Art by Jamel Akib

“We always write about our problems in the past tense, we hardly every write about them while we’re in the thick of it.”

I have it on good account that the best ideas come late at night, or at least I tell myself that as an excuse. At night, though, with nothing but the glow of my laptop and the faint music playing in my ears, the darkness doesn’t seem empty anymore but rather sentient — malevolent even. Like a monster that can be bargained with. The keyboard makes that familiar tapping sound as my fingers hit it, that after half a decade, is almost as soothing as the music itself. Soothing, that’s what I need, I think to myself.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you pause and think to yourself, No, no, this isn’t how it was meant to play out? Our younger selves would stare in horror at the people we grew up to be. The addicts, the emotionally unstable, the morally depraved. But how can we explain to them the horror of the truth we know now? That life, with all its glory and darkness, is an unpredictable chaotic mess. Though, we didn’t plan for this, it just kind of happened, and now here we are. I can imagine him now, young Anthony, a shorter and chubbier version who somehow manages to be more arrogant than present day me, complete with all the insecurities. Ah, but then aren’t we all sort of dicks at fifteen?

“What do you mean, you’ve thought about giving up writing?” I can imagine him saying, the anger in his voice rising as his fists clenched. In his other hand, held carefully, is a Rick Riordan book. He would be dressed in standard Whitesands uniform, with the sky-blue shirt and grey trousers but he’d be wearing a cardigan over it, even with the heat. Cardigans can hide a lot, even how fat you are when you’re scared the other boys will make fun of you.

“Well,” I say, sitting down on one of the gallery chairs made of intertwining metal. Though it’s a six-minute drive from my house, I entered the Nike Art Gallery for the first time last December, and I’ve been in love ever since. “Things are just a bit rough now, with uni and our parents — our father, I just don’t know anymore.”

Father.

He’d stare at me for a good minute before he took a seat beside me as we stared at the painting in front of us, the seemingly random colours catching both our eyes. “He’s gotten that bad, hmm?”

I chuckle a bit, the pain apparent even in that. “Yes, he has.”

“But you, why are you like this?” He asks, “You seem…different.”

“Three years, some more breakdowns sprinkled with personal issues will do that to you. We learn humility the hard way.”

“And your hair?”

“It’s cool, no?” I’d say, pulling one of the rough strands out.

He shrugs but I can see the glitter in his eyes.

“But uh, how bad are you feeling?” He asks again, “I mean, could it really be that bad?”

“I don’t feel well, I haven’t, for two years now.” I’d say, “That place, when I’m there I feel worthless and unimportant, just another number to add to the population, and they treat us like that. Even before the assault, it was like — ”

“You were assaulted?” He says, his eyes widening.

Waving the question off, I continue. “It’s not that I want to quit writing, I just don’t feel like me anymore. Some days I just start crying for no reason.”

“That’s not true.” He says, the light playing on his forehead.

“What do you mean?” I respond, a little annoyance creeping up.

“You know why.” He answers. “You know exactly why. I know too.”

My eyes widen a little, I remember now. It was around that age that they started. “Have you ever felt like…uhm.” I make a swishing gesture in front of my throat.

“Maybe once.” He says, avoiding my eyes. “You?”

“Yeah, a lot.” I respond, my head down. “But Peter, our family…”

“Do they even care about us, why would you be bothered?” I can imagine him saying, the anger there to veil the hurt and also the longing for a sense — no matter how small — of home.

“They do, especially our mother, I know it’s rough now for you but we’ve started talking and well, I understand better.”

He laughs a bitter laugh. “Even after everything? Did you forget when — ”

I show him the scar on my forearm. “I didn’t.”

The silence rushes in to fill the vacuum that has just been created.

I lean back on my chair. “We weren’t the best to her though.”

“Yeah,” He says, “we were troublesome sometimes.”

“Very.” I say. “And she was going through a lot on her own too.”

“So, we’re talking with our mother and we have more breakdowns, what else?” He asks.

“Oh, I draw now.”

He stares at me with a puzzled expression. “But we don’t know how.”

“We really don’t but we start learning day by day and our work starts to look better.” I tell him. “I’m even thinking of having my own exhibition one day when I’m really good.”

“So that’s it, you’re giving up becoming a writer for that?” He says, his eyes fixed on the painting.

“No…” I say.

He turns to me as he searches my eyes, “Oh, that’s not it, is it? You just want to give up and call it quits. And then do what?”

I give a sad smile, “I don’t know, just exist and then see what happens.”

“Have these years really been that bad?” He asks.

“Yup.” I say. “I feel better on some days, but on others, like this, I just feel off. This isn’t me.”

“We have lots of friends, can’t you just talk to one of them?”

“Yeah…about that, most of them don’t really care about us and along the way we only have, like what? Four — maybe five people close to us we can trust. It could be six but Pearl doesn’t want to admit that Doctor Who is the best show ever.”

“Pearl? Who’s that?” He asks, rolling the name on his tongue.

“Someone we care about. But yeah, it’s not their problem to deal with. It’s ours, and we have to pull through somehow. They have their own lives with their own issues. And then, Zary has a son now.”

“Wait, what!” He shouts leaping from the chair.

I stand too, moving towards the painting. “Nah, I’m just playing with you.”

He stares daggers at me and then follows my eyes to the painting that hangs delicately on the wall.

“It’s one of my favourites here, you’ll like it too, in time.” I say, answering his unspoken question.

He stares in admiration. “It is beautiful.”

“It is.”

He turns to me. “Okay, I don’t know how bad things are now and why you sound like a Ted Dekker book but — ”

I chuckle. “Ted Dekker, nice one.”

He gives a smug smile. “Yeah, thanks, I thought of it just now.”

He turns back into the painting. “I can’t pretend to understand how you can feel right now but we started all this so long ago because it helped. Not anyone else but us. Writing, creating, it felt like — ”

“Home.” I complete for him. “It felt like home, somewhere we belonged. A space for just us, no one else. A spot where we felt understood.”

“Where we weren’t judged.” He adds.

I smile a bit. “Our own private world.”

“I may sound like I’m being optimistic and flowery but this creating thing is us. It makes us happy and you can’t just give it up no matter how hard it gets. Then what was the point? We might as well have just blended into the crowd and not bothered in the beginning. We’re all special, and we all bring these amazing gifts to the world, and it’s our responsibility to show them, to bring them to life.”

“To plant them,” I say.

“To water them.” He says.

“And let them grow. No matter what.” I say, reciting old words made indelible in both our hearts, my eyes glued to the painting, the tears falling softly on my cheeks like they had been waiting to appear. I sit on the ground, my knees in front of me. “But it’s so hard sometimes. It’s so hard to even do anything, not to talk of write. Some days, I just lay there, staring at the ceiling or my damn phone.”

He comes to the ground and sits with me. “These problems didn’t begin for us in a day and I have this feeling they won’t end in a day. But how about we just try, a little bit everyday to feel better. To allow ourselves feel better. I think we deserve it, don’t you?”

His words hit my ears and there’s a cord inside me that’s strung. Just like how we’re learning to draw, little by little, day by day. It’s a curious thought, learning to live better. But curiosity is what led us here, no?

“The painting we’ve been looking at,” he points. “What does it mean?”

The colours are splashed all around the large rectangular canvas, but in thin layers so the texture seeps through. The bright reds and blues mingle together like lost lovers searching for their pair in criss-crossing chaotic patterns. The pale yellows are splashed on the canvas as if trying to escape and are joined by greens and warm purple tones reigning them back that provide the greatest contrast. When you’re standing close to the painting, it makes no sense whatsoever, in fact, it resembles the work of a four-year-old left to play with brushes. But when you take a few steps back, the red, blue and white tones suddenly look like wings, with a green tail to match. The purple tones turn into a beak shape and just like that, before your eyes, the painting is a bird, a beautiful majestic creature made from all the chaotic brushstrokes, that individually had no real meaning. It’s a painting that turns these ugly marks, into a stunning whole image of a bird flying upwards, perhaps for eternity, towards the sky, fulfilling its nature.

I look at the younger version of myself and smile a little.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.