The swing was yet to stop moving. It shifted back and forth with a slight creaking in the air. Unused red cups were stacked in plastic wrappers between the slats of the wooden table. Marla’s white skipping rope with brown handles lay in the grass, which was damp after the afternoon shower. It was a gift from another birthday. This woman’s voice, powerful and grating, was still blaring out of the cassette player, and an enormous fruit cake, embedded with sultanas and nuts and topped with white icing, glared at the retreating clouds from the wooden table, one child-sized slice cut from it. I couldn’t figure out where Marla had gone. I had guessed that she’d be out here, now that the rain had stopped, and the sun was still out, but she wasn’t in the living room either, not even under that tiny space in the corner, between the two leather sofas, where she’d go to jump out and scare Mama’s guests, or read something while hiding from thunderstorms.
It was a huge, circular garden lined with rows of red and pink petunias and pentas around the perimeter. Behind me was the house. It was a detached, timber-framed new-build, constructed with rather garish red bricks. The house was set in a close that only had six other families on it. We were all arranged around a small park that had a jungle-gym climbing frame, a bench, and a swing-set. The development screamed identikit commuter town, and I doubted whether any of the parents would ever be around to see their kids play in the park, but today had been ordained as the day that mid-ranking bankers and consultants on track to make partner would gather around the table in our garden to meet the neighbours over fruit cake and one glass of wine each.
“Go check her room, Joe.”
I turned to face Mama. She was in her early fifties now, an imposing woman with straight black hair and a face that could sometimes look older than its years. She was the first black partner in her London law firm, and she never shied away from letting strangers know it. Growing up, the places we lived in were always filled with people. Academics, lawyers, doctors. Mama loved to be in the centre of it all, introducing guests to each other, pulling people up to dance, refilling wine glasses, calling toasts. She used to dress Marla and I up in what I guess she thought was high-society clothing. Marla had this navy blue velvet dress that she was made to wear with white tights and smart black shoes, and I wore a miniature tuxedo, but was allowed to greet the guests without the jacket on. There was always a point in the evening when Mama would work her way over to me, until I looked up and she was there, close enough for me to see the wine stains on her teeth, and I would recite to her chosen guest the careers that I thought I wanted to go into. Marla always had it right, hiding between the sofas for the rest of the evening as soon as Mama started playing her music.
I worked a rueful smile on my face, and made my way back indoors, into the too-shiny kitchen where Mama sat behind a glass table, drinking coffee (“It’s real coffee, Joe. Better than any café.”) Her eyes were fixed on her mug, as though she was waiting for me to leave. I walked through the glossed-up landing, where the dark wood floor magnified my footsteps, like a drumstick on one of Lincoln’s cymbals, and up the cream carpet staircase. An ice-cream van’s distant jingle hung in the air.
“You up here, Marla?”
The silence unsettled me worse than anything. I remembered how she was the last time Lincoln was around and we were all packed into his red seven-seater on the way to the airport. She couldn’t stop laughing for the entire journey, her eyes bright as they splashed in reams of water. Her cheek-stretching smile was reflected by all of us, for once. Even Mama, who wore her daily grey jacket and pinstriped skirt like army fatigues, was wearing a beautiful pinafore, chequered with red and black African print, to mark the occasion. I reached the door. “Marla, you in there?” I said. Something rustled, and then I heard a heavy thud.
“Yeah, I’m here,” she said.
“Can I come in?”
Her floor was strewn with balled up pieces of paper and open books. Encyclopaedias of animals and plants marked over in heavy red ink were cast in orange light by the lamppost that you could see through the window near the top right-hand side of the room. It was hot, too hot, so as I bent down to adjust the radiator I called out to her in a voice that didn’t really sound like my own. “How you doing, Marla?”
She didn’t look up from the tiny desk next to her bed where she sat, like the most dedicated secretary, scribbling away at a piece of paper with a printed picture of a bird propped up in front of her, ripped out from one of the books that lay around her. It looked like a lark, but I couldn’t be sure. “I’m fine, Joe. Where’s Mama?” she said.
“Tell her I’ll be down in moment to bring in all the stuff from outside. I’m just finishing this off for Miss Mable on Monday.”
I wanted to laugh. She was primness personified. She was the only ten-year old I knew that could sweat bullets over the most trivial of assignments on a Saturday afternoon, even when toddlers would come with their parents and scream on the swings in the park outside. I realised that now was not the best moment, so I decided to leave. As I turned on my heel, I saw my reflection in the oak-lined mirror on the wall outside her room. My face looked haggard. Then I saw the picture in the silver frame on the small table below the mirror. It was taken when we first moved to the old flat, maybe five or six years back. Lincoln, Mama, Marla and I. We were baring our teeth like baying dogs. Lincoln and I had our arms around Mama at the back, and Mama had both her hands on Marla’s shoulders. The light in Mama’s eyes had succeeded where the red lipstick and heavy foundation had always failed. Something grabbed hold of my insides, pulling down like a train driver on a steam whistle. I went back down the stairs to Mama.
“Leave it, Joe,” she said. Her coffee was half drunk and her eyes were still avoiding mine. My heart started pounding.
“Thirteen, down to seven, down to us three. You reckon that’s normal?” I moved to sit down across from her, still failing to raise her eyes.
“You don’t know what happened,” she said, scraping her spoon in circles around her mug. One thing I’ve noticed since we moved to the countryside is that it’s never really silent. The music of wrens and robins and woodpigeons normally pops the tension. This time, Mama’s closed-mindedness is clouding my vision.
“The hell I don’t,” I said. “What else could it be? Someone giving out free sweets in the park? The fête came early this year?”
“Watch it,” Mama said. Her eyes were on me now. I swallowed, and continued.
“All I’m saying is, this ain’t the first time something like this happened. We too damn old to have to put up with this anymore, Mama. If nobody does something it’s gonna build, and build, till Marla is gonna hate who and what she is.” Mama stood up, opened the fridge, and pulled out some cheese, ham, and a loaf of bread.
“What you mean other times? You don’t know what you’re talking about, son. Whole reason we moved out here was to build something better. For all of us.” She stood by the counter, making a sandwich, as though this was the most natural situation for us to be in. “She’ll be fine. Just go on outside and help me bring the things in. She like the cake you bought?” I didn’t answer her. I went outside, collecting the pristine remnants of the party that never was.
When we first moved to Lower Gove, Marla and me would sometimes go down by the lake, in Panshanger Park. She’d be holding my hand, looking at the other kids, hanging from monkey bars, or flying down the slide into the tarmac, and she’d have this odd look on her face. At first I thought it was just kids being weird. But it kept happening, and she’d insist that I was the one that swung her on the swings, and she’d just stare at me when I suggested that she join the other kids on the monkey bars. Lower Gove was more kids and parks than adults and shops. But Marla preferred to stay in her room, drawing and writing and scrunching and tearing, and I guess we all just left her to it.
The next day, Mama and I were eating breakfast at the table. In a few hours I’d be leaving to catch the train back to London. A clatter of footsteps thundered down the staircase, and then Marla appeared. She had on grey jogging bottoms, a stained white-t-shirt, wellington boots, and a waterproof jacket. Before Mama or I could say anything, she said, “Leave the door unlocked for me, will you Mama? I’ll be back late. I need to find all the birds I can for Miss Mable.” Mama turned to me with this I-told-you-so look on her face. I stood up and fetched a bottle of water from the fridge.
“You fancy me coming along with you Marla? I got an hour or so to kill before I have to head back home.”
Ten minutes later, I was dressed in some shorts and a t-shirt that I found in the room I’d lived in for a few weeks before moving out. Marla’s plan was for us to walk up Jensen Hill, about a ten-minute walk away from us, see what birds we could find in the woods at the crest, and then go down the other side and walk by Panshanger Park. When we started up Jensen Hill, our breath was the only sound we heard. The horizon was empty, and the sky was the colour of Mama’s petunias and pentas, a blot of pinkish red staining a dark blue canvas. I kept meaning to talk to Marla about what happened, but I couldn’t find the words. My anger was still bubbling, but the targets flitted in and out, like a carousel. Headless bodies with white skin and tailored suits appeared and disappeared. Mama’s voice hummed at an impossible volume. Lincoln’s jacket was strewn across the kitchen table. His goodbye to Mama. My voice silences a teacher, denies any offence being taken. It’s making excuses. I feel rather than see the boy grin across the table. We reached the halfway point up Jensen Hill, where there’s a bench dedicated to someone’s memory. We sat down, wiping away drops of water from the slats, still panting. “You think we’re going to find lots of birds in the forest?” Marla said.
“Definitely,” I said, swallowing air. “Marla, you know, when we get to Panshanger Park, we could see if anyone else is up early. I’m too tired from yesterday to do much running around.” Marla looked at me as though she could see right through me. She was squinting, and slapped away a fly that was buzzing in front of her eyes.
“You can’t force friends, Joe. You ever tried holding on to rain in your hands? Bet you can’t do it. Not even with your big old spades.”
I wanted to laugh, but my throat was blocked up. Marla was already ahead of me, storming across the crest of the hill like it’s the Promised Land on the other side. I ran after her, and we entered a copse, about fifty feet or so from the main woods. It was overgrown with nettles and fallen leaves. We pushed back rose brambles. Marla picked a cherry. I could just make out the sun through the leaves. It looked like when you gaze at a light with your eyes shut. A hint of red and white behind folds of black.
Ifedolapo Apampa was born in the UK to Nigerian parents. He grew up in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, and Kent, and now lives in London. He enjoys reading. And writing.
Related country: Nigeria