A CLOSE SHAVE, LIGHT IN THE LUNATIC’S EYES AND A CYCLE OF REJECTION
Rita spent the night with James, the London-based lawyer she had been seeing for the last six months. He visited her the previous evening, the British Airways tags still on the handles of the luggage that lined the boot of the taxi he hired from the airport. Though only a few years older, he had an air of authority that was the reserve of the rich and people used to getting their way. James always got his way. That was why she was unable to refuse his request to follow him home when he arrived at her hostel, citing how much he had missed her as the reason for his unannounced visit.
That morning, he had acted out of character, surprising her with light kisses as she woke up to the sounds of him moving around the room. The bulb in the bedroom had blown out the previous night, leaving them with the sickly yellow light that spilled into the room from the solitary bulb hanging overhead in the corridor of the single room apartment that belonged to his friend. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, Rita smiled at him as he stretched out beside her, his face partially illuminated by the weak light.
“You look so beautiful right now.”
Rita reached to stroke his face but he caught her hand and placed a kiss in the middle of her palm. Finding his way back into the sheets, he stroked every inch of her body and made love to her with such tenderness she wondered if there was a chance for them, maybe he might want more than the cold unfeeling lust that characterized their relationship.
He took a quick shower while she lay supine and sated on the bed. Later, he paraded in three different outfits before her. She shook her head at the three of them, only nodding in approval at the fourth – a navy blue collared shirt that moulded to his well-muscled torso and tan coloured trousers.
Rita parted the polyester curtains that covered the window beside the bed and frowned at the dark sky outside.
“It’s still very early in the morning. Where are you going to?”
“I need to pick up my friend from the airport,” James told her, his back turned to her as he snapped on his gold wristwatch.
“You didn’t tell me about this last night.”
James turned to her, an unreadable expression on his face.
“There are many things I don’t tell you.”
Rita paused. He had returned to his customary brusque, cold manner.
Noticing the frown on her face, he walked to the bed.
“Don’t give me an attitude.” His eyes glowed darkly and Rita felt a chill ripple through her. “You know I don’t like it when you do that.”
Rita tried not to recoil from the quiet lash of his words.
“I am not giving you attitude.”
His eyes cleared and his smile returned.
“Good.” He cocked his head sideways. “You know I love you right?”
“Yes,” Rita said, looking down at her hands. His hand beneath her chin forced her face up to meet his piercing dark eyes.
“I need you to trust me. I am not hiding anything from you. My friend Ayo is coming into the country this morning and I have to pick him. So relax, okay?”
He left and she followed him, dragging the sheets from the bed with her. They kissed again at the door and he told her he would be locking the security gate at the door with a huge padlock that hung from it.
“To keep you safe because I don’t know the people in this estate and you will probably be asleep when I return.”
She waved him goodbye, content to crawl back into bed and drag the sheets over her head. She slept a long peaceful sleep that soon turned into a nightmare of chattering voices and shapes that closed in on her. Somewhere in the middle of her dream, she realized that the voices were in the room, their owners suspended over the bed.
She cried out but her lips barely moved. Her head was heavy and her chest felt as if something was pressing down on it, crushing her. Terror and panic overwhelmed her and she struggled against the weight keeping her down. The voices grew louder, reverberating in her ears. She fought with every ounce of strength in her.
Leave me alone!
The command worked and the weight was lifted off her chest. Instantly coming awake, she pushed herself upright in bed and stared with open mouth around the room. Bright rays of the afternoon sun penetrated through the curtains burning her with their harsh glare. Squinting she turned away from the window and looked down at herself. She was surprised to see the sheets resting low on her hips. She looked around the room, her skin breaking out in goose bumps. There had been people there. She heard them.
Her heart racing, she tried to calm herself with logic. Perhaps it was only a figment of her imagination, just a bad dream. Perhaps it was James that returned home with his friend and it was their animated conversation that woke her from sleep. In spite of the momentary peace that came from repeating the words in her head, she could not fight the niggling feeling that something odd had happened in the room while she slept.
She picked the dress slung over the top of the chair positioned next to an ornate, circular table and slipped into it. As she dressed, her eyes fell on the gold jewelry that James had left behind on the table. They appeared undisturbed. Still disconcerted by what had happened, she walked to the door. What she saw made her sigh in relief. The door was open and the gate was flung wide, the padlock nowhere to be found. A smile turned her lips. She had overreacted.
“James was here.”
Pulling the door and the gate shut, she returned to the bed to wait for James. As she waited, she looked at her phone. It was well into the afternoon and nearing four o’ clock. She frowned, pulling her legs up to the bed and crossing them.
“Did I really sleep that long?”
Rita’s fears returned when James did not return as she had expected. She paced the room, phone in hand as she thought of calling him. Just as she made a turn to walk for the sixth time, her phone rang.
There was surprise in his voice. “Wow! You are still there?”
Rita frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand. Where was I supposed to go? You locked me in remember?”
“Hmm, you are a strong woman,” he said with a laugh that sounded dry and without humour.
The fear returned in full force, turning Rita’s legs to jelly when she asked if he had brought guests over and he replied in the negative. She pulled the chair and sat down.
“You were not in the house?”
“I…I heard people and I woke up…and the gate was open.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” James said curtly. “We will talk when I come back to the apartment. I am working on my car now.”
It was late evening when he returned. She told him about the voices and the open gate, narrating everything with fright in her eyes. His eyebrows remained cocked at her, as if questioning her sanity. He checked his jewelry and confirmed that they were intact. In the end he shrugged.
“It’s weird. I don’t know what to say.”
She was surprised by his indifference and later by his abrupt manner. It seemed as if her presence annoyed him. Irritation etched deeply on his face, he complained about everything. Bewildered by his behaviour and lack of interest in the security breach, Rita walked on eggshells around him. She began to put her things together to return to school when he excused himself to the bathroom.
A search for her phone charger took her on her knees beside the bed. Her face turned towards the door, she swung her arm back and forth, feeling the dark space for the charger. Her motions stopped when she touched something cold and solid. Her eyes narrowing, she felt along the sides of the thing with her fingers.
Her head swung back to the bed and she flattened against the floor, peering into the darkness. Soon enough she made out the outline of a reddish clay pot marked with mysterious inscriptions and tied at the mouth by a thin red cloth. Her mouth suddenly dry, she stared flabbergasted at the pot.
“Why does he have a pot under the bed?”
The answer formed in her mind but she laughed it away, dusting her knees and backing away from the bed.
“James into juju? No, please. It must be for something else.”
She prepared to ask him when he returned to the room but lost her nerve when she saw his dark mood still reflected in his eyes. He searched his wallet and gave her money.
“I will call you later.”
There was something in his voice that told Rita not to wait for his call. She knew it would be the last time she saw him. Crestfallen and heart broken, she left the one bedroom apartment and the estate, walking to the road where a few tricycles operated on a tarred, winding road that led to a busy bus stop. She took a taxi back to school. Her eyes pinned on the city stirring to life under the nighttime, she thought again of what she had seen. She shook her head every now and then, unable to accept the idea that the man she had loved and given herself to was into black magic. So she made up her mind to talk to someone else when she returned to school.
Once back on campus, she stood under shadows cast by the building of her hostel and called the only person she could trust. A sharp intake of breath filled her ears when she finished speaking.
“Rita, what did you just say?”
“That was what happened. I don’t know what to think.”
“What do you think happened, you this foolish girl?! He tried to use you for rituals.” Her mother broke into a loud wail. “Rita no kill me o! No kill me. I dey use my market money train you and your brother o! No be every man wey you see you go dey follow for that Lagos where you dey.”
Everything made sense to Rita in the end – James’s reaction to the incidence, his mood swings and his eagerness to be rid of her when he returned to the apartment. That morning death visited and missed her by a close shave.
Nafwan closed her eyes tightly. She felt a stinging jab as the needle pricked her skin. She tried not to think of the man standing silently in the corner of the room, a medical chart of the human body on the wall behind him.
“It’s okay now.” The nurse spoke in a soft voice. “You can open your eyes.”
Nafwan did, looking from eyes filled with concern to hair stuck to a head in fractal patterns of inverse cornrows.
Loosening the tourniquet from her arm, the nurse pressed clean gauze where the needle had pierced her. The room was quiet except for the soft whirring of the air conditioner. Nafwan watched the nurse empty the blood that had been drawn from her into a small vacuum tube with a red top. The tube was pushed into a plastic tube holder the nurse placed on a silver tray. Standing at the door, she nodded at Nafwan and Ore.
“You can both wait outside.”
Ore slipped out of the room after her and they joined a dozen other patients wearing apprehensive looks in the waiting room. Nafwan spent the time worrying about the result that was yet to come. What would she do if the tests turned out positive?
She did nothing. The paper clutched in a death grip, she stared at the writing scrawled in red ink – Serum, pregnancy test: Positive.
Ore snatched the paper from her hand.
“Let me see.”
Nafwan’s eyes misted with tears. Her father. The old man was recently hospitalized for blood pressure. A poor fisherman who provided for her and her brothers with the money he earned selling the fish he caught in the waters of the Atlantic to the market women in the Makoko settlement where they lived, his sickness had thrown them deeper into poverty. He lived now, a shadow of his former self, gaunt and still hypertensive, under the care of his sister who sometimes took care of her two younger brothers.
“What does it say?”
Nafwan looked down at the linoleum floor, determined to avoid the eyes of the other patients as they gawked openly at her.
“It is positive. I am pregnant.”
Ore grinned. “Chief will be happy.”
They drove back to Agbara, Nafwan sobbing gently into her hands. Ore paid no attention to her, choosing instead to focus on the knuckles he cracked every now and then. Rahman pulled into the house three hours after they had left Yaba. Chief was in the living room discussing with a kindly looking man in starched white shirt and black trousers. The man was about Chief’s age and bespectacled. The men stopped discussing when they saw her. Chief, lanky and grayed with a square face that was once handsome gave her a searching look.
Ore spoke for her.
“Chief, she is pregnant.”
A smile broke out on Chief’s face and he rubbed his hands together. The other man said something in Yoruba and chief nodded.
They fawned over her, inviting her to sit with them. Nafwan learned the name of the other man. He was doctor Dipo, a psychiatrist and a friend of the family. It was his second visit and there were to be more visits in the coming days. The man told her the man in the room was psychotic. He patted her on the knees.
“Don’t be afraid my dear, he will get better.”
Chief told her about the man in the room. His name was Olumide. He was a final year student at the popular University College London and lived in the city with his mother. A trip to Lagos for the semester break had led him into a lifestyle of hard partying and drugs. One morning the security guards at the estate gate had called chief. Olumide had been dropped off from a white Honda Accord that sped off before they could ask questions. Chief had rushed from his political meeting at Alausa to find his son naked, incoherent and tied to a plastic chair by guards wary of the inhuman strength that made it hard for him to be still.
Nafwan listened to him, filled with questions. She wanted to know why he had picked her. She wanted to know what would happen to her unborn child. What would happen to her?
“I am glad you called me when you did,” doctor Dipo said to chief, shaking his head. “This thing should have been treated long before now.”
They brought Olumide out and Nafwan was surprised by the change in him. His hair and beard trimmed, he wore clean clothes that hid his gaunt frame. Doctor Dipo spoke to him in calm measured tone, assuring him of the effectiveness of the treatment he had begun. Olumide listened closely, his face betraying no emotion. Nafwan forgot for a moment that he was mad when he looked at her, a light appearing in his eyes. It was easy to see how handsome he must have been before his illness.
They exchanged looks and Nafwan’s hands settled reflexively on her belly. She forgot chief and doctor Dipo, embracing hope for a moment. Her nightmare was about to end. The tide was turning in her favour.
She had barely finished the thought when Olumide’s eyes shuttered and he threw back his head and began to laugh maniacally.
The sound of the rumbling sky drew him to the window and Daniel stood in quiet contemplation, watching the diminishing activities on the street below as motorists, pedestrians and roadside hawkers sought shelter from the impending rain. He had been edgy and restless all day without knowing why. Now he felt inclined to just go home and sleep. One hand in his pocket, he sighed and began to turn away from the window. He stopped when he heard a knock on his door and saw the handle of the door turn. Mercy walked into his office, her dark gray dress tight and manner friendly. He looked at her, unable to help himself as he frowned.
“Hello Mercy. What’s up?”
“I asked Mike for you during lunch and he said he hadn’t seen you.”
“I was busy.”
False lashes fluttered at him.
“Look Daniel, I know I haven’t been the best colleague to you.” She took a step forward and stood chest to chest with him. Daniel turned rigid as her hand settled on his chest. He looked at the long painted nails splayed on his shirt and then looked at her. She remained where she was, smiling widely at him. “I want you to know that I don’t hate you.”
Daniel took a step backwards, dislodging her hand.
“I am not worried about that.” His lips turned slightly and he held her eyes. “What you feel for me is something else, not hate.”
She stared at him, eyebrows raised and head weaving from side to side. “Wow Daniel.” There was a short pause before the words stumbled out of her, choppy and staccatoed. “You. Are. Cocky. Very. Very. Cocky.”
Daniel continued to look at her, his gaze direct and unfaltering.
Seconds passed and she shook her head. “I don’t think I have ever met a man with an ego as large as yours.” Sighing, she tucked her short black hair behind her left ear and looked down at the street scene that had captivated him before her entrance.
Daniel walked back to his seat. “Okay.”
Her face was relaxed in a smile as she turned to him again.
“We should have a drink at my place Daniel, just us…” her tone turned husky and suggestive, “I want us to be close.” She dragged the last word for emphasis, her tangerine coloured lips slanting upwards. “What do you say?”
His expression stoic, Daniel did not answer straightaway. He mentally ran through her proposal, weighing the merits of the sex she dangled before him against putting up with her domineering attitude every time they sat in the boardroom.
Leaning back into his chair, he nodded.
“That should work.”
Her lashes lowered once and her smile stretched wider. “Good. Let’s meet on Saturday. I will be home by seven in the evening. I will text you the address.”
Finger laced and elbows on desk, Daniel sat watching the door long after she had gone, his mind hard at work. Finally breaking out of his reverie, he hit a key on his computer. His eyebrows dipped and his lips twisted sardonically as he dragged the email containing Mercy’s suggestions for their new campaign from the dock of his screen. Highlighting the document in blue, he deleted the contents.
“Now we will do this my way.”
They chose Ebitimi’s house to hang out that evening. Drinks were served by Ebitimi who went around with a Perrier Jouet, refilling their glasses and entertaining them with stories of the women he met on his vacation to Tampa, Florida. It was Ebitimi’s dream to own a strip club. Armed with the enormous wealth handed down to him upon the death of his businessman father, Ebitimi thought importing beautiful girls into the country was the only way he could leave his mark on the world.
“Those girls are hot. I need to bring them to Lagos so guys can ease tension well. Someone needs to help Lagos guys. The stress in this city is too much. Someone has to do something.”
“So we will have our own Bayrock,” Maxwell said, glee on his face. “I can’t wait.”
“My girls will be hotter than Bayrock girls,” Ebitimi told them, throwing himself on the sofa next to Daniel. “I am collecting them from all over the world, not just the Dominican Republic.”
Daniel’s phone rang and Ebitimi leaned to spy on the caller’s identity.
“Daniel that has no heart,” Shope shot from where he sat. “She is probably a fuck buddy,” he added, burying his face into his glass. “The worst part is girls just seem to like him.”
Daniel ignored the barb. Shope was the sensitive one in the group. He had fallen for Folake and hated how she barely looked his way except when they partnered at Ebitimi’s orgies.
Daniel found himself a spot outside the sprawling balcony of the living room, away from the listening ears of his friends.
“It’s been a while.”
All he heard was her breathing for the next two minutes. His face grew serious as he contemplated her silence. Then an alarm sounded in his head.
She liked him.
A grimace settling on his face, Daniel shook his head. No. No. No.
“Do you want to hang out on Saturday evening?”
Daniel rubbed the lines that gathered on his forehead.
“I won’t be available. Sorry.”
The disappointment was heavy in her voice.
He stayed out in the balcony, watching the starless sky. As much as he found her attractive and wanted her the night she stayed over at his place, he was happy not to pursue an amorous affair with her. She was not like Folake and he didn’t want another heartbreak weighing down on his conscience. It was best to avoid her before things got complicated.
Ejiro passed the girls screaming in each other’s face in the cluttered passage. Her phone felt like lead in her hands and she walked slowly, forcing down the lump that clogged her throat. She heard the screams around her from a different place.
Am I not better than you that slept with a cripple for ten thousand!?
At least my own can see. Shebi you slept with a blind man in Abeokuta last year and he gave you bounced cheque.
He had rejected her.
Her eyes filled with tears and she leaned over the cement balustrade.
“I should never have called him.”
Her phone rang and her heart skipped a bit, but it wasn’t Daniel calling but John. They had exchanged numbers in class that morning and now he wanted to know if she would be available for a stroll down the waterfront.
“No. Sorry. I have headache.”
He was sympathetic and promised to check on her the following day but Ejiro did not want to see him. She just wanted to curl in misery in her bed forever. She had fallen in love for the first time and he did not want her.