Small Worlds

Caleb Azumah Nelson

July 17, 2023 
The following is from Caleb Azumah Nelson's Small Worlds. Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer, living in South East London. His short story, “Pray,” was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. His debut Open Water won the Costa First Novel Award, the British Book Award for Debut Fiction, was a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” and was named a best book of the year by TIME, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Library Journal, Lit Hub, and The Millions, among other places.

Since the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing, it only makes sense that here, following the shimmer of Black hands, raised in praise, the pastor invited us, the congregation, to pray, and we allowed that prayer to make space, allowed ourselves to explore the depths and heights of our beings, allowed ourselves to say things which were honest and true, God-like even. Allowed ourselves to speak to someone who is both us and the people we want to be, allowed ourselves to speak quietly, which is a call to give up the need to be sure, and ask, when was the last time we surrendered? When was the last time we were this open? And before we could try to answer, the drums start off, sudden and sure. A thick bassline follows, getting to the heart of things. The pianist plays secret chords from the soul. And before the intro is done, the choir magic themselves to the stage, and there’s a microphone in hand, and a grin as the leader steps down, singing her prayer: I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame. She sings these words, knowing that if we’re in this room, then we’ve probably known sorrow, probably known shame. We know death in its multitudes, but we’re all very serious about being alive. And since the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing, we turn our mourning into movement. We breach the borders of our rows, spilling into the aisles, making our way to the area in front of the stage, making our way into that space.

I see my father, up ahead, amongst the congregation, his body free and flailing and loose. He’s waving a handkerchief in his hand, like a beacon, as if to say, I am here. He’s going and going and then we watch as Pops slows down a little, like he’s misplaced a part of himself. A quick search for my mother. He finds her with ease, and signals. She waves him off, but he won’t have it, making his way back to where we are standing, coaxing her out of the row, their soft hands in a tender embrace, pulling her close, lips to her ear, you’re safe here ; not just in this building, or this church, but in his arms. I gaze at my parents, and see that a world can be two people, occupying a space where they don’t have to explain. Where they can feel beautiful. Where they might feel free.

I nudge Raymond. It’s a joyous, brotherly laugh we share. I know that, like me, his faith is a daily wrangle, that he’s had to build a church elsewhere in order to know himself. We share the same small motion, a little two-step on the spot, because despite everything, the music is undeniable. I’ve only ever known myself in song, between notes, in that place where language won’t suffice but the drums might, might speak for us, might speak for what is on our hearts. In this moment, as the music gathers pace, looping round once more, passing frenzy, approaching ecstasy, that prayer taking flight, I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame, I’m pulled to nudge Raymond again, to try to say to him, I wish we could always be this open, wish we might always feel some of this freedom. I don’t know I have the words. But since the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing, it only makes sense that here, when our parents signal for us, we join them.

Long after the church service, long after the day has lost its shine, the sun a soft glow, we make the short journey to Uncle T’s, who helps us carefully load his speakers into Raymond’s back seat, showing us how to snip a wire with pliers, strip it bare with our teeth, twist it into the speaker, his warning to bring them back intact a distant echo as we drive down to Tej’s flat near Walworth Road. Pulling in, I see Adeline, having known her so long I know the way light holds her neck, know her rhythm even when she’s still, and seeing the space between us, I go towards her, allowing a smile to emerge from the depths of my being, allowing our cheeks to meet during a tender embrace, and on separation, ask her, when was the last time we did this? Before she can say, it’s not been that long since we partied, Tej’s door swings open, and soon, we are not just one or two, but many. Soon, we’re rowdy in conversation, allowing ourselves to say things which are honest and true, Godlike even. Soon, from indoors, we’re hearing music we recognize, we’re breaching the borders of rooms, spilling into the garden, making our way to the area in front of the decks, making our way into that space, plastic cups in hand, held high above our heads, like beacons, as if to say, we are here. Many of us gathered have long lost our faith but we do believe in rhythm. We do believe in the ability of a four-minute cut to stretch time until it is unrecognizable, each second its own forever. As Charmz’s ‘Buy Out Da Bar’ is wheeled up once more, this action its own nostalgia, its own prayer, wanting to be the person you were just moments before, I’m thinking, I wish we could always be this open, in tender motion, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, energy energy, gimme that energy energy.

We’re already nostalgic for yesterday, so soon it’s grime cuts that Adeline spins from the decks. ‘Too Many Man’, ‘I Spy’, ‘21 Seconds’. ‘Pow!’ begins to play, a kick drum starting off, sudden and sure. A thick bassline follows, getting to the heart of things. Eerie chords ring round the garden. Before the intro is done, Raymond magics himself next to me, calling for the song to start again. There isn’t time for what I want to say to him before the song starts fresh, the intro bare and empty of words, leaving space for us. The floor clears, bare and empty of bodies, a circle forming around us, something possessing Raymond and me as we push the edges further towards the confines of the garden. Look, I’m trying to tell you what it means to be in the eye of a moshpit: a small, beautiful world in the midst of chaos, free, amongst flailing limbs and half-shouted lyrics. Soon, after the fifth or sixth reload, we begin to tire. Soon, we’re disappearing into the night, four abreast down Walworth Road, in search of food. Soon, it’s Bagel King, the only place we know that’s open forever. Soon, it’s Raymond with an arm around my shoulder, mouth to my ear, saying, you good, yeah, and I nod into the space he makes. Soon, it’s an arm wrapping around my body from behind, and I know it’s Del. We’ve known each other so long she knows the way light holds my neck, she knows my rhythm, even when I’m still. Soon, it’s a cappellas and phone speakers, and since the one thing which might solve most of our problems is dancing, an easy two-step on the pavement.

Soon, too soon, it’s time to split. Those who are together disappear into the night, pulling even closer. Those single long for the knock of knees on a journey home, a brush of skin on the doorstep, the invitation inside a free yard. We’re young and often struggle to express just what it is we need, but I know we all value closeness.

That’s what I’m thinking as Del and I take the night bus back towards Peckham – Raymond has disappeared into the night, so it’s just me and her. Asleep, her soft cheek resting on my shoulder for the short journey. Off the bus, down her road, a gentle light on her doorstep, like a beacon. It’s the quietest it has been all evening. I gaze at her. Thrust my hands into my pockets, breaking the gaze with a glance at the ground, before stealing another look. She smiles at my shyness, and I smile back. It’s here, when I’m with her, I know that a world can be two people, occupying a space where we don’t have to explain. Where we can feel beautiful. Where we might feel free.

Del’s lips make a brief home on my cheek, and we pull each other close. We give no goodbyes – we know death in its multitudes, and goodbye sounds like an end – instead, after our embrace, the soft pounding of fists accompanied by, in a bit, which is less a goodbye, more a promise to stay alive.


Excerpted from Small Worlds © 2023 by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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