Maybe truth, not lies, crashes homes.
It is why she can watch and shrug as her hostile neighbour’s six-or-so-year old crouches under her father’s ramshackle Volkswagen Beetle to use the exhaust as trumpet and emerge, black face covered in blacker soot, coughing up a smoke; or watch the other smug neighbour’s toddler splutter about in their local-breed dog’s semi-liquid dung, rub a generous amount on his moon face, twirl around in childlike glee as though to see who’s loving his shitty show, lock eyes with her, and earn a fat thumbs up. She knows better than to allow her not wanting kids make her hate someone else’s, so the poor little creatures bearing the brunt of her indifference are not at fault here—their dumb parents are. One thing she had found mighty necessary is to know when an intervention is, or has become, an interference. Regret, or worse, might just be a kind act away. So, let that juvenile cross-eyed maid be peeping precariously into the deep well from across the fence all she wants, or the retiree widow at the other wing leave her car keys dangling at the door while the starving yahoo boy in the adjacent flat is peering, waiting for her to go into her apartment so he can go grab the metal for cloning; in this overpopulated compound it is best to mind your damn business. She has learnt to swallow her concerns and watch things run their course because there just seems to be an anomaly, something off, in the other’s life that a trying to fix, however genuine, will only ruin them, and you. The ordeal of a fortnight ago taught her that at least.
Successful and single, and adored and envied on account of same, Shade has come to live with the scrutinizing eyes and pretended smiles of her neighbours. What the likes and jealousy don’t include is respect: You don’t get to be single and feel complete in the eyes of society. And then be rich too? That’s lacking the crown of a man and being audacious despite. You shouldn’t have the best of both worlds. It feels unfair to those who are living the typical life—with their time usurped by responsibilities and pursuits that are infinite and money going into expenditure that outweighs their earnings. Comfort is not something you should gain so early in life; not when others around are still struggling. While she understands the pressures and demands of being married which she saw her parents go through, she doesn’t feel it is right-thinking to mentally foist your own marital and financial woes on someone who has decided to live life at her own pace. The bachelors around have neither the cash nor the confidence—both essentially mean the same thing in social reckoning—to approach, much less stand a chance to impress her. None of that had to be her fault for insinuations of having bartered her marital destiny for wealth to start making the rounds. At three decades, she is only working and unhurriedly unmarried, not idle and aimless, so why should she be made to feel there is something illegal or diabolical about her status? If she were not so close to finalizing her migration to Canada, out of honor for her own peace and sanity she would have moved out of the area to someplace less socially imbalanced.
Not that Shade considers herself a pry in the loosest sense of the word; you only need the view from the exalted position of an upstairs apartment and, well, acute sense organs to pick happenings around. What’s worse is that despite working long hours, she doesn’t sleep easy, as though the gift of heightened observation were topped with the curse of insomnia. The typical silence a misleading factor, everything, she has long known, is louder at night. Nighttime is an amplifier of sounds. How she could tell that the guy from the room downstairs is watching 24—which he had been seeing for the last two dozen years as if the outcome would be different each time—is the tick-tock-ing theme song, the awful bass speakers grating her ears and giving her palpitations; that the obese slug below her is done talking to himself and the walls as usual is the wheezing: so heavy that she fears he might pass away in his sleep with that trailer obstruction in his airways; or that her nymphomaniac landlady, next door, and her absentee husband are having a phone session is by his guttural grunts and her maniacal moans in a call-and-response duet.
As though an inability to sleep weren’t bad enough, the night appears to serve you secrets you have no business knowing. How does she tell Chief Apati, the local government councillor next compound, that someone goes to siphon diesel from his Mantrac generator circa midnight on alternate Saturdays just after Chief slips out to pay the bosomy Iya Suliya a visit? That was before Shade could spot all the characters in the intrigue: She could only identify the politician from his potbellied silhouette as he headed through the backdoor, the halogen security light outlining his profile on nights when there was power supply. But she wondered who this creature was who kept coming back to not a household but an equipment—what is there to thieve that he was not done stealing the last time? He was finishing his operation on the day she hoped to, but could not, catch his face via the glint of the security light. She even thought she saw him flinch to the sound of her gasp.
* * *
With the COVID-19 lockdown directive from the state and federal governments but no stipends given to the citizens to cushion the effect of an interrupted livelihood, people had begun robbing one another. If it wasn’t gunshots in the distance, it would be hushed distress phone calls for help; the nights were filling folks with terror, and Shade with fury. Deciding that elected leaders and security operatives were inadequate to protect them, people had begun taking turns to be their own defence: the men would parade major access points into the community often with fat sticks and dim torchlights, burn tires at major junctions, and send whistle signals to one another. Hunger was channeled into jungle justice. Some of the robbers caught were beaten to a pulp and paraded naked in the community market, before being lit. It soon became a cycle of burning rubber in the night and burning robbers in the day. While this tamed the scourge of crime, it also meant that whenever the men were busy fighting external aggression, the inner community was vulnerable to household thieves.
It was on one of those nights, two weeks ago, at 11:59pm, when most men were out on vigilante duty, or expected to be, that Shade heard a cranking sound on the other side of the fence, right by the councillor’s generator shed. The caution and fear that would normally grip her she considered missing as she caught herself looking around the house for anything she could weaponize. In her bag, a pepper spray and behind her door, an empty bottle of wine. Reaching downstairs, she figured it was either she went out the gate and around the fence, which would be a long route, or outright scale the fence, which was low enough. She was already doing the latter before thinking. She land with a thud on her feet, right behind the thief. He flipped around, horror in his eyes. Scrawny, scruffy-looking and armed with nothing but a hose and a yellow jerrycan, Baba Suliya clasped his hands, pleading.
For the first time since she hopped out of her bed at the sound, adrenaline-laced, she realized not only hadn’t she really thought through how she would face a strange, aggressive burglar, she was equally clueless how to handle a familiar, remorseful one. Seeing as the man was nearing him while still sobbing, unsure what he might do next, she screamed. “Thief, thief!” It is not a call the neighbours wouldn’t normally respond to with speed, how much more during a tense time like that. The place was populated in no time, mostly with the women, armed with rolling pins, pestles and curtain rods. Recognizing him, the women made to drag the man over to his house, to his wife, next door, only for someone to, well, find her under Chief. Not quite the twist they expected, the confused crowd lost control of the narrative and the offenders, rather than present pleas and apologies turned confrontational between themselves, one party attempting to drown their own shame in the ignominy of the other. Meanwhile, Shade had confirmed to all that it was not the first night he would see the man pilfering fuel from the generator.
“E’ry nite?” Chief said, while Shade wondered when she said so. “No wonder my Mantrac offs faster dan normal.”
“No be you say mek I dey come take from am?” said Baba Suliya, his retort unexpected.
“I said I’ll leave you a 2-litre keg by the side of the generator occasionally. But I only told you to get the diesel when you need it.”
“Oga, when poor man nor dey need sontin?”
“Wait, wait, wait! You exchange me for disu. Disu dat dey are sellin for 220 naira. Eh?” Iya Suliya spoke, for the first time, turning to her husband, who turned to Chief on realizing it wasn’t a question for him alone.
“You mean you sold yourself for diesel.” Chief said, tying the rope holding his buba trousers, looking anywhere but at her.
“A’ least is more expensive than petrol.” said Baba Suliya.
“Wotayu sayin dat is sweet in your mouth?” she said.
“A’ least am trying to brin sontin home. You, wetin you sabi do dan open leg n’born pikin like rabbit?”
When the arguments would get stretched out to shapelessness and head nowhere near resolving, with, typically, some blaming the woman who couldn’t keep her legs together, “I nor kuku blame all of you,” she had to say to the two men involved, averting her eyes from everyone but the whistle-blower. A number of the rabble also accused Shade of being an alarmist, a feminine code breaker. Someone stealing—which wasn’ technically so—from the man who was banging his wife (in return) didn’t seem like just the comeuppance that needed to happen, it was a matter that should have been left under wraps. If she had been noticing a theft and had been quiet about it the whole time, why speak up now? Hisses and muffled curses and side glances and rolling sighs later, everyone would find their back to under the roof they owned or rented.
Of course, things would never remain the same for anyone. On most nights, she hears the couple bickering, barking insults, breaking things, their children’s terrified screams piercing the night, and her heart. On most days, some neighbourhood men give her a wide berth; most women don’t respond to her greetings. The neighbourhood snitch and home breaker, who knows what info she might extract from their ‘good morning’ and scale the fence with? Snitch and home-breaker, if she saw a family intact and surviving, lies and cheating regardless, why must she get involved? Or who doesn’t have secrets? But who’s to blame her, the frigid spinster— isn’t lacking a home of your own not enough to make you a killjoy in others’?
By the way, Chief’s Mantrac now lasts long into the night, the smoke rising as high as the vigilante bonfires, the humming and vibration keeping Shade awake for longer, offering her more involuntary secrets to find. To keep. And not want to have to find or keep.