An Unfamiliar Silence
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AN UNFAMILIAR SILENCE

personOLUOMA UDEMEZUE calendar_month 19TH FEB 2024
schedule 28 MINS  visibility  116 VIEWS


At 6:00 am, the first car zoomed by some distance away from his ears: its headlights brushed against the palm fronds that were twisted into a knot on the wall before it finally vanished into mid darkness. He wondered how the driver had manoeuvred his headlight blinds to scan around the room like Mama with an oil lamp whenever they were deep asleep. For the first time, he noticed that the palm fronds were no longer as green and fresh as they were the very day he unplucked them from the tree. That day, he was running late to work but had to park his car on the roadside once his eyes caught sight of the fronds dancing in mid-air. It was a Saturday, and Palm Sunday was just a few hours away; He could not afford to have them go to church without fronds. It surprises him that after so many years of leaving home, having his own family, and working, he still did this: plucking palm fronds as he did when they were much younger. Back then, as kids, they went in groups while on their way to the river or back from school. Their loud chatter could be heard from afar; they made a whole lot of mess until the owner of the tree came for them if it was close to a residential area. Now, it was just him plucking for himself, his wife, and their kids. 

One of the nights before Palm Sunday in the village, a snake nearly bit Uzondu, his sister, when they went with the kerosene lamp to pluck some fronds. They forgot to get ready for church, and his sister had to wake him up to remind him that they were dead if Mama found out that she might beg the neighbours or other church members that Fada would bless on Sunday. He jumped to his feet, although still sleepy, and they tiptoed out of the house and rushed straight to Papa-Pami’s compound. The old man never cared about those who came and went, as he was already too old for caution. They both dashed to the back of one of the huts of his wives, and before Ike could raise the lamp for her to see where to cut from, she already reached out to hold the branch of one of the fronds, and at that moment, she jumped and screamed at the top of her voice, and there came flying, a baby python. Papa Pami rushed to the scene with some of his wives, but it was too late, as the python was long gone.

“Ikenna, what are you doing out this late with your elder sister?”

Papa Pami asked sleepily while one of his wives came close to examine my sister’s hand, making sure that there were no bite marks; Uzondu shook and whimpered like a puppy.

“Papa, we don’t have fronds at home for Palm Sunday, and Mama cannot find out.”

Ike replied bravely. 

The old man gently picked one of his cutlasses by the hut, walked to one of the trees and cut a full branch, walked back, handed it over to me, and said:

“Don’t put your life in danger again. Now, go home. Naba.”

We murmured our thanks to him and his wives and headed home. 

Gently, he plucked the fronds one at a time, counting to know when they would go around, and when he was about to pluck the last one, his thumb got in the way, and it cut right through his skin, and immediately blood started dripping; He winced and let go of the branch. Gathering as much as he could, he walked back to the car, avoiding the blood dripping off his thumb until he was able to get a paper to hold down the pressure while starting and driving off with one hand. 

Back in the quiet room, he opened his eyes and searched around the room once more; the headlights were gone. No Dozie was crawling through the door or Chinasa rushing to his side of the bed, nor was his wife, Ndu, coming to wake him up after she got the kids ready for the school bus. It was just him on the wide bed, the white walls with an array of Ndu’s paintings, and the hollow room with her delicate touch and smell. Ndu had a good test; he need not worry about most things. Her white lingerie was still where she had dropped it—on the cushion close to the bed—before she came to him that night, a night before he drove all of them: his wife, Dozie, and Chinasa—to Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, kissed them goodbye, and watched the plane leave for the United Kingdom. The house was as she left it—everything, including her art studio. He didn’t feel like getting up or going anywhere, but when he tried to reach for his phone, he winced and recalled the ordeal of the previous night. Then he grabbed a pillow on his right side, and with Ndu’s smell serenading his senses, he buried his face in it and wept uncontrollably in silence. 

His pores screamed out loud; his head pounded and his arms sweated even as he struggled to reach for the locks, but she was stronger than him; he felt he was struggling with a fellow man, this time with one who was stronger.

“Mr Ndu? Mr Ndu!”

The voice was louder this time, and he came closer to placing an arm on his shoulder before he jumped, nearly hitting the lady.

“Yes?”

Her face looked somewhat embarrassed and concerned, but she tried to hide it with a professional smile.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting. The doctor will see you now.”

Ike quickly wiped the sweat off his face and nodded before he said, "Thanks." 

He got up and followed her down the long white hall of the hospital and towards the doctor’s office. On the door, it read, ‘Dr. Ken (Psychologist)’. 

“Jeso chetanyi na asoka…”

The block rosary kids chanted while in the middle of the rosary, and at the end of it all, Brother John made everyone take their position on the benches that served them each night and said:

“We have good news, but before I deliver this good news, I would like Ike to come and stand here with me. Ikenna, bia ebe a.”

He added in Igbo with so much pride, and as Ikenna made his way to stand with him, he started talking like a father would talk about his dearest son:

“Umunne m, Ike would be leaving the village for the university!”

It was as though he opened up a basket of chatter as both the drummers and the rest of the block of rosary kids jumped in excitement. Even the men sitting at Mama-Pami’s palm wine store sounded drunkenly excited as they murmured among themselves. The block rosary group shared the ground with a palm wine store. The young lad in charge always made sure the kids went straight home each night without stealing into the palm wine joint to steal a sip from their father or even an uncle. Brother John’s stepmother ran the joint.

“Now, you all know how prudent Ike has been? Please, let us all learn to be like Ike, and the same God will honour us!”

Every one of them screamed at the top of their voices even as he gave Ike a handshake, a brotherly hug, and a white rosary that glittered even in the near darkness. Unfortunately, a few years ago, Brother John also got an offer to study medicine at the illustrious University of Nsukka but Papa-pami didn’t have the funds to send him to the city, and he had to take up a teaching job at the community school while keeping his hopes high that one day, he would find his way out just like some of them whose Umunna had either taken a loan from the bank or contributed for one of their nwadiani to get educated. Ike’s was different; he got an outright scholarship to study accounting which was rare for a boy his age. 

Luckily enough for him, he got to the office early enough to meet everyone trooping into the conference room. It was a Saturday and they usually met for a debriefing for the new week. He recently kicked off with BWE, a high-flying auditing firm that just moved to Nigeria. He was one of the first to be recruited as an auditor long before they started operations in the country. He quickly ran to his cubicle to drop his bags; one contained his office files and laptop and the other was his box of food before he joined the rest. His thumb was no longer bleeding but still hurt in a way. He stepped into the room at the right moment as a young lady stood beside Mr Emeka, the Chief director, while he introduced her and read out her impressive profile saying:

“She would be joining us and please make her feel at home, guys. Also, I think she is new here in Enugu or…”

He turned to the new face to get her response.

“I grew up in Enugu but left to study in the UK at the very tender age of eight. So, you may say that I am no longer in touch with the city but I would be happy for someone to offer to show me around?”

“Excellent! Ike! You walked in at the right moment!”

All eyes turned to the door and him as the director continued:

“Meet Maria. She just joined us. Maria, meet our high flier, Ike. He lived all his life here and would be glad to give you a tour of the city during the break. Ike, my man, you can take an hour during the break to carry out this assignment. Take it as a favour for the company.”

Ike was still confused and didn’t make it obvious how annoyed he felt inside. He just nodded and said: “Sure, I will be happy to help.”

Their office sat in the heart of Ogui Road, Enugu, what one can easily call the business hub of Enugu State. A high-rise building with many floors. Each floor served different departments and parts of the Southeast. Their arrival created a lot of job opportunities in the state and even caused a major influx in revenue for the state government. Two years after the last federal and state elections, things started picking up for some states in the part of the federation that seemed abandoned or neglected by the government. People who kept away from home either started investing or gradually moved back. Ike’s floor was a long, wide hall demarcated by thick glass walls or cubicles. They were surrounded by white walls and translucent window panes that allowed bright rays of light into the building. His cubicle was spectacular because his wife personally took care to decorate it with her paintings and artificial plants, and it looked more like a gallery than a little office space.

“Quite impressive.”

A sharp voice came at him from behind as he tried to check his email, and he turned to meet Maria’s big black jet eyes, taking a tour of his space. He stood and met her shoulder to shoulder. She was as tall as he was—maybe a little bit taller—and looked athletic. He was dark in complexion and had a protruding feminine curve that Ike would rather keep to himself than tell his wife by the time he got home. She picked an artwork off his shoulder, traced the corners of the drummer’s hat, and asked:

“Who had your space decorated? I love it!”

She still wore her wide smile while commending his cubicle.

“Oh, that’s my wife. She is an artist. I could introduce you two if you are interested. She can come to take a good look at yours and have it decorated. She is an interior decorator and good with spaces. Ndu has good taste and good eyes for stuff. Although I hear you would be getting an office and not a cubicle,

He tried to hide his jealousy. 

“Yeah,” she said, dropping the drummer where she picked it. “That is what I heard too, but I am also interested in her decorating my crib if she doesn’t mind at a fair price. Could you give me her card or number? I can meet up with her one of these days, as I am still at my parents'.”

Parents? Ike thought to himself. He ignored his thoughts for another day. Ike reached into his inner jacket, withdrew his wife’s purple card, and passed it on to Maria; she took it, and their fingers brushed against each other. Ike withdrew quickly and winced. She saw the look on his face and asked with a concerned look on her face:

“I am sorry. Did I hurt you?”

She saw the look of pain written all over his face even as he turned to quickly look for a paper towel and dap the blood dripping from his thumb. Immediately, she grabbed his thumb in the swift movement of her limbs and pressed it harder; he winced more even as the smell of her wild cherry perfume crawled right under his nostrils and filled his senses with a feminine aura.

“I cut myself while trying to cut some palm fronds. So sorry.”

She smiled gently and said:

“Yeah, it is Palm Sunday, eh? I almost forgot, but I am sure someone at home would get some around.”

He started feeling uncomfortable with her standing close to him, and holding his hands seemed too awkward. Immediately, he released his thumb from her grip and moved back, pretending to sit, and said:

“Once it is break time, I will drive you around the city as the boss requested.”

He said this while trying as much as possible to hide the fact that he detested the assignment.

“Are you sure your thumb hurts?”

She sounded genuinely concerned.

“Not an issue at all. After all, I drove myself to work this morning.”

He smiled to reassure her that she would be in safe hands. 

“Ok, that’s fine. See you at break time.”

She smiled and walked away, leaving her smell all over the place—on the drummer, on his hands, and in his senses. 

Some called it luck, while others felt it was his personal chi at work in his life. After witnessing the ASUU strike for three years out of the four years he was meant to be in school, he successfully graduated with distinctions. At each strike, he went home to help his parents on the farm, and while on vacation, he stayed back in school and did more jobs to earn money for his textbooks. It was during this process that he met Charles, whom he seldom taught his kids mathematics and accounting. The man was so impressed that he referred him to the bank, where he worked as a part-time teller. Upon graduation, the bank requested that he continue his service with them. While other graduates were roaming the states for work due to the high rate of unemployment, Ike was settled already. A few years down the line, the bank promoted him, and a position came up in Enugu City. He applied and was sent forth to begin as an auditor. 

One night,  as he got ready to leave, a colleague, Ibrahim, walked up to him and asked:

“Guy, where are you headed this Friday night?”

Ike looked at him and shrugged. He rarely goes anywhere.

“The art gallery is having a mega exhibition tonight, and I have two tickets. Do you mind? I think it may interest you since I have never seen you in any club.”

Ibrahim said it mockingly, but Ike got the joke anyway.

"Fine, but under one condition: I won’t stay beyond 6 p.m. My sister is coming to visit for Easter with her family, and I need to get ready for them tomorrow. I can’t afford to wake up late.”

“Sure, who would? I am scheduled to work tomorrow too.” Ibrahim chipped in. 

As the fiscal year drew to an end, a lot of audit requests were in queue, but Ike worked overtime to clear his desk ahead of the holiday. He handed him a ticket and said: “Let’s go, man!”

A subtle African note by Onyeka Onwenu played in the background when they stepped into the gallery, and to their surprise, it was already full of after-works in their suits or formal wear, casually walking around the white walls with artistic forms carefully laid all over them. The room was so bright that there was nothing hidden in the shadows. Before he could say Jack, Ibrahim was already lost in the crowd, leaving him alone to wonder. He came and stood in front of one of the paintings that caught his attention: a woman bent over with her hoe on the ridges while her kids harvested corn. He didn’t know how, but he started smiling to himself and wanted to take that particular painting home, no matter how much it cost. After the death of his father, they couldn’t afford to pay farm hands, and his mother made all five of them go with her to the farms. The painting brought back so many good memories.

“Do you like it?”

A soft voice came at him from behind.

“Huh?”

Ike turned to meet a young curvy lady half his height, smiling up at him. Her eyes buried him so that he couldn’t even recall her question. It was as though she was used to the stir, and she asked again:

“What do you think about the painting? So sorry, I startled you.”

She walked and stood by his side this time around, and he wanted to hold her hand but held himself. She was the sweetest thing ever in the hall. Her coffee skin glistened under the bright lights. 

“Oh! The painting? Yeah, I see every bit of me in it.”

She smiled and said: “I grew up on a farm before I left for university. The third girl—the one picking at warms at the far right—is me. I am the youngest in the family.”

Ike watched her closely as she described what led to her wanting to paint a part of herself and how it was everything to her, and in his thoughts, he didn’t just want to take the painting home but the painter as well. That night made a difference in his life, as some years down the line, both found themselves sharing every little bit of love and what life had to offer. 

They all shared the house on 11th Independence Avenue. It used to be an old office property that was auctioned because they wanted to leave Nigeria, as there were concerns about a whole line of issues before the election: stability of the Naira, power, government, insecurity, and many more. Ike was lucky to get the bid, and with the help of his wife, he re-modelled it, and she tastefully decorated it. They had their second child there, and with time, he converted one room into her art studio and office so that she wouldn’t have to worry about taking the kids to the daycare or driving to work. She just had to work from home, and the gallery could come to pick up her work whenever she rang. Also, if it had to leave the shores of Nigeria, he normally dropped it at the NIPOST on his way to work. 

Such was the case when he came home one evening and met a big brown envelope with an official seal on it nestled gently on his side of the bed. He had just come out of the showers; the kids were already asleep, and he felt she was working in the studio and didn’t want to bother her. He wondered who the letter was from and who must have kept it there. Picking it up, he broke the seal, and as he slowly retrieved the content, the first words read:… Congratulations. You have…

“I got the job, babe!”

He didn’t have to turn to know she was the one who hid in a corner to watch him while he figured it all out. When he turned, she was wearing his favourite lingerie, the white silk gown that showed off every little bit of her beautiful womanly curves even after two kids and ageing. She had been crying as her eyes were red and swollen when she ran into his arms. They both cried into each other's arms. This had always been her dream, even before they met: to work at the most prestigious art school in the world. The offer also came with lots of opportunities. They both knew it would change a lot of things for their family, but he was ready to support her till the end. He could never forget the way his father took care of them, even while his mum went to the Teachers' Training Institute in Okija. Those were hard times, but his father was the very best; it was his first time seeing a man cook, clean, and back a child. His mother nearly died when they lost him on Palm Sunday. 

The house got emptier by the day, as they were all counting down. The kids were too young to understand what was going on; they only knew that their clothes were being packed and their old stuff was put in a box. It was a weekend, and he had promised her that he would assist in packing up the paintings and sending them off ahead of her. Coming to the one she painted of the woman and her kids on the farm, he took a long look at it and wondered how it would all be with him all alone in the house, and even as he drove them to the airport that night and kissed her and the kids goodbye, he knew nothing was waiting for him at home, only an unfamiliar silence. 

He didn’t say a word as the doctor flipped through his notes and stole silent glances at him through the corners of his spectacles. It was not too difficult to guess the doctor’s confused thoughts: Ndu was a whole man by merely looking at him; taller than the average person you see on the streets, he was not lanky for his height, but one could sure see his bustling biceps underneath the blue-striped shirt he wore tucked into blue jeans that framed his manliness. The doctor at some point scratched a part of his greying hair and adjusted his spectacles, not wanting to sound derogatory, before he asked:

“How do you want to proceed with the case? This is the first of its kind that I am getting but since you still have some form of evidence—the scratch on your hands and body with the em—what you wore that day, I believe we could …”

The doctor breathed out a heavy sigh.

“Is it her words against mine?”

Ndu asked after he saw the handwriting written all over the wall. And at the doctor’s attempt to cover his embarrassment,. The other man didn’t say anything; he just put his head down. The room echoed with their heavy breathing and an awkward silence, which both of them knew was the root cause. Before the doctor could raise his head to respond, it was already late as he met the door at the point of closure. 

He busily put his stuff into his backpack, looking forward to the first long weekend after the holiday. He made mental notes of what he had ahead of him: call the cleaners, stock up the fridge ahead of another week, and video chat with the kids. Ndu was already getting used to being a married bachelor, but after a year, he was also getting ready for their first visit, and he couldn’t wait. As he put the key in the ignition, the other door opened, and Marie slid in along with her full form and mesmerizing cologne, turned to him, and gave a wide smile before saying:

“Thank you so much for waiting patiently. I hope they finish with the car this weekend so that I can be off your hair. You have been of immense help, honestly.”

He just smiled and turned on the ignition, waiting for a few seconds before they left the packing area. 

“I have been meaning to tell you: your wife did a fantastic job. My friends went berserk during my engagement party last Friday. They all asked for her number, and I was forced to give it out, although she told me she had left the country already. I believe she would find a workaround for them.”

“Yeah, same here. Some of my colleagues have done so as well. So many people call her for decoration. Maybe you are right; she could find a way to get things running down here.” He responded with a smile as well.

“Does it ever feel lonely? You know,… without her being around and all that?”

Why was she asking, he thought? Why does she care? He neither looked at her nor answered; he just shrugged. As they drove closer to her end of the city, they saw the lightning, and there came the sound of thunder, and all of a sudden, it started raining heavily. He turned on the windshield, but the rain poured and nearly disrupted his vision. 

“I hope this stops by the time I turn to my end of town,” he said without paying her any attention. 

Immediately he got to her gate, the sensor let them in, and he packed right in front of her door, away and safe from the rain. He was still checking the gravity of the downpour when he felt a strong hand grab him and shove him backwards. Before he could react, she hit the central lock of the car, moved his seat backwards, and sat right on his lap. Everything happened so quickly that he never got the chance to push her away.

“What are you trying to…”

She didn’t allow him to say a word but shut him up with her lips pinned to his, and her tongue found his right where it was and sucked hungrily. They were both pinned right in between his seat and the steering wheel. She was so strong that each effort seemed to aggravate her and make him weaker. Even as they struggled, she didn’t let his lips escape her tight grasp; rather, she used her free hand to grab at his belt, unbuckle him, zip down, and grab him in full while pinning him down with one hand. 

He could swear that she was stronger than a man. He fought with all his might, but she pinned him more into the seat, and he could feel her nails dig deep into his arms, and he was sure she drew both flesh and blood in the process. Even as she kissed him deeply and tried to force him in between her legs, he saw himself pleading; he cast his mind to his wife and kids. There was no way anyone could even see what went on in the car, as it was raining heavily and he had already killed the engine. 

When she saw that she had overpowered him, he let go of his lips and looked into his eyes. Even in the thick darkness, he could see the dark lust buried deep in her eyes as she slowly slid onto him and made her way with him.  

***

The cling of the elevator separated the two doors and paved a wide way for him to pass. At the swipe of his card, the second door let him through, and he made his way into the office. He did not need to come into the office as everyone was on holiday and it was a few days before Christmas, but he needed to pick up some stuff before heading to the airport; his wife and two kids arrived at seven o'clock that evening. Although he didn’t expect to meet anyone, it would have been nice to see some familiar faces, as he hadn’t been around for a while due to his leave. He noticed that Maria’s door was wide open, and there seemed to be some construction ongoing as he heard voices. Ike was surprised and walked directly to the end of his cubicle to grab what he wanted before leaving. When he was done stuffing the documents in his work bag, he wanted to leave but noticed that the workers were done and one man busily unscrewed her nameplate from her door; that was unusual. Also, he could hear Emeka’s voice right from his office. Ike grabbed his bag and made it to his boss’s office, and as he got closer, what he thought was a meeting turned out to be a fight over the phone. He stopped right at the door, as Emeka said:

“I thought we were good? I thought we had something good going."

The line went dead, and there came a flood of silence. The man hit his fist on his wide office desk; the shudder pushed the frame of him, his wife, and four kids off the surface, and it shattered on the floor, nearly breaking the fingers that held his wedding band. For the first time, he noticed that someone was at the door and raised his bloodshot eyes to meet the bewilderment on Ike’s face. His eyes were wildly insane; they couldn’t hide the rage of a man who had just lost a battle in an unfamiliar silence. 

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About Oluoma Udemezue


Oluoma believes that life is nothing without a little touch of romance, thriller and reality.

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Chinweposted on 9th Mar 2024 14:19:20

Interesting!




An Unfamiliar Silence

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