***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright ©2016 Jowhor Ile
Paul turned away from the window and said he needed to go out at once to the next compound to see his friend. It was a Monday afternoon in the rainy season of 1995. Outside, the morning shower had stopped and the sun was gathering strength, but water still clung to the grass on the lawn. “I’m going to Fola’s house, “he said again to his brother Ajie, who was lying on the couch, eyes closed, legs hooked up the back of the chair. If Ajie heard, then he gave no sign.
Ajie sighed as a woman presenter’s voice came up on the radio, cutting through the choral music, „Why do they always interrupt at the best part?‟ Paul floundered by the door as though he had changed his mind; then he bent to buckle his sandals, slung his backpack on, left the house and did not return.
At least this is one way to begin to tell this story.
Things happen in clusters. They would remember it as the year Mile Three Ultra Modern market burnt down in the middle of the night. The year the Trade Fair came to town and Port Harcourt city council, in preparation for this major event, commissioned long brightly painted buses which ran for cheap all the way from Obigbo to Borokiri (a full hour’s journey for a mere two Naira!). It was the year of the poor. Of rumours, radio announcements, student riots, and sudden disappearance. It was also the year news reached them of their home village Ogibah, that five young men had been shot dead by the square in broad daylight and the sequence of events which led to this remained open to argument. Ajie stretched out and yawned, then dropped his arm and let it dangle from where he lay on the couch. He heard the gate creak as Paul let himself out and the house fell back to the radio music and the sound of Bibi, their middle sister, blow-drying her hair in the bathroom. Ajie and Bibi were due back in school that weekend. Their tin trunks were packed, school day uniforms already ironed and hanging, waiting in wardrobes. Their mother, Ma, went through the school lists, as she always did before the start of each term, checking if everything had been bought. Paul had just finished his final School Certificate exams that past June, so he stayed back at home while Ajie and Bibi spent hot afternoons at Mile One market with Ma, buying school supplies for the term: textbooks, notebooks, buckets, mosquito nets, provisions, T-squares, drawing boards, four figure tables, cutlasses, brooms and jerry cans.
Their father Bendic had decided that since Bibi’s school was on the outskirts of town, she would be dropped off on Saturday evening. Ajie’s school was four hours away, so they had all of Sunday reserved for his journey. The blue Peugeot 504 station wagon was sent out to the mechanic for servicing. For a whole afternoon their driver, Marcus, sat under the guava tree and read a paper and fanned himself and when the cloud changed face, he carried his seat into the gate house where Ismaila had a little pot set on the stove. The pot boiled and the lid clattered against the rim, letting go a fold of steam that escaped through the windows into the trees outside, and the sharp scent of dadawa sauce reached toward the main house.
The day before, Bendic had called Ajie and Bibi into his study as he prepared letters to their guardians. Bibi’s guardian was an agile, muscular woman Ajie had seen once during a visit to Bibi’s school. He had assumed from the woman’s air of personal authority and wide, relentless hips that she was the school’s matron. Bibi later told him she was a mere Agriculture teacher and nothing more. Ajie’s guardian, Mr. Onabanjo- school bursar, Head of Accounts- was thankfully far too busy to nose about him as some guardians did their wards. Bendic’s pen scratched noisily across the smooth lineless paper- curved generous loops, downward slants, and furious dots at the end of sentences. For a moment, Ajie imagined himself to be one of his father’s clients as he stood by the large teak table- taking in the heavy green of the damask curtain, the black buff leather chair, the scattering of papers held down by paper holders, and imposingly behind Bendic, the hard shelves with rows of thick volumes. Their father often brought his work home, but he rarely discussed the cases. Ajie imagined how Bendic would speak to his clients: courteously, with a measured tone and lawyerly understanding.
Bendic’s pen finally stopped moving. He handed them both the letters and leaned back in his chair as they proof read. He often told them it was both foolish and dangerous to carry a letter without knowing its content. “You might be carrying a document instructing that you be sold and you wouldn’t know it. Won’t Read, Can’t Read land you at the same place.” Bibi always laughed about this when their father wasn’t there. She would yelp like someone from the telly. “How ridiculous!” she would say, shaking her head. “Who buys people anyway? Who hands someone a letter saying that the letter carrier should be sold.”
By the evening of the day Paul disappeared, there was some concern regarding where he might be but everyone believed he was on his way back, that he would show up at any minute. The creak from the gate each time was him. Bendic didn’t go into his study to work for an hour or so as he often did. He came out to the parlour and stood by the room dividers, buttoning his shirt but his eyes were fixed on Ma. “I’m just going to walk to the gate,” he said and Ma nodded, murmuring a response but never looking away from the pile of paper she was marking on the dining table. She shuffled some and then set them aside. “Bibi, please check if the phone receiver is properly placed.” Bibi picked the receiver and dropped it gently. A click escaped and then she picked it up again and replaced it, just to make sure. Bendic came back a few minutes after. Ma looked up at the door hopefully as he walked in. “Nothing,” Bendic said, “but there’s still time.”
They sat in the parlour until long after midnight. Twice, the lights went out, but no one moved or even muttered “NEPA!” with the usual irritation. The lantern stationed in the passage stayed trimmed low, casting a yellow light beside the eddying shadow of the curtain hem. Generator engines started up in nearby compounds, one after the other, and then all together became a steady roar for several minutes until power was restored and ordinary quiet returned as the engines were killed off. The silence was so sudden and pure it seemed as if the clock on the parlour wall had just come to life, the slender, second hand scratching its halting way around like a cripple.
Bendic looked up at the clock, “It’s way past your bed time,” he said to Bibi and Ajie. He took off his glasses and wiped the lenses slowly with the edge of his wrapper. “Wherever your brother is, he has probably decided to sleep there tonight. It’s too late now for him to be on the road. We will see him in the morning.” Bendic said the last sentence with conviction, as if he had kept Paul somewhere safe for the night and would make sure to call him out in the morning.
Ajie found it easy to fold himself into Bendic’s confidence: the calmness in his father’s voice, his certainty felt much better than the roar of noises in his own head. Bibi was standing behind the sofa where Ma sat, her hand on the head rest beside Ma’s dark, straightened hair and Ajie could tell Bibi didn’t want to go to bed either.
“But sleep where?” Ma’s voice rose sharply. “Where could he have gone that he cannot return home tonight? I don’t understand the meaning of this nonsense.”
Bendic put his glasses back on. Ma looked at her wristwatch and then up at the clock on the parlour wall, “Paul knows how dangerous the roads could be at night, he knows,” she muttered.
Ajie and Bibi shuffled off to their rooms, leaving their parents behind in the parlour. Ajie climbed into bed but was unable to sleep. He saw for the first time how high the bedroom ceiling was, and how long the drops of curtains were, nearly grazing the floor beside Paul’s bed. In the morning, Paul will be home, he thought to himself, as his eyes scanned the half-lit space between his bed and Paul’s. The fluorescent was still switched on in the parlour; he didn’t hear his parents speaking but kept his eyes on the white light that fell through the gap underneath his door for a long time, straining his ears, willing his parents to say something he could hear or at least get up, turn off the light and go to their room.
When he woke up in the morning Ajie looked around the room, his eyes swept through the corners. He got up and checked the foot of Paul’s bed to see if his sandals or backpack had returned to their usual place, but there was nothing there. Bendic was getting ready to go to the police station when Ajie came out of his room. He heard Bendic’s voice and walked into their parent’s bedroom where Bendic was combing his hair before a standing mirror. His long-sleeved white shirt was tucked into his white underpants, sticking out above his hefty thighs. His black pinstripe suit was laid out on the bed.
“Mbani-o,” Ajie greeted. “Good morning.”
Bendic held the comb away from his head as he responded. „How was your sleep?” he asked and waited for Ajie to speak before he added, “I’m going to make a report at the police station”. He picked up his trousers from the bed. “Mere formality,” he put his legs through the trousers quite quickly and then reached for his shoes. “Maybe Paul will be home already before I even get to the station.
He told Ajie that Ma had driven to work to drop off keys and that she would return home as soon as she could.
“Once Paul returns,” Bendic instructed Ajie, peering at Ajie’s reflection in the mirror, “ring my office immediately, tell Bibi this too, and if I’m not there leave a message with my secretary. You hear me?”
Ma came in from work just before lunchtime. She stopped by the gate as she drove in and wound down the car window to speak to Ismaila. Ajie and Bibi stood up from where they sat on the veranda steps and walked towards the driveway. Ajie knew she was asking Ismaila if Paul had returned. When she got into the house she dropped her bag beside her on the sofa and slipped off her shoes. “Your brother has not returned,” she said. Ajie shook his head. Bibi said no. Ma gave a light shrug and bent her lips to a “n” the way people do when they don’t know what to make of something.
They sensed something had gone wrong, but whatever it was was new, so no one knew how to hold it properly. Not Paul, everyone thought. It was not like Paul to get into trouble or give anyone reason to worry. He was the least scolded of the children, the most commended by teachers. Even Bibi, with her excellent grades had been told off once or twice by her form teachers. One form teacher explained to Bendic that although Bibi was a sensible girl, her occasional impulse to fall in with the wrong crowd had to be watched out for and curtailed. Ajie made up for his siblings‟ good behaviour: frequent fights, caught reading novels during lessons, perpetual noise making. Teachers‟ remarks in his report card ranged from subtle complaints to terse rebukes: “A little careless in his work,” “If he talks less, he will do better,” “Lack of respect for school property and property of others,” “Rude.”
Paul, on the other hand, was always the exemplary first born- the letters from school to his parents were usually for consent to let him travel to another state as part of the school Debate Team or for some sport intercollegiate event somewhere. In JS3 he was appointed the school bell ringer, a position generally assumed as grooming for a future Head Boy position. Bendic had stopped by the police station again on his way from work. Ma followed him into his room when he got home and Ajie couldn’t hear more than a murmur from what he was saying to Ma. Ajie and Bibi hovered about the passage but in no time, the door handle rattled and Bendic came out of the bedroom. He went over to the dining table where his food was laid out, and washed his hands. He moulded the eba in his palm, but instead of dipping it in the soup, he rested his hand on the table then returned the eba to the plate.
“Bibi”, he said, and Bibi got up from where she had just gone to sit on the arm of a chair, “take the food back. Cover it, I will eat later.”
That night, Ma began making calls to friends. She spoke with caution, wording her questions carefully: Had they seen Paul? Had they heard anything about him? Had he come around to their place? He hadn’t come home for nearly two days now. Some people kept her longer on the phone and Ma would respond, “I don’t know. About 12.30. We have reported it, but we are looking everywhere.”
They sent word to family friends. Like the pendulum on their parlour wall, they swung to both ends of dread and hope, but generally stayed in balance: no hysterical outbursts, no screaming and pounding the walls for answers, no silent bitter tears that soaked up the pillow when you lifted your head in the morning. There was just stillness. Something quiet crept about the house, made you feel a sudden chill and sprayed your arms and neck with unexpected goose rash.
It was Aunty Julie’s coming that in some way shook them all awake.