We had grown up together behind the same high walls. Living in houses that were next to each other, the size of his home made the inadequacy of mine blatantly evident. His father was a pastor and his mother a pastor’s wife and, as an only child, his first friendship had been with isolation. Mamma worked inside his house. Always busy cooking and cleaning, she couldn’t provide the company he yearned for. He and I being age mates, it was not long before this lonely boy was guiding me into his house with the hope of kindling a friendship. But this was to become a hindered occurrence. His father’s devoutness was archaic. Mamma was the only black person allowed into their house. His father made it known that I was no exception.
So, Oscar and I began to play outside. Far enough away from the house to keep our friendship secret, we spent many afternoons under the flamboyant trees at the bottom of the garden. However, like clockwork everyday as the night sky began to creep over us, there would be a call from his mother. Summoning Oscar inside, it marked the end of our time together for each day. We would then make our way back to our houses. Letting Oscar go ahead, I’d often stop outside his and sit on top of a rock that gave me a clear view into their dining room. From there I’d watch as his father—who always had a Bible with him—would make Oscar memorise verses. Struggling to remember the long sentences, his worried expression would then go dark, disappearing behind the curtain as his mother pulled them across his face. After this I would hear the sounds of his father’s shouts and Oscar’s cries. Running home, I remember cursing our fate and wishing that it was not tied to this place, so that one day we might free from it.
As if there really was a God out there, at the age of six I began going to school. Reminding me that there, in fact, wasn’t, Oscar did not. While he was taught at home by his mother I’d escape the high walls that were “built to keep out native thieves” as Oscar’s father had once told him. Though even as a child, it always seemed to me that they did more work to keep Oscar in. So it was the case that when I used to return from school Oscar always made it a point to see me. If his father was still at church and his mother out, he would habitually try to convince me I wouldn’t get into trouble as I waveringly snuck into his house. Once we had made it in, the risk always felt worth it. Oscar would show me his story books. His favourite, a tale about magical children who had no parents and lived in a place where they would never have to grow up. Not having all the books Oscar did, I’d then share with him the stories that my Mamma had told me, my favourite being the ones of the clever tortoise who against all odds would always make it out as the winner.
And then came that day before I was to make my final and permanent escape. A fortnight before that fateful afternoon, as the top earning student in English in my district, my teacher had successfully nominated me for a scholarship to go and study abroad. I knew this would have not been the case if it wasn’t for Oscar and our friendship. This had made it difficult for me to tell him that I was leaving. So, I had put off breaking the news to my friend that he was to be reacquainted with loneliness until it was unavoidable. On the day before my departure, Oscar’s father had been officiating a wedding and his mother watched my Mamma who was busy in the kitchen. With his mother home, the house was a no-go area and so we took refuge under the flamboyants. Now eighteen, our companionship had grown over stolen and secret time. Lying on our stomachs with our feet in the air, he was half-heartedly memorising verses while I listened, when he muttered how he has something very important to ask me.
As Oscar looked up from his Bible, I noticed how he had grown. His skin, no longer pale, had darkened during our time under the hot sun. His smile was beautiful but sort of sad. And whilst he had now perfected his ability to recite Bible verses I would still sometimes hear shouts and cries behind thick curtains and the newly installed burglar bars.
“Your Mamma told me you’re leaving tomorrow. She told me you got selected to study at a college in England?” he asked looking at me.
“I am. I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said avoiding eye contact.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked disappointedly.
“Because I didn’t know how to,” I said. He didn’t respond. Succumbing to his gaze the words, “Because I’m going to miss you,” bolted out from my mouth.
“But I’ve got to get out of here though. This isn’t Neverland.”
“I don’t want you to go,” he said, in the moment looking more like a lost boy than the young man he now was.
“Come with me!” I said naively. He laughed.
“I’m afraid my future is tied up in the Church, I’m supposed to be a pastor here, and I’ll probably never leave, just like Father.” He began to look away.
I knew there was truth in what he had to say and at that moment I wished I was Peter Pan. But ours was never going to be a fairy-tale friendship. I remember thinking this as I leaned over his Bible and I pushed my lips against his and felt him smile. Under the shade of the flamboyant tree, inside the high walls of the compound where we had grown up, we kissed each other.
“Oscar! Oscar! Time to come inside, Father is back! Oscar!” his mother shouted, interrupting our embrace. He then quickly got up, picked up the Bible and began to run up through the garden to the house without saying a word. That was the last I was to see of Oscar until much later in life.
Well, the days turned quickly into nights as weeks do into months. I soon found myself in a grand place with a library that I think Oscar would have loved. Three years was not enough to read as much as I’d have liked, so I stayed and studied further. In what felt like a short space of time I began lecturing, often about stories, ones that weren’t kept in the pages of books but were like the myths that I had once told Oscar, which had come from my Mamma’s magical mind. In fact, it was not long after I had started working when I had saved up enough for Mamma to move to England to join me.
During this time I did not return to my home. The government had lacked the funds to offer an opportunity of employment with the benefits equal to the ones I was receiving as a lecturer. Moreover, I lacked the inclination, for much like my knowledge had grown, so had my love of men. I had come to understand that had I not left all those years ago, I would have grown up to be declared immoral and illegal.
But, I never forgot Oscar, who had stayed behind, who would always stay behind. On Mamma’s arrival when I asked her about him, she told me how before she had left, Oscar’s father had fallen ill. Having escaped not just the law’s persecution but Oscar’s father’s racist religious beliefs I had very little interest in hearing about this man who had been such a strain on mine and Oscar’s childhood. Instead, my mind, as it had done time and time again, turned to Oscar. She said a lot had changed for him, yet it sounded that a lot had stayed the same. Due to his father’s deteriorating health Oscar had taken over his role as Pastor, as he said he would. Time had indeed passed, and yet all that had changed had been foreseeable.
Ten years after I had left I was offered the chance to temporarily return to where I was born and raised. The education minister had asked if I would be willing to volunteer to train government teachers. Despite the danger I knew my sexuality might place me in, a chance to give back to the community that had raised me was worth returning for a month. Almost befitting a fairytale, I was housed and worked at the school I had once been a student at.
Returning felt as if I had journeyed in a time machine. The buildings looked like they did when I had walked through their corridors as teenager. The time machine journey affected me too as feelings of angst revisited me. Filled with an unease which did not dissipate, I had little time to acknowledge it during the first fortnight. When I finally had a free afternoon, it drove me back to my childhood home, back to Oscar.
My black self made my way through the gate and into the high walls. I found Oscar’s father lying on a wicker chair on the veranda. He was thin and looked at me through thick glasses. The last ten years and his sickness had taken its toll on his body. Before either of us had said anything Oscar appeared by the open door. He had also lost weight and looked tired but his smile was the same. His eyes widened with recognition as he said:
“Chimwemwe, is that really you?”
“In the flesh.”
“What are you doing here? I mean, why you didn’t tell me you were here. Come inside.”
I walked into the house and to the living room, happy to shake off the feeling of a pair of old eyes burrowing into my back.
“How are you?” I said enthusiastically, as I sat down.
“Much the same as I was when you left all those years ago. You look well, heard you’ve done very well for yourself,” Oscar said without resentment in his voice.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I said, angry with myself about how the truth sounded awkwardly rehearsed as it left my mouth. I then grew further self-conscious as I watched a black woman in uniform walk into the room, silently place a tray on the table with tea cups and then leave.
“Yes you could, you were always smarter than me, even though you had a lot less than I did.”
“That’s not true.” I lied. “You have done well for yourself here as well, you’re a pastor now! Why don’t you show me around, it’s been years, how are the flamboyants?” I asked pointedly.
“I had them chopped down,” he lied. “Anyway, I’m rather busy, I’m getting married in a week, didn’t you know?” he continued deliberately.
“No. No, I did not know that,” I responded slowly. He was well aware that I could not have known.
“She’s lovely, Father likes her very much,” he said as if to add insult to injury.
“Who is she?” I asked. In hindsight, I now see that I had been hooked for information about a state of affairs that Oscar had so purposefully shared to push me away. A subtle rebuke that was both loving and for self-preservation is how I sometimes think of it as I replay the conversation in my head.
“You wouldn’t know her; she is one of Mother’s friend’s daughters.”
“Is she good to you?”
“She is; she’s stuck here like me.”
Taken aback by his despondency, I asked, “Is it what you want?”
“It’s what I must do. But what about you, do you have a wife?”
“I’m afraid you’ve beaten me to it, marriage that is. As for a wife, I don’t think I’ll ever have one of those.”
The woman returned with a teapot and placed it on the tray and left.
“That kind of talk will land you in jail around here, or worse, get you killed,” he said looking at me gravely, yet knowingly.
“Marriage can be just as deadly!” I joked in a failed attempt to inject some humour into the conversation that had turned serious.
“Well, I must get going,” he said abruptly getting up. “There is a lot to sort out. I’m sorry, but you did show up unannounced, come to the wedding though, if you are still around.” He handed me an invitation. “You know the way out.” And with that, he disappeared into the kitchen as steam wistfully left the spout of the warm teapot. I walked out the front door in a bit of a daze, taking no notice of Oscar’s father as I left. Once out the gate I made quick work of the journey back to the school.
During the last fortnight of my stay Oscar did not see me again. I had walked to the Church on the day of his wedding. Outside, I caught a glimpse of him and his new wife. He looked handsome in his suit and his new wife looked like a good woman, if a bit pale. I then turned back to the school before I gave anyone the chance to notice me. On the day I left I was driven past those high walls and remember thinking Oscar was destined to spend his whole life behind them. As much as I would have liked to have stopped and seen him to offer my begrudged congratulations, my heart would not let me. I still wonder if I had known that was my last chance to speak to Oscar again, would I have asked the driver to pull over. But I did not. So once more, in very different circumstances I left Oscar, failing to say goodbye.
Five years passed before I was asked to train a new set of teachers. This time I travelled back with my Mamma. When she decided that we both ought to visit Oscar and his family there was little that I could do to persuade her otherwise. It was late afternoon when we drove over. Hooting at the gate my Mamma admonished me and told me to open it myself. She always did think the house and the land it was built on was as much hers as the people who had tasked her to look after it. God knows she knew it better than most.
Mamma and I walked to the veranda, which was bare. There was an uncomfortable quietness that made me wonder if anyone was at home, or even lived there anymore. Then as if my thoughts had been heard there was a baby’s cry. Out from the kitchen into the corridor, came the face of the pale woman I had once seen in a wedding dress. She was drawn and tired. Mamma being Mamma walked up and swung open the fly door, introducing herself and then me as I stood outside looking down at the garden. I heard them talking as they both moved to the room where the baby was still crying. Still standing outside, I had been pinned to the spot; my eyes searching the garden that was now overgrown as if it had been forgotten.
Mamma returned with the pastor’s wife and her baby. They both had glazed eyes as if they had just had heard tragic news. Taking a moment, Mamma explained to me about how Oscar’s father had died about nine months ago. I was surprised he had lasted even that long, though I did not say this. Mistakenly, I thought this had been the reason that they had returned in such a sombre mood. But Mamma continued, telling me how his death was shortly followed by Oscar’s. He had contracted a virus which they could not treat.
I didn’t cry just then. Mamma suggested we go and visit their graves at the Church. I listened intently as Oscar’s widow explained how, when it became clear that he was not going to get better, he had written where and how he was to be buried. She told us that against the wishes of the Church Oscar had been buried here, in the garden. It was only then, when I had walked down through the unkempt grass and arrived at the concrete slab underneath the flamboyant trees that tears came to my eyes. The headstone was simple, made of cement that had been mixed with too much sand; it had already begun to wear around the edges. At its centre was a wooden plaque that had been engraved with the words:
Here lies Oscar
Father, Husband and Friend.
Underneath this was not a verse, as was religious tradition, but what looked like the words of praise song, that read:
Sing songs in the shade of the crimson canopy
Holy tree, holy tree, holy tree.
Scribbling these on a scrap piece of paper I had in my pocket I dried my tears and said goodbye to my first love. Returning to the two mothers, and then back to the school, I left Oscar inside the high walls that we had grown up behind for the final time.
Nigel Patel (B.Soc Sci) is a student activist from Malawi. An organizer in the Trans Collective and Shambhala Scholarship recipient for queer leaders, Nigel identifies as gender queer and uses they them pronouns. They are a senior editor of Altum Sonatur, the University of Cape Town’s official Law School magazine. They have also written for several different platforms which include Afropunk and UCT’s SAX Appeal. Their particular areas of interest are race, sexuality and gender.