As I dragged my suitcase past the ‘nothing to declare’ sign post, my scepticism overwhelmed me. A black man? A Nigerian? Omo Yoruba, an immigration officer in London? But he was. His accent was thick and omoish.
‘Your passport ppleasee,’ he said. His voice was more corroded than those of touts at Ijora Motor Park. I’m sure he noticed my shock. My countenance fell short of disguise. He peered at almost every page of my passport with the familiarity of someone who had once owned such document.
‘How long are you staying?’ He asked, his crossed eyes creating a monstrous demeanour.
‘Two weeks. Just two weeks,’ I said. He glanced at me as if he knew the real truth, but stamped my passport anyway.
Almost everybody at the airport looked too serious and seemed to be in such haste. Their footfalls made rhythmic piam piam piam sounds, as if they were calculated. They pushed their heavy trolleys with such ease; their faces masked with a high level of Thatcherism. My trolley posed as my first obstacle. It refused to move in a straight line. Obstinate beast. I was tempted to carry my suitcase on my head but faltered. I didn’t want to disgrace Uncle J; his warning was still fresh in my mind. As I passed the last exit sign, I saw Uncle J from a distance. Unmistakable, his skin-cut oblong head illuminated with great sheen; the gap between his upper incisors was as wide as the north and south poles, and it widened when he smiled. He had added more flesh since the he came home for mum’s funeral. He had wept bitterly as mum was lowered six feet. They were very close. For someone in London, I expected him to be dressed differently. He was shabbier than even me, fresh from Africa. Maybe his faded oversized winter coat covered the better things. He had brought a similar coat for me that smelt like a direct pick from a bail of okirika. I was already freezing. Never in my life had I imagined this kind of cold. As I stepped out of the plane into the transit bus, I felt like a corpse from the mortuary, my teeth clattering, my blood congealing gradually. But they said that winter was yet to come.
I walked into Uncle J’s welcoming arms. It was a strong, emotional hug that lasted for minutes. A dream had finally come true, after poverty and mum’s death threatened to abort it.
‘Uncle, I can’t express my gratitude, I don’t even know where to start.’
‘That’s alright, it’s my very pleasure, a promise to my sister fulfilled, so how is everyone? Your dad, your step mum, and your younger ones?’
‘They’re all happy, Uncle. They send their gratitude. It is a big relief for the entire family.’
Swallowed by the jacket Uncle J gave me, I walked behind him, struggling to keep up with his gallant strides and hoping that we would get into his car soon. We joined several confusing and scary escalators.
‘Is the car park still far, Uncle?’ I asked curiously.
‘Just follow me,’ he said harshly. ‘In London people move more on public transport. It’s cheaper and safer,’ he added as if to dilute the content of his first answer.
The train was very long and clean, all the seats occupied. People sat quietly, heads bent and hands busy on mobiles phones and other electronic gadgets as if it were rule that must be obeyed. My heart in my hand, it was my first time in a train. The movement was noisy and bumpy. With two hands, I clutched the rail with all the strength I could muster. A repetitive chorus made the passengers seem deaf: ‘Please stand clear of the door.’ My suitcase tumbled onto a man’s feet and he kicked it off as if it were toxic.
At London Bridge, we joined bus 343 and within minutes, we were at Balogun market, sorry, Peckham. The large crowd movement reminded me of the Israelites journey across the desert. Busy as a beehive: sellers, a mixture of many races, chatting and joking. I heard Yoruba spoken with ease and fluency.
‘Alaroro, baoni,’ a voice said behind me. It sounded un-African. When I turned, I saw a white man the colour of un-properly ripped banana. He was teasing Uncle J’s haggling power. The stalls were filled with every food I knew: rice, beans, egusi, yam, plantain, pepper, snail, even corn and local pear. They lacked the foods I wanted to see in a London food market. My appetite for English food began to wane: chicken in the basket, roasted salad, dissected pumpkin, vegetarian accolado. Uncle J carried my suitcase, which was lighter than the sacks I carried behind him. As I scanned the market, I longed to ask more questions. I wanted enough time to drain the fat from the flesh.
A siren blared pee-poo-pee-poo-pee-poo. Cars made emergency parking and heads turned in the direction of the siren. Suddenly, Uncle J sped off. My heart jumped as I flung the bag of shopping and ran after him.
‘Chinekee! What is happening?’ I screamed.
‘My God! What have you done?’ Uncle J asked as he turned back. Our bags were scattered on the road. Some cars had run over them.
‘The commotion! What’s happening? I’m scared,’ I said, gasping.
‘Scared, of what? The siren was an ambulance and I just ran to stop our bus.’
‘Ohoo! I didn’t know sir, everything happened in a flash, so quickly. I thought it was a bomb blast. I get easily startled these days. The Boko Haram experience is still haunting me. Very sorry, Uncle.’
‘Sorry for yourself,’ he said picking up and restocking the few undamaged items. ‘Look, this is London eh, you have to shine your eyes properly. No space and chance for mumu here. Imagine the waste,’ he said with a long sigh as we waited for our bus.
It was bus 12, en route to Dulwich library. It was the same size and colour as the bus before it, but the entrance was at the back. Molue in London, I thought. A black woman stood at the entrance, her heap of rainbow-coloured dreadlocks as high as the mountains. Her huge and intimidating frame was a plus for her kind of job: she manned the gate. As she handed me my ticket, I wondered how she managed with her household chores, her claws so long and curvy, painted in colours of all member countries of the United Nations.
Finally, we climbed to the top floor of a five-story building without a lift. My limbs were wobbly and too close to the ground. I was weak and hungry. My breath came sparingly. Supporting my frame on the handrail, Uncle J’s scolds of laziness and lousiness fell on deaf ears. I squeezed past him as soon as he opened the door and waited on the hallway to be introduced to my room, as he arranged some misplaced items in the passage. He opened another door. The kitchen was on the left and a closed door on the right with a sticker that said, ‘God’s Favourite.’ In the middle was a staircase leading down. It was like going into a hellhole. Never had I seen a downward stepping flat.
Then came the real shock: the room was nothing but a small bed, a small fridge, a twenty-one inch LCD television, a wardrobe, a small centre table, one plastic chair and a table fan. The two of us would share it. My lips fell apart but words ceased to come. Loads of questions pressured my mind. My disappointment spoke louder in the silence. Uncle J was anything but stupid. He read my mind with a magnifying glass; his feigned smile failed to smooth my dismay.
‘So, Eze, welcome to London, the heartbeat of United Kingdom,’ he began. ‘You’re now part of the system, a member of the secret society. London is a leveller; everyone is equal, as you will soon find out. Alabekee is a secret society. You have to come in to know the secret codes. If I had told you that I live in one room here, you wouldn’t have believed me. If I had told you that all we do here is work, work and work, you would have called me a liar. It’s not all bad news though. The sunny side of it: London is a land of opportunities, with menu of choices. There are two main routes: the right route orbits at a snail pace, may eventually take you to your destination over time with patience. The fast track is another route that can catapult you from the base to the apex in minutes; you must be ready for the consequences though. My happiness today is more on the fact that I’ve fulfilled my promise to your mum. From now on your siblings should be your responsibility. The big ball is now on your court.’
We moved to the kitchen, watched the rice and warmed the stew. As I analysed Uncle J’s London, my disappointment heightened and hardened even the more. This was not the London I expected, where everyone owned big luxurious houses, rode expensive cars, ate English food, went to clubs and parties, observed siesta as a matter of protocol, had drivers, cooks, and messengers, where everyone was rich, and ‘suffering’ and ‘poverty’ were not in their vocabularies. Could this be the true London?
The rice tasted nice, and I’d never had so much chicken and assorted meat before. As we ate, he sat on the bed and I sat on the plastic chair.
‘You’re a very lucky person. One of my very good friends has offered you two hours weekend cleaning job at an African restaurant in Camberwell. He said you can start this weekend,’ Uncle J said, smiling, fulfilled. My spoonful of rice suspended en route to my mouth.
‘Uncle, I have my second class upper degree certificate in petroleum engineering with me,’ I said, in case he had forgotten.
‘Let that continue to rest wherever it is for now. As I told you, London is a leveller, you’ll soon understand,’ he said.
Later, I tidied up the kitchen: a woman’s job. I wondered why he had refused to remarry since his divorce with Nkechi.
‘A woman is a necessity in every responsible man’s life.’ My dad had begun drumming this into my ears when I was ten. At twenty-three, I’d experienced enough to believe him. Women were neither saints nor evil. One woman’s sin is not enough to stain the rest.
There was a clattering noise on the door. A man came in with a bag of foodstuff.
‘Good evening sir,’ I greeted.
‘Ehee, enyia kedu?’
‘Odinma,’ I replied. He left his shopping bag next to the ‘God’s Favourite’ sticker and descended the stairs. He looked about the same age as Uncle J, though taller and darker. His tribal marks revealed him to be from the Bendel part of Nigeria. When I went into the room, a bottle of Gordon’s dry gin was bearing the brunt of their exhilaration. Uncle J was leading the discussion and spoke like someone that had made a significant achievement, which I believed he had. The total cost of trolleying me to London was enough to make him proud.
‘Nwokem, welcome to the system, I hope you won’t be his next enemy,’ the man said, gulping the last liquid from his glass. ‘The story is always the same. Nobody has brought someone from home and ended on a good note with him. Jerome may be your worst enemy tomorrow.’ He rubbed his paint-stained hand over his mouth. ‘If you choose to be different, that will be great,’ he said, standing and heading for the door.
The cleaning job was a gateway. For a couple of weeks, I earned my first pound sterling salary. Then, came the opportunity to be a security guard, a full-time job supervising the door of a large chain supermarket. I was lucky. Everything went like magic and nine months flew in a twinkle. I was fully settled. Sending money home became a monthly routine, and one that I did joyfully. Even our family status at home was elevated. Dad utilized every dime I sent. School fees were paid on time, they had meals on a daily basis, and even did minor renovations on the four-bedroom bungalow Dad built before his retirement as the village headmaster. I also sent some posed photographs of me snapped at strategic places exhibiting London’s goodness. I had learnt some slang: ‘inni,’ and ‘alright mate.’ I tried as much as possible to twist my tongue while speaking to friends back home. I was tormented getting calls from home loaded with requests from people I didn’t know. It felt great to belong to the overseas class, to be consulted about important decisions in the family, not only as the first-born son but also as a breadwinner of sorts. It was a merited right. Then suddenly, everything crumbled.
That Thursday began like every other day. The sky frowned as if in alliance with the impending doom. We all signed in at 8 am, cracked a few jokes, checked the duty board and retired to our respective duties. We’d barely worked for thirty minutes when a white Mercedes sprinter minibus drove onto the premises. Twelve fierce-looking men and women walked into the manager’s office. A call from the Manager’s office was not unusual, but the call that morning was charged with anxiety and tension. It was the sort of call I’ve heard about from those lucky enough to escape the immigration net. From that moment, I knew it was my time to tell a story: whether it was good or bad. My whole system got the signal, and I became a river of sweat. My feet felt too weak to carry my weight. I wished I could fly, or evaporate into thin air. Instead, I did what we were asked to do: lumber into the general office, where we all stood like statues in the presence of mean-looking men and women from UK Border Agency. They ransacked every corner of the office and bombarded the store manager, Mr. Lian with questions. He mixed and changed his statements. Then we were asked to identify ourselves. The man that spoke to me seemed like wickedness personified.
‘Your name, please,’ he said to me.
‘Emeka Okolo,’ I replied.
‘Date of birth?’
‘23rd April, 1988.’
‘56 Devonshire Road, London, SE6 2JR.’
As he confirmed my details in the system, I fought the flood of tears that surged to wet my face. I saw my plans crumble like a house of cards; I saw perforations on my mission and my vision. I thought about my dad, my younger siblings and all the people whose lives I had impacted in my little way these past few months. I thought of my kind hearted Uncle J.
‘God, if you are still on the throne and doing miracles, let me tell this story,’ I prayed.
After what seemed like eternity, they asked some workers to go back to their stations. But for six of us, as we took our seats in the minibus, our hands lost their freedom. UK border agents must be heartless to do their job. My case was hydra-headed. The man I impersonated was a wanted terrorist. I made my true confession.
As I climbed the stairs of the aircraft that was to take me back to Nigeria, I took a last look at London, my London. As I sat in my seat with a security guard behind me, I still believed that a miracle was possible. But then the plane taxied on the runway, and I knew it would be only a couple of hours before I would fit back into my old shoes. You can only see the bad side of darkness after you’ve tasted light.
About the author:
Tina Festus was born and grew up in Nigeria. She graduated from University of Port Harcourt with a B.Sc in Economics. She has a great passion for writing and has written many short stories and poems. Currently she lives in London with her family. She is doing her second degree in English Language and creative writing at the University of Westminster, as well as working on her first novel.
Photograph © Aero Icarus