Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Hood

 

Mtchew!”

That was Tunde sighing, and anyone that had passed by his window through the slim lane  outside the blocks of rickety rooms almost jammed together, dodging the pot holes filled with black water, having to jump from side to side when he sighed, might not have heard it. His sigh was weak, a fair reflection of his state of mind. It sounded like he was tired of sighing. Like his lips didn’t like repetition. Even though he couldn’t place the origins of his now very frequent sighs. He had trekked almost five miles earlier while the sun was still out; his wallet had fallen out, or so he made himself believe, so he wouldn’t think about how the thugs at the park where he boarded a bus after the usual pushing and struggle to enter would be happy they had successfully picked his pocket. He didn’t want to imagine how they would smile at the five thousand Naira incash that still sparkled. He had been to the ATM, where he emptied his account. It was supposed to take him through the week. He hoped Sir Ugo, his boss, wouldn’t stall the payment of salaries any further. He always said “You know how the economy is” to the workers, like it was in the national constitution, or a legal excuse of some sort. Tunde compared him to the police officers who openly took 50 Naira from each and every taxi driver on the road and took the liberty of assaulting them if they refused.

“In broad daylight!” he had said to his colleague.

He lay down on the floor soaked in his own sweat. He reminisced on how he had staggered inside the room, exhausted from his trek.He had fallen on the floor and begun snoring.He reached for the window with his long hairy left hand and hit it open; it slid to the left side, stopping halfway way through the rail. He didn’t have the strength to stretch his hands again, to hit it harder so it moved to the other end completely. He silently lay flat and enjoyed the soft breeze that had begun slipping in through the window. His dusty window net had a straight parallel line that ran through it. Mosquitoes accompanied the breeze that came in. He didn’t mind, though. He would rather have the mosquitoes with some cool breeze than have them with suffocating heat.

Tunde wasn’t used to the blackout, his previous residence had been considerably better. He had moved to the new neighborhood two weeks ago. A single  pole stood at the entrance of a lone muddy path beside Agip Flyover  in the heart of Port Harcourt city, Nigeria, and a slim blue narrow plate hung from the top, ‘Joy Street’ boldly written. The welder had made the plate narrow as if trying to match the size of locally made sliced bread, like the pole and plate paid rent and minimized space. In less than two days after  Tunde  moved in, he understood why his side neighbor Betty called it ‘Mistake Avenue’; she too had moved in by mistake, so had every other person or almost everyone. Luckily though, her rent was due in two months. They had all fallen into the mercies of the same truth-economizing housing agents. Tunde could vividly remember the day the agents brought him to the house to show him. It looked like the power holding company partnered with them as the street houses were flooded with lights and the tap and shower in the house gave a generous show.

“Is the light good here?” Tunde had asked.

“Yes. It is very regular; there is hardly a day without light or water.” They had said and reality agreed.

“You can ask anybody around,” they announced further.

And that was the line. Tunde soon learned it worked on Betty too. They knew he wouldn’t ask, not without making it seem like he was calling his father’s mates liars because they were serving him.

That day, Betty was sitting in front of her room, busy with her phone as always after she came back from work. She worked at a betting shop close by, spreading her legs across her medium sized bench that had space for just another buttocks her size. She wore shorts that revealed a huge part of her bronze-toned skin. The shorts were so tight that they seemed to trace her vulva and it made Tunde’s eyes restless.

Something about the way she smiled when the agent said “hardly a day without water” gave Tunde a brief second thought. But then again, she could be smiling at anything. She was glued to her screen, after all.

Tunde soon learned from Betty that she had heard their conversation that day, and he playfully blamed her. He said he would have spoken up if he had been in her position. Betty mostly laughed when he started. There was always some sort of seriousness in his jokes. The same kind of playful seriousness he had the previous night when he had tapped her luscious lap when she came in to his room -- as she did most nights, wearing her pink  Daisy Dukes -- and sat on the floor with him, telling each other stories and laughing. He rubbed it slowly and she sat still for a while and then slapped his hands off after a moment of awkwardness, before walking out.

He lay still wondering if she had forgiven him, wondering maybe she wasn’t even angry, maybe she just felt awkward. He was so sure she had given him the green light; he wouldn’t have made a move if she hadn’t had her seducing game on. All those nights they sat facing each other and she would wear nothing under her light off-white night gown and would open her legs wide. How she never wore bras when coming to his room or the somewhat sultry looks she always gave him, or the night before she had made a naughty comment on the bulge behind his boxers.

He sat up and watched her from the window. She sat on her usual bench in silent communion with her cellphone. He wondered what she would think of him. He thought about the chances of him having misunderstood her body language. Maybe they had been just negligent misrepresentations. He shrugged. That couldn’t be the case, her seductions had been quite clear. Maybe no one could really understand women.

He texted his colleague best friend about it.

“You are a man with blood running through your veins, whether she did it intentionally or not, it’s not your fault! She should be lucky you didn’t take her even!!!” Jide texted back almost immediately.

Tunde read the text over and over. His eyes settled on the last word with the exclamation marks. He wondered if Jide screamed the “even.” Tunde’s visage remained indifferent. He wasn’t sure the text had helped; whether it had assuaged his guilt or prompted him to pick up the challenge. Still, he stood up, changed from the work clothes he still wore and made for outside. He made to attempt the usual, to sit beside Becky so they would laugh and pass time. The way he would bring a new story immediately after the last words from the former left his mouth like he was competing with the guys asking for her attention the electronic way.  By the time he got to the bench, she was gone, obviously declining any further contact.

Tunde sat on the bench alone. It was still warm, almost like dying embers, their friendship, or whatever it was they had. He shifted to the other corner and sat like a scared schoolgirl, maintaining a boundary as if an invisible Betty sat beside him.

A door squeaked, Tunde’s eyes brightened. He knew she would come around, but when he turned his eyes, he realized that hope was really overrated. It was Ejiks, his neighbor in an adjacent apartment. Last time they spoke was four days ago, when Ejiks had complained to Tunde to switch off his taps before going to work. He said one could always hear them flowing to waste, and depleting the reserve in the storage tanks.

Tunde had said “Sorry, I will try”. The scarcity of water had deadened the instinct of what motion – clockwise or anti-clockwise – would switch off the tap. So, he mostly left it on and went to work since there was hardly any water meandering through those pipes.

Ejiks was a weird large man who almost never talked. He looked his early forties, but really was in his thirties. Hard times, perhaps. When Tunde had first unpacked, he always heard Ejiks arguing with a smallish, pregnant woman. Even her pregnancy didn’t help her weight. Their voices always had loud intercourse in. Tunde would try to peep through their window to make sure he wasn’t killing her. Fighting with such a man was a death wish. He eventually got tired of that sport and would just block his ears with his headphones whenever he heard them begin the prenuptial stages of domestic violence.  He presumed she was his wife but then he figured she was a random girl he got pregnant and was forced to fend for. The last time he heard them quarrel was a week ago. It also marked the last he saw her. Her stomach wasn’t protruding anymore. She had sneaked out at night with two bags.

Tunde had had difficulties sleeping that night:  his ears weren’t used to the symphonies the mosquitoes were rendering. He was staring at his window when she sneaked by it with her bags, without her baby.

Tunde never heard the child cry, never saw Ejiks carry him out. The only proof of a child was the baby diapers he saw Ejiks purchase regularly.   He made to greet Ejiks, but Ejiks walked too fast past him, with something wrapped in his hand in an Ankara wrapper, something the moonlight failed to reveal .Still, for lack of something better to do, Tunde looked at him till he got out of sight. Then, he stood up and forced himself to his room.

 

Days soon turned to a week, and nothing changed for Tunde. Ejiks became more unexplainable. Why, he left his lamps on and would travel for days and his foam he would carry out occasionally. Betty went out of her way to avoid him. He could still see her sit outside his window with her nightgown. The glow from her phone’s screen would shed some light on her pointed nipples, sheltered only by a veneer of transparent fabric. Her phone was still her object of leisure, and she laughed out loud occasionally. He wondered if she had read the text message he sent her earlier at work.

“Betty, I’m sorry I did that. You probably don’t know how helpless your charms make me. I lost use of reason for a moment…and… I hoped you liked me too. That’s was why I made a move. I’m really sorry, and I know better now and I won’t try it again. Give our friendship another chance, please. I miss our laughs. You are leaving the ‘Mistake Avenue’ in one week, please, make it count just for the memories, at least,” he had texted.

He still watched her from his window, not sure about what move it was prudent to take. She might just do what she always did: hurry to her room before he got to the bench. At least now he could watch her from his window, and it was better than having her go inside. He took a deep breath and took a few bold steps outside and towards her. He made himself cautiously at home on the space left on the bench. He could have sworn she wasn’t aware of the extra weight, like he didn’t exist; she didn’t count it worth her while to bestow a sideward glance.

“I’m sorry, Betty,” Tunde pleaded calmly.

“There is something not right with Ejiks,“ Betty said, with an implication  she was charting the course for the conversation.

“How do you mean?” Tunde played along. He was hopeful a distraction from the weightier matters would be to his advantage.

“This morning, he left his house, almost running and his door bounced back open. I sat here observing. So I decided to help him shut his door, and I was about to, when he dashed out from no where, pushing me out from the threshold. My heart almost fell out of my mouth,” she said, holding her chest.

“Why would he do that?” Tunde asked puzzled.

“I don’t know. The same way I don’t what he hides in there. Have you ever seen Ejiks talk about his baby or heard his baby cry? Yet his dustbin is always filled with used diapers.” She shrugged her shoulders and returned attention to her phone. She had been speaking without making eye contact with him; like she wasn’t ready to read whatever plea was written there.

“Do you think we should ask him?”

‘You and who?” she snapped at him.

They both sat in silence through the remaining part of the evening till Becky made to go to bed.

“Goodnight,” she said. She casually began to stand up, placing the nearest hand on Tunde’s lap to lever her weight --that could have been the reason. But her hand slid down further, towards his groin, perhaps not deliberately massaging the shaft of his blooming arousal, but then no doubt taking into cognizance the bulge in his Hilfiger boxers, elongating and filling with blood and libido every second her fingers lingered.

She slowly made to her room, not looking anywhere else but her phone screen, her mild grin obscured by darkness. Tunde sat helpless, watching her. His bulge was very much alive. It kept shaking in his bulbous shorts. Tunde knew better than to let it break free as the shorts were all he wore besides his red vest. He sank in the cool of the breeze and felt his penis go flaccid again, before he headed inside.

He lay awake. His phone had gone off a while back. He lay thinking about Becky for a while. His penis ached from multiple erections. He rolled over and shut his eyes, batting the eyelids together as if seducing them to sleep. He began summing up all the debts he had incurred. His boss had still not paid. The salary hadn’t come yet the money was gone; he sighed again. It didn’t prove a soothing lullaby.

There was the sound of metal scraping the floor. Tunde had become familiar with it. He knew it was Ejiks coming back from ‘after hours' as usual. He crept to his window and watched Ejiks till he closed his door. He sank back on his bed, feeling disappointed. He wished Ejiks had spent more time unlocking the padlock, he wished he himself had spent more time outside the door. Watching Ejiks kept him busy, busy away from his disquiet. He still lay quiet when he heard Ejiks struggling to overcome friction to roll his window, which had become stiff from lack of use. The heat really was unbearable. Tunde became aware of dancing figures on his wall. They were shadows of the smouldering candle lit close to Ejiks’ window, extending a little courtesy, one window to another. They also brought the temptation to go over and peek into Ejiks’ room. Tunde battled with his curiosity.This was a one-time shot and he knew it. He lay still.He took a deep breath. Curiosity had finally conquered his gut. He made his way outside as quietly as he could, walked on his toes with his lips between his teeth. He took a concluding step and was about to catch a glimpse when…

“Tunde!” That was Betty watching him from her window, making him jump from his skin.

“What’s wrong with you?” he cried in a whisper, simultaneously putting one hand on his head and pointing the other at her.

“How could you think of doing this without me?” she whispered -- and still managed to make it sound like a scold.

“Is that why you want to get me caught?” he replied in the same tone.

Ejiks’ uneasy snoring came to life, and it shotboldness into their pulses. They took quicker steps and stopped only when they made contact with the mesh of his window netting. They held their breath while their eyeballs rummaged around the room, unsure about their object of interest. Suddenly, Betty's hands covered her mouth, her eyes and nose struggled to seek shade under her palms. Tunde’s eyes broadened, he bore an expression bordering between incredulity and shock. They were no longer concerned about the furtiveness of their venture or aware of the loud snores bouncing off the walls of the room.

“Who is there!?” Ejiks gingered as he struggled to open his door. Some feet shuffled with the sound of a hurried exit. A door banged and it was quiet again. He stood outside saying nothing, biting his lower lip, staring at Tunde’s room. He turned back into his room with something crestfallen about his shoulders.

Tunde exhaled when he heard Ejiks' door close. He was still panting from his reconnaissance. Also, the mental images he had captured from Ejiks' room had waylaid all his previous anxiety about his pocket and left him shaken. He wept. Somehow, he pictured Becky stifling her sobs too.

 

 

 

The sun sent sharp rays that penetrated Tunde’s eyelids and forced them open. He rubbed off the slimy matter around his eyelids; he had cried himself to sleep. He grabbed his wrist watch on the table and sank back on the bed. It was thirty minutes past ten.

He went to the window when he heard Betty’s door. He watched someone lock the house and throw the keys in his pocket. He grabbed his phone to call her when he saw her text on his home screen. She had moved to stay with her friend in Lagos till she found a new place.

Four days swept by and Tunde still wasn’t used to Betty’s absence. Calls and chats weren’t enough. She didn’t fare any better than he did, though; scenes from Ejiks' room still flashed through their minds, the disturbing images of the malformed child.

“No wonder we never heard him cry.” Tunde had said to Becky on a call. The contortion of the child’s lower jaws must have been the cause.

Tunde avoided communication with Ejiks, especially eye contact; those too were like talking drums. He got late nights at work, and it was one of those nights he came home and saw Ejiks drinking outside in moody solitude. Tunde swiftly made for his room and headed to his window with the same speed.

“Michael, you know I did everything to save you,” he mourned, taking generous gulps of the dry gin he held. Tunde couldn’t help the mistiness coming to his eyes. He sank to the floor.

“So, his name was Michael,” he murmured. He thought about all Ejiks must have gone through. He couldn’t help feeling it was for the better that the child had found peace. He shuddered to think of the quality of life it could have led.

Tunde woke up feeling lighter. He didn’t move a muscle. He felt better lying still. He heard a low hum and beheld the ceiling fan begin to turn, in a slow whirring motion.

“Oh my God. Light!” he exclaimed

He was still swimming in joy that sparkled off the light bulbs when he saw one of the agents who had facilitated his tenancy.

Tunde went out to get a proper look. The agent was with a young lady, who Tunde stood observing for a while. She fitted what the locals called the bottle-shape, although her hips and bustline were slightly exaggerated for her slim figure, like all the fat went to those places. Tunde watched the agent tell her about the house with the very same lines that had been used on him. He picked his phone from his pocket and began texting Betty when he heard:

“Yes, it is very regular! There is hardly a day without light or water.”

He couldn’t help smiling as he texted her. Tunde took another glimpse and caught  the lady’s eyes. He looked away.

He wanted to tell her the agent lied, but he didn’t for some reason.

“I knew the light had an aim,” he had texted.

 

 

 

 

Chukwukere Nwovike’s story “Disturbed” was published by Okada. He has written articles for Pride magazine and Nazcargad writers block titled “I be man” and “Firstly human.” A native of Nigeria, he freelances for a living and is currently in his final year of law school.