She was not one of us.
She said her life was an early evening, or an early dawn, and she was going to leave before it was night or before it was morning. She gave you the feeling that you were inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and that if you stood in her way you would disappear without any effort on her part.
She left her things with me and departed.
I remember her face made me think of a wild animal gone extinct and come back miraculously into existence. “I am leaving,” she said. And the only thing I could do was nod. “These are my things,” she said, pointing to a trunk. “Keep them for me.” When I nodded again, she repeated, “Keep my things for me.”
If you asked her what her plans were, like my father and mother had once done, she would say “I don’t have any plans” or “I don’t want to have any plans.” When she came to me at midnight, sat by my bed, and asked me what I thought of the first four lines of the new song she was writing, I could say nothing because my eyes were filled with sleep. She would just stand up and leave. On one or two occasions she left her notebook with her lyrics behind.
Our mother said she was not one of us. “Ugo came out easily. She was easy for me, unlike you.” But since Ugo left, my mother ’s voice has been subdued, hushed. Previously you could’ve heard her arguing loudly with Ugo about something. It could have been how she was dressed. Mother always thought her clothes were second-hand, masculine, unbecoming of a lady.
It was easy to guess Ugo’s iconoclastic answer—the way her mouth would pout and her face would reveal the glorious, gracious show of defiance—“It’s just the way I want to dress.”
Unlike father, mother did not argue with Ugo so much. Ugo had father’s face, or something close to it—she couldn’t really be said to resemble anyone. Father did not really argue with her in the way mother did. He did not speak of her plans or her clothes. He looked at her as one would look at a witch, or as one would look at a man who appeared at his own funeral carrying his head under his arm. Because we sat each morning as a family to pray, to sing hymns, and to read from Our Daily Bread, it was easy to see father look at Ugo.
Ugo said to him once, “I really don’t care what’s on your mind.” I feared she’d add, “Fuck you,” or something as vulgar. If she had spoken those words to me, she would have added “Fuck you,” given the frequency with which she spat the phrase when she leered at tradition. Yet, when she said this to father, he shook his head and returned to his Bible, which he had begun to read too often since he’d come home one evening and announced that his job with British American Tobacco was over, telling us he’d just resigned. He would not tolerate tobacco; he would not encourage people to smoke and go to Hell.
The house sounded empty after he told us that. On that day, Ugo showed up wearing earphones. I thought she did not hear father. She did not have the expression we, mother and I, had—one of disappointment and submission. She looked beyond worry. But it was Ugo that stood up to father, challenging his decision. “That doesn’t sound right.” He looked at me and then turned to her. He looked at mother after he looked at Ugo, and turned to look at her again. I felt the walls speaking, saying that in no time they would all break down, considering the weight of everything, considering they were not built to shelter all the words and silence we used as weapons. Father said nothing to Ugo. He only looked at her. You know how silence can be more effective than words, how it is more deadly, how it is like a man appearing at the Spartan war without armor, with only his mouth.
Ugo walked out of father ’s silence that morning. It was impossible to argue with father; he had the ability to end a matter with his eyes. We knew this. You would hardly hear him argue with mother. But to walk away from him the way Ugo did was a fine way to argue with him. He hated incomplete arguments and hated losing confrontations. Ugo had a way of making his fight transient, winning when he had only begun the war.
She would ask all her questions. I was the conformist; she was not. She asked mother whether it wasn’t “suicidal” to bear the burden alone. She told me that it was the most foolish thing she had ever heard. She told me it was a fact that Dad was being a fool, and that it was painful that he cared less about his foolery.
Ugo liked stones. In my earliest memory of walking to school with her, she would kick stones and look downward while she walked. We weren’t twins; she was my elder sister, one year my senior. But, given that I had begun school at four and she at five, we ended up as classmates. She wasn’t the smartest student. She was bright enough to do all the smart things that needed to be done. She never failed an exam. Even when I topped the class—term after term—she did not seem to bother, or compete. She always said, “Well done,” with a face devoid of expression.
I liked the fact that she did not seem to want to compete. The story at home wasn’t different—the unspoken feeling was that Ugo was doing badly. It was wrong for her to come below me in class. But all of this did not matter to her. We went to the same schools, even university. But she chose Law, and I chose English. There was a big battle at home—everyone thought it should have been the other way around. I could see my father’s silence speaking of his disappointment. Only my mother asked, “Are you sure this is what you want? English?” and I said yes, thinking then that Ugo would have answered differently. She might’ve called their bluff. No one asked her if Law was right for her; with her you were never sure if you had asked the right question. At this point she was only the older child whose younger brother was doing well. She had not given us the idea that her life was an evening, that she was a Bedouin, a lone wanderer.
Everything changed with music.
In the long holiday after our third year, music discovered Ugo. We might all agree that music cannot discover, since it is sound and sound is the voice of nature; you should find music, not the other way around. But with Ugo it was different. She was an exception. The earphones that stayed permanently on her ears, the loud beats that came from behind her bedroom door, the records scattered on the floor of her room, and all the paraphernalia that came with the hybrid of a reggae star and a hip-hop artist established her life as the one whom music was destined to meet.
“This music is entering me. I feel full,” she said to me two days before school resumed. I had come to ask her when we were leaving, to remind her that the new session was about to start. But all she talked about was her music. She drew close to me and put the right piece of her earphones in my ear. It was something by Jay-Z and Linkin Park. She held a notebook, and asked me to listen as she sang from it in tandem with the music in our ears. I could not mention the resumption of school. You know the feeling that comes with wanting to reach your reflection in the mirror and being unable to? So I walked out of the room and packed my things. I left Ugo at home.
The days passed quickly without Ugo. I did not miss her. But I would stop in the middle of something and my heart would skip and I would remember her. The words of the music she had shared stayed with me. The music that had been in our ears that day could not be lost, and I hated remembering how she had sung with reckless abandon, without a care for anything, anyone, custom, boundaries, and silence. I hated that I remembered exactly how the music in our ears had sounded:
Creativity weakens me as Smiles ache and
Hurt like laughter—Pushing through is all this is—
This time is time to end the wail
I could remember the way the words appeared on her yellow pad, her slanting handwriting. So I went home over a two-day holiday and I asked myself why I hadn’t left before the holiday, if Ugo had mattered to me at all.
The above excerpt is from the third chapter of Emmanuel Iduma’s novel ‘Farad’ which has been published in October 2016 by The Mantle in the USA as ‘The Sound of Things to Come’. Permission to excerpt granted by The Mantle.
About the Author:
Emmanuel Iduma, born and raised in Nigeria, is a writer and art critic. He is the author of the novel Farad (Nigeria) and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He has contributed essays on art and photography to a number of journals, magazines, and exhibition catalogues, including Guernica, ESOPUS, Music and Literature, ARTNews, and The Trans-African, for which he works as managing editor. His interviews with photographers and writers have appeared in the Aperture blog, Wasafiri, and Africa is A Country. He co-founded and directs Saraba magazine. Since 2011, Iduma has worked with Invisible Borders, a trans-African organization based in Nigeria. He played a major curatorial role in the group’s installation A Trans-African Worldspace at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He was longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013.
In 2015, he was writer-in-residence at the Danspace Project’s Platform in New York, L’appartement 22 in Rabat, and the Thread Residency in Sinthian, Senegal. A lawyer by training, he holds an MFA in art criticism and writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York.