A journal of narrative writing.

By the end of Orientation Week, it became clear that Lipe would never have gotten along with Uzomma if they were in Nigeria. The reason itself being quite an irony: Uzomma was very Nigerian. She loathed the pepperless skewered meat, she raged against the glum autumn skies, she bemoaned the scarcity of African hair salons. At some point Lipe nearly asked her why she didn’t Google Norwich before applying for a Masters degree. But then again, England did that timeless thing Lipe had heard it did: levelled people. So here they were at the welcome party, a knot of bodies in the large hall, chargrilled chicken and white wine spread out on the buffet table.

“What is that?” Uzomma asked Lipe, pointing at a sculpture, a mass of matted steel that resembled airplane wreckage.

“Art, I guess.”

Uzomma said, “Crap,” and nothing else.

Surely she didn’t have anything against art too. Not with her floral print blouse and blue feather earrings, her box braids wrapped up like a giant donut. Not that it mattered. She was the only other Nigerian in Lipe’s class. Lipe liked that she spoke her mind. Liked her makeup free face that suggested a curbed vanity. Liked, most of all, the possibility of a friendship with her.

“Why are we still here when the good food has finished?” Uzomma asked.

“Try the wine. It’s not so bad.”

Uzomma laughed, her eyes focused somewhere on Lipe’s forehead, creating an unnerving effect. “Thanks but no thanks,” she said. “What are you doing tomorrow? I’m going to Poundland. You can come if you don’t have anything better to do.”

Lipe didn’t. They stood in a narrow aisle and examined canned food, chocolate and cutlery.

“It’s a lie! How can every single thing cost one pound?” Uzomma quickly placed a pack of Maryland biscuits in her shopping basket, as though a store assistant would appear and say it cost much more.

“Three tins of peanuts for one pound. Imagine,” Lipe said.

“Is it groundnuts that you’re calling peanuts?” Uzomma caressed a supersized Kit Kat reverently. “This goes for nothing less than one thousand naira in Enugu.” She nudged Lipe. “Won’t you buy anything?”

Lipe picked up a Dairy Milk bar; the lustre of its royal purple wrapping reminded her of Christmas. Uzomma signalled her to look to the right. She turned and saw a freckled girl no older than twelve in ridiculously short shorts. The girl ignored their stares.

Uzomma sighed with something close to resignation. “This country has no soul at all. That is the problem.”

Lipe shrugged, unsure what to say. While Uzomma invaded the next aisle, she replaced the Dairy Milk on the shelf and put a three-for-one-pound pack of baked beans into her shopping basket. She remembered her uncle’s words in Lagos: Don’t spend my money foolishly when you get there, do you hear? He expected her eternal obedience. He had, after all, employed her in his consulting firm and paid her school fees. Lipe agreed with all that he said, glad to be free of the life where she worked late hours to dispel the murmurs of nepotism.

They sat on the upper deck of the bus on their way back to campus. Uzomma slept with her mouth open. Lipe breathed against the frosted window. The red brick houses were small and similar, fringed by tidy hedges of flora that made her think, with some unease, of her uncle’s long driveway. She should have bought the Dairy Milk. It was just one pound. When the bus slowed down on Colman Road, Uzomma woke suddenly and clutched the shopping bags on her lap.

* * *

On days when Uzomma attended her prayer cell meeting, Lipe went to Debenhams and sprayed bottle after bottle of perfume on her wrists, her neck, and her cleavage, until she could no longer tell the fragrance notes apart. The walks on the stone- cobbled streets were calming. In Castle Meadow she stood on the plains and admired the quaint buildings below. Sometimes she went to Riverside. It was quieter there. Even the sleek boats that glided by had a desolate stillness to them. The cathedral dome crested the skyline ahead, gothic and majestic. She preferred to keep to the routes closest to the City Centre. She looked out for the large 50% off selected lines signs on store windows, although she never bought anything other than a snood or a beanie. It was easy, in the crowd of shoppers, to forget she was alone. At bus stops, in queues where people moved with lazy insouciance, she thought how much more chaotic Lagos bus stops were, how you matched the bus conductor’s aggression so you wouldn’t be mistaken for a Johnny Just Come, how everyone jostled and jumped on the bus when it arrived. Now she detested the solitude she once craved in the crush of sweaty bodies.

One morning in early January, she sat before a plate of scrambled eggs in the kitchen. It was her favourite room in the residence, with its high bay windows and pastel green flooring, so that she always felt calm though her fingers stung from the persistent chill. Her Canadian flatmate whose name she never remembered—Sophie or Sylvia—stood by the counter, midnight-coloured wisps of hair brushing against a soft jaw, grating what looked like pink cheese.

“Am I being neurotic or does the heating in here suck?” Sophie-Sylvia asked.

“Hmmm,” Lipe said. Her eggs tasted funny. It had to be the milk. She’d used fresh skimmed milk because there was no powdered milk in Tesco.

“Gosh! I can’t wait for summer,” Sophie-Sylvia went on. “My friend Penny said that last year there were ducks on the lake.”


“Yeah. She also said something about swans.”

“Really?” Lipe got up and went to the window. The lake glistened, serene and silvery, behind the foliage. Was that white thing floating there a swan? She was too far away to tell and she had never seen one anyway. She tried to recall what the student ambassador had said during the campus tour. The first thing that came to mind was his emphasis that technically the lake wasn’t a lake, but a “broad,” whatever that was. In summer, he’d added, bats darted between the trees at dusk. Lipe remembered Uzomma shuddering at the word “bats.” She remembered, too, that she herself had been irritated by the student ambassador’s proprietorial tone. He sounded as if he owned the entire lake and its surrounding woodland.

Sophie-Sylvia glanced at Lipe and laughed. “Oh no, you won’t see a thing now. In June or July maybe.” Sophie-Sylvia laid pink strips on two crumpets and placed the whole thing on a saucer. “Later!” she called out as she left the kitchen. Lipe exhaled.

In her room she revised her paper on The Case Against International Relief In Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. Midway she got stuck. She read The Daily Mail. She drew the lavender curtains further apart so the sprawling greenery would inspire her. It didn’t work. She texted Uzomma to ask if they could meet up. Uzomma didn’t reply. She got up and put on her coat.

It was strangely warm outside. Lipe squinted at the tepid sun. She turned to glance at Suffolk Terrace, at the apartments piled on one another, pyramid-style. With the steam soaring above the power chimney in the distance, it resembled a giant ocean liner at sea. It began to drizzle when she reached the lake. She felt goosebumps, hard as bath salts, rising on her arm. A poodle ran ahead of a grey-haired woman who waved at Lipe. She waved back and headed towards the treeless section of the trail. She had a clear view of the pier. It was low and narrow and didn’t stretch far from the shore. She observed the dull glint of something—a rainbow?—shimmering on the lake. She went closer to get a better look, stepping on the pier tentatively, avoiding the slits that sliced up the worn wood. At the edge she peered into the lake. The surrounding shrubbery reflecting inside gave her the feeling of staring at a world upended. A ripple distorted the image. She leaned forward and wished she hadn’t when she tottered for a terrifying moment, a swift duel between mind and body. It wasn’t immediately obvious which one won. Or perhaps it was, but she had regained her balance so it no longer mattered.