by Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam
In between rousing from a dream and drifting back into a serene sleep with a noisy yawn, Emeka muffles my mouth with his palm and shakes me into consciousness.
“Quiet,” he whispers, “Get up and put on some clothes, something’s going on outside,”
I suck in air through my teeth, hold my breath and listen. Outside, crickets chirp and frogs croak in the distance. Deep voices whisper in the room next door –Lydia’s room. From my room, I hear a baritone voice bark: “Where is Doc?”
“Doc?” Lydia replies in her habitual Igbo-inflected accent, “I, I don’t know any Doc o.” She stutters.
“Not playing. Where’s your landlord?” Another woman retorts in a thin voice. Speaking fast, with a tone of urgency, she says, “Where’s his flat?” A hard slap echoes. Lydia screams.
“I will tell you. This duplex in front of my room. That’s the Landlord’s house.”
As Lydia explains, the koi-koi-koi of heeled shoes fills the dark dawn, and then peters out.
“Shhh Shuww-up. Who and who live here?” A raspy voice bumbles. And I am struck by the hyper-nasal resonance in his voice.
“A cleft palate, perhaps,” Emeka says as though he can read my thoughts. I tell myself it’s just his speech pathologist’s brain working.
“Bring out your money!” the baritone voice commands. My heart starts to pound gbim-gbim-gbim in my chest and I think, so this is how it feels to be a hair’s breadth from death.
Emeka turns off the lights in the room – the only room. It’s a one-room, self-contained apartment. He drags me into the bathroom and hushes me.
“Bring my clothes from the box,” I moan, even though I do not know if I have any decent clothes in the box suitable for an impending armed robbery attack. I berate myself for sleeping off in nothing, a habit I imbibed since I married Emeka, three months ago. While my mind works, Emeka bounds into the bathroom, thrusts a pair of jeans and a long blouse in my arms. Thank God, I think. Snuggling into the blouse, I hear a howl from Lydia’s room. It’s Lydia’s sister, Gina.
“If we don’t ge’ money, we’ll wrape you! Shhh!” I hear the raspy voice say. And I am almost strangely amused by the nasal emissions, at the same time frightened by the meanness in his machismo tone. “Rape,” I mutter under my breath, “Not wrape!”
Emeka enters the bathroom with our android phones, our work laptops. The android phones show the time to be 3:55AM. “How many are there? Can hear two voices, not sure,” Emeka soliloquizes while we tuck the electronic gadgets under the laundry basket, I want to tell him I heard five different voices when a thought pops into my head and my heart skips two beats. I turn to him, and whisper, “The windows are open,”
“What?” he asks, a hint of hopelessness in his voice.
“The windows are open. Go shut them,” I say, as I slump on the toilet seat. My head sinks into my palms as I ease myself. Emeka goes back to the room and I hear him quietly sliding the glasses shut.
The woman’s thin voice rings in the distance like a canary’s. And I can pick out my Landlord’s voice. But I’m not sure about the latter – the weepy voice which sounds like the Landlord when he laughs, like a drunk chimpanzee. Is it possible that my Landlord laughs and cries with the same voice? I ask myself, briefly.
“Take me to the other rooms. You know what will happen if you make any unnecessary noise,” The baritone voice says, a loud slap accompanies his words. A piercing scream. The shuffling sound of feet reminds me that my room is next. Jumping up from toilet seat, I rummage through the laundry basket for some underwear. Finding a brown one, I ignore its irritating wetness and slip it on before I wear my jeans. My ears stand, perked up.
“Don’t panic,” Emeka says, “And don’t make any noise, okay?” I nod, exhale.
The bang-bang-bang at my door hits my ears where I lean against the toilet walls. Emeka holds my shivering palm, gives it a reassuring squeeze. I exhale, close my eyes, grateful that he is around to play this role. What if he was working elsewhere and couldn’t travel? I ask myself, regretting our decision to be a weekend couple awaiting the confirmation of my transfer from the bank’s headquarters.
Jerked into consciousness by vain attempts to kick the door open, I squeeze Emeka’s hand so tight that I’m afraid I’m hurting him. But he stands unperturbed listening as another shrill cry arises from the Landlord’s flat. I recognize the Landlady’s voice crying, pleading with the lady who is shouting, “Not playing. Not playing.”
“Eresi! Eresi!” Lydia calls in anguish as she knocks furiously. “Eresi! Please open the door!” My heart skips a beat, continues to pound louder, faster: gbim-gbidim-gbim! Tears well up in my eyes as I stand in the bathroom, thinking, so this is what adrenalin smells like – antiseptic. The people up North must be accustomed to its choking smell by now. With all the suicide bomb attacks, we hear about in the news every other day. Danger and death must be their neighbours. Our neighbours. Terrible neighbours, I think. This is what it feels like to die in a robbery attack and be counted as statistics. Too exhausted to think about this, I sigh and shut my eyes.
Lydia, the devil’s advocate continues to scream my name in her teary voice and I picture her in her pyjamas shivering, nervous of the gun pointing to her head.
“Keep calling. I know they’re inside, We’ll shoot them.” The baritone voice mutters hopelessly. Time is hardly kind to a thief; especially when the first light of dawn lurks behind the clouds, threatening to appear without warning, threatening to reveal their identities. Their desperation reminds me of the other rooms there are to be raided – say, five of them – and little time to escape, if the police come. Of course, the Police. Ha! No one trusts them anymore. What do I have to lose? I think to myself as I dial 199. The call stops dead at the dial tone. I am not disappointed.
Fingers snap. Feet shuffle away to the next room. Lydia explains that the occupants are a middle-aged couple whose children are away in boarding school.
Phew! I sigh, thankful that they have moved on to the Okochas.
I hear the Okocha’s bickering next door. Mr. Chuks Okocha’s voice startles me and I remember our first meeting about a year ago, when he met me at my door and said, “I beat up my sister-in-law. Nnenna, my wife, is very upset.” I looked at him with mouth agape. I remember this as I shiver, standing in the bathroom, listening as the couple scurry about, knocking over pots and pans and glasses. Lydia calls out as she knocks. In between the bickering, the knocking and the breaking of glasses, I hear the click-click of an opening door bolt; the hinges of the door whining as they open. Boots stomp on the ground. “Where is Doc?” The baritone voice barks.
“Doc?” Chuks says.
A slap reverberates. Chuks screams. Nnenna cries, “No Doc here.”
“Lie down. Shh shuww-up. Lie!” the raspy voice says. And I imagine him caressing her ears with the cold, blunt edge of a pocket knife. “Where is the ego, the money?” He says in Igbo, then in English.
Chuks says. “Just a few naira notes. Here:” he says.
“Small money?” the man mimics Chuks. “Big man like you dey give me small money? Lie down!” A loud slap echoes. I whimper, squeeze Emeka’s wrist.
Lydia resumes banging on my door: “Eresi! Eresi! Eresi!” her teary voice calls out, in angst. And I wish I can walk out into the moonless dawn and slap her mouth shut. But somewhere in my head, I rationalize her actions and acknowledge that she is acting under duress.
Silence. Deafening silence. Then, quaking sounds from the window, perhaps, a knife under the sliding windows and bam! The windows open, white light beam into the room; slices stream in through the curtains into the bathroom. I sigh, knowing that my convictions were right. The windows are useless. The windows aren’t burglary proof, and any determined riffraff can hack it open and clamber in at any time. We often complained about the smallness and insecureness of this house, which I rented as an unmarried woman. But getting a decent house has been unbelievably difficult. My mind is being plagued by this thought when I hear the order:
“Come out!” the baritone voice bellows. I catch Emeka’s moist eyes; hold them in my mind for two seconds: the face of the man whose babies I long to bear. I shut my eyes; open my ears. The sound of Lydia’s shuffling feet as she tries to clamber in through the window. “Open the door when you get in,” The man barks through rustling curtains.
We hear the raspy bumble in Lydia’s room. “Shhh. Shuww-up! tw‘ake off your shorwts or I’ll shoowt!” he says.
“Please, please. See my bulging tummy. For the sake of my unborn baby, show mercy,” Gina cries next door in between several hushes and coughs. Emeka’s eyes widen in surprise as though he has just realized that there might be more robbers than he envisaged.
“Wait,” Emeka says, “I’ll unlock the door.” He goes out into the room and I mutter a short prayer and deep breathe. I gently shut the bathroom door just as the main lock clicks open. His heavy pants announce his entry, as do the insipid stench of sweat and slime. Crouching in the toilet, I expect an outburst. A slap, perhaps, for wasting his time, But he is unusually quiet for a while as though he is surprised and intimidated by the stature of his opponent, Emeka. Right there in the bathroom, I realize that he was expecting to see Eresi, a woman, and not a broad-chested man in a vest.
“Where’s Eresi?” The man asks, suddenly finding his baritone voice. He sounds sure as a friend that I am home and he must see me. I bite my finger, and burn with so much hate for Lydia.
“She’s er sick… allergic!” Emeka says. “But you can take our phones. Take whatever you want,” Emeka says in a tone one reasonable man would use to address another.
“We don’t want phones,” his baritone voice barks. “Eresi! Come out here, Eresi!”
I stand in the bathroom, pretend that my name is no longer Eresi, pretend that I no longer want the name that Lydia has made the robbers familiar with. In my face, the bathroom door suddenly flies open, a masked face appears and his large hand drags me out to the room.
Gesturing with a shotgun to the cold, carpeted floor, he yells, “Lie down here!” I am knocked drowsy by the whiff of beer from his breath. My knees weaken; flop down like jelly, beside the plastic table, at the sight of the gun.
Another man ambles in. he is short, stout – unlike the tall masked man whom I have matched the baritone voice with. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his light-complexioned face because he is not wearing a mask. Whipping out a pocketknife, his raspy voice whispers into my ear “Lie down. Shhh Shuww-up. Lie down.” The stench of marijuana and sweat hit my nostrils. My chest hits the floor and his fat hands sneak into my blouse. Sharp pains shoot up in my brain, “Jesus! My lumpectomy suture,” I cry. Emeka charges at the short man. The masked man hits him on the head with the butt of the gun. Emeka yelps.
“Lover Boy, don’t try nonsense o,” the masked man warns in his baritone voice. “Lover Boy, we will kill you and injure her.”
Emeka lies down. His breath hits my legs and I know that he’s trying to stay calm.
“I’m not a thief,” the masked man starts to say, and I am piqued. What the hell is he?
“We’re not interested in your phones or your property. I’m looking for Doc. My job is to shoot him and go my way.” The masked man concludes. I wonder if he knows that he sounds like a bad crossbreed between assassin and armed robber. Is he trying to decide –right there in my room – what name to give his profession?
I don’t blame him. All thieves are liars. But are all liars thieves? I wonder. Engaging my mind with logical hypothesis has become my newly invented catharsis.
“We don’t know any Doc,” Emeka replies in a haughty voice as though he is convinced that they are all clowns.
The masked man sighs for a moment.
“Bring all of your money, Lover boy!” says the masked man, banging his gun on the plastic table.
“I am a married man; not a lover boy. Don’t harm my wife. We don’t keep money at home,” he cries and for a moment I think he sounds sweet and funny.
“Yes,” I say clutching at this unexpected ray of hope. I raise up my left hand, flash my wedding band hoping to hit the light-complexioned man in the face. I wonder if my marital status will persuade them to treat us with more respect.
He sighs. “Leave her alone,” the masked man says. The stout man grumbles, moves out into the dark, cold dawn. A gust of cold air wafts into the room; whimpering and cries of agony accompany the wind.
“Bring your money,” he says, “and no one gets shot.”
My jaw quivers as my mouth open to talk about where my purse is. Stuttering, I prattle on about the little money my husband gave me the previous day. I stagger to my feet, fish out my brown leather purse among the odds and ends – notepads, biros, an external hard disk drive, make-up kits, checkbooks which I mustn’t let the thieves see – in my large hand bag. Unzipping my purse, I thrust its contents in his face; tell him to take what he finds. I do not care because the money in there cannot pay for half a bag of rice. The masked man chuckles; grabs the wads of notes in the purse. Lydia’s voice wafts into the room: she is comforting the weeping Gina.
Outside the landlord coughs as though he’s about to spew his lungs, “I’m asthmatic,” he cries, “I’m a poor, old civil servant. My houses are old, No money.”
“Landlorwd like you?” The stout man yells. “Aw the rent for these flats na big money!”
“Ah! Just paid children’s school fees. Ask the tenants. This woman, Lydia, works at the crude oil depot. Emeka is a researcher in the Ministry of Health, Eresi works with Central Bank. And the Okochas are pharmaceuticals merchants. Ask them for money, Me, I’m just a miserable civil servant,” cries the landlord.
Lydia runs into our room, throws herself on the floor. The masked man fumes, “Ngwa bring out the bank money.”
“Not playing,” the lady says, the koi-koi-koi of her shoes announcing her arrival. “Banker! Emeka! Bring out all your money,” she says, picking out her words one after the other. Cold shivers run down my spine. “Or I’ll shoot your lady,” she concludes, her talon-like fingers holding up my chin. The whites of her eyes glare into my eyes. I squint and look down at her small, gold-coated lips stretching into a wicked grin. I make out the smells of chocolate-flavored lip-gloss, PK mint and palm wine. I’m startled by the sudden disappearance of her smile, like a ghost in the dark room. When she stands, I gasp at her unusual tallness, at her skirt short as sanitary pants. She stoops, slaps a million stars into my eyes. “Not playing. Get out your fucking money.” She says in a huff.
“We already gave you all our money,” Emeka says. He pauses, exhales.
“Not playing. You? Oil worker,” she says, clicks her gun. Lydia howls. Gina wails from the room next door, “God save us.”
“No no!” Lydia cries. “You don carry all my money,” she says weeping at the masked man’s feet.
Like a canary. the landlord sings “Ask these rich tenants for money o. My money don finish.”
Emeka sighs, murmurs, “Spineless, double-headed snake!”
“What are you saying? Oga! Banker, bring out all your money?” The gun clicks. My heart pounds noisily in my chest, tears stream down my face. And from where I lie, I inhale the insipid stench from the masked man’s muddy feet. I think of digging my teeth into his ankles but my teeth aren’t sharp enough to dig into his black leather shoes. So I lie there, say a silent prayer and stop when I hear Emeka saying, ‘We just paid our rent last night. Three hundred thousand naira, just last night. Ask that thieving Landlord.”
My mouth hangs open, my head swings back at Emeka as he stands, charging out of the door; the masked man at his tail calling him back. The koi-koi-koi heels bound around the compound. Blows upon blows echo. And the landlord starts to cry and cough. Cry and cough. “I don die,”
“When? Where? How? Me? Three hundred thousand?” The Landlord cries, and my heart sickens with grief. Emeka paid the rent ten weeks ago but I understand that he is trying to protect us. The air smells of sweat and an ineffable choking smell, a premonition that something sinister is imminent.
The stout man enters the room, sniffs. He is a nauseating mixture of marijuana and sweat. Stooping, he lifts up my chin, grins, “Since we can’t fin’ Doc and good money,” he croaks, “How abou’ …?” he grins. A squeal escapes my lips. Bounding into the kitchen, I pull out a knife and hold it up to my face. Panting noisily, I wait, listen as the other tenants rain curses on the Landlord, urge him to bring out the money even though, I suspect that they know that Emeka is making up those claims. The stout man’s shuffling becomes clearer from the kitchen. His raspy voice and his nauseating stench cause me to choke and cough. My shoulders shiver, my mouth quivers, as I will myself to stifle the tears gurgling in my throat, convincing myself that mind is playing games on me.
“Shhh,” The masked man warns. Voices fall silent. The wing-wong of a siren in the distance rents the air, inspires hope in our hearts. “Shit!” The masked man says.
“Give us the money or we’ll deposit a bullet in your head.”
I close my eyes.
“Take money. In this bag,” Someone says
The ruffle of a polyethylene bag. A thud. Then, a gun shot. A sharp cry. The thud-thud-thud of running feet.
The gate bangs shut. The knife drops from my shivering hand. The compound falls silent, except for shuffling feet. I stagger out; find Emeka in the room, panting, fiddling with the door knobs, locking the bolts. Smoothing the bed, I lie down; curl up on the bed like a foe’s fist.
Emeka lies down on his side, cuddles me, and strokes my shivering shoulder. As the tears soak the pillow, I say, “Who died?”
“Parting gift. Up in the air.”
Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam blogs at creativewritingnews.blogspot.