Femi lived down the hall from us. He was a lean man whom life had toughened up early; you could tell from the way he walked, from the unintentional muscles that lined his wiry arms, to his hardened face. He wore loose jeans – faded from wearing – and his hair was a bushy afro, eyes deeply set in their sockets with thick, dark lips to match.
He lived with his uncle in Flat 4. He spoke little English, worked much of the day and would come home dragging his feet along, laden with the remaining cartons of frozen fish and chicken his uncle sold at Census Market.
It was on one such tired night I first met him. I was downstairs by the stairwell; what had begun as a somewhat pleasant evening quickly turned sour when mummy returned with bile. She lost it when she saw the plates I hadn’t washed piled up in the sink, and brought up my “unemployment and arrant uselessness”. So I was downstairs, cooling off after the argument, sitting on a cement block by the entrance to the stairwell.
Femi arrived with his cartons. He said something that I did not hear, a greeting, maybe, and when I didn’t respond he turned to face me, speaking again: “Aunty, hope nothing?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Why you come dey look like say sky don fall?”
Insulted, I cast a glare at him. “E consign you?”
“Ah. E no consign me.” He held my gaze a second longer before turning and drudging up the stairs with his load.
I returned to the flat, where mummy was sitting in front of the television, glaring over the rims of her glasses at the phone in her hand, muttering about running out of airtime. I went into the kitchen and washed the dishes, washed out the empty pot of okra sitting on the gas cooker, swept the linoleum floor and went into my bedroom. There, my hopelessness swiftly found me again.
At the time, my life was in a stalemate; I had graduated from university in the East almost two years before, but still hadn’t been called for national youth service. Each quarter that passed by and I got a call from Doris who worked with admin at FUTO, telling me to “come and drop something” before the next batch of names were released, I felt sick to my stomach. It was this situation that made my mother act like sun and rain, that made her wake up on whichever side of the bed she chose on any given day and act however she wished; and it was this situation that made Femi become to me a fortress, a place in which I hid, an ocean in which I buried my despondency.
A few days after that incident by the stairwell, I met Femi at the shed, where numerous generators of various sizes and cadences rumbled. The power had cut and mummy was watching Tinsel, so I had rushed downstairs to turn our generator on. Femi was turning petrol into their generator’s fuel tank and I used the dim light from his torch to feel around in the dark for the pull cord on ours. He moved quickly and soon his generator was roaring, his torch had gone off and I was still fiddling with the cord.
“Abeg,” I said, “borrow me light.”
He paused for a moment that seemed to stretch into forever before turning the torch back on. Maybe because I knew he was watching me as I bent over the generator, or because my fingers were particularly sweaty that night, but the generator wouldn’t come on no matter how hard I pulled the cord.
“Aunty, shift,” Femi said gruffly, his body already nudging me to the side.
He reached for the cord, and with one deft pull the generator sprang to life.
“My name is not Aunty,” I said, instead of thanking him. We were standing face to face now, in the humidity of the shed, his torch turned off.
“Ehn ehn?” He grunted.
His breath smelled like stew; I could smell the sweat and heat rising off his body.
I turned and headed back into the stairwell, wondering what was happening to my body, why my head felt light and my heart was pounding.
I wouldn’t say that I never knew my father, but it is a messy story I still don’t know how to tell very well.
I did know him. He was a chubby man with a wide space in between his front teeth. He liked reading The Guardiannewspaper and had a soft-spot for Liverpool Football Club. He liked his tea milky and ate eba almost every night, sitting with his tray of food on a stool in front of him, bent over as he watched the evening news and held a one-way conversation with the TV anchors.
The three of us lived in Gbagada before he left; and he didn’t really leave, at least not at first. I gradually noticed he stopped having dinner at home, and then I noticed only a few of his shirts hung in the closet in their bedroom, and then I noticed the few shoes left arranged under the window began to gather dust. He would come home after work and say he wasn’t going to eat today, but maybe tomorrow; he would tell me he liked the beads in my hair and ask if I had finished my homework and if I had my uniform ready for school tomorrow. He never really did leave. He left elements of his presence around. He just stopped coming home so often, for days and weeks at a stretch, and then he came home one night and said he wanted to have dinner and mummy told him to go back where he was coming from, that it was obvious he had chosen the family he wanted.
We moved to Surulere a few weeks after; mummy threw out the dust-gathered shoes under the window and quit her job as a clerk at Oceanic Bank. She started working as an admin staff with a private secondary school in Aguda, and when friends asked her why she had left the bank, she said she had always wanted a slower-paced life, so why not make the change now? But that was obviously a lie, with the way she would sit in the living room after work, moping at the television; with the way she hid her sadness behind her glasses, as though I did not know that she cried most nights, eyes swollen and bloodshot in the mornings.
But my father never did really leave. He drove me to Federal Government College, Warri on my first day of secondary school. He came for the prize giving ceremony when I won the prize for the best student in my set in J.S.3. He came for my S.S.3 graduation ceremony and bought me the most beautiful black chiffon blouse with a dragonfly broche on the left pocket; I wore that blouse till it faded and began to come apart at the seams.When I got admission into FUTO, he sent me money – ten thousand naira – and told me he was proud of me and that I should be a good girl at university and pay no attention to any boy who had not paid my bride. That was the last text message I ever received from him. When the ten thousand naira ran out and I needed money for toiletries, I called him; his phone was switched off. I called and called and sent him countless text messages that were never responded to. I kept that last text messaged saved on my phone for years, until my phone was stolen at Balogun Market and I cried, not because the phone had any worth but because that text message had been proof that I hadn’t made him up.
Mummy wouldn’t talk about it; all she said was that he had made his choice – and she wondered what had taken him so long – and was she not providing enough for me that I should be so concerned about an unfortunate man like him? She would not explain exactly what that meant – that he had made his choice - and I wondered why he hadn’t chosen us instead.
My performance at school nosedived. I failed classes and had carry-overs. I met friends who dated mugus whose money we ate together. I dated boys who were into Yahoo and lavishly spent their money. I tried cocaine a few times and one morning, when I woke up half-naked in a shower cubicle with cold water pouring over me in the house of a man I did not know, and could not recognize my friends for the better half of two days, I knew that cocaine was not the drug for me. But I realized too late – a course that should have taken me four years to complete took me five and a half years and I was lucky to finish with a third class.
My mother never knew about the life I had lived in Owerri and as we waited and waited for my call-up letter that never came, she began to put the pieces together. There was a class I had failed – Journalism and the West – but the lecturer was a pervert of a man who fantasised girls with big asses, so I slept with him in a dingy hotel room that had a creaky bed and dusty windows, the stout man breathing heavily and dripping sweat all over me. In the end, I barely made a pass. Anytime I remember the sorrowful groan of that bed, I want to spit in his face.
I had my certificate, sitting neatly in a plastic folder in my drawer, but at the back of my mind I feared Mr. Okoro had eaten his cake and had it, hence the way my body would quake with fear each time Doris called and said my name was not on the NYSC call-up list, quarter after quarter.
The first time Femi came to our flat, it was a few minutes past one on a Tuesday afternoon and his garish knock on the door had woken me up from a nap, where I had fallen asleep in front of the television.
He stood there in the hallway with a black and blue nylon bag. In his other hand was a phone, an overused Nokia 2310 with faded buttons and a screen covered in scratches.
“Aunty, abeg I fit charge phone?” He showed me the small device.
I opened the door wider and he stepped in. I pointed to the extension cable by the television set, where a few phone charges were plugged in, their tails spreading out like worms. He dropped the nylon bag and got on his knees by the cable, trying different plugs until he found a fit.
I kept my eyes on the television as he stood straight and rubbed idle hands on his jeans.
I nodded at a vacant sofa and he sat down. We glued our eyes to the television, watching a music video, where shirtless men with face caps and gold chains wasted champagne.
“You people don’t have light in your house?” I asked.
“Key nor dey my hand,” he said.
And then the silence returned as we cast our attention back to the television. His phone rang and he hopped up. He answered it and spoke a cascade of loud, rugged Yoruba, too fast for my ears to decipher.
Off the phone, he seemed agitated; he stood with his hands on his hips, legs akimbo, head raised to the ceiling.
“Wetin happen?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Why you come dey look like say sky don fall?”
He looked at me then and I saw the semblance of a knowing smile dancing at the edges of his lips.“I need call person but I no get credit,” he said.
I reached for my phone and handed it to him.
He took the phone with both hands. “Thank you, Aunty.”
“My name is not Aunty.”
But he didn’t hear me. He was dialing a number and was again shouting Yoruba into the phone. When he was through, he handed it back to me, got his nylon bag and unplugged his phone.
On the way out the door, he looked back and asked, “If your name nor be Aunty, wetin e come be?”
“Anwuli,” I said.
I was going to ask for his, but he was gone.
In Nigeria, no corporation will employ you without an NYSC certificate – at least not through the front door – and this was the predicament I found myself in. As I wished myself the best where my lost call-up letter was concerned and in a bid to stay out of the house as much as possible and avoid my mother’s wrath, I tried my hand at different enterprises that yielded nothing; ankara bag making, bead making, hair making, event planning, social media marketing. Nothing worked and increasingly, as I spent more and more time by myself in the flat, watching mindless television day and night like a zombie, trying and failing at online romances with foreigners in Turin, New York and Melbourne – anyone who might be kind enough to marry me and get me the hell out of Nigeria – I was being pushed to the edge of sanity. This is why I say that Femi saved me in more ways than he will ever know.
The next time he came to the flat, I had been cutting the bitter leaf mummy wanted to make soup with in the evening. As soon as I heard the brash knock on the door, I knew it was him.
He stood in the hallway, this time only his black and blue nylon bag in hand.
“You want charge phone?” I asked.
He shook his head.
When he said nothing else, I left the door ajar and return to the kitchen. I heard him moving about in the living room – heard his nylon bag drop to the floor, heard his heavy footsteps – and then he appeared at the kitchen doorway.
“Wetin you dey cook?” He asked.
“Bitter leaf soup.”
He watched me. I kept my eyes on the vegetables I was chopping.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the market?” I asked.
“My uncle send me go somewhere.”
“And you came here instead.”
He shrugged. “You no dey go work?”
“I don’t have a job. Yet.”
“E consign you?”
“Sorry. Aunty Anwuli.”
I looked at him and saw the mischievous smile on his face.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
That was how our friendship began. He came by the flat a few times a week; in the afternoons, when my mother and his uncle were at work. I found myself looking forward to his visits; found myself making sure I wasn’t wearing soup-soiled blouses or bleach-stained jeans or my hairnet on the days he might show up. And there were no fixed days or times for his visits; he would come by whenever and that was what excited me, him showing up unannounced, me waiting for that loud knock on the door.
I would cook us Indomie or concoction rice with sardines and eggs and we would sit in the living room watching television; he always told me to change the channel to Africa Magic Urban, saying he wanted to improve his English. He told me about being raised by his grandmother in Oyo, where she was able to send him to school up to primary 3 through her akara and ogi business before she had a stroke and could no longer work. After that he had been passed from one relative to the other, each promising to send him to school but instead using him as a houseboy or a shopkeeper or a farmhand, and his uncle in Lagos was no different. He had never known his parents; his mother had died when he was a few weeks old from a complication relating to his birth, and his father had never taken responsibility for the pregnancy.
When Femi wasn’t in the flat, we spoke on the phone while he was in the market or late at night after he returned home. I sent him a text message one evening to ask if he was back, and my phone chimed a few minutes later with a call from him; his voice was playful when he told me he could barely read and could not understand what I had sent in the message, but there was a tragedy I could hear in his voice.
Sometimes he came to the flat bearing gifts; an orange or two, an apple, a bottle of Pepsi. There were times he would glance at me and I could feel the desire dripping out of his body, but would keep my eyes on the television or on my phone. And the times I looked at him with that same desire in my eyes, he found something funny to say, something comic with which to derail the oncoming train.
When he asked if I had siblings and asked why I didn’t have a job, I cut neatly around the questions as best as I could; either not answering or pretending that I had not heard him. And then one day he put his half-eaten plate of noodles down on a stool and turned to face me.
“Woman with brain like your own no suppose just dey sit for house,” he said. “Why you no want find work?”
I wanted to tell him about my father; that my brain had stopped working about the time he abandoned me, that after all these years, I still did not know where he was or what had happened to him, that the not knowing was driving me crazy, that I had messed my chances up at school, slept with a lecturer to make up for it, got a third class and it felt like I was too dumb to have a real future.
Instead, when I opened my mouth, I told him my school was on strike and I was waiting till it reopened so that I could collect my call-up letter for service. He bought it, because he looked at me smiled a deep smile, picked his plate up and told me that God always had his ways.
Doris called one Tuesday morning, exactly five weeks after Femi had first come to the flat. There was a ring to her voice that scared the life out of me.
“Anwuli!” She sang. “I can see your name here oh! I can see your name! Obi-Chimere Anwulika Sandra!”
I nearly dropped the phone. My knees weakened and I crumbled to the floor. “Doris,” I panted. “I take God beg you, abeg no play this kain play with me.”
“No be joke, my sister! Your name is out! I am looking at it here as we speak!”
I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. I cried as she told me I had to report to FUTO the next day to pick my call-up letter up. I thanked her amidst sobs.
That evening, mummy retuned home in a foul mood. She flung her bag on the dining table and barked that I get her dinner. When I told her my call-up letter had been released, she stopped in her tracks. Her shoulders softened and her eyes widened. And then a small smile crept across her lips. She spread her arms out and I walked into an embrace I had not known to exist in years.
The power cut soon after and I met Femi in the shed. As I watched him fiddle with his generator in the dimness of his torch, my throat constricted.
He straightened as he saw me.“Aunty Anwuli,” he said, “make I on una gen?”
I watched him as he did and thanked him. He turned his torch off and we eased out of the shed. We stood along the back wall of the compound, tucked out of sight in the shadows. It was a noisy night but a cool breeze was blowing, tickling my face.
Femi was standing close to me. His voice was low.
“Aunty, why you dey…”
“My school reopened,” I said.
I heard him heave then, and watched the outline of his face erupt into a smile. “Hmm. I no tell you say God get him way?”
“So… na go be that?”
He stepped closer yet, and I could smell the stew on his breath.“ Who go come cook Indomie for me, teach me English?” He asked.
“You can always learn English, Femi.”
“If I want make you teach me nko?” His chest was barely an inch away from mine now.
My heart pounded. “I will come and visit.”
He shook his head. “No. Woman like you no dey come back.”
I looked down but my chin met his index finger and he gently lifted my head up. Tears stung the back of my eyes. It was only then I realized I had been holding my breath.His lips came down on my cheek, rested there, and we stood like that in the darkness for what felt like an eternity.