Mamadou looks up from the green metal floor of the deck.
‘I was the only one there’, he says. ‘My mother went out for five minutes to buy some charcoal to cook with. She asked me to make nana breakfast. Whilst I was boiling the water, nana died. I found her, still and cold. I was seventeen.’
‘There’s a great play,’ Ben says, ‘perhaps it was never translated into French, but it’s taught in schools in the UK … do you know the band Oasis?’
‘Well, Oasis have this song called Don’t Look Back in Anger … it’s beautiful … I’m sure the title of the song is taken from the title of the play. … The play is called Look Back in Anger.’
[Long Pause, before Ben continues]
‘See, the lead character of the play is pretty anti-feminist and nasty, but he’s had a hard life. It’s no excuse, but he resents his wife because she’s never watched anyone die. … Now, I don’t think it’s fair to resent someone because they haven’t faced the same terrible experience as yourself. But nonetheless, I reckon John Osborne [the angry young man who wrote the play] has a point: It’s impossible to fully know what life means until you’ve watched someone die. … Your nana trusted you to be there. She wanted you there. It made you grow up.’
Ben and Mamadou pause as they stare out across the darkening seascape. The felt closeness of their friendship is as palpable as the salty taste of the sea air. After several moments, Mamadou’s African-inflected French lyrically permeates the natural ebb and flow of the darkening eve:
‘This is life … talking about death on a metal floor, as the sun sets, looking out onto the vast and turbulent Atlantic’.
Ben thinks about the profundity of the relationship: He has to tell him. But for someone who talks constantly, he is dumb. He knew this might happen. So he unlocks his phone and shows Mamadou the unfinished draft of the letter that he has written to him.
The Atlantic is the perfect place for him to read it: there is no mobile reception. Their reactions, however positive or negative, are their own to explore together until land is reached tomorrow: They cannot consult others but must be themselves.
Ben looks alternately at sky and sea, frozen with fear, as Mamadou reads the letter.
‘Dear Mamadou,’ it begins.
‘I have not adequately explained my lack of contact over the last five years. … This is because I’ve always known that a part of me is wholly incompatible with your nation, culture, and religion’.
Ben looks at the darkening sky. The remnants of sun give him hope. The ship corkscrews and lists in the cool Atlantic swell. In one sense, he is terrified. In another sense, he is entirely at peace: this is the right thing to do, regardless of any consequence. In any case, Mamadou is concentrating so intently on the letter as to be utterly unaware of Ben’s inner battle.
Ben guesses by now that Mamadou is reading the paragraph that follows. He thinks it says he is unwilling to base a friendship of over a decade on lies. He cut off all contact because neither did he wish to lie, nor did he wish to risk prison for telling the truth. Yet cutting off contact did not cause his friendship to dissolve. In Ben’s heart, he missed his friends every day.
Some of them were disturbed by his lack of contact. But Mamadou was different. They have both watched their grandparents die. They are friends for life in the cruel Atlantic swell. And Ben has to tell Mamadou that he is gay.
Ben wanted to tell him face-to-face. But he couldn’t. He didn’t wish to be a coward and tell Mamdou from Europe by email, so he didn’t. This leaves Ben with the option of putting pen to paper (or rather finger to touchscreen) and passing said message to Mamdou as they sit side-by-side, looking out at the darkening ocean.
‘Were it a choice, my brother, I would not have chosen it. Because there is so much discrimination and difficulty in Europe alone – never mind Africa. Sadly, being a gayer is not a choice.’
Mamdou turns. Ben trusts him, yet at the same time he fears. It does not help Ben that Mamadou’s only words whilst reading were ‘Nom de Dieu’ [In the name of God / Allah]. Ben desperately wants to know which line of the letter leads to Mamdou’s exclamation, but he does not want to ask.
‘I 80% knew,’ says Mamdou, ‘but it is not my business to ask. … what people decide to tell me is up to them, not up to me to demand. … In any case, you are the only one who has come back and apologised for not knowing enough the first time you came here full of ideas … several people much older than you will never apologise … I have watched you grow up, and you’ve matured … I respect you and you respect me. … That is what counts.’
The sun sets on the distant horizon. Another day that started complex ends in the perfect simplicity of uncomplicated and unconditional friendship. Nothing is too difficult to resolve. The now dark sea announces its presence by staying rough in the hot, still night. Ben and Mamadou descend to their cabin, lulled into sleep by the listing of the boat, woken hourly by the bedbugs biting their necks and faces.
No measure of waves or insects can spoil the beautiful simplicity of this most perfect and durable of friendships: Mamdou, you are mon semblable, mon frère.