1. IT DIDN’T SEEM TO MATTER THAT THE FIRST GIRL WENT MISSING WHILE HE WAS STILL AT SEA.
It was going to take two weeks for the ocean liner to reach the United Kingdom but Lawal hoped that the journey – the time between worlds – would help bridge the divide between homeland and sanctuary, shame and prosperity. He was young, but there was already much to put behind him and so, by day, as the ship sailed aside the coast of west Africa, he let his optimism ride along, surfing the slate-grey waves his ancestors once worshipped. But even the ancestors can grow impatient and, once the liner crossed into European waters, the waves began to blacken at night and throw their strength at the ship’s hull. When this did no good (or bad), the ancestors grew enraged, and they began to tell of the way in which this young man and his family name had insulted the rivers and forgotten that it was the mother of the ocean who had given them their blessings. They sent the waves a little something to help them along, unwrapping a curse as thick as the fog that would descend on the maritime mornings. Lawal was none the wiser though, wrapped up in things unseen — his travels and his ambition, a sense of spirit that stirred within and flooded his arteries with the promise of something; a tingle that felt like fortune, an air that trapped his lungs with the swallow of success.
But he spent a lot of time on the deck; perhaps too long, because it was as if the wind began to carry his confidence away. He had enough time alone now, alone with his thoughts for the first time in weeks. He recalled the ways in which he tried to conceal the house girl’s stomach and, when he knew he no longer could, the way his father had looked at him when he told him the news. His father had beat him, but then immediately called for the house girl and beat her even harder. He recalls how she remained silent through it all, and how her silence just angered his father even more. And he believed that it was the silence that was beginning to haunt him now. After a week of rough weather, storms and fierce winds, he stopped going onto the deck altogether, returning only when the isles came into view, when the rush and adrenaline of the other passengers swept him up top. Seeing the smog of Liverpool on the horizon, he fancied himself as some sort of cosmic revisionist, using the present moment – and all the sense of accomplishment it brought – to disabuse himself of any past wrongs. He had sacrificed the comfort of home. But he could be a part of this alien community; fresh produce in the Mother country — a land both strange and familiar. He’d made it to England in one piece despite it feeling for a time as though God had personally sent them the worst of his weather. And now that he had arrived, Lawal believed he would move past the detritus that his lust and longing had left in their wake. He was going to make his father proud; he was going to seal the fissures he had created and discard the past as though it were merely old clothes.
But the ancestors were talking. And he was talking over them with all of these thoughts — thought after thought after thought. If he had stopped for silence, he might’ve heard something rippling, his evil catching up with him, slow crawling across the ocean beneath him.
2. HE THOUGHT THAT THEY WOULD COME TO LOVE HIM IN TIME…
…But Liverpool was no good to him. He was never allowed to settle. Never allowed to feel as if he might belong. He spent a year there before he left for London, where he was able to find a decaying slice of low-rent council housing — a flat on a block that was barely holding court on a crumbling estate. London was no better for him, but he thought the city might give him what Liverpool could not, that opportunity loomed in the shadows of its tall buildings, beneath the bellows of the market traders and in the churning inflections of the lecturers at the Polytechnic he attended. Two years of nothing passed, and until success came out from behind its rock, he had to content himself with thoughts of home and the thought of what had become home. Piss stains crawled down the stairwells in his building and the walls were spray painted with British National Party slogans, calling cards that demanded ‘WOGS GO HOME’.
Still, despite all the fetor, there was a different stink in the air. Lucy Smalls, a quiet nine-year-old brunette, had not been seen in over a month. She was the youngest of three girls, raised by the single mother who lived on the east side of Lawal’s building, in flat 38. Natasha Ifill, who had lived with her family just a few doors away from him, had been close to Lucy’s age when, two years ago, she had also disappeared. And just like in the case of Natasha, the pieces of sticky tape that held the missing posters to the buildings’ walls would come away in time, and the posters would begin to tell a different story, to peel, tear and flap with the wind. No one in the community made it their task to repair or replace Natasha’s posters; they waited instead and, flushed with the guilt of still being able to hug their own children, they relied on the elements to discard their fears.
This piece of south London, with all the police presence, the unease and the anxiety, was Lawal’s home and would remain so until, in some fashion, he was able to make a distant father proud. The months tumbled one after another in a place like that; long term plans easily unraveled.
Snap your fingers. He was now a grown man. His twenties behind him, but still no better for wear. Still living between strangers. Still the city continued to greet him with forced smiles and spurious expressions of welcome. London was impatient with his English and his pronunciations, unsympathetic when it came to late rent. Each day he rediscovered the shade of his skin. He grew accustomed to the words that were frequently spun in his direction. A familiar crop of slurs — Nigger. Golliwog. Sambo. He would ignore the insults until he got home where, once sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, he would peel the words apart and try to reassemble them with his own understanding. The cold UK air was potent, and the winters were unforgiving. Who could have told him that the frequent rain would be able to wash the colour from his ambition, or that January’s snow could cause his confidence to ebb away?
So it was quite causal then, that during one of those brutal winters, he found God waiting for him, in the form of a south London Pentecostal Church that was giving away free food with season’s greetings.
3. GOD MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN BY HIS SIDE.
He was rummaging in his pocket for his keys when the four men encountered him. They were like clones, impulsive and united by their fear of invasion. Their heads were shaved and they dressed alike in bomber jackets, their fatigue trousers tucked into the top of their Doc Martin boots. Their danger was in their number. Because if they were not four, then they might not have taken him by each appendage, and the violence – the idea of picking him up and tossing him over the balcony – might not have come so easy to them.
Lawal fell three floors from the block of flats just as something unseen quickened itself and chased his descent. He hit the pathway outside the garages and lay on the spalled concrete until he was able to comprehend his consciousness. He still lived. He barely caught his breath before he realized his fortune. There wasn’t even any blood to speak of. A miracle? he thought, before he climbed to his feet and winced at the pain in his back and the sudden headache that rang between his ears, the early murmurs of a dull throb that would never subside, welcoming in a pain he was going to spend the rest of his long life trying to shake loose. He shuffled back towards the building then, unsteadied, still trying to gather the world beneath his feet. But later, when his shock set him free, and the fear set in that with so many different Gods in the world, he might snub whatever higher being had come to his aid, he heard the first two of what would be many voices. Two voices in his head. Two girls that screamed and pleaded with him to stop.
4. IT WAS GOING TO BE A BURDEN TOO MUCH TO BEAR.
And then those two young girls disappeared. He’d read it in the paper as Jide, one of few friends from the Pentecostal Church, fussed over him, bent on reminding him that their God was a jealous God and that he needed to stop all this recent talk of embracing all faiths, of Ifa and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. At church, Lawal had a growing reputation as he begun to insist that they evenly spread their praise amongst the gods, to not forget the names of Allah and Brahman and Oludumare in their whispers. Members of the congregation had begun to share their concerns with Jide. They found Lawal’s words inappropriate, and it was distasteful of him to attend each service in the same pair of dirty jeans. Talk amongst the church members grew. Brother Lawal was practicing juju, he was bringing evil spirits into their house of God. The Pastor spoke to Lawal a handful of times but when it grew clear that his message had fallen on deaf ears Lawal was asked not to return. He quit his graduate studies soon after this and lost the job he held as a night watchman at a paper factory. The voices he heard made it difficult for him to work or study and, fearing another attack, he rarely ever went outside, leaving the flat only to visit the Post Office to cash his unemployment benefit or to the market to buy gari and yams. The rent arrears piled up. Jide stopped visiting. Lawal would talk, instead, to strangers because he found that when he talked the voices dimmed a little. But it didn’t take much of this before people started to cross the street whenever they encountered him. That’s how he began to talk to the kids. Because the kids were yet to form judgments and prejudices; the only people innocent enough to give him their time.
5. THEY WERE VOICES CLOTHED IN GLOOM.
Snap your fingers again and, just like that, two, six, eight voices were now in their hundreds. Conversation was his only palliative; he was only able to speak over the voices when he had someone to speak to. It was as though he’d taken up the task of carrying the souls of the locals and it was better for him to talk than to cave beneath the weight of their thoughts.
And so he talked.
His willingness to talk to anyone, to strangers and to the children, meant he earned some local names. Nothing very clever. The Nigerian. The Voodoo Man. The Nigerian Voodoo Man. The Witchdoctor. He ignored the jeers and once managed to just avoid the brick a teenager hurled at him. But when the skinheads chased him a second time he decided that being social was not for him. He shut the world out. More importantly perhaps, he shut his landlord out. He scrawled stuff about his home, transcriptions of the quickened voices that whispered beneath his every act. It helped, not as much as talking did, but it numbed him somewhat. On his refrigerator, in black permanent marker, he put down everything he heard, like the thoughts of the A-Level student that was sure she knew better than her teacher, and the skinhead boy who didn’t share the same views his friends had on Jews and blacks but envied how having a collective voice came so easy to them. He heard the agony of the long-time married woman, a long time untouched. He heard the anxious father infuriated by his son’s shrug. Soon, everywhere he looked in his home, there was sentence after sentence, written wherever there was a clean surface to be found — on plug sockets, on tables, on the skirting, all over the bath. From his perch on the windowsill, he looked out amongst the flats, he saw us – you, me – for what we really were, lead actors in our stories, marked by our inability to shed our sense of significance. But it was those close to him, his neighbours – his community – whose thoughts seeped in with the most intensity. He heard the bigotry, the addiction to alcohol, the protectiveness, the settling for second best, the lust, the trepidation to look at your own body in the mirror and, within it all, he heard the thoughts of that man – the driven, impulsive man that lingered with the young girls – as well as the torment of those that had lost a daughter, granddaughter and sister to this man. Lawal thought the voices were all so violent; it seemed as if violence was everywhere, and the more he heard it, the more it sickened him, suffocating any of the optimism he’d stockpiled during his earlier years in the country.
He had been prepared. He knew, like any good religion, his faith would waver, that it would dull and that he would be desensitized to its effects, just like the lingering pain in his head. And he realized there was no chasing the past, and the future was unattainable. The ambition he had in the seventies had given way to the resignation the eighties brought, and there was only the now, and the time to make peace with something — some being that had chased him across the waters. For the first time in a long time, he thought of the bastard child, born out of wedlock, who his father had hurried him away from. The child would be a teenager now, away from the big city of Lagos, living in whatever village her mother’s family was from. And for the first time ever, he thought of the child’s mother, the untrained and unkempt fourteen-year-old house girl they had taken on. And he confessed aloud, for the first time, that she was not for him to use as his own. She was not another item of furniture in their large home. He confessed aloud, for the first time, that she was no seductress; that he had dragged her to the Boy’s Quarters where he would rape her, and that he had done so several times.
And an affirmation came with the confession — that the past’s denials and the haunting thoughts of the present had something in common: they were voices clothed in gloom.
6. WHEN THEY FOUND HIM, THEY FOUND THEIR ASSURANCE…
…But not before the eight-year-old Pakistani girl, Fatima Bachani, went missing. Her parents didn’t understand English. But no vernacular would help them understand what had happened. They were inconsolable. Lost to the world as much as their child was. Lawal could’ve been right there with Fatima when she was lifted off the monkey bars in the play area. He’d felt her uncertainty, her confusion and later her fear. His faith completely withered after that, the voices grew in volume and he grew as accustomed to living with them as he did with the headache. He would hear voices over and over wherever he went. There were so many voices now that they talked over one another, and he could no longer make out what was being said. The din became just another soundtrack to his life, just a portion of the gloom he felt. There was nothing to do then but to consider the voices as both a warning for others and punishment to him. He force-fed himself some faith, and decided that fasting might help — a marathon fast of Jesus-like proportions. He would fast for forty days for the lives of others and for his own salvation — or he would die trying. And so he stopped eating, stopped collecting his unemployment benefit and would never have left his home again under his own volition.
Being a tenant in an illegally sublet home bought him time, not even his landlord was able to act without alerting the council. But his life, as with all lives, was a blur that brushes the blur of others and the authorities broke in on the seventh day, after the water he left slowly running in the bathroom sink overflowed to a point where it began to drip into the flat below. In the unkempt and now flooded home, they found him in the barely furnished bedroom. Karma had done a number on him. He was lying on a mattress naked and emaciated, whispering prayers as he lay in his waste, his urine and his faeces – selflessly praying for all of us amongst all that mess…
On the wall above him there was a postscript from the Black Atlantic; barely legible and written in excrement stood the words: I raped her.
It was the one sentence he felt he could hold on to through the orchestra of noise, and he muttered this over and over again as one police officer retched and another radioed for an ambulance.
7. NO ONE CAN EXONERATE THE FORGOTTEN.
He would bounce from one institution to another.
The Detective Inspector working the investigation closed the book on the case of the missing girls.
And it was never opened again.
Not even when, weeks later, Greta’s daughter disappeared.
Instead, a new chapter was written.
‘Postscript From The Black Atlantic’ by Koye Oyedeji was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2015.
Koye Oyedeji’s writing has appeared in a number of publications including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Wasafiri, BRAND Magazine and the Washington City Paper Fiction Issue. He has also contributed to British anthologies such as IC3: The Penguin Book of Black British Writing (Penguin) and the anthology Closure (Peepal Tree). He was recently shortlisted for a Miles Moreland Foundation scholarship and is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.