It’s been a thrilling ride, being a Nieman affiliate. I’ve enjoyed the same privileges as a fellow, part of which included access to the Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Non-fiction class run by Steve Almond.
At first, I was nervous. I don’t do non-fiction with good reason; I was raised in a largely conservative environment, my parents are alive and my mother is really good with the internet. I was not sure that I would enjoy the scrutiny that comes with non-fiction, nor the exposure, the knowing. I like folding my truth into fiction, so the decision to do the class was pretty tough. And then, there is the judgement. I feared my classmates would look at me differently.
Turns out I’d spent a lot of time worrying for nothing. It was my first ever workshop in anything (fiction and non-fic) and let me tell you, the bar has been set pretty high for all future classes. It was a warm, welcoming envorinment and I like to think I grew a little. I don’t much care if anyone judges me now.
In this spirit, here is a piece I did for a class assignment on ‘My First Crush’. Been up all night with a newborn so off to bed now. Enjoy!
Nothing happened where we lived, in Awka, a town of a few thousand people stuck between their ancient traditions and modernity. At night, there were drumbeats passing around mysteries to initiated ears, town criers ringing their metal ogene gongs and yelling into the void, and in the day time, flattened dog carcases run over by owners of new cars, for good luck – of course.
There were four of us siblings at the time he appeared, squeezed into two spacious flats atop the massive three-storey building (plus basement rooms) which housed my father’s hospital. The gleaming sign on the rooftop could be seen for what seemed like miles to my eyes: Sefton Specialist Medical Centre (SSMC), followed by the postal address, blue on white next to what we assumed was the Moses snake curled on his staff.
I was nine, breast buds burning like embers on my chest. He was fifteen, a worthy distraction. He never seemed fully dressed and yet, neither was he undressed. He wore these brown knee-length shorts most of the time, or trousers, but was never without his brown waistcoat. Shirtless. I came to know him by it, walking down the street, with the careless swagger of someone who had no intent to belong, arms bare, the gap between where the waistcoat stopped and his bottoms started. He’d just moved down from the mysterious north, into the compound which lent the dirt road its name. The mysterious compound with girls my age – his cousins – who did things to day labourers for five-five naira. He was exotic. White teeth and dimples which more than made up for a head the shape of an end-loaf of bread. We watched him – my sisters and I – from the topmost flats. Four piteous princesses hanging from floor-to-ceiling balcony bars, wishing they could just go downstairs to play and the boy who dared to look up and wink, sending us diving for the ground in fits of giggles.
Everyone called him ‘Daddy’ on our street, a leftover family nickname like ‘Junior’. We couldn’t comprehend its ridiculousness. Who the hell named their kid ‘Daddy’? We changed it to ‘Dandy’ instead and it seemed to suit. Did I mention he liked me? I thought I was special but now I see; my elder sister was not that impressed or if she was, she didn’t show it. The younger ones, too young. Seven and five. I was just the right age. Errands to the shops below became fraught. My mother thought me slow and lazy where in fact I was afraid. Afraid of the breathlessness, the fear of running into him and the feeling of simultaneously being dunked into my own stomach and stretched beyond my head. I cannot remember our first meeting. I probably wasn’t conscious for it.
The rest I do remember though. That rare occasion when we snuck downstairs to the carport, to take advantage of the absence of cars and the ambulance, separated from the road by a gate made up (again) of flat black bars. Who am I kidding? I had seen him coming up Court Road from my vantage point and rushed downstairs to water the guard dogs, locked up in their kennels in the heat. I let all four of them out, not caring if any patients got terrorised. They scampered about, feeling the breeze, drinking, prancing. I knelt beside the newest, what was his name again? and stroking him, waited for Dandy to make his way past the gate.
“Hi,” he said, in a place where nobody said ‘Hi’. My stomach squeezed.
“Good afternoon,” I returned as coolly as I could. He showed his teeth and pushed his sunglasses up his head. I immediately looked away. His companion was a family friend, a boy whose parents were from my hometown as well. Permission granted. I approached the gate as close as I could. Sweat trickled down my temples and stuck my ‘I got lei’d in Hawaii’ shirt to my back. It was my best t-shirt, yellow, garlands. Didn’t know about innuendos.
His eyes travelled over the animals. “So, where is the other one? What’s his name? Teddy?” He stuck his hands between the bars and the dogs came, curious, sniffling. Pied Piper in his waistcoat. How? Our dogs were ferocious and trusted nobody but us. The oldest of them, Mann, stood some way away, eyes narrowed, but even he did not bark.
“Oh, Teddy? He died. Last week.” Unsuitable really, copious amounts of curly fur. Some foreign-breed present from a grateful patient, or else, a quick sale to a man who valued the security that guard dogs brought.
My sisters sniggered at the cuss and I lowered my head, shamed by their lack of sophistication. For weeks afterwards, we took turns playing out this scene upstairs, substituting ‘Bull shit’ for ‘Goat urine’ and so on.
I told you nothing happened where we lived.
The Christmas before I left for boarding school, my father threw his annual party for staff to which neighbours were invited, as a show of goodwill. His new hospital building had been completed, a brand-new institution glowing white in the full moon. Drinks, meats, jollof rice, plantain and noise. I darted about in an itchy, yellow dress which the year before had been treasured but now appeared childish. The round neckline hugged my throat and the net underskirts spread the fabric theatrically. Dandy stood in the dark, watching everything with his trademark raised eyebrow.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
“Why,” I said, instantly suffering from high blood pressure.
“Just do,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
With my eyes closed? I stared at the staff, the light pointing the wrong way, the streets full of people. Surely not. I began to shut my eyelids, noting the shadow flitting across them as he raised his hand. Something sweet, heavenly really, burst upon my senses.
“What is that?” I asked, hypnotically.
“No, tell me.” I opened my eyes. He hid the thing behind his back.
I didn’t know. His skin was warm where I touched it, trying to get his hand out. My stomach again. He pulled out a sprig of green. “Orange leaves.”
There were orange trees everywhere. All it took was one scantily clad lad crushing a leaf under my nose to awaken me to their scent forever.
I started getting over him during school holidays, home from boarding school. More interesting boys. Plus, did he not have any other clothes? Did he have something against school? I had places to be. By the time I’d switched to my all girls’ secondary school, I’d gotten over him completely. We were amiable, but we had nothing of import to say to one another. He’d learnt the local dialect by then, heavy and coarse and just…no. He seemed aimless. Once I spied him lying on a mat in the middle of their compound, in the heat of the sun.
“Poor boy has malaria and his uncle doesn’t want to bring him for your father to treat,” said my mother, shaking her head. “Well, we can’t suggest. Not tomorrow now if something happens to him, they will say we used him for juju.”
The proverbial nail in coffin: Me, returning from ‘overseas’ with an MA and professional qualifications in tow and having his beautiful pink lips curl in disdain when I said hello.
“You won’t go and marry,” he said. “Don’t you know you’re old now?” I was twenty-three.
I cursed him for a bastard. He was dating one of my fellow doctors’ kids. Ngozi. Massive twin assets and all that. Even she left him to marry someone else.
Last I heard from one of my sisters, he is working for my father as an outdoor cleaner.
I’m not saying that’s bad, but, you know.