Next Door – The Story
House 10, Mbanefo Street was the precise number; the house I once shared with the woman I thought was the woman of my dreams. It was as though a mass of thick dark cloud of misfortune hung loosely on the street. The building sat facing a T-junction where two cars collided and none survived; there, a police officer gunned down a bike man, because of his daily collection, and residents rallied around and almost shredded him up. Mbanefo Street always wore a silent and desolate look.
From where I stood, I could see the windows of the vacant side of the flat of NO. 10; I could actually see through the empty rooms which were as empty and silent as my marriage of ten years.
We, Lilian and I, both lived as occupants, sharing the same bed space, the same rooms, breathing in the same air, but we never knew what it felt to be human; to love and to hold. She was a teacher, and I, a quiet surveyor with the state ministry of lands.
Morning for us started off with a nod in form of greeting, I pretended to be busy in the toilet while she splashed some water. The cringing of the door ushered me into the bathroom; I would have my eyes to the floor, not looking at the white towel tightly tied around her chest, but the corners of my eyes longed to have a feel of her smooth soft dark skin. Before I was done, she was gone. It was for me, a cold quiet marriage.
At work, the guys would eagerly wait for me to give them the latest political gist because while they were at the bar drinking at the end of the day, I would rush home to meet the TV waiting and Lilian was either marking some scripts or already asleep.
I got to work early enough to meet the gates locked and workers walking about idly without doing much. From a distance, I had already seen the wrinkles of worry that clambered all around their faces.
Joe, one of the guys greeted. We shook hands and John, also joined us.
“What is happening? Kedu nke n’ eme?”
I had to ask.
“We no go work today o!”
John said with arms spread out. He had four children of his own and always looked like someone who needed more money.
I asked hastily? It was as though they were happy that we were not working but I wasn’t.
“Strike, bro. Union say make we no work today. Government must pay all outstanding allowance. You no watch news yesterday?”
Joe asked jokingly and out of surprise. I knew that I slept off in front of the television the previous day. The fieldwork had lasted up until night. I didn’t even bother to get a bite to eat before getting home.
“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
I stammered. I didn’t want to go home; there was absolutely nothing waiting for me at home.
“You look scared.”
“Are you happy with our condition? I have six kids to feed and school fees to pay.”
“I am not scared of anything.”
I finally untied my tongue.
“At least, you will have time for your woman very well.”
Clifford said, and they all giggled. I didn’t know how to react to that. It has been ages.
“I think we better leave now, the earlier the better.”
“I heard that there is a new happening Joint close to CBN quarters: Afrispot.”
“Yes! That’s the best way to start the day. My woman couldn’t make breakfast. I told her not to bother that the guys and I can take care of ourselves.”
John said and they all giggled.
“I can’t wait to eat Nsala soup tonight. She really knows how to prepare it.”
“I think we all need to stop over at my house later when we are done tonight, I believe there would be enough to go round.”
Clifford further suggested. They all nodded in agreement. As they made their way to the car, Joe called after me:
“Emy, are you not coming?”
“Another day, I have something important to do.”
I lied. I had absolutely no idea what to do but I couldn’t stand to hear them talk about their families while I seem not to have one. I waited and watched while they all squeezed into John’s old battered pick up and zoomed off with their noisy laughter and dust chasing after them.
The gates squeaked as I opened it. I looked around the quiet compound and there was no single sign of life. I wondered how I would stay here all alone until the strike. I quietly made my way up the stairs and when I got to my door, it gently opened.
“Are you back?”
I asked, not knowing what to expect because we rarely talked.
She replied coldly without looking back. I only caught a glimpse of her straight back and her swaying hips under the sky blue three-quarter skirt she wore. It was the first time and the longest glimpse I have ever caught of her. I looked at the time and it was still nine. The room spun around my head a bit: I should have gone out with the guys, I thought desperately.
I made my way through the living room and into the kitchen, but a loud noise drew my attention: it was as though someone was moving things all around the house. I rushed to where the noise was coming from; Lilian was moving our bed away from the wall and towards the window through which sunlight climbed into the room.
It reminded me of the next door which had more light. The trees that grew close to our end made our room look more like a rain forest than a room. She was also trying to remove the carpet at once and do the wall papers too. I never complained of the gray carpets which made the room warm or the wall papers that gave the room a humid feel.
She was doing so many things at the same time that she didn’t notice my presence as I watched the way her hips curved to a corner and her neckline through the black sleeveless top she wore. I have never seen her dress in such a way before; we rarely see each other before leaving. Her hair nestled neatly on corn rows and the cocoa butter she used tickled the black strands in my nostrils.
For the first time in many years, I felt the need to satisfy myself. My stomach growled; so many things were happening at the same time and it was too much for me; I watched the perspiration come on her forehead and how she swept it away with her thumb. I drew back a bit, walked through the passage way and left the house.
We were three days into the strike and I made my way into the compound from a union meeting. The boys had asked me to come along with them but I refused because I was too scared to face the truth about my unhappiness. When I got to the stairs, I met men who greeted:
“Oga, welcome, sir.”
The next door neighbor must have moved in, I thought. When I got to my front door, I met it wide open and I walked into a disarranged house. Everything has been moved to the centre while a man was busy in each room painting. Lilian was nowhere to be found and the stinging smell of paint made my nose and eyes itchy. I took refuge in the next door which was always kept clean for inspection.
I went directly to the room that faced Mbanefo Street, and there was Lilian, looking out to the street through its wide windows. Her straight back now hunched forward; she was a mixture of dust, paint and a soft feminine perfume I have known her with. The long colourful brocade hung loose around her but curved at her mid section to express her luxurious waist and gracious chest. I swallowed hard because my mouth suddenly went dry and my tongue tasted like bile.
“I thought it better to lighten up the house a bit.”
Lilian said coldly that it almost sounded like a silent whisper. She knew I was the one but she didn’t look back. I came and stood with her, overlooking the quiet dusty path that led to the main road, I just said:
“Imela. Thank you”
It was the first time in a long while we have had a conversation.
I was drunk. I knew the boys deliberately got me drunk on my first outing with them: it was a kind of initiation. I had to go when the invitation came because I couldn’t keep up with the silence which ate right through me at home. The thought of what lay at home escaped me and I was happy for the first time after a very long while.
Home never came to mind: it was from one spot to another, from one drink to the other, Abacha and Nkwobi; these men never got tired of talking on top of their voice: it was from football to politics, from politics to entertainment, women, sex, and all the way.
When it was time to go home, each couldn’t wait to get going, scrambling to their feet and talking about the food, wife, and children, waiting for their return. Some even ordered extra pieces of meat and drink to take home to their wives. Emeka has never come across such happiness before; it seemed too real to be true. It was as though the strike opened up a door to a new kind of freedom.
With shaky hands, he unbolted the gate and let himself into the compound, making his way up the staircase. The keys jingled in his hands as he tried to unlock the door, and as soon as he did, the sharp smell of dry paint slapped his face, and the new look in the sitting room made blood rush to his head.
Although the room seemed to be swinging right before his very eyes, he was able to find his way to the bedroom. Immediately, his eyes fell on the form on the bed, illuminated by the light that came right through the window: Lilian had the trees trimmed a bit; she wanted more light in the room.
Emeka danced his way to the bed and his hand gently removed the blanket and he quietly climbed under it. He stank of alcohol, sweat, and peppered meat and he knew it. Emeka gently nestled close to his wife who quickly jumped right off the bed, switched on the light and stared right into his eyes; they were full of so many things out of which was a strong desire to have her there and then. His eyes crawled all around her body that hid beneath the very short black silk night-gown that made it seem as though she wore nothing at all.
“Don’t you ever touch me, ever again!”
She nearly screamed through tight teeth while pointing a finger at him.
“How did we get here?”
Emeka asked out of confusion. The drink already left him; he lifted his frame and hung it loosely before her. Suddenly, everything seemed too clear to him: their growing apart ever since they both got an important promotion, her sudden change in mode of dressing, and how their feelings for each other drained through the years, and yes, I knew how we got here. Deep in her eyes, I only saw a woman in love.