The Strain by Yewande Omotoso
Jumoke, a friend of Femi’s, collected me from the airport.
‘Porpous Estate,’ she said when I told her where I was headed. ‘You know am abi?’ she said to her driver.
Then back to me, ‘I’m late for a meeting. Can I just drop you at the gate?’
When I told her I didn’t know, she suggested I phone and find out how far the flat was from the estate entrance. Eager to be as little of a nuisance as I could manage, I agreed, but Morgan said the walk from the entrance to his apartment would be too long and, with my luggage, too arduous to attempt.
‘Ah, we can’t do that then.’
I tried to discern her tone for irritation. I wanted her to like me, to help me. I’d exited the airport, looked into a mob of faces, my name familiar on a stranger’s lips; she’d mowed me through dense people, one hand on the bend of my arm, the other holding her phone, shouting at someone to ‘bring moto.’ People were talking to me occasionally as we tracked the car; she turned to scold them. ‘Comot.’ To feel gratitude so soon for someone unknown — I understood that she stood between me and an animal.
Here she was again balancing my life for me. She would never have guessed how scared I was at her suggestion of being dropped by an entrance. I wouldn’t have either. After all, what was there to be afraid of.
‘Let us do it like this.’ She put the cigarette to her painted lips and pulled all she wanted, holding in then giving away the white smoke while I tried not to breathe for a few seconds. I pressed the buzzer to let the window down for fresh air, the Lagos air sniggered. ‘Let us … …Torture!’
‘Take me go office.’ She made an art form of talking, balancing tones and verbs like a ballerina apportions her weight out amongst her toes. Something dictatorial for Torture, the driver, something to suggest she was unquestionable. As for me, her tone was kind but tinged, just a little, by the inconvenience I had caused her. She had been selected to give me a ride for no crime other than she lived near Muritala Mohammed Airport and no one else was available. I had little money for a taxi, I’d explained as much to Femi on the phone. We’d spoken for a bit and he’d said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and then called the next day to say Jumoke would fetch me.
She exhaled white smoke. ‘He’ll take me to the office. Then he’ll take you to the estate, take you in properly, everything.’ She was relieved at her solution and pleased with herself.
She pulled one last time on the cigarette and rubbed it into the bottom of a silver cup balanced in a cavity of just its size. She looked out of her window, having exhausted conversation with me in the first fifteen minutes of our acquaintance. She was a lawyer, had studied in Edinburgh – Masters, PhD – came back home a year ago and already regretted it. Her hair was a bind of the thinnest dreadlocks, many dyed blonde, some orange and a few that were red. They were not unruly though and her face was painted, her nails done. She caught me staring, caught. I smiled and she didn’t return it. Some seconds passed.
‘Your hair is good.’
She nodded, not smiling but turning her lips downwards, managing to do so without looking unhappy.
I looked out of the window. Out at a country I hadn’t been to in thirty years but, up until I’d left, had called home. The events of the morning, my arrival, my homecoming, were bathed in the wan light of anti-climax. Femi had not been able to meet me at the airport because he was working and, without his own car, it was just impossible. It was his idea that I stay at his pal Morgan’s flat. I’d asked why I couldn’t stay with him but he’d said his place was too far, too crazy to get to. Too crazy, he’d repeated on the scratchy phone call. He said ‘crazy’ a lot or, rather, he’d said it more and more as my plans were firmed, ticket bought. This was funny without being amusing, I kept thinking: yes, it is too crazy, are you trying to tell me that it’s too crazy. Of course I didn’t ask him that, would have sounded crazy.
Morgan was Femi’s rich friend, his friend with an apartment on the Island. He had a spare room and didn’t mind. It was settled.
I had no real family in Nigeria. I had no real family in fact but especially not in Nigeria. I didn’t even know why that was so, there had been an argument years back that sliced through and then another that sliced again — family cut like cake. I’d heard that my brother married, my sister apparently was pregnant. But neither, as far as I could discern, were living in Nigeria. Yes, there were Daddy’s nieces and nephews but that was like looking into a box of Smarties and saying there were some purple ones.
‘Are those a-ba-lo-mos?’
Jumoke smiled. I mustered stoicism to ignore the possibility that she was amused at my mispronunciation.
‘You want? Torture!’
‘I wan buy agbalumo. Oya, call dat one.’
I listened with reluctant wonder as Jumoke argued with the trader, her Yoruba another tone, an artful pirouette. The barter complete, Jumoke handed me a bottle of water and instructed I hang my hands outside the window and rinse the fruit in order to avoid dysentery. Terrified, I obeyed, a beggar jostled, Jumoke gnashed her teeth, the car jerked forward; when he popped up again she leaned over and handed over money with grace. I washed my hands. She was younger but I felt her child, moments away from clearly lost. And in between biting into the sweet tang of childhood, the white sticky having navigated the bend of my chin and racing to my neck, I slipped glances at Jumoke, her eyes now goring at the screen of one cellphone, then another and yet another.
‘Stupid man.’ She sucked her teeth but remained dainty, she knew how to show fierce disapproval without allowing it to tamper with her own charm. ‘Odę.’ I assumed she was addressing the author of a text she scrolled through. ‘He no get sense … abi kini?’ She wasn’t talking to me but I nodded. I scraped orange-pink flesh with my teeth and listened with envy to her slew of Pidgin-soaked insults.
After dropping Jumoke – who harried about the five calls she’d chosen to ignore from her boss, goading Torture to drive like he wanted to keep his job – we headed towards Porpous Estate. Outside the brown arched gates the Jeep came to a halt.
‘Are you dropping me here?’ I was aware that I spoke wrongly, that my accent was parched, my question too halting to convey power.
I paused to find the right words, the right weight. ‘But your Madam said to drop me inside.’
He’d clearly misunderstood when Jumoke had given the order to him. I noted a slight hunching of shoulders, perhaps to signify how unworthy I was to dare give instructions. Nonetheless he pressed down on the accelerator and followed my directions – the ones Morgan had recited to me on the phone earlier – on how to reach the flat. I noticed that he dropped me and didn’t wait. It was silly of me, something as small as that. But when I realised he’d dropped me at the wrong place, that I had to walk a few metres down, dragging my suitcase with a broken wheel, I felt a sting in my eye. I kept my head up so that the men – gatemen, two on a carpet making salaa, another washing his teeth with chewing stick – wouldn’t notice. It takes the smallest thing – the hardest sunlight, a heavy bag, an unkind stranger, an unfamiliar road – to remind you that you’re quite alone.
The gate was open so I pushed it and walked through, hefting the suitcase over the slight step.
‘Good afternoon,’ I said. ‘I’m a friend of Morgan’s. Top flat.’
‘Top flat. He’s expecting me. I know he’s at work but he told his steward I’d be coming.’
I received the same look I receive back home sometimes. The stare reserved for the puzzles of life, for children’s eyes in adult faces, for late hope.
The gateman, dressed in fatigues but white fluffy slippers in place of boots, eyed my suitcase. He had a badge, an unnecessary sophistication, his name was Lookman.
‘Oya, come. Let me help you.’ He picked up my suitcase and I trailed behind him up the four flights of stairs, praising him quietly under my breath, my heart beat registering both the strain of climbing and the strain of simply being alive, being alone, being in Lagos, reaching the flat, convincing Torture to drive through the gate, tasting agbalumo, surprised I could even remember the name talk less of pronounce it properly. The strain of being a puzzle, even to myself.
The gateman pounded on the door three times before it opened. A light-skinned man, slender with a slanted smile, answered. He greeted, collected my bag and I stepped in the door. I thanked Lookman and he went back down the stairs.
‘My Oga called me. He told me you were coming,’ the steward said.
‘Thank you.’ I was grateful to be received.
‘You are welcome.’
It took only a few minutes to show me around the flat; my room had an en suite. The walls of the flat were hung with a wealth of paintings — Morgan was an art dealer. And there was one wall clothed in two yards of indigo adire, another in aso oke, the gleaming threads of the fabric winking at me. All the furniture was white – wood, leather, cushions, a shaggy rug – and not a sprinkling of dust. It was a shrine, a kind of fuck you to dirt and, I thought so anyway, to the grit just outside. Vincent – that was the steward’s name – assured me I had the run of the house, that he was at my beck and call and that the contents of the fridge were for me to consume as I wished. I thanked him. Through my days at the flat I would finish a tin of chocolate biscuits, bring to half-empty the once full box of Toblerone mini bars, but right at that moment I went to stand by the window in the living room looking out over this slice of Lagos. On account of there being no electricity, and so no energy to power the Panasonic air-conditioners that dotted each room, the window was open, barred only by a fine net, useful for the mosquitoes but defenceless against the noise from the streets. I saw two tankers, a makeshift wooden shack with a blue roof that mocked the pollution-grey skies. I wondered who could live there.
Vincent offered me food. It was now past one pm. I was hungry but prayed he wouldn’t present me with something that would show me up, something I wouldn’t know how to touch. He prepared spaghetti and bolognaise. I ate it, staring around, amazed at the apartment, as if I’d found a jewel at the bottom of a pit latrine. Everything about it was deliberate and curated. In the living room, the kind of chairs meant to be looked at. The lampshades were a familiar brand I had gawked at in shops back home. I ate my food at the dining table, careful not to spill anything. And, after a few questions – Vincent was from Togo, lived off the premises in Aga, had been in Nigeria for much of his adult life – I let my mind drift. I’d stay here at Morgan’s for the few days that were all the vacation I had left for the year and Femi would join me. Beyond that, we would work it out. I’d fantasised about a wedding proposal, something I’d never ventured to do in my years of living. The fantasy had made me buy an expensive brand of body scrub and use it to turn the skin on my bottom tolerably smoother. I’d bought a more expensive shampoo than normal and spent hours one night sloughing dead skin off the heels of my foot. I’d put on red nail polish and, in place of my cornrows, I’d gone for a hair weave — I knew Femi would like it. I’d even relented to a Hollywood wax. The whole time, as I prepared, my heart balanced on a wire.
At five pm Vincent left for home, explaining that the generator would come back on in two hours. The building ran the generator from seven pm to seven am. Beyond that you were at the mercy of NEPA. Morgan was due back from the gallery late, he had meetings. Vincent showed me where the prepared dinner was. I took a lukewarm shower and waited for Femi. It felt good to be waiting for someone, to have someone, another body, to belong to. But I fell asleep waiting and it was Femi’s hand on the back of my neck that woke me.
‘You scared me,’ I said, once I’d found my voice.
‘Sorry. And sorry I’m so late. The traffic is madness. Crazy.’
‘How’d you get in?’
‘Morgs left a key. Under the mat.’ He grinned, sheepish. He kept his hand on my neck, worked out knots that shifted but never left.
We’d met two years back, in Burkina Faso at an NGO health conference. I was there with the Cape Flats project I’d joined as an administrator and he with his work in Ajegunle. He presented a video, teaching a small group of children programming. Teasing them. Encouraging. We would proceed like that — a relationship that flared up in conference hotel rooms. He was easy to like, white flecks in his trimmed beard, eyes that smiled regardless of what his mouth was doing, warm breath, soft tongue like jelly.
And his hands.
I suddenly felt shy, his hand working hard on my shoulder muscles, my nightgown agape at the top. We’d been lovers but it had been several months since we’d been naked together. The time dissolved though and we slipped back into each other’s bodies.
Deep in the night something made me open my eyes, not start but just open as if sleep is a blink. Femi, lying beside me, looking into my face.
‘So beautiful,’ he murmured.
When I asked he said he couldn’t sleep and I remembered his insomnia. Remember how it had once made him vulnerable to me, someone I ought to fuss over.
I had a flash which I soon forgot, a flash that I’d done something crazy, that I didn’t need to ask him to verify it, that more and final sadness was coming.
In the morning we kissed goodbye. If I’d known it would be the last kiss I would have pulled more hungrily, would have hung onto his mouth, held him there in the way Jumoke had mastered hanging onto the cigarette, pulling all that she wanted from it, pulling and holding.
In a simple telling, Femi phoned later in the day to say he wouldn’t be able to make it back to Ikoyi that evening or the next. But he would join me on my fourth day. I was upset, of course, but then I broke down completely when he called two hours later, apologies coming out of him so fast and hard I thought I could feel the weight of them on my ear. He wouldn’t be able to come at all. An uncle of his had died and they were leaving immediately for Akure. Could I come with him? I asked. No. And he wouldn’t get back in time before I had to leave. I wasn’t to worry, though, Jumoke had offered her driver to drop me at the airport for my flight home. He gave this as a kind of peace-trinket. I panicked. Should I extend my stay? Don’t be silly, he said and his request had the effect of making me feel just that.
‘But I don’t understand, Femi. I’ve come specially to see you.’
He said nothing.
‘I … what am I going to do here for all these days. Alone.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Besides, I thought you said you were also doing some interviews. For the paper you’re working on.’
He was right, I had said so, back when I had fantasised about my seamless return, how I would take up the language, navigate the roads, banter with my home-people. I’d also been let go from work, which is why I had been fantasising in the first place. My agreement with my employer was that once I got back from the Nigeria holiday I would work a few more months and then the NGO would close for lack of funds. I hadn’t told Femi yet.
‘You didn’t say anything about only being here to see me.’
He sounded upset. Neither of us said anything for a while. And then, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
I heard someone bark something.
‘Look, I need to go, okay? I have work to do. Will you be alright? I gave Jumoke your number so she’ll contact you directly. These funerals are just crazy, I might not get to speak to you before you leave but I’ll try. I promise. And … don’t worry, I could come visit you, I could … you there?’
It’s laughable but I had a clear picture of the next few years, a rally of visits back and forth across the continent, urgent groping, not unsatisfactory fucks, misunderstandings, my search for this, his for that, many many apologies.
‘You there?’ he asked again.
He’d given me something, I ought to take it. Say, see you soon, then. ‘I — ’
‘I love you.’
I’d thought, when I met him, when his eyes locked and talking was long and soothing, I’d thought that it wasn’t too late after all. That maybe things would be fine; maybe I’d have a place. Love is a kind of a country, with its own dialect, a language spoken by a population of two.
‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘Yes. I’m here. I said “I love you”.’
‘I heard you.’
Someone, who didn’t know my heart was balanced, said something.
‘Shit! Look, I can’t talk now. You there? I can’t … I’ll try call you this evening, okay?’
He didn’t call. It wasn’t till the next day that I realised most of our declarations of love had happened while we were horizontal. He may have been shaken to know that I could love him too, while standing up.
Gloria called. She was a classmate from playgroup who’d managed to sniff out, thanks to stupid Facebook, that I was coming to Nigeria. She had sent me a personal message and had threatened to spend time with me when I came. Initially I discouraged her because I’d wanted to have as much time with Femi as possible. And now, with everything good about him dissolved, I discouraged her even further because I couldn’t bear to see anyone. Still she phoned and talked. She had five children, as she rattled their names my stomach curdled. Her husband had a job on a rig, they lived not far but in a part of Ikoyi where the generators could run the whole day. She owned a clothing boutique, asked me my size so she could get some items for me. And, as if she’d been sent by the Devil, she wanted to know if I was married, if I had any children. To her question about a boyfriend I parried, trying my best to avoid saying an outright no. She giggled at this and teased me for hiding my lovers from her. My lie had worked and it crowded the base of my throat so that, for several seconds, I found it difficult to breathe.
For the remaining days I stayed in his flat I never saw Morgan, my host. I saw evidence of him, but not the man himself. I saw his slippers at the door. I saw his work shirts draped on the ironing board in the laundry room, a room Vincent would dash to whenever NEPA brought light during the day.
‘My Oga needs this one for tomorrow,’ he would say as he ran to pick up the iron.
No wonder there was no dirt; Morgan was never here to dirty anything. This wasn’t where life happened. There was only the steward, hired to clean the already clean. By midday when he’d finished his work Vincent put himself down on a chair and fell asleep. I suppose my existence presented him with a break in boredom. He regularly asked whether I needed him to run for airtime or to call a taxi or to wash my clothes. Apart from that, our interactions consisted of a snatch of words — what did I want for breakfast, what would I take for lunch, this is where the dinner is packed away for whenever you’re ready, goodnight. Always I was relieved to be the target of kindness.
Sometimes he looked hopefully at me if I came through the corridor and we met in the sitting room.
‘Are you going out, Ma?’
‘No, not today.’
And because I’d deceptively added those last two words, giving the man the impression that there would come a day when there was something for me to do, somewhere for me to go besides the airport to catch a flight; because I’d pretended that I had somewhere to go, I longed for it. ‘Today?’ I imagined the question in his eyes each morning. ‘Not today.’ I replied in a blink.
Instead of going out, each day after Vincent left at five – explaining that he left so early in order to make curfew in Aga – I stood at the window. Initially I stood there as the house grew dark; I stood waiting for NEPA to come, for the lights to sparkle and join me in the silent apartment. Seven pm or sometimes a few minutes past. What if no light comes on, I thought, panicked, wondering where I’d find the matches, the kerosene — but the light came.
Each day at the window. From there I could see the double carriage-way with spells of free-flowing traffic, but mostly a slug of cars, the chain-like body of a tired centipede. On either side of the highway there were expanses of tall grass. A lone pylon, its wires going nowhere. Further, Third Mainland Bridge with speeding cars and, even further, the water.
We’d never lived in Lagos, even back then Lagos was a place you came to; you approached it furtively like anyone might do a snake.
From the window I could see the roofs of many houses, large houses like mushrooms, that were once real projects but now shadows of half-built dreams. Unfinished perhaps because the dream had been too big. Maybe one is also a size for the population of a country.
One morning Vincent walked by. You can sit, Madam, he said but I told him I preferred to stand.
Below on the street level, a Keke-Napep owner fixed the canopy of his three-wheel taxi, bantered with an agbalumo seller whom I presume had insulted him because the banter died down with an unhappy look. People walked. I stood at the window. Ate dinner and stood, went to bed when my legs got tired and then woke up the next day to stand some more.
One evening, night arrived and the generators didn’t come on at seven pm or a few minutes past. Darkness crept about the house. Foregoing dinner I stayed at the window, letting the dark house gather behind me like a demon. It didn’t scare me though, I didn’t need the matches or the kerosene, I didn’t turn around to see who was there with every little sound, every creak. I just stood and watched the city’s night.
The next day, I stood. Occasionally a speck of white bird cut through the frame. The sky darkened. Just a few more days, I thought. I’d began to think I could go home, I could look for another job, I’d found jobs in the past, I’d find another. Femi called.
‘I’m sorry,’ he started in straight on the call.
I braced myself to hear him call something crazy, maybe even me, but he didn’t. In fact I had been balling my fists so tight, holding my breath, it took me a while to realise he was talking on. He explained that he was back in Lagos, tired but eager to see me, he dangled talking in a way that gripped my guts. Tomorrow he said. He had an early meeting in the area. He proposed we have lunch afterwards. He’d come and get me. Only when I lay in bed did I realise I’d been waiting for something to happen.
In the morning I took a cold shower. I used the body scrub which left my skin smelling like cocoa butter and cinnamon and crushed mint leaves. I rubbed it on my elbows and along my thighs. I dressed and took Morgan’s slippers, which fit as if they’d been made for me. I had the same money I’d arrived with, enough I felt. I ate and drank my fill of water. I wrote a simple note of thanks to Morgan. I’d been standing by a window waiting for a man who would never promise anything, who would simply do what suited him, whatever didn’t tear at him too much — he would do that. And he would take.
Nothing in the suitcase seemed worth returning with. I packed a small shoulder bag. I’d phone the airline from the road, if necessary find a motel near the airport. I knew the taxi would fleece me, I’d be okay. I bid Vincent goodbye. He said ‘see you later’ and I didn’t correct him. I climbed down the four flights of stairs, the weight coming off my shoulders like steam off the ground on a cold morning.
‘Madam,’ the gateman greeted.
I nodded. Walked towards the entrance of Porpous Estate.
Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados. She grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa in 1992. Yewande trained as an architect. Her debut novel Bom Boy was published in 2011 by Modjaji Books. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa as well as the M-Net Literary Awards 2012. Yewande was shortlisted for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Her second novel The Woman Next Door was published by Chatto & Windus in 2016. Yewande lives in Johannesburg.