-welcome into their group.
The song ends. Amina drags Yuan off, leading him by the hand. Why? She can choose whoever she wants. Surely she must know. Why? He’s told me before he doesn’t fancy Amina. And today of all days!
I know what I have to do today. I will choose and I will do it.
Reuben can drive. I direct him all the way. Will you take me home? Why don’t you stop here for a bit? Shall we move to the back seat? I have the good sense to take out the condom in my disco bag.
I sleep through much of the next day, getting up late afternoon to have a second shower. I think about taking a walk, but when I go outside, Osman is sitting there, on his little stool, with his radio pressed to his ear. The newsreader is announcing in Wollof,
“The president will be leaving soon for the second leg of his meet-the-people tour. He will be visiting Mansakonko…”
“Nanga deff,” I say as I walk past him, towards the gate.
“Jama rek,” he replies.
I catch his scent as I walk past – it’s the roughness of old palm wine ground into stale unfiltered cigarettes. Reuben’s had been straight out of a bottle. Outside the gate, the idea of trudging through the dust, up to the shop for a Coke and a breath of fresh air does not appeal any more. I turn around and go back to my room.
When Reuben rings, I don’t want to speak to him. I don’t want to speak to Yuan or Amina either. They leave messages with my sister Kainde:
Ring Reuben when you get out of bed. He will be at home.
Yuan rang to say he looked for you last night and that Amina told him you’d left. He waited for you anyway until they closed the disco, in case you came back.
Amina says Yuan was looking for you everywhere yesterday. She left him at the party, waiting for you because he wanted to take you home. She says you should ring her back immediately.
Remi rings but does not leave a message.
While the phone rings and Kainde collects my messages, I stay in my bedroom. The curtains are still flowery blue. The walls are still yellow. And the stupid sun is still washing the air with heat.
“What’s wrong?” asks my mother the next morning.
“Just tired,” I reply.
“What’s up with you?” says Taiwo.
“Mind your own business,” I answer.
Kainde continues to write down my messages. She knocks with a murmur of explanation, and then shoves pieces of paper under the door.
“Thank you,” I reply to each one.
I feel empty. Reuben has not brought knowledge.
Remi’s reaction is what I would have expected.
“Lord have mercy! With Reuben!”
She shakes her head, covers her eyes with one hand. She opens her mouth, closes it again. She holds her chin with her left hand to ponder, and then asks,
“What was it like?”
I twist my mouth in response. Yes. With Reuben.
“When my dad came to pick me up, he thought you’d want a lift. He wondered who you went home with. And whether your mother knew.”
“So what did you say to him?”
“That I didn’t know.” She pauses and scratches her nose, “But I thought Yuan was the one. How on earth did you end up with …?”
She shuts up when she sees my face.
On one of the days when I spend more of my time in my bed than anywhere else, Aunt K comes around.
I hear her way down the corridor, talking to Kainde.
“Watin do am? What’s wrong with her? Boy trouble? You say ‘boy’? Let me go talk with her.”
Her footsteps accompany her comments to Kainde,
“There are certain things in life you shouldn’t hurry along. Look at Aunty Beedi – it wasn’t until she was in her 50s that she found someone to settle down with. That’s the kind of thing that’s enough to make anyone live long. Look at her; she’s just like a young girl now. Her face is fresh; she’s always giggling when I meet her out shopping.”
She stops outside my door,
“Which borbor dis? Which boy? You don’t know? She didn’t say? You’re her sister – you should talk to her. I won’t always be around you know.”
She raps on my door, three sharp ones.
“Comut dooyah. Open up. I have something to say to you. Might as well let me in now, or I’ll shout it out in the corridor. Right here where I’m standing.”
I get up to let her in. My door has been locked, key-locked, all day.
After Aunt K leaves, my mother delivers two weak taps on my door.
“Yes, ma,” my dry throat scrapes out as an answer.
She says, “I heard Kiki in the corridor. About you having boy trouble. I’ve talked to you about this kind of thing before.”
Her voice sounds odd, a bit higher in pitch than usual. Ma breathes deep at the end of her sentence.
“I’m ok. It was just Kainde telling tales.”
“So there’s nothing I should worry about? Nothing I should know?”
“No, ma, nothing.”
“Don’t forgot what I’ve told you.”
“I know, ma, men are only after one thing.”
“That’s right. And when they get it, they don’t stay.”
At the door, she grabs the handle.She goes out but her footsteps do not go away. How can she ever begin to understand what it’s like inside of me? I scowl at the shadow of her legs falling in two thick lines on the little crack of air under my door. She stands there as I listen to her listening for me.
Amina barges into my bedroom the next day,
“Why didn’t you ring me back?”
Her arms move to rest on her hips, akimbo. I know what she’s staring at. My hair is sticking up on end. My eyes are puffy and my cheeks ashed grey. I am in a pair of tartan flannel pyjamas.
“What’s up with you? Yuan’s going stir-fry crazy. And here you are looking all rough.”
“You’re good friends now are you?”
“We talk. He’s pretty cool.”
“I saw you kiss him at the disco.”
“Oh. Is that what this is all about then?”
Her raised eyebrows. Her scrunched up face with the questioning look. Her you-stupid-girl shake of her head.
“I know you like him. There are lots of men and boys out there. I don’t need Yuan.”
I burst into tears.
“Look, you know I fool around. I kissed him on a dare that’s all. It means nothing.”
Amina throws herself on to the end of my bed, and leans on one elbow watching me sob myself into my pillow.
“Pull yourself together. It’s not the end of the world you know.”
Three days later, I start to come out of my room more often to face the world with its bright shining sun. Reuben calls on a day I’m closest to the phone and I pick up.
“Ha-hallo. That sounds like you Ayodele,” he starts.
“Yes, it is.”
“I’ve been phoning …”
“And I’ve got the messages.”
“Ah I wondered whether you’d like to go for a charwarma or something?”
“Not today, thanks.”
“Perhaps another time?”
By Thursday the following week, my head is in a twist. I chose the guy I didn’t want, and am now ignoring the one I did want. I feel stupid.
We are about to go for our end of year, end of school picnic party. This is our very last time together as a class. I am late on purpose, having asked Amina and Remi to save me a seat. Although we were all allowed to bring one guest, most of us haven’t bothered. Remi has invited Kojo, her boyfriend, and he will be driving up to meet us later.
Reuben finds me as soon as I arrive and comes up to grin and mumble a few words,
“You’re looking nice,” he says, but his eyes do not quite know where to look on my body. They jump from my face, to my boobs, then my feet. He stares at my leather flipflops while I think up an answer.
“Thank you,” is the best I can do.
His eyes flicker back up to mine and then stare past my right ear towards the main school entrance, where our rowdy, chattering friends wait.
“Which bus are you going in?”
“That one. With Remi and Amina.”
His hands find his pockets.
“Just wondered, whether. Um. You’d like us to sit together?”
“Thanks but the others are waiting for me.”
His eyes shift past my face to a spot beyond my left ear.
“See you then.”
Most of us are wearing jeans, khaki trousers or shorts. Amina’s version of our teenage uniform is tight, tight, dark, dark drainpipe jeans with a loose t-shirt screaming ‘babe’. I see her clambering into the bus, squealing about something or other, as she usually does.
We are going to a tiny village up past Pirang. Mrs Foon, a teacher at our school, has relatives who own a farm by the river. The buses have come to pick us up on the forecourt of our school. We are waiting for the drivers to be given final instructions. Everyone is trying to find someone they’d like to sit next to. Stragglers jostle for improved bus seats. An hour later, we’re crammed into the two buses. They ease out through the front gate, past ‘Coast High School’ written out in red china grass against a patchy bit of lawn, onto the road to start our journey. We’re taking everything we need for our party. There are plastic sacks of ice stuffed into metal bins for our drinks. A couple of car batteries to power the music and small speakers. Half a tin drum, cut lengthways, that will be our BBQ. Bags of charcoal. Lots of crates of soft drinks with a few stray ones of Julbrew beer – our teachers have acknowledged that we are after all, now officially Grown Up. We have cane mats and malans to spread out on the ground. There are vats of seasoned chicken, and half a sheep, potatoes, plantains, baskets of mangoes and drifts of lettuce leaves.
Moira, Remi and Yuan got into the bus early, and picked the best spot – the row of five seats in the back.
I sit next to Amina, who declares, “Could not find anyone young enough to invite who wasn’t coming already, so I came on my own.”
Remi says, “Why am I not surprised?”
“Yeah,” Yuan says, “you mix in different circles, Amina.”
“And those friends won’t want to come to a boring Sixth Form party,” Moira adds.
I know Yuan senses something is different about me. He leaves his eyes on my mouth when he looks at me. I find I cannot keep my eyes on his whenever they meet.
We drive past groyned beaches and sleepy casuarinas, past huddles of stalls by the roadside at Serrekunda, and newly built Amadiya mosques. The road is fine until we get past Brikama, when it becomes dusty tarmac with many generous pot holes, accompanied by two parallel lanes of laterite carved out on either side by weary drivers. Rain-worked ravines hurry across the road. The bus tilts over each bump.
There’s talk of university, some drifting towards us at the back before being snatched away by wind through the open windows.
“I’ve had enough of studying,” says Remi, “Kojo will have to earn all the money.”
“So he becomes a doctor and you become a wife?” asks Amina.
“Any problem with that?” Remi asks, her voice sharp.
Moira sighs and asks, “And you, Yuan, what will you do?”
“I’ve applied to a couple of universities in America to please my parents, but as I keep telling them, Europe will be a lot closer. I’d rather go to England.”
“I know I won’t be able to go to England without a scholarship, even if I get the university place,” I say.
“All this England, England. Why not try further afield? I want to go somewhere where no one else is going, like Italy or Singapore,” says Amina.
“I want to work, start earning some real money,” says Moira.
“I wonder where we’ll all end up,” I say.
Elsewhere on the bus, there are occasional bouts of laughter, raucous shouts across the aisle. “Pipe down,” says Mrs Foon, “you’re almost grown-ups.”
We turn to stare out of the back windscreen. An outrider in a blue security service uniform speeds towards us flashing blue. It steadily gains on us, stirring up a blanket of red dust. It appears he wants us to get off the makeshift laterite road, and stop on the potholed tarmac. The driver turns the engine off in protest.
The outrider pulls up next to the driver, “Get off the road, the president’s coming.”
“I’m already off it, so he can stay in the middle.”
“Don’t be cheeky. The President needs a smooth ride. Get back on the tarmac.”
“That’s not so easy here – look at that huge hump at the side.”
“Get off soon, and show proper respect. Or the next outrider will make sure you’re sorry.”
We crowd on the driver’s side of the bus, gawping at the leather booted man in a moonscape helmet.
Amina stands up on her seat, her tight packed rounded bum hovering north of Yuan’s spiky head. She yells out of the window, “Is Mr Bojang in the car with the president?”
The outrider turns to her and replies, “What’s it to you?” before gunning his engine and giving us a blast of processed petrol.
“How do you know a Mr Bojang, in with the president?” Yuan asks.
“I get around.”
It doesn’t take long to get the story out of her.
“I met him at Landing’s a couple of months ago. He happens to like school girls.” She puts on her cheeky grin and her eyes spray sparks of merriment. “He thinks his power and money will buy him anyone.”
“But you showed him otherwise, right?”
“You bet. Men are so stupid – not you Yuan, you are perfect. They think a flash of dalasi and a flag with the president’s seal on it are all it takes to sniff a girl’s underwear.”
“You should be careful. What if he’d turned nasty?”
“Nasty? In a place as public as Landing’s? No chance. I teased him a bit, let him buy me a drink and then went off to close dance with someone else. Soon enough, some skinny girls were on to him. They looked young, so I think they diverted his attention from me.”
“All these stories, Amina!”
“I bet you have a few of your own. Go on, tell.”
“I’m sure our lives will never be as exciting as yours,” says Yuan, looking at me.
We have arrived at the farm, and hauled our communal picnic into the shade of an enormous mango tree, off season, with huge glossy leaves and coarse thighed buttresses off its trunk. Remi and Moira start to spread out mats and pillows, trays and cups.
A few fishermen are offering boat rides off a shaky looking jetty – built of planks from the insides of coconut palm, sodden with brackish water. Tongues of river lick the sides of the canoes, hollowed out trunks that can take three or perhaps four slim people at a time. Amina and Yuan dare me to join them. We leave the other two to the unpacking.
The boat trip itself is without incident. The fisherman uses a long pole to ease us away from the bank. Stretches of bare mangrove roots above the surface of the water breathe in air without a shudder. Once we are in the little tributary, with the mangrove on both sides, voices from our picnic site get rubbed away by our distance. All we can hear are bird noises. Clusters of river oysters have crusted onto the mangrove. The fisherman splashes his paddle past a group of women up to their waist in water. They wield large blades, prising the oysters off with hands thickened from years of doing the same thing.
Even Amina falls silent, letting her hand trail through the water.
“Watch out, it might be sweet enough for crocodiles,” Yuan says to her.
“Don’t be silly,” she replies, but she takes her hand out, sprinkling the river water at Yuan.
She makes it all look so easy, this mucking about with boys, this ease at being around them.
When we get back to the jetty, the others get out first as they are nearer the front. When I stand up, the canoe suddenly tips to one side.
“Togall,” shouts the boat man.
“Move your weight,” yells Yuan.
Do I sit, stand, move or keep still? In the seconds it takes me to decide I don’t quite know what to do, the boat loses it’s balance under me. I fall backwards, away from the jetty, into deep water. It is thickly brown. I cannot feel which way is up. I cannot see the bubbles I blow out. I thrash about at first, and manage to bring my head above water, but when I open my mouth, all it seems to do is swallow. I know I can swim, but it takes a full sharp-edged minute before I can convince my body it needs to let the water carry it. Then my foot touches something, hard and slimy. A scream boils free from my body. My arms start to punch the water again, my feet kicking.
“Try to get to the boat,” instructs Yuan.
I see the long shape of the boat’s bottom alongside me. Relief swamps the fear. The boatman who was also flung into the river appears next to me. My legs start to kick the water and my arms find a stroke. The jetty comes closer.
They help me out – Yuan and Amina each claiming an arm while the boatman tries to boost my feet with his hands.
I sit in a pair of borrowed malans all afternoon, one tied round my waist as a skirt, the other in a halter top. My clothes, which Remi wrings out, are lying on a nearby bush, drying in the sun.
Mangrove roots in the river can feel like the skin of crocodiles.
We stay in our tight little group, lounging in the shade. Mrs Foon waves a hand. Reuben walks by several times on his own, making a track to and from the jetty. Kojo eventually arrives in his father’s old snub nosed Peugeot 504, his exhaust giving a little fart when he turns off the engine. He walks towards us.
“Here he is,” Remi announces, “our ride home.”
Yuan greets him with a, “Hey man, you’ve missed all the action.”
“What action? Tell me more, but first get me something to drink. That road’s a killer.”
Moira says, “Ayodele got soaked.” Everyone piles in to elaborate.
Yuan concludes, “She looks calm don’t you think, for someone recently rescued from being crocodile food.” Their heads all swivel round to look at me.
The barbeque tin drum is now with hissing with mounds of oysters piled on the ash-rimmed coals. I stand up to make a pretend curtsey. “I’ll get us some river food to celebrate my watery resurrection.”
Armed with a tin enamelled bowl piled with a mountain of barbequed oysters, I make my way back to the group, only to find they are still discussing the intricacies of how I lost my balance - how I looked flailing about in the water, my swimming technique, and my final last lunge towards the jetty. Fuelled by the empty green bottles beside them, Amina and Yuan are miming my actions, as if scripted.
“Why don’t you talk about something else for a while? How come Amina knows someone who works with the President, for example?”
“That’s not half as interesting as falling into a river when there’s a perfectly good jetty to get off onto,” protests Amina.
“Good point Ayodele,” says Yuan. He shakes his index finger at Amina. “Girls like you should leave men like that alone.”
“Go on, someone, fill me in,” says Kojo.
With relief, I summarise. “On the way here, an outrider ordered us off the road. As he drove off, Amina asked about the whereabouts of a certain Mr Bojang. Then she told us that she’d met him at some club. Which is worse? That or swimming with crocodiles?”
“Some of the men in this government are absolute bastards,” Kojo says.
Amina tries to clear her name. “Hey, I only tried to pass on a hello to someone who would not remember me. It was a joke.”
“Do you know there’s rumours of a Mr Bojang who tells doctors what to put on death certificates?”
We all freeze, as in how we used to when small and playing musical chairs.
Amina breaks into the disquiet, “Like I said, I’ve only met him the once. Don’t take me too seriously. It was only a joke.”
Kojo has the last word, “Men like that cannot be joked around with.”
The early bus is ready to leave. I notice Reuben shuffling near the door, looking around with his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. When I think he might notice me looking at him, I turn away and reach for my bottle of beer.
The moon settles into the night. What breeze there is is muddied by the large mango trees standing in its way. We are leaving later with Kojo. Amina is given the chore of explaining our plans to the teachers supervising the tidy up in preparation for the second departure. We help to spill hot coals and scatter them onto sun hardened laterite. Empty bottles clink together as they are put back into the crates and loaded onto the bus. We commandeer a few bottles from the vats of cold water before the dustbins are emptied and the plastic bags of our litter loaded in. When all is done, the last bus starts up. We allow the quiet to hang over the trundle of the engine as it turns out of the gate.
The noises change. The bird sounds are fewer, longer, lower.
“What about snakes?” says Amina, her voice tangled and squeaky.
We burst into delighted laughter. And the laughter and lightness carry the rest of the evening.
Eventually I say, “Should we go now?”
Yuan replies, “Don’t want to.”
“Should we stay till morning then?”
Amina echoes, “Don’t want to.”
We knot ourselves into a drift of conversations, starting and ebbing. University crops up again. And what we intend to do with our lives. We talk about the moon, about whether mermaids will come this far up the river, about crocodiles and oysters. The night is stretching itself thin, with no-one wanting to break up the easy company until the sky starts to lighten, and we agree that yes, indeed, it is morning after all.
<< Poetry Home | Kwani Home >>