An extract from Sussie Anie’s debut novel, To Fill A Yellow House, published by Phoenix, Orion on 7 July 2022.
The boy will live and die here: on this street that cuts the heart of town.
A quaint street by day: a corridor of boutique shops and higgledy-piggledy markets arranged over a bridge. The bridge rises, plateaus and falls in so gentle an arc that until today, its incline was imperceivable to the boy. Here he comes, the newest boy in town, watching his shadow advance over a patchwork of paving slabs alongside his auntie’s.
‘Wait,’ the boy’s auntie says.
The boy, named Kwasi, stops.
As he waits, he looks around. There, on the wall by the post box, is a familiar poster. The poster is a recent addition to many of the shop windows on this street. It shows a cast of figures dancing, and a smile of multicoloured bunting hanging across a cloudless sky. The letters are too swirly to read, but their meaning is clear enough; something is going to happen here soon.
Ahead, shoppers flurry from the supermarket.
‘Wait-wait,’ the boy’s auntie says again. She is considering her shopping list, which she has written in blue ink on the back of a receipt. This time, as he waits, the boy looks at his shoes. A crack has split the pavement where he stands, and runs from there into the road. The road here is like the crust of a bread roll that has swollen and cracked. Traffic slows, approaching the scar of potholes, and one by one, vehicles hiccup over the fault.
The street slopes downhill ahead, where town is an array of glass fronts and awnings, from the off-licence to the chip shop: parks and churches, schools and homes, a small piece in the puzzle of London.
‘Let’s go,’ the boy’s auntie says, and folds her list away. ‘Come.’
They walk a little further before the boy’s auntie stops again, this time by a sign: a blackened sign, between the newsagent’s and the old cinema, that proclaims in bold letters, ‘High Street’. These words appear on several streets across the city, and more around the country; no street name is more common. Seeing these letters now, the boy understands: this busy street rests upon a bridge he cannot see, and he is standing at its highest point. Before reading these words, he assumed this place was called Hi Street, since everyone says hello: mums with pushchairs and granddads walking dogs.
His auntie – whom he has named Auntie Aha, for her staccato laughter – is saying hi to someone now, under the greengrocer’s canopy. Kwasi stands still and listens. He is searching for a sound beneath the conversation, and beneath the noise of traffic, that might reveal what lies under the bridge on which town rests. He pictures a river of quicksand, a poisonous bog.
Auntie Aha glances his way, now her friend has gone inside. She picks up a coconut and shakes it.
‘Hello,’ comes a familiar voice. Excitement prickles Kwasi’s shoulders. Here is the Wednesday Woman, with her pushchair. She comes to town by bus each week when the shop has African foods. She wears a long orange dress today that matches the ribbon in her baby’s hair.
‘How are you, Kwasi?’ she asks. ‘εte sεn?’
‘Fine, thank you,’ he says.
Auntie Aha returns, holding two garden eggs. Kwasi gets a gloomy feeling at the sight of those pale yellow eggs – he previously tried to hatch one, expecting a miniature garden to unfold from inside it. He kept it for some time before it rotted soft, and Ma made him throw it away.
‘Are you ready for school?’ asks the Wednesday Woman.
‘I am sure you can’t wait to make new friends.’
‘Yes, thank you,’ Kwasi says. He pulls his bravest smile.
‘Ahaha. He will have his new uniform soon. Won’t you?’ Auntie Aha says. ‘Year two.’
‘Wow,’ the Wednesday Woman says. ‘Such a big boy.’
The shopkeeper comes out behind them both. He asks if they want to see the yams.
‘I’ll come back,’ the Wednesday Woman says. She tells her baby to say bye, and as usual the baby says nothing, and off they go down the street.
‘Let’s see your plantain,’ Auntie Aha says. She follows the shopkeeper inside.
Kwasi slips away. He goes where his shadow, a stout, dark arrow, leads. Past the butcher’s and the laundrette.
The ground here is speckled with pale purple gum stains. Weeds sprout between paving slabs – it is as though a forest is growing underneath, with trees covered in coarse leaves and berries big as beach balls. The crack at the top of the street could be where foliage is about to break through. Kwasi backs into the felt coats that hang outside a shop. He covers his ears to mute the noise of passing cars, hoping to hear a river that runs beneath.
This much is clear to him: most settlements grow from water. On maps, capital cities balance on borders where green shading meets blue, or by fissures of turquoise. Where water gathers, life grows. He once kept a cup of water under his bed for so long that things grew, writhing squiggly things. He had to throw that away, too.
To listen better, Kwasi closes his eyes. Dadda said that losing one of the five senses sharpens the others. He holds his tongue still in the centre of his mouth to untaste the lingering sweetness from the jelly beans he ate walking to town. It is tricky to forget a sweet taste. The juices of his mouth feel glittery. He bites his lip and imagines himself as one almighty ear.
Water has a language: gurgling and hissing that spreads under his skin and tickles the spaces in his throat that his voice can never fill. The sound of falling water usually means his bath is being drawn and Ma’s shouts will follow. There is no sound of water here, only traffic and bicycle whistles, which combined with muffled chit-chat melt to a gluey hush beneath his palm. Blood swishes in his ears, and there goes the thunking of his heart.
Kwasi glances down the street. Clusters of teenagers in puffed-up jackets and women in flapping scarves; joggers who huff by with music ticking from their headphones – there is no sign of Auntie Aha’s tan coat, nor of the long umbrella she holds at her waist as though it is a sword. She must be paying for things inside the shop. Auntie Aha makes exploring town easy, for she takes her time talking to shopkeepers, and to cans and cartons upon shelves.
‘Not today, not you,’ she says. ‘But as for you, do you have lactose? You are really tempting me.’
Unlike his other aunties, she won’t fuss when he vanishes. When the church clock strikes five, they will meet at the bus stop to walk home.
A fence glints from the foliage. Kwasi approaches, and grips a metal bar. If he can get to the other side he can climb down and see what flows beneath this bridge.
He scrambles up the railings and tips his weight over.
Should Auntie Aha ask where he went today, he might tell. But she will shake her head if he reveals that all of town lies on a bridge, and that he climbed over the fence and went below, to find a noiseless rush of river.
She will say he is telling stories; that as usual his imagination has carried him away.
Back home, he runs down the corridor to his room. Kicks off his trainers and slides paper from under his bed. Pencils have escaped his pouch and rolled away; he pats in the darkness and retrieves the blue, the green, the purple. Hunched on the floor, he fills a page with the river. The river he scribbles green, because the blue pencil is blunt and the sharpener is still missing. When the drawing is complete, he stands and peels the edge of his newest scene – the chestnut tree by the laundrettes – from the wall and pulls some of the Blu Tack off to reuse. He takes more from behind the best picture, a self-portrait depicting his round head, the mouth set low over his chin, the mouth his aunties always pinch shut. He has drawn his nose as a circle there, and above it the eyes that stream through springtime.
Blu Tack in hand, Kwasi climbs onto his bed and onto the chest of drawers. Keeping steady, he stretches and presses the new drawing over the crack in the wallpaper. Then he sits on his bed and looks up at the four pictures: the river, the chestnut tree, the self-portrait, and a third drawing, of a man crayoned in tangerine and brown. Kwasi tells everyone it is Rambo, but really, it is Kwasi. It is the shadow inside him, a bright shadow crumpled up to fit.
After dinner, aunties come in for his laundry, and choose from the wigs and uniforms they keep in his wardrobe. Auntie May steps in, talking on her phone: ‘Oh. Daabi. Oh no no. Yes. Please.’
No one looks up at the wall where the secret river flows over a page.
When Kwasi has washed and put on his pyjamas, Dadda hulks in, and sucks the space away. He sits on the edge of Kwasi’s bed and tells of a cunning spider’s mischief, in his voice that shakes the walls. Ma appears in the doorway and watches with soft eyes. They tuck Kwasi into bed and instruct him to sleep well.