Irenosen Okojie

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On the third Thursday of each month, Nesrine Malik, prisoner 2212 pulled skin from the thing living in her throat before writing to Eros. She performed this ritual without fail and had done for four years since landing at Woodowns prison on drug charges as an accessory with intent to supply. Nesrine had arrived with these items; an afro comb, a brown leather wallet, two first class stamps, items which in time repeatedly trapped themselves in the dysfunctional sounds of the prison. It was love that threw Nesrine in jail, blind, dangerous, destructive love for a man who’d groomed her to be his soldier on the streets. Who’d told her there was wonder in her infectious, hypnotic smile and liked to rub his thumb on her palm anti clockwise. He had only ever visited once, to inform her he wouldn’t be coming again. This is how it is he’d said, watching her coldly, dispassionately. The gold chaps on his wrist knocking against the wooden desk, his fade neat, his boyishly attractive face distant, the proud flair of his nostrils rousing the memory of pressing her lips there. Nesrine had slumped in her uncomfortable chair in shock, shoving her hand into her braids, heart shaped face hollow, crumpling, looking through the glass partition, wanting to press her mouth against the smattering of holes there to get air. A different kind of air he’d brought with him. She was vaguely aware of his chair scraping back, of the ceiling fan spinning, slicing her tongue loaded with protests, of the other prisoners’ heads bent towards their visitors, deep in conversation. And the sound of the guards’ keys jangling, dipping, and falling into the darkness of her throat. Then everything changed. Nesrine wasn’t sure whether it was the sticky heat of the room, the worn edges of the cheap brown linoleum floor that had begun to come unstuck or the sound of the glass door sliding open slowly, mechanically or her silence as that man left her to rot. Something changed in the air. The prisoners’ faces began to stretch, distorting into caricatures in the afternoon light, leaving their bodies to float in the dusty windows, crying at personal items they recognized spinning in the distance. Visitors’ hands rummaged through their pockets, searching for things that had fallen through an anti clockwise gap. Guards scrambled on the floor, sniffer dog collars around their necks, dodging batons flying at their faces.
Trembling, Nesrine stuck three fingers down her throat, convinced something would emerge from the moist darkness. While she grabbed at the thing there, Eros appeared in the empty visitor’s chair opposite her. He shook with anger. Tears ran down his cheeks. Stunned, Nesrine removed her fingers from her throat, leaving the thing in the dark screaming. Eros had only half a heart that she saw was beating, shrinking, swelling in his chest. He set his bow and arrow down on the floor. He pulled Nesrine through the glass partition so she could breathe. The cuts around her mouth did not matter nor did her deadened tongue. He had come.

This year, Nesrine sent Eros postcards of skeletons floating in the abyss. Before that it had been lost cities and prior to that it was women inventors. Without fail, every month she made a different prisoner press the damp tip of their tongue to the corner of the postcard. They always grumbled but nevertheless indulged her.
This is stupid, doesn’t cost me anything so I’ll do it.
You are bonkers. Eros is something somebody created. He’s not real.
You’re not asking for my lady parts juices which would be more worrying yet frankly, somewhat arousing.

Nesrine knew he was real. She’d touched him, been rescued by him. She’d seen her pain and destruction reflected in his face. He’d caught her when she thought her organs had absconded from her body to become small explosives beneath the fingers of other prisoners. Nesrine sent the postcards to Piccadilly. They never came back. She imagined them bold in the wind. She fed Eros snippets of prison life; that Hollis, prisoner 4712 had been found dead in the underground tunnel trying to escape, surrounded by empty crisp wrappers, rats eating the last images from her eyes, how Moffat prisoner 3083 had fallen from the ladder injuring her shoulder whilst building the set for their interpretation of Much A Do About Nothing, how Gaudier prisoner 2241 still possessing a hint of her French accent was found in a donkey costume screaming in the costume wardrobe, waving a large candlestick holder at anybody who approached. She told Eros about her diary, which she kept tucked away beneath her mattress.
At night, Nesrine ran her fingers over the kink in her hair, along the expanse of her brown skin where tiny scenes from a life lost rose to the surface mimicking the shapes of small countries. She thought of Emerico’s deceptive face. It only ever came to her in parts; left side first then the right. Never head on. How like him that was. Even in absence, he didn’t show you the whole picture. She watered his face with tepid prison tap water. She cried trying to silence his overarching, growing mouth. Sometimes she dreamt of emerging from a white triangle in the dessert, holding the remnants of her battered heart to an abandoned bow and arrow.

On February 8th 1995, Nesrine’s writing to Eros would be delayed because of the netball game. The cold court was covered in invisible scuff marks from light, worn plimsolls, the sock puppet in the bin borrowed the ends of short exchanges from spectators at the back of the court, muttering it to the rubbish. And the prisoners seemed malleable, blink and they’d be babies in orange and blue team bibs scrambling for the ball while the prison cat Homer kept trying to shove its head through the hole on the left side of the court, wanting to observe this grey world from a different angle as the women transformed. The locks in their chests clicked open, bodies slick with perspiration airborne, catching things other than the ball. Homer tried to leave a paw print on the game but the flashes of blue and orange were too quick. Too sly. Too seductive.
Nesrine flew in her position as goal attack. She could be anything such was the feeling of exhilaration, of freedom; a magician’s chest chasing its tricks, a concert reveler crowd surfing that had turned the wrong way, landing in her bib, a microorganism outgrowing the confines and gaze of its microscope. Hot on her heels was the centre for the opposition, Harris, prisoner 2241. At the edge, where the half pie shape surrounding the goal met redemption, Harris knocked into Nesrine with all her body weight. Nesrine fell, then sprang up like a prize fighter already tasting the spoils of victory; an extra packet of cigarettes, the title of woman of the game, a chance to order two books of her choice at the prison library. Nesrine shoved Harris back. Their mouths curled dangerously, the way they do when words harbor small, sharp instruments glinting silver amidst the snarls. A guard acting as referee blew the whistle. It was too late. Harris grabbed a yellow handled screwdriver from her pocket, stabbing into Nesrine’s throat in one quick motion. The din rose. Nesrine fell to the ground, hands on her throat as blood spurted. Her legs jerked. Homer’s head shot out of the hole. Harris was dragged away by the guard, her pockmarked face beet red, her buzz cut defiant in the air. The court erupted. Spectators who were other prisoners dashed into the centre. The two teams broke into fights, turning on each other, ready to leap off the court and take a different warpath through the trembling goal net. Nesrine bled into the crack of joy redemption had offered, then cruelly snatched away. There would be no postcard to Eros that month. Having escaped, bearing a puncture wound in its head, the thing from Nesrine’s throat stumbled in the light, in the grey world winded, in search of another moist home.

Five days later, just past 10pm, the statue of Eros hopped off the top step at Piccadilly clutching Nesrine’s final postcard. His head fell, the pain in his chest was so intense he thought it would split him in two. He felt sad and powerless. He knew there would be no more postcards to intercept from the bright angles of the morning. His footsteps were heavy on his way down as Piccadilly Circus buzzed around him. Huge, brightly lit billboards blinded from all directions beaming Sanyo! TDK! Coca Cola! The steps usually heaving with bodies were fairly empty except for a homeless man curled up in the middle.

Morning arrived, cradled Eros sitting on a park bench, cold against his back his hands turning over Nesrine’s postcard. Anger rose inside him, pulled the corners of his mouth down. His limbs had a stiffness he needed to walk off.
A plan took shape in the white curls of clouds. He decided to head to Leicester Square where the statue of Charlie Chaplin awaited him. Charlie on his stone plinth was splendid. In his signature tramp ensemble, right hand wielding a cane. Eros hopped onto the plinth, placed a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and said, “I need your help, I’ve lost someone. The other half of my heart won’t grow back unless I do something. I need you to keep my spirits up.” He settled his cold lips on Charlie’s ear, whispering. His voice cracked. Charlie’s lids flickered; he wiggled his fingers, made an “Ahhh” noise, he spotted a lone man in a blue windbreaker barking into a phone.
Eros grabbed Charlie, holding up the postcard. “This is what I have of her.”
Charlie read the postcard, a wistful expression on his face. “I can see her, I can feel her spirit. Can I tear a bit of this off? ” He said, ignoring the increasing sounds of the city coming to life.
“Why?” Eros asked “you didn’t know her.”
“But you’ve shown me a piece of her so I want it too.”
Eros nodded. Charlie ripped the left corner off, the shape of the rip in Eros’s half heart where small shreds of Nesrine’s last day had settled and spun. Charlie slipped the piece into his pocket. Eros took the postcard back. “That’s the prison address” He pointed at Nesrine’s scribble in the right corner. They both stared at the postcard as if it would transform into a blind winged thing.
Charlie took his hat off, scratched his head. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I have to get something that belongs to me now.”
“Who should come with us?”
“Let’s ask Nahla. Nesrine mentioned her in an old postcard. She never got to see her.”
They jumped off the plinth. The grass surrounding them went bald. The pigeons shed their grey for the pavements, beginning to peck at each other frenetically.

Eros and Charlie travelled on, to Stockwell Memorial Gardens where the only statue of a black woman stood. Nahla The Bronze Woman. Ten feet tall and held her baby boy high above her head. Her gift to him was flight. On the ground, there would be ways and means to deny him this. She held her baby to her left breast and his cry to her right.
She told them she’d already traced the shapes of Nesrine’s lost dreams. She too tore a piece from the postcard, slipping it beneath her tongue.
Next, they stopped by the vomiting sculpture. His white lips and hands trembled to life as he was handed the final piece of the postcard. His dark, misshapen body was rough to touch. He heaved then; yellow bile from his throat coated the pavement. On they went, the vomiting sculpture catching all the ailments Nesrine was yet to have experienced, a revolving door of sickness; The flu she would have gotten in the early part of the year at twenty seven, the thrush that would have had her rubbing small blobs of Canestine cream on the brown pink folds of her vagina, tonsillitis. The sharp stomach cramps she’d have gotten from food poisoning, the vomit from her stomach as a result. The vomiting statue inherited these splatters of illness that would become poisonous black mushrooms with bulbous heads.
The statues continued as a group. They marched on, creating a flurry that swept over the city. People pointed, fascinated. Some brought out their mobile phones to take pictures or video them. Others touched their faces and bodies gently, as though they were made of plasticine. Starring as if the earth they knew had tricked them, as if anything could take on a different dimension and come to life.
Over the next five hours, they made their way towards Woodowns Women’s Prison on the outskirts of Chelmsford. They trekked across motorways, bridges, underpasses and bike trails. Now and again, they stopped for breaks; drinking from brooks or park ponds, watching their reflections’ mouths glimmering in the water.

The statues arrived at Woodowns at 10pm. The prison sat on a lengthy, remote stretch of road. A few rusted lampposts along the grey tarmac looked like pitiful light bearers from a bleak dystopian future. The statues fished out coins they’d borrowed off a supermarket coin machine. They placed them in their mouths, swallowing heads or tails as they edged closer to the prison, a large brown bricked building. There were no barbed wire fences surrounding it or huge gates as one might have expected. Instead, you crossed a circular parking area for visitors and a big green sign bearing arrows and directions to the various blocks. A white water fountain sat just outside the closed reception area. They took turns drinking from it, watering the coins inside catching fragments of light from the day. At the top of the road was an old, abandoned post office building, boarded up and decorated with patches of graffiti. Several minutes from the prison, a bowling alley closed for a few months for refurbishment had a neon sign that read Welcome to Walley’s! And a red headed woman shaped like Jessica Rabbit leaning against the exclamation mark winking. The statues continued, the particles of a tiny planet assembling inside them. Several steps behind the fountain lay an underground tunnel which led inside the prison, hidden by a heavy, circular metal lid and copper bars that bore the imprint of frustrated hands that had had to turn back. Eros pulled the lid off, the vomiting statue prized the six bars open slowly, one by one. They entered the tunnel, assisting each other as a cold shaft of air welcomed them. It was dark, dank and bore the smell of rot and the echoes of things lost. The vomiting statue threw up, then pulled a red ruby stone from the sick that shone brightly to guide them. On their left were some wires covered in blood. Crisp packets floated on the thin layer of dirty water on the ground, rats scurried into the silvery insides to eat reflections of themselves. Footsteps of many plucky prisoners who had attempted escape, running to meet their doom had long faded, who had slipped, broken their hearts. Holding those bars angrily, they’d cried as the injuries in their bloodstreams became small creatures leaping through the bars’ gaps, into the world out there beyond them.
The statues heard these echoes as they made way, knocking torches with batteries that had failed to fuel the last legs of escape, scooping floating matchsticks missing fires consumed by the cruelty of fate. Eros began to whistle Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car one of Nesrine’s favourite songs. The other statues joined in. It travelled through the air, into the ears of prisoners in Block B, who slowly uncurled their bodies from their bunks, listening intensely. The statues left the tunnel through its exit on the exercise court of Block B; drab, grey and boasting two netball goalposts at either end with nets that trembled having caught the many daily conversations that slipped into cracks. A cardboard sign reading No banned items allowed blew onto the court, weathered at the edges. Charlie Chaplin took over holding the ruby, signaling the others, placing a finger over his lips. He spotted the thing from Nesrine’s throat raising its small, slimy arms towards them. Charlie took his hat off, scooped it up. Phlegm coloured and sickly looking, it pointed at the building by the side of the court. They followed the building round, till they found themselves at the entrance of the smoking area by the guards’ hub which had been left open. Inside, a small cluster of guards sat before CCTV screens, watching intermittently, batons on the table, blue shirt collars undone, keys jangling from slack belt holders. Relaxed in their glass cubicle, the guards had not spotted the statues’ slow infiltration. There was no camera on the court and therefore no feed to pick them up for two to three minutes, allowing a good window of time to make their approach. Then the CCTV footage flickered as though being interrupted. Two guards snoozing at one corner table were unaware. The other two keeping watch were eating donuts and drinking watered down cups of coffee. Eros and Charlie Chaplin leapt through the glass into the cubicle. Bits of glass showered the thing from Nesrine’s throat, like diamonds shimmering over a small mutant. The guards jerked in their seats, shocked. Two guards spat out mouthfuls of donut, scraping their chairs back quickly, spilling coffee on their uniforms. The others had woken abruptly, drool drying on the corners of their mouths they said “What is this? Stand back! You’re looking at serious charges for this.”
The CCTV screens flickered again, playing footage of prisoners from the cameras’ blind spots; scratching their faces in the showers, deliberately burning their hands in huge pots of tasteless soup they’d stirred till the ache in their shoulders began to travel to other parts of their bodies, crying over pictures of loved ones that had changed somehow over time. The statues ushered the guards into an empty cell, locking them in, swiping their keys.
The prisoners of Block B started to whistle loudly, knocking their bars insistently using shoes, books, stolen cutlery, pipe bars, their limbs poised in excitement at what was to come. The thing from Nesrine’s throat led Eros and the other statues to Nesrine’s now empty cell. It sat on her dented bed, leaving a yellow stain. Eros raised the mattress till the thing was perched at an angle, lifted Nesrine’s blue diary from beneath, held it tightly. They left Nesrine’s cell, opened other cell gates. Female prisoners flooded out, waving their items like flags, bedtime wear rumpled. This is crazy! One prisoner yelled. Who are they?
It’s Eros, Nesrine did this! Another answered. Nesrine made this happen.” The prisoners stared at the statues in wonder, then started to chant. Nesrine, Nesrine, Nesrine! They charged at the statues. The thing from Nesrine’s throat ran amongst them, growing stronger from their energy. A heady shot to the puncture wound in its head. Its limp wrist pulled the echoes of Nesrine’s laughter and the tip of a screwdriver scraping a thorny bottom. Eros ushered everybody back onto the court, through the tunnel and out onto the street. He raised Nesrine’s diary in the air which spawned a fresh burst of chanting her name from the prisoners. They jostled amongst each other, excitement building, their chatter rose. The statues led them to the bowling alley; they broke in through a back window. They flicked the lights on, filling the building with brightness. Prisoner 1046 Sunny Whittaker, in for gbh switched the CD player on. Prisoner 2017 Delilah Armstrong, in for armed robbery took a group to the lanes where they separated into teams bowling with glee, sliding their bodies down on the floor, throwing the balls with abandon. Prisoner 2246 Arlena Mattieu, in for murder led another group to the games room. They took turns leaping on the trampolines, stretching their hands out to small versions of themselves running through the lights, holding bits of debris from the lost scenes in their lives. Another group surrounded the snooker table, shooting coloured balls into the mouths of ghosts.
At the lanes, the prisoners waiting to bowl exchanged their favourite memories of Nesrine; like the time she organized a sports day of ridiculous activities having spent weeks convincing the governor, or the year she arranged a secret Valentine’s evening where the prisoners could be each other’s dates and exchange cards and gifts they’d made or even the annoying way she always had to beat everybody during their exercise hour on the court in the mornings, covering it so quickly, as if something she’d built the night before was chasing her, high on some unidentifiable fuel. They celebrated her. They broke the vending machines, staining their tongues with skittles and warm chocolate.
The statues started to whistle again. The music changed. The Ronnettes Walking in The Rain blared from the speakers. Everywhere, the prisoners danced; in the bowling lanes, at the slot machines, on snooker tables, by the shoe lockers, at the trampolines, by the fake lottery machines where the balls looked like black eyes. By now, the ruby stone had been passed to Nahla the bronze woman statue; it sat gleaming between her breasts.
In the early hours, Eros and the statues led the prisoners into the streets, down dawn’s memory of the night before. Having fallen in love with Nesrine the moment her heart broke, he held onto her diary as though salvation lay within it. Bits of corroded flesh gathered within the void in his chest. He read the pages in sly concrete gaps longing, wanting, crying, while the thing from her throat now powerful, uglier, howling spilled bits of another earth all over the city.

© Irenosen Okojie, first published Jungle Jim 4 (Cape Town, 2011) this version first published in Speak Gigantular (September, 2016).

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