Mama called you three days ago to tell you Baba Onile will send them packing if she fails to pay up the rent by the end of the month. And “Morayo,” she said, “is not in school again. Propato sent her back home last week and has refused to allow her back. Not until we pay her skool-fisi.” You promised to send it as soon as you get your salary, but even as you said it you wondered what your twenty-five-thousand-naira salary would do.
Things would have been better, fairly though, if Baba were here, you thought. And you felt guilt flush over your soul like a cold breeze after a heavy rain.
You remember how you always called your father a lazy fool. How you hated the man. A man who spent his life smoking sticks of White London, even with the “Smokers are liable to die young” sprawled on the green pack, in white. He couldn’t read. A man who you were too ashamed to call your father because most nights he slept near the road like a mad man. And you swore never to be like him. You swore to be a millionaire, to drive your first car before you clock thirty, at most twenty-nine. You will be thirty-one soon.
Now you wonder if smoking cigarettes and falling into muddy pools after one has drenched one’s soul in ogogoro isn’t a good way to live.
You clear your table. All important documents, although there’s none, go in your locker, which you lock. You slip the key in your pocket. “Mary,” you call the lady using the desk next to yours, the only other person in the room three of you share as office. She doesn’t look up. “See you on Monday.”
“Oh Bro Biola,” she says, still not looking up from the sheet she’s dealing with. You understand. School exam is on its way, and for a married woman with a child, taking two senior classes, two different subjects, that’s a lot. “See you on Monday.”
“Alright.” And with that you leave the room.
You decide to walk home, so that you can at least minimise what you spend on bike every working day. So that you can at least save fifty-naira.
Men, well dressed, wearing heavy-patterned caps not many of them would wear on normal days, shoot out of every corner, haste on their feet. And women in long and short Hijabs, and their children, on their way to talk to Allah, walk not far behind. From the near distance, air waves bring you the lyrical voices of men calling others to the Jumat. Now some are running. Their prayer mats, folded, held under their armpits. Ramadan is near.
Till you get home you still hear the recurring Allahu Akbar coming in every now and then, after a few lines, like a refrain in a poem. And you think of God, of your relationship with God. How we all seek something to hold on to, and how the only feasible thing is God and his word. Even though we know close to nothing about him.
A letter is waiting for you, dropped in a white envelope tucked in between the door and the doorframe of your room. You open the envelope and draw out a white sheet as you sit on the small student bed in your room. Your room with its tattered carpets, with the transparent tape you used to mend the shame.
13th June, 2016.
Dear Mr Sanjo,
I am writing to inform you that your one-and-a-half-year rent will be due next month, Sir. I will be very glad if you could pay up for the next one year before the due time. Thank you Sir.
As you read the letter you know who must have helped the old man in writing it – Sulaiman, his son. The reality, however, dawns on you: Your rent will be due next month. Another situation.
Your phone begins to ring: Baba God o,
pick up the call
Emi na fe wa Range o
pick up the call
Dangote o’lori meji…
You check the caller – Moyeni. You drop the phone. You wait. You pick it up again. The ringing dies. You drop the phone. The ringing begins again. You pick up the phone and answer the call.
“Why didn’t you pick my call?” comes the voice from the other side.
No answer. A heavy silence hangs loose, like a bat hanging with its legs up and head down in the daytime, between the both of you.
“How was work today?” Moyeni asks.
You don’t answer this; you answer that. “I’m sorry I didn’t pick your call earlier,” you say.
She says nothing for a while, and then asks: “What’s going on Sanjo?”
You go ahead to tell her a lot is going on. A lot – more than you can chew. “I’m tired of life,” you say.
Her voice comes like a soft healing song. “Sanjo, I understand. It’s tough, as tough as hell, but you’re tougher.” You want to tell her hell doesn’t capture it, really. And then she says, “When rain falls on a leopard, it doesn’t wash away its skin, even though it will leave it cold.” A pause. “Keep that in your heart. Love you, bye.”
You shake your head without saying a word. That’s Moyeni, she has a way of bringing a green tomorrow into a dusty today. And for that, you love her; for that, you know she is different.
Your “Love you” comes in a whisper, but you still hear that hearty laughter that got you in the first place. It’s her way, her ability to stay happy even when everything seems grey. She always believes everything good will, someday, come.
After you get yourself something – jollof rice that tastes no better than concoction, the same type you used to eat to school in those days, and two fifty naira meats, each the size of one-third of your middle finger – to eat from the small canteen down your street, Charley’s Room, you read Senghor’s “Noliwe” from an anthology of African poems. You hark back to your undergraduate years in UNILORIN. How you’d sworn to get yourself a bite of the sun and swallow the moon, poetry hasn’t left you still. You think about the first line of that poem till your eyes betray you; even then you can still hear the words in your heart, like a firebrand message from a firebrand preacher: “The weakness of the heart is holy.”
When you jump up from bed and beads of sweat collect like united soldiers on your forehead, it isn’t that you’re already late for work, like you’ve slept too much. You check the time: 3:01am. It is what you saw: that little thing that crept into your eyes, that pale thing that bore bright colours.
You can still hear your voice in your head. “How many heads will have to be pound before this wealth stays permanently?” The old man’s voice came sharp. “Wealth and fortune are visitors; it is you that must keep them from leaving. That is why as long as you live you must pound heads in the mortar of life.”
You saw something that looked like … in the mortar. The Baba hands you the pestle and you wouldn’t pound. A burning lash lands on your back and you raise the pestle and drop the first blow on your head.
As you walk out of the old man’s house, your friend Koyi coming behind you, before you reach the brown gate now covered in rust, you turn back to look at him. “I’m very disappointed Koyi. I’m very, very disappointed.” You shake your head sideways. “I trusted you and see…”
“Listen boy –” Koyi is trying to say something,
but you cut him short, “To what? To your sermon hun?” You yank the gate free and burst out onto the road. And you hear Koyi’s slightly raised voice, “Life is give and take boy; the bottom of wealth is filthier than you think.”
You stop for a second. You want to look back but you decide against it. You walk on.
As you walk pass Olorungbebe and you see the young Messis and Ronaldos in jersey pants and normal slacks doing their thing, with heavy stones for post, you ask: How many of these will go to redeem your own destiny? Under your breath you say, “Wickedness.” And Senghor’s words come banging on the door of your heart: “The weakness of the heart is holy.”
You steal a glance at the sun. Changing colours – white or silvery, yellow, purple, violet – blur your sight. You take a turn, entering a corner where a guy has slipped his hands in a girl’s top and is having a really nice time.
BARIGA, MAY THE LORD CLOTHE YOU.
Like the overwhelming presence of an awesome being, you feel a rush in your inside. The muse. But you have no appetite for words again. Poetry was in those days, your undergraduate days; not for now. Or what do words do when life is a song woven from broken fibres of tunes?
Your eyes return to the sun, now a transparent yellow circle sinking behind fine clouds – beyond fine clouds. The sky is a brush of silvery lines, grey, and water diluted citrus orange. The sun is returning home now. And you wonder if things will ever be okay before you return home.
The month will come to a fold in two days’ time. Sunday morning. You hear the choruses matched with clapping and hand-beaten drums coming from the building behind, next to the house, that has suddenly become a church. The voice that sings is sweet but for the Igbo accent that colours every word like the stripes on a butterfly and the occasional key-slur, though there’s no keyboard playing to the song.
You sit up and stare at the clock. The only thing you’re conscious of is time: how dawn rises and night falls, how days suddenly accumulate to become weeks and months, and how months turn into years. How things change and never change. 7:15am.
It’s been close to two weeks since you last spoke to Koyi. From the time you walked out of that gate that day up till now, you’ve not heard from him. You expected him to at least say sorry, to at least text SORRY, for what he did. But he hasn’t, and it is becoming clear that he won’t. You need him, and that’s the bitter thing. You need him badly now. Mama called you three days ago to remind you: “The month is going to an end.”
You give a thought to Mama Junior’s offer. The fat Urhobo woman with cheeks that looked as if they had balls of pof-pof tucked in them. And the way she talked, like the words weren’t going to fully come out, fluffy, fluffy – her lips sucking in and blowing out saliva. While she was talking, all you stared at were the folds of her neck, resting on each other like tires. Though your mind was elsewhere.
“Mr Sanjo, please I need you to help my son – Johnson. The boy’s not good at all, and as his class teacher,” bending and stretching the folds of neck, revealing the dirt tucked in the dark lines of the folds, and then spoke in a whisper. “I believe you can help push him to the next class.”
You would have banged hard on the table and asked her to leave, that you wouldn’t flatten the ethics of your profession, even if you aren’t paid enough. The way you did when you first got on the job. But the way she looked at you as she brought out two crisp five hundred naira notes and handed it to you. The way she tilted her head made you quiet. You were grateful it was just the both of you in there, but as you collected the money you regretted it. Mary stepped in, file in hand. Although she appeared not to have noticed, you seemed to believe what you did was known to all the world. That you wore it like a colourful Ankara dress. And the woman wouldn’t keep quiet: “It’s a deal sir,” she said as she drew the chair back and forced herself up to leave.
You didn’t say a word to Mary that day. You pretended to be reading a book. And as you were about to close the door behind you, to escape that day, she said aloud, “We all do it.” Her eyes on the script she was marking, “It’s normal,” she said.
You did not say “I understand” the way you normally do in times like that. The way you did the first day Adanma, your neighbour’s daughter, kissed you in the backyard and with one hand you felt the soft grapes on her chest and slipped the other in her pants. You had told Koyi you’d sinned against God and he told you “We all make mistakes sometimes,” and you answered: “I understand,” even though you didn’t. You didn’t. Not until you were tired of imagining the thing in Adanma’s pants; not until touching yourself every night on your bed couldn’t kill the fire that was burning in your body. Not until you tasted the honey between Adanma’s thighs. That was when you no longer felt that thing that tied itself around your being – guilt.
As you walked out of the school that day, you thought: If you do it well enough, you’d get used to it too.
You didn’t come home straight; you felt you should get the damn spear of guilt out of your heart first. So you decided to go see a match. You saw the matches scheduled for that day written in chalk-white on a wooden black board: ROMI vs PSG – 16:15 CAT. You checked your wristwatch, it was just fourteen minutes to the match.
You bought the ticket and took a seat on the third wooden chair to the left side of the room, staring at the medium-size plasma TV in the middle of two others. The advertisement was “Reward for Passion!”- Bet9ja. You thought of the many papers you’d caught with your boys in school. Now you thought of giving it a try yourself. At least luck can tell, because we never can tell. But somehow you decided against it. Maybe because you didn’t know what Straight-Win meant, or Half-Minute-Draw or…
For forty-five minutes you watched players throw long and short passes, dribble, make goal attempts. But no goal. Occasionally, when a player was close to a goal people would raise their voices – and the talking never ended.
When it was half-time, you decided to leave. You went down to Ladi-Lak, where you would not be seen. The bar was well-covered, although close to the road that led one way to Onipan and one way to Igbo-Igunnuko or C.M.S. It was a place where you could run when the world became too small. Yahoo Boys, Bottle-Boys, Leaf-Eaters, all made their abode there. The place smelt of weed and alcohol and different perfumes and the mixture of all of these.
Like your father, you drenched your soul in alcohol till you were drooping with it. Although you did not take more than two bottles of Small-Stout. You were not used to it. You hadn’t taken one before but for the one day Koyi forced you to take spirit at a party you had at Elegushi. You called him a fool afterwards.
The lady that brought you your order was small and sexy, in a gown that moulded out her wide hips, with her strong breasts popping up like soft mashed avocado. She looked at you in a way that said “Come Have It”. One of those girls who sneak out of FCE or UNILAG or tell a lie at home to sell their body. You would have picked up her call, because she kept looking at you from the bar and you could also not still your eyes from finding her, but for the two thousand naira. You didn’t have two thousand naira to sleep with a woman.
When you got home around … You don’t know when. All you know is that your eyes could not see so clearly. The world turned grey and sometimes a moonless and starless black, and images rose and sloped and fell in your mind. And that a girl dropped her arm on your shoulder, around your neck, and helped you up the stairs to your room. You couldn’t say who the girl was, not until she slid her hand in your pocket to take the key to your room and her hand slightly brushed your thing. Not until you got inside and landed on your bed and she started pulling at your belt. Not until you started eating low slices of moans – you were in paradise.
The girl was mad – must have been mad. It was when the milk-like thing sputtered from your pole that you knew who she was. Sade, your landlord’s daughter.
You had sworn never to touch the girl, although she’d come offering you a bite of her sun many times. You knew somehow your face will get burnt if you will take a bite of the sun. The girl whose hole was a public toilet anyone could use. You’d even heard that the hole in the wall between the two bathrooms was created for a man from this side to do the thing with the girl in that bathroom.
But she was so good that night you didn’t want her to go. However, before you could ask her to stay, she had stepped out of your room.
All this happened just the day before yesterday and it still continues to hold your heart tight in its grip. You saw the girl yesterday when you stepped out of the bathroom. She was wrapped in a small towel that failed to cover her, giving you a good view of the top of her ripe breasts and her calling fair thighs. And the way she looked at you – a calling look.
Two months later…
You don’t know how it has come to this but you know somehow you’re doomed. Sade came to you last night with the words “Uncle Sanjo, I’m pregnant”. The way she said it, you would have thought she was joking. That it can’t be real. But the thought of those times you did it without rubber made you rethink. “What if it’s true?” was what you murmured.
Mama called you just yesterday to tell you they’ll be moving to the family house today. You know what that means – a big insult. Moving to the family house to share a room or two rooms that four stretches of your legs will cover with five children definitely means nothing but giving your face to little hands to slap.
Is there, however, an option? No, none. Not any you can think of. Baba Onile had sent Mama packing with those children up to two weeks now, and for those two weeks she’d been staying, with those children, in the plank-made Celestial church she attended. You’ve been there before and you know what it looks like: white sand on the floor, wooden benches – about fourteen of them – corrugated iron sheets for the roof that leak when even the smallest rain falls… You don’t even want to imagine what it would look like for those sleeping there.
You pick up your phone. You really don’t know what you’re doing but you’re doing something. Something you don’t want to do, but you have no choice kind of.
You’ll both be meeting at the Baba’s place – five this evening – you and Koyi.
As you step into the old man’s house, your heartbeat increases its pace, and you really don’t know why. Koyi is already there waiting for you. You take a seat next to him on the cushion chair. A glass table and a flat wooden circle with fine traditional patterns – Opele – and its chain is what separates you and the old man who is dressed in a green Ankara dress and a Yoruba cap that comes flat on his head.
You tell the Baba what’s on ground: your mother has no place to stay presently, she was sent packing because she couldn’t afford the house rent; your sister too is not in school – no money; your salary can do close to nothing – and a girl has come to you with a pregnancy report and she claims it belongs to you.
The old man smiles wryly. “O ku o ku n’ibon ro,” he says. “A man is never finished, he just has to know which leg to take first and which comes next.” He picks the chain and begins to chant incantations, tapping the chain on the flat wooden surface and dropping it with much carefulness. He repeats this for about three times before he looks up. “Young man, you must find your rainbow, and to find it is not difficult.” He rises, walks into a room and returns with something wrapped in red and strewn with cowries. “Take,” he says.
You look at Koyi who tilts his head and gives you a kind of look that says “Stop being a weakling. Be a man.” Then you stretch your hand and the old man drops it in your palm.
“There’s nothing much to do,” he says. “What did you call her name?”
“Eehn. You just make sure you get her here.” He sees the look you wear. “Uh. Don’t worry; you don’t have to bring her here with your own hands. Awu! Omode re o m’ogun o n pe l’efo. That thing in your hand answers like fire. After calling her name and her mother’s three times on it just touch her head with it, and she will meet me here. Here we would finish the work. She will be the one to help you find your rainbow.”
Today, as you walk out of the old man’s house, you do not tell Koyi you’re very disappointed because you’re too tired of waiting for your rainbow to appear. You tell him thank you for being there for you and he says it’s his pleasure – What are friends for?
You asked Sade to see you when you saw her in the morning. You didn’t say it with your mouth, you said it with your eyes. The both of you have devised a way of communicating without the use of words. And it seems best that way. No one can pick your words when you don’t say them.
The thing – Oogun abenugongo – sits in your bag. There’s no wardrobe in your room, only a hangar on which there are no more than seven shirts and three pale-looking jeans. You don’t like thinking about it but it is something, a reality, you can’t escape – your situation.
Lying face down on the bed is the book you’re reading, No Longer at Ease. You don’t know why you picked it up three days ago but that you just picked it up. It is one of those books you bought then when you believed “Readers are leaders.” Although you knew quite well The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is not the same as Things Fall Apart.
You pick up the book and flip to the page where the British Council man thoughtfully said, “I cannot understand why he did it.’ You wonder if someone would ask that same question if such happens to you too; and you know, just like the British Council man, they won’t understand.
“Ko ko ko”.
Someone is knocking, and there’s a knock in your heart too. You rise from the bed. You take three steps to the door. You know who it is, so you don’t bother to ask. And you open the door.
She steps in, walks to your bed and sits, her legs folded and her hands tucked in between her thighs. She is in a black mini skirt and a white top with a round neck. LOVE is printed in black on the top, but for the O which is a O-shaped lips painted red. Above these letters is the head of a woman printed in black wearing white glasses.
“Em…” You want to say something but you don’t know what it is you want to say. And to act is also impossible.
You take a look at her face. There’s still a kind of childlike innocence to her, and the way she folds up like a cold puppy makes you unable to do what you already decided you would do. You feel you’re to blame for all that has happened this far, at least. And using her – just like that – would not be wickedness; it would be cruelty. The perfect and the highest form of cruelty.
Instead, you sit next to her, touch her face now wet with tears, to dry it, and tell her “It’ll be okay.”
You would have called Koyi to tell him you can’t do this, but you already promised yourself – after she left your room yesterday night – that you wouldn’t be such a weakling next time. That you’d do whatever it takes to find your rainbow.
So you asked her to see you again, that it’s like you have something that might help.
And she is in your room now. You don’t look at the innocence in her eyes today, nor do you look at the tears. No. You think of her father and her mother and everyone that knows her. Who have been hurt in one way or the other by her and those who have also hurt her in one way or the other and those faces she’s brought smiles to. How will they cry? For how many days will they wet their faces with tears? Will you cry too – genuinely?
This time you tell her, “Sade, please give me just one more week and we’ll sort this out. Okay?”
She shakes her head, that’s all she is able to do now.
Exactly one week later. She sits on the bed: no tears and no smiles today; no mini skirt, a flaring gown appears to be much better – you understand the need for more space. And with the look she wears you know things will get out of hands except you have a solution, which you don’t have.
Koyi already told you the last time you met, two days ago, when you couldn’t understand why you are so weak a man, like an impotent virility. “Sanjo, no one looks at the grey or dark side of the clouds when there’s drought in the land. The darkness never matters, all that matters is the rain,” he said. “A head that must wear the crown must come from a casket of brass, and that is problem to the neck.” He ended with the words: “Let’s talk of now and not tomorrow. Do it and do it quick.”
Now your hands and whole body quiver like the lips of a crying child as you take the charm from the safe. You can’t say how, all you know is this: Sade is no longer in your room.
The first day. You wake up and see the bands of fresh naira notes piled up, making a heap. You rub your eyes with your palm, unable to believe your eyes, and you don’t know when you say “Christ!”
You know what to do, the first thing on your to-do list: get Mama a nice apartment and pay Morayo’s school fee. The normal way the world goes when the good things start to come, isn’t it?
“So this is how you have decided to go about it Sanjo?” You tell her to lower her voice, people could be listening, but that is when she decides to raise it. “I’ll tell everyone you used her. You? You’re a devil, a wicked soul; an animal only second to a dog.”
“Moyeni, please listen-“
She cuts you short. “To what? This?” She points to the bands of naira notes scattered all over the floor and the girl bearing a calabash in her hands. You have to touch her head with that stuff before she leaves.
And you wish Moyeni wasn’t here in the first place – you thought she would understand. You already told her not to come but she said you have suddenly started avoiding her because you have hit what you simply refer to as “JACKPOT”, even though you never explained the term. You would have settled the bill with her yesterday night but she had so much fire in her body you had to cool her down – you had slept in each other’s arms drenched. “I would explain everything as early as I can tomorrow,” you told yourself last night, but see…
You have no choice. Baba said you’d need more heads to help you bear your riches from the four corners of the earth, “Sade’s is too small a head to bear the wealth you already have.”
Before you know it, Moyeni is no longer in your room too and Sade has also returned to her place of work.
You begin to pack your money.
You come into town with your clean, cha-cha Range Rover, the latest – a clean man with everything. You climb out of your car, wondering eyes follow you. You step into your used-to-be compound, now too dirty a place for a person like you.
The old man is seated in a worn-out armchair, his back resting backward in the chair, and his eyes ruddy red. Even though you’ve been standing by his side for close to three minutes now, he seems not to have noticed. He is thinking of his daughter, Sade, who went missing two months ago.
You prostrate before him.
He asks you to rise and have a sit, tries to stand to get you something – even though he can’t. He falls back in his chair.
You tell him not to bother. You drop the briefcase on the stool next to his chair. “That’s the two months’ rent sir,” you say.
“Ah. Thank you my son, may God continue to multiply you. May you never take the wrong step. May your head always fight for you…” The old man prays. “Thank you,” he says again.
You say “Amen” to each prayer he prays and rise to leave. You tell him it is your duty and your pleasure. But you don’t tell him the two million naira in that box is to loosen the small thing that has wrapped itself tight around your neck, your being, choking you, awaiting the right time to finish you.
Ernest Ògúnyemí is an eighteen-year-old boy singing in words from the corner of his room in Nigeria. His works have appeared on/in Kalahari, Acumen, Praxis, Litro, Literally Stories, and more. He was recently selected to participate in the Goethe-Institute AfroYoungAdult Workshop in Lagos. Find him on Twitter @ErnestOgunyemi