Ola Awonubi was born in London to Nigerian parents. She attended intermediate and advanced writing courses at the Centerprise Literature Development project in Hackney, London before studying for an MA in Creative writing and Imaginative Practice at the University of East London.
In 2008 her short story The Pink House, won first prize in the National words of colour competition and another short story of hers The Go- slow Journey, won the first prize in the fiction category for Wasafiri’s New writing prize 2009. Some of her short stories feature on the African writing.com, StoryTime, Faithtowrite.com and naijastories.com . She has recently had another short story – Green Eyes and an Old photo published in the 2013 African Roar Anthology and her short story – Illusion of Hope was published in the NS Publishing short reads series – Wiping Halima’s Tears.
She is currently working on a collection of short stories based on the African experience, and a novel – a cross cultural romance that explores the social, political, cultural and historical ties that bind and divide the cultures. She has a romance novel due for publication later this year.
Website: http://www. easytowrite.wordpress.com
"The Taste of Home"
The event was taking place in a modest two bed roomed house on Paradise Street, a row of brick houses battered by time and the last war. This part of the East- end of London had been badly defaced by Hitler’s bombs and more than two decades later the sense of abandonment and gloom hung in the air like the early morning smog.
Oyedeji was excited. He had been waiting all week for this party and from the looks on the faces of the people around him – he wasn’t the only one. He couldn’t believe there were so many Nigerians in this area.
The celebrant was a Nigerian Doctor from a rich family. His father was some Military big man back home. No wonder this chap could afford to spend lavishly on his second son’s naming ceremony.
He was enthusiastic about the food. There was lots of it, good home cooking like Moi Moi; jollof rice, fried chicken and fish and assorted alcoholic beverages. He had not had not eaten this well for a long time.
“Good food eh?”
He looked up and saw the grey haired gentleman who had been holding court in the sitting room. He had merry eyes that looked to the future and a face lined with years of experience and rejection. His unnaturally black hair contrasted with his white eyebrows. His name was Mr Coker a.k.a, ‘Baba London’. Mr Coker knew everybody, and anyone who had been in London long enough knew Mr Coker. The stories differed; he had fought in the Great War; others said it was the Second World War, helping the British fight Hitler. Mr Coker was what some Nigerians scornfully referred to in those days as an eternal student. One of those unfortunate fellows who failed to pass their exams and was doomed to roam the streets of London until he was white-haired and toothless, instead of going home to face the disappointment of family and friends for not returning with any qualifications. It was the sixties and the motherland needed such professionals to go home and build up the civil service the British had put in place.
Oyedeji nodded as he tucked into his plate of jollof rice. “Great food. It is good to meet people from home.”
Mr Coker agreed. “Listen to me, my son. When you are in a foreign place like this, it is good to stick close to your people.”
Oyedeji smiled and watched as a pretty young woman came up and gave Mr Coker a plate of food, curtseying as she did so.
“That is my wife, you know.”
Oyedeji nodded politely. How did an old goat like that manage to get his hands on such a pretty girl?
The old man followed his gaze and chuckled. “Listen my friend. If you have a bit of money – you can marry the most beautiful girl in Nigeria. Are you married? “
Oyedeji looked incredulous. “I am not even earning enough to look after myself- let alone another person.”
“Well, when you have saved up enough money – ask your people back home to send you a good wife.”
The young woman returned again with a glass of water, curtsied again and left. The old man’s eyes followed her greedily. Oyedeji’s lips curled with distaste. What was it about these old men and their insatiable desire for young flesh?
Oyedeji looked at the young woman and gave her a wry smile. The poor girl probably cooked for him, kept his home neat and tidy and submitted herself to his intermittent clumsy advances in return for the chance to live in England and send money home to her family.
He watched as Mr Coker attacked his chicken with his brown stained sharp teeth. “Whatever you do ….do not marry a white woman. They will make you look down on your culture and your people. Your children will grow up not knowing your family.” He beckoned to his wife who brought him a beer.
He remembered Sandra, the English girl whose number he had taken a few weeks ago. He still had not called her. He had mentioned it to his flatmates who had discouraged him.
We don’t want trouble from the neighbour’s. You better steer clear of Oyibo girls. You know what happened to so and so.
Mr Coker had not finished. “You may think I am an old fool but listen to this old fool. I have been in this country for almost forty years now and I can tell you that those kinds of marriages never work. I used to work with one chap from Ekiti in the Western part of Nigeria. He married this white woman. One day she saw him cooking cow foot to eat and he gave some to their little son. The ignorant woman went to social services and said the man was trying to force the boy to swallow a bone. Then when such people want to go back home, the white woman threatens to keep the children behind. When it comes to marriage, home is best.”
At some point, the old man started to sing a song and people gathered around and sang with him. The wistfulness on their faces and longing in their voices leant a sad melancholy air to what was meant to be a joyful occasion.
Home my home
Home my home oooh
When shall see my home?
When shall I see my native land?
I will never forget my home.
Suddenly bored, Oyedeji picked up a can of beer and watched a young lady walk past with a tray of akara, a delicacy that made his mouth water with longing.
“Could I have some of that please?” he smiled at her politely.
She stopped and gave him a plate. His eyes swept over her taking in the neat plated hair, a rarity when most of the women in the room were wearing wigs, down to the simple Buba and wrapper – a blouse teamed with a long strip of patterned material she had tied around a slim waist. Her eyes were large and deep set in a dark face, her smile revealing a gap between her teeth and she had two small tribal marks that told him that she came from Abeokuta, a large town in western Nigeria.
“Thank you. “
She smiled and moved on gracefully through the crowd. He watched her go, his eyes fixed on her posterior. He smiled slowly and turned his attention back to his food. Nice looking but a little plain. Maybe he just liked his women, just like his food- slightly spicier like this bean cake. His eyes flicked through the crowd and settled on another girl. She was fair and had bright pink lips the same colour as the silk skirt and blouse that showed off some ample cleavage, her hair swept back into elaborate beehive. He kept on looking and the girl looked up and gave him a small smile.
The summer nights lengthened into autumn and he found himself working a collection of assorted jobs. The first one was working as a cleaner in a care home; the second was as a security guard in a firm that made electrical supplies.
Slush swept away the debris summer left behind, and the streets were slippery. Oyedeji fell down a couple of times trying to walk fast like the Oyibos who had been born with the ability to walk like robots, in all kinds of weather. It was on one of these cold wet miserable mornings whilst standing at the bus stop, that he met an attractive Oyibo girl with a man’s laugh. Her number was still hidden away in his suitcase under the warm clothes he brought from home. You never know when you might need such things – like warm clothes or a warm hearted white woman.
His work meant he worked late and her work meant she would pop into the offices whilsteveryone had gone home. Sometimes she would bring a take- away and a couple of beers.
On one such evening she sat on her uncle’s chair eating fish and chips and asked without looking up. “You got a girlfriend back home Oyedeji? “
“No.” He remembered Elizabeth, the student nurse waiting patiently for him back in Lagos and realised that he was not the same person she had fallen in love with.
“What about back home – in Africa? I hear you folk usually have three or four wives – like a kind of harem.”
He put down the bottle of beer and smiled deciding to humour her. “Yes. In fact my father had eight of them.”
She choked on the food and had to take a drink. “Eight?”
“Maybe nine. I forget.”
Silence. Then a cough. “So how do you do it then…. I mean keep all those women happy?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I have never been married to several women at the same time.”
“Yeah I know but I’m sure you and your mates talk about these things.”
He was in the middle of concentrating on the mountain of mashed potato and vegetable stew in front of him. Mashed potato was a poor substitute for Pounded yam, but he did not have the money to buy food from the African food shop, so all he could do was eat it and pretend he was eating the real thing. Her cough made him look up.
He did not know why he covered up the food and wiped his hands on a piece of tissue.
“ Deejee – why are you eating with your hands like that?” Her mouth was open.
He shrugged. “That is how we eat our food back home.”
“You’re not back home. Deejee. You’re in blooming London!”
“So what? Whatever part of the world he finds himself, an African man is an African man.”
“I dunno. It just looks so ……”
“So what ?”
“It’s not sanitary.”
“The British want to lecture me about cleanliness. This is a country where warm water comes at the touch of a tap, yet you people build your bathrooms outside in your gardens and bath once a week. I come from a country where people walk for miles to bath in rivers – every morning.”
He watched Sandra go red.
“Sometimes I don’t know why I bother with you. What did I say that was so badanyhow?“
He did not look up from his food. “Sandra, do I complain when you eat fish and chips with your fingers?
She played with a strand of her hair. “Don’t be silly Deejee. Everyone eats fish and chips with their fingers.”
“You know this for a fact eh? You have looked into everyone’s house and seen them eating their evening meal with their fingers?” He pulled out the bowl and continued eating, sucking on a chicken bone.
Sandra closed her eyes. “I can’t believe you are eating a bone.”
“That is the sweetest part of the chicken. You get all the juices.”
She looked at him with distaste. “You know what Deejee? “
What was it now? His eyes narrowed.
“Have you ever thought of changing your name?”
The muscles in his neck stood up. “Why would I want to change my name? My father gave it to me for a purpose.” He finished the food and covered the plate, washing his fingers in the side bowl on the table.
Sandra got up and manoeuvred herself into his lap. He sat there unmoved. “I was thinking the other night when you told me about your problems getting a job as a trainee accountant and I said to myself…..if you had an English name and could try and change the way you speak….well people would say …well he’s almost British and give you a chance.”
Oyedeji sighed. “I could speak like the Prime Minister and it would not change the colour of my skin – and besides I don’t have the time to go for elocution classes. I am not ElizaDoolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’. If people cannot take me as I am…” he shrugged.
They looked at each other and were both silent.
She lifted her lips to his. “I like you the way you are.”
He looked into her eyes and smiled.
It was Oyedeji’s first Christmas and the cold that entered his very soul, made him long for the land of his birth. Here it was all about giving gifts so the shops were full of merchandise and everyone went into this frenzy of buying. Sandra took him up to Oxford circus to see some pop star switch on the lights. It was an enlightening time – not because he saw how the frugality of the British disappeared during the month of December but because it was the first time they had done gone anywhere together in public.
Maybe it was the beer they had shared in a little pub in Soho that made them this confident, and by the time they got down at Mile End they were holding hands and she lay her head on his shoulder. They got outside and exchanged a long kiss and he felt someone hit him hard on the side of his head. He broke away and looked back at the sea of cold hard white faces, mostly of the working class variety, spilling out of the tube.
“Ooh, what was that?” Sandra looked a bit scared.
Oyedeji shook his head and they moved on through the crowd down the road. Maybe someone had hit him by mistake.
They crossed over the road, laughing and whispering to each other and walked down the alley to her street. It was dark enough for him to attempt to kiss her, so he did not hear the footsteps – but he did hear the curses rushing at him, like the first blow.
He did not know how many they were. Their heads were bald like babies but they had fists that pounded into his ribs and feet that kicked at his stomach and head until he gagged up the steak and kidney pie and beer he had eaten in Soho. Just before he thought he was going to die, he saw his Father the Oba, shaking his head at him in pity.
He saw Sandra’s face loom over him like a picture flickering out of focus. She was screaming and crying. Then someone kicked him again and he floated away, to wake up in a room full of bright lights with this woman with black stains running from her eyes shrieking all over him.
The tall man in the white coat spoke so quietly that he could hardly hear him but he caught the words …Concussion…broken ribs.
He closed his eyes because it hurt to keep them open.
The next day a nurse came along to dress his wounds. She brought along a student nurse to observe her ministrations. Oyedeji’s eyes narrowed with recognition as the student nurse’s eyes met his. It was the girl from the party who had served him bean cake. The plain one with the kind eyes. A needle grazed his arm and he hardly felt it before he drifted off to sleep.
She came back to see him later in the afternoon. Her hair packed into a white cap, her blue striped uniform and white crisp apron like her manner, professional and direct. The tribal marks on her face stood out like question marks on her young face.
She was silent as she checked his temperature.
He groaned. “Come to say I told you so have you? – I deserve to be here, lying on this bed in pain…..go on say it?”
She shook her head. “I saw her when they brought you in. Why do men like to look for trouble?”
Oyedeji tried to laugh but stopped because it hurt so much. “What’s your name? My name is Oyedeji.”
Her lips loosened into a smile and he saw the gap in between her teeth which he found curiously appealing. “It’s Beatrice. Beatrice Adigun.” She looked around and bent over him to straighten the covers. “I can’t stay because if Matron sees me talking to you for too long - l will get into trouble.”
He returned the smile and whispered.” A nurse. I’m impressed.”
“I was sent to this country to study and that is what I have come to do. Maybe you should focus on your studies instead of chasing white women.”
His eyes closed. “I knew it. You people can never mind your own business. I can go out with whomever I like….that doesn’t mean I have to get beaten to a pulp. I thought this was meant to be a bloody civilised country.”
Beatrice was contrite. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to….”
He sighed. “It’s ok. I am a bit tired.”
“I will come and check on you tomorrow.”
“What – and kill me with your nagging?”
She shook her head and moved towards the door and heard him groan again.
“Are you ok? “
“If you do decide to come tomorrow ….try and smuggle some proper food in before I die in this place.”
“That would really get me in hot soup.” She shook her head again. “I will come to see you tomorrow.”
“I will look forward to it. Thanks Beatrice. You are very kind.”
She looked around and went to the next patient, leaving him to close his eyes, a little smile on his lips.
This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be republished in any format with the approval of the author.
I offer my thanks to Ola for allowing me to share this great story with my readers. I look forward to reading her forthcoming novel.