The Great Example
by Mark Tuthill
To receive a PDF version of this story to read offline or export to Kindle, please email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail(DOT)com.
The fat man had his arm around Adejo's uncle's neck like they were old friends, every now and then pulling him closer when there was some particular part of the song he felt he needed to share more intimately, singing into his uncle's ear and making him smile in a way that looked painful.
Whoever the fat man was – and Adejo couldn't imagine his uncle ever being friends with a white person – he seemed to be the only one who knew the words of the song (that Adejo thought might be Irish, but then he hadn't heard Irish before, at least he didn't think so), blasting out the lyrics with a viciousness that made him look like he wished he had something to kick while he was singing.
Adejo still wasn't quite sure how his uncle had got caught up with the two wedding guests in the first place. He had never been to a wedding before and had been excited until his uncle made it clear that they weren't really going to the wedding. 'We're just going to the kitchen, to pick up the bags. We won't even see the wedding. I'm sorry Adejo. You'll hear it though. I can promise you that.' For a while it seemed that they wouldn't even hear the wedding, let alone see it, because when his uncle parked the van and went to the steel door that led to the kitchen it wouldn't open, no matter how many times his uncle tried pressing different numbers into the pad on the wall.
In the end they had to go through the front doors of the hotel (clearly an option of last resort evidenced by his uncle's mutterings beneath his breath), although Adejo felt as if he was entering a palace. The floor was tiled with shiny stone, with four pillars (pillars, inside!) that stretched up before disappearing into a high ceiling.
'Come on Adejo, keep up! And please don't touch anything.'
The rumble of music and voices got louder the further they walked down the corridor, and when his uncle opened the doors at the end a sound hit Adejo the way the cold had slapped him that first time he got off the plane at the airport. The sound was outrageous, and Adejo immediately covered his ears to try and block out the blur of music and voices, before ducking as flashing coloured lights cut through the gloom as if a flying saucer was about to crash land on top of him.
He kept close to his uncle as they weaved between huge round tables draped with white cloth. They were like giant versions of the mints Adejo's uncle had in the van, only they were speckled with stains both dark and pale. A middle-aged woman watched him with one diseased looking eye as he passed, as a younger man kissed her hard while sharing her chair. An old man stirred a thin, plastic stick around his tall glass while examining something at the bottom of it. He passed another table, where a girl his own age sat alone looking at something on either a huge phone or a tiny TV she held in her hands, the images from the screen painting her face an ever-changing palette of muted colours. Adejo tried to sneak a peek, but his uncle grabbed his arm and dragged him on before he had the chance.
The kitchen was as bright as the big room was dark, a blaze of quivering florescent lights and shiny metal surfaces. A thin man with the dishevelled appearance of an artist wore a food splattered apron as he wiped the surfaces with a cloth, creating smeary waves that adorned everything he touched. Adejo's uncle asked the thin man something, and he pointed them deeper into the kitchen.
The air felt sticky, like it had been bundled up, fried in oil, and then released back into the atmosphere. They hadn't gone far when Adejo's uncle reached a huddle of black bags at the back of the room. He lifted one and thrust it unceremoniously in Adejo's direction. It was bulging and heavy, and it almost dragged Adejo down to the floor, but he managed to wrestle it back up with sufficient manly qualities that he hoped would impress his uncle on what was his first night at work. Adejo was keen to prove his worth. He didn't want these first impressions to be clouded by sympathy. With Adejo wrestling one black bag his uncle effortlessly carried the other three, before two men on the dance floor (the fat man and his emaciated sidekick), blocked his path, the skinny one snatching a bag from his uncle's grip that he was now swinging around like he and the bag were old lovers.
Adejo slunk into the seat that the kissing couple had vacated. Numerous drinks had been abandoned on the table, and with no obvious claims of ownership in the vicinity Adejo was tempted to take a furtive sip from the glass nearest to him. He suddenly felt overwhelmed by thirst, whether from the suffocating heat in the room or the sickly kitchen smells now lodged in his throat. But just then Adejo was distracted by the sight of his uncle managing to break free of the commotion, and after a mildly aggressive game of tug-of-war with the bag dancer, his uncle persuaded him to relinquish his dancing partner. Adejo couldn't hear what was being said, but suddenly the bag dancer was shouting while trying not to fall over, and the fat man – who only a second ago had been hugging Adejo's uncle – was now jabbing a finger at him, his face all rashy and sweaty. But at least his uncle had the bag back, and was now moving away from the dance floor, a quick glance at Adejo confirming his own suspicions that now was probably a good time for him to move too.
There was a risk that the same shiny floors they were now navigating in the opposite direction would scupper Adejo's delicate balancing act, his hands carefully cradling the hidden glass pressed against his skin beneath his jumper. He tried to keep pace with his uncle who marched in front of him, dragging the black bags around one of the pillars before the glass doors miraculously separated upon some unseen command.
It was only now, in the clear air outside, that the fug of filth fermenting inside the bags hit Adejo. And only now that Adejo realised that he didn't have his bag; that he had left it back on the floor by the table.
'Where is it?' his uncle said, reading his nephew's mind as if turning the pages of a children's book. 'The bag I gave you?'
'I ... eh ... I'm sorry Uncle Kayin, I ... I think I left it where I was sitting.'
Adejo had never heard his uncle curse. What made it worse was that he cursed in Hausa. And what made it worse again was that he struck his fist off the back of the van. Adejo thought his uncle might swear again, and follow up by striking him instead of the hard metallic surface of the vehicle, an act Adjeo thought would be appropriate to the sense of guilt he was feeling.
He'd only known his Uncle Kayin two weeks, but sensed that a man who turned the radio up full blast to sing-a-long to a song he liked ('A great way to learn English Adejo!' he had shouted on the drive down) wasn't usually prone to acts of violence, let alone repeated acts. At least Adejo hoped not. After all, this was 'The Great Example' Adejo's mother had spoken of with such adoration. Yet now the legend seemed diminished in the flesh, reality rendering his uncle fallible no matter how glorious the reputation preceding him. The status of being known as 'The Great Example' had even overshadowed his first name, Uncle Kayin. In fact, it was only when Adejo learned that he was to follow in his uncle's footsteps that he heard the real name of his mother's brother, the living proof that the journey could not only be endured, but that it could end in glory.
‘What’s wrong with your stomach?' his uncle asked, the keys to the van jangling nervously in his hand.
'It's okay,' Adejo said, ‘It just hurts a bit.’ convinced that the sweat-slicked glass might slip from its hiding place at any moment and shatter at their feet.
'Suck on a mint,' Uncle Kayin said, plopping the keys into Adejo's free palm. 'I think there's one left.'
Adejo nodded. He hoped his uncle might tell him it was 'okay' or offer him a 'no harm done', but he said nothing, before turning and trudging back towards the hotel, a weary figure swallowed by the darkness before reemerging in the ballooning light of the entrance.
With his uncle gone Adejo sat sucking the last mint in the passenger seat of the van as instructed (it was the least he could do), debating where he could get rid of the glass that he could see now had the filter of a smoked cigarette floating in it. He'd drunk worse – much worse – but now his curiosity about the golden liquid buoying the butt no longer held any appeal, and any thirst he'd used to justify taking the glass in the first place was being eased by the mint, a thirst that he had no right to indulge in the first place. Adejo was disgusted with himself that he'd disappointed his uncle, and surely blown any chance he ever had of accompanying him on another job. His uncle had even bestowed a level of responsibility on him that he was surely expected to uphold, a pact of trust that Adejo had betrayed in an instant by leaving the bag behind.
The beer swirled round and round in the glass, Adejo increasing the pace until the surface level of the liquid repeatedly broke over the butt, drowning it again and again. Each time it tried to fight its way back up Adejo realised just how helpless their plight must have been that night, their solitary boat alone in the dark while nature or God or fate or bad luck toyed with their lives, dragging them under, then letting them rise again, dragging them under, then letting them rise again, with the roof of each new wave collapsing on their heads until the roar of the water had silenced the screams of the dying.
When the boat went over, tilting on one side as the welter of human bodies moved as one to see the distant coastline twinkling like a line in the constellations, the glee of sighting land in the murky gleam of dawn was crushed by the crank of metal lifting and a great swoosh of water rushing away from the hull. For a moment Adejo was in the sky, as if looking out from a tall building over the ocean, but then he was falling as quickly as he had risen, tossed with hundreds of others in the collective splay of arms and legs as their once condensed bodies were suddenly being dispersed in a spray of screams.
The crest of a wave had risen up to meet Adejo as he struck it, landing on his back atop the watery peak. The ocean opened up for him as it did for others all around him, perfectly sized perforations for the bodies that peppered the surface. Beneath the water line Adejo saw a woman with a shawl around her neck and her single exposed breast glowing in the gloom like a beacon. Others thrashed their limbs in various failed combinations in the hope they might trick their bodies into the virgin act of swimming, yet one boy kicked to the surface with an ease that suggested he had been born in the depths, while all around him others started to sink helplessly, their tightly sealed mouths now giving way to gurgling screams, a flush of bubbles the last thing Adejo ever saw of them before a hand grabbed him.
The air met his lungs on the surface, assaulting them with fresh life while the man who had lifted him there was already diving again. Adejo never saw him rise; losing sight of the spot where he had descended; the constant churn of waves erasing it as soon as it had been created.
Adejo clung on at the point the man had dragged him to: a section of the hull of the capsized boat. To his right others clung on with equally precarious grips, a herd of bodies fighting for traction, some winning, some losing.
The waters nearest to Adejo were empty. Distant screams still cut through the air, but he could see no one. There was the unmistakable cry of a child calling for its mother (Adejo unsure if it was a boy or a girl), but then that stopped too. The wind fell silent again and there was no sound bar the pitch of the ocean, but soon even it grew calm, as if exhausted by what had just unfolded. And then an aftermath of weeping rose; far worse and more painful to listen to.
Adejo felt the hull slip, and he slipped with it. He just about managed to hold on, but was now deeper in the water. That's when the collective panic got a second airing, the shrieks rising again as those who had made it this far realised that the boat was moments from submitting to the whims of gravity, and to cling on to the hull for much longer would be to risk being dragged to the bottom of the ocean. But while the terrible final fate of the boat seemed inevitable, Adejo was determined that his own wouldn't be so clear-cut. He would find something else to help him float. And if not, he would surely die.
He slipped free of the hull and prayed his lungs wouldn't betray him, and that neither would his God—at least not twice on the same night. And he dived. He dived under the upturned boat, the underwater cavern that was the deck now arching over his head as he swam up through the swirl of debris and drifting bodies. He tried not to look at faces, or to get struck by limbs. He knew anything that could float would have risen to the surface; to the air trap that had been created at the summit of the waves.
On he swam, grateful for being a child that had grown up by the sea, and to his mother who had never been prone to the fears the water held for so many others. And despite it all, still grateful that she had risked everything to send him, her only child, to be the next 'Great Example'. He wouldn't let her down.
The tendrils of four dangling legs announced the presence of the air trap Adejo had been praying for, and his head burst through the surface membrane and his lungs heaved and gasped for all it had been denied.
An old Arab man and a girl turned to face him.
'It's sinking! It's sinking!' Adejo cried, but his words made no sense to them, and neither did his frantic downward pointing. The girl clung to a blue cooler box, shivering in the air trap's chilly microclimate. Her grandfather held on to a section of the hawser, his arms wrapped around it as if he was battling with a mythical sea snake he had managed to subdue.
It was just the three of them. And then it was the girl's turn to point, but not downwards like Adejo, but behind him, to the prize she knew he was surely seeking; a splintered chunk of wood from the top of a door—a float. It had been cleanly broken, snapped into a near-perfect plank and surely small enough to wrestle back through the water before carrying Adejo to the real surface, to where the air wasn't limited and time wasn't running out so fast.
'It's sinking.' he cried again. But the girl just stared at him, and the old man closed his eyes as if by transposing his mind to a more beautiful place his body might follow. Adejo begged them one last time to follow him, but his insistence was at the expense of any hope he would have himself of making it back out before the boat trapped him like a spider in a glass.
He dived again, kicking backwards, wrestling the piece of wood behind him, his back pushing through bodies that drifted into his path, although he feared he was only swimming at the same level. The wood was as desperate to float as he was to hold on to it, and having turned over to swim on his front he let the plank balance against his torso while risking his arms to aid his escape, the edge of the boat in sight again, and the wall of open sea that lay below it. Only for the world to shift and fall, the edge beginning to sink as the boat finally succumbed. Adejo swam harder, nearly losing the piece of wood in the panic before he was able to propel himself under and up, the boat sliding down past him as the sea swallowed it in great haste, the swell of current it created sucking him down before releasing him back up again.
On the surface the noise was deafening, and the blur of lights blinding. A helicopter descended through the sluggish light while a great swirl of surface water layered and overlapped before calming as one plane. Adejo clung to his piece of wood, and waited for his turn. He hugged it as he would his mother. Number twenty-nine. Third from last to be taken from the water that day.
His finger edged the butt to the side of the glass, rivulets of beer running back down to the main mass, the frayed hairs of the torn filter as lifeless as a dead sea anemone. He held up the glass to see how deep the beer went. That's when he saw them, watching through the fluid yellow wall as the fat man staggered out the main doors with the bag dancer by his side singing a new song: Ole ole ole ole. Ole. Ole, and moving towards a car that was parked within the throng of others.
'Hey. You.' the fat man shouted, spotting Adejo sitting in the van. ‘Over here.'
Adejo stayed where he was, but then the fat man gestured wildly for him to come over. Adejo stepped from the van, the glass still in his hand.
He stayed where he was for a moment, the fat man leaning against a white car while the bag dancer slumped down on one of the entrance steps, looking around him as if he had lost something in the dark, still humming the new song but letting it drift tunelessly to nothing.
'Over here!' the fat man bellowed again, throwing an arm back to steady himself against the car.
'Quicker than that!'
Adejo moved warily before finally reaching him. The fat man's stomach was curved like the hull of a boat, a great sweep of soft flesh that appeared inflated from within.
'I was looking for that,' the fat man said, snatching the glass from Adejo's hand.
Eyes fixed on Adejo, the fat man swallowed the contents in one great gulping toss to the back of his throat. His mouth distorted grotesquely as he swallowed, and he burped loudly in triumphal pride.
‘Your Da’s inside,’ he said with a sneer and handed Adejo back the empty glass.
Adejo turned away, the glass still in his hand as he walked back up the steps and into the hotel, the other man smiling as he passed, as if privy to a secret Adejo wasn’t.
He walked through the lobby, past the deserted reception desk, beneath the cheap glass chandelier and around the chipped plaster cast columns that were painted a speckled sandy hue.
The sound didn’t come to meet him this time, and even when he reached the end of the corridor it was still quiet, as if the wedding had never happened.
When he pushed open the door he could see his uncle moving around the dance floor. He was alone, and at first appeared to be dancing strangely to a song that must have been playing in his head. He was stooping and rising, taking random steps in patternless directions. That’s when Adejo realised that he wasn’t dancing at all, but gathering up filthy tea towels and chefs’ clothes that were scattered all around the dance floor.
He was piling them on a chair nearby, before returning to gather up more. He looked up to see Adejo approaching, the two of them meeting on the edge of the dance floor.
'They wanted me to sing it again.,' his uncle said. 'I tried. But I didn't know the words.'
'Don't worry,' Adejo said, 'I heard them. They're easy to learn.' He pulled a seat from a table so his uncle could rest a moment, and began plucking the scattered linen that still remained adrift on the dance floor. As Adejo moved around the floor, picking up towel after filthy towel and placing them back in the bag, he stole glances at his uncle in the chair. He sat slumped with an elbow on the table, looking around the empty room. He seemed so old, his body on the brink of betraying him in a way that could never be repaired. Adejo gathered up the remaining towels and dragged the heavy bag to where his uncle sat. 'I have them all Uncle Kayin.' But his uncle didn't seem to hear him. 'Uncle Kayin?' Adejo said again. His uncle turned to face him. His eyes carried a sadness that startled.
'I'm sorry Adejo. I should never have brought you here.'
'You already tried that, remember?'
His uncle smiled. It was true. It was Adejo who had insisted on coming; who had refused to stay back in the flat.
'It's okay Uncle Kayin.'
'No, it's not.'
Adejo pulled out the seat beside his uncle and sat down. The room was empty, but the wedding lingered. Adejo looked around the table. A glass of sparkling water lay within reach, its open bottle beside it. He reached for them both and poured the remaining water into the glass, the extinguishing fizz still alive enough to tickle his nose when Aedjo brought it to his mouth. He drunk deeply, quenching whatever dryness lingered. He was sure to leave enough for his uncle.
Mark Tuthill lives in Dublin, Ireland. He has been writing for many years, and currently has a second feature film in development with the Irish Film Board, while two short films he wrote have been awarded at numerous film festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival by a jury chaired by director, Terry Gilliam. Mark has collaborated for many years with Irish film director, John Hayes, and his work has been optioned by Sprout Pictures, while other TV projects have been under consideration by both the BBC and UTV. As well as writing for the screen, Mark has always written prose, and is currently completing his first novel, Where to Now? Meanwhile, his short fiction has been published by Irish literary journals including The Incubator and Silver Apples. He has also been shortlisted for the Cross Pen Short Story Competition. www.marktuthill.ie
Les Jacobs is a professional photographer from South Africa. View more of his work at Flickr.