Read time: 12 mins

The Brief Life of a Beautiful Thing

by Fui Can-Tamakloe
11 July 2022

1. Don’t Worry About a Thing

Today begins with anticipation and reggae.

Seven am. The last time I was up this early was before the pandemic, and I hadn’t yet lost my job. I turn on the shower and rub some soap into a sponge. I am smiling. The messages play over and over in my head, as Musical Youth tell me to pass the dutchie pon the left-hand side.

Invigoration seeps into my skin as the cold water hits my low-cut head and flows down my neck. There was a time when the descent of the water would have been slowed down by locs, but those days are long gone. There’s little hair on my head now, and I appreciate this every time I am underneath the shower. I am in good spirits. Bob Marley tells me not to worry about a thing because everything is going to be all right. I believe him.

Mama smiles as I come out of my room all dressed up. She’s barefoot, clothed modestly with a cloth wrapped around her body and secured firmly underneath her armpits, humming while she irons clothes for work. Maintaining her knowing smile, she watches me like a hawk, her eyes flitting from my head to feet, trying to find something to comment on. She approves of my outfit because no comment escapes her lips. I’m wearing white all over my body—a crop top, shorts and sneakers. I look like the boy next door, who’s slutting up for a celebration—maybe a naming ceremony or a wedding. You know, the one from the movies who ends up with the girl because he’s always been there.

The glint in Mama’s eye is mischievous, and the corners of her mouth quiver as she tries to hide her smile. ‘Who is the person who has made my daug…pardon me, my son, wake up so early?’ She laughs. ‘Where are you off to?’ comes the playful follow-up.

Mama’s slip is a force of habit, but her immediate rectification is from a place of acceptance. I plant a soft, rewarding kiss on both her cheeks. She smells like baby powder and shampoo.

Out, Mama. I’m going out, I half-sing, half-speak. I am in good spirits.

‘Do you have your keys?’ she calls out as I walk towards the door. I grin and pat my pockets. The keys jingle.

2. Are you Usually this Early to a Date?

The sun burns like a punishment. I walk across the dusty streets of Nyaniba carefully. There’s a proverb about a man being very careful once he wears a white shirt. I am walking this way because of my white clothes and also because I am nervous. I was confident before leaving the house, but I am anxious now. She’s called Nina, and she is the reason why my stomach feels like a room full of flying termites. Nina likes boys and girls, enjoys good food, great books and travelling. I know all of this from her bio and the pictures she has on her profile. She’s been to fifteen different countries. Fifteen. I was born in one without consent and have seen another by a mistake that involved me taking the wrong bus. The only people I know who travel often are rich. Is Nina one of those people?

I haven’t had a job in a year; what if the place we are supposed to meet at is one of those high-end places? It’s a café that isn’t too far away from my home, but somehow, I’ve never been here before. A café being expensive is not a rarity in Accra. Everything here is ridiculously expensive, and I know this because most of these prices make me laugh out loud like a really bad joke. Funny. Not funny. I didn’t think this through. Behind the nerves, I know I am also excited. Nina is pretty, and she’s funny too. Somehow, I don’t think today will go badly.

‘Are you usually this early to a date?’ she asks with a chuckle. She’s wearing a short sundress that looks like it’s one good draft of wind away from relinquishing its hold on her body. She looks so stunning. I feel the termites in my belly enter a frenzy, as if someone turned on a light. I like how she spots me immediately. Never mind that I’m the only other customer in the café. Never mind that I’m dressed up in white like a flag of truce or surrender.

‘Coming to places early helps me relax,’ I tell her. She’s almost as early as I am.

‘Ah yes, you introverts.’ She flashes me a smile. It’s the kind of smile that puts you immediately at ease. It’s so beautiful that I smile back in appreciation. Thank you for shining such radiance on me, my smile says.

‘Anyway,’ she glances at the time on her phone, ‘this just means we have a few more minutes to find out if we can spend the day together.’

We talk for hours.

3. These Club Sandwiches Suck

At noon, the waiter shows up at our table for the sixth time to ask if we will order anything. His face is tight, and his question is pointed, and so I finally decide on a club sandwich and soda while Nina gets an iced tea. We now know enough about each other to be certain the day will go well. Nina tells me how she affords her travel: her dead father pays for it.

‘He wrote some songs for a few British singers when he was alive. Royalties, that’s how I get his money.’

She tells me about a protracted legal battle with his estate when her father, who she hadn’t seen since she was eight, died. Nina and her mother won against a supposed girlfriend and a conniving manager.

‘It’s not a lot of money, to be honest, but it comes regularly, and it’s free. It’s the least he can do after abandoning us. Now I live my dream; I travel and take pictures.’

Photography. That’s what Nina actually does. And from the pictures she shows me on her Instagram, she’s damn good at it.

The club sandwich comes, and it tastes like shit. Nina bursts out laughing when she sees my face turn after I take a bite into the sandwich.

‘Yeah, these club sandwiches suck; I wanted to warn you, but I didn’t want to come across as a snob. Besides, you’re the one who doesn’t live far away; you should have known that this place is only good for the ambience.’

I give up on the sandwich after three bites because the taste doesn’t get any better. We talk about life and living it, Accra and how small it is. Nina tells me a story about how she slept with this woman one time, and she turned out to be the auntie of an ex-boyfriend. Then comes another story about how she had gone to a cousin’s wedding and realised she knew the groom from an orgy in Kumasi. She has stories for days, and listening to her narrate them is enthralling. When she tells a story, she reminds me of a kente weaver. Have you ever watched a kente weaver work? The way she moves from plot twist to plot twist is just like the weaver’s shuttle which moves as rhythmically, like a conductor guiding an orchestra of coloured threads to create the fantastic symphony that becomes kente. I am captivated. I want to ask her questions about sexuality, but I’m not sure how to bring them up. I’ve learned that in Accra some things are better intuited. Anyway, she’s here with me, isn’t she? That’s what matters.

A cloud hides the sun, and the world turns grey. A gentle wind blows. Nina looks at me curiously.

‘I want to buy some books for the plane ride. Do you know any bookshops around?’

4. Don’t Let Me Walk Out of Here with More Than Two Books

It is a quick walk from the café. It’s tucked between a bakery and one of those shops that sell electronic goods. The old man who owns it waves us in and goes back to dozing. Outside, the world smells like fresh bread and butter. Castro croons from a huge, worn out speaker in front of the electronics shop. He’s talking about a woman’s back and front, telling her in Fante that he loves what she’s doing.

All the books in this small shop had previous owners. Sometimes I wonder what they are doing now or whether they miss their books. To me this place is home. To Nina this place is heaven. Surrounded by books, her excitement grows. Halfway through reading the blurb of a book, she turns to me earnestly and says, ‘Don’t let me walk out of here with more than two books.’

I pick a book about a hermit trying to find purpose in life. I feel like the writer wrote it for me. Nina reads the blurb and laughs.

‘You’re the hermit, huh? A hermit that goes on breakfast dates,’ she winks. There’s a tightness in my chest that feels insanely pleasant.

Nina holds up an old, dog-eared Achebe book. She looks wistful.

‘You know I met him once? At a literary festival in Lagos. I read out one of my poems during the programme, and he happened to be in the crowd. Later when I went over to greet him, guess what he said? He said he loved my poem.’

She puts Arrow of God into the crook of her arm. Book one, down.

We bought six books before we left the shop. Me holding my book about a hermit, and Nina holding two books, with three stuffed clumsily in her handbag because she refused a plastic bag. We stand aimless outside the bookshop. Praye is singing through the speaker, trying to convince a lover to tell them what her problem is. It’s the late 2000s again. I tap my feet to the song. Nina calls an Uber.

5. Well, We Aren’t Fucking Now

‘Are you hungry?’

I think of the wasted club sandwich. I tell her I am.

‘Good, I know a place that has good food.’ The cheeky glint in her eye tells me she hasn’t forgotten the club sandwich either. I want to chuckle, but I’m too busy thinking about how the day hasn’t ended yet. We agreed that if we both failed to pass the vibe check, breakfast would have been it. The tightness in my chest comes back. I like this feeling.

Over attieke and grilled tilapia, Nina asks me if I like avocados.

‘Answer well oh; this is a test.’

I tell her I’d rather eat glass. She puts on a straight face as she looks me dead in the eye and says,

‘Well, we aren’t fucking now.’

I nearly choke on my attieke. Nina bursts out laughing melodiously.

The waitress clears our table, and Nina pays for our food.

‘I hope you don’t mind. I want this to be my treat.’

I don’t mind at first, but I start to overthink why she’d offer to pay. Did I come across as poor? I try to shrug off these thoughts. I ask Nina why she is yet to mention that she writes poetry.

‘Write poetry?’ she asks, puzzled.

I recount the Achebe story. She looks a little uncomfortable.

‘It’s so interesting that I mentioned that. I normally don’t share that story.’

I grow quiet, not sure whether to press the matter or not.

‘I haven’t written poetry in years,’ Nina continues. She doesn’t explain; I don’t ask.

‘You know I haven’t even asked you what you do for a living,’ Nina comments. I shrug and tell her I’ve been unemployed since the pandemic started.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry. That must be terrible.’

I laugh. It actually hasn’t been so bad. After a month of getting used to not having anywhere to go during the day, I went back to my old love. Carving. I show her pictures on my phone. Nina stares at the pictures for a while. Then she looks at me. It’s the way she looks at me. It’s how I’ve been looking at her since she put her lips to her iced tea. It is longing.

6. You Make Me…

Nina’s small apartment in Bawaleshie is chaos. Below, the street is jammed with cars full of frustrated Ghanaians trying to get home. Inside, there are plenty of boxes and suitcases strewn across the bedroom and hall. Yet the apartment feels hauntingly empty.

‘It’s different this time. I travel a lot, but it’s different.’

Nina’s mother left Ghana a decade ago to spend her retirement in the UK. Now that she is battling cancer, Nina is leaving Ghana to live with her. She isn’t sure when she’ll get a chance to come back. She doesn’t even want to think about coming back because coming back will mean her mother has died. I hold her hand as I see sadness creep into her eyes. I offer to help her pack. She forces a laugh.

‘You don’t travel as much as I do if you don’t know how to pack within minutes. You’ll always miss your flights.’ Nina finds her Bluetooth speaker underneath a pile of clothes.

‘Here, you play. Let me judge your music taste properly.’

I sit on the carpeted floor because the bed is a heap of clothes. I go back to my reggae playlist from the morning. Horns wail as Lucky Dube’s Feel Irie starts to play. Nina chuckles.

‘Reggae, eh? I like it.’

‘I like you,’ I respond. There’s a little pause in the room, and then Nina asks if she can kiss me. I lean in to kiss her. It’s a nice, warm kiss. One of the few kisses I’ve actually enjoyed. I smile when it’s over. Nina smiles and then leans back in for another kiss. There’s a hunger to the kiss this time, and I start to panic. I know where this leads. I pull back a bit, and Nina senses it.

‘Are you okay?’ she asks, concerned. We are lying down on the floor, facing each other. The setting sun paints the room in an orange glow. I clear my throat as I come to the hard part. I tell her how I don’t particularly like sex. Nina laughs.

‘Don’t worry,’ she teases; ‘I told you we weren’t going to fuck, remember? You don’t like avocados.’

I laugh, relieved that she’s taken it well. She snuggles closer to me. We remain in each other’s arms, in silence. As if by design, Ria Boss starts asking us to hold hands in public, to tell the world that we want each other. Nina moves her lips close to my ear. As her breath warms the nook of my neck, I hear her whisper.

‘You make me want to write poetry again.’

7. It Definitely Is

My arms linger around her for longer than necessary, but Nina doesn’t mind. The Uber driver stares off into the distance, bored, waiting for me to say my goodbye so he can start his trip. I rub the small of her back, and she holds me tighter.

Today was perfect. I breathe the words into her ear like a secret.

‘Mm, almost perfect. You don’t like avocados.’ She pulls away from our embrace and looks at me. I see the light playing in her eyes. Mischief. I smile.

‘Thank you,’ she says quietly into my chest as she leans back into the hug. I hold her tighter. We know this is goodbye. We know we may never see each other again. We are okay with that. She lets go of me, and I plant a kiss on her forehead. She laughs.

‘Papa romantic,’ she teases. I open the car door and plop into the backseat. The driver starts the car. I turn to wave. She’s halfway out the gate to her apartment complex, silhouetted by the yellow glow of a tungsten bulb, one hand underneath her shirt for warmth, the other hand waving back.

In the back of the Uber, I think of the mayfly. An insect that lives a full life in a day. I think of impermanence and the beauty within. I wonder if Nina’s face can be carved into the small block of rosewood I’ve been saving, waiting for inspiration. The car meanders through the sleepy parts of East Legon, trying to find a back route to Nyaniba. The driver fidgets with the dial on the radio. In a serendipitous twist, Bob Marley wonders if this could be love, briefly, before the driver switches channels to a pastor preaching. As the pastor reads out prayer requests in a hoarse, tired voice, I continue to hum the Bob Marley number.

It definitely is, I answer.

About the Author

Fui Can-Tamakloe

Fui Can-Tamakloe is a fiction and film writer based in Ghana. In 2017, he co-authored Made in Ghana: A Collection of Short Stories. His poetry, short stories and articles have appeared both in print and online. He enjoys cold beers, great books and slow travelling. He writes in English and Ghanaian Pidgin.