‘I have found a decent flat for you’, his girl-like voice piercing through my phone announced. My desperation for a house choke peace out of Dele, my house agent. ‘It’s within your budget. I am sure you will love it’, he added with the excitement in his voice rushing for my ears. ‘Thank God’, I chanted. I heaved a sigh of relief and threw myself on the wabbly hotel bed, a bed I had to share with bedbugs and other crawling creatures who enjoy dominating badly- made- hotel- beds. To think the said hotel came highly recommended sends cold shivers down my spine. As a newbie, I was left with no option than to rely on the recommendations of my friendly colleagues.
The day my agent showed me the house, I could not shrug off a deep cold feeling off my chest. I thought of rejecting the offer but my desperation for a place to stay taunted and almost choke life out of me. I moved into the apartment not because it was an exciting offer; I was just desperate.
It took me just a week to realise that my feelings were not too far from the threshold of truth. The neighbourhood was like a continuum of crazy folks. It is a compound of five semi-detached flats. The universe carefully arranged the occupants according to the sizes of demons in their brains and the type of drama in their lives. Indeed, the universe is filled with tricks. The architect who designed the house did a great job, a job befitting angel but the person who appointed the occupants is obviously the devil’s cousin.
My nights were marred by either nuptial fights of love-glories from the ‘couples’ in the compound or ear-splitting music capable of pulling down the roof of heaven. I was fed up with the nuptial mantra: ‘foolish man, na God go punish you’ from my other neighbour who had nothing good to say about her husband whose mouth is also as foul as a latrine. My complaints to them metamorphized my innocence into the naggings of a difficult person. It got to a point where pulling my pillows over my face did not guarantee pleasant night rest. Tossing from one side of my bed to the other amidst a nudging to scream out my frustration became a normal routine. I got frustrated to the point that I asked my agent to start scouting for a friendly accommodation for me. My patience almost grew wings, but I endured the strokes, pains, and torments from words battles to extremely nasty behaviours. The worst was the alcohol-based vomits I was subjected to face on my doormat most mornings by only-God-knows-who.
It took the agent over a month to get back to me and my joy knew no bounds the day he called to break the news. I giggled spasmodically at the mere thought of the new place. Like a young student, longing for home-made meal but is frustrated by annoying rules of a boarding house, I started counting my days in that compound, each count endeared me to freedom and got my heart, the valves around my chest, and my veins yearning for peace and tranquillity.
24 hours to my exodus, I decided to give them a taste of their bitter pills. I got back from work excited that I couldn’t think straight as to which item to pack first. I tossed my suit in the air, slid the disc into the DVD player and increased the volume to 100. At first, I hummed, then on a second thought, I decide to loosen my tongue as I mimed and sang higgledy-piggledy… ‘bitch you’re dead today, so dead, la la la. I twisted my waist, groaned, and screeched to relief myself of all the stress sponsored by the living demons in form of neighbours. Well, I guess the demon in me found expression that night. Remorse wasn’t anywhere in sight, so I continued until midnight when I was drunk and intoxicated by fatigue with stressors also draining my strength through my veins.
It was at that point that hunger pangs decided to shoot its shot and since it is nature’s favourite relative, I bowed to its many shades of power. I made my way to the kitchen and made myself a cup of cold Milo. I rushed it as fast I could. My throat was quasi-dry and so it accepted the cold liquid rushing through it with some sort of resentment. I dropped the cup haphazardly as soon as I felt the Milo dregs on my tongue.
I dragged my fatigued body back to the bedroom and threw myself on the orthopaedic bed with reckless abandon. As sleep began to poke its fingers through my chest, my nose caught the stench oozing from my armpit and I was quickly reminded of the need to shower. Truth be told, the stench wasn’t too awful but the wetness of my armpit and the thought of how the roll-on I used in the morning must have decomposed into some gutter-like creamy mess capable of birthing worm-like debris in between the unfortunate hair got me walking to the bathroom that was few steps away from my bed. I did not have a thorough bath, but I was careful to wash my wet armpit and allow the water to find its way from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet.
The sleep that had clutched its tight fist around my jugular veins vanished as soon as I heard the first knock on my front door. At first, it felt like I was hallucinating but the second and hardest knock was a confirmation. I jumped out of bed again and rushed towards the door with my legs shaking profusely. Without batting an eyelid, I positioned myself for battle. Then I heard the voice of Kemi, my next-door neighbour. ‘Oga Joe na Kemi, no vex, open door’ her lazy yet confident mouth announced. ‘Did you check your clock at all? My puzzled mind forced my mouth to ask. ‘Yes, it’s urgent, no vex. I no go tey’, she insisted.
I opened the door as though I was under a spell. The moonlight fell generously on her face. It was also enough to allow me to see her semi-nude body. I had always thought of her as someone with a deep-seated hatred for decent clothes. She was always clad in clothes that did disfavour to her body that was toned to the weirdest pigmentation by cheap bleaching creams as evident in her dark knuckles and nauseatingly decorated by stretch marks. Seeing her half naked that night stroke no chord of surprise in me. I took a deep sigh and vomited torrent of questions, none of which was strong enough to force a decent answer from her. It appeared she was lonely and in dire need of company and found my loud music inviting. I gave her a piece of my mind and added few moral lessons to help her pull herself together, should she decide to quit her men-hunting addiction.
I slammed the door without hesitation and made my way to the bedroom as soon as she started ranting. ‘I go show you for this house, who you think say you be? You go dey carry shoulder up everywhere like fine monkey’, her unattractive voice thundered.
I stormed my bed as soon as I got in and snored all my sorrows from the day away.
For strange reasons, I woke up early. I left for work earlier than usual. I didn’t notice any human movement when I drove off. Well, the light of day was just beginning to spread itself over the face of the earth, so it was not abnormal to not notice any movement. I drove off humming to the song playing in the radio. I was in that mood when I noticed that my suit and trouser were rumpled. My dressing placed me somewhere between a homeless man and a depressed bipolar patient.
‘Oga, hope all is well, sah’, the confused looking security man at the gate queried. I felt like carelessly landing my left palm on his lazy eyes. ‘Will you open the door at once?’ I threatened. ‘Today na public holiday na im make me dey ask’, he added impulsively. I felt so foolish for not remembering the October 1 public holiday. To neatly hide my shame under my skin, I lied to him that I just needed to pick a document I left on my desk. ‘OK sah’ he chanted as he reached out for the 1000 naira note I handed over to him to boost his morning. ‘ATM people, them Oga Ayo dey inside sef, you go meet them inside’, he added as though the money I gifted him did some magic. I dashed in and reappeared within split second with a paper in my hand. Ayo did not ignore the opportunity to tease me about my unusual appearance. I ignored him and left the premises at once.
I decided to go back to my flat but changed my mind on remembering that I had not eaten good food in a while. I made a quick stop at a café by the roadside and guzzled a cup of coffee and toasted bread. As soon as I left the café, I decided to get fresh fruit from the Farmer’s Market on my way home. I was excited at my bargaining skill which brought broad smiles on my face.
I was excited about the free time I thought I had…little did I know that my life was about to tweak and twist for the worst.
I drove into the compound but was stunned by the quietness in the compound. I did not know what the compound looked like in the late mornings because I was used to leaving the house early and returning at dusk. I spent my weekends at the mechanic’s, barber’s, laundry shops and church. It took me a moment to realise how busy my life had been. It was almost noon and there was no one in sight. The silence and tranquillity were deafening. I went straight to my room to commence packing. I stumbled on an old picture in my wardrobe. I laughed at my funny necktie and my mind took a walk down memory lane; I was reminded of our good old neighbours and how life has smiled favourably on all of us. Then my conscience pricked me, and I felt it was wise to make peace with my neighbours, especially Kemi. I was not too generous with my kind words, regrettably. If not for anything, the aroma of her late night cooking for her different shades of men had always reminded me of my mum and her thunderous laughter had always assured me of the richness of her heart, a heart yearning for peace and happiness. I rushed to her door, banged a bit, and gave up when I noticed the door was ajar yet, no one was answering. I slept off when I got to my room.
I woke up and decided to take a walk down the neighbourhood. Again, I stalled my parking, ignoring the pile of clothes on my bed and the box resting carelessly on the floor.
I returned before dusk, by then the light of day was gradually returning to base and so it was still bright for a blind man to find his way back home. I decided it was time to feast on the fresh fruit I bought from the market. But my eyes fell of a gory sight that changed my life for forever. I saw a knife with its tip covered in blood next to the bag of fruits on the dining table. To be sure it was blood, I quickly picked the knife, brought close to my face for examination. I was perplexed and perturbed on realising that it was fresh blood and before I could snap out of the shock, few drops of the blood found their way to my shirt and shoes. The knife certainly looked nothing like the one I bought with my money. I hissed as I searched for answers on how a blooded knife found its way to my dinning table. My mind started paying tricks on me; it played different possible scenarios, and each left me with a big that’s- not-possible- gape. In confusion, I threw my hands in the air wagging my waist defiantly to protest the presence of the knife. While I was at it, the almost coagulated blood splashed on my face, giving my face a decoration, I did not want to imagine. The attempt to wipe it off with the back of my hand created more mess on my light skinned forehead. I was disgusted as to how I got myself stained by the blood of only-God-knows- what or who.
In no time, I began to sweat. My mind could not comprehend what was going on. It became worst when I remember not locking my door when I took a stroll down the street. My mind was so preoccupied that the growing noise outside felt like echoes from distant lands.
I pulled myself out of the tension and pool of confusion by consoling myself that maybe one of my crazy or drunk neighbours killed an animal and decided to dumb the knife here in error since my door was not locked. The craziness that paraded itself in that compound could allow for any impossibility.
As I lifted my leg up to head to the kitchen, my door was forced open. ‘Freeze, it’s the police’, the aggressive voice threatened. ‘You are under arrest for the murder of Kemi’, the officer continued. ‘What? When? How?’ I asked. The other officer started a narrative I could not deny or accept. My other neighbours who found Kemi’s body close to my back door had informed the police of how they heard us quarrelling last night. I lifted my hands in the air; a demeanour befitting my confused state. The blood stain, the knife in my hand, the engraved sole of my shoes by blood on the floor, my late night encounter with Kemi, my crazy in and out movement, my scattered room, the dead body found at my back door, painted me black before the law.
All I found courage to say was please let me make a call. I dialled the number I could remember off hand and she picked. “Hello Pam., I’m in trouble. Meet me at the police station as soon as you can. Get a good lawyer too, a VERY GOOD ONE because this mess is too great’.
Five years down the line, I’m still paying for a crime I didn’t commit. Like many others, I’m a shade in-between black and white, a child of injustice.
Peace Habila, a resident of Jos, Plateau state is passionate about creative writing. She wrote in via email@example.com