Sorry to disturb you, my guy. Most afternoons, during lunch breaks, when you brag to other workers about being an ex-convict, I ask myself if, really, you had gone through hell as you always claimed, because you would have known that there are stories that need not be remembered. From your numerous stories, you had just been convicted of illegal entry into one European country for the third time and were put in a posh-like cell for some days before being deported back to Nigeria. See, let me tell you, my guy. Prison cells in Nigeria are nothing like the ones you’ve been to; they are hot and smelly with urine and shit and sweat and spits and rotten foods and unwashed skins and mouths and sperm. The three weeks I spent in that condition, when I was charged for murdering a thirteen year old girl, was long enough to keep me quiet for life.
Ah! Why this look on your face, your eyes wide open. Don’t be in a hurry to judge me, my friend. One of the things I realised then was that not every prisoner is guilty as charged.
Prison life was upside-down for me. Unreal things happened during the day, and at night, I saw real things happen. One of the unreal things was one afternoon our prison door yawned open with two stiff-faced warders calling the full name of our friend from a thick-cover booklet and asking him to step out and follow them. After a few minutes we heard four gunshots from a distance. There was another instance when a prisoner, whom I heard had spent five years in solitary confinement, had gone crazy and started bashing his head continuously against the wall until he ran out of life. Real things were just memories. Nightly images of Alicia teasing me that I looked younger than twenty-seven; that I’m fine-looking, even though my bald head forces me to shave clean all the time; that I’m not supposed to be very fair like women. Real things were her sweet laughter and those funky sounds she made each time we made love.
Sometimes these memories came and stayed like unwanted guests. Sometimes they were the only sanities we needed to fight against our insanities. These daily and nightly routine leaves a kind of quietness in one that is so absolute. Like the year after I finished my NYSC. Months when I got no feedback from all the firms I had submitted my CV to.
My guy, those were long, quiet, days and nights when almost everything unsettled me. Then I decided to pack my bag and leave every form of familiarity because one does not stay in a place when watching a masquerade. It had to be Abuja because I knew some friends whose relatives had gone and returned to start up very fine buildings in the village. Only my sister saw me when I was leaving. Tell mom that I will be back soon, I told my sister, clutching my Ghana-must-go. Tell her I took the money under her pillow. She stared at me like I was a spirit and didn’t say a word. I had a little cash on me and a friend’s address in my pocket. I had met this friend at the NYSC camp; so close we had been that he gave me a card containing an address and a phone number. Just call me with this number whenever you get to Abuja, he had said. But my friend was not where he said he would be when I arrived Abuja one dull November morning, and his number remained unreachable until I angrily threw away the card.
My friend, you look tensed. Ha! Just calm down. Today’s Friday, and it’s Jumat time. We are done for the day, except for those who are working overtime. I wouldn’t have been in this bar with you, all alone, if I haven’t chosen to tell you my story. I have watched you most Fridays like this, after every worker had left, drinking two or three or more bottles of beer. On those occasions, I used to ask myself: instead of self-inflicting agonies on your mind, why not occupy it with doing overtime? After all, if you were to be in Europe, you would not only pay your bills with overtime, but you would live by it. For that reason alone, I still thank God for Nigeria. No place like home.
Hey, you. Yes, you! More drinks, please! Yes, two bottles!
My friend, I suggest you sip gradually because you’ll be doing more of that later. And don’t sit like someone confessing before a priest, relax yourself. You’ll be my paddy after this conversation. Or what do you think? Oh, yes.
Is this the city you were born in? Hmm, then you must be used to noise and stuffy traffic. This is my first time in Lagos; I only came here early this year, after Abuja failed me. Have you ever been to Abuja? OK, but you have to know where Nigerians’ money is being controlled from. Abuja is the only place I know that shows that Nigeria is working. Everyone looked comfortable. The flashy cars and dreamlike houses and carpet grasses and healthy flowers gave me a solid hope that one day, I will live in one of those exotic mansions. Abuja is the centre of the nation. For a few hours, when I arrived, I was at the centre of the centre. Unlike in Port Harcourt, the place of my birth, where I came from, Abuja had no stuffy traffic, no hawkers, no beggars shouting on the street to attract passersby.
Because I couldn’t afford to rent a single room apartment in the centre of the centre, I went to one of those small shanty towns at the edge, in a face-me-I-face-you compound populated by settlers of different origins. There, people flatter themselves that they live in Abuja. Sunshine was fierce, but people didn’t mind—they hustled with their sweat drenched faces and clothes. I bought a study desk and a standing fan and a portable CD-player and 16-inch TV and two cooking pots and a stove, and plates and spoons. I had a thick rug on the floor. I had a mattress large enough to contain two people. My room was not that full; at a glance, one could see everything.
I applied for a teaching job in a good private secondary school in the centre of the centre. A school owned and controlled by a young beautiful lady whose office had an air of grandeur that made me feel somewhat timid when I walked in for an interview, who spoke so softly as if she lacked the energy to speak up, whose intimidating stare made me maintain an impression of not being intimidated, whose name was Alicia Ajayi, and who would later become my lover.
Ha! My friend. C’mon, go ahead and smile fully. How about some pieces of fried meat to go with the beer? Waiter!
Let me tell you about Ifunanya, another important girl in my life. I was in the compound the morning Aunty Gloria brought Ifunanya from the village. Her beauty became unbearable by the day. I refused to see her as that small girl who called me Brother Rufus—who rushed to grab my briefcase when I returned from work, who I sent to Mallam Aliyu’s provision store, who sat on the rugged floor of my room on Saturdays, legs folded, watching African Magic—but as a beauty.
How old are you? I asked Ifunanya the day we were watching a comedy show and she was laughing uncontrollably as she always did: leaning on me when I got hold of her shoulders and kissed her ears.
It tickles! She said in laughter.
I’m sorry, I said, my eyes locked into hers. She looked away playfully and said her age was thirteen. I did not believe her because she did not look thirteen; she was too big to be thirteen. I could not believe her age until the day she died in my room.
The way you’re staring at me is really frightening. What’s running through your mind? Anyway, I don’t blame you because I would carry same startled look if I had just heard what you have heard. Now that the meat has arrived, I hope you are enjoying yourself. Lagos women can spice up meat and fry them deeply. I’m sure we will want more as the story goes on. So, as I was saying, at my place of work, to other staff, I was this smart-looking teacher who, instead of picking up a good-paying air-conditioned office job, had settled for an ‘ordinary’ teaching job. I first noticed how greatly Alicia was feared and respected by other staff whose qualifications wouldn’t be less than college graduates. There was this quick adjustment whenever Alicia walked into the staff room, and this irritated me. I noticed a calm smile on her face whenever she talked to me. During meetings, she specially asked for my opinions.
Our affair started the day she invited me to have lunch with her. Some evenings after work, she drove me home in her Honda Element. Sometimes I wondered what had attracted Alicia to me. We spent quality time in places meant for lovers, yet she had not said the words, ‘I love you.’ I was loving her. It was like an unspoken agreement not to say it to each other. I remembered the first time we made love, in my room, after she had dropped me at my house. I invited her to come in. At first, there was this shyness, then later she said she felt safe with me. When she begged me to make her pregnant, I had assumed it out of sexual excitement, but I would soon realize why she had said it.
Yes, of course, she invited me to her house. That was one week later. She said she wanted me to meet her parents.
Well, she lived in the centre of the centre, an area full of exotic houses alike, standing magnificently tall. A tree-lined street where young, attractive, girls walked in miniskirts with shopping bags in their hands. Alicia’s house was painted orange and ash. Unlike other houses, there was no gateman. She said I should ring her when I reached the gate with the bold inscription: NO.15. Someone opened the gate, a lady with the polite face of housekeepers, and led me into the house. The house was like one of those big houses they used in movies. Alicia told me that it was only she, her younger brother, her parents and the housekeeper who lived there. The lady led me upstairs, passing two parlours and several rooms.
Alicia welcomed me with a pleasant smile that would have become a hug if I had shown interest. She was wearing a light purple gown that stopped just above her knees. She looked so delicate, like someone who was born never to suffer. She led me into her apartment. Her enlarged picture and a fine large painting of Madonna and child were the only hangings on the wall of her parlour. Brown leather sofas in a semicircle, a Plasma screen on the wall, a bookshelf in a corner, crammed with books and a closed Apple laptop. She went in and came out with a bottle of wine and two glasses; we clicked our glasses, toasted for long life. She showed me into her room, a very spacious room. A study desk with an hp laptop and a portable printer by the side, and another shelf full of books. We talked about her life. She said she would like to move out of her parent’s house, to stay on her own in a small flat, a place far from her parents who wouldn’t stop disturbing her with issues of bringing home the right man. I’m just twenty-four, she said, sounding like someone who had stayed a long time with this worry. There was another quietness that made us looked deep into each other’s eyes for a moment, that made me realize that she had curious eyes. I saw my reflection in their brightness. There was also this feeling that possessed me, a feeling I cannot explain. I drew closer and closer to her, and she adjusted for a soft kiss on my lips. I ran my hands over the smoothness of her hands up to her neck. Her body was on high temperature. Then I removed my hands and stopped kissing. I looked away. She stood up, adjusted her clothes and said her parents were waiting to see me downstairs.
My guy, seeing her parents alone, the elegance in their casual look, the way they spoke softly, gave me a painful impression that the difference between the rich and the poor was absolutely unbearable. Alicia resembled her mother: light skin, long hair and legs. I was served goat meat pepper-soup and agidi, and we ate in silence until her father asked how I was coping with my job. I responded that I was managing fine. You know, he started, there’s this problem with fresh graduates wanting high-paying jobs instead of managing on the ones that come their way. I suddenly felt embarrassed, but I still maintained my calm smile when I responded, I can assure you, Sir, things have not been that bad trying to manage whatever I earn for the month. He cleared his throat and said, I was surprised when Alicia told me you have worked for her for close to three years now, and you are Igbo. You Igbos are full of pride, but you seem different. Yes Dad, Rufus is different; he’s from a humble background, Alicia said. Meanwhile, my guy, I was somewhat confused, not knowing what to say. The father turned to the daughter and said, My dear, an average Igbo man is humble when he has a pursuit. I looked at Alicia’s mother, she was deeply concentrating on her meal, and then I turned to her father and said, I truly love your daughter. There was a sudden silence that made me doubt the sincerity of what I had just said. And no one said anything again until we finished eating. Her father later invited me to the tennis court, but I declined.
Why did I declined? I wasn’t much into tennis. Also, I was silently angry with him. Alicia walked me to the gate. I’m sorry for that, she said, Dad can be silly at times. It’s okay, I said, maybe he’s talking based on his personal experience with a few Igbos. Alicia did not say anything. Take care of yourself, I said and left. She was still standing by the gate, staring at me blankly when I turned to see if she had entered the compound.
That’s rich people for you. As I sat in the back of the taxi, I couldn’t help but think that her father had behaved that way because I had not mentioned any important person as my relative. Perhaps he was unimpressed with his daughter for bringing home a nobody for lunch, maybe I was not what they expected.
That night, I saw Alicia in my dream; we were swimming in a pool, laughing loudly, then suddenly I began to drown, I couldn’t call out for help, I was just staring at Alicia who was laughing at me from a corner. I woke up with a force, and there was a knock on the door. It was Ifunanya. She was standing by the door, her left hand holding the curtain. Good morning, Brother Rufus, she greeted, smiling, No one saw you yesterday. Yes, I was busy at the office, I said. I asked her to come in. No, she said, I’m washing plates. I just came to greet you, see you later. She smiled away. That smile extended to my face. I had started loving Ifunanya since I noticed her shining beauty.
We had been together one Saturday evening, Ifunanya and I, watching films, when a knock came at the door. Alicia walked in before any response, with a straight face, ignoring Ifunanya’s greeting. Rufus, who’s this girl? She almost shouted. Ifunanya quickly stood up and left. You shouldn’t have been that rude, I said to Alicia, she’s my next door neighbour; she comes to kill time with the TV. Alicia raised her eyebrow, held me and kissed my lips. I did not respond. Then she said, I’m a jealous lover. My love for you can make me do crazy things. Later during lovemaking, she brought the issue of making her pregnant; she said she meant it. She said I should bring wine to her father. She said all sort of things about our future. But I told her that I needed some time to think.
I didn’t tell you that there was this particular day, three months after my first visit to Alicia’s house, she had collapse in her office one afternoon and was rushed to a clinic not too far from the school. I had stayed with her all day, at her home, after she was discharged. The next day, I was at Alicia’s, knocking at the gate for more than one hour until her father opened. I told him that Alicia’s phone was switched off. He stood for a moment as if to inspect me before letting me in. Come in, he said. Come with me. He led me to his study, an empty room, save a portrait of himself, standing on a portable fridge. Sit down, he gestured towards the leather sofa. I really appreciate your closeness with my daughter, he said, but I have a little worry in me. He opened the fridge and brought out a wine and two glasses. He filled the glasses. Still holding the glass he had handed me, I asked, What might that be sir? He sighed. Has Alicia told you everything about her? That she has terminal illness? That she might not live above twenty-eight or thirty? I felt a terrible shock in me; I wanted to shout at him to SHUT UP. But I only stared at him numbly. Then he finally said in a low stern voice, She’s sick, and you know, I won’t take things lightly with anyone who hurts my daughter.
Your drink is getting hot, my friend. I noticed you haven’t been drinking. Beer intoxicates more when served hot. Let that nice guy bring us more drinks and fried meat. Why? You have reached your limit? Oh, I see. You were asking why I didn’t marry Alicia since I told her father I love her. Well, I thought marrying her would be caging myself for eternity and living under the orders of her powerful father. I must confess—with Alicia, life became so easy. My greater happiness came when she increased my salary by four hundred percent. I sent money to my mother and sister, for the first time. Weeks later I went to visit them. My mother hugged me tightly, her eyes heavy with tears. She looked well, but frail. She said she wished my dad was alive to see what his son had become. My sister looked more mature; she said she would soon get married. They were happy to see me. Mother prepared a delicious stew which we ate with rice that evening. They asked how I coped in Abuja, with the differences from Port Harcourt. I told them that I stayed in a small populated town where things were so cheap. I stayed with them for two days and when I was leaving, mother was crying. She always hated when I left; that’s partly why I sneaked out of the house when I left them before. She was still shedding tears when I waved goodbye at the airport lounge. That was the last time I saw my mother and sister. But I hope to see them this December.
Through the versions of my story which had spread virulently and made headlines, I’m sure my mother and sister must have heard that I would end up being be killed by hanging. I wondered why they didn’t come to see me in prison. Journalists rushed me whenever I went to court, with same question: Why did you kill that small girl? I wished I had the answer to that question.
It’s so unreal to believe that Ifunanya is no more. The same questions still run through my thoughts: What was the cause of her death? A strange voodoo from her village? Or was it Alicia who had first described herself as being a jealous lover? Could it be that that meat-pie was poisoned? But I had watched Alicia, from our table, as she walked to the stall to buy it. Was it only that meat-pie that was poisoned? There was no record of stomach aches from other customers that day. I still ask myself these same questions.
Ifunanya’s death was so deceptive. I thought it was just a stomach ache. If I had known, I would have rushed her to the hospital, at least saved her from dying before her time, instead of the sorry I kept saying when she coughed out blood this way and that way, when she fell, wringing, her eyes rolling and the balls out as if threatening to pop out from their sockets.
I was soaked with sweat, my legs were shaky. I felt light when her legs finally straightened, when she sighed and became still.
Neighbours gathered, murmuring and hissing: How could this beautiful girl go just like that? Aunty Gloria cried and cursed me, swearing never to let me go free. I was saying something, but my words were stutter.
A girl ate the meat-pie you gave her and suddenly died, and you’re here claiming innocence? The policeman yelled at me in the torture room. He then advised me to forget about this case, that the autopsy result said she died of food poison.
You mean Alicia? The last time I saw her was before I was transferred from the police cell to prison, shortly before the court case began. She was in a black gown that touched her flat slippers. She looked depressed, like someone who was mourning. Her eyes were misty when she said she had a miscarriage for her three month old pregnancy. The news brought tears to my eyes. I know you didn’t kill that girl, she cried softly. How did you know? I asked. But she didn’t answer. I stood up and walked away, knowing that my death day was at hand.
The hearing started and was going on, revealing more reasons why I must face the death penalty. A day to the final judgment, the day I was to be condemned, the prison door yawned open with two warders holding a hardcover notebook and calling my full name to come out and follow them. At the reception, Aunty Gloria’s eyes were damp. You are free to go, she said, I forgive you. For everything, I forgive you. I felt tears in my eyes. I thought it was unreal because it was daytime, because the night that came before that day, I saw Ifunanya standing in front of me with extended arms.
If I left Abuja immediately? Yes, I signed an undertaking never to be seen anywhere close to Aunty Gloria. I left that day with lost hopes. I left Abuja just the way I came, with my Ghana-must-go clutched at my side.
My friend, as you can see. Overtime workers have closed; see them going home with their tired bones. The bar is cleaning up. It’s been a great time with you, my guy. I wish you a nice weekend. I hope my story hasn’t frightened you in any way? We are now friends, I believe. Good! Exchanging phone numbers won’t be a bad way of parting. Much respect to you too, my guy, it was your story that impelled me to tell you mine, and to remind you that there are some stories that need not be remembered.
Nonso Anyanwu was born and raised in Northern Nigeria. He is a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, where he earned a degree in Literature in English. His work has appeared in various publications including Writing Tomorrow, Africa Book Club, Sunday Sun Review and is forthcoming in the New Contrast. He has just completed his first novel, The Joy of Life Will Kill Us All.
Related country: Nigeria