All over my body these scars lie. Slowly, she passes her hands over them curious as to how I got them and so tenderly, I feel she wants to relive each experience with me. My skin sensitive lying back in bed, she runs her hands over my forehead, my arms, my legs, my chest, my body relaxed, tensing only as her hand reaches my midriff and the only scar which still hurts, even though it healed many years before. ‘How did I get which ones?’ I respond lazily.
There are some things that I feel have been with me since birth, like the mark on my head, even though I was four years old when it happened. It’s about an inch long, not very deep but right in the centre of my forehead and only really visible in good light, although I notice it every time I look in the mirror. It occurs before my conscious memory begins when I was young, feeble and unsteady. We were walking through the Highveld, an epic mountainous open patchwork of rolling grass and bush interspersed with boulders dotted all around, to have a swim. We worked our way through the greenery, over rocks and the occasional stream, cutting through overgrown paths with beating sticks, attacking shrubs all the way down the valley to the river. I suppose I had become worked up thinking of snakes, an irrational fear of a real and present danger I had throughout childhood. My sister said it was the thought of a snake that made me jump, jump up and slip, as a bird rustled in the bush behind me.
I have no memory of the fall but a picture in my mind of what I looked like just after it happened. It’s me standing hands on hip beside Mbabane river. I’m skinny as a reed, in dull red speedo’s on a big boulder, surrounded by more large stones. There is a rockpool in the middle full of fast running turquoise freshwater containing my sister treading water. The same pool where I’d escaped the grip of my ma and slipped on a wet rock while running from the wind. There I am, dried blood around the butterfly plaster on my head, sheepish looking. It could have been worse. I’ve lived with it ever since, this inch long imprint. Of course, whether that snap precedes the scar or not is academic, it was probably on a different occasion altogether, but after all these years, it is the image that sticks. Scar one.
We used to talk long into the night before we started seeing each other. These conversations I would wait for all day, even though after I was left with a longing, for more or to be closer. Even when the dialogue came to it’s natural end, we stayed on the phone for comfort’s sake. We were timid, two people at a narrow doorway waiting for the other to go through, too polite to take the first step until she breezed through stride strong. She was city bred and I was from the ‘burbs and the city had built her strong, tough enough to deal with the everyday grind, and plenty brave enough to take what she wanted. And for a moment that was me.
It is me, subtle faded miniature shades of brown and light brown arranged in a snakeskin pattern that pepper my inner forearm. They are hardly noticeable now unless you know, or are really looking, and she was. When it happened I realised that there hidden beneath my brown skin was a white skin. Aged seven I realised I was really many things. On top was mostly my one thing, but once you wiped away a layer and some melanin, was the other. The many things I’d come to terms with, looking one thing but being many.
The tree was as tall as the house. And Matthius challenged me. Looking up, I could see my route clear as day; I could scale this tree as fast as they fetched coconuts on the beach in Moz. I would even adopt their technique, shuffling up, knees tight to the tree, body in convulsion, worming up the tree. My friends’ naivety astounded me; not one branch of this tree would be a challenge.
I gloated from the top, my bravado at full volume, mocking those below. Triumphant, I made to come down the tree, shuffling slowly at first. As I neared the bottom, overconfidence and lack of experience combined. For my final flourish I embraced gravity, gripping the trunk tight with my arms, fingers of my two hands intertwined, legs loose, letting the weight of my body and gravity provide the momentum, forcing me down. I was down, smiling as I unwrapped myself from the tree. Smiling, my arms extended in front of me. Smiling still as I felt a tingle. Still smiling as I looked down at my arms speckled white with polka dots of blood and a clear liquid covering the inside of my forearms, crying. A few layers of skin were cleaned away. I screamed when it was sanitised and bandaged, but it never got more painful than the memory of my smug self, sitting pretty at the top of the tree. Scar two.
Before Fed coffee, and before Honest burgers, when the dealers used to kick it brazen outside KFC, we used to explore all the spots, dipping into the alternative worlds that defined her area. At the Ethiopian café, we sipped milky coffee and scooped up oily scrambled eggs cooked with green chilli and onion, and fava beans, topped with crumbly white cheese, egg and acerbic raw red onion. Late morning sunshine would drift across our table as it emerged over the train bridge. We’d rumble late into the night in the underground Colombian club, drinking weak imported beers out the bottle, pretending to know more Spanish than we did, chamo.
We’d kick out the backstreet pubs, after bickering with the old timers, and alternate between Maccie D’s and KFC on the way home. Or we’d get jerk chicken at the Jamaican spot by the station and if it wasn’t too late, we’d detour down Acre Lane to True Flavours for the best fried fish. The following day fry-ups at the greasy spoon used to promise recovery from a hangover, but the impression only ever lasted until the first, or second mouthful. There there was no fighting the waves of despair that arrived through the day. Once we even went to church, with her aunt and pals. It was a disaster, I almost fell asleep and everyone alluded to our marriage when really we were just celebrating a honeymoon, no commitment.
My legs are easily explainable. Football, every single one of them. Hundreds of games mapped upon my skin, untraceable blemishes that are progressively fading, in the same way as the memories of their creation. This most impressive cluster at the knee? Just a gathering of grazes crowned with a glazed patch of taut blister skin, all silky smooth and sustained while fighting for a chance to score. Across the back of my upper ankle, where football boots naturally end, are drastic cream lines, hypopigmented trails through my dark skin as if I’d been whipped repeatedly instead of a victim to a history of mistimed tackles. My shins pockmarked too, these expressive legs.
These scars were fun and games, the light-hearted moments, any one of which I would happily have relived. I mean, Somhlolo football stadium felt like the fanciest pitch in the world that time my brother played there when his high-school team got to the cup final. A few of us younger brothers ran on when we first arrived at the stadium, before the teams lined up. We had no idea about the artificial surface and we’d rolled around and rumbled about like it was like the highveld grass we were used to playing on. Days later I was still picking sand out of a scab on my knee while reminiscing about the best pitch in the world that punished the weak for losing their footing. Consider these scars a team, they have the same genesis, they were conceived under similar conditions to one love. Scar three.
The crash would be final, the separation clinical. The first sign of the unwinding of the rope was indiscernible, and so innocuous. I blame her friends. She was so open and I was so reserved, which was maybe why she fell for me and I loved her. I told her things in such confidence, the very first person to break down the barriers of distrust I had steadily been erecting. I thought if I kept a secret and blocked it from the world; if I told no-one then no-one would know. No-one would know and it wouldn’t have to have happened so I could absorb the loss sheltered, and all alone. Apart from my mother, I’d began to cut ties with all my family because it was unbearable to have to deal with this again, ever.
So when at the barbeque, literally infront of the bbq serving myself a budget burger patty, Ella’s flatmate asked if I had any other siblings, I looked at her stock-still. My heart started racing and blood infused with anxiety charged around my body. I shivered with nervous energy, and I felt like my brain would burst if I didn’t leave. I kept it moving. I left to get cigarettes, and on the walk there and back my spirit was spooked. After that I acted as I shouldn’t so that eventually she’d push me away. The end was unnecessarily drawn out and bitter and driven by pettiness. I never revealed it to her. I couldn’t reasonably explain that a comment over a barbeque had reassembled a wall that she herself had torn down, and this time she, along with everyone else, would be firmly outside it. It ended horribly.
By the time she finally reached my waist, I had exhausted myself talking and looking back, this slow-bleed break-up could have been avoided if I had just kept it confidential, as I had for the previous seven years. But, shit, the moment was pure, and while time has eroded sentiment for the charmed life I felt we lived at the time, sharing that blessed morning in bed will not be erased, no more than the memory of this seven inch taint that sits above my left hipbone.
Before then, I had no words to express my feelings because it was the first time translating vivid memory to speech. I had no words to say, no words to convey. It was the first time I’d put the experience into words and I thought I would struggle. Living through it was desperate, terrifying and so real. For years after all recollections were in high definition: emotions, fears, relief, dread and shock intact, which is one of the reasons I wouldn’t talk about it. I thought I could suppress it, and after years of practice I manage. Retelling the story for the first time was altogether different. It was an out-of-body experience. I see us lying on my orange duvet on the futon, barely clothed and stretched out on bed, her other hand on me lying close and mirroring each other, one hand supporting our head, eyes locked and legs intertwined in a tatty attic room in a north London flat, and me just talking, talking and talking.
We left Swaziland when my sister Umi finished secondary school, and went on to enrol to university in Leeds. I never really questioned why we left but while Umi and brother David breezed through the education system in Swaziland, I took it at walking pace and that wasn’t enough for my paros. They worried for me, so it was back to the UK, a place I had never lived but visited every year. We moved to a seaside apartment in Hastings. My mother insisted on being by the sea, where she had been raised, as she had never really reconciled with having lived in a landlocked country, despite all its natural beauty. My father remained in whatever job he was doing in Mbabane with the Swazi government and HIV/Aids programme along with my brother, then a musician, and my sister went to Leeds university. Probably because I didn’t settle into school immediately, she would try and visit as often as she could.
Sitting on the seafront out of earshot of our mother, the stories from Leeds were unbelievable, and exciting. On occasion, she would ask questions I knew were on behalf of my parents, who I would overhear fretting about me over the phone. I could only explain that it wasn’t bad, it was just taking time to adjust, mainly to the school. The barbs that students threw at each other, would have resulted in straight-out war in Mbabane. And directed at mothers too. I would have been more cautious, this is just something I wouldn’t have done. We laughed about this over and over, first me and Umi, years ago, and latter-day, us two in bed.
Thando, in Umi’s class, had insulted Mbongeni’s mother, and the smaller boy blows were laughed off and his anguished demands for an apology went unanswered. Thando, proud and arrogant, puffed his chest like a rooster and walked off bravado intact belittling the boy ‘you… little boy, can never make me apologise’. When the very next day at the school gates Mbogeni pitched up with his three older brothers, and a few other members of the wider Dumisa clan, Thando was speechless and seemingly doomed. He escaped a hiding that day only because the teachers confronted the older boys over loitering near school property. That evening, Thando’s mother took him to Manzini to apologise to the slighted boy, his mother and brothers, who were notorious for fighting in the city’s few nightclubs. There were just some lines you didn’t cross when it came to playground insults.
It was a new concept that verbal abuse wasn’t foreplay to a fight, and I was in trouble a few times for reacting violently to insults directed at my skin colour or my natty hair. I didn’t come off well from some of these dust-ups because some of my schoolmates came from families who could have challenged the Manzini colored boys no problem. It was after one of these scraps when Umi was visiting, that she decided to take me to visit her friends at the University of Sussex, to live something of the better life. So successful was our first trip, where we sat, ate and drank on the Brighton sea front with friends and strangers, it became something of a ritual when she visited for long weekends or bank holidays.
Tucked up along a little alleyway in the Laines, was a celebrated small basement club that hosted a weekly indie night. Once introduced to the nightclub by her friend Sarah she would try and coincide her trips down from Leeds to stay over on Thursdays. If I was lucky she travel out of her way and pick me up, further down the south coast. I hadn’t yet finished school and I looked young and was thin, but the club was accepting of fake id’s and a little charm, that Umi provided without needing to try. She loved to convulse around the dancefloor, dreads spinning all around, her head rotated manically, as if undergoing an exorcism, feet shifting like she was bopping to the tribal riddims at the village celebrations, back in the bush. It was on one of the journeys back from the night that I got the scar, this brutal reminder.
We left early that night. It was a late summer evening, where dusk descends close to midnight. The evening light was perfect, an indescribable mix of colours reflecting off the clouds, sat above a calm glistening sea. We followed the coast road through Newhaven, East Dean and Eastbourne, singing in a small blue Citroen Saxo, crooning along to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The problem started when the disc ended and the road curved around to a wide right hand bend. We were arguing about what next to listen to, she insisted on Beyonce and I wanted anything but. She had put her album in and I ejected the disc. As she leant over to her left to reassert control over the music, her right hand moved the steering wheel so slightly, but so slightly from a ten past the hour position back to noon.
From inside the car, the sound of collision was amplified to operatic volume as the wheel brushed the curb, even though it can’t have been hard. In that moment I was paralysed with fear, poised at top of a rollercoaster starting a steep descent. Stomach tossed, seconds later I was suspended weightless and powerless centimetres above my seat, before my consciousness, my world and the car carrying me crashed out around me.
I had a thin white T-shirt on, and my stomach bled. The paramedic, applying a few stitches and the dressing had said it was the result of the seatbelt too high across my lap, and it was partly a friction burn and partly laceration. At the hospital they had said that it was unlikely and probably a piece of debris that had been sandwiched as I doubled over and I thrashed about as the car decelerated. It’s a constant bugbear not knowing the provenance of the injury. I toyed with the bandage and wound endlessly. During nightsweats, in moments of hysteria, I would claw at it, frantically trying to discover what had caused it. I believed an object was embedded in my stomach that I needed to remove. Even before the stitches were out it was infected. It’s why it’s healed like it has, an unresolved twisted mess that I flinch at at any touch or discussion. I want it to disappear and I want it to reopen; I have a desire to forget the memory and prolong it simultaneously.
I read manuals about car crashes devoutly in the weeks following the accident, it’s about all I did, other than smoke weed in my bedroom and on the seafront, avoiding everyone. Searching for the whys and hows, seeking understanding as if it could change a thing. Like religion, I read the available literature repeatedly but instead of being offering answers I was offered questions, and I drowned in the multitudes of interpretations. The years following were a blur I couldn’t decode. Finishing school, going to college, and leaving to embrace the cloak of anonymity offered by London. The sheath that freed me from my past. My secrets would be mine alone until I told her as I told you.
Flying back down from the ceiling, orange duvet in full focus, and back with myself on the bed, embodying myself again, looking at her as my intensity dropped, I came to an arresting stop. She asked the question that brought it all crashing down, once again.
‘What about Umi’?
She is gone and I don’t want to talk about it. Scar four.