Ekene always heard the music first.
Achike gave him something different every time. Some days, Ekene would open the front door and there would be Samuel Coleridge-Taylor before him, in Achike’s hands. There might be Elgar, or Chopin, things Achike had taught himself, heard somewhere and reined in to his own keen fingers. Reined in to himself and then played out, wild again, like the first time it was ever played. Or he might come home early from filming and Ekene would walk across the courtyard to an improvisation on something by Frank Ocean, something Achike had listened to on the way home. Something that made Ekene think of fresh air and cool evenings after long, hot days.
Something of this was for Achike himself. He worked too hard, these days, and he loved to leave hard work and bother behind. He loved to step off the tube and go, step by step, to his home, and close the front door, and hear the busy world continue, just outside. He loved this feeling of safety, and so some of the pleasure in his music was for him.
But what he did was not for him alone. His music was like offering joy; all his training and listening, and the hours of practice were like joy, plated up and pushed across a table to a smile. Achike loved to play, and think how his playing could be heard in the street. He didn’t care if the neighbours had questions, or might complain in the morning. They might, and sometimes did. That was for them.
But Achike . . . he might make Ekene happy with a song. He might take music that had been two pieces and make them one. He might loop them both together and play them out, to please Ekene. Two favourite things of his, noticed and known and offered. Or he might fly into Heathrow a week late, cursing the director all the way home, and let himself into the flat at one in the morning, tiptoeing in so that Ekene woke to the sound of him humming a new piece of his own making, woke to the sound of some creation pouring into his ear, as though Achike were feeding him a dream.
And how he fed him. Ekene often dreamed about Achike when he was gone. He was gone too much. Ekene always thought to be happy for his friend in his success, and to think of him doing great things, but sometimes it was hard. When it was hard for him, he thought about the way good light might hit Achike’s face in some perfect scene, or how Achike might inspire someone to write some new thing charged with beauty, or perhaps only to change a scene, knowing it could be better with Achike in it. Sometimes it was enough just to think of Achike, to think of him smiling in good light.
Ekene was rewarded for his faith. He would wait for Achike as long as he could, but the trains were late, and filming ran on, and he sometimes fell asleep before Achike arrived at the big flat with its large windows for the fresh, cold light of the day. Ekene slept, and dreamed of his great friend in the world, and of his friend coming near while the world kept its distance just outside. And sometimes, after dreaming, he woke to find Achike next to him in bed, barely awake, still singing under his breath. Had he sung all night in readiness?
Over the past three years, Achike had spent more and more time away on set, and less and less time at home in Peckham. His career was taking off at speed, and time with Ekene became increasingly precious. Shakespeare productions in pubs with Ekene and their friends fresh from drama school became low-budget independent films with up-and-coming directors, became walk- on roles in bigger productions. He played a boxer with bipolar disorder; a longshoreman who hadn’t seen his children in weeks and who had exactly eight words to say about it. The role of a plucky juror in a historic trial won him praise from critics. Then there was silence for a couple of months, and Achike wondered if everything that would be, had already been and gone.
Then, one day, Achike received a call from Julian Trent, an agent with a client roster so famous, the first few moments on the call had silenced Achike. Achike had been at his desk in the co-op agency, chasing a potential lead for another of the actors, when Julian told him he’d seen his reel and outlined Achike’s future for him in bold, ambitious terms.
First, Achike would have to quit the co-op agency and sign with Julian. Then, everything he had wanted would be his. The world, Julian said, was waking up to the possibility of young black men playing a wider range of roles than ever before, and he knew that Achike Okoro had the range for whatever was needed to build a career that nobody would forget. If he trusted Julian to make it happen, it would.
Two years later, Achike had filmed minor roles in two major Hollywood films: one, a period slave drama (for which Julian was slightly apologetic), the other a tragic family epic, whose screenwriter was nominated for three major awards.
Then, this year, more good news.
‘You’ll like this one,’ Julian had said. When he was this excited about a project, his voice lost its weary breathiness and became somehow sharper, taking on a kind of shimmering quality that Achike could almost see through the phone.
Here Again Now was an almost-big-budget film with a small cast. Its screenwriter-director, Mercy Oruche, had a new degree in film direction and a story to tell: a young doctor named Helen Izundu is murdered by police in New York City, but after her death she reincarnates multiple times in Nigeria. There, in each new life, Helen – now Adaeze, now Grace – meets people who help her shape the country’s destiny and her own, before returning to a life in America and launching a historic dissolution of police brutality. As the film ends, she is about to be reborn again to a new life, new possibilities.
‘Oruche is a visionary,’ said Julian. ‘Her work is unparalleled. There’s nobody in film who’s doing what she’s doing. And you know – I don’t say that often.’
‘No,’ said Achike, ‘you really don’t.’ Like many father figures, Julian was hard to please. He could advocate fiercely for ‘his own’ (he never called his clients ‘clients’), but he would have only the best of things. Those best things he wanted urgently, but he was impatient, even scathing, of those whose talent he deemed less-than. Achike had heard Julian dismiss actors and directors as ‘blips on the radar’. Julian had been known to write off creatives after a single trailer; more than once, Achike had wondered what Julian would say about him if his own career ever stalled.
The doubt made Achike work harder. Julian had quickly become much more than an agent to him; Julian saw greatness in him, advised him, kept him away from bad choices. And, though his career was on the rise today, Achike lived in fear of the day when the roles and the money would slow down or stop coming – a fear that was not born out of love of acting, but out of a need for something like love. He wanted to keep his work coming; he wanted to keep Julian smiling down on him. When he heard of the young director who could win Julian’s approval so resoundingly, Achike knew he had to work with her.
And then there was his real father. Chibuike had always criticised Achike for letting white Hollywood subsume him into itself, and Achike had been waiting for an opportunity to prove him wrong. When he saw his father’s culture in the script – names and locations he knew his father would recognise and approve of – he knew it was the right thing. It was from traditional Igbo beliefs that the idea for a film about reincarnation had sprung.
Only in a corner of Achike’s mind was there any pride in himself for being a part of a project he believed in, or for bringing his father’s culture to the world; only dimly did he understand that his work on this film was a profound act of love, and that through his work he was joining a lineage of storytellers that reached back through generations, from one life to another, stretching back endlessly through time. Achike could present himself on screen as firm, bold, persistent, capable, but he was always little to himself, barely a man, only a little man. He hardly knew that he was connected to something infinite and strong.
‘I think Oruche’s work has a magnetism to it, you know,’ Julian mused, on the phone. He had a way of speaking almost to himself, only allowing the listener to be present. Achike was completely still, listening. ‘She’s doing something transformative. Her work is really in the world. This is where cinema is, now. And where it needs to be. You know, I really believe it’s the kind of film that audiences all over the world will fall in love with.’
‘I want in.’ Achike was almost breathless. ‘I want to be a part of it.’
‘You need to be part of it,’ said Julian, plainly. ‘This is where you go next. It has to be.’
There were some weeks of preparations. There was practice to be done, and research. There were exercises and drills. Achike sent in a tape of himself, and then his in-person audition came next. For this, he stepped into a small, plain,soundproofed room with no air conditioning. Julian had prepared him well, as had Achike’s prior films: he showed an earnestness, a directness and a vulnerability, which were his own, and which became the character’s.
Then there was the screen test: the director and producer wanted to see the chemistry Achike and the female lead would be able to offer. Achike would be acting opposite an American named Dacey Douglas. She was shorter than Achike, who was just over six foot two, and very slim. She was from California but, when the script called for it, her Nigerian accents were as Achike’s mother’s and father’s. She did not seem afraid, as he was. Perhaps she was afraid.
It was upon him to be the man now. The director was watching, and she wanted to see what love could look like. Achike tried to imagine how he might love Dacey, in another life. He might be a different man, then, and tower over a woman, and not long for a man to hold him. He might watch Dacey’s dark eyes shimmer under lights and feel an urge to hold her, to envelop her in himself. That was the thing, wasn’t it? That was what they wanted. He tried to imagine reshaping the love he had for Ekene, and giving it to a woman to hold.
Achike stepped into the shape of a big man. He pushed his little self away, and gave the man they wanted. He did it for the film, and for his father in his mind, but how strange it was to hear his whole world carry on, only just inside. How strange, and sad.
He was cast as the male love interest for the film. And, because the film kept its cast small by doubling, Achike would play Helen’s husband and her extra-marital lover – and, once, her adversary – across multiple lifetimes. He would be the one to help Helen evolve into one woman after another, evolving himself as the story was told.
They shot the film out of sequence, to save money. They had spent months in Nigeria, filming scenes in Lagos and in rural Igboland, following Helen’s story across the country. Achike had spoken in a southern English accent as the idealistic graduate returning to his parents’ country, and then in Chibuike’s Nigerian accent when he played Helen’s Nigerian-born lover. He did other acting as well, in Nigeria: he kept his sibilants under control, or kept quiet. Growing up under his father’s eye had taught him how. He knew how to walk and move ‘straight’, how to hold his body to account from moment to moment, how to live like a ghost.
The opening and closing scenes were set in New York, but the outdoor scenes were shot in central Manchester, in the final stretch of filming. There, in the Northern Quarter, where the architecture still resembled old New York, scaffolding was thrown up and yellow taxis were artfully placed: within hours, one city was much the same as another.
In those final weeks, Julian found Achike’s big break. Achike signed the contract between takes. For this film, Achike was being paid more than for all his other jobs combined. His name would be made, and audiences everywhere would be made to learn how to say it. He moved out of his flatshare in Brixton and bought in Peckham. He was proving himself now. One day soon, auditions would become a thing of the past. Soon, he would only need to read scripts, and accept roles or politely decline.
The rest of the cast and crew of Here Again Now had spent time together in hotels, but now that Ekene was home from Berlin – now that Oskar was gone – Achike could only race home to see him after every day of shooting. Who knew when either one of them might disappear again? Any more distance between them would be too much. The material of their relationship was already so fragile, and it might disintegrate one day, if the two of them found themselves in different cities, countries, hemispheres. It was for this reason that, as soon as Ekene had asked to stay with Achike while he looked for work and a place of his own, Achike had told him, ‘yes’.
And it was Ekene who had asked.
So what else would Achike do, but sing? What else could he do, but play out music for Ekene to hear as he ascended the stairs to their home, for as long as the home was theirs?
Achike lived in a spacious flat near Bellenden Road, where he’d never have thought even to rent before. A few streets away in one direction, people were selling plantain. A few streets away in another direction, people were selling plantain at twice the price. Achike’s apartment block was exposed brick, open-plan living, tall windows, high rents, big mortgages, mostly white residents. Achike had used much of his first payment from his latest film to pay the deposit.
The building was exclusive, but Achike had told Ekene that Julian wasn’t happy. Julian thought that somewhere close to the airport might be more convenient, but Heathrow and Gatwick were only an hour’s drive away. Julian had frowned. One day soon, he warned, Achike would have to leave Peckham. One day soon, too many people would recognise him. An actor like him needed peace. He needed a building with a real security system, not a place in the middle of town with a part-time concierge. He should be in Notting Hill. But Ekene didn’t want to move again; they’d already moved to London from Manchester for drama school. That was enough. Achike stayed for Ekene. To Achike, London itself was nothing, Peckham only slightly more. He had never made friends easily, and years on, he barely had any more than when he’d first arrived as an undergraduate, his drama school cohort notwithstanding. There was a division in his mind: home was Manchester; work was London, LA, Lagos.
Still, Achike tried to make the flat feel warm for Ekene, adding mismatched vintage furniture and soft lighting: a deep blue velvet sofa with plump upholstering; a circular rug made of bright, patchwork patterns; an upcycled bookshelf he’d found at auction; heavy velour curtains in mustard yellow. The piano he was playing was an antique that a nearby café had thrown out when they closed down; Achike had had it varnished and tuned, and set it in the middle of the living room. It was the first thing visitors saw when they came in.
Ekene wedged the bottle of wine underneath his armpit and, with his free hand, fished out his keys from his back pocket. He tapped his fob against the reader on the door and heard the lock release with a click. He raised his shopping-bag hand and waved to Tom, the concierge behind the desk. In the first few days after Ekene moved in, Tom had looked questioningly at him, not quite understanding his role in the young actor’s life. A friend? Family? Lover? But recently he seemed to have accepted Ekene for whatever his presence was, and these days he was uncurious, even friendly. On another day, Ekene might have stopped to talk to him. On another day, he might have asked how Tom’s day was going, asked for gossip on the downstairs neighbour who once complained about Achike’s music. He had been out all day, walking along the Thames, thinking, reading, missing Achike, until he got the text message and hurried back. Otherwise, he might have wandered home more slowly through the streets, not having anywhere to go. He might have checked the postbox, or his reflection in the window. But not today. Achike was home.
Ekene walked briskly through the tall glass doors and entered the courtyard, a huge open space with potted plants scattered around. The staircase was across the way (he made himself take the stairs, even to Achike’s flat on the sixth floor, unable to bear the long wait for the slow, old lift) and as he walked towards it, he could look up and see the figure of Achike, bent over at his piano. Ekene told himself to walk calmly and push his excitement away, but he heard his foot- steps speeding up regardless. He heard his shoes clacking hurriedly on the flagstones and echoing against the walls, announcing his excitement, answering Achike’s steady music with his own palpitating rhythm.
Ekene did this every time. Every time, he found himself racing up the stairs, through the heavy fire door and along the corridor. Soon, he would be pushing open the unlocked door to flat 618, and Achike would be waiting for him, and Ekene would hug him tightly, so tightly his arms could not move far enough along the keyboard, and they would laugh. And Achike would hug him back, and they would share a bottle of wine while Achike told him all about his latest film, and the producer’s girlfriend, twenty-eight years his junior, and the eye-watering lighting budget, and the last-minute changes to the script. Achike would tell him where he had been, and what he had learned, and the things he had failed to do, and the dreams he had for himself that were always changing. And they would go out for dinner, just the two of them, to a place where there was more music, and candles lit for them. And they would talk and talk and talk, and then come home under a soft night.
Ekene was breathless at the sixth floor, but he did not slow down. Racing through the corridors, he pushed open the door to the flat and found Achike playing something shimmering and ethereal, his fingers advancing and retreating up and down the keys, beating out something so fine it was almost impossible to recognise the tune at first. This arrangement was one of Achike’s own: he did not sing the melody, giving the voice to his right hand, playing gently discordant harmonies with his left. Ekene had to stop and breathe and listen. ‘Pink + White’. Frank Ocean. The song lasted only three minutes and five seconds, yet Achike played as though he had until the end of time to unfurl the slow, easy magic. Yes, Achike was home.
Ekene set down the wine and the shopping bag on the counter, took three giant steps towards Achike and wrapped his arms around him. Achike kissed his neck softly.
‘I’m so glad you’re home, Achike. What time did you get back?’
‘Not that long ago. Did you like the music?’ Achike’s voice was eager and strained. He sounded a little tired.
‘Of course I did,’ said Ekene. ‘I always do.’ ‘Good,’ said Achike.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Ekene. ‘You look sad.’ ‘There’s something I need to tell you,’ said Achike.
Ekene withdrew and stepped back to face Achike. Ekene closed the keylid, gently leaned on it, and tried to fix patience into his face.
Achike had told Ekene he loved him before this. Many times. He would do so again. Ekene never quite believed it. Could never quite depend upon it. And yet, every time it was something for Ekene to withstand. He must always hold himself still against it, as against strong winds behind him.
‘What is it?’ Ekene asked, patiently. ‘What do you want to tell me?’
‘It’s not that,’ Achike smiled. ‘Not right now, anyway.’ ‘You’re being weird.’
‘The thing is,’ said Achike, ‘we’re not alone.’ He took Ekene’s hands in his. Ekene was standing, Achike sitting, as if he were about to propose something momentous.
As Achike opened his mouth to explain, a man emerged from the spare bedroom. He was older than both of them by about twenty-five years, but his hair had gone completely grey and was thinning, and the lines on his face recalled deep frowns. Ekene tried not to react when he saw that Achike’s grey cardigan was loosely draped around the man’s shoulders, over wrinkled pyjamas.
‘Oh,’ Ekene said. The old habit of respect for elders was still alive in him, and he forced himself to brighten his expression and stand up straight. He took his hands away from Achike, clasped them chastely in front of his body. Whatever Achike might have proposed was, for the moment, forgotten.
‘You okay there, Dad?’ Achike called. His body became strict with itself, and stiff. His father nodded only a little.
‘That’s what I was going to tell you,’ Achike said to Ekene, softly. ‘He’ll be staying with us for a bit. I thought it could be good. For all of us.’ He took Ekene’s hands back in his.
‘Yes,’ said Ekene. He seemed to struggle for air. ‘Yes, of course. Nno, sir.’
The old man nodded again, and gave a distant smile. He looked at Achike and Ekene carefully, his gaze resting for long moments first on one, and then on the other. He seemed as if he wanted to say something, but then he only smiled and turned away. He padded into the kitchen with an empty glass and held it against the refrigerator’s ice dispenser until two cubes tinkled out. He seemed to think for a moment before going to the tap. He filled his glass too quickly, and sipped the excess before he trudged slowly back to his room as though nobody was watching him, as though he had intruded on nothing at all.
‘Is he dying?’ Ekene tried to keep his voice neutral. It was twilight by now. It was winter, and the world was not as it had been. The sun was setting earlier, and fewer people were outside at this time of day. Still, it was just warm enough for them. There might be snow tomorrow, but for now it was not too late for them to walk and talk to one another in the evening air.
They had taken the tube and then walked in silence for a few minutes, to a square lined by restaurants and bars. In the middle were sunken steps built in a square where people ate food in takeaway boxes and drank their cocktails from plastic cups. Had they been elsewhere, a square like this would have been perfect for the hot weather. It would have been a place where people might sit outside and be cool. There might have been children playing in a water fountain. But it was England, and the weather was not to be played with.
It was December now, and the restaurant’s space heaters gave them only just enough warmth for an evening outside with coats on, and with some stoicism. At the restaurant’s door, Achike ignored the light of recognition in the hostess’s eye, and would not use his name; outside, he huddled with Ekene and made do.
‘No,’ said Achike. ‘He’s not dying.’
‘Achike,’ said Ekene. He spoke softly and put his hand on Achike’s knee. ‘Do you really want to do this?’
‘He drinks too much,’ said Achike, simply. He would not meet Ekene’s gaze.
‘I know he drinks too much. He’s always drunk too much.’ ‘Not always. There’ve been times.’
Achike sipped his wine quietly and ignored the sympathy in Ekene’s voice.
‘Achike,’ Ekene said again. ‘Why now? He’s been like this for years. This isn’t new.’
‘I got a call from his landlord. He’d not paid his rent for months. He’d missed so many bills. And he was living in chaos, Ekene. It was like an animal was living there. He never cleaned anything. There were cockroaches. You should have seen it.’
‘But hasn’t he always been quite . . . high-functioning? What happened?’
‘He got fired.’ ‘From the hotel?’
‘Yep.’ Achike shrugged. ‘He kept turning up late, or not turning up at all. And sooner or later he would have been visibly drunk at work, and that would have been it anyway.’
‘So you went to his flat, bundled him up and took him home in your pocket?’
‘I had to take him with me,’ said Achike. ‘He’s my dad, Ekene.’
‘I know that,’ said Ekene. ‘Jesus, Achike. You don’t have to talk to me like that, you know. You don’t have to – to shut me out just to let him in.’ He waited for Achike to respond, but he didn’t. ‘And you don’t need to say “he’s my dad”, like he’s some perfect father, either.’
Achike frowned. ‘What?’
‘Come on, Achike, he’s . . . he’s let you down. He’s really let you down.’ He formed the words slowly so that they could say things to Achike. ‘And I know you haven’t forgotten it. So why should you change your whole life, for him?’
‘Because sometimes you have to make sacrifices. That’s what you do for people you love.’
‘Is it, always?’
That was the problem. Too often, for Achike, this was love. Love could never be everyday for Achike; never. His love was for emergencies. It always had to be, Achike thought, essentially corrective. Love must be a red pen. It must be a bright, sharp blade, to cut deep into flesh and come out clean. Years ago, as teenagers together in Achike’s bedroom, their clothes dismissed and bodies under question, Achike would make scissors of his fingers and mime the blades through Ekene’s penis. Snip! Snip! As if he were easier without all that.
But who could blame the boy? Or the man. Ekene leaned over and kissed his friend’s forehead gently. Achike smiled and made the smallest movement to turn his head away; Ekene might have missed it if he hadn’t known it would come.
As long as they had known each other, Achike had done this, inching towards Ekene, his best foot first, only dipping in his big toe – and then withdrawing it, quickly, as if from a scald. That was what his uncle had done to him, years ago. Although Achike hated to discuss it, this was what he saw in himself, and what the man had put in him; a thing in his soul that was dirty and wouldn’t go. Nobody wanted to touch a thing like that. Nobody could bear it. Unless they really, really loved you. This was Achike. This was the love that he gave, and he gave.
But Ekene did not recognise love this way. He would not have it so pristine, and so untouchable.
‘Look, Achike,’ Ekene said. ‘I know your dad needs help.
But what about what you need?’
Achike went quiet. He picked olives off his half of the pizza and put them on Ekene’s side, before picking up a slice and eating it, watching the city’s lights.
Ekene tried to catch Achike’s eye, knowing that he would be calculating the amount of exercise he would need to do the next day, to compensate. Food could never be food. Achike’s mind metabolised it into carbohydrates, proteins, calories, macros, targets, sin, guilt, penance. This pizza should have been sundried tomato and broccoli. Instead it would be a ninety-minute workout the next morning, before Ekene was out of bed.
Achike never spoke about this balancing act. It was for Ekene that Achike pretended. It was for Ekene that he tried to keep up a façade of normality. The pizza had been Achike’s idea. He never wanted to be an obstacle. He couldn’t let himself be the reason Ekene might leave him, might turn from him in disappointment and leave him.
But how much closer Ekene would have allowed himself to get, if Achike had only been himself? Ekene missed the way Achike used to slip into his Manc accent when they were together, sloughing off his non-regional actor self. He hated the show that Achike put on for him. He wondered what it would be, never to be Achike’s audience, but to be allowed merely to see him.
Ekene took one of the olives and chewed it thoughtfully. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I think it’s so good that you want to look after your dad. You’re so good for doing that. And I’m not singing his praises, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to him, either. In some ways, he’s been like a father to me, too. You know he has. So, I do understand what you’re trying to do. God knows it’s more than I’ve done for my dad. It’s just—’
‘That’s not the same,’ Achike said, softening. ‘Your dad isn’t the same.’
‘No, I know,’ said Ekene. ‘I just meant I appreciate what you’re doing.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘It’s fine. I’m not talking about that. I just mean . . . you know.’ Who had a heart like Achike’s? Ekene watched him wipe tomato sauce from the corners of his mouth, and wished he could be the one to do it. He wished there could be something inside him that was tender enough, and brave enough to do a thing like that for Achike. How sad, to be able to offer up only an approximation of love, to bark consternation at Achike when he only wanted to take a napkin and clean his skin. ‘Okay,’ said Achike.
‘But, I mean . . . how will this even work, really? What will be the cost for you?’
‘Cost? Ekene, come on.’ Achike frowned, as if Ekene had used foul language.
‘I don’t just mean money. How long do you want him to stay?’ Achike turned to look at him. ‘Why does it matter?’ ‘Achike . . . ’
‘What does it matter, Ekene? What are we doing?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ekene, simply. He wanted to take an index finger and run it through Achike’s hair, and see Achike close his eyes, soothed. He didn’t. ‘I don’t know what we’re doing. I don’t think I’ve ever known what we’re doing, and it’s been more than twenty years.’
‘I’ve come back here, Ekene. To you. When I was away in LA, I came to see you. When I was in Manchester, I came to see you.’
‘I know,’ said Ekene.
‘And then that night in Berlin—’ ‘I know,’ said Ekene, quietly.
‘When are we going to talk about what happened?’ ‘Don’t, Achike.’
‘You said you wanted to wait until we could talk about it properly. And I got that. You were in Berlin. And then I was away, filming. But it’s been almost a year now, Ekene. And you’re not with Oskar anymore. And we’re both here.’
‘I don’t know what that night means, Achike. I don’t know what any of this means. Do you?’
‘I know what I want it to mean,’ said Achike. ‘Don’t you know what you want by now?’
They were both quiet for a moment, and then Ekene said, ‘We were talking about your dad.’
But Achike ignored him. ‘If Berlin didn’t mean anything . . . if we’re not together, then I don’t see why my dad can’t stay with us. He’s not intruding on anything.’
‘It meant something. I never said it didn’t mean anything.’
Achike looked at him. Ekene wanted to run a finger through his hair.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Achike, after a moment. ‘Whatever it is we’ve been doing, we’ve been doing it since we were at school. How many relationships last that long? How many marriages?’
‘That’s not what we’re talking about.’
‘But think about it, Ekene,’ he pleaded. ‘Even if we’re not together, we’re together. We are. We’re not nothing.’
‘I’m not saying we’re nothing. I’ve never said that.’
‘And if we’d been married,’ said Achike, ‘he’d be your father-in-law. Think about that.’
‘But we’re not married, Achike. Don’t be ridiculous. Why are you saying all this?’
‘It’s not ridiculous.’
Ekene took out a paper napkin then stood up and slowly wiped the grease off his fingers, taking far too much care over it, and then went to put the napkin in a bin nearby.
Ekene did this. He walked away. Whenever they argued, he did this, and hoped that things would change in his absence, that Achike would change his mind, or that Achike would change. Ekene’s parents had been the same, though he hadn’t seen them in years. They were quiet people, hated confrontation, hated conflict. They went years without fighting each other, but the anger never went away. They fought Ekene instead: the mother battled what she saw of the father in him, the father battled the mother in him. Ekene always lost.
Achike’s parents were the opposite. Before his mother died, they shouted, raged, railed. Achike didn’t know how to be quiet about something so important. Ekene only knew that fighting wouldn’t work.
When Ekene sat down again, Achike persisted. ‘When you lost your job, we said you’d move into my flat for a bit while you found your feet. Four months later, you’re still here.’
Ekene flinched as though he’d been touched somewhere sore. ‘I know.’
‘So what do you want?’ asked Achike, eagerly. ‘Don’t you want to just . . . do this properly?’
How can you do love properly? How can you do this love properly?
‘I’m not sure yet. I need more time, Achike,’ Ekene said.
Achike relented; Oskar had only broken up with Ekene a few months before. ‘And you keep changing the subject,’ said Ekene. ‘Do you even have a plan? Who’s going to look after your dad when you’re away? Are you hiring someone? A specialist?’ ‘He’s not infirm, Ekene. He doesn’t need round-the-clock care. He’s just . . . lost. He needs something to anchor him. He needs to be around family, and he needs someone to remind him of why he should give up drinking again.’
Ekene let himself glance softly at Achike, this beautiful, kind man for whom all kinds of sacrifice would be worthwhile. ‘He has nowhere else to go,’ said Achike. ‘He has no job, no savings. He only has me. And I’ve finished filming, now, and then I’ll be able to—’
‘Okay, but what about after that? What about the next film? What happens when you have to fly to Nigeria again? Or . . . I don’t know, Siberia, or something? What happens when you get cast in some North Pole explorer biopic? Even if he doesn’t need round-the-clock care, he needs you around. You just said. He needs family. Have you thought about that?’
‘I can’t look after him, Achike. He’s not my family. I haven’t forgotten what he did for me when we were kids. But I’m not his son. It’s not me.’ His face clouded over, and Achike searched his eyes for the unnamed emotion.
Image © ell brown