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Fiction Friday: Read the winning entry of 2017′s Short Story Day Africa here

TJ Benson

When Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, addressed the TED Conference in 2009, she spoke of the danger of the single story, a distorted, one-dimensional view of Africa that sees the continent only through a prism of war, disease, poverty, starvation and corruption. Short Story Day Africa has established a day, 21st June – the shortest day of the year – on which to celebrate the diversity of Africa’s voices and tell you who we really are; what we love; love to eat, read, write about. We want to bring you the scents on our street corners, the gossip from our neighbours, let you listen to strains of the music we dance to.

Short Story Day Africa brings together writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, teachers and school children from all over the globe to write, submit, read, workshop and discuss stories – and foster the love of reading and writing African fiction. Because we have something to tell the world. About us. In our own voices.

The Short Story Day Africa prize is annually awarded to an African writer who brings a “fresh, urgent perspective” to narratives on and about the continent. The recipient of 2017′s Short Story Day Africa prize is TJ Benson, as selected by judges Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), Sindiwe Magona (South Africa), and Hawa Jade Golakai (Liberia).

Benson is a Nigerian short story writer and creative photographer whose work has appeared in online journals like Jalada Africa, Munyori Journal, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Sentinel Literary Magazine and in print magazines and anthologies like Paragram UK, ANA Annual Review, Contemporary Literary Review India and Transition Magazine. His photography chapbook, ‘Rituals’ was published as a downloadable PDF on Sankofa Magazine in 2015 and his collection of Afro-Sci-Fi short stories, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize in 2016. He won the Amab-HBF Prize and his short story Tea is the first runner up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize. He was mentioned twice in Expound Journal’s Best of 2016 and once in Brittle Paper’s Top 31 of 2016. He is currently a Writer-In-Residence at the Ebedi Residency Iseyin, Nigeria.

Tea, by TJ Benson:

She is Tiv and knows no English. He is German with familial connections to the Nazis. They are in a hotel room somewhere in Italy. On the bed is an assortment of sex toys. A gruff voice behind the camera orders them to take off their clothes. The girl doesn’t understand English, and a heavy-set woman in an orange buba gown whispers the translation into her ear. The boy places his finger on the girl’s cheek, testing the texture. She shivers at the touch. Chalked in white on the charcoal placard are the words, From Italy, with Love.
They have each taken different paths to get here. He, a small-town boy, has been roaming around Europe on a quest to find himself after killing his co-worker at the textile factory back home. It had been an accident. Involuntary manslaughter. She has been brought here by the woman in the orange buba. It’s the old story. Young girl from a small village fed tales of
steady employment and a high salary in Europe. No sooner had the plane landed in Sicily than she realised it had all been a hoax.
“No, no, it will be just acting,” the woman said, “nobody will tamper with your virginity.” If she could just do like fifty thirty-minute videos, the woman said, she could return to Nigeria a queen.
And so, here they are. The boy is staring at the girl. Searching for words to tell her it will be okay, that he won’t do anything outside their contract. The director who scouted him last week had informed him that his co-star might not speak English, but that would not affect the script. And he didn’t think he would want to say anything, until now, stripped down to his briefs. He thinks of the few English words that he knows. Re-arranging the order of them in his head. Thinks of what he might say to the girl.
The director growls. Yells at the woman in the orange buba. He closes his eyes and focuses on the English words fired from the Italian man to the furious woman. She is saying that what he wants is not in the contract. “That’s the point!” he shouts. “The boy. The girl. They are not supposed to know.” It will make her acting more real, the pain and aftermath of the pleasure more genuine.
The boy doesn’t realise how angry he is. He is more stunned than anyone in the room when the bedside lamp leaves his hand and smashes into the director’s head. The man crashes to the ground, dragging the tripod and the camera with him. The assistant tries to make a run for it, but the German boy rushes at him with a barrage of punches. He doesn’t stop until he hears a gunshot behind him. The madam, her face contorted into a strange expression, falls to the ground. Behind her stands the girl, in white lace underwear, a gun pointed in front of her. She is shaking.
Sense returns to him. He approaches her cautiously. What is her name? Useless question. How do they get out of here?
Two knocks on the door. Brisk, polite knocks. Tap. Tap. He shuts his eyes. Ice cream … balloon … mirror … bicycle … cloud … spaghetti… The random association of words helps him relax. He exhales. Opens his eyes and turns to her, placing a finger over his lips. She nods. The air is raw with tension. The knocking persists. Faster now. Tap-tap-tap. He pushes the bodies into the wardrobe and walks to the door.
The bellboy apologises for the disturbance and informs them that neighbours said they heard gunshots coming from this room. The management has sent him to make sure that everything is all right. Could the boy open the door so he can enter the room and check that everything is all right?
The boy is livid. What sort of management is this? How dare they intrude on his privacy? The young porter, very politely, informs him that if he doesn’t open the door, he will have to get help from security. After a few minutes the boy opens the door. The bellboy is astonished to find a white man in black briefs holding a black girl in white lingerie, both wearing masks. He decides he has seen enough when his eyes fall on the sex toys on the bed. He apologises for the intrusion on behalf of the hotel management, but they should please be more discreet, he says, before closing the door.
A giggle escapes the girl’s lips when he shuts the door. It’s the last thing he expects. He giggles too, and they collapse onto the bed in laughter. It dawns on them when the laughter has ceased that it is the only language they have in common. They lie on the bed for a while, contemplating the colour of each other’s skin: light brown and pale white. It’s like nothing the
other has seen before. The sounds from the morning traffic below float into the room, muted like music from a dream as they study each other on the bed. Then, in his peripheral vision, the boy sees blood dripping from the wardrobe.
We have to get out of here, he thinks, jumping out of bed and cursing himself in German. He has to find a way to talk to her. He gestures to the girl – whose eyes are welling with tears at the sight of blood – to put on her clothes. A red T-shirt and a denim skirt. She heads for the door once she’s dressed. No, no, no! He gestures. We can’t go out through the entrance. They will see our faces.
He motions her over to the window. The street is just a few storeys down. No wonder they could hear the traffic. He guides her out of the window onto the ledge below. They climb down level after level of the hotel until they get to the last floor and jump into a parked truck laden with sacks of flour. When they turn to see their faces whitened with flour, they both laugh. The laughter is broken by the sudden rheumatic cough of the truck’s engine. As they truck begins picking up speed, they reach for each other’s hands. That too, is another language they have in common. Touch. The truck stops at the kitchen of another hotel. On impulse, the boy decides to carry the sacks into the kitchen, and the girl follows his lead. Afterwards, the sous-chef serves them lunch. In the evening, once all the sacks of flour have been packed away in the pantry, the chef pays them each ten euros. Tells them to come back tomorrow.
“Danke,” says the boy to the man. “Or tom kuma nja,” she says. A worker is worthy of his pay. The boy doesn’t know what it means, but he laughs anyway.
They spend that first night together sleeping under a bridge, their bodies wrapped around each for warmth.
After a month of working dead-end jobs, they’re able to afford a rundown apartment on the outskirts of the city. The boy’s grasp of English is rudimentary, but he knows just enough to know that the police are searching for two young foreigners in connection with the case of a murdered woman. The report he read in the paper said that the woman’s body was found in a hotel room and the two foreigners, a boy and a girl, are still at large. If seen, please contact… He balled up the paper and threw it out the window.
The girl is making cocoa and milk. They have argued about whether this beverage should be called tea or not. The boy had wanted to broaden her English by showing her different labels in shop windows – slimming tea, Chinese tea, mint tea… But the girl just sighed. Then she rushed into a shop and seized a canister of chocolate powder and a tin of milk, and screamed with ferocity: “Tea!” She was sick with a cold, so he didn’t argue. He just smiled at the Italians staring at them and paid for the goods at the till. But her cold has gotten worse since then, and he is glad he bought the “tea” because it is the only thing that will stay in her stomach.
Even days like this are wonderful. Days when she is too sick to work and neither of them have money for food; they just lie there on the battered sofa in the living room, in each other’s arms, enjoying the silence, as time goes by. They don’t know that their neighbour, the woman next door who sleeps all day, is a sex worker who receives her clients only at night. They don’t
know that in the room next to the sex worker is a wiry young Italian painter contemplating suicide because he has realised that he will never be as good as his predecessors. They don’t know that on the floor right above them, a thickset detective spends his nights trying to figure out the mystery of the missing German boy and Nigerian girl.
On one such day, he wakes to the gentle burn of the sun on his face, but as he drifts from sleep into consciousness he realises that she’s not there with him. No more in his arms. He leaps from the sofa in a panic. He feels a desperate urge to call out her name. He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He still doesn’t know her name. The realisation moves him to tears.
Where could she be? She’s still no good at English or Italian, anything could happen. Oranges… duck… Santa Claus… obelisk… rice… leather. As always, the habit of stringing random words together calms him. Returns him to himself. He drags in a lungful of breath and begins searching the apartment. The place is small and it takes him less than a minute to search through all the rooms. She’s nowhere to be found.
He curses himself in German as he pulls his shirt on. Why did he take her health for granted? He’d been afraid that the pharmacist would ask questions he wouldn’t have answers to. Questions like “Where are your papers?” or “Do you have health insurance?”

He runs from door to door asking if anyone has seen her. A slim black girl who can’t speak English or Italian. Nobody has seen her. Again he feels the urge to scream out her name. He flies down the stairs prepared to go out to the world and look for her. He leaps outside into her embrace but he doesn’t know this immediately, he thinks he has been caught by the authorities. But the body is soft and familiar, so he looks at the face and yells: “Where the fuck have you been?”
“Show you. I show you,” she says, grabbing his hand.
“I show you.”
He relaxes when the path she leads him becomes familiar, their route to
the restaurant.
“It’s Sunday,” he says, almost jogging to keep up with her, “you know
they won’t let us work on Sunday.”
“No, not work.”
She points to the broken-down ice cream truck parked next to the flour
truck. The ice-cream van has been parked there ever since they first arrived here.
“Tea,” she says.
“Tea,” she says.
His mind clears and it dawns on him what she means. “No! No way!” he says. They will never have enough money to buy enough cocoa powder and milk to start the “tea” business, and besides, who will buy anyway?
“Them,” she points to a black father, mother, and child in matching check shirts crossing the street. “We make them like tea.”

The next month they work extra hours at the restaurant so that they can afford to buy the ice-cream van. Gradually, the girl’s English improves, and they start to grow apart. He misses the days when they could anticipate each other’s wants, those days of silence when there was no language between them, when a million things could be communicated withtouch. Now her English is getting better, so no more hand on the shoulder when she needs something.
They take alternate shifts at the restaurant, and they see each now only at night when they’re both exhausted. The girl also misses the way things used to be. Sometimes, when she is walking home after a shift, she imagines them rolling on the couch together, their bodies colliding in the heat.
One night she comes back from a late shift ecstatic, but he pays no attention. When he wakes up the next morning and sees her dressing with a big, luminous smile, somehow he knows, even before she says it. “You’re leaving.”
She doesn’t deny it, and that only makes it worse. The police have plastered notices in three languages – Tiv, English and Italian – begging the Nigerian girl who miraculously escaped being forced into pornography to make contact. The notices said her country wanted her back; that the governor of her state would sponsor her trip back home. The only thing she had to do was to turn up at the same hotel she’d escaped from. But all he gets from her long explanation is that she’s leaving.
He doesn’t ask her stupid questions like what she’s going to do when she gets back, or why they didn’t ask her to turn up at the police station. He knows they know she is a stranger here and might fall prey to all kinds of people.
The only thing he can ask from the sofa is “What of tea?”
“That is for if I stay. I not stay anymore. I want to go home.” She looks down at her lap with a sad smile. Somehow she has grown into a woman over these few months, and even this realisation is painful.
He massages his temple to stay sane. “This…” he says, stabbing the couch
with his finger, “this is home!”
“I want to go home.” A cry this time, a plea.
He descends the mount of his fury; he can never say no to her. He motions her over to him.
“If I hug you, it will be hard… to go,” she says.
“Come here! You can’t go home with all that chaos on your head.”
She fingers a braid and smiles as he motions her over. “Come, come,” he says.

They spend the morning curled on the couch, like they used to. She tells him about her family. Subsistence farmers. How they moved from Benue state, into the wilds of another state called Taraba. How they were killed in the ethnic conflict that followed. The girl had been the only
survivor, was rescued by missionaries. But then a kind rich woman who had been rescuing young girls had assured her that some members of her family were still alive, and that she would see them again if she got into her car. The Reverend promised her that an angel would protect her. The woman took care of her and some other girls for a month, feeding them but making sure they didn’t talk to each other. A few weeks later, she found herself here.
Once she’s done, he braces himself to tell her his story. He tells her about the accident at the textile factory and how he ran away, with only a bag of clothes and not much else.
“So where were you going?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I was roaming the continent when that bastard found me. I think the most important question now is: what about you? When are you planning on leaving?”
He smiles as he says this. The sun is behind his head, and as she looks at him, the girl thinks of an angel smiling at her, mesmerised at the cards fate has played. In that instant, she realises she could never leave him. Even if she did, the feel of his fingers on her skin is something she would never forget.She doesn’t know that the notice is a hoax to lure her back into the hands of her traffickers. In fact, she will never know. For now, she says to him, “This is home.” She shuts the door. “We make them like tea.”

TJ’s story is one of many in the latest edition of New Short Stories From Africa.


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