It’s a Saturday morning. You roll off the bed sheet and let it drop into a metal bucket. You reach for a bar of soap and a sachet of detergent from on top the centre table. You let them fall into the bucket, too. The tap is out in the front yard, and it is where you should go to do your laundry. Instead, you pull close a plastic chair and plop into it. Your right hand moves into your full afro and fiddles with the matted locks. Hot air rushes out of your nostrils. All of it a steady grip of restlessness.
Teju, who has been observing you from over the top of his open laptop, clears his throat. You turn to him, and from your countenance, he senses your anxiety. He smiles, a reassuring gesture, and you smile back.
“Baba again?” he asks.
“Na wa for you o. Abeg relax jor! Baba does not bite. I keep reminding you that.”
“Maybe,” you drawl.
“See, just go out and do your washing. Nothing dey happen.”
“If you say so!”
You follow Teju’s advice, drag yourself up, bucket in hand, and make for the door. When you get to it, you turn back and Teju gives you that reassuring smile, again. You feel your chest expand with relief. Out at the tap, you collect water in the bucket, move a few feet away and bend to wash, whistling a tune to get you through the chore. After a while, Mama Ireti brings out a pile of clothes and fusses over how dirty her children have become. Tenant after tenant come by the tap to collect water. You share a joke with some; others strike a quick chat with you. But none of these take your mind away from Baba who, tending to the Aloe Vera plants in front of his house, has been studying you.
When you come out, you do not greet him. You long stopped being polite after you realized that he never responded to your greetings with anymore than passive grunts, that he—even as the landlord of the house—doesn’t even know your name, because he never asked since you began living in the grey house, three months ago.
The day when you first came into Lagos, Baba was outside of his bungalow. He was watering the Aloe Vera plants nursed in terracotta pots, all arranged in a neat row in front of the house. You could tell the house had been painted white, maybe creamy white, but it was now greying with quiet resignation, after years of been touched by rainfall and sunshine.
By the tap to the right, two women were laundering and chatting. You greeted them, and they chorused “my brother, welcome o!” When, however, you turned and greeted Baba, he did not respond. Perhaps he did not hear. You moved closer and said, “Good evening, Sir.” He looked up this time, probing with beady eyes that moved from your face, slowly, down to your feet, and then back to your face. It was like a man trying to recall where he had known you—then he looked away. Just like that. Not even a word. Even though you thought it strange, you brushed it aside with a shrug and moved inside. You were too tired to say a thing.
When later you told Teju about it, he laughed for two whole minutes and wondered how you couldn’t see that it was your madman’s hair. Haba! He said that it was amusing you expected old Baba to respond to the greetings of a young man who carried an unattended afro, like a confused reggae star. But you did not think so. There was something about the way Baba looked you over, that tight crinkle around his eyes, a look you were sure hinted at something more disapproving than a mere dislike for hair.
Baba makes his way to the tap now, pail in hand. You are aware of his eyes on you as you squeeze at the bed sheet. He stops and glares at you, and you feel compelled, after months of not doing so, to greet him. “Good morning, sir,” you say, but he does not respond. Not even a grunt this time. Not even a gentle raise of his brows in quiet acknowledgement. You feel your bile rise. You want to tell him off. But you’re also aware of Mama Ireti’s presence in the yard. Nothing is as stupid as making yourself the subject of the week’s gossip. So, you keep your head bowed, eyes tracing the shape of lather in the bucket, as Baba collects water and leaves.
The ugly old fool!
Baba’s hatred—well, it had to be hatred—took shape the day you took up a teaching job at Eko-Ayo Grammar school, the dilapidating government secondary school down Shomolu Street. It was a day when you felt the diffusion of happiness in your chest, when you trotted home after school hours to scream your excitement into Teju’s ear. That ah, you were employed at last o! You have finally left the labour market eh! But when you pushed open the gate to the grey house, and stepped inside, and saw the look on Baba’s face, your happiness took a gentle push and came crashing around your feet, like porcelain vases off a shaking shelf.
“Abeg, you relax jare!” Teju said to you. “Ahn-ahn! I keep telling you that Baba is just a funny, old landlord, nothing more. Abi you want to dey wet your pant anytime you see the old man ni?” And he burst out laughing. You thought he was being insensitive, and you very well wanted to rebuke him. But his laughter, as always, melted your anger into something warm and sticky. So you shook your head, too, and laughed as well.
It is this occasional indifference that Teju shares with your uncle, Ichie Onunze. It was he who once suggested to your father not to bother sending your elder sisters, Ada and Chinyere, to the university. He said that money spent on a girl was money wasted, that your father should relax and wait for his son’s time. And your father relaxed. Years afterwards, your sisters had been married for at least six years. You had been an unemployed graduate for two years, yet your father was still hobbling with chronic arthritis. Your mother still bore the brunt of the family’s situation on her frail, slumping shoulders. And every day, before you left Nara, your hometown, for Lagos, you got one more reason to take that leap of faith, and leave home, so that it matters little now that this teaching job is what you’re subsisting on, imagining it as a springboard to something better, to something more rewarding to come from your numerous CVs scattered across Lagos.
It is evening now. You’ve collected the bed sheet from the washing line and dressed the bed. You sit and watch Teju dress for his football training at the grammar school football pitch. He asks why you are staying back today, and you tell him that you are tired; you want to take a rest. He laughs and says “awon omo Ibo sha!” You do not mind the joke at all, not with the thought of Baba pressing against the walls of your mind. You only pay attention to Teju’s preparation to divert your thoughts.
You watch him put on his Liverpool FC jersey and shorts, put on a pair of maroon socks, put on a pair of addidas boots, complain about the filing studs, tuck in his shin pads and, out of nowhere, memories of when Teju readily dueled with anyone who threw a jibe at his beloved Liverpool FC comes to you. You smile.
“Okay now,” Teju says, straightening up, “relax well o, Oga teacher”, then waddles out, laughter trailing behind him.
You wait till you hear the creaking sound of a closing gate. Then, you let out a heavy sigh, gather your thoughts, and set out.
You are in the wide passageway of the grey house, moving leftwards, towards Baba’s room. You edge past the room of the Urhobo couple who, as always, are in the middle of a quarrel; past the room of Pastor ‘the peacemaker’ Isaiah; all the way to the front of Baba’s door. Then, you stop. Your heartbeat slows down, too, thudding lightly against your chest. You feel suffocated. You are looking at the silver knob of Baba’s door. You are not sure you remember how to turn one.
Eventually, you knock. No response. You knock again. Yet, no response! You start to reproach yourself for being a fool. You should never have pursued this silly idea you call ‘finding out’. But as you turn to leave, the door creaks open, and a hardly audible ‘yes?’ comes through.
It is Baba.
You are face to face with him.
And for the first time, you feel the moistness of your palms, the itch at the nape of your neck, the sudden dryness in your mouth. You even feel more embarrassed when you realise he is preoccupied with the thought of whether or not to let you in. After a while, he beckons, and your shoulders slump in relief.
His room is scantily furnished: a worn sofa and a stool, both opposite an armchair; a transistor radio balanced atop the stool; a table with books arranged in a sloppy stack to the far right corner. The blue walls have a few grey patches, and hanging down from one is an old time piece, its pendulum swinging to and fro. The curtains of the window directly opposite you are held apart, and the rays of the evening sun, a caramel brown, fill the room.
You sit on the armchair, and Baba sits on the worn sofa opposite you. You are observing him, up close for the first time. His hair is a cropped mass of grey with scattered tufts of black. With his jaw balanced on his right palm and his eye brows raised, he looks grave.
“Yes?” he asks.
This takes you unawares because you hoped, before coming here, that the conversation would start on the right footing. That you would exchange pleasantries with Baba, laugh together, at least for once, and ask him about the upcoming general elections, who he was rooting for, and hear his take, old men with their curious opinions. But this rude question dislodges that goodwill intention leaving you to ask the one important question:
“Why do you hate me, Baba?”
His face is expressionless. Not even a twinkle of recognition in his now softened eyes. A fleeting thought even crosses your mind to get up and leave. But before you make a move, Baba gets up. Your eyes follow him as he makes his way to the table at the corner, squats by it and retrieves a smoking pipe. Seated, he begins to fill the pipe with tobacco leaves. He stuffs it up, lights it and starts smoking. Little clouds of smoke are swirling in the atmosphere and it is from behind this haze that Baba looks at you, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
“You know,” he says, clearing his throat, “I had a former tenant who looked like you.”
You are disappointed. What nonsense! How does his knowing a former tenant who looks…no, why ‘looked’? You make to urge him on, but he’s already talking.
“Biodun died two years ago.” He stops, clearly gauging your reaction. Satisfied, he continues. “Biodun was like my own son. Very, very good boy! Always talking, always laughing. He was a very good Literature teacher at Eko-Ayo, and many of the students loved him. He also wrote stories. All the time, he’s saying, “Baba read it. Just read it, Baba. Tell me what you think”. Generally good stories. Sometimes bad ones. Ah, Biodun! One day, I was reading Punch newspaper when he came with a story. I said no, later, but not Biodun. You see, Biodun can be stubborn sometimes! That boy can be very stubborn!” He smiles, a tint of sorrow colouring his eyes.
“So, I read this story and became uncomfortable. Very very disturbed! Biodun knew, because he was laughing and laughing. The story was about a boy…14 years? Yes, 14 years. Wanted to be involved in an accident because he had never experienced it since he was born. He wanted to go to the hospital and get plenty cards, with beautiful nurses massaging his legs. So, he tampered with the brakes in his father’s car. The next day, his father was driving him to school, and they had an accident. Both of them dead!”
You are not sure what to think or do. So, you just watch as Baba puffs at his pipe. This time, the grey clouds of smoke fill the room, like burning incense in a temple. For a moment there, Baba is the priest in the midst of a trance, and you are his acolyte, patiently awaiting a divine instruction.
“You know,” Baba resumes, “Biodun died in an accident the week after the story. He was going to see his parents at Abeokuta. Only him died in the bus.”
Now, you feel woozy. Baba’s stare makes you even more uncomfortable. You are sure you should ask him several questions to fill in the tiny plot holes. Like the connection between Biodun’s story and his attitude towards you. Like the whereabouts of his own family, about something that surely must be different, not this heavy conversation, a thing perhaps light and cheerful. But you are tongue tied.
“You believe in superstition?” Baba asks.
You are upset by now. You want to say no. You want to hiss and complain about the wasted time. You want to get up and leave. But you instead take some time to process his question. After a while, you tell him no, and he smiles, for the first time, a limp curve on only the right side of his lips, like a sneer. He takes a final puff at his pipe, sends scattering clouds of smoke about the room and puts out the pipe.
Out of the window, dark is coming. The red sun is sinking into the horizon. Teju will be home soon. You sigh and thank Baba. He says nothing. You get up and make for the door. As you reach it, Baba calls your attention. You turn, and he is laughing, a full, toothy laughter.
“Biodun carried a hairstyle like yours” he says. “And they say you teach literature at Eko-Ayo, too.”
The room suddenly feels too small. You are looking at Baba, and he is still guffawing. Right there, you wonder what Teju will say when you narrate the event of today to him. He will probably laugh and say abeg you relax jor.
But first, you need a haircut.
Post image by Reinhard Kuchenbäcker via flickr
About the Author
Ogbu Godwin Ikechukwu is a school teacher and a creative writer who holds a B.A in English and Literature from the University of Benin. His works have appeared on The Kalahari Review, Sabinews and Olisa.tv. He writes from Abuja.