( Image from Pinterest: Kurauone)
Waiting outside WHSmith next to a dilapidated structure that used to be a beauty salon, I see Adesua – Kola’s sister- standing across the street. She is hard to miss, with her Afro, regally crowning her head. The olive green pin-stripe blouse and the black pencil skirt which traced every inch of her curvaceous body, made her look almost professional. Howbeit if I am being honest, the print of her curvaceous hips, takes me back to the yesteryears when the three of us would roam around the streets of Oxford after our service to the city, as cleaners at St Margaret’s College. She has not seen me yet, so I am standing here and taking her in. She has aged, she has webs of wrinkles around her eyes and instead of the strides she used to rhythm her walk to, she now has the gait of a pensioner. The green handbag and black pumps with a green flower she is wearing give a youthful touch to her outfit, and the earring carved with the African continent, which I bought for her from this Zimbabwean lady who charged me sixty pounds because they had been handmade and crafted, shipped and “escaped” customs, all the way from Zakarinopisa in Masvingo, complimented the outfit. They still turned heads, the earrings, the nose, chin and back head of the continent holding on to the corners of the earring.
Even after thirty odd years since our liaison came to an end, she still makes my heart flutter under my chest. I examine my posture and choice of attire on the large windows of the bookshop. My beard seems to “connect” as the youth say. I stroke it and as much as I am aware, I am still surprised by how white it had become. I only turned sixty-three last week and even though the lines on my face portray wisdom beyond my years, I am still holding on to the intensity of my boyish charm. My tucked in striped shirt and suspended trousers now make me look ridiculous, as my big bele pokes out, stretching my suspenders to my sides. The overcoat which I am beginning to regret because the heat is giving me vertigo, drapes on my shoulders as if it has been hung on. I ignore the sensation and firm my feet which are sheltered by my only pair of formal shoes. I lean on the window and take a minute to collect myself. I am not going to let my anatomy fail me now, not today and especially not in the presence of Adesua. I shake the feeling off and lean on the window. I wave at Susu ( the sobriquet I had given her) who is standing on the other side of the street obviously searching for my face in the crowd.
” Susu!”, I shout her name walking towards her, but with the earphones plugged in her ears, she obviously cannot hear me. I get closer to her and tap her shoulder. The smile that spread on her face gives me nostalgia, the curl of her lip that reveals her white, carefully arranged dentition, is deja vu of how she expressed her joy when I told her I loved her. Her love language was words of affirmation, and I hope it still is. ” Kura!”, she pronounces the first part of my name in her strong Yoruba accent. The “ra” part comes out like the roar of a lion cub. I do not care, I love the way she says it. I have always loved it. She reaches out for me and I embrace her. She stands on her toes and as much as I am tempted to lift and spin her around like before, I know my back will fail me. I linger and take in the smell of her hair which masks my face, it smells familiar, like the hair conditioner my roommate the Kenyan lady uses for her hair. Kanto, Kanu or Kanyu, I do not remember. She takes a deep breathe and pulls back. I look at her and she tries to look away. I touch her shoulder and keep my hand there, she sniffles and places her hand on top of mine.
” It was unexpected. Too soon, j-just like that he did not wake up shaa.”, my Susu says as she digs for a piece of tissue in her bag. I search my overcoat for my handkerchief and hand it over to her. ” I know, he was in great health and had so much to live for.”, I reply, reminiscing about Kola, her brother, my best friend and the glue between us, who last week had died in his sleep. We stood by the street for a few minutes, ignoring the shoulders that nudged us and the clamour that surrounded us. ” Come.”, I whispered reaching for her hand, ” If we get on the bus now, we will get there before a lot of people arrive. We can catch up for old times sake.” She looks at me and forces a smile, I do the same. We walk through Cornmarket Street on to St Aldates and wait at bus stop 4T for bus number 5 to Blackbird Leys to the Community Hall were mourners will congregate and discuss how to raise money to send Kola’s body back to Nigeria.
We seat in our designated seats – for elderly and disabled people- I look at Susu and laugh. She looks at me confused but smiling. ” Do you remember that day when we were coming from reporting, from uhm, ah Eaton House in Hounslow and we swore we would never be caught dead sitting in these seats because in our forties we would be out of this country and buy a villa in France?”, I continue to laugh, with a mixture of glee and disappointment. Forty years ago we both were undocumented immigrants, in love and invincible. The Zimbabwean government had failed dismally and in West Africa, Nigeria was facing the same situation. A multitude of us had run away looking for greener pastures. I remember the time I had left Zimbabwe, I had been a trillionaire and had marched in more than fifteen rallies by the age of eighteen. Kola and Adesua used to laugh at me when I told them, they could not believe that a whole nation once accommodated trillionaires but no one was rich. They began to call me Mr Trillionare Sir. With their thick accents, the “sir” was pronounced as “sar”.
” Ah, we were so young and naive. If only we had known life would take us here, I would have stayed in Nigeria and Kola would still be alive and I w-”
” And you would have never met me”. I murmur, looking out the window, hurt. I understand where she is coming from, but I can not imagine her thinking of a world where we never existed. Kura and Susu. Kurauone and Adesua. The Zimbabwean and Nigerian couple. The Shona and Yoruba duo. A concoction by the African gods deemed good and pleasant.
” Kura, you know what I mean. I just can not believe I, we, wasted most of our lives hoping and praying for something that was not meant for us”. My Susu is saying this looking down, she can not say it straight to my face because she knows it is not entirely true. We did not waste time, our love was not a waste of time.
” Susu, I know what you mean and you know what I mean too. It so happens over the last years, I have had time to think. Not being documented for over thirty years will do that to you”. I am telling her this and my heart is drumming in my chest. I understand the timing might be off, insensitive even, but I do not want to die the way Kola did. He only got his papers six months ago after battling the Home Office for as long as I have. He died in his sleep from exhaustion. The marathon shifts he took working as a health care assistant also known as BBC (British bum cleaner) had caught up with him. You would think at sixty-three he would be getting ready to retire, but just a year from retirement that is when he started working full time as a “legal” person. Just like me, he had taken small jobs here and there, which was and still is illegal but it was the only way to survive.
He survived with two daughters, Oladayo who he last saw when he left Nigeria, she was only two years old and after forty years, she would see her father again this time around, in a coffin. Adenike was the daughter he begot with Alina, the Romanian lady he had succeeded in getting pregnant but not her papers. He had proposed I take the same route, get a lady from the EU or even better, an English woman, get her pregnant and stick around long enough until they include you on her papers and just like that you are a British citizen. ” Gwam gwam, just like that my broda you are in. This United Kingdom will be yours for the taking in Jesus’ name!”, he would say each time he tried to sway me into following his footsteps. I could not do it, I had Susu. She was the only one I wanted to be the mother of my children and my only life partner. I would always remind him I was in love with his sister and would not disrespect her or myself like that.
” Kura, I like you, you are a fine man and I am grateful for the way you love my sister but my broda, love is only an illusion. Will love give you paper? Will love give you red passport? Eeh?. You need to be wise, by all means necessary get your paper then worry about love later. Ok, even if you choose Adesua, how will you provide for ha eeh? Each day you are playing cops and robbers with the police and Home Office because you are working illegally. Is that life?”, he would question me but would never give me enough time to explain. Which was something that gnarled me about him but I liked how practical he was. He was a man of action, the 007 amongst us and had a license to kill every obstacle in his own way. I had taken his advice once, we both ended up in prison and that was the last time I took his advice.
We had registered with an agency with fake ID’s and documentation to get the jobs. The ID’s almost looked original, Manish the Indian guy from Cowley, was behind the masterpieces after the astounding recommendation from our fellow immigrant peers. I do not know how they noticed or if it was a routine check-up, but the day they called us for training, a SERCO van parked outside and four huge men came in and asked us to produce our ID’s and scanned our fingerprints. Long story short, we were arrested together with four other women who were also using fake ID’s. For two years we shared a cell, not by choice but after my cellmate was released, the correctional officers at HM Prison Bullingdon where we were in remand before our transfer, put us in one cell. That chapter of our lives frayed and strengthened our friendship. After serving our sentences, we were sent to a detention centre awaiting our deportation. I will not lie, that place was worse than prison. Not knowing when you would go out was torturous and heart-rendering. I saw grown men, fit and abled men, kill themselves in that place. It was being caught between a rock and a hard place- living illegally in a country you would never be accepted or surviving in your own country where you were never certain where the next meal would come from. The former was more tantalising but it had its own consequences. I too had begun flirting with suicide, on days when my immigration lawyer, funded by the government, would come and advise me to leave and go back to my country because I had no more further evidence, I would go back to my room and anticipate how long it would take for me to bleed out if I slit my wrists, clench my fists and stood under the shower, a bath would have been better, but that service is not available in detention centres. I know it was cowardice but which other choice did I have? I had no family, no savings and no dignity left, only Susu. Susu was the one who kept me alive, gave me hope and gave me the will to live.
” You know, Adenike says she doesn’t want to be called by her “African” name but prefers Denisa, her second name because it is easier to pronounce.”, Susu ropes me back to reality as we pass Templar Square. I look at her and sigh, words have escaped me.
” Hhhmm, was Kola aware of this?”, I engage in the conversation.
” Yes, he was. He was not very happy about it but I told him what did he expect when she had no idea or had ever been to Nigeria? She only knows of oyibo people as her friends and family.”
” That is true. She has never been exposed to your culture.”
” Well, now no one will paster her to use her Yoruba name now that he is gone.”
” Aika, are you not the aunt? Do you not have a say?”
” Tufiakwa, God forbid! After what that oyibo woman said to me when she was at odds with my brother?! No, they do not exist to me.”
” Susu, you are better than this. Are you not the one who always said, our personal feelings about something do not give us permission to ignore God’s feelings about it?.”
” Nxaa, you know you are ought to start calling me Adesua now.”, she is muttering this as we alight at Balfour Road. She knows I am right but she will not admit it.
” But I love calling you that, you will always be my Susu. Even now as we are wrinkled up with aching backs, you are forever my Susu and y-.”
” And I am a married woman. Remember Steve, he is still alive you know.”
” Oh yes, him. Your husband. How is his rheumatism? You know, he never replied to me when I asked him how old he was when he wrote Leviticus. It still keeps me awake at night.” I am jesting but I mean it. That man is and was still old even back then. He is only four years older than me but still, he wasn’t and still is not good enough for my Sus-, for Adesua. If only I had been released sooner from that hellhole of a detention centre. If only I had not spent six years in that place, I could have married her but she could not wait any longer. The Home Office had denied her appeal, she had nothing else to submit and she was at an impasse. I remember the night she called me, we had just finished our night prayers at the detention and I was on my way back to my room for roll call. She sounded distant and absent-minded, we talked as usual about our day, our future and how strong our love way. ” I am getting married.”, she blurted out. At first, I thought she was teasing me, like the times she would say she was pregnant, then after a few minutes would say with blessings on blessings on blessings. I was waiting for her to say that but she went on to say she had met him online and he just wanted someone to be with and have children with, two maximum, she said. She had no choice, this was her only chance, so she took it.
I still had three more years when she decided to marry Steve. She would still send me money and write me letters, but I never replied and gave the money to those who were being deported to start a new life back in their homelands. I was not going to have another man take care of me. When I was released, I never made an effort to contact her, even though I would stalk her Facebook every night after my shift. It was Kola who had told me she had miscarried three times but Steve had remained by her side because he had fallen in love with her. Who wouldn’t? I did not like how he called her by her full name, Adesua, he was not creative or thoughtful at all. Although I am grateful he did not tread towards Susu or Sue, at least Ade or Sua would have been inspiring.
” You are impossible, you know”, she says this laughing. ” He is a good man, a good husband.”
” But do you love him, the way you loved me?”.
” Kurauone, we are married. So it means there is love there.”
” In the words of Toni Morrison, your favourite writer, love is or is not there is no thin or thick love. So is it there or not?.” , I know I must tread lightly, but I must know. Yesterday I finally got my papers. I found them on my doorstep after coming from work. They were in a large khaki envelope carefully sealed with a signed delivery sticker on it. My name was printed across the envelope in big bold letters: MR KURAUONE NHAMO. After forty-one years of waiting, they had finally decided to grant me papers but was it worth it if I had nothing to account for? Only a year from retirement and here I was trying to win the love of my life back. She is the real reason I have been keeping on and her reply will determine my future.
” We are moving, to France. Steve bought a villa in Lyon and we are retiring and moving there.”
I feel like my soul has been punched out of my body. My ears are ringing and that vertigo feeling is coming back again. She is living our dream with another man, that man is living my life. I stop in my tracks and look at her, I can feel the brim of my eyes burning but I will not succumb to it. My dotage catches up with me as I balance myself on a pole on the side of the road. I do not look at her but I laugh out loud looking at the community hall on the other side of the street. She looks at me confused and I look at her pitiful and ashamed of myself. So this is how it ends? It is either death by work or death by heartbreak. At sixty-three years old, I am standing next to a woman I have loved and chose over myself every time, but she is here choosing herself all over again. I look at her, laughing and cup her face in my hands, I lean towards her and without a doubt, in my soul, I whisper in her ear.
” I am going back to Zimbabwe”.