By Ifesinachi Okoli (Nigeria)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
January 25th 2009
They came again; the three of them. Nneka opened her eyes abruptly the minute she sensed that they were in the room. Her senses had been attuned to their presence since they started visiting three weeks ago. Nothing helped. Not the drugs Doctor Folusho had prescribed or the daily injections she abhorred or the Bible she tucked safely underneath her pillow. Nothing.
The two of them appeared first – the strange woman with her child wearing tattered stained clothes, their forlorn look making her cringe. Their still forms shimmered by the white curtains. She could see right through them to the billowing curtains swelled from the angry gusts of wind that blew in through the open windows that overlooked the sleepy estate. A curved slice of the silver moon hung on the dark starless sky throwing silver rays through the windows that spilled into the room illuminating the chaos within. Her clothes were strewn all over the floor, her briefcase lay open on the chair beside the door, and her bed covers had bunched up at her feet. Sometime during the night she must have pushed her pillow out of the bed because it slept on the floor by her bedside.
The strange woman’s mouth opened in a silent scream of terror, her empty eye sockets wide and scrunched in fear, her hand stretched out to the woman on the bed, pleading, begging. The child on her right arm had its head on her shoulder, its arms wrapped around its mother’s neck.
Go away! Leave me alone!
Nneka pulled the bed covers up to her neck and whimpered. Fear gripped her throat until she felt as if she was choking on the quick pants of her own breath. She never should have insisted that her sister go. Now, she was alone to face her demons. Reaching out awkwardly to the medicine bottles scattered on the bedside table beside her, she knocked them over, including the glass of water that spilled the warm water over the table forming a small pool which dripped down onto the marble floor. The fragile glass rolled lazily across the tabletop and crashed on the floor sending shards flying in all directions. She grabbed some of the pills that were scattered on the table and popped a handful into her mouth, not minding the bitter taste, as she chewed quickly. Nneka cowered, dragging the bedcovers to her neck. While her terrified gaze flew everywhere, she caught sight of something brown partially hidden underneath the pillow on the ground. Snatching it up, she clutched the Bible to her chest and began chanting in muted tones, “Blood of Jesus...Blood of Jesus...”
At that moment the curtains angrily puffed up with the wild wind that tore through the room. She felt biting cold swim through her nightgown leaving goose pimples on her dark brown skin just as the ghost she feared the most appeared beside the strange woman.
“Chima,” she whispered in horror.
As the faint outline of the silhouette grew bolder, Nneka began thrashing about, imprisoned in her panic, her legs paralysed with fear. The ghost walked towards her slowly, his lips stretched in a sly smile, enjoying her obvious terror. He had always wanted to do that while he was alive, she knew. He had mentioned it constantly. She remembered his last words the last time she had seen him.
“What I would give to hurt you the way you and Dad hurt me!” he had said coldly.
“I am sorry, Chima, so sorry...” she cried softly as tears pooled in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. He was so near that, if she reached out a hand, she would touch him, but she had tried it once before and her fingers had gone through his middle. It was what scared her most – that she had touched the ghost of her son. Shivering convulsively, she gazed into his empty eye sockets and knew that if he had eyes, they would be shooting daggers at her. Hatred curled his lips into a sneer.
You had everything, didn’t you?
His whispered words seared into her heart and she heard herself shouting, screaming at him, “No! I didn’t. I wanted to give more. I wanted to be more than just a useless wife, a failing mother, a...a murderer!”
Her confession sent a surge of energy shooting through her, propelling her out of the bed. As she flew out of her bedroom, down the hall, through the room opposite hers and into the balcony, his mocking laughter filled her ears. It wasn’t until she was standing in the middle of the balcony that she noticed the blood on her right foot and felt the searing pain that tore through her leg. But it was nothing compared to the terrible heaviness in her chest. She lifted her right foot and gasped at the large gash under her foot, probably caused by the broken glass in her room. The tiny pieces of the glass still stuck in her foot glittered under the silver moon. She limped to the railing. The air smelt strangely sweet. Sounds filled the air – few night time crawlers in their cars, the distant hum of a generator set somewhere, a plane passing by overhead. She wished she could hang on to the plane, fly away, fly so far away...
The tears had dried on her face. She curled her fingers on the railing. Her neighbour’s dog began barking. She could see its cage from where she stood. The flower beds in this neighbourhood could win an award. There was a profusion of ixoras, alamandas, queen-of-the-nights, some she did not know their names, some creeping, others swinging their dainty heads in the breeze.
She tightened her fingers. Below her, she could see the remains of the battered car that had been brought home a week ago, a constant reminder of the day a month ago that had haunted her for the better part of three weeks. The day that had stolen everything she was...
December 25th 2008.
If there was any indication that Christmas day was going to end in multiple tragedies, Nneka would have slept in and postponed her Christmas till the next day. There had been no premonition, no nightmares or warning signs to get her prepared for the pain ahead. Ever the prompt executive, she had arrived at the office at a few minutes to eight on Christmas day. It was a little too early but she was tired of staying home alone and she wanted to escape the turmoil raging in her head. Throughout the drive, she listened to Christmas songs on the radio and the chirpy voice of the female presenter who wanted to make lonely people like her feel like they were part of the festivities. The streets were almost empty, the merriment had started. Brilliant decorations of red and green were everywhere. As the gate of the company where she worked swung open, the security men waved strangely, unsure. One of them jogged up to her as she came out of the car.
“Madam, good morning.”
“Good morning Barnabas. Anything the matter?”
He scratched his head before replying slowly, “Em...em...no madam. Only say e be like say you don’t forget say today na Christmas day. Nobody dey work.”
“I know, Barnabas and I’ve got work to do. Get my things out of the car, will you?”
She didn’t wait for a reply as she headed for the building with the red and green lights blinking all over the walls.
As Barnabas had said, the offices were empty. She took the stairs to her office on the second floor. The door sign read BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT EXECUTIVE MANAGER, MRS NNEKA MBANEFO. Barnabas came in few minutes later with her things and set them down as usual. He left quietly. She made coffee and settled into her chair with her laptop. As she took her first sip, her Blackberry rang. The caller ID read Big Sister.
“Ah ah Nneka, I called you yesterday night. Why didn’t you pick up?” her sister’s voice boomed angrily.
“Sorry. I got into a little fight with Chima over the phone and after that, I put the phone on silent. I guess I forgot to call back.”
She sighed. As her mind flashed back, she felt anger burn within her. Anger and misery. “He said that he didn’t want to come back for Christmas; that he was going to remain in school. Can you imagine? He knows that I will be here alone. Ever since our fight, my husband has been out of the country for six months and most of the time, I am lonely and yet Chima, whom I am working so hard for, accuses me of not caring about him. I don’t know what the world is turning into these days.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Ifeyinwa said. “Why don’t you visit him?”
“Don’t worry. I insisted that he come home or else I won’t get him the new car he has been disturbing me for.”
Ifeyinwa’s hesitant laughter lasted all of a minute before she continued. “I wanted to invite you and Chima over to the house for lunch and maybe dinner. I don’t know if...”
“Thank you very much sister, but I am fine. Stop being so protective. We are not little girls anymore. I will be forty by next year.”
“I’m not being over-protective, I just...Nneka, I really don’t know what is happening between you and Emeka but whatever it is...”
“I told you that my husband just wanted some time off, that’s all. He’ll be back by the first of January. It’s just a small misunderstanding.”
Ifeyinwa sighed. There was no use getting into an argument with Nneka, especially when she was in a foul mood. It was futile. She believed what she wanted to believe. Ifeyinwa had heard rumours and she was afraid of what would happen when Nneka heard them. “No problem then. Mark sends his greetings and the kids.”
“Your children are no longer kids,” Nneka teased then added, “one of them is getting married soon.”
“You think they will ever let me forget?” she asked and hung up.
Ifeyinwa’s call lightened her spirit a bit, made her feel that someone cared enough to find out how she was. For a second there, it had seemed that she was alone. Her mind flitted back to the past five years of her eighteen year old marriage; there was never a time she had not fought with her husband, especially since she had been promoted to the post of the business development executive manager of the telecommunication company where she had worked for fifteen years. Emeka, her husband, had constantly accused her of neglecting the family, an accusation she despised for its lack of authenticity. Most of the luxurious things her family enjoyed were paid for with her money, her sweat. Emeka’s civil servant income would never be able to afford the duplexes they owned in Ikoyi and as far as Port Harcourt. Her rebel son agreed with his father. They just never seemed to be satisfied with all the sacrifices she put in. Since the last fight where her husband angrily left for the United States, he had been there for well over six months with just a few calls in between. There was no one who understood that she was afraid, afraid of losing not just her husband but her only child who blamed her for sending his father away and who complained that she was never there when she was needed.
The call came in around five. After enjoying nine solitary hours of work, she was startled when her Blackberry rang. It was an international call.
“Nneka.” The voice on the other end was curt.
“Emeka? Emeka, how are you? How could you not call today of all days?” she cried. How could he be so selfish? He had refused to give her his number, using pay phones to call her. She balled her fist in frustration. How long would this last?
“Nneka, this is no time for one of your tantrums. I don’t have much time to talk to you.”
“Why? What is so urgent that you can’t talk to your wife on Christmas day?” she retorted. “Did you even call Chima? He has been harassing me but you don’t care, do you? You never did! You think only of yourself, so very selfish.”
“Will you stop your nagging? Well, that is why I called, Nneka. I have decided to stop being selfish, saying it in your own words. Look, I don’t want you to get all dramatic when I tell you this but...”
His heavy breathing filled her ears and for a moment, she felt dread seize her heart.
“You...you are...you are not going to say that you are not coming back, are you?”
“I’m sorry, Nneka,” he said softly. “I can’t do this anymore. I...I met a girl here, a good white girl and we...we are getting married. She’s pregnant and by the end of the month, we should be getting ready...” he let his voice trail off and in her mind she completed it for him.
No...No...No...this was so wrong...a good white girl? An oyinbo girl? Over me?
“Emy...Emy biko, please, don’t be like this. Come home so that we can talk. Please...I beg you. For Chima’s sake.”
“There’s nothing to talk about, Nneka. I will call you later. Please try and be strong and don’t go traipsing off to your in-laws and start bad-mouthing me. It was your fault.”
“What do you mean it was my fault? What did I...Emeka? Emeka?”
He had disconnected the line. She stared at her Blackberry in confusion, unsure where to start from, what to do. He was not going to do this to her. She wouldn’t allow it. She felt hot and cold, all of a sudden. Empty. Drained. Yet an unhealthy dose of anger curled through her, tightened her stomach.
It was a broken woman that came out of the building, her briefcase hanging limply by her side. Her eyes were red and sluggish like someone who was drunk. When the security men waved their goodbyes, she hardly saw them. She drove for a few minutes in the silent car absent-mindedly noticing the merriment on the streets, the couples that bounced hand in hand out of the restaurants, some of them carrying their children. She parked her car just by the road in front of her favourite restaurant: Kay’s Place. For a few minutes, she rested her head on the steering wheel and let the tears flow. Soon she was bawling, the thick mucus from her runny nose dripping onto her skirt. She kept hitting the steering wheel with her head.
I should have seen this coming.
Should have shielded herself from it while she could. How could he do this to her? How could he abandon both of them? What would she do with Chima? He hated her, blamed her for everything.
The rap on her car window interrupted her. She snatched a handkerchief from her bag and wiped her face before looking up with an automatic smile. As soon as she saw her visitor, the smile died.
“What? What is it?!”
The young girl, about the same age as her son, was dressed in a dirty loose kaftan that looked so worn out that the threads were pulling out, her hair hidden beneath a scarf. The twins she carried on both arms, no more than three years old, rested their heads on her shoulders. They looked even worse off in just their dirty pants. Nneka knew they were beggars. Lagos had countless beggars hanging around parking lots and on the roadsides. She thought they were like an infection that kept coming back. The haggard looking girl with the drawn face gestured to Nneka with her palms.
Aunty abeg, please money to chop, no money. The pikins them never chop...she mouthed. The angry beast in Nneka snatched her bag from the passenger seat and opened the door swiftly hitting them. One of the children began to cry.
“Get out of my way, you fools. Get out! And if you touch my car, I swear I will have both of you thrown in jail and the keys tossed into the Atlantic, gutter rats! You didn’t know when you were opening your legs for a man when he can’t even feed you! Idiots!” she hissed.
They backed away. A passer-by stopped briefly to watch the commotion before moving on when the crazy woman stormed into the restaurant. Nneka settled in at table away from others, not even caring to admire the rustic interior design that had always made her feel welcome. When a waiter came up to her, she barely glanced up before ordering a martini.
“Madam, welcome,” the waiter repeated, a huge smile of familiarity on his face.
“Just go get the martini, will you? And keep it coming,” she snapped.
“Madam, but you never...”
“I said keep-it-coming,” she growled and watched him back away. His smile had disappeared.
She swallowed the first two tots in a rush before the tears started again. She pressed the handkerchief to her eyes to squelch the flow. Her eyes burned. Sometime during the sixth drink, she lost herself to the seduction of the strong drink. Light headed, she paid her bills and stepped out, taking care not to bump into the tables. She felt so dizzy.
“Merry Christmas, Madam. Are you sure you can drive in this condition?”
It was that bloody waiter again, she thought. She gave him the middle finger and stalked off. When she got outside, everywhere was dark and cars were lined up in front of the restaurants that lined the street. As she got into her car, the world spun for a moment, but then righted itself.
Easy...easy...she said softly and giggled. My husband just left me and I am finding it funny enough to giggle, she thought. I am going crazy!
Putting the car in reverse, she backed out of the lot, heading for home. She needed to sleep and by the time she woke up in the morning, the world would be a better place, she thought woozily. Her stomach rumbled a reminder that all she had had was coffee in the morning and a couple of dry sausages she had sent one of the security men to get her in the afternoon. The sausage was a guilty pleasure she indulged in from time to time, a defiance to the weight loss diet which she had embarked on to shed some weight so that she could look amazing for Emeka when he came back. Not that she was fat though; she was a perfect size ten, tall, long legs with hair that had not started greying yet. She still had men telling her that she was beautiful. Some of them had asked her on a date, which she had rebuffed. Thinking about it now, she wondered if she had not been so sure of herself, wallowing in her delusion that Emeka would be back.
The streetlamps cast long shadows across the lonely streets as she drove down to her three bedroom duplex in the Ikoyi suburbs. She noticed the fireflies dancing around the lights, so carefree in their play. The dark sky looked gloomy, starless, as dark as the thoughts in her mind. She must have spent much time at the restaurant because, unlike the usual traffic, the roads were almost empty. Stepping on the accelerator she allowed the powerful BMW X5 Jeep to zoom on.
The ringing of her blackberry startled her. On the passenger seat beside her, it vibrated then launched into an R&B ring tune. The traffic light far ahead still showed green and the road was clear so she used the opportunity to reach out to the phone but it missed her searching fingers and fell down. Cursing loudly, she bent down to pick it up.
It happened so quickly she couldn’t recall what happened afterwards. One minute she bent down to pick her phone up and the next she thought she saw something fly across the road. Just when she quickly stepped on the brakes to avoid it, gritting her teeth as the car screeched to a halt, she felt the impact of the car as it bumped into the moving object. Her heart thumped wildly as she switched off the engine and stepped out of the car, cautiously. Only when she noticed that there was a human being lying across the streets did she run to the front of the car.
Oh my God!
It was a woman and a child and there was blood everywhere, splattered on the bumper of her car. She swayed in a faint and caught herself just in time. Gently, she pressed a finger to the woman’s pulse.
She snatched her hand quickly as if it was burned. Shivering, she threw her hands on her head. With the twisted angle the child was positioned, she knew that the child was dead. From the state of their torn dirty clothes she guessed that they were most likely beggars on their way back home.
Damned beggars are everywhere!
Shaking badly and quite sober, she dashed towards her car, got in and started it. The grating noise the car made as she reversed then turned into the other side of the road was enough to wake the dead. She looked around but saw no one or any oncoming car. Tears spilled out of her eyes, blinding her vision until she had to wipe them. She was grateful when she turned into her compound. The sleepy security man opened the gate and after locking it, went back to sleep. She got out and turned around to the bumper, staring at the blood in fear. She took off her suit jacket and wiped off most of the blood. The coppery smell made her gag; she heaved and emptied the contents of her stomach on the ground.
I should report this...I really should...
Fool, they’ll throw you in jail or worse, tie a rope around your neck. You just killed a mother and her child!
Oh God, my life is finished!
Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she bunched up the soiled jacket and threw it into the car. She felt so weak that she knew that she could do nothing more until the morning. The house was in darkness when she entered. Flinging the car keys to the floor, she switched the lights on and jumped.
“Chima, you scared me!”
She wiped her teary eyes and knew she looked a mess. Her nose couldn’t stop running.
“Did I, mum?”
Her son stood up from the sofa he had been reclining on and regarded her with hostility, oblivious of her dishevelled look. At seventeen he was taller than her, his muscles just beginning to form. He was as dark as his father, a striking resemblance altered by the new rebellious look he had adopted since the last time he had come home. He had let his hair grow full and thick, the tips were curled and entangled. An ear ring glittered in one ear.
“What...what is that on your arm?”
“It’s a tattoo mum,” he sneered. “Never seen one before?”
She stared aghast at the ugly snake with its open wide mouth on her son’s arm and felt her legs give away. She slid to the ground and dissolved in tears. It was all too much for her to handle. She kept seeing the images of the people she had killed in her mind.
“You were the one that asked me to come home, didn’t you? Well I am here just like you wanted. Satisfied?” his voice had risen with each word he said. “Does that make you happy that I am miserable? It’s always been about you, you, you...when do you ever think of what I want?”
“Shut up, Chima! Just shut up!” she screamed, rising. “I work almost round the clock so that you can go to the best school, go for the best holidays, become the best among your mates while your useless father is all over the world chasing girls. Both of you are the same! You both are selfish! You want to drain the blood out of me at my young age. Is this the way my mates look? Tell me, you fool! And your idiot of a father had the guts to call me over the phone that he is not coming back because he’s marrying a white girl!”
“What did you say?” Chima asked coldly, unmindful of the tears that ran down her cheeks unbidden. “Dad is not coming back?”
“That is exactly what I said. Your father, your irresponsible father has gone off with a foolish girl who has listened to all the lies he has told her.”
For a few minutes Chima remained still, his senses reeling. It was difficult for him to comprehend that the father he had known, the one who had loved him so much, was gone and not coming back. He glared at his mother with loathing.
For a few minutes there was silence as his chest rose and fell quickly like he was trying to suppress his fury. Then he pointed directly at her. “What I would give to hurt you the way you and Dad have hurt me!” he snarled. Snatching up the car keys, he stalked off into the night.
Hours later, Nneka would regret that she had not stopped him as he left in such rage. The Police brought back the battered car and her suit jacket soaked with someone else’s blood – her son’s blood. Witnesses had testified that his car had been doing 140 km/hr at the time it rammed into a trailer that had just entered the expressway. They said he had died on the spot.
January 25th 2009
I have nothing left, Nneka thought as she peered over the railing.
The ghosts were her constant visitors, the only ones that stayed with her through the night, tormenting her with questions she couldn’t answer. Sometimes she saw the loneliness mixed with the rage in her son’s empty eye sockets, the sorrow in the strange woman’s, the despair in the woman’s son’s and she knew that she should make it all right. She had to put things right.
The drugs were beginning to take effect. Her vision blurred doubling everything in its path. Looking down a story below, the hard cemented ground rose up to her - inviting, tempting. Chima slowly appeared on the ground below, his arms stretched out to her. That horrible smile curled the corner of his lips but he no longer looked as if he wanted to kill her. If anything, he seemed to be cajoling her. He had lost his tattoo, she noticed. She wanted to tell him that that was good, a turning point. Maybe, they would get along if she joined him. She would take care of him, spend more time with him, make sure that he knew how much she loved him, how every sweat that had dropped from her body had been to give him the luxurious life she had not enjoyed as a child. She was tired of being strong all the time, she just wanted to be a mother to the only child that had nested in her womb.
Come over. I’m waiting...we are waiting... She heard his voice clearly in her mind.
“I’m coming,” she replied aloud. “Hold on...”
The security man woke up slowly but the cobwebs of sleep were still in his brain when he looked up and saw his employer climb over the railing, speaking to herself. The scene before him seemed so surreal. Then his brain started working properly enough to translate the message: his boss was about to commit suicide. By the time he jumped to his feet and screamed to her, it was too late.
He snapped his eyes shut as the body fell over and landed on the ground with a sickening thud.