BY CHIMEZIE CHIKA
Before it happened, I had the premonition of it. In my dreams, I was always sinking into pools and pools of red matter. Or, maybe, it was the heat: I felt hemmed in, asphyxiated. During those amber-tinted weeks before the examinations began, the sun that beat down on the university seemed to take on a desert-like intensity, so that people began to wonder whether they were in the north. The heat was not just external; inside me, something burned daily and the ashes accumulated. So every morning, after waking up, I would put on my canvas shoes and race to Control from the front gate of Imo State University.
It seemed the right thing to do—running. Each time, as the sights—Rockview Hotel, Douglas, Amajeke, Warehouse, Assumpta Maria Cathedral—whizzed past, I felt a gradual cooling in my system. But now, I don’t think I feel that way.
I wasn’t there when my roommate became a cultist to start with: I travelled. For the first few days following my return, we lived a life of deliberate evasion. I watched him come and go without saying much to me; but I knew he had joined the Blacks—for sure—when I saw a patchwork of brutal red marks across his back and buttocks, the black bangle on his right wrist, and his new black shirts and shoes. Then one evening he came in while I was reading a book in bed, his eyes red, and said to me:
“Guy, I wan reason you something.”
“Wetin be that?”
“Guy, see, I don enter game oo. I no dey tell you dis make you go dey fuck up.”
“I never even understand you.”
“I no wan make you understand sef. But I dey reason you this matter make you no go dey fuck up. I don dey waka oo.”
I remember that day very well because that night a girl, Becky, celebrated her birthday in the hostel. It was a starless night; electric bulbs blazed on the hostel grounds; the DJ kept the tracks going: Flavour, Kcee, Psquare, 2Face. Becky was not beautiful in her blue gown. When I first I came into the hostel, she took a special interest in me; I resented it at first because I just joined the Charismatics; then she began to shun me and it hurt and I couldn’t explain why.
After the cake was cut and the snacks shared and the wines drunk, the girls came out in bum shorts and the lights were switched off. The night suddenly took on an inexplicable intimacy; I found myself spinning around, touching half-bare bums, fumbling breasts. I emerged from the first round of dancing drenched and sat against the wall with Becky. I was slightly drunk after drinking half a bottle of McDowell’s.
“I saw you dancing.” I said.
“You dance better.” There was fire in her eyes, or so I thought.
“No. You lie. I can’t even shift a waist—not the way you girls do anyway.”
Becky laughed, throwing head forward and clapping her hands once. All around us, in the semi-darkness, clammy bodies weaved in rhythm to the hip-pop. I threw my hand over Becky’s shoulders.
“I don’t know you talk so much.”
“Let’s dance,” I said.
So that was how I followed her to her room; the room with the red rug and pink walls and blue cosmetics baskets. I removed my wet clothes there and drank more wine and felt the stroking and shook with the dazed jerks and the muted moans and that irresistible tingling sensation that came with it.
Amara loomed over me all through the following day which was Sunday; so I went to see her at her hostel, Haven Suite. Her two roommates were around so we went outside. She was wearing a short dress and looked so pretty. I hugged her tightly and guilt—a shadow of it—passed over me, like goose pimples, as I thought of Saturday night.
“Amara . . .”
She blinked, stared ahead, and took my hands without saying a word. I knew that gesture. I loved her shyness; it was sensuous in a startling way—the first thing that drew me to her. I thought of what to say.
“My roommate is now a cultist.”
“I want to move away—”
“You have to . . . you won’t risk your life, will you?”
“I will pack out. I will.”
Throughout that week I avoided my roommate and tried to limit contact with him. Sometimes at midnight I would lie by the open window, trying to snatch some air in the thick heat. Ebuka, the boy whose room is next to mine, would be outside making a call for hours, because once you have up to a hundred naira credit on your phone you can make calls from midnight till the little hours of the morning. And always, I heard him asking, Have you eaten? Are you sure you have eaten? And I wondered what the person at the other end would reply. Some other nights it was not Ebuka’s voice that I heard; it was the drunken voices of the gyrating cultists, their singing, and the yellow glare of their bonfire illuminating the room.
Exams loomed. The university took on a determined seriousness. Waves of heat swept over the atmosphere so that even the trees cowered under the strain. Yet students who never lifted a book throughout the long meandering semester suddenly knew that there was such a thing as a book. Each time I went to night class, every classroom would be filled. It might as well be day: the racket of noise and the incessant shuffle of papers were all there. I watched the sitting students, the ones talking, the ones reading, eating, strolling. And I couldn’t read: words merged into each other and blurred each time like mashed-up painting. It was as if I had come to the end of a cul-de-sac.
I came back in the morning and slept. Around twelve I woke with a sour taste in my mouth. I had been dreaming that I was in the middle of a denuded desert, howling in a wild, feral way. I went out and ate beans and yam in Amara’s room. She was sick; her voice was weak and she didn’t get up from the bed. I had to serve myself from the pot perched upon an orange gas cylinder.
“Are you sure this is not malaria?”
“I think we should go to FMC as soon as possible. I am going to withdraw the last five thousand in my account.”
She writhed. Of course I knew she was straining to talk, to say to me: Keep your money to yourself. And true, she was right. I mean, her parents were well off. Many times she had offered to dash me money but I wouldn’t collect it even if she were lending it to me. I finished my food and went over and sat at the edge of the ruffled bed.
“Have you had your bath?”
She shook her head.
“Let me do that then.”
I withdrew the money that evening and then went to night class but I read very little. Something was wrong with me but I couldn’t quite decide what it was. In the morning I put on my canvas shoes and took off and, again, the sites of Owerri, with the numerous vistas of green and hotel façades and rubbish and dust flying behind speeding cars, came.
When I returned my roommate was sitting on a chair by the dusty windows, watching Wrestlemania on the desktop PC and smoking. The smoke curled, taking funny shapes in the air—like Arabic calligraphy. We had no fan so the room had turned smoky-grey, sucking up the air. I ignored him and went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet bowl and unfolded the Sporting Life newspaper I was clutching in my hands. Man U won the Manchester derby. Good. I flipped back and forth through the paper but I couldn’t concentrate on a single article. I was thinking, rather, of the first time I fought my roommate. It was because my roommate smoked weed. And we made such a racket that morning that my roommate left the room for the other for the rest of the day.
The whole thing started when this very nosy girl in the hostel, Abigail, popped her head into our room and said: Hmmm, this room smells so bad. And then I thought of the weed my roommate consumed daily and I kind of knew that if he didn’t smoke no amebo would have the guts to say that my room was smelly. And, suddenly, it became urgent for me to make sure that no one would say my room smells again; and so I rushed towards my roommate and the rest was the flexing of limbs and muscles and the bartering of blows.
It took a long while before I left the bathroom. My roommate was still there, not smoking anymore, just dumb and inert like an overfed baby. I rummaged through the wardrobe for my clothes, dressed and combed my hair, put my BlackBerry into my pocket, and was about to leave when I remembered that I had forgotten the money for Amara’s check-up.
I went to the bag where I kept it and it was not there and I knew there was no one else in the room—no one else would enter the room but one person—and I felt giddy and the things in the room—the white plastic table and chair, the low bed, the desktop, the opulent wallpapers, the clothes, the wardrobe, the plastic baskets—blurred and a tidal force drew me up; and suddenly I am another person, standing by the side, watching myself rushing towards the sculptured immobility of my roommate. Now, I wonder why I fought my roommate; what drove me?
The fight left the room in chaos: everything was broken. The whole hostel had gathered outside the door, banging, shouting to us to open, but the door was locked. We both had bruises, my roommate and me. And he left with threats.
“You go regret dis fight. E be like say you no know who you carry take play.”
“Taa! Comot here! Why you come carry my money? Give me my money oo, abeg.”
“Ha! Look at dis guy oo. Just for ordinary five thousand naira . . . Who even tell you say na me carry your money?”
“You dey mad! No be only you wey dey here? Na spirit tiff am? No dey talk rubbish. I no be small pikin.”
“Anyway sha I no dey follow you talk. Na when I treat your fuck up you go know say laugh no dey for my mouth. And na very soon. Just watch.”
I did not reply. I thought he was going to call his fellow cultists to beat me up. I thought of informing the school security but, in the end, I decided against it; when the time came I would know what to do. But I was wrong. Bear me witness.
It was late afternoon when I got to Haven Suite. I had bathed again and changed clothes. I could not call Amara because my BlackBerry was broken in the fight. The unpainted wall surrounding the Haven Suite hostel gate had several zinc-and-tarpaulin sheds in which girls were plaiting their hair or putting on weave-on. This was big business around school—these impromptu hair salons.
There was a faint thumping in my brow as I knocked on Amara’s door. Her roommates were there, lying half-naked on the bed but Amara was not. One was normally slim; the other was this thin girl that looked like Dija with this huge avant-gardish, umbrella-like blond weave on her head. I wondered if anyone had ever told her she looked like a Calabar masquerade.
“Good evening, ladies. Where is she?”
“She has gone to FMC.” The thin one said with a smirk. “She said to tell you—if by chance you came. She waited a long time for you sha.”
I ignored her innuendo. “OK. I am going there. Thanks.”
As I closed the door I heard the immediate flux of words—and laughter. I will not deny it: I felt like a fool.
To make up I took the shortest cut to the main road—Okigwe Road. I followed a back alley with rusty zinc-and-wood shacks, erosion gullies filled with refuse; and a looming smell of shit. This sight always left a hollow in my heart. You can’t believe that in this same city, there were places you went to and you see good roads and big buildings and a lot of flowers, and robust people with fat bellies and thick necks. On the contrary—as my Composition lecturer would say—the people here were thin, dirty, with skin twisted like the shaft of a drill.
The sky over IMSU junction must have been stripped of Ozone that afternoon: the sun was too fierce. During evening it was the other way round: cool. Then you saw girls waiting all along the IMSU road in these ridiculous show-all dresses, flagging down big cars and driving off. I entered a Keke at the eternally dusty Works Layout. At FMC the nurse on duty, who was eating a wrap of sharwarma spread out before her on the counter, sized me up and told me that Amara had been discharged.
“Are you sure it’s Amara?” I had to be sure.
“Are you implying that I am lying?”
“No. I never said that; I am only—”
“Excuse me,” she consulted her log book, “is the girl you are referring to not Amara Ekechi?”
“Is she not from Imo State University?”
“She left around 3:30. Her bills were settled”
Bills. Settled. It was too much for me. I had to rush to Haven Suite at once. Everything else glazed by. I took no notice.
Looking back now, it was a long treacherous night. There was no moon; there was that stubborn wind that whirled in the thick bush behind the hostel. Death stalked in your mind’s illusions. But when you came to think of it, you immediately wondered whether you were dreaming. When you came to think of it, where–when exactly did time stop? When exactly did that subtle cold rage take over me?
I did not know when I went mad: when Amara’s phone number wasn’t going? When her roommates told me she didn’t come back? When her parents, when reached, said they hadn’t heard from her? When nobody saw her? I didn’t know. I only knew that I suddenly felt numb, as though I were inside a pool in the polar region. So I went home. I had run around the whole day, dared, despaired, was despised. And—I can feel that familiar mutiny of emotions moiling up inside; but I knew Amara. I knew she would not get lost like that (just like that?); she would call or turn up soon and I would kiss her straight and deep on the mouth and breathe: You nearly scared me.
So I went home. As I walked down the corridor towards my room, Ebuka was leaning in his usual style on the concrete railings of the veranda, his phone stuck in his right ear, asking the person—a girl, of course—at the other end if she had eaten. I don’t think I understand why anyone in his steady senses would call up a girl at nearly midnight just to ask her: Have you eaten? Are you sure you have eaten?
I lay in bed that night, restless, turning this and that way. In the morning, I brushed my teeth and sat down at the desk for some time, tapping the desktop keyboard, trying to figure out what to do. My roommate came in. He had not been in since the fight yesterday. He looked haggard but there was a hard certainty—something close to determination—in the glitter of his eyes.
“Abeg, you see my girl Amara?”
“No . . . Yes, I think say I see am for that apian way wey comot for Okigwe Road.” He smiled, flashing savage white teeth.
“See, dis thing no be laughing matter. I no dey joke.”
“Meself, I no dey joke kwa. I juz dey tell you say I see am for that—”
I stormed off and went to school, although I did not feel like it. People dressed as if they were competing for some fashion crown or something—even boys. Too many lecturers read from textbooks. As if the whole boring charade was not enough, one in particular left his lecture and kept talking about youth of nowadays who was more interested sex. I felt my body spark and begin a slow burn. I left the class.
I walked around the school, most times watching girls in the Love Garden, giggling, posing by the fountain or the many sculptures and snapping selfies with their fat phones.
I called Amara’s roommates and parents again at a call centre. Neither of them had heard from her. Her father was even asking, in a rather haughty voice, who I was. I cut the call. It was now beyond joke. This was not Amara: she was the type that would always call to say: “I am in so and so place.” This was not Amara. I made a detour to the state CID to report. The sergeant at the counter was kind. He listened and made notes, signed and asked me to sign.
A crowd was gathered at the slit in the street that led into the squalid back alley which terminated at Okigwe Road. I was going back to the hostel so I went to see what was happening. As I got closer, a rancid stench hit me, like a blow.
I did not know, never knew until then; but how would I?
I was spinning …Was it Amara’s body that lay there, inside a gully, among the refuse? A ball formed in my belly and shot up through my intestines, swift, and came out through my mouth: a scream. Another followed. Then another. Another. The crowd buzzed—questions, movements, that was all I noticed—but I was floating; I was inside the gully, clutching Amara’s darkened face to my chest. I was not weeping.
The sky turned grey and the rain swept down, pouring on us. The crowd dispersed quickly. Mud spattered all over me. The rain poured on, on both of us. I felt the pain of its thousand singular impacts.
Then I heard the voice again . . . Saw her on that appian way that leads to Okigwe Road. I heard the sirens approaching. The police . . . Yes—but there was something else I had to see to.
At the hostel gate I paused a bit to greet Becky who was buying something from Aminu, the maigad who kept a shop by the gate. She silently glared at me. I ignored her and my muddied clothes and went upstairs. My roommate was again by the window, smoking. There was no light.
“Good evening,” I said.
He grunted, his voice harsh and hoarse.
I went out again. On the corridor someone had left a silver kitchen knife on top of a cupboard.
So here am I running, the early morning breeze beating against my face. My canvas shoes hurt a bit. I feel no sense of catharsis. I run past the early morning road sweepers; then Rockview, Government House, Amajeke, Freedom Square, ICC, Warehouse. The air is sharp and crisp now; by late morning it will be close and smoky, and there will be traffic jams too. As I pass Maria Assumpta Cathedral towards Control, a nebulous orange glint appears on the far horizon. Daybreak. The police, will they follow suit? But how on earth do I know he wasn’t the one? The bus will be finishing loading by now.