You are sitting on the large bed at the far right corner of the room watching him fold his carton-coloured pants and signature long-sleeved, striped shirts into a travel bag and you can feel the heaviness settling in your belly like a sinking boulder. If you had felt anything towards D. that had gone beyond your friendship and how swiftly it had spread its warmth inside of you, you are just coming to terms with it. And it is too late.
A scorching sun sits unmoving in the sky by the time you get to Ikire, a border town between Oyo and Osun states; you and twenty something other corps members1 who have been posted to this place whose name never came up in all the speculations you made leading up to this point. You are angry. After all the evenings you spent bearing heavy snare drums learning sets, jostling this with longer hours passed learning how to catwalk with your torso as straight as the drum major’s mace, you ended up here. The band thought the pageant committee had fixed you up in one of its state capital spots and the pageant committee thought the band had fixed you up in one of theirs. No one asked you to confirm. You didn’t ask to confirm. Spending the remainder of the service year in Osogbo hadn’t been something you looked forward to, but the thought had been bearable. Osogbo would have been tolerable with its untarred roads and evenly-spaced buildings and moderate human traffic. There was nearby Ife. You could see yourself fitting into the almost-ancient university town and having the life of the campus keep you company. But Ikire was ready to welcome you, instead.
The buses to Ikire are filling up quickly and you find a crammed spot in one of them. Amidst the nervous chatter from the others, you are silent as you always are when in discomfort or nervous. Or angry. The journey stretches endlessly along untarred narrow roads flanked by tall bushes and not much else. When you arrive, a small bubbly reception is waiting in the Family House of the Catholic Corpers fellowship in Ikire. It’s a sprawling compound whose ends you can’t make out because of the darkness. The chaplain, a smiley, youthful priest in plain clothes, with a rather trendy haircut, welcomes your team with soothing tales about the community and his effervescent gesticulation. You quietly watch the evening reception happen in front of you, noting which of the previous deployment of corpers you like and which ones you don’t. There’s the smiling one, whom you will later learn is from the same place as you and will feed you white rice with generously peppered stew in her decent apartment. There’s the president of the group, a bow-legged, rough-bearded, lanky young man, with an unusual appearance and an equally unusual name.
You notice D. sitting at a corner of the open gathering unperturbed by the noise and the excited maneuvering of ladies distributing packs of food and sachets of pure water. When he cuts into a conversation, albeit very sparingly, the others pay him too much attention. When he stands, he is a foot or two above everybody else and save his oversized nose, his eyes seemed to be his most prominent facial feature—rounded, darting, eager. As the reception winds down and you slowly spoon jollof rice into your mouth, realising your hunger for the first time since morning, he walks up to you and asks why you’re so quiet.
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Likewise the rest of us,” he replies. You can hear his sarcasm cutting through the edge in your response.
“What batch?” you ask him.
“What school did you go to?”
“UNN … University of Nigeria,” you reply. Despite being one of the country’s foremost universities, it always surprises you how often you have to explain the acronym whenever you mention your alma mater.
His eyes light up.
“I thought as much. Me too.”
He occupies the Family House with the bow-legged president and you figure that’s why he’s popular. But it isn’t. When the priest dismisses the reception and heads home, he heads to the flat opposite to ask a pretty, soft-spoken friend if you can stay with her for a few days pending the completion of your registration at the local government office. She agrees and you find her constant fussing over you the rest of the night slightly irritating.
As you head to the local government office the following morning, he walks you to the gate to hail a motorbike. In the light of day, the compound in which the house is situated is even more massive than you had pictured the previous night, large portions of it grassy playgrounds doubling as obscure hideouts, depending on who needs what.
“Elo ni?” he asks the bike man, after describing where to drop you off.
“Make sure he isn’t driving too fast,” he says, as the bike starts off on the smoothly-tarred road towards the local government office.
You think nothing of his kind little gestures over the past ten to fifteen hours.
In the months that follow, while you and a handful of new corpers take up temporary residence in the Family House, you and D. wander the small town searching for a permanent apartment for just you. There are no available rooms in the lodging quarters of the poorly-funded government school to which you have been posted. When you eventually find a room in a house whose landlord insists you call him Alleluia, D. helps you paint the small room a lemon-green colour. You move in slow bits and it takes about another month to furnish the room with basics—a patterned dark-and-lemon green floor carpet, a bed, some cooking utensils, a camping gas.
Long after you settle into learning the ropes of being a new teacher and constantly being exasperated at your students, you saunter into the compound one evening and find him in a lone chair in front of the house, a cigarette stick between his lips and a ring of smoke hovering over his ear. You are taken aback.
His bright pink lips are nothing like the typical soot-stained lips of smokers you have seen. By this time, you have fleetingly wondered what it would be like to kiss them.
He shrugs. “Occasionally. When I’m tense.”
He doesn’t say much about what the cause of his tension is, but you pull a chair up beside his, and sit a few metres apart looking out into the field and enjoying the blanket of quiet that you have come to appreciate about the sweeping compound.
Until now, you were always one to worry about second-hand smoke.
One night, as if in a trance, you find yourself making your way sleepily to a well-lit toilet. You are passing a night at the Family House, one of your occasional sleepovers since moving to your own place. It feels unfamiliar but in a good way. The toilet bowls and sinks are made of a cream-coloured ceramic, one you’ve never seen before. The floor is tiled with glossy white marble and there is a glass partition separating the bath section from the rest of the room. You sit on the toilet bowl and it feels like you are on a sofa. You shut your eyes tight and begin to pee, an odd feeling of absolute relief flooding over your body. Five minutes later and the clear liquid is now pouring like water from between your thighs. It feels odd but you can’t stop yourself.
“Whatever did I drink during the day?” you ask yourself.
A moment later, as you attempt to clean up with a thick wad of tissue paper and it comes in contact with your skin, you open your eyes to discover you are on a bed soaked wet with urine. D. is beside you, his hands in between his knees, spooned with his back to you and snoring rather loudly. Embarrassed, you try to nudge him awake so you can clean up your mess.
“It happens,” he says, as he drags the wet sheet off the bed and hands it to you.
He lifts the mattress off the floor and drags it out to the back while you stand, your face an invisible beet red, wondering. His face bears no expression as he tells you calmly to shed your wet clothes and go wash yourself, like you need to be instructed on what comes next. If he feels ashamed for you, he gives away nothing, because in the remaining months that you spend with him, he never brings up the incident again.
But it marks some unseen turning point in your friendship so that one night, after visiting you in your small, green-themed room, you both ease into a listless sleep after a heavy dinner and hours of talking about his family. You think they would have a good run on television if their lives were ever made into a reality show.
The sleepovers become more frequent. Most nights when you wake up for a toilet break, you find him curled in that same fetal position, hands in between his knees like he’s trying to fit his long frame into a safe, rounded cocoon. Some days, your neighbour, a troublesome ghost corper2, who covered his teaching syllables in a day and jettisoned service to flee to his hometown in the south-west to tend to his business, joins in. Sometimes, he comes with a bottle of red wine. You’ve never taken a sip of red wine prior to now.
One Saturday afternoon, you drop by the Family House and D. announces he’s going to cook for you. Pasta, he says. With wine.
“You’re going to cook pasta? With wine?” you repeat, slightly amused.
He excitedly heads out to buy groceries leaving you to a book about men and their emotions. When he returns, he works rhythmically cutting vegetables and seasoning chunks of meat. A Jason Walker song plays from his phone and drifts across the kitchenette. He’s come to love the dirge-like music you love listening to; soft rock tunes about loss and heartbreak like the one you’ve been masking pretty well. He puts a pot of water on the camping gas and adds a little bit of cooking oil. He pours in a pack of pasta when the water boils. He cooks the meat and then fries it. He uses the oil to stir-fry vegetables and seasons the sauce with a mixture of spices. And then he pours in some red wine.
The meal is done in about an hour. It is the best pasta you’ve ever had.
One night, in your green-themed room, you have a rather intimate discussion about something you can’t remember. You wonder why he’s never made any advances because he says sometimes he watches you sleeping. He shrugs it off like he does with many things; involved but distancing himself still.
“You’re not ready,” he says.
The night before he leaves, he has come over to your apartment to say goodbye but somehow, you both find your way back to the Family House. It’s your last night together. You hope it’s not but you were never good at keeping in touch. You watch him fold his carton-coloured pants and signature long, striped shirts into a travel bag and you can feel the heaviness settling in your belly like a sinking boulder.
Your eyes well up the next morning as he moves around the house sweeping one last time for bits of his life that had warmed the place in the past months. You want to tell him that you love him but you’re not sure that’s what this is. You want to tell him you appreciate how candid he was with you, and with the people you’ve known these past months, but your mouth feels too heavy to move. You want to tell him that you haven’t been understood in a long time as you have been by him. You want to tell him that he feels like home and that you want to carry him wherever you go and hope that he feels the same.
There are a lot of things you wanted to say the night before, and a lot of things you want to say the morning after, but the words don’t come. He pulls you into his arms when he’s satisfied he has everything packed. It’s a small bag for someone who has been away for a year but D. was never one who was complicated about anything. Not in speaking and not in possession.
You hold each other. A little while longer. The words don’t come. Even the tears don’t come.
“I’ll miss you.”
He plants a kiss on your forehead. Tenderly. But you feel the finality of goodbyes flow through his lips to your forehead, memories of the months gone playing back like a music tape on repeat.
“I’ll call you when I get home.”
You hold each other a little while longer, but the words don’t come.
Alone in your green-themed room that night, the tears come, so subtly you don’t catch them until you feel the wetness on your cheeks.
On your birthday, the year after, he sends you a light green-and-brown flowered cake that says “Happy Birthday, M.D.” and your mouth spreads into a broad smile when your eleven-year-old cousin asks what it means.
That’s what his father called his mother, what he occasionally called you after he had nicknamed you K. That was the last time you heard from him.
- Corps member: A Nigerian University graduate who is serving in the federal government’s National Youth Service Corps. Founded in 1973, the scheme was to encourage intercultural exchange in young school leavers as a way of fostering unity and ethnic tolerance.
- Ghost corper: A corp member who frequently leaves their place of primary posting to attend to personal business.
© Kay Ugwuede
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Kay’s interview]