Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
No, little sister, I was not laughing at you, I read your email and I answered honestly; why would you think that I would mock you? It is true that I had never heard of this girl—what did you say her name was?—Britney, that’s right, Britney Spears. You say she lives in London where I live, but, little sister, the city is vast and everyone has their place, the singers and the deaf-mutes. I had not heard of her, I have no time to go to concerts here, or to go anywhere, no movies, no hobbies—work, work and more work, that is the only life a Black man in London knows, work, work, work. But don’t worry, my friend Marcellin, who I stay with, says that Yasmina T, one of his colleagues at work, has a Britney CD, he asked her to make me a copy. I will listen to it and tell you whether I think that this girl you call a star is worth someone spending so much money on food she did not finish eating!
What you are asking me is madness, to go to eBay.com and bid in an auction for a sandwich that Britney Spears only half-ate. Little sister, you know I love you and that I cannot say no to you, but even you must realise that this would cost me the skin of my arse, when here in London I spend every day wondering how I will pay off the debts I left behind. You know better than anyone the circumstances in which I left Douala for the country where you say Britney Spears lives.
You remember. The morning that I told our mother that I had to leave for Europe, she looked me right in the eye and asked: How much do you need to get away? You were there, you were a witness, my beloved sister. And she did not hesitate to sell the two coffee plantations that put food on the family table, and the house that Papa left us when he died. She sold the house, our house, and rented a room in the district of Cathédrale. I’m an old woman now, she would say coquettishly, and, besides, your sister is married. I don’t need all this space anymore. A white lie. She sold the family house, for me, so I could travel to a land where the pavements are strewn with gold. But that was not enough, so she went and borrowed three million CFA francs from Zoba, the people smuggler, and told him that once I got to London, it wouldn’t take me six months to pay back those millions. Leaving your homeland for another country, that costs a lot of money, little sister. By the time I got to London, unforeseen expenses had left holes in my accounts: the genuine fake visa cost two times nine hundred thousand CFA rather than the nine hundred thousand agreed, because, before I could get the magic stamp that would work like Open Sesame on airplane doors, I first had to grease the palms of many middlemen, most of whom, I was told, had to remain anonymous. What could I do? I was told, pay this much, I paid that much. Days and days passed, still nothing would come and then someone would tell me I had to pay so much to such-and-such a man in the network, so I would go and dig into my dwindling reserves. These people have no heart, little sister, they would fuck a corpse in the arse if they thought that by doing it they would become rich and masters of the world. Right to the end, they bled me white, my own brothers. On the day I was due to leave, when I thought my suffering was over, they reappeared. In the middle of the airport, a young cop, scrawny as a slice of salt cod, ushered me into a box room and told me that I must declare any foreign currency I was carrying. By this point, I had only four million CFA francs, which I had converted into British pounds. How he knew I was carrying foreign currency, I don’t know. He took £460—nearly half a million CFA—and pointed me towards the boarding gate. He was laughing: How can you leave us here in the quicksand, brother? We will die here in the swamp and you just get to fly away—you’re lucky, brother, very lucky! This was the same man who, a minute earlier, was threatening to turn me in to the European police who checked passengers as they boarded the plane. How did he know my visa for London was fake and that I had foreign currency on me?
On January 13, 1996, I landed at Roissy airport in France without any problem. The customs officers gave me dirty looks, so I gave them a dirty look right back so that they would not ask me awkward questions. Then I took the train to London, where cousin Marcellin was waiting for me. You know what they say, the brothers who live here? White man’s country be pretty, but White man’s country be cold! Little sister. I did not set foot outside for a week. It was cold, it was grey, there were pigeons perched on every rooftop and my soul was saddened by the rain. Suddenly I missed the open skies of Douala and the hot rains that warm your soul. Marcellin mocked me and laughed at me: You need go out, if you want get used to the cold, go out, go flirt, a woman’s body will keep you warm, unless maybe you prefer a man’s body, I tell you, I done that with men in this country, little brother, so I say, here you eat what you find, you fuck what you find, else you find nothing, you get fucked, you get eaten!
It is nine o’clock, little sister, I am still in the Village Voice cybercafé, where I am writing to you. Just to tell you that everything did not go as I imagined when I got to London. Marcellin was charming, but he was also very strange. Sometimes he would disappear for four, five days, sometimes a week and no-one knew where he was or what he his business was in London. He would reappear with a big smile on his face and an armful of groceries. Bizness is good, little brother, bizness is good! I can see that, I would say, while waiting for him to help me find a job. But nothing came. Three months, six months soon turned into nine months, and I grew tired of waiting like a pregnant woman for my magnaminous benefactor to come home. But in London I had no papers, I was illegal, and I did not have the courage to go out. But, little by little, I started to get my bearings, to make fearful little ventures into the bars and cafés where Africans meet each other. One night, one of those alcoholic raptors eaten up by nostalgia for the homeland offered to lend me his residence permit in return for ten per cent of my salary if I got a job. I was just beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel when, one night, after one of his long absences, Marcellin brought misfortune to our home.
It is ten past nine, little sister, I am still in the cybercafé, still writing to you, read carefully what follows.
Misfortune did not come looking for Marcellin; it was he who courted misfortune. And the misfortune was mine…
It was the night before an important meeting, an interview for a job as a restaurant porter. Washing dishes and scrubbing pots for some guy at New Bell wasn’t just some stupid job, it was my last hope. I could already see myself in the kitchen, wielding the dish brush and the spray, I’d already made plans for my first pay cheque, so why, Lord, why did you have to let Marcellin bring misfortune home to this apartment? Why could you not take his life and spare mine? I’ve got debts to pay, Lord, debts that my poor maman back in Douala racked up so I could come to the land of the White man, a land of lies and illusions, where the pavements are strewn with nothing but dog shit. And in the neighbourhood where I live, the pavements are not honoured by dogs doing their business, immigrants have no dogs—what would they feed them? How am I supposed to pay back Maman’s debts? Why did Marcellin do what he did to me when he could have died in peace and left me in peace to carry on roaming the streets of London filled with rain and the turds of well-fed dogs?
I was making rice that night when he came home with his hands empty and his face twisted into a scowl. He wanted to talk to me, so I closed the pressure cooker and turned down the gas. We sat in the living room. He poured us shots of whisky and started drinking without even raising a toast, as strung out and antsy as a man caught in bed with his sister-in-law. What’s the matter, brother? I asked him. He forced a bitter laugh, got up, and went to the toilet. He came back grey as an old man, and drank two more shots of whisky without stopping for breath. He was in a bad way, that was clear, and he put me in a bad way the second he opened his mouth.
I need your help, little brother, I’m up to my neck in shit. The cops be spotting me, they be knowing my bizness now, they see me, they got me in them sights! I need you to help me play a little trick on them. Nasty little trick. If I go down, a don die, how would you survive, little brother? But if I be disappearing for a day or two, it’s all good, I can protect our savings and the cash will keep pumping. You know that, right? Don’t look at me like that, I know you know, you just never asked. You were wrong, brother, you should have asked. People here, they lie as fine as our president Biya. They say, Marcellin, he be dealing powder. Shit, I no sell cocaine, I no sell weed, I’m into heavy shit, little brother, believe me, I run guns for warlords in poor countries of Europe, Hungary, Bosnia, Ireland, for little European thugs who watch too many war movies on Netflix. I’m a middleman, but sometimes a customer, he gets a few defective guns in a shipment and takes revenge by giving names to the police. I’m telling you everything, little brother, that way you know. Police will come for me this week, so I need to hide out somewhere safe while you pretend to be me. Three days, max, then they’ll find out that you’re white as snow and they’ll release you. Surely you will do this thing for me, little brother, after everything I’ve done for you. If you do, I promise I’ll pay off half your mother’s debts, in cash. You’ll do that for me…
As the turtle says in the fairytale I learned as a boy, misfortune does not seek man out, it is man who seeks misfortune. Marcellin disappeared. At 3am. I was staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep, when I heard a key turn in the door. Then police burst into the living room and surrounded the sofa I was using as a bed. Silent and serious, they handcuffed me and dragged me to the police van parked outside. At the police station, they questioned me all day, all night, and I told them what they wanted to hear. I said I was Eddy Marcellin, aka Makossa (such a foolish nickname!), no, I had never sold guns, I said, no, I knew no arms dealers, yes, I was a Christian and to do such a thing is against my religion. Sorry, what? I don’t understand the question. Am I a gay? Oh, because the Makossa you know is gay, well, yes, I mean no, maybe, it’s private, and it is none of your business…
The London police are as stupid as the police in Douala, I thought, until they decided to take my fingerprints. That is when my story fell apart. My ink-smeared fingertips revealed that I was not the man they were looking for. I felt a wave of fear as I realised I was caught up in a web of lies spun by a more talented liar than me. I suddenly knew what awaited me, I would be sent back to the country I had fled in the search of a better life, I would never be able to repay my debts, I would bring shame to Maman who had sacrificed everything for me.
The police did not find my passport in the apartment. Another trick by Marcellin, who had taken it with him. But in doing so, Makossa saved my life, since now I could say that I was from Chad and avoid the shame and humiliation of being sent back to Douala, to Cameroon. What does the word Makossa mean? one of the officers asked as we boarded the plane. It is a dance in Cameroon; in the Douala language ‘Makossa’ means ‘I dance’, I said bitterly. Can you teach me during the flight? he asked. I love African food and African music…
It is almost ten o’clock, little sister, I am still in the Village Voice café, all the computers will soon be switched off, in five minutes they will cut my connection. I have five minutes left to tell you the truth, my truth. Only one person in Douala knows. Tantine Hawa, my old girlfriend, who works at the local Western Union where I send a little money from time to time to try to pay off Maman’s debts. When I send this email, you will be only the second person to know the truth. Will you keep it to yourself? As I am sure you know, if you do not play along with my lie, it will kill Maman. She would die, her heart would not be able to endure a truth as brutal and piercing as a naked blade.
One by one, the lights in the cybercafé flicker out. As I step out onto rue 40, a man calls out to me. I do not know what he wants, I do not speak his language; I have been living here for so long now that even I think that perhaps it is time that I made the effort to learn Arabic.
In my head, I live in London, but in truth I am living near Moursal market in N’Djamena.
I have been living here for ten years. Since the day I was deported.
I did not send the email to my sister; I allowed the words to vaporise when the café owner cut the internet connection. But five minutes before he did so, I went to the website that my sister mentioned. It seems it is too late to buy the egg salad sandwich half-eaten by this young woman, Britney. An online gaming company called Golden Palace acquired it for a sum I cannot even bring myself to mention. But that is not the end of it. A spokesperson for the company stated that they already have samples of her saliva and her urine in their possession. Guess what they plan to do? Clone Britney, they say. Tonight, my clone will sleep in London, while the other me heads back to a tiny room on the outskirts of N’Djamena.