(The story you are about to read is an excerpt taken from a work in progress, a novel manuscript titled Resemblance. Read and leave a comment!)
Itinerant, mentally ill people walking in groups weren’t unusual in Port Harcourt. They roamed quiet neighborhoods, markets and busy roadsides in over-worn, torn clothes. Striking gongs and metal cans, they would sing dull, dreary songs as if these were dirges to their accepted madness. A friend from high school had once told Bose that these people had escaped from psychiatric homes, formed into groups and wandered the city. Bose had heard from a woman she’d stood next to in the market that they were possessed by spirits. She’d watched the woman pass her fingers through a heap of beans, sigh and then say that they would keep walking till those spirits were exorcised from them.
Their fate was that of many mentally ill people in her country. Families would abandon them to their own defenses on city streets. Bose thought of them as she walked to the hotel Adebiyi worked at. The hotel was on the right-hand side of the road, past old apartment and loft-style business buildings. She was almost at the end of the road when the tall brick building loomed ahead of her.
The lobby and waiting area were as modest and well-maintained as the building itself. So austerely beautiful was everything around her that she realized that behind those expectations and thoughts about her father being here, she’d imagined the hotel to be tawdry. Bose waited for the reception-desk agent to check in the couple in front of her. Their accent sounded European, and they moved their luggage and carried themselves with the hesitation tourists often have. When they had headed to the elevator, the agent asked Bose what she could do for her.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Bose said, “but I was wondering if Mr. Adebiyi Bamidele works here?”
The woman gave a short confused laugh and asked Bose to repeat the name. Bose did. The agent told her to wait for a moment. She called someone on the phone and explained to Bose that another person would help her.
Bose smiled and thanked her. The woman smiled back and returned to her computer screen.
Bose sat in a corner of the lobby next to an ornamental table with white tulips on it. Her corner was comfortable. The ring of elevators and the smack of shoes on the marble floor were all faint from where she sat. A bald man in overalls stepped in front of the help desk. He was looking in Bose’s direction, and so she expected that he would walk to her. He didn’t. He only waved.
She rose up from the couch, knowing from the man’s have-to-rush-back look that he was the one she had to speak to. They shook hands and Bose followed the man through a hallway flanked by offices and storage rooms, outside through a back door. The man lit a cigarette. His dry, white hands were mottled with spots. His bald head was also dotted. He introduced himself as James. She watched him take in drags of his cigarette and stare at the pigeons walking lightly over the blotchy white of their own shit.
“What about Mr. Adebiyi did you want to ask about?” he asked. “You’re not from the cops, are you?”
“No, no, I’m not any cop. I just wanted to confirm if he works here and, you know, how he is, generally,” Bose said, managing to laugh.
“How he is, generally?” James repeated.
“He’s my father, first of all,” Bose explained. “And I’m beginning to think he might be very ill. I just want to know how he does here at work. Is he usually aloof, active, that sort of thing?”
James shook his cigarette so that the ash fell off.
“He’s quiet, no doubt, but he’s not bad to other folks around here. Comes to work at eight every morning. Does his work good. When you walk on where he’s cleaned, you know it’s him. Don’t know about him being ill, to tell you the truth.”
“Do you ever talk to him?”
“Can you remember what you talked about?”
“We spoke about the weather when it snowed crazy one night. One time, I told him about my granddaughter’s piano lessons that cost a fortune. He didn’t have much to say, though,” James said, and grinned.
He took the last drag out of his cigarette, butted it out against a dumpster and tossed it in.
“Did you ever suspect he had some kind of mental illness?”she asked, sensing that James was about to leave.
Tilting his head, James asked her if she really wasn’t a cop. Bose laughed.
There wasn’t much else she could say or ask, so she thanked the man and left.
Going to the hotel had been a waste of her time. Nothing was learned. No light shed on what was happening to her father. All she had were bits of info she didn’t know what to do with. She wondered what her father was doing at that moment, at Mildred’s.
Did he spend his time cooped up in the room, his mind blank? How did he perceive time, or continuously reconnect his present with the past, however near or distant? She paused in front of a loft building when the thought sprouted in her mind of her father leaving Mildred’s place in a fugue state. Her father, wandering off leading an invisible trail of faceless, gong-beating people. The thought scared her.
Image by Luis Royo.
Afolabi Opanubi is a young Nigerian writer born and raised in the City of Lagos. He spent some time in Canada where he studied Environmental Science at Memorial University. His stories have been published in 34th Parallel and Rabbit tales. He lives and writes in Port Harcourt.