Eyes — they peer at me all day. Eyes with glasses and eyes without. Eyes with bemused expressions dancing beside the narrow bridges of raised noses. Eyes with cold blank stares that light a fire and burn down a man’s spine. Eyes that carry questions delivered by tight-lipped men.
Who are you?
Who sent you here?
Are you marking the city for a terrorist group or a drug syndicate?
Are you a member of the CIA? MI6?
The questions won’t stop coming. They come in torrents and trickles — these questions carried by men who are angry, confused or scared. They come in black suits, dark goggles, conspicuously hidden guns and speculations — these men. They come in white lab coats, wobbly goggles and curiosity. The men in black come looking for secrets, they are sure there is something at the back of my tongue, waiting to be let out. The men in white coats come looking for diagnoses.
I prefer the men in white coats, fear lurking at the corner of their mouths. Their crooked smiles give away the anxiety and curiosity in their questions. What happens to them if they can’t diagnose me? They look like they are afraid of not just me but something beyond this austere room. They stay a few feet away, a barrier between us, and make promises. But they won’t come closer. How do you hope to inspect the things you can’t touch? I smile and move towards them, my chains jangling and biting into my ankles. They move back hurriedly. I can see it in their eyes; everything unfamiliar is dangerous.
This is a mental hospital, not a holding cell. Tell us who you are and what woman you are talking about. We will treat you and let you go, the men in white lab coats promise. Today, they are here with the men in black coats. Everyone looking at me from a safe distance. The requests from the men in white come with some kind of entreat. Like they need me to validate them by proving them right. They need me to be sick; they need me to affirm their diagnoses by accepting my mind is not right.
I look at them, and for the first time since I arrived in this cell, a certain disdain begins to grow its tentacles inside me. Not a holding cell, but the chains in my legs are still biting hard to my ankles, the sores tuning a thick milky yellow. We all have a definition of freedom and this one, this freedom that they promise doesn’t look like mine.
So I ask them my questions. The same questions I have been asking for months now, perhaps weeks. I am not sure how long I have been here.
Where is the woman who was sitting by me when you took me? A Niger woman was sitting by me, dark skin, long hair and dark marks, did you hurt her? Did you kill her?
There is no Niger woman anywhere. One of the men in black snaps from behind a cluster of white coats. You need to start talking now or you will be mincemeat by the end of today. Who sent you? Do you know what we do to spy? we roast them, alive. Have you ever eaten a barbecue before, American boy? That’s what we will make of your flesh. He grinds a fist into his palm as if to show me how mincemeat is made. I think he looks hilarious. He must have seen too many American movies in his life. Perhaps he was a ninny who got the secret service job and had to watch a lot of Hollywood movies to copy how the villains behave. His arms are too small to intimidate anyone. Besides the dark goggles — which he doesn’t even need in this room — the rest of his features look soft, too soft and kind. His nose, too small to hold the goggles well; the lines of his mouth curved slightly, like they would fit a feminine version of him better. How am I supposed to be afraid of this one?
I laugh. It starts slow and easy, from a deep part of my body, as if making its way, taking its time out of my mouth. Oh, such a little darling talking about crushing somebody. Is this what this country has become in my absence?
I am British, not American, I say, still laughing. How can you not know the difference, dear boy?
Do you see what we are saying? A huge man in a white coat says and turns to the men in black. Now, this man has the features that can instil fear. He needs to be the one in dark goggles and a black coat, give the lab coat to our friend with the villain complex. This casting is really bad, who is in charge of allocating these men their roles?
His reality is a bit blurry from the rest of the world. White Coat is saying, pointing at me. If he is faking it, then he is damn good at it. See him laughing at the threat of violence.
The men in white coats say my memory is faulty. They’ve been saying this ever since I got here. They smile when they say it too. The kind of smile that says I know better than you. I smile back at them, a daring, soul-searching cold smile that says I know what they are trying to do. They are trying to make me admit to losing my mind, and they are doing that by trying to make me lose my damn mind. A woman was sitting by me. I know it. I know it, and I am certain of it. Not even hundreds of mousy men in white lab coats and faded black suits can intimidate me into saying otherwise.
Where is the woman? What have you done to her? I ask them again. I am no longer laughing, but the remnant of the laughter has dissolved into a sly smile on my lips.
There was no woman, they say. Perhaps you cannot remember much.
They stood looking at me for a long time afterwards. Perhaps they hope that their silence will do a better job of convincing me. Perhaps silence has always done a good job of stripping sanity away.
I must admit, the medications and the several questions create a fog in my brain. They keep plying me with these medicines; I am not sure what they are trying to cure. Now my brain is swimming through the several pills, hoping I can fish out a clearer memory of her – that woman. How long have I been here? Is this their plan? To keep me here until I begin to forget everything? Forget her? Forget Felicity? Is it until I confess to some made-up lies? How long have I been in this tiny room? How long will they keep me while they do whatever it is they are doing to her? It seems like a long time ago since I last saw her. Everything seems like a long time ago — everything except Felicity and the woman.
It was a Wednesday or a Thursday. One of those days when you’re unsure what to do with yourself; everyone walked a bit slower, smiled guardedly and held their frustration at the tip of their fingers, ready to unleash it on their cars’ horns, their work emails or an unfortunate waiter who served the wrong meal. Everyone except me.
I was certain of everything I would do that day. Deliberate even in my choice of clothing. I wore the grey Armani suit that Felicity bought me on our second wedding anniversary.
I stood in front of the mirror for a long time that morning, making sure my tie was right, a perfect Windsor knot — just the way Felicity taught me. I hesitated a bit while trying to pick the right pair of shoes. Felicity had made me pack the expensive ones.
They would come in handy for dinners with friends, she had said, her hands folded under her jaw like one about to pray, while her eyes shone with excitement or maybe it was brimming with tears. I could never tell anymore at that point.
I didn’t have the heart to ask her what friends. What dinners? She knew no one in Nigeria, and I hadn’t been home in fifteen years. I packed the shoes anyways.
I fetched a pair of taupe Church’s Oxfords out of the shoe rack, stuck a shoehorn to the back of each and put them on. They were the most expensive thing I bought in my sixth year in the UK. Six years of smiling at strangers and colleagues who asked casually in gatherings if I felt lucky to be away from the wars and poverty in Africa. Six years of swallowing a retort, smiling and agreeing with them over a cup of warm tea, dry gin and cold camaraderie, that I was indeed lucky to have escaped home.
The first time I saw the Church’s pair, they were on display at Harrods. I’d stared at the price tag for a long time, half my salary as a specialist registrar. When a polite attendant asked if I’d like to see other designers and ushered me towards cheaper brands, I refused, sauntered back to the Church’s and asked for the shoes to be packed. That month, the hunger pangs in my stomach grew into an aversion to the pair, but I didn’t mind. It was my five minutes of respite against constant assumptions that being different meant being small.
As I left my apartment that morning, I ticked one thing off my mental chore list for the day.
Dress impeccably well, for Felicity. Checked ✓
There was a political debate on the radio as the cab made its way into the city. The ailing president had returned to the country under the cover of darkness. There were no pictures to prove this. A member of the opposition party was ranting about the danger of hiding the president’s health issues. The military might take over the government, he warned.
Oga, na true say Yar’adua don die? I hear say Obama and America don dey ask questions. They want us to have a Christian president, the cabman said. His fingers, lined with dirt, hit the steering wheel continuously as the traffic buildup around us.
I hissed and asked him to change the radio station. I am uninterested in Nigerian politics and its problem.
Tapping my feet to Orlando Owoh’s ‘Kangaroo’ blaring from the new station, I watched through the side window as my cab drove past Rumueme, Rumuafrikom, Rumuochita, so many rumus swirling into one city. I smiled at the hypocrisy of such a divided community prefixing its neighbourhoods’ names with a familial identity.
The cab stopped at Rumuola. I stood rooted to a spot, the city crowd spilling everywhere without a glance at me. It was the same spot where I had discreetly spread Felicity’s ashes a week earlier. I had hoped that I could feel Felicity in the air, but there was only the smell of bole and smoked fish from street vendors.
It had always been Felicity’s desire to be forever free in the city that once exiled her parents. After participating in a failed coup in 1976, her father, a colonel, had fled Nigeria with his pregnant wife. Felicity had always dreamt of seeing home. When the doctors told us Felicity’s lung cancer had reached its final stage, it seemed like the last chance to return to Nigeria.
The first few weeks were hard, but as we began to face the inevitable exit, we began to talk more about her impending death and burial.
Cremation is not an African thing, Licy, I had told her a few times. No one burns a loved one’s body here.
I don’t want a grave, she’d argued. I don’t want you attached to a piece of land.
But she had been wrong. Even without a graveside to return to, it seemed wrong to return to the UK without Felicity. I’d changed my flight ticket a few times before cancelling it. There was an emptiness in me so heavy it could only be worsened by leaving the city without my wife.
Come to the spot where you spread Felicity’s ashes. Checked ✓
A passerby brushed my shoulder; I was startled. I looked around, remembering where I was. I checked my watch; it was 3:32 p.m. The crowd on the street was growing bigger every minute. The sweat stains stamped on the starched shirts of bulky men returning from work. The frustration stamped onto the faces of women fending off traders and touts’ offensive hands. I saw them all. It was the perfect time to tick the last chore on my list.
I took a deep breath and moved farther into the street, ready to end it all and see my Felicity again.
That moment was the first time I heard her voice — a peal of familiar laughter rising above the madness of the city. I paused, and looked across the road in the direction of the voice as a car honked at me.
I hurried across the busy road, defying nasty okada riders on their way to hell. And there she was — the woman and her strings of laughter. She sat primly on a mat made of cartons by the roadside, half-laughing and half-singing money out of the pockets of passersby. I watched her in awe.
There were others seated beside her. Others who looked just like her ─ eyes like coffee drops in a pool of milk, feet darkened with henna and the trauma of trudging away from home; indigo chiffon wrapped around their waists and heads.
I’d seen people like her before. They were everywhere in the city, these people.
A group of them had surrounded our cab the day I arrived in Nigeria with Felicity. Their arms stretched into every opened window, begging for money. When I tried to shoo them away, she’d asked who they were and why they looked different from everyone else.
Tuaregs from Niger, I told her. Bombarded Nigeria after famine hit their country in 2005, now they hang around every city, harassing people for money. Vermin! I’d huffed, glaring at a young boy whose hand was almost touching the tip of Felicity’s nose.
I would never forget the look in Felicity’s eyes that day. It was a look she’d spared me a few times in our marriage. I recoiled immediately, but I couldn’t take back the words I’d said.
As I stood watching the Tuareg lady laughing at the antics of a half-naked child grabbing pedestrians’ legs and lobbying money out of their pockets, I understood Felicity’s silent rebuff.
It took me a while to realise what was familiar about the laughter that drew me away from the street. It was a peal of laughter I’d heard before, travelling across rooms and yards in our Dulwich home. The laughter that was eaten away, one cough at a time, as the tumour in Felicity’s throat grew tentacles and took over our lives.
I stood at the same spot until she was done laughing. I watched as night sneaked upon the city, and she tucked her money into a tiny purse, bade farewell to her co-beggars and disappeared into the night. I was at the same spot long after she left, and dusk spread its canopy over Port Harcourt and beyond.
The last chore on my list remained unchecked.
I was back the next day, and the days after that, standing by the walkway, staring at this woman whose laughter pulled me away from death. There was always something new to stare at, something new to remind me of home, of Felicity.
There was her temple, folding into thin layers like expensive satin when she smiled. The slight curl of her lips when she was peeved. And when she invited me to sit with them on the fourth day, there was the faint smell of the jojoba oil in her hair, just like Felicity’s. There were the uncomfortable ones, too: her fist rubbing her thighs in a way that was neither aggressive nor comforting when a stranger spat in her bowl. There was the squaring of her shoulders when an older man asked her to return to her country. There was the scoff, loud enough to latch itself on the back of its victim when a young man had propositioned her – you better marry me, he’d said, or you will be sent back to your country and die of hunger.
I recognised it all: the disdain wrapped in pity and passed off as charity by pedestrians; the superiority in their hasty looks as they clutched their bags tighter and walked faster; everything that reminded me of my early years in London. Of the years before I learnt to square my shoulders and own the rooms I walked into. The years before I mastered the art of hiding my accent under the hard r and soft t of my phoney British accent. Of the years I learnt also, that home is wherever you make it.
It was strange how she never asked me who I was or what I wanted. She’d welcomed me with a smile every morning and made room for me on the mat as I resumed with her group, sitting in my Armani or Tom Ford suit, receiving alms and curious glances from passersby.
Soon the pedestrians became spectators. School children with missing socks, dirty shorts and ashy knees. Adults holding tight to the content of their pockets, one eye feasting on me, the other roaming in search of pickpockets. A growing crowd amused by a beggar in designer suits. Growing until it made room for TV and radio reporters in faded crew vests and loud speculations. Growing until it merged all assumptions into one — a sick, rich man.
They came eventually ─ men who claimed to be health workers. They dragged me off the mat and pulled me towards a waiting ambulance.
Let her come with me, I begged.
Her, I said, looking back at her expressionless face. She looked so much like Felicity at this point. Had she always looked like that?
They stopped midway, hands still gripping me, and told me there was no her. There was never anyone sitting by me.
Adeola Opeyemi is a writer and developmental editor. A fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, she was shortlisted for the 2019 Morland Writing Scholarship and the 2015 Writivism Short Story Prize. She is a 2020 Miles Morland Scholar at the University of East Anglia.