Fiction by Elfreda Tetteh
On the day that Johnson falls, he is thinking of heading to the bridge. During the class break, he stands outside and tries to fold himself in the corner, all sharp joints and school-approved colours. Even so, he hears Garu and the rest of the boys surround him. Garu says something that is swept up in the chorus of chortles. Then without much fanfare, he grabs Johnson’s government-issued shorts and firmly pulls them down.
Johnson freezes as the laughter erupts from all sides. But when he sees the pitying looks on the others’ faces so he starts to laugh too. Garu slaps him on the back. And then everyone is slapping him on the back. It’s playful at first, like a “congratulations!” and a “good for you, sport!”, and then it’s harder and more insistent. Still, Johnson laughs, even while the boys turn away and move on to their next source of amusement.
The bell rings as Johnson moves towards the stairs leading out of the school building. He leans forward and stumbles over his foot, which propels him into space. It’s fourteen steps to the bottom. Each of them are painful. Johnson knows this because in first year, Evans Akpui was accidently pushed down the stairs by Garu and Kwesi Yanfa. Evans split the skin on his cheek open and chipped a tooth. And then he cried like a baby and vomited when he saw all of the blood and thus lost all his school clout. Kwesi was suspended and returned a hero.
The ground comes up to meet him. One second his mind is frantic as his arms flail. The next second he is on his feet swaying but upright.
Ordinarily he would stop and think about what just happened. But today, he’s in a hurry. He has to kill himself before rush hour.
No one notices as he makes his way to the side of the bridge that overlooks the brown, churning river and the banks slowly being colonized by man-made beaches, parks and new hotels.
Johnson is killing himself for many reasons. But in summation, the thought of eking out a similar existence for 16 more years is exhausting. Watching his father move through life like a limp, soggy noodle has him convinced that there isn’t much else waiting for him as an adult. And secondary school has shown him in no uncertain terms where his place in life will be. Boys like Garu are destined to pull down the pants of as many people as they want. And people like Johnson will forever have their positions calcified under the label of ‘the pantsed’.
Johnson looks down. He says, “Okay then”, and clears his throat. And then he feels silly because there’s no one around and so his final speech is pointless. He doesn’t take a breath before he jumps either. There’s no point to that.
There are few cars on the road and the handful of pedestrians are too far away to see him. He realizes he has forgotten to take off his bag. The water is a long, long way down. And after a nanosecond in free fall, Johnson realizes he has made a terrible mistake and he’s actually falling towards the riverside pavement rather than the water.
Now, falling in water is easy. If the impact doesn’t kill you, the shock will incapacitate you long enough for you to drown. Landing on pavement without a good enough height to fall from is a different story. Without careful planning, one could land on their limbs or on their back or directly on their face. And they’ll have to live with these life-altering injuries and they won’t be able to die until much, much later because no one expects someone with permanent injuries from a suicide attempt to actually try again.
Johnson is speeding toward the pavement and towards this reality. He aims his head downwards and the effort causes him to spin once in the air. The sidewalk meets him.
When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is a dustbin. He doesn’t think he’d see dustbins in heaven or in hell. It appears that he’s still very much alive and is partly kneeling with one hand on the ground, all limbs intact.
That evening he walks home very slowly, confusion and disappointment weighing him down. Johnson has read stories about how people are relieved after they survive a suicide attempt. Or how they see it as a sign from God or a second attempt at life. Johnson doesn’t feel the same way.
At home he walks in and out of the rooms like a ghost, looking at the ceilings for somewhere to hang a rope from. He lets out a breath when he sees that the ceilings are unsuitable and feels ashamed at the relief he feels over this painful last resort.
At dawn, Johnson takes a taxi into the business district. The car stops in front of a building, supposedly the tallest in Accra, which isn’t saying much but it’s certainly higher than the bridge. On the roof, he can’t hold back a snort. The security guard thinks he’s there to see the sunrise and let him up after receiving a handful of cedis. Johnson wonders if the man truly believes him. The view is atrocious.
This time, he takes a breath. Jumping from a building is an incredibly cliche way to go. Johnson is wearing a hoodie and has covered his face with a bandana so that whoever finds him will be spared the frozen look on his dead-man-face.
When he jumps, he imagines this is what skydiving feels like. All he has to do is stretch out his hands and he might just float away. And then suddenly, the sidewalk is coming up fast. He raises his arms instinctively, and closes his eyes.
He’s still here.
Crouched, breathless. He’s pissed his pants and there are tears on his face from the cutting wind.
But he’s crouched, same as yesterday, with his hands clutching his head.
He gets up, kicks a bin and yells in frustration. And then there’s someone next to him firmly gripping his elbow.
Johnson can see it’s a boy around his age. Somehow there’s another soul who has found it necessary to be at this building so early in the morning.
“Did you jump?” the boy asks.
Johnson says nothing.
“You aren’t able to do it, are you.” It’s more of a statement than a question.
Johnson cracks. “I keep landing on my feet.” He’s not even sure if they’re talking about the same thing.
“I know.” The boy looks unsurprised. And then the boy says, “I just tried again myself, just to be sure.”
“Meet me over here after school.” He raises his mobile phone and shows Johnson a picture and location of an office building in the quiet part of town. “6pm? I’ll give you my number.”
At 5:45, Johnson is in front of the building. He has spent the school day torn between bouts of grief at his botched attempts and anger that this might never go away and that he’ll just have to stay alive until courage or something else decides his time on earth is done.
The boy arrives five minutes later. He’s driven up to the entrance in a sleek black car and is sitting at the back. When he exits and reaches Johnson he says, “My name’s Kendo by the way.”
“My father did his masters in Japan.”
“Oh,” Johnson says.
“Let’s go. We’ll wait for the others on the roof.”
When Kendo walks into the building, the security guard at the entrance gives a casual salute. Kendo waves back lazily.
“My mother works here,” he explains.
Later the other boys arrive. They walk across the roof with little fanfare. In the end, they are about seven in all.
“Everyone’s allowed up here so easily?” Johnson asks, mystified. “Just like that?”
“The security guards think we use this roof to practice our jumps and things,” Kendo says,
“Parkour, they call it.” He scoffs.
Kendo introduces him to the other boys. Some say their names while others are silent. But they all have a look that he recognises so well. There’s resignation and frustration; an expression devoid of happiness or anger or curiosity or hope.
It’s dark out. One side of the building faces a main street which is lit up with trotros noisily marking the end of the work day. The other side, facing a smaller street, is quiet and devoid of any light, save from the reflection of an ungainly pile of sand; perennial evidence of numerous governments and their constantly ‘ongoing’ development projects.
“Okay,” Kendo says.
The eight of them walk over to the darker side of the building. With little warning one of them, a short sullen one named Kojo, jumps up and over the building.
Johnson feels his mouth go dry. He runs over and tries to look down but sees nothing.
He hears a phone vibrate and Kendo is holding up his phone. There’s a text message with a single thumbs-up sign from Yaw. The other boys grunt softly.
Johnson looks over at him. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“Can’t you tell?” Kendo replies, “We’re jumping.”
“But why?” Johnson asks.
“Well, it’s a sport I guess,” Kendo says.
“But…it’s dangerous. You could die,” Johnson sputters.
Kendo shrugs. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”
One by one, the boys take turns, with little ceremony and few pauses. Between jumps, some of them mutter at themselves and each other and Johnson catches snippets of why they are crowded on this rooftop. He tries not to think of how stupid some of their reasons sound to him and then he realizes that his own inspiration for being here probably seems equally trivial to the boys.
When Johnson leaps over the building’s edge, he hopes it will end the heavy, heavy feeling in his chest. But when he opens his eyes, he’s still there on the sidewalk and so is the feeling.
When he finally gets home, he’s disgusted at the emotions swirling inside. His lightness at finding a group of boys who finally understand him and his overwhelming sadness at anything and everything.
News of the jumping phenomenon spreads online. There are viral videos of sullen-looking men, women, boys and girls, jumping from tall heights and, a minute later, their shaky cameras showing that they’re still alive.
Of course, there are accidents.
Many, many accidents, mostly from daredevils, sceptics or internet celebrities who want to debunk this so-called “suicide gene theory” once and for all.
This news is rarely on TV and in the newspapers, as journalists everywhere agree that covering this Suicide Gene might influence scores of sad citizens to jump to their deaths. But Kendo starts to tell Johnson what he’s hearing. That scientists are trying to research people whose bodies reject death in hopes that they might be the key to the fountain of youth or human-grown life vests. That preachers are using these stories to illustrate God’s love and His refusal to let His sheep be lost.
They’re still meeting after two months, albeit infrequently.
The group is smaller now.
Kojo’s parents had him sent to a facility when they found out that he was suicidal. They changed his phone number and had him delete all his social media so none of the boys are sure of where he is now. Francis, a grungy boy with a foreign accent, met someone and has suddenly found a new lease on life. And Odame, tired of aimlessly playing around with his newfound partial immortality, slit his wrists in his school bathroom during morning assembly and left no note. They received a delicately embossed invitation to his funeral on Whatsapp but Johnson doesn’t think anyone actually went. Aside from the first night, when the shock of finding out meant his name started all their sentences, and a few throwaway remarks in the days since, no one really talks about Odame’s death. It reminds them that despite their claims, perhaps they’re utter cowards, dragging their feet over the very thing that brought them together.
Most nights they just sit on the roof, exchanging what news they’ve heard about the suicide gene and showing each other what people are saying and doing on social media. Some nights, Johnson finds himself smiling as he practices a jump. He lets the air dance over his calloused fingers, feeling a sense of wonder at the lightness and endless heaviness that coexist inside him.
Originally published November 24, 2020