Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Olumide Popoola’s debut novel When We Speak of Nothing
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Stay in this evening and enjoy a glass of wine with this extended excerpt from When We Speak of Nothing, the debut novel by Olumide Popoola.
About the book
Best mates Karl and Abu are both 17 and live near King’s Cross. It’s 2011 and racial tensions are set to explode across London. Abu is infatuated with gorgeous classmate Nalini but dares not speak to her. Meanwhile, Karl is the target of the local ‘wannabe’ thugs just for being different.
When Karl finds out his father lives in Nigeria, he decides that Port Harcourt is the best place to escape the sound and fury of London, and connect with a Dad he’s never known.
Rejected on arrival, Karl befriends Nakale, an activist who wants to expose the ecocide in the Niger Delta to the world, and falls headlong for his feisty cousin Janoma.
Meanwhile, the murder of Mark Duggan triggers a full-scale riot in London. Abu finds himself in its midst, leading to a near-tragedy that forces Karl to race back home.
The narratorial spirit of this multi-layered novel is Esu, the Yoruba trickster figure, who haunts the crossroads of communication and misunderstanding.
When We Speak of Nothing launches a powerful new voice onto the literary stage. The fluid prose, peppered with contemporary slang, captures what it means to be young and queer in London and Port Harcourt. If grime music were a novel, it would be this.
Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian German author, poet, performer and speaker.
Read the excerpt:
When We Speak of Nothing
By Olumide Popoola
People talk about me, Esu Elegbara, the snail-shell dancer who scrambles all messages, who can speak in any tongue, take on any voice. They talk about me in hushed tones, afraid, confused. How I came one day and walked in-between two friends’ fields. One was on my left, one on the right. I was wearing one of my favourite hats. Two-tone, you could call it. Multifaceted is another expression that springs to mind. It all depends on your position. Either way, I talked to both of them, exchanged pleasantries, cracked a few jokes. They were easy, ready to take a break, they didn’t even wonder who I was or why I was there. I stayed almost a whole hour before they returned to work, waving goodbye. In the evening I heard them arguing, right in the village square. They were calling each other names, accusing each other of lying. Their friends and neighbours tried to understand what the problem was, why they were so angry with each other.
One was shouting about the man, me, with the black hat. The other was shouting back that he was blind, ignorant in fact. The hat had been red. I laughed at first, then I waited for a long time. I waited for them to see.
But they didn’t stop. They shouted and shouted until their faces were burning from the inside. They couldn’t see what they were missing.
Not everything is the same everywhere. They couldn’t see it at all.
They shouted all night. In the morning, I showed them the hat.
It is easy to be outnumbered
when you are lost in your tracks.
Keep close to the source.
If not for Abu flicking his head back every so often, waiting a split sec, full-on profile, to make sure Karl was keeping track, it would’ve been impossible to tell them apart. Those two? Like twins. The funny thing? Abu’s parents already had twins and they were a sweet-but-annoying seven years old. Was almost as if Abu had needed to find his own match, so he had someone to leave the house with. Even funnier? His mother, and later the dad, accepted Karl as the brother from another mother. Meaning Karl was in and out of their house like trains out of St Pancras station. More in than out actually. And to bring that funny haha what a coincidence thing home, they even looked alike. Karl’s face a tad longer, shoulders narrower, hair cropped, eyes much more dreamy. Both their lips full – in a different way, but still. If you’d thought about it you’d say: the works. You’d say: dang, those are some alike-looking teenagers. Their friendship must’ve rubbed on to their bodies, accepting that they were a pair, in tandem. Teamwork.
That day, the way that white stuff poured from the sky had made them go out – not that that was rare or anything – and they slid and slipped across the streets, trying to chase each other, snowballs buzzing. The way it drizzled down? Now that was movie classic. It was all very haha, so much fun, yeah, defo but too cold, wha gwaan wit this season? Get this one bruv and bang! A whole load straight into the face.Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.
It was crunching. Abu whined.
Abu with his skinny self. Eyes busy, always moving, checking here, there, everywhere and missing lots by being all that hectic. His ears pointed forward slightly, like he was some digital receiving device (you’d really have to look for it but then you’d never not notice it again, it was like, whoa how did I miss that?). That same Abu who was so messy at home yet jeans ironed and all – that Abu got his jewels kicked. Very neatly. Karl? My boy was being dismantled by the leader of the threesome, his hands on Karl’s wrists, banging him into a corner between a wall and a fence. He hovered there, the metal slowly digging into his good jeans.
1. Not just the state of being represented but of adding to, connecting.
2. The description or portrayal of someone in a particular way.
Karl. That one. So immaculate. It was troubling. Abu even had a little fit earlier that evening because Karl had been doing his usual, must look pretty thing. Without words, obviously. Ironed denim wasn’t enough. It all had to be prepped properly and colour-coded until it was just so. Spending a lot of time in the bathroom, blocking it for the rest of the family. Then a very light grey pair of jeans, which had made no sense unless he wanted to match the weather – they were bound to get dirty in the snow.
When the boy slammed Karl into the fence, the black paint peeled off the metal straight on to the nice, nicely ironed, not-good-for-the season denim. It was really shit.
And hopefully Karl was thinking of the stain rather than staying in the moment, breath and all. Hopefully, instead, he was lamenting this unnecessary affront against his style (and you know that type is serious, for real), because the guy, the one holding him, went straight for the soft parts.
Karl didn’t say a word; no sound left his lips. His upper body folded over as much as it could, as much as the guy would let him.
Abu wasn’t as quiet. When is he ever? He was talking away, cursing and shouting and fucking this and fucking that, but the snow swallowed it all as if it had been planned.
This country is not equipped? Ha! The one time everything is out of action and the snow makes everyone feel all Christmassy and you know that spells giddy and means silly, effing miracles can happen. Imagine.
Abu cursing louder and more. His voice always over the top because he wants to make up for something. Someone said that. That he wants to show the world something but actually the world couldn’t give anything at all about what Abu has to prove. And of course that doesn’t stop him. It’s not about someone hearing him, it’s about him expressing, saying, or shouting.
Like now. Shouting because he’s scared.
That one is so sensitive, it’s ridiculous. But still he’s so, so, so together. Basically so quiet. No crying or cursing or anything. Just taking in scenes, waiting them out, all behind the miniature curtain that drapes from his eyes in that longing kind of way. The curve of his lashes keeping everything out, preventing anything from entering his pretty head, where the real feelings are. But still it reflects, the way his eyes close so that Abu wants to shout even louder. Man, your denim. Yourself. You get what they’re doing?
It’s easier to focus on someone else’s hurt when you are down. That magician’s trick: deflection. I have used it many times.
A siren blared and the blue lights bounced off the snowy street. The guy who was kicking Karl commanded ‘Run!’, and all of a sudden the two holding Abu ricocheted off him, using his weight to get a good start as if the siren was a shot at the beginning of a race. They bounced, jumped and ran. From Marchmont to Tavistock Place and that’s the last Karl and Abu saw of them. For that day.
Abu fell over, of course, from the push they used to get themselves into proper gear, and from all that tension right around his private bits, his face plunging into the snow. And Karl? Just kneeled into the white stuff, quiet, very quiet, in slow motion, all graceful. It was almost as if he had rehearsed this, alternative swan-like dance moves. Ridiculous. He said nothing. Just pretty and defeated, in communion with that white wetness.
The police sped by in totally the opposite direction. Abu kissed his teeth. ‘Cowards. Wasn’t even for them.’ He pulled Karl up. ‘Let’s get home. Get warmed up.’
Karl all speechless, whole self sunk into the gut, squeezed tight by that blow and probably stuck somewhere between the rib and the intestines. Abu all high on release endorphins, but also because he just can’t keep quiet. Still babbling away.‘Three of them? Can’t believe they didn’t even bother to cover up. Like they own the street. But we ain’t that stupid. Can get our own people to straighten them out. I got options, you get me. Could go to the police. They’re finished. They are. I know some guys. They can really take care of this shit, once and for all, show them who’s boss—’
‘Shut up,’ Karl said. ‘Just stop it. Keep it to yourself for a minute.’
Abu not even offended. It’s that sensitive thing. He was not only pretty, he was the whole shebang, all of it together. They’re not changing the rules of their neighbourhood any time soon. Abu just needed to mouth off, feel like he could make things be different.
Abu pulled Karl by the sleeve. ‘Come on now. Let’s go home. It’s OK.’
Karl kept staring. Eyes in sync with his mouth, lips showing all that was going on inside. I’m not down with this shit no more. When he stood again his hips were uneven, one lanky knee bent. But at least he walked now. At least. He had a delaying mental thing going on. Deep and thoughtful but at least he also moved his arse now.
He followed Abu’s lead around the corner, dusted off snow mechanically, looking at his pants and not seeing the black stain the metal left. How not is incredible. Where are we, you’d think, right? Some alternate universe?
Abu looked at it, then to his friend.
It did upset him. Nothing wrong with a sense of pride in one’s appearance and a little colour coordination. Nothing wrong at all. But nobody knew where Karl’s mind was at that precise moment and that was enough fighting for Abu for an hour.
He looked up at Karl. Tried to send some telepathic sense into him: Look man, they’re your good trousers. You know how you love your stuff clean and correct. You need to get angry, like proper vex.
But he suddenly noticed how his bony shoulders were aching. Throbbing away, rubber bands released after all that tense contraction, all stretched to no more good use, and the cold crept into the wet clothes, creeping him out ’cause now he was trembling and it wasn’t fun any more. Nothing was. Not here. No one’d bailed them out. As if.
When they arrived at the gate, some other youngsters were still out throwing snowballs here and there. Very half-heartedly. Lazy they were, inside of the gate, didn’t even bother to take to the streets. The youth of today, always staying close to the next power outlet. Might have to recharge the gadgets. They looked suspiciously at the pair, not for any other reason than both were acting suspicious. Abu all authoritative, rushing through.
What was the point? He was hurting, Karl was out dreaming life away and both of them were colder than they should be, so he kept at Karl’s sleeve, dragging him all the way to the fifth floor, no waiting for the lift.
Abu’s mum opened for them. Abu stormed in but Karl was softer. Abu had got used to him and his mother smiling in silent understanding, the hallway light burning away in its bare bulb. There’d be a whole hello, how are you and how can I be of use, help, disappear without being a burden, make myself useful? thing going on. And his mother would be just like, all is OK and good. Do nothing at all. Perfect bonding heaven for the two. Abu didn’t stop for it any more. Karl could do no wrong. Ever.
The twins ran around in the living room, the TV on, cartoons playing while they laughed and hit each other with the plastic toys they’d outgrown a while ago. How it came to be girl and boy was beyond Abu, just seemed too perfect, too well divided, equally distributed. Azizah, the girl, first and slightly taller, taking after Abu in terms of yakking. Aazad, the boy, smaller, with his brows almost fused, always looking serious but was ‘cheekiness in the making’, as Karl liked to say.
‘Don’t trust his face. Most likely he hid all your good things and will try to bribe you to get them back, one by one, while you are still checking out his grown-up eyes.’
‘You should know,’ Abu had answered.
‘All that jealousy will still not make you more handsome,’
Karl had laughed.
‘Very funny. I’m almost pissing myself!’
The twins ran to Karl, who smiled again but was doing his will be with you just now, give me a sec thing. When he came out of the bathroom, his face was washed and he was no longer camping on Moon Fourteen, successfully avoiding the here and now. He had finally seen the stain on the trousers and it was not that big a deal. Either way it was just a device. Deflection, remember. For Abu. All would be back to normal once the washing machine handled it.
Karl plopped on to the couch and grabbed the remote. ‘Excuse me please, my good people. This is not acceptable. Not acceptable at all,’ he said, lowering the volume. ‘There are OAPs present. Seniors. You get me? I have to urge you to refrain from loud noises.’
The twins rolled over, first on the floor before jumping up on him from both sides. They chuckled, hoping for a play-fight; Azizah pulling at Karl’s ears, only slightly, scared they’d start waving like her older brother’s. But Karl indulged them only for a minute, the remote rotating through the air, diving here and there, still firm in his hand. He was distracted and out to help Mama Abu, or at least exchange another smiling agreement. He needed her calm.
She didn’t look the mama type, more the slender version of Abu and the twins, a young face, eyes that saw everything, like proper. A slightly amused mouth that kept track, together with the eyes, of any stories that were not close to the truth. She had a detector for that. It could cover the whole neighbourhood, beeping when any rubbish story was put forward as a sorry-arse excuse.
Karl had asked Abu once how he could ever lie to her. ‘That face breaks your heart.’
‘You make sure your story is tight. Otherwise …’
‘… otherwise you have to deal with her secret weapon.’
And Abu had laughed. His mother didn’t use many words but she had a lot of silent communication. Like that time he had tried to make fun of some kid down the road when he was much younger. Tried. Wanted to see how it felt, that power thing. Using something against someone just because you could. When you knew right then, right there they couldn’t use yours. For some reason his mother had come back from the shops just at the moment he was starting to load off on Brian from a year down about why his school uniform was so old. Her eyes had opened and pierced his. Surprised. Then she had said all that needed saying without words. Abu had apologised on the spot, with understanding and all, shown proper empathy, and stayed out the rest of the afternoon to avoid more of her disbelieving stare.
Abu thought he had some of that telepathic-ness himself but Karl never seemed to quite get it with him. Only with his mum.
Abu had rushed straight through to his room, where he started listening to music on his bed. No more babbling. The endorphins crashed like a jet fighter abandoning plane. Pain in his shoulders, in his muscles. All that pain now.
‘He called again.’
‘He did?’ Karl was standing by the washing machine, playing with the door. He looked up at Abu’s mother. His eyelashes were long and thick; they looked fake. As they fluttered open and closed again, there was a gap. Like on some Tube platforms, those really dodgy Central Line stations when you really have to hop over the void. And for that particularly dangerous one on every stop throughout the whole bloody system they tell you to mind it. The gap. For Karl this was just a split second, not enough to catch his breath.
‘You have to call him back, Karl. You know that all of us like to have you here. But you have to call him.’
Her eyes. If you could see it. Too much. He looked away.More of that gap was revealing itself, rapidly. Whole dips, slopes and descents.
Karl stared at the wall. These kinds of decisions were hard for him. When to call, stay here in the present. He wanted to do a runner, chat some stuff. Knowing Abu he’d be all whatever now. You want to be cute all of a sudden, dish me some deep story ‘cause you got shit on your mind? He needed the chatting before, like really needed it.
‘When did he call?’
‘Just after you left. Karl,’ she said, very soft now. ‘You’ll call him tomorrow. Or better, go and see him.’
He nodded. He could feel his lashes scissoring in, neatly closing. The hairs touching each other sideways, the tiniest bit of friction.
1. The visible shape or configuration of something.
2. A particular way of appearance.
1. Bring together parts, all sorts, internal, external.
2. To create the whole, or the intention.
The twins came running, circling around him, holding him by the hand, pulling him back into the lounge, giggling.
‘It’s too loud again. Come, Karl. It’s too loud. It’s unacceptable.’