by Tade Thompson
Dominic’s pencil broke and he almost cried. Almost. He was down to the last nib, barely any wood clinging to the pencil lead, holding it between the tips of his index finger and thumb, scratching, really. This must be what it felt like to be a lonely cave man in prehistoric times smearing out disturbing thoughts in different colours of mud on cave walls. He was in mid-sentence.
The good great thing about Bola going to her sister’s was how easy I could manufacture a guilt trip for weeks after, using the most mun
Mundane. He was going to write “mundane” but now he couldn’t finish because a quarter of an inch of pencil lead was like no pencil lead at all. He got up, smoothed out the paper and left smears of grey in the wake of his fingers. He examined his digits. The low quality pencil had left them looking as if he had been fingerprinted. He wiped his hands on his jeans and left the table. The chair screeched against the floor when he bumped it. There was a time when the sound would have grated on him, but so many days had passed, so many bumps.
Outside the sun was out. Palm trees swayed like wise, thin old men. They were not staring at him this time like they had the week before. It was difficult to imagine being stared at without eyes but… well, you had to be there to understand.
There were people in the village again. This was confusing, and an inconvenience, but Dominic could work with it. He felt a slight dizziness, transient, comforting in its familiarity, always happened whenever he emerged from the bungalow. Felt like being tipsy, or anaesthesia, or excellent Thai Stick. The bungalow opened out to the main thoroughfare of the village and hunters wheeled by on their Longjohn bicycles toting locally-made one shot rifles, gunpowder gourds swaying like scrota with the pump of their thighs. He could hear children playing and they were nowhere in sight, but that wasn’t unusual. Children didn’t always register on his senses. Women swept the front of their red-earth huts or carried livestock to murder for their husbands’ pots.
He headed for the school, which was a lean-to with a few corrugated tin roofing sheets for effect. It housed fourteen. Most of the time they took their books and writing implements home with them but a careless child left a stray book or pencil behind every day. It was unlocked. Dominic wondered how he would know if there were children in there since he might not see them.
There was a blue pen on the floor beneath one of the wooden desks. Under the desk someone had stuck a glob of chewing gum which Dominic peeled off and put in his mouth. It still had some sweetness left but it was hard and nigh impossible to masticate. He had once tried to eat elephant grass. Bad idea. He tried the pen on his arm and drew a caduceus.
Mundane also meant earthy, the opposite of heavenly. Anti-celestial. That was life in the village. Mundane.
‘There was a turning,’ said Bola.
‘Where?’ I asked, looking around and in the rear mirror.
‘Back there. Had some buildings too.’
I downshifted, did a U-turn and started back considerably slower. The prospect of any kind of civilisation made me more aware of the ache in my muscles and the staleness in my mouth. I’d been driving for four hours over roads that barely fit the definition, with minimal surfacing and an abundance of potholes. For the last hour it had been just road and bush. The occasional animal leapt across, a grass cutter, an antelope.
I no longer knew where we were. When we left Lagos we headed north. My wife had not wanted anything to do with the trip.
‘You’ve never been there before. Do you even know the way?’ said Bola.
‘I’ll find it.’
When Bola worried there was a curl to her lips and a line that appeared on her forehead that I absolutely adored. Maybe that distracted me from what she was saying.
‘There’s no cell phone coverage in that area, Dowry Man.’
‘We’ll be fine in the car. It’s solid.’
‘It’ll take hours.’
‘Why? You’re not even that close to Benjamin.’
‘Bola. We are going.’ I glared at her then, and she stopped her protests, thinking I was angry, even though in actuality I wasn’t and loved her more than ever. I found it difficult to refuse Bola anything and pretending to be angry was my best tack.
I drove. She talked, fell quiet, read a novel, talked, fed me bananas. Still the journey did not end. By the time the sun started going down, we decided to find a hotel but there were no more slip roads with sign posts and we had to keep hoping for a miracle. Until now.
I saw what Bola had seen. More dirt track than actual road. Two bare lines of red earth with clumps of elephant grass between them. Single lane. If any other car happened along one of us would have to reverse out.
It was short and we soon came to the hamlet. I slowed down to five mph.
‘I think we may have been going too fast and traveled back in time,’ I said.
‘Don’t mock.’ Bola stroked my neck with the back of her hand. ‘It’s just quaint. In a charming way. Let’s just find a hotel; my bladder is bursting.’
He was hungry. Even though the village was full of food of all kinds, experience had taught him that none of it was edible. He had tried rice, eba, iyan, mangoes, papayas, yams, bananas, everything. He could put the food in his mouth and chew, but it was as if his mouth had forgotten how to taste, because everything was bland. He ate two dozen small red chilli peppers and felt no heat or zing in his mouth. His saliva did not come at all. He tried to dry swallow, especially eba with okra soup which should by rights just slide down his throat whether he made spit or not, but his throat was not working right either. No wave formed at the root of his throat to push the bolus down. If he tried to drink water he choked. So all he did was chew and spit, chew and spit, not feeding but the memory of feeding. Like Phantom Limb.
Even so, Dominic went to the cooking pot of Mama Wale, a corpulent dowager who ran a bukka for the few workers in the village, and opened it after looking furtively left and right. He reached in and selected a piece of goat meat. He bit the meat off the bone carefully, and then threw the bone into the bushes. He licked his fingers clean and spat the peppery tomato sauce out. He chewed and walked back to the bungalow. Inside the bedroom he reached under the bed and picked out the loose sheets of paper he had scavenged and began to write. He barely registered the temperature change when it started raining outside.
A sheep cried pathetically, broken off from its herd.
Bola had an older sister called Deji. As Yoruba names go it’s not the most feminine, but the one time I brought it up to my wife we had a row which ended in a three-hour silence. Deji was married to Benjamin, an obnoxious prick to be sure, older than me, patronizing and insufferable. Think of the kind of man who would insist on being called Benjamin, never Ben. Bola told me that when she was seventeen Benjamin had tried to slip his hand under her skirt during her father’s coronation as baale of their village. True story. To be fair, I do not fully blame the guy. I know what Bola looks like now, and she is intolerably beautiful. At seventeen she must have been intoxicating, and it would have been maddening to be in her proximity. Except at the time, he was a known supplicant for her sister’s hand in marriage.
Like most beautiful women, Bola was used to unwanted attention from boys and men. It bored her, but was her cross, if you can call it that. When it came to me and her she approached me; no way would I have had the liver to chat her up. It was nothing glamorous. I was shopping for my mother in the market. I hate shopping, but my mother lights up whenever I do it myself instead of sending the house boy. So I was in the market having my panla sawed when I sensed a presence behind me. A woman waiting in line, no doubt.
‘She’s cutting the pieces too small,’ a female voice said. ‘If you cook this the fish will disintegrate in the soup pot.’
I turned and saw the magical light brown skin, the thick luscious lips, the big brown eyes with lashes that looked artificial but were not, the dimples, the short hair.
This was is something that still strikes me about her today each time I see her.
When I can see her.
Darkness fell and Dominic could hear her voice. He put the blue pen down and listened, a careful, hungry desperation in him. It was there like a faded photograph and he stood up, cocked his head, squeezed his eyes shut. Bola was talking, but it was too low to make out the individual words. She was probably on the phone. The chorus of crickets outside the window drowned Bola out every few seconds and Dominic was tempted to rush out and set fire to the entire bush. He did not move.
‘That’s both tricky and meaningless,’ said Bola, clear as spring water and without warning.
Dominic opened his eyes and she was sitting on the bed in her bra and panties, taking off her earrings. It was a distinct image without wavy spots or fade-outs. There was a solitary pimple on her left cheek, red as if recently pressed, no blackhead. Bola would be horrified-she hated blemishes.
He went to the bed, but before his hand could touch her she stood up and walked to the middle of the room. He followed, but each time, just as he was about to make contact she would shift.
‘Bola!’ he said. She nodded her head to an unheard respondent at the other end of the phone. She was looking right at him, through him. ‘Bola, baby, I’m right here! Talk to me.’
It was no use. She faded. Although that night she appeared four more times, each time she was a shimmery, transparent manifestation, a misty apparition that he could well have imagined in his distress.
Later, Dominic slept. He did not dream.
It was not a motel hotel. The village had no hotel to speak of and travelers usually lodged at the houses of relatives. The weathered old man we spoke to looked us over head-to-toe and directed us to what he called the Municipal Building. He spoke in measured English, which was good because we did not speak Fulani or Hausa or any of the Northern Nigerian languages. The government had tried in the late 1960s to modernise the village by building a house of concrete with electricity and water, underestimating the tenacity with which the villagers held to their traditional mud dwellings. Nobody had ever lived there, but the local government still maintained it, occasionally sprucing it up for visiting dignitaries. Bola glowed while the man spoke; she loved local history and even though naturally aloof, she was always bright and attentive to older people. To look at her you could not tell that she had an urgent need to urinate.
I carried both of the suitcases from the trunk of the car while Bola held her handbag and the tattered novel. The novel was called The Borrowed Alibi by someone called Lesley Egan and it was all Bola had saved from her home when it was destroyed by a flood in Lagos in 1978. She went everywhere with that book. I had read it. The last few pages were lost, so I don’t know how it ended. She loved the book and became unreasonably irate one day when I suggested I could find her a new copy from an out-of-print bookshop.
‘Are you hungry, Dowry Man?’ she asked.
I shook my head. ‘In this place I would probably have to pick up a shotgun and catch whatever we’re going to eat.’
‘Hmm. My hunter-gatherer,’ she said. When she spoke like that, in that tone, it meant there was lovemaking in my immediate future.
Bola opened the door and we stumbled into the Municipal House. I found the electricity meter and switched it on. There were six flats, but we didn’t go for a tour. We chose the nearest. It was a single lounge with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. I went into one of the rooms and flipped the double-mattress. Bola went to use the loo, and then she helped me put the room in order. It was clean, but a little dusty. We argued over nothing, a recent habit.
No sex for me that night.
Dominic left the bungalow in the morning. It was a bad day: the village looked deserted even though he knew this would be the busiest time for them. He had a headache and could not feel the wind. There was a breeze because leaves and scraps of paper moved along the dusty thoroughfare. The car was still parked in front of the Municipal building and Dominic walked towards it. Today it was fire engine red or at least it seemed that way to Dominic. He no longer felt sure about the nature of colours or his ability to identify them. Was the car really red? Had it been red when he bought it? What was red anyway? Was it meant to be that intense? Or was it normally more than this? Why did the intensity not hurt?
He touched the grille. Had his car always been red? Had it always been a jeep? He vaguely remembered that Bola did not like the car, that he had selfishly picked what he wanted at the dealership twelve months before.
Today, his mission was to try and drive the car out of the village. He had tried walking once before and the results had been disturbing. The path was homogenous with repeating patterns of trees, clouds and road, a nauseating sameness. He had kept it up for an hour and reached nowhere. When he turned around he walked back for an hour and there was the village again, unchanged but teasing him. If he could drive, the results might be different.
Dominic looked in the window of the red jeep and did not see the keys in the ignition. He would have to go into the Municipal Building. He glanced up at it. The building appeared to be respiring. He took the long way around the automobile and stood at the door. The rain from the day before had left a pool of water at the door stoop where the concrete was uneven. He tried to open the door, but it was locked. It was the only door in the village that was locked to him. He was able to enter all other buildings and observe the evidence of the villagers’ existence, their alimentations and fornications.
He spent half an hour hammering at the door, shouldering it, kicking it, all without success.
I was so angry that night. I could not sleep in that state and I even resented Bola’s gentle snore beside me and the rise and fall of her chest. I tried to remember our fight and the reasons but they eluded me. I tried to practice what I would say once she woke up. I toyed with the idea of waking her up for round two of our fight. I had thought of new retorts, bitingly sarcastic shit. This is what I was doing when…
I think there were intruders. I think.
I think that’s what they were.
It is difficult to remember. There were noises from outside that I went to investigate. Bola turned over and looked at me briefly when I left the bed. She winked at me and went back to sleep.
I stepped outside the Municipal building and then… nothing.
The next thing I remember is standing under a baobab tree, hearing the villagers but not seeing them.
Dominic left the bungalow again.
He experienced a hunger that yammered and frolicked at the centre of him. He approached the Municipal Building from the rear this time, beating his way through bush to get there. The living thing in his belly gnawed and twisted. He rubbed his tummy and snatched some leaves to chew as he pushed through. It calmed.
All the windows from the back of the building were shattered, but it looked like vandalism rather than systematic destruction. He walked around the back treading on broken glass. The individual shards were dirty and held watermarks. They had been there a while. When he hooked around the side of the building he saw that the car was no longer there.
His mind pulled back from the empty space, from the absence. He ran back to the bungalow as fast as he could. Under the bed he found the paper on which he had written his—their story. He read to remind himself of his… jeep. It was a jeep. A red jeep.
Other times it was a sports car or a space wagon or a high-end motorcycle.
But there was always a vehicle there. There was a device with wheels and an internal combustion engine and safety glass and… and engine oil.
He paced the room, then rushed through each page again, looking for anything about Bola. He read every word, until the letters swam before his eyes and he felt a supreme headache. He dropped the pages and rubbed his eyes.
‘Fuck,’ he said when the pain lanced through his forehead.
He whirled and there was Bola, clear strong image, looking straight at him.
‘Dowry man,’ she said, and smiled sadly. ‘I’m dreaming, am I not?’
‘You’re not dreaming,’ said Dominic. ‘I’m here. I’ve been looking for you for days.
Now we can—‘
He tried to touch her, but she backed away.
‘Days?’ she said. ‘Is that how long it’s been for you?’
Dominic said nothing. ‘What are you—‘
‘It’s been five years, my love.’
‘Whu… what? Five…’
‘You went missing, Dominic. I had you declared dead after the second year.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I think you know,’ said Bola. ‘I came here to say goodbye, Dominic. I… my therapist thinks I need closure. My pastor thinks I need to exorcise you.’
‘What happened? What happened that night?’
‘You heard a noise. You got up. I winked at you to let you know the quarrel we had was over. I went back to sleep. A few minutes later I woke up again because I heard the noise of a scuffle. I got up to see, but the front door was open and you were gone. I have only seen you fleetingly in dreams since. The police worked for three months at the insistence of my father, but they could not find you.’ She held up her left hand, showing me the back. A diamond shone there, on the finger where our wedding band used to be. ‘It’s been a while, Dowry Man. I’m engaged.’
Her hand came down. She placed a shimmering hand on Dominic’s cheek, but he felt nothing. She began to walk away and fade at the same time.
‘Go away, Dominic. Your time here is up. Good luck on the next level, wherever that may be.’
When she disappeared he heard footsteps that came to a stop behind him. He knew, before looking, what was there. Even expected it. A man, a dark man, with a machete, coming at him. He swung the machete almost faster than Dominic could duck. He heard the slipstream of the slice pass his ear. The dark man was a blur. Dominic could not see his face, which was shrouded in shadow. All he could do was linked to that cruel machete. Dominic swung a punch at him. It was clumsy and missed, but served to bring him within range. He knew the man would cut him with the next attempt. Dominic closed his eyes, stopped moving, and waited.
When he opened his eyes he was holding the weapon and a man was running away, deep into the night. Dominic was standing in the doorway of the Municipal Building, breathing heavily. It was dark and he felt slight dizziness, but nothing more. Fogginess in his thoughts. He closed the door, locked it with a latch and walked up to the room.
He imagined something other; he told himself a lie.
In his lie Bola was asleep. He rushed to the window and looked out. The car was there. It was a Toyota Camry hatchback, blue in colour, fairly new. This was his car. He touched the figure on the bed. She murmured in her sleep. This was his wife.
He cried. He shook her awake and hugged her. In his lie.
They got into the car and drove off.
‘It’s the middle of the night,’ said Bola. ‘This is dangerous. Armed robbers will just love us as targets. I’ll probably be raped and murdered. Would you like that?’
‘We’ll be fine,’ Dominic said, negotiating the horrendous road and watching headlights pierce the darkness ahead. He didn’t know that they would be fine, but whatever that town was about he wanted no part of. ‘We’ll be with your sister and brother-in-law soon. You’ll be glad to see her. Just sleep for now.’
‘She’s not going to be glad to see us at this time of the night. She loves her sleep.’ She snorted and adjusted her position. ‘I guess it’ll be good to see Benjamin again. He’s funny isn’t he?’
Dominic looked at her, heart up somewhere behind his tongue. ‘Yes. Hilarious.’
In truth, there was an empty room in the Municipal building. There was the painful memory of his Bola dreaming of him or maybe dreaming him. There was Dominic trying to slip back into a reality he had slipped out of. He left, returned to the bungalow, sat on the bed and began to write. The pages he had written before in pencil and blue or black ink lay on the floor where he left them.
What now? Do I make noises, disturb the villagers, curdle their milk, become an urban legend a rural legend? A story for the moonlight tales, a creature with which to scare children to sleep. A nightmare. The ghost of tourists past.
When I was a child we lived at the edge of the forest and on the other side of it was a leper colony which the British started when they held colonial power. My mother wove magical tales of escaped lepers and pure kings and princes and the witch doctors who cleansed them. Except I always identified with the lepers. I feel like one now.
I can live it again. I will can live again. I can read my notes, the very notes I’m writing right now, and I can remember Bola and her sister and pervert brother-in-law and the red jeep and make the whole thing happen over on my terms.
I can find a slip road way out.More stories like this by topic: Africa, African authors, Authors of color, Black authors, Characters of color, UK authors, Yoruba authors