Eniọlá decided to pretend it was just water. A single melting hailstone. Mist or dew. It could also be some good thing: a solitary raindrop fallen from the sky, lone precursor to a deluge. The first rains of the year would mean he could finally eat an àgbálùmọ̀. The fruit seller whose stall was next to his school had had a basket of àgbálùmọ̀ for sale yesterday, but Ẹniọlá had not bought any from her, and he’d convinced himself this was because his mother often said they caused cramps if eaten before the first rainfall. But if this liquid was rain, then in a few days he could lick an àgbálùmọ̀’s sweet and sticky juice from his fingers, chew the fibrous flesh into gum, crack open the seeds and gift his sister seedlings that she’d halve into stick-on earrings. He tried to pretend it was just rain, but it did not feel like water.
He could sense, though his eyes were downcast, that the dozen or so men who clustered around the newspaper vendor’s table were staring at him. They were all quiet, stone-still. Like disobedient children transformed into rocks by an evil wizard in one of those stories his father used to tell.
When he was a child, Ẹniọlá would shut his eyes whenever he got into trouble, certain that he was not visible to anyone he could not see. Although he knew closing his eyes now and hoping he would vanish was as stupid as believing that people could become stones, he squeezed them shut anyway. And, of course, he did not vanish. He was not that lucky. The newspaper vendor’s rickety table was still right in front of him, close enough for his thighs to brush the newspapers that covered its surface. The vendor, whom Ẹniọlá called Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey, was still standing next to him, and the hand he’d pressed into Ẹniọlá’s shoulder just before he cleared his throat and spat in his face was still in place.
Ẹniọlá traced a finger up his nose, inching towards the wet weight of phlegm. Stunned into silence that something so unexpected had rippled through their routine, all the men, even Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey, seemed to be holding their breath, waiting for more. Not even one person was taunting Chelsea fans about the way Tottenham crushed their team last night. Nobody was arguing about that open letter the journalist-politician had written about other politicians who bathed in human blood to protect themselves from evil spirits. The men had all gone quiet when the vendor’s phlegm struck Ẹniọlá’s face. And now these men who gathered here every morning to argue about the headlines were watching to see what Ẹniọlá would do. They wanted him to hit the vendor, yell insults, cry or, better yet, clear his own throat, pool phlegm in his mouth and spit in Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey’s face. Ẹniọlá’s finger travelled all the way to his forehead; he had been too slow. The phlegm had already dribbled down the side of his nose, leaving a damp and sticky trail across his cheek. Flicking the glob away was out of the question now.
Something pushed against his cheek. He flinched, lurching forward into the newspaper stand. Around him, a few people muttered sorry
as he gripped the table’s edge to stop himself from falling. One of the men had been pushing a blue handkerchief against his face.
“Hin ṣé, sir,” Ẹniọlá said as he took the handkerchief; he was
grateful, even though the hanky was already streaked with white lines that flaked when he pressed it against his cheek.
Ẹniọlá scanned the small crowd, straightening once he realised there was no one there from his school. The men clustered around the vendor’s table were all adults. Some, already dressed for work, pulled at tightly knotted ties and adjusted ill-fitting jackets. Many wore faded sweaters or bomber jackets zipped chin high. Most of the younger ones, whose names he had to prefix with “Brother” or get a knock on the head, were recent graduates from polytechnics or universities. They would loiter around Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey’s stand all morning, reading and arguing, copying job adverts from the newspapers into notepads or scraps of paper. Now and then they might help the vendor with change, but none of them would buy a newspaper.
Ẹniọlá tried to return the handkerchief, but the man waved him off and began browsing through a copy of Aláròyé.
At least there was no one here who could tell his schoolmates how the vendor had glared at him for almost a full minute before spitting in his face. The action so sudden he’d moved his head to the side only after he felt wetness begin to spread across his nose, so unexpected it had silenced men whose voices could usually be heard in every house on the street. At least Paul and Hakeem, his classmates who also lived on that street, weren’t there to witness that moment. After seeing an old video of Klint da Drunk performing on Night of a Thousand Laughs,
Paul had decided he wanted to be just like Klint. Since then, whenever a teacher skipped a period, Paul staggered around, bumping into desks and chairs, slurring insults at his classmates.
Ẹniọlá placed a palm against his cheek to press in any wetness and leave his skin unmarked. If there was any trace of saliva on his face when he passed by Paul’s house on his way back home, the other boy’s hour or so in front of the class this afternoon would be all about him. Paul might say the wetness was there because Ẹniọlá drooled in his sleep, had not taken a bath before putting on his school uniform, came from a family that could not even afford soap. There would be laughter; he laughed too when Paul tortured other people. Most of the jokes were not even funny, but, hoping this would keep Paul’s focus on whatever unfortunate boy or girl he’d chosen that afternoon, Ẹniọlá laughed at everything Paul said. When Paul shifted his attention from one person, it would usually turn on a girl who hadn’t been laughing at his jokes. Usually. There had been that terrible afternoon when Paul had stopped talking about some other classmate’s tattered shoe to say Ẹniọlá’s forehead was shaped like the thick end of a mango. Ẹniọlá had been laughing at the girl with tattered shoes and found that as the class erupted into a fresh round of laughter that he would hear in his sleep for months after, he could not shut his mouth. He wanted to stop laughing but couldn’t. Not when his throat began to hurt with tears or when his classmates became quiet because the chemistry teacher had stumbled in a few minutes before her period was over. He’d gone on laughing until she told him to kneel in one corner of the class with his face to the wall.
Without a mirror, there was no way to tell . . . no. No. He wouldn’t ask any of the men around him to confirm if his face still had any streaks. He wouldn’t. As his hand slipped away from his cheek, Ẹniọlá squinted at the three-storey building where Paul’s family lived on the second floor. They shared its four rooms with two other families and an old woman who had no known relatives. The woman was standing in front of the house now, scattering grain on the sand while chickens squawked at her feet. No Paul. Maybe he had left for school already. But then, he could also be on the staircase or in the corridor, ready to step out just as Ẹniọlá passed by the house.
Ẹniọlá cupped his forehead, pressing his palm against the point where it jutted forward to hang over the bridge of his nose as though to push it back, all the way back into his skull. Maybe he should just run past that house. This was all his father’s fault. Everything. The things Paul might say, the men who eyed his now-clenched fists as though expecting him to punch the newspaper vendor, the vendor’s rage. Especially the vendor’s rage. It was his father who owed this man thousands of naira, his father who for months had collected Thursday’s The Daily
on credit so he could read all the job placements in the newspaper, his father who had insisted this morning that Ẹniọlá should be the one to go beg the vendor for a copy of the day’s paper on credit. That stinking mix of spit and phlegm should be clinging to his father’s skin.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and recognised the grip before he turned towards the vendor. The man was close enough for Ẹniọlá to smell his breath. Although, that could still be his own face. While the handkerchief had gotten most of the wetness, the smell stayed on. Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey coughed, and Ẹniọlá braced himself. What more could the vendor do? Punch him in the face so that when he got home there would be some unmistakable mark, a bruise or disjointed nose that would announce what had happened here to Ẹniọlá’s father?
“You wanted The Daily,
àbí? Óyá, take.” The vendor slapped Ẹniọlá’s arm with a rolled-up newspaper. “But if I see you or your father here again, ehn? Tell him. That your father—better tell him—if I see either of you here again, the wonders I will work on your face with my fist? Anyone who sees you will think a trailer ran over you. I’m warning you now, don’t choose to be unfortunate.”
Ẹniọlá wished he could force the vendor’s mouth open and stuff the newspaper down his throat. He wanted to fling the newspaper on the ground and stamp it into the red earth until every page was shredded; he wanted at least to turn his back on Ẹ̀gbọ́n Abbey without taking it from him. This was the kind of nonsense he got from older people all the time, even his parents. He knew there would be no apologies for the vendor’s explosive rage; the man would rather drink out of the gutter than admit spitting in his face was wrong. This newspaper was supposed to double as an apology. He imagined an older person, his mother or father, apologising to him for any reason at all and he almost laughed.
“Have you turned into a statue?” the vendor asked, poking Ẹniọlá’s chest with The Daily
Someday soon, though, his father would have money again and Ẹniọlá would be sent to buy a newspaper. On that day he would walk all the way to Wesley Guild and buy one from the vendor whose stand was in front of the hospital. On his way back he would pass by this vendor’s stand, flipping through the newspaper so that this wicked man could see. But before all that could happen, his father had to find the right job vacancy. And so Ẹniọlá took the newspaper, mumbled something that could be mistaken for a thank-you and began to run. Away from the vendor and his smelling mouth, past Paul’s house where the old woman was struggling with a chick as she tied a piece of red fabric to one of its feathers. Faster and faster, downhill towards home.
His father seemed to hold each leaf of The Daily
with his fingertips as he turned its pages. Or just his nails—Ẹniọlá couldn’t tell for sure from where he stood by the door. All this care after he had washed his hands twice and refused to dry them with any fabric, declining even the lace blouse Ẹniọlá’s mother had fished out of the special box that held her collection of lace and aṣọ-òkè. Instead, he’d paced the room in every possible direction—wall to bed, bed to mattress on the floor, mattress on the floor to the cupboard that held pots, plates and cups—holding his arms aloft until all the moisture had evaporated from his skin. He’d even tapped each finger against his eyelids before asking Ẹniọlá to hand over The Daily
. Once they had up to ten copies, the newspapers could be traded for money or food from the women who sold groundnuts, fried yam or boli on this street or the next. He preferred food, especially when it was from that boli seller whose plantains were roasted exactly how he liked them, crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. But his parents always wanted to exchange the newspapers for money, and the cleaner they were, the more those women were willing to pay for them.
His father was not old enough to have grey hair. Or so his mother said, the first time she plucked hair from Bàami’s head, claiming that once she pulled them all from the roots, they would grow back even blacker than before. And yet, last year, every strand on Bàami’s head turned grey within a month. The grey had raced from Bàami’s temple, claiming every inch of his scalp, so that within weeks Ẹniọlá had to look at one of his father’s old photos to remember what he had looked like when his hair was black.
In the creased and flaking photo, Bàami is beside a door, glaring at the camera as though daring the photographer to take a bad picture. His hair is black at the temple and elsewhere. A side parting on the left side reveals a slice of his gleaming scalp. On the door, fitting just within the frame before it is cut off at the edge, a black nameplate says “Vice Principal” in gold cursive letters. Below that, typed out on a rectangular sheet of paper that looked as though it had only just been stuck on that door and would soon be ripped off, is Bàami’s name—Mr. Bùsùyì Òní. Bàami stands straight with his shoulder pushed so far back, Ẹniọlá wondered if he wasn’t smiling because his shoulder blades had begun to hurt. Over the years since the photo was taken, Bàami had stopped staring directly at cameras or people. Only Ẹniọlá’s mother still insisted that he look her in the eye while speaking to her. When he spoke to Ẹniọlá or his sister, Bàami stared at their feet, eyes flitting around as though counting their toes over and over again.
Bàami folded The Daily
and cleared his throat. “The vegetable that is growing wild in the backyard, what if you sell it? I can help you to harvest . . .”
“No, no, no, there’s no way that will sell, Bàbá Ẹniọlá. Face the newspaper, please. Have you checked it from beginning to end?” Ẹniọlá’s mother said.
“Have you found something?” Ẹniọlá asked.
His father flipped the newspaper open without responding to either of them. Ẹniọlá wanted to go outside and wash his face, but he felt compelled to stay with his parents. Besides, bathing was done for the day and his mother had stored the soap in one of her countless hiding places. If he asked her for the soap now, she would want to know why he needed it. She would not relent until he explained why he’d asked for it, not even if he changed his mind and told her he didn’t need the soap anyway. She would make him reveal what had happened, she always found a way. And he knew that the minute he finished his story, she would rush to the vendor’s and spit in his face until her mouth was dry. He did not want that. Yes, he would love to watch the vendor try to dodge his mother’s wrath, but that would also mean that more people might hear about how he had been humiliated that morning. He did not really need the soap. Maybe he should just rinse his face and scrub it with a sponge the way he did when they ran out of soap.
Copyright © 2023 by Ayobami Adebayo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.