It’s been almost 6 months since I won the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME short story prize. This is the story that changed my life.
Bibi charges through the front door into the hallway and slams the door inches from her father’s nose. ‘Grandpa!’ she shouts.
Dele appears at the entrance of the dining room, with a big smile and outstretched arms. Bibi jumps into his arms and knocks the sparkly party cone to the back of his smooth bald head. Her weight pushes him back several steps into the dining room.
‘But I’m not a baby, I’m a big girl,’ she says loudly. Her outburst is met with a chorus of ‘aww’. She sticks out her lower lip and folds her arms across her chest.
‘Tunde, did you know that Bibi is no longer my baby?’ Dele asks her father as he walks into the dining room. He has Bibi’s fluffy pink cardigan in one hand and a white paper bag in the other.
‘But you know she’s almost four years old now,’ Tunde says. He gives his father a hug and repositions the sparkly cone in the middle of his head.
‘Of course, what was I thinking!’ Dele slaps his forehead with his free hand. ‘Forgive me, my big girl.’ He plants a kiss on her cheek and sways to the soft trump of saxophone wafting from the speakers dotted around the room. She wipes her cheek with the palm of her hand but smiles, then wriggles out of his arms and runs towards the hissing of chicken on the grill in the backyard.
‘Happy birthday Dad. Sorry we’re late, it took ages to dress Bibi,’ Tunde says.
‘No problem. Where’s your wife?’ Dele asks.
Tunde’s eyes flick to his feet and he shakes his head.
‘She asked me to apologise for her absence. She couldn’t trust herself not to get too emotional.’
‘What’s in the bag?’
Tunde’s face gleams. He takes a few steps back towards the door.
He swivels on his heels and hurries out of the room, looking over his shoulder playfully.
‘I said no gifts!’ Dele calls after him.
‘Is that your son?’ Charlene hands him a glass of champagne. ‘He’s a handsome man,’ she says.
‘Like his father.’ Dele tugs at the collar of his starched white shirt.
‘Wait a minute.’ He looks at the drink in his hand. ‘Are you trying to get me drunk?’
‘Course not, I’m just making sure you have a good time,’ she says, a hint of a smile at the corners of her full lips.
He leans forward and places his hand on her waist. It’s a bit thicker than he remembers but still curves inward from her hips. ‘Maybe you can show me a good time later?’ he whispers. ‘Scream in patois again?’
‘You dirty old man.’ She snatches his hand off her waist. ‘That was forty years ago.’
He shrugs. ‘So what?’
She shakes her head and laughs but her round hazel eyes crinkle with concern.
‘Seriously though, I hope you’re okay?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t worry about me. You just enjoy the party,’ he says.
‘Good.’ She is all smiles again. ‘I’m going to get some food.’
Dele watches her saunter over to the dining table. He lifts his glass to his lips and his gold wedding band clinks against it. He chuckles and looks away. Even in death, his wife still finds a way to keep him in check. He decides that now is a good time to mingle with his guests in the living room.
From the hallway, he sees Tunde speaking to a few people from his local church. At the other side of the room, his old colleagues from the bank huddle together, unaccustomed to being the minority.
They beckon him over.
‘You mean after all these years, my name is still Dale?’
‘You will always be Dale, Dele.’ They all laugh together.
In those days, hiring him had caused such a stir, no one had said more than ‘hello’ in his first week. But he had persevered, turned up to work every day with a smile, grateful for the opportunity, and now, here they all are, standing in his living room, chatting about the good old days, chatting about their wives and children, decades of friendship behind them.
Dele looks around the room. He had forgotten how big it was. This is the first time in a long time that he has seen the room so bare. From the day they moved in, when Tunde was just a baby, Lara had stuffed it with sofas and side tables and pictures of both their families. And the pictures had only multiplied when communication with other countries was revoked. But now, looking at the room stripped of everything but his old recliner, he remembers the gut feeling they both had when they walked in for the first time: that they would be happy here.
Dele spins round in the direction of the voice he knows so well.
They hug each other, laughing like schoolboys.
‘So glad you’re here, man. How’s your back?’ Dele asks.
Kayode’s full beard is whiter than he remembers.
‘Sore. But I would never miss today, even if I had to crawl down to London.’
Dele squeezes his shoulder.
Kayode looks around the room. ‘Who are all these people?’
‘Neighbours, church folk, a few old colleagues from the bank.’
‘I know. I’m humbled. Come, let’s get you something to eat, you must be famished.’
Dele leads him to the dining room where a rainbow of foods is laid out: jollof rice, purple coleslaw, guacamole, ravioli, Swedish meatballs.
‘Is that Charlene?’
Dele nods. She looks over at them and wriggles her fingers in a little wave but continues chatting with one of Dele’s neighbours.
‘She looks great. Didn’t know you were still in touch.’
‘We weren’t. But today is a special day.’ Dele hands him a plate.
‘You’re right.’ Kayode turns towards the dining table. ‘I don’t know where to start. Who made all this food?’ he asks.
‘I made my signature jollof and chicken.’
‘But everyone always brings something to these parties. You need to try Dr Patel’s poppadoms, he makes the best — ’
‘Can you hear that?’ Kayode interrupts him.
They listen. The volume is low but the song is unmistakable. He looks at Kayode with wide eyes. Kayode looks at him, beaming.
‘One, two, three, four! … GET UP! GET ON UP!’ they sing in unison.
Dele slides all the way across the room to the turntable and gives the dial one full turn. The walls vibrate to the beat.
‘Stay on the scene!’ he sings into his invisible microphone. He points the mic at Kayode.
‘Like a sex machine!’ Kayode sings.
People abandon their small talk and gather around them. His colleagues pile into the dining room to see what the excitement is about. Dele shuffles his loafers from left to right, as fast as he can, recreating the moves he had committed to memory since the very first time he watched James Brown on their black-and-white TV in Ibadan. People begin to clap, cheer, stamp their feet. And when he spins on his heels at the bridge of the song, the room goes crazy. He looks around, at the smiling faces cheering him on, at Charlene’s fluttering lashes, at Tunde doubling over laughing, Bibi in his arms, and, for a little while, he forgets that this is the last night of his life.
‘What are you doing out here?’ Kayode asks.
He shuts the door of the kitchen behind him. The air in the back yard is still peppered with grilled chicken, though the grilling has been abandoned for dancing.
Dele takes a big breath in and out. His white shirt is plastered to his chest with sweat.
‘I didn’t know you still had those moves in you, old boy.’
‘Neither did I. I kept praying to God that I wouldn’t fall!’
‘It seems like only a few years ago that our life stretched out before us like it would never end,’ he says. ‘Remember when we first moved to this country, how we were so fascinated by the bright summer nights?’
They are silent again, gazing up at the orange sky as night begins to fall.
‘I’ve got something for you.’
Kayode reaches into his pocket.
‘Hey, no one was supposed to bring gifts.’
Kayode retrieves something crinkly from the breast pocket of his jacket and waves it in front of him.
‘Is that …’ Dele squints. ‘Marijuana?’ His eyes widen. ‘Kayode!’ He looks back at the kitchen door. ‘What if someone sees us?’
Kayode shrugs and lights it up.
He takes a long deep drag, exhales and passes it to Dele.
‘Oh man, where did you even get this?’
Dele takes a shallow drag and coughs, hard and raw. He hands it back to Kayode.
‘Out of practice, eh?’
‘And you’re not?’
‘I married a fifty-year-old. I need to relax from time to time.’
They cackle loudly to the night. Being here, smoking with Kayode, it feels like 1972 again. Before the marriages and the children. Before they filed away their dreams and accepted that in Britain they could only live an average life.
‘It’s your fault, you know,’ Kayode says.
‘I wanted what you had with Lara.’ Kayode takes a drag and passes it back to Dele. ‘God, it must have been hard to watch the Procedure.’
This time, Dele takes a long, slow drag, expanding his lungs to their fullest, and then exhales a cloud of smoke. He is starting to feel light, as though he has lifted out of his body and is floating into the dusk. Light enough to share a truth he has told no one for two years.
‘I know this sounds terrible, but when we took Lara to the Centre, I felt only relief.’
‘What do you mean?’ Kayode says.
‘Her last two years were awful. She cried every day, for hours and hours. She blamed me for talking her into staying here.’
‘She was afraid to die, so what? Aren’t you?’
‘This country has been good to us. We’ve lived good lives. Bibi and her generation deserve to as well.’
‘But that was an easy decision to make in our thirties. Now that it’s time, a part of me feels like I should have taken my chances in Nigeria. We would never have had to choose.’
‘And we would probably be dead by now. We would have lived in fear until they climbed over our fences and killed us for food and shelter. And I wouldn’t even blame them. I’d do the same, given their options. Staying here was the right choice.’
‘You’re right, you’re right. I’m just getting soft in my old age.’
They are silent again.
‘So … any plans for Charlene tonight?’ Kayode says. ‘I’ve seen the way she’s been looking at you.’
Dele opens his mouth but his words are drowned by the voices of all his guests belting out the happy birthday song. Tunde is in front of the pack, carrying a big round cake with candles in the shape of the number 75. He mouths ‘sorry’, he knows Dele hadn’t wanted a fuss. From the corner of his eye, Dele sees Kayode desperately stamping out the marijuana. Bibi tears away from everyone and jumps into his arms. He kisses her and this time she doesn’t wipe her cheek.
‘Dad. It’s time to go.’
Dele’s eyelids slowly slide up and Tunde comes into focus. His head is pounding, his mouth is sluggish with saliva and stale from the tobacco that Kayode had mixed with the marijuana.
‘Help me up,’ he says and reaches out a hand to Tunde, who pulls him out of the recliner. ‘Where’s Bibi?’
‘Her mum came to collect her last night. You don’t remember?’
‘Vaguely. Was she crying?’
‘Bawling. She wouldn’t let go of you.’
‘Children always know, don’t they.’
‘Yes, they — ’ His voice catches and he turns away.
‘Son, don’t do that. We’ve known this day was coming for a long time.’
With his back still to him, Tunde nods and wipes his face on his sleeve. He turns to him again.
‘Do you know what you’re going to wear?’
‘Yes. My aso-oke. I had it specially made.’
‘Are you sure you can wear that? Isn’t it too heavy?’
‘It’s fine. It’s permitted. You can check the list if you want, it’s on my bed upstairs.’
When Tunde leaves the room, Dele rubs the crust from his eyes and runs his hand down his cheek to the spot where Charlene had planted a teary goodbye kiss. His fingertips are smudged red — her lipstick. What a girl. If he hadn’t been so bent on marrying a Yoruba girl, he would’ve married her. But he’d had a vision of his life, how it had to work out, the things his wife had to be. In the end, he couldn’t say any of those things really mattered.
Tunde wanders back into the living room, peering at the list in one hand, his finger skimming it line by line.
‘You’re right, I think it’s fine. But we have,’ he looks at his wristwatch, ‘three hours before the police kick down your door. I don’t want you featuring in an episode of The Runaways.’
‘Maybe I’ll be the first to actually outrun them.’
‘Are you saying I can’t do it?’ He flexes his droopy arm.
Tunde shakes his head and smiles.
Dele walks to the stairs, places one foot on the first step, and doesn’t turn round. ‘I’m happy you’ve decided to live here. I can’t imagine another family owning this place.’ He pats the wall and continues upstairs
They arrive at the Centre just in time. The trip down from London was two long hours during which Tunde said very little. Dele killed the time by staring at the acres of green that reminded him of growing up in Ilesa and his expeditions into the forest as a child. Little memories like that had been flashing in his mind, unannounced and unwanted.
‘IDs please,’ the hard-faced guard asks at the gate. His eyes dart from the photo to Dele’s face and back again.
‘It’s a ten-year-old photo,’ Dele says and grins.
‘Fingerprint please, sir.’ The guard points to the machine on the passenger’s side.
Once Dele has placed his five fingers on the machine, the guard hands their IDs back to them and the gate opens.
‘God, he’s like a robot, isn’t he?’ Dele says.
Tunde doesn’t say anything, he just nods and pulls into a parking space. He switches off the ignition and sits still.
‘This is it,’ Dele says and pats his thigh. He opens the door, steps out into the drizzle and adjusts his aso-oke. He leans forward and taps the window with the knuckle of his index finger. ‘Come on Tunde, let’s go.’
The facility is white and sterile, a blinding contrast to the monotonous grey of the building and parking lot. They walk through a scanner where another guard runs the same checks as the one outside.
‘I feel like I’m at an international airport,’ Dele says.
‘Is this what they looked like?’
‘Security had become very tight by the end.’
They arrive at the desk.
‘Hello, I have an appointment with Mr G. Reaper,’ he says and elbows Tunde in the ribs.
Tunde offers a reluctant smile.
‘Oh, that one’s a classic,’ the nurse chuckles. Her fingers clack down hard on the keyboard. ‘Will your family be observing?’ she asks.
He turns to Tunde. They had never talked about it, whether he would watch or not. When it was Lara’s turn, Tunde had sat in the waiting room until it was all over.
‘Yes,’ Tunde says quietly.
‘OK.’ Her fingers clack for a few more seconds. She looks up and smiles at them. ‘That’s it. My colleague will come and show you to your waiting room.’
Another nurse leads them down the corridor to their waiting room. They walk past two rooms with guards positioned just outside them. The doors are shut but they can see into the rooms through rectangular glass panels. In one, there are two women with snow-white hair. One has her back to them, her arms hanging slack by her sides, the second is facing the door, her arms around the other woman’s waist. Her eyes are closed but her face is wrenched in pain. Dele wonders which one of them will not be leaving the Centre. In the next room, there’s an Indian family: father and mother in native attire, two grown-up sons in shirts and chinos. Mother and father are holding hands and looking at each other. The sons are looking down at their feet, one of them has his face cradled in his palm.
‘Well, it’s a hoot in here, isn’t it?’ Dele says.
The nurse acknowledges this with a quick false smile, Tunde stares ahead blankly.
‘Here we are,’ she says. She opens the door and lets them in with such flair she could be checking them into a suite at a hotel. The room is small, with white-washed walls, a boxy grey sofa and a TV suspended on the wall. The windows are barricaded with iron bars. There are cameras in all four corners of the room, whirring quietly.
‘The doctor will be with you soon. We’re still on schedule, OK Mr Arowala?’
‘A-ro-wo-lo,’ Dele says.
‘My name, that’s how you say it.’
She smiles and closes the door behind her.
He looks at Tunde and shrugs. Tunde’s face remains unsmiling.
‘What’s eating you?’
‘Can you stop joking around, just for a minute?’
‘Take how you feel? And multiply that by a thousand. No, a million. And you wouldn’t have scratched the surface of how I feel. But we signed up for this. There’s no use in crying about it.’
Tunde’s face softens.
‘Hello Mr Arawelo.’ The door swings open and the doctor approaches them with hands stretched out for a handshake. ‘I’m Dr Franklin. I’ll be taking you through the Procedure today. As you know, the Procedure is quick and entirely painless, the drug has been especially designed for this purpose. We’ll make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.’
The words tumble out of his lips, well rehearsed. He radiates confidence.
‘Any questions for me before we prep?’ He looks at Dele and then at Tunde.
‘Nope,’ Dele replies.
Tunde shakes his head.
‘Good. We shall begin shortly. I’ll just give you a few more moments.’ He clicks his feet and leaves the room.
‘You’d think after all these years of group therapy, they’d just call it what it is,’ Tunde says.
There are tears at the rims of his eyes.
‘I’m so proud of you, son.’ Dele grabs the back of Tunde’s neck and touches his forehead to his. ‘You’re a good man. Take care of your family.’
‘I love you, Dad,’ Tunde says.
They hug each other. Neither of them says a word. They stand there, embracing, until there’s a quiet knock on the door and the nurse pokes her head through.
Outside the room, the nurse is waiting with a guard. Dele twists the ring off his finger and hands it to Tunde.
As Dele walks away, he sees Tunde wiping his face with his sleeve. His shoulders jerk up and down, just like when he was a little boy.
In the observation room, Tunde watches his father lie down on the bed. He had come to terms with his father’s mortality — from a young age, he had known the exact times and dates his parents would die. It was fine. It was better than getting a phone call at work to tell you that your mother had died in her sleep or that your father had had a stroke.
Tunde stands right in front of the one-way mirror, his nose inches from it. His father begins to vomit and thrash his head from side to side but the straps are tight. The veins in his neck look like caterpillars, like they might burst through his skin. The nurse is rubbing his shoulder, trying to soothe him. Tunde looks right into his father’s eyes and sees that he is afraid to die.
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on June 25, 2016.