LONDON IS COLD, by Noel Cheruto
You found a pin with which to prick the circle of poverty. A visa stamped onto your passport is a balm for misery. They meet you outside your mother’s hut when you get home from the embassy: women with flowered headscarves wrapped around their scalps, men in freshly washed khaki jackets, children in little shorts over muddy shins. Everyone you know and a few you don’t, all singing excitedly and rushing to meet you.
Our son has made it, they sing. We all have made it. Their voices sway with the wind like the dust that has risen in a thick cloud. Sweaty palms reach under your arms and lift you above their shoulders. You feel a slight rip on your sleeve just below your elbow as they swing you aggressively from one shoulder to the next. Your grandmother, whose age you can only suppose, is swept up in the melee too; limping along and laughing toothlessly, her wrinkles turned into rivers of sweat that flow down to her breast. Her headscarf, once white, now the color of red earth, lies forgotten on the ground.
They set you down carefully, like a delicate piece of art, on the wooden bench under the giant oak tree behind your mother’s hut. Then, like a zipper ripped open, they separate. Women, still humming, clumsily fastening lessos around thick waists, move to the left where makeshift fireplaces are. Full pots sit atop fierce flames, steam shooting skyward from narrow brims. The men walk up a gentle slope to the right, hanging their jackets on twigs staked to the ground. They fuss over large iron sheets, over which freshly slaughtered goat is barbequed on burning charcoal.
There is a bright cheer as your mother emerges from her hut, bowing as she walks through the low doorframe. Her flower-print kitenge flows down from her shoulders in large swirls that sweep down to her ankles. A woven basket fashioned out of sun-dried river reeds rests against her hip like a child. She stands a few paces from where you sit, facing the crowd. You can smell the sweetness of her lotion in the air.
Behold! She says, one hand pointing at you, the other hugging her basket, skewing it a little with pressure. My guava tree was once a tiny seed. It came to me by accident and the man that brought it fled. She pauses and shakes her head dramatically, arms folded across her breasts. A sudden wind blows from the valley below, lifting her skirts to her knees. It whips away as fast as it came, howling and scattering tufts of cut grass in its wake. You follow it with your eyes down the valley where it claps through patches of corn and over neat rows of green vegetables.
I did not falter, your mother continues, bunching her skirt up and tucking it between her knees. I watered and weeded around it. I did it alone, never once complaining or begging. Now it is enormous, this tree of mine. She twists her back so that her shoulders are square to you. Her face shines like a pebble in a river. My tree is now laden with fruit, she goes on, turning back to face the men. I need help with the harvest.
She weaves her way through the men first and then the women, the basket held before her at arm’s length. The cooking pauses as people reach into their pockets for their contributions: two hundred shillings, one thousand shillings, eight thousand shillings—all they have. One of us has found a way to stop the rolling stone, they sing, for a while there, we thought we might get crushed.
You take a black taxi from Heathrow to Feltham. Sixty-eight pounds, the meter reads. You flinch. One British pound is more than a hundred of your shillings. What you have can barely last a month. Isn’t it funny how the value of money de-escalates in proportion to necessity? Your aunt meets you outside her door. She is your mother’s youngest sister, who babysat you. She invited you to London and walked you through the paperwork.
Her small apartment hides behind a bright red door. All you see are pairs and pairs of shoes. A row of white sneakers on a rack behind the door. High, strappy shoes lining the hallway. Tall boots, short boots, ankle boots shoved under a bed. Old shoes, sad and forgotten on the balcony. Even though your aunt is chatting and laughing, she makes you unhappy. A sadness comes to visit you that is unlike anything you know. It seeps in through your nose and spreads to your eyes, ears, hair.
A man comes to see her on Friday. A dark man with a fat belly and a wide ring on his finger. They spend all morning holed in her bedroom; you sit in the living room watching Jeremy Kyle, snorting at people who have everything except the sense to use it. When he goes, she refuses to meet your eyes.
I know some Nigerians, she whispers, her hands are clinging to yours, they own a restaurant.
She helps you pack, rolling your clothes into little cylinders and piling them in your suitcase. You sit on the floor and watch her slim fingers moving in a blur. The sadness spreads slowly down your neck, around your shoulders. It doesn’t hurt; it numbs.
The restaurant is off Orange Street, two streets removed from Piccadilly. You take the underground metro to Central London, holding hands. Her smile comes back along the way—a wide smile with glossy teeth underneath braids that have strayed from her scalp.
You will be fine, she says, you are one step better than me. I had no one when I came. This city can be lonely. She looks out the window, her breath misting the glass. The sky is dark and grey; trees are leafless, and the ground is grassless.
You can be a waiter, you think. It can’t be hard to carry a plate from counter to table, can it?
No sah, the owner declares, scratching his belly through a curry-stained shirt with one thumb and flicking the other over his shoulder, pointing to a high stack of dishes in the kitchen sink. You do the dishes ma son. He stumbles over his words, and you can’t tell whether this is what makes your stomach flip or the fact that all you want to do is to turn on your heel and run back home.
But there is no home waiting for you. Only expectations. So, you wash the greasy plates, one after the other, until each one of your fingers is sore. Then you wash some more. The restaurant is a small affair; barely enough room for thirty. You watch the customers come and go through the gap in the dark green wall over which waiters take plates of food from the chef. They are mostly Africans.
Back home, they shout, it would be scandalous to walk around in such dull clothes.
Back home, they laugh bitterly, no one would dare serve an oga like me using their left hand.
Back home, they grumble, the pepper soup is so fresh that you can smell the spices.
Nobody talks to the kitchen boy but to shout at him to wash faster except one waiter. He says, hi-yah, every time he walks through the kitchen to the alley where he stands shivering and smoking. His left step is lighter than his right so that when he walks, it looks like a rolling bounce. Sometimes, he eats off your plate. He sits with his back against the door frame and his feet on your thighs, picking up bits of food with the tips of his fingers. I’ve been here many years ma–men, he tells you. You get used to it. His accent is music that rises and falls with emotion.
At the end of one busy day, you are tearing mindlessly into a piece of cold chicken when you catch him staring at you. It feels like he is looking at you through a haze of smoke. You look away and take another bite. The taste of Maggi seasoning reminds you of your mother, bending over her stews, eyes red and watery from wood smoke. You can smell him moving toward you—a sprinkling of spice on a freshly washed baby. His shadow falls on your feet and stops.
Do you know how to cope? He asks quietly.
Yes. No. I don’t, you whisper back.
He laughs through his nose. Come home with me; I can help you.
You go home with him, happy to be invited at last into someone’s home. Things are looking up, finally. A new friend today can only mean two tomorrow.
He lives just like you do: In a small room of a shared apartment out in Camden. A modest-sized bed covers the whole of it, leaving only space for the door to arch open. You sit on it, your legs folded underneath you. He reaches his long arms under the bed and pulls out Bob Marley’s Exodus album. The gold is faded down to a sad beige. He flops it next to you and pours white powder on it, tapping the last bit out using his index finger. Rap music storms in through the wall from the next room, so loud the Corona bottles lined up along the windowsill, moldering lemon wedges still trapped within their necks, threaten to fall. This music isn’t what it used to be ma–men, he murmurs while cutting up the powder into three neat lines, one fatter than the next. There is a loud knock on the door. Go away! He yells and disappears the thickest line up his nose through a straw.
Try it, he suggests, handing you the straw. You want to run, but where to? Your life is a small box with hopelessness for walls. You choose to stay. Just one snort. The thinnest line. What harm could it possibly do?
It shoots up your nose in one sniff. You fall into a sneezing fit, and he laughs. His voice is a big brass bell that tingles in your ear and makes you laugh, too. Your laughter spreads a numbness that rises from your lips to the gap between your eyebrows. You lift your hands to touch your face, but you can’t feel it. You laugh harder.
The numbness spreads faster than your breath. It pushes out the sadness that walks everywhere with you now. When it gets to your shoulders, it becomes a sweet pain that sprouts wings from underneath your shoulder blades. White wings, with which you fly. Fly, fly, fly. To the top of the world. To the moon. To heaven. Your skin is not a boundary. You can expand and contract out of it. It seems ridiculous that you did not know this before. The night is young, you say. Let’s go party!
Every minute is a masterpiece that pours on to the next. Time is not framed out as neatly as you thought. One minute that you spend studying the palm lines on your arm, following them round and round with your eyes, feels exactly as long as the one hour you spend on the dance floor surrounded by blinking lights and velvet chairs. You hop from club to club. You dance in the street. You start up intelligent conversations with strangers who love the way you speak. You catch a glimpse of yourself in a bathroom mirror and smile. Your nose seems to have shrunk to fit your face. And your eyebrows are still thin, but perfectly so.
The gentle light of dusk catches you sitting on a sidewalk in a circle of strangers. The man directly opposite you is darker than your mother’s pots. He speaks aggressively, waving his arms around like flags. The lady next to you smells like roses and nods in agreement with every statement. Her skin is so pale you can see her veins. They are green and blue, and they bulge out of her skin in some places.
The word misery is passed along like a baton and regurgitated in different accents. You are in good company, yet you feel lonely. It hits you then: unless someone splits your heart open and lives in it, you are never going to be alright. Loneliness is a virus, and once caught, it can never be cured, only managed. With that thought comes the fall. You fall fast. You fall free. Your wings retract, and you fall to the bottom of the ocean. You fall further down to the pits of hell. You will do anything to stop the fall. Sell your watch, even. And your shoes. And the clothes off your back.
London is cold.
Your thirtieth birthday. You have been fleeing hell and chasing heaven, and in between, a witch’s cauldron of time. Hours have brewed into days, into weeks, into months. Ten years in London and you have nothing to show for it but the shakes.
You walk to Hyde Park on a warm afternoon. Your days are spent there now—the perfect location to shame families into giving you money. The sun falls on your back like a gentle massage. People walk wide arcs around you. Whenever you near them, they pinch their noses and scatter. You look in their eyes to see what they see. Your hair is brown, greasy, and knotted into long dreadlocks that fall on your grimy skin. Jeans that were once blue hang off your bare waist, threatening to fall.
A lady dressed in a polka-dot skirt that flares into pleats about her knees walks towards you. She is holding a young boy’s hand, his other clutching a cuddly, purple dinosaur. The sun falls on her tall fascinator and casts a shadow down half her face. She catches sight of you and turns a corner. Her heels click loudly against the paved path as she half-carries, half-drags her son along. He loses his cuddly toy in the panic and lets out a scream that quickly descends into loud sobbing. Before she can think of running back to retrieve it, you pick it up. It smells like cookies and vanilla.
The boy curls up in a ball on the ground, calling his toy by name: Dino!! Diiinooo! He is begging. The little boy who has never had problems in his life is begging a beggar. His mother bends over him, pink knickers peeking, fascinator askew, trying in vain to soothe him. She does not once look at you. You think of kicking Dino like a football over the yellow horses in the carousel up the road. You think of tearing Dino open and laughing mercilessly at the boy’s reaction. You think of taking Dino with you and making him yours. You toss Dino back to them instead.
The immigration officer in the holding cell at Heathrow hands you a little zip-lock bag. To put your personal effects in, he says, smiling. He smiles the way a German shepherd would mid-growl.
You take the bag and laugh. You laugh so hard your chin touches your knee from bending over. You see the officer’s polished boots move toward you through the gap between your thighs. His stance is tense—a cobra ready to strike. His hand is on the radio on his breast. Let me laugh, sir, you say. The devil set camp in my heart and pushed away my dignity. Personal effects? I do not even remember when I last brushed my teeth.
He shakes his head with pity and asks if you would like to make a call. He unclips a phone from his duty belt with a loud click. You call your mother; your fingers move across the screen effortlessly; the memory of her number lives in them. I am coming home mother, you cry. The stones you turned over for me, I unwittingly used to build myself a tomb. Let me come home, mother. Let me come and die in a corner, like a snake.
Your mother is silent. This silence, you know. She uses it as a weapon, wielding it to weaken even the toughest of men. You crumble on to the floor and cry like a child, tears mixing with mucus and pouring into your mouth. Mother? You call, over and over. You hear nothing but the silence that bridges one heavy breath to the next.
When she finally speaks, her husky voice is a cool breeze on a hot day. I knew you since you were smaller than the pimple on my nose, she says. I molded you to the man you once were. I did it then; I can do it again. Come home, son. Come and live like a man.
Noel is a Kenyan writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Transition Magazine, The Boston Review, the Hotel Africa anthology, Johannesburg Review of Books, Kikwetu Journal, On the Premises Magazine, and elsewhere. She won Silver in the Short Story Day Africa contest in 2018. Last fall, 2019, she was a finalist in the Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Short Story Competition and was recently longlisted for the Afritondo Short Fiction Contest 2020.
Interview with Noel Cheruto
- How long have you been writing?
- Is writing your full-time job? If not, what is?
I have a full-time job in the aviation industry.
- What inspired this work?
This story started over a dinner conversation I had with a group of friends. Everyone in the room had a story about what we called “the learning years.” These are years/months/decades in life that one spends drifting, lost and alone. It could be due to addiction, an abusive relationship, or unemployment. It doesn’t matter how they come, but “the learning years” usually turn out to be the shortest, albeit the most painful, way to personal growth. This story is my artist’s impression of my own experience with those years. Every part of the story, including the fragmented narration, the sense of drifting away from home, the protagonist’s naivete, and the mother’s unconditional love are an attempt to depict those years.
- What writers or artists inspire you and your work?
Hilary Mantel for the discipline that shows through in every one of her stories.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor for the depth and width of her imagination.
- Where can we find your recent or future work? (please provide links).
Most recently in the Boston Review.
As for future work, I am currently excited about Afritondo’s upcoming anthology of love stories from Africa.
Equally exciting is my forthcoming story in Harvard’s Transition Magazine.
- What would you advise those interested in becoming published writers?
It is all a privilege. The ability to create, the rejections that hurt, the little wins, the waiting in-between. All of it is a privilege. Enjoy the journey!