This is a contemporary story of migration and hope, of death and redemption. Yetunde, a widowed Nigerian midwife, welcomes Thomas, an IT genius from Uganda and Zak, a homesick Kenyan priest, to her terraced home in Leeds. Incompetent police, a malicious complaint and racist neighbours assail Yetunde and her household. Things start to fall apart when Thandiwe, a pregnant HIV-positive South African asylum seeker, arrives on the doorstep. Can Yetunde’s boundless optimism survive threats to her home, profession, faith and health?
I have been working on it for the past nine years and was encouraged to take a penultimate draft to an Arvon course in Totleigh Barton in August 2015. Maggie Gee, one of our tutors wrote: “’this writing is fluid and confident with believable dialogue and behaviour.’
I am also grateful for a more recent professional critique from Jude Cook on behalf of The Literary Consultancy (TLC were recommended by my other tutor, Bernadine Evaristo). Jude read the full manuscript and made some helpful comments. Here’s the first chapter:
Eyes closed, Zak saw orange flames and black smoke; eyes open, he saw only ducks on a lake, busying themselves in pale water edged by leaf-littered mud. He stood, his hands resting on a wooden rail, looking down. A rat scuttled past his shoes and stared at him as if it owned the place. Zak, the Reverend Zechariah Mutethia to give him his full title, shivered. He faced a cold, hard-edged city where all his certainties had deserted him, a city where he stood, bandaged hands on frosted timber, clothes stinking from the fire.
‘Mashetani!’ His curse, a sneeze of a word, scurried the rat and ruffled the ducks. Another rat shimmied past and plopped into the water. It could swim, Zak could not. He let go of the railings and sat down hard on a bench. He held his head in his lacerated hands and thought about Yetunde.
* * *
A few weeks ago, Zak was starting to settle in at Yetunde’s house. Small windows, three storeys, huddled in a terrace for warmth, he assumed. The houses were called ‘back-to-backs’. Her house was part of a small enclave, four streets stranded a short distance down from the main ranks. Slate roofs and brick walls covering the hillside, rows and rows of workers’ houses for mills and factories that closed long ago. Stone cobbles were still visible where the tarmac of their road, Retford Street, was flaking at its edges.
Zak’s room was at the top of the house, where the sloping roof had been lifted up, as if on a hinge, to make space for two rooms, his the smaller of the two. A single bed, a desk and a wardrobe with some drawers below, everything a postgraduate student required. The double-glazed window looked north-west, the direction of the setting sun. An alarm clock was needed in this dark autumn, but not on the dawning of that day in Retford Street.
A splintering crash, then another, woke him from his recurring Rift Valley nightmare. Vigilant, heart pounding, his first instinct to go and investigate the noise. He started down the stairs, a towel round his waist. His thinking brain had woken up by the time he reached the first floor. Should he go back and rouse Thomas, in the other attic room? He heard voices below him, better to investigate. His slow descent towards the ground floor was noiseless. A blast of cold air met him, two men in uniform, barking instructions. His guts churned.
“Brothers,” Zak said, raising one hand as if in blessing. “How are you? May I help?” He used the tone of voice developed for unruly congregations, only he could hear his heart drumming in his chest. The police back home were usually armed.
“Drugs raid, er, sir,” the lead officer growled.
Was that a note of uncertainty in this official voice?
“We have reason to believe that people in this property are dealing in Class A drugs. Get yourself into the front room and stay there while we search the house.”
Two more policemen were waiting for Zak. One, with the authority of more stripes on his shoulders, grunted at the others, “We can deal with this gentleman, what are you waiting for?”
“Are we sure this is the right house Sarge?”
The sergeant felt in his pocket, pulled out a piece of paper. “This is number … this is number …” He avoided eye contact with any members of his team. Zak watched him as the officer’s eyes came to rest on the gaudy red, green and gold tapestry above the fireplace: ‘In God we Trust’.
The officer scrutinised the paper once more. “Shit! It’s that new Polish girl on the desk, she writes her ones like sevens.”
Zak steadied himself with one hand on the wall. His breaths were coming too quickly but he calmed himself enough to say, “I am having some problems understanding why you are here, with so many officers, why this house no longer has a door?” Both his hands were at his sides, palms upwards, waiting for whatever the policeman had to offer.
The policeman stood, at ease, arms behind his back, “I apologise for the inconvenience, sir, and the door. It appears that we have the wrong address. Are you the owner?”
“No, it belongs to Mrs Yetunde Mbang.”
“Is she here?”
“No, she is working nights. You would know if she was here, my brother, you would certainly know.”
The other policemen had edged out of the doorway during the conversation. Zak heard them coughing in the street. The sergeant wrote down Zak’s details and produced a card from his pocket, handing it to Zak.
“Please advise Mrs… erm… Bang to phone this number when she gets back. She will be due some compensation for the inconvenience, and a new door. I do apologise.”
The sergeant was in the street before Zak realised that he did not know his name. Van doors slammed and vehicles set off with more haste than necessary. Zak shivered as the chill October air occupied the front room, a hint of diesel driving out the comforting smell of Yetunde’s home. They must do something before their Nigerian landlady got back. He loped up the stairs, dressed swiftly in his room and took a deep breath.
“Thomas,” he tapped on the door of his housemate’s domain.
“I need your help, the front door is broken.” There was a long pause. Thomas’s responses were always measured, sometimes in minutes, sometimes in hours or even days.
“I am coming.”
Since his arrival, Zak had got used to the weariness in Thomas’s voice, though on this occasion, at this hour, it was justified. Thomas was coming, that was a start. Zak felt the cold city air penetrating further up the stairs as he went down to survey the damage in more detail.
“Nice one,” said the milkman, leaving a pint next door at number 5, where Mrs Henderson lived. He cocked his head in the direction of Zak.
Zak smiled back. It was refreshing that the people here just got on with a conversation, without the customary greetings, but it was also unnerving. There was no time to weigh up in what way the absence of door was ‘nice’ before the milkman turned his back to continue his rounds.
“That’ll take some fixing. Yetunde’s not going to be happy,” the milkman added, half-turning in Zak’s direction.
Zak shrugged and started to investigate the damaged wood with a finger. He was rewarded with the lancing pain of a splinter. He was still sucking the blood from his finger, trying not to curse, when Thomas appeared beside him.
“The police, I suppose,” said Thomas.
Zak turned to look at his fellow tenant. The Ugandan was six inches shorter, but Zak felt that it was Thomas who looked down on him. Thomas wore a thick black sweater and sharp black trousers. He was slim enough for Zak to wonder about his health. His eyes gave little away, they made contact although always on Thomas’s terms. If the eyes were windows of the soul, then his were like the darkened windows of a politician’s four-by-four. There was a lumpy scar below his right eye.
“You must have heard, they could have raised the dead,” Zak said.
Thomas shrugged, went to make some tea and switch on the radio in the kitchen. Their security had been breached, Yetunde’s home defiled, but tea and
Radio 2 were the opening rites of Thomas’s day. Zak sat on the doorstep, shivering, stirring the sugar into his mug, brought to him without request or ceremony.
“I have a seminar at ten,” Zak said, gazing across the road. The sound of the morning traffic on the main road three terraces away started to intrude, the fumes provoked a sneeze from Zak.
“She’ll be back well before then,” Thomas addressed his tea. He went to find the Yellow Pages. Zak showed him the card from the police. They had a desultory discussion about the pros and cons of calling the number, using the Yellow Pages or waiting for Yetunde’s return. They did not have long to wait. A rich contralto voice came round the corner at the top of the street. Thomas and Zak turned to face the music.