Daylight steals past the thick drawn curtains of my bedroom and pries my eyes open. It usually annoys me, the sun forcing itself through the clouds, marking yet another day that I have lived to see, yet another day I have to live through. But not today. Today is a good day. A day to die.
I slide to the other side of the bed, closer to the night table. The other side is cool and empty, it has been for years, but I no longer think about that. At least, not when I first wake up. I wrap my fingers around the wrought iron stead and pull myself up. My arm wobbles, the whole bed wobbles. I swing my legs – one by one – over the side of the bed, my toes touching the cold wooden floor.
Inside the drawer is a small glass bottle of Vladirvir, half drunk. The strongest vodka in all of Harlesden, Murthy assures me. He is probably lying but I choose to believe him. He has become somewhat of a friend, Murthy, though he never asks me why I buy so much vodka. He just hands me the bottle over the counter and taps the cash register with his hairy forefinger while he talks about how bad the cold is for his back.
I drain the bottle and toss it under the bed; it clinks into place next to the rest. I must remember to throw them all away before I leave – it would be cruel for Adebimpe to have to do it, as well as wonder what to do with my scarce belongings. I need more vodka but that will have to wait until I leave the flat. I miss home at times like these. At home, I would have shouted for Lawal to fetch me some more from the supermarket; Lawal and his pungent body odour that countless bottles of Sure, Lynx and even the Old Spice I bought him one Christmas could not quench. Beneath the pleasant aroma would always be the stench of his virility. But I would take Lawal, his body odour and the screams that burst from the local girls he snuck into his bedroom late at night when he thought I was asleep. I would take all of that to be back in Ibadan, peering down at the thousands of rusted roofs from my balcony.
I drag my feet into the bathroom. The house is cold this harmattan morning. Adebimpe turned off the heating before she left for work. Each step feels like I am walking on tiny shards of glass; it sends icy pinches through my feet and up my spine. It is a hard thing, to be at the mercy of your own child, but I am thankful to be here. It is far better to be poor in a city in which one is anonymous.
In the bathroom, I adjust the mirror until I am face to face with my reflection. I stare into my hooded eyes and run my hand over my smooth head. If someone were to look at me and squint, they might be able to tell that I was once a handsome man. But soon, none of this will matter. I splash water on my sandpaper face and try not to think about what might await me on the other side. If I am to believe my late wife: fire, brimstone and gnashing of teeth. I focus instead on how good it will feel to no longer carry the weight of failure on my back, nurturing it everyday, like a child.
I climb into the bath carefully. I no longer have the limbs of a forty-year-old man, my Humpty Dumpty fall last year taught me that. I sit on the edge of the bath, my feet planted on the faded rubber mat that Adebimpe bought for me. The shower pressure is weak, so I prefer to run water from the tap into a rusty little pail and scoop the water with a plastic bowl. I pour water on my head and enjoy its warmth cascading down my body. I am grateful that Adebimpe no longer has to bath me.
“This is what you used to frustrate mum to the grave, this wrinkled old thing?” she once said to me, flapping her hand back and forth at my genitals.
You would think that after two husbands, she would know what she should and should not say to a man. As if a man cannot have indiscretions and meet his family’s needs at the same time. Her mother understood this and our marriage was like granite until the day she died, no matter what Adebimpe thinks. Instead, she chooses to work all sorts of hours in the London underground, when she could have had a comfortable life in Lagos – a wife and a mother with housemaids and drivers and cooks. She forsook all of that just so she can stand on her mountain of western ideals, pointing down at us Nigerian men, as if men from other countries are different, as if they are better. I spit on the floor of the bathtub. Her failure is my failure, it is part of the guilt I carry with me daily. I pour bowls of water on my head, over and over, an ablution.
When I finish my shower, I wrap a towel around my waist and walk back to my bedroom to dress. For today, I have chosen my white brocade agbada. It is the only traditional attire I have brought with me from Ibadan, the last agbada my wife made for me before she passed on. I left the others in my room in Ibadan; let the bank worry about disposing of them. I pull it out of the wardrobe and lay it flat on my bed. It has been dry cleaned and freshly pressed. I smooth my hand over it, stroking the dazzling fabric. White is befitting for this occasion.
Just as one clothes a child at a naming ceremony to celebrate their arrival, I cloth myself to celebrate my departure, except for me, there will be no joy, no dancing, maybe no tears even. I struggle to get the heavy flowing fabric over my head but when I do, I marvel at how radiant I look. I extend my arms out like an eagle. I look around the room one last time. My bed is unmade, the bottles under my bed are exposed, but I am too anxious for chores right now, every muscle, every nerve, every cell in my body is focused on one thing only. I wear my hat and close the door behind me.
I emerge into the crisp March air. Mad Jerry is outside, shuffling through his mail in his dressing gown. I wonder if the whole street knows him as Mad Jerry or if, without realising it, Adebimpe and I have actually bonded over our mutual fascination with this strange neighbour. He mumbles when he sees me, then does a double take.
“Going somewhere nice?” he sneers.
“Yes, I have a very important meeting.”
“Really? Me too.” He laughs and his belly vibrates under his tight dressing gown. He continues flipping through his mail.
As I walk down the road from the flat to Murthy’s store, I realise how happy I am that I will never walk this road again. There is a mattress on the pavement, laid flat as if someone has just risen from it, with a long brown stain that is probably feces. There are biscuit wrappers and Tesco bags and old newspapers scattered about. Why Adebimpe chose to live in this miserable place, I will never understand.
At Murthy’s store, I am disappointed to see that it is not him but his son standing behind the counter. I point to the bottle behind him. He touches one and looks at me, I shake my head. He touches another one, I shake my head again.
“Give me Vladirvir,” I say.
Not one word passes his lips during the entire transaction, not even a greeting. It would have been good to see Murthy. I wonder what he would have said about my attire.
“Where is your father?” I ask.
I nod. Probably his back again.
“Greet him for me, okay?”
He nods. He is already looking over my head at the next customer behind me.
I cross the street and sit on the park bench, beneath the mural of children of different races in a big circle, their arms linked. In my flowing agbada, I am aware of how strange I must look. I unscrew the bottle of Vladirvir and look left and right. I have not done a good job of raising mine and I do not want to be a bad influence on other people’s children as well. I also look around because, as anonymous as London is, I still feel the pressure of ‘they’. What ‘they’ would say if ‘they’ saw me, drinking openly before midday, dressed in a flowing white agbada. But ‘they’ have stopped caring years ago so I knock back some vodka. The smell of it always reminds me of being a boy in Ibadan Grammar School and the rubbing alcohol that Nurse Fletcher would use whenever I scraped my knee while playing football. Sometimes, I would hurt myself just so that I could be seen by her. She was the first woman I ever lusted after, Nurse Fletcher. Blonde, tortoise shell glasses, big bottomed, she was perfect in my prepubescent eyes. “Ade,” she would say. “You little lothario.” It was years later that I would come to know the meaning of the word. She could never have known how right she would be.
I take another gulp. My thoughts are dancing in my head. Maybe this is why I chose vodka, not whisky or brandy or rum, it takes me back to a time when my life was simple. But it is not just the simplicity that I long for because my life is very simple now: I wake up, I watch TV, I eat, I go to bed. I long for the blind conviction I had as a boy that I was somebody. I never doubted it back then. And even after I lost it all, I refused to doubt it. I refused to believe that who I was – my pride, my influence, my charm – was all rooted in the things I had; because even when I had nothing, long before I married my gorgeous wife or built my mansion, people had always wanted to know me. And for a while I believed it, I believed that though I had lost it all, I could still maintain my influence. I believed that the government would change, my friends would be in power again and I would be right up there once more, sitting amongst princes. I have lost that faith now, in its place is the daze of my irrelevance. I am a poor old man. I am nobody.
My pocket vibrates, and I almost spill vodka on myself in shock. I did not realise that, out of habit, I have taken the phone Adebimpe bought me and slipped it into my pocket. It must be one o’clock because she calls me at one o’clock everyday.
“Major delays on the Bakerloo line because a leaf blew onto the track,” she says. “Can you imagine, a leaf?” she sucks her teeth.
“Is that so?” I do not feign interest because her voice sounds less interested than mine. She tells me stories like this every other day, about her miserable job at the London underground, as though she did not choose this life.
“Will you bring the meat out of the freezer so I can make stew when I get back?”
“Are you at home? You don’t sound like you are at home.”
“I am out.”
She scoffs. “Just be home early enough to take the meat out, okay? I have to go.” She ends the call before I have the chance to respond. I toss the phone in the grass in front of me.
Will she miss me? Probably not. Will I miss her? I assume that missing is an emotion afforded only to the living but if, by chance, I am able to in the afterlife, I cannot say for sure whether I will miss her. I feel sorry for her and how awkward my death will make her life, maybe even more awkward than my poverty, but you cannot miss someone you do not know and I do not blame her for that either. There was once a time – so long ago it has faded in my mind like a sun beaten poster – if she had not sat on my lap, if I had not cuddled her, she could not go to bed. Adebimpe, our crown truly was complete when she came into the world.
I exhale, long and slowly. As much as she has failed as an adult, I have failed more as a father. She cannot even pronounce her own name, the ‘kp’ sound in the latter part of her name is too difficult for her British trained tongue. We did not teach her Yoruba for fear that it would taint her English; we thought she would pick it up, as children often did. Well, she did not pick it up in Ibadan and that was never going to happen at boarding school in London. Looking back now, especially whenever I hear Murthy and his son converse in Hindi, I realise the gravity of my mistake. How could we ever be close when we think in different languages?
I get up, to get away from my thoughts, but my legs become spaghetti beneath me. I fall back to the bench, grateful it is there to break my fall. I give myself a few moments to recover and make a second attempt. I must not drink anymore otherwise my mind will turn to mush and I will not be strong enough to do what needs to be done. I cross the street and climb the slight hill up to Harlesden underground. I grip the railing to take the pressure off my knees and descend the stairs that lead down into the station, one step at a time, like a toddler learning to use stairs. The irony in the cycle of life is usually not lost on me; how we are children, we grow, we age, only to become children again, but today I find it humourless. The wind blows my agbada like a cape behind me and the chill causes my eyes to water.
I pause at the entrance of the station. I have journeyed through this place many times before but it takes me a moment to get my bearings. Platform one to Harrow and Wealdstone or platform two to Elephant and Castle? Platform two. Not that it makes a difference. I descend the stairs to platform two and wait for the train going to central London. It will arrive in three minutes, the digital board informs me. I eye the bench nearest to me but choose to stand instead; I might struggle to get up like I did outside. My thoughts turn inward. Every decision I have made has led me to this point, including my decision now to end it. Unlike my beloved wife, I do not believe in destiny; life is a sum of decisions.
I could have been a better father, I could have been a faithful husband, I could have been a man who put family before all else but that was never enough for me. I was a seeker of pleasure, a pleaser of my senses, to be anything else would have been a lie. I chose to be true and I am choosing to be true even now.
I steel my nerves from the fear that is beginning to tickle. I gather my agbada around me, swaddling myself like a baby. I close my eyes and images flash behind my eyelids like a cinema screen. Adebimpe as a toddler in our backyard, I am chasing her and spraying her with water from a hose. My wife’s whimsical smile on the night we first met, in a dimly lit living room, at my neighbour’s birthday party. In the end, these are the things that stay with me. Not the intoxicating smell of money, not the pretty things who sold me their firm bodies.
The rickety train approaches, scraping its way down the tracks. I inch closer and closer to the edge but leave enough space not to alert anyone of my intentions. I shut my eyes harder and begin to sway from side to side, not of my own will; the entire strength of the vodka has hit my blood stream. The train draws near, I take a step forward, the train draws nearer, I take another step. This is it. My heart is pounding, my armpits are sweaty under my agbada. The train is twenty metres away, ten metres away, five metres away…
And then it blows right past me.
A gust of wind forces me to take a step back. I stand at the edge of the platform while people pour out of the train like a bag of rice toppled over. I just stand there, planted, an Iroko tree, looking but not seeing a single thing.
Soon the platform empties except for a lone figure walking slowly towards me from the far side of the platform. As the figure draws nearer, I recognise the gait; it is Murthy.
“Ade, my friend,” he says. He looks me up and down, “You look great old man, what is the celebration?”
I think about the phone I threw on the ground, in front of the bench, beneath the mural of children of different races and wonder how I will explain its loss to Adebimpe.
Abiola Oni is a Nigerian writer, living and working in London. She is passionate about literature, her earliest memory involves being curled up with an Enid Blyton book. Her short story ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published by Bakwa Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel. She tweets at @afrikancherry
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