Swigging water out of the sachet and swishing it around the heat of the spice in my mouth had a satisfying effect second to none. I kicked the door to, and stepped further into my studio apartment. I had used boards to partition the sizable room into two: a living room and a bedroom. I flumped down on the only couch in the living room, and began chasing holes in my teeth with a splinter of wood. And then abruptly, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of unease in the pit of my belly. I lived alone, but at the moment, I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t the only person in the room.
Taking out my toothpick, I made to my feet and looked around the room. There was nothing out of order until I took in the corner of the living room I had converted to my dining room. There were two chairs and a table where I sat to eat my daily meals. My mouth went dry as I gaped at the bloody knife that was laid on my table. I was half-conscious about the accelerating drumming in my chest and just then, a maddened wail erupted outside. A yell of death, a battle cry or something of the sort. Whatever it was, it hammered realization into my senses.
It had been three years since I began working for the Nigerian Railway Corporation; three years since I pushed aside the four years I committed to studying Banking and Finance in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka only to settle for the post of a train steward as soon as the offer came from an uncle that had been with the Corporation for 32 years; three years since I began to put up with delayed, and sometimes, unpaid salaries and the continuous fear of getting laid off without explanations.
I put up with it all quite well. After all, I had been sitting idly at home for three years before my uncle came through for me. And what was more? The offer included an apartment. It was a bed-sitter that comprised a spacious room, a kitchenette and a toilet. The Corporation had several quarters all over Coal City where accommodation for its workers was available. The higher your position, the better your apartment. My Uncle Nonso lived in a three-bedroom flat apartment with his family of seven. Most certainly, as a ‘level one civil servant’, I shouldn’t have gotten an apartment as nice as the one I was given, but I knew an uncle.
I lived at Woodward Avenue, the 22nd Railway Quarters in Coal City. Woodward was best known for having several multi-storey blocks of self-contained bed-sitters and studio apartments. However, folks living there must have come from the worst of slums because that primitive communal lifestyle was evident. While there was no doubt that I was born and bred in a slum too, I thought it was only time and chance that denied me the benefit of living better.
My neighbors shared all things: from toothpaste to seasoning cubes to sachets of water. And with that, there was no such thing as privacy. They barged into each other’s houses. Hence, it was no surprise that the self-contained bed-sitters so designed to give its inhabitants an urban lifestyle experience became just another habitation of perpetual brawls here and there. The last time two guys squared off, it was as a result of unwanted interference. The one had walked in on the other whose girlfriend had come visiting and who must had been taking a ride in the country at the time. Hearsays had it that the girlfriend had been so ashamed that she decided to take her leave, not only from the house, but from her swain’s life for good. The abandoned lover was so vexed that he put his dukes up and fought it out with the neighbor who wasn’t curt enough to knock. I supposed he equally beat himself up for not turning the lock of his door before getting busy. Whatever the case, everyone knew that I hadn’t the tolerance for such community lifestyle. None of these neighbors came over to borrow anything from me. And I loved it that way.
Saturdays and Sundays offered us civil servants a time for ourselves, but this particular weekend was not so comforting for me. I had debtors who were on my neck. It was just the second Saturday in June, and I was already down to my last NGN 1000 bill. I had gone to Overbridge Quarters to see Bilie Abani whom I owed NGN 5000, and I was returning to Woodward with depressing thoughts in my head. I had really believed I could talk Bilie into taking only half of what I owed him so that I could make do with what I had until two Fridays from now when we would be expecting our next packet from the Corporation, but Bilie had been emphatic about his naysaying. Now, all I could think of was how many meals a day would make the NGN 1000 last longer than it should.
I was busy with calculations in my head as I got into Woodward, completely oblivious to my environment. I was only half aware that it would take a few more steps to get into the privacy of my room, away from this wicked world. Bilie Abani had been my friend ever since I began working at the Corporation. He had been with the Corporation two years before I came along. How could he not just take half of what I owed him? I would pay eventually. I would definitely pay. I stopped in my tracks, breaking away from my own thoughts as Mariya Ahmed appeared in front of me. She lived two blocks away from mine.
“Neighbor, wetin dey do you?” Mariya asked. “We don dey call you since, you just dey talk dey waka for road. Country hard, but make e no worse pass for your side o!”
I parted my lips, groped for something to say, and pressed them back into a thin line.
“You don chop?” Mariya asked, lifting an eyebrow. I shook my head. She pulled me by the arm and I followed. I had never been treated so by her or any of my neighbors, but at this point, thinking about what had prompted this sort of hospitality wasn’t something I was going to do. Take me to the food, please.
We got to the block after mine, and there were about eleven people there, all from Wooodward. I was waved to a bench. I was aware that my mouth was watering at the scent coming from Mariya’s kitchen. A moment later, a tray was brought to me. It held a plate of boiled rice, a saucer of stew, and a tureen of chicken wings and laps. I wolfed down on the tray as soon as I laid my hands on it, savoring every bite.
“Odenigbo, you are dead today!” My name came again in a note even more violent than the first, my heart giving a lurch.
“Papa Solo, calm down. He just thought that your chickens have stayed in that pen for months,” I heard Mariya say, and a sad smile cocked my lips. So, the chicken I ate had been Papa Solo’s. They had killed his chickens and left this blood-stained knife for me as evidence. I went over to the window and keeping cover behind my curtains, I took a peek.
“Look at where he killed the chickens, and he then took the knife into his house. He asked Mariya to cook the chickens.” It was Chuddy spitting lies, but I wasn’t surprised. I always had a resentment for him. I looked at Papa Solo who was in a fit of rage and a chill ran down my spine. He was a massively built man with broad shoulders and an aggressive jawline. I knew I hadn’t a chance in the world against this man.
“And so Mariya, you cooked my chickens?” Papa Solo said and charged at her with a snarl of hate, but the hombres had anticipated it, and stepped in the way, while some grabbed Papa Solo’s thick arms, barely holding him in place.
“Papa Solo, calm down!” The men began to say one after the other. I could see the violence in Papa Solo’s eyes. He was anything but calm.
“Calm down? All of you put your efforts together to kill my chickens and eat!” Papa Solo huffed.
“Papa Solo, I have told you that it was Odenigbo that brought out your chickens and began to slaughter them one by one,” Chuddy began to say again. I grimaced, unaware that I had balled my fists till they showed white. I was only wishing there were a way I could lay my hands on this smallish man. I was growing hot with my suppressed rage. There was nothing impressive about Chuddy’s build. He was sawed-off and I was confident that I could give him just what was coming to him.
He continued, “It was when he had slaughtered three chickens that we caught him in he act.”
“Since he is a thief, why did you join him and eat my chickens?” Papa Solo asked, his voice twice more guttural. The men were still holding him in place, but I could tell it wouldn’t be long before he overpowered them. They were already going every which way he swayed, footing along with him in his dance of maddened rage.
And then, so abruptly that had I not been at the window, watching intently, I wouldn’t have seen it, Papa Solo broke free of the men’s grip.
“Calm down?” He bawled. “I will give you some calming down!” He bolted for his door at a speed quite impressive for a man his size. Some of the men broke away from the posse, keeping at a distance I surmised was for their own safety.
Woodward knew Papa Solo quite well. He had lived here for eighteen years. People who knew him then had said there was always a calm composure around him. But the trouble began after his wife left him and their 16-year-old son for another man three years ago. Since then, he had lost it. Some nights, we would sit awake, listening to the wails coming from his room. People kept away from him and his son. In the past, he had cultured snails and bees, reared dogs and turkeys, all of which ended up on his cooktop for himself and son. What I couldn’t get was what had motivated whomever slaughtered his chickens and why I was being blamed for it.
Several beads of sweat had broken out on my forehead and my armpits were beginning to itch, but I watched on. In a moment that never seemed to be coming at first, Papa Solo emerged from his room, armed with a large machete, his eyes full of hate as he dashed for the gathered posse, everyone dispersing almost immediately. Unaware of it, my lips were already moving in prayerful words, the cold claws of panic taking hold of my heart in an iron grip and refusing to let go as soon as Papa Solo shifted his gaze to my window, his menacing black eyes meeting my frightened ones. His teeth came off his lips in a snarl of rage and he charged towards my door.
I backed away from the window at once, and headed for my bedroom, the hammer of my heart against my ribs too heavy to contain. I saw that the window out of my bedroom stood ajar. That must have been how those idiots broke into my house and dropped the bloodstained knife, I thought to myself, using cusswords I had never before spoken out loud as I heard the banging at my door.
“Odenigbo, open this door before I break it down!”
I took the leap outside through my window and went round the back of the apartment to where some of the neighbors still gathered. Chuddy had his back to me, shooting off his mouth to others about what Papa Solo would do to me when he would get me. With the stealth of a cat, I came up behind him without alerting anyone, grappling his jugular and pulling him to the cobblestones in one quick, fell move.
“Odenigbo,” he called pleadingly as I pounced, neighbors rushing to his aid. I had delivered three aggressive jabs and a running knee before I was restrained by the men.
“Leave me!” I huffed, but they held me still. “All of you were watching as he accused me. Leave me!”
“Odenigbo, wait. Calm down! We will explain to Papa Solo,” someone said.
“Papa Solo!” One of the women cried out as Papa Solo’s machete came down on Chuddy. Without a moment’s delay, everyone broke out in a frenzy: some found the boldness to stay and bewail Chuddy’s fleeting life, rolling in the mud and cursing Papa Solo in the name of several gods I fear to mention, while others showed a clean pair of heels, tripping and falling to rise again, but never stopping to take a look at the bloody mess that had become of Chuddy. Well, I fell into this latter category.
Johnson Onyedikachi is a teenage Nigerian creative writer who has unpublished manuscripts of poetry and plays. He recently picked interest in crime fiction and in August 2019, enrolled in an online course where he gained proficiency in article/journal writing including the use of referencing formats (MLA and APA style). He wrote in via email@example.com