My bedroom floor is littered with the contents of my school bag. My uniform is crumpled on the chair. The alarm stops chirping when I throw my phone against the sunshine yellow wall.
Twenty minutes later, I have to jump over the chair to get out of bed. There’s barely any space between the dresser and the door. No time for a shower so I pick up yesterday’s musty ball of tights. A tentative sniff confirms that they’re acceptable for the day. I stretch my legs through the cheap black material, toes pointed like a ballerina, but when the front door bangs my big toenail snags on an old cigarette burn. Suddenly the bed grows larger and larger in my eyes as I trip over and bang my shin on the ground.
‘Fucking hell,’ I shout and kick the floor for good measure.
‘Don’t talk like that in my house,’ Uncle Creon shouts back.
Shit. I assumed he’d just gone to work. I want to yell that it’s not a house, it’s a shitty little council flat, and I can swear as much as I bloody well want to. But there’s no time for another argument this morning. Anyway, it’s Ismene’s fault. My sister clearly decided to go to school without me. She’s always desperate not to get in trouble.
Walking into the kitchen with my backpack hastily stuffed with books, I realise my school jumper is on backwards.
‘You’re going to be late. Again,’ Uncle’s muffled words float through as I pull the jumper over my ears to correct it. ‘I didn’t work hard to get you a scholarship so you could learn to swear like a thug.’
‘It’s not my fault that the only role models in this area are thugs,’ I reply.
‘Monkey see, monkey do, eh?’ Uncle says, raising an eyebrow to the ceiling. ‘Anyway, I’ll write you a note. We need to talk.’
He puts down his piece of toast and scratches his head. Bright white crumbs against the dark grains of his close shaven scalp. He refuses to look directly at me as he speaks. He boils the kettle, gets the tea bags out and searches for the milk.
‘I’ve just had a call. It’s your brother. There’s no point in beating around the bush.’ Uncle Creon won’t stop moving as he speaks. He stirs his tea and slurps big gulps as I stare, trying to catch his eye. ‘He’s dead.’
Surprisingly the cups don’t fall off the shelf and slam themselves into the black and white tiles. The world doesn’t break.
‘How?’ I ask.
‘A fight or something. You know what he’s like. He probably asked for it. Now get to school. Your education is the most important thing. I just thought you ought to know.’
Uncle Creon tries to leave the room and go about his day but I stagger around in front of the kitchen door, like Philoctetes searching for the snake that bit him.
‘What are we going to do?’ I ask, jutting out my chin and shaking my braids so they fall down my back. ‘Do we need to plan the funeral?’
‘I’m not wasting money on a funeral for him. The prison will deal with it. We don’t need more stress.’
He finally stops and looks at me but his eyes are hard. I know that there’s no point in arguing with him so I pull on my shoes and make sure to slam the front door behind me, wishing his face is trapped in it.
I can’t sit through History. A war in Africa. Rommel. German fronts. Everyone seems surprised at a European war being fought in Africa. They assume that the world bypasses the continent, which must have always been preoccupied with poverty so it could not enter politics. I know better than my classmates because I’ve seen it. I know Nigeria isn’t all mud huts and starving children. My friends emit an excited yet mistrustful squeal as I assure them that yes, there are skyscrapers in Africa. A continent not a country.
We used to drive over the Lagos lagoon in a shiny jeep, calling to men standing by the side of the road to bring us sweets. We bartered down their prices before giving them a tip. After my parents died my brother took me to the market to get sweets. We could no longer afford the shiny jeep or the attention of hawkers who would run up to it. I wondered if we were like them now. The men and children who stood by the roadside wearing stretched out, faded t-shirts and balancing trays above their heads. But Polyneices told me it wasn’t too bad. We were going to England to live with an Uncle who could take care of us. Just because our parents were gone didn’t mean that we were finished. We’d have a new life, a better life, in England.
I ignore the rest of the lesson, using my phone to search what to do when an inmate dies. As if a narrow rectangular box on a website could give me answers. After a few results, I find the email address of the Family Liason Officer at the prison. She tells me that they can give you three thousand pounds for a funeral. She wants me to meet her.
When the lesson ends for lunchtime, I find my sister. She’s sitting in the playground with her friends, kneeling on the grass by the bushes. They all look up as I stride over to them. They’re clearly surprised. Older girls like me barely bother to speak to the youngers. My rolled-up skirt, smudged eyeliner and the smell of smoke distracts them from swapping wristbands – their latest fad.
‘Come. I need to talk.’ I say to Ismene, jerking my head over my shoulder.
She pretends to put up a fight, saying that she wants to linger with her friends for a moment longer, but she knows that she doesn’t have a choice. I drag her over to the large rhododendron bush in the furthest corner, near the loos.
‘We need to go. It’s Polyneices. I don’t know how to tell you but I might as well spit it out… He’s dead. We need to go to the prison and see if we can get his stuff. We need to know what’s going on.’
She blinks up at me, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. She’s as small for her age, as I am tall. She’s always been the cute one. Uniform ironed. Hair brushed into two little buns. School shoes polished.
‘I c..c..can’t,’ Ismene stutters. ‘I’ve got Latin after lunch and we have a vocab test.’
I stare her down, shocked. Is she completely stupid?
‘Is a vocab test more important than our brother? It doesn’t even matter, you’re only in Year 7.’
‘I…I need to go back to my classroom,’ she says, balancing on one leg so she can scratch her left ankle with her right foot.
‘You need to support your family.’ I say grabbing her by the shoulders.
‘You know Uncle wouldn’t like it if we went to the prison,’ she whispers. ‘He never let us visit when Poly was alive. Why should we now he’s… gone?’
I tear the leaves off the bush, sprinkling the bits of green over the path. She rubs her hands together in front of her face and turns longingly towards the door to her classroom.
‘Fine.’ I give up. ‘But don’t come crying to me when you realise what you’ve done.’
For the rest of the afternoon, I bunk off of school and get the bus to the prison. When I’m finally allowed in, the waiting room smells like bleach and soapy water. Finally, I meet the Family Liaison Officer, who tells me her name but I call her FLO. She looks exactly like how the pristine, plastic corridors smell. Fake blonde. Fake nails. Fake concern. Although I lied about my age, her pale face goes even whiter when she sees how young I look.
‘You’re An-ti-gone?’ she asks, sounding out my name with three syllables.
‘It’s pronounced An-tig-on-eee,’ I explain.
‘Oh, how exotic.’
Growing up in Nigeria people thought my parents were some sort of Western eccentrics. In England, a lot of people assumed they were common names, ‘where us lot came from’. English people think Nigeria is full of Antigone’s, Ismene’s and Polyneices’. Polyneices had it worst because he’s a boy. They’d call him Polly, like a girl or parrot. He wanted to change his name but, in the end, he didn’t bother and a name didn’t matter.
‘I expected you to come by weeks ago,’ she says. ‘But your Uncle seemed so distant when we spoke. The death certificate has been sent by post. I have his belongings. He didn’t have a will…’
‘He knew weeks ago?’ I interrupt her.
‘What? Oh, your Uncle? Yes, that’s right. Your brother requested to be cremated and your Uncle filled in the forms.’
My hand creeps to my hair. I start to pull out my braids, teasing the extensions from my natural hair at the roots. The pain of tugging at my scalp keeps me sharp and focused. She ushers me into her office, a small bland box barely big enough for a desk and two chairs. But I don’t want to sit.
‘Cremated? So where is he? I mean, his ashes?’ I ask, filling the awkward silence.
‘They’re waiting to be collected or interred,’ she says softly, flicking her blonde bob to one side and looking down at me in what she assumes must be a kindly manner.
‘Give me them. Now.’
‘I’m sorry, you can’t take them away like that,’ she says with a high-pitched false little laugh. ‘There’s a procedure. It’ll take at least two weeks.’
I plonk myself down in the bright blue office chair and start fiddling with the lever. I don’t know what to do. Having reassured FLO that I’m eighteen by showing my fake ID, I suddenly stop myself, remembering that I must act serious. Because I can’t wait two weeks. I can’t wait two days. I need them now.
‘I’ll start helping you with the paperwork. Here we go, let me just print this out. Request form…. Put your details at the top. I need to find out the name and address of the morgue where the ashes are waiting. Here we go, let me write it down here. Well done. Good.Good.Hmm.Hah.Yes.Yes,’ she rattles on.
‘So the morgue…where the body is…it’s not far,’ I remark, scanning the form in front of my face.
‘Oh no, it’s very close so it won’t take too long to process.’
I leave her with the forms to file and numbers to ring and emails to send off, but I keep the treasured address in my brain.
It’s dark by the time we’re together. I had to wait for hours before I could fake the papers and convince someone to give him to me. But now we’re together. Again. And I know where we have to go.
I sit on the bus as it wanders through Peckham and Camberwell. We go past chicken shops and fish and chips until we see authentic Italian style pizzas in the leafier streets of Croydon. Even though I haven’t been here in time I remember the long walk when we get off at the stop. Despite the rain we enjoy each other’s company as we battle through the cold wind. I tell him stories about school sports days and using my fake ID to drink at a gig and all the annoying things that Ismene’s been doing.
The gate is closed but it’s easy to climb over the cemetery’s fence and I use my phone as a torch to guide my way. It’s been three years since I’ve seen it but I know where it is without having to check. And I know what I’m doing even though they’ll pretend I shouldn’t be doing it. But there’s no denying this is where they both should be. Though they were both too young and they both shouldn’t be here.
I scatter small bits of sand at first, placing each part carefully upon the ground. Then I go faster, tipping it out, pouring it into the Earth. And as I put my dirty, cold fingers into my coat pocket, I read the gravestone and the chaos spills out but in orderly lines because now it all makes sense.
When a poor little black boy gave his younger brother a knife. And they both went to rob the shop down the road. They had to share in this, their inheritance from their father. And they were both destroyed, just as if that policeman’s gun was in the hands of Polyneices. But no matter what they did, what danger he led my brother into, he was my brother still.