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19/02/2014

Moving

Suzanne Ushie

An excerpt from a short story

The driveway was narrow. Bluish paint peels hung from the walls, all the way up the tapered staircase, down to the small landing where a gaping sun window let in warm gusts of Lagos air. Inside, Khinde gasped: an alcove and glazed tiles—rarities in an old duplex in Mende. The apartment was more expensive than all the others she had seen. But after six months of checking adverts in Castles, six months of endless phone calls and crushing house viewings, she wasn’t willing to lose it. She got out her cheque book, already imagining a serene colour scheme. But Baba Femi laughed and said the landlady wanted to meet her first. He inhaled, making Khinde anxious because she had heard stories about nosey property owners.

“Does she live here?” she asked.

“Nooo. How can?” Baba Femi chuckled. “Madam lives in Ikeja GRA. She doesn’t come here at all.”

Khinde regarded his lean face, his high cheekbones so incongruous for a man, and wondered whether or not to believe him. Her colleague in the publishing firm had recommended him, assuring her that he was different from all the other estate agents, those who said a house was ‘under renovation’ when its foundation was being laid and ‘finished according to your taste’ when it had a bathroom with no shower and sink. Baba Femi had given her no reason to distrust him so far—at least all the houses he had shown her had roofs—but there was a lurch of nerves in her hands, especially after he said, “Don’t worry, sister. Madam will like you.”

When Khinde met Madam, a sixtyish-year-old woman with grey hair that stuck out from under a stiff ochre headwrap, she felt as though she should be still in the presence of this tiny woman who would command respect in a room full of tall people. But Madam was warm, a little too warm, while Baba Femi did the introductions on the terrace in her vine-enshrouded house. It was unusually hot for January. Khinde’s hair clung to the back of her moist neck; yet she didn’t touch the glass of iced tea a maid placed before her. There was a steady churn of apprehension in her stomach. She looked down at the manicured garden, fascinated by the fountain shooting elegant arcs of water. She strained to follow the conversation which was mostly in swift Yoruba. At some point Madam asked Baba Femi about his family. Khinde shifted on the wicker lounge and wished they would go straight to the matter.

At last Madam turned to her. “So what do you do for a living?”

In different circumstances Khinde would have laughed at Madam’s newly elevated accent, neither British nor American but certainly non-Nigerian. She kept her face straight. “I’m an editor in Mimmoret Books.”

“I see.” Madam leaned forward in her chair. Khinde could tell from her flat tone that she hadn’t heard of them.

“And where are you from?” Madam asked.

“Cross River.” Khinde expected the question. The owner of a cosy flat in Ogudu, a middle-aged man with a bumpy chin, had taken one look at her light complexion and said he didn’t want an Omo Igbo who would choke his house with a battalion of relatives, a single girl at that who would no doubt also have a clutch of lovers. Khinde said, “But I’m not Igbo,” and the man laughed and laughed as if he had heard that a thousand times.

Now, Madam said, “Interesting place. I taught in a secondary school in Calabar years ago. You people are nice but very laidback.”

“No we aren’t,” Khinde blurted.

Silence fell. Madam’s expression was unreadable. Baba Femi started to speak Yoruba, keen to maintain the peace, to cool flared-up egos so he would still get his ten percent commission.

Khinde knew she would not get the apartment by then. She had, after all, played the enraged defender. She had raised her voice. The dream of moving out of her aunty’s flat was broken. Then Baba Femi turned to her and said, with a sly smile, that she was free to move in whenever she liked.

 

*

Khinde wandered around her sparsely furnished apartment, a frosted glass of Star in hand. She placed it on the balcony sill and glanced at the faded red kiosk across the street. The world had taken on a surreal sheen. She now had a place of her own. She would no longer mute her Miles Davis CD when her aunty walked in so she wouldn’t be asked, in the usual whispery voice, why she was listening to old people’s music. She could wear her permed hair without being told that weaves were invented for a good reason, that she would scare men off with her resolute plainness. It worried her aunty most. And when Khinde said she was moving out, she had glimpsed that fright on her aunty’s contoured face, in her wounded speech. An unmarried young woman, her own niece, living alone in Lagos? No way. It was troubling enough that Khinde didn’t have a proper job in a bank or a telecoms company and now this? That day, it took almost two hours of playful persuasion—along with a bottle of J’adore—to receive her aunty’s blessing. Her aunty, in turn, gave her a farewell gift: a set of non-stick pans Khinde knew she would never use.

She smiled, now, as she walked into her bedroom and lay on the mattress whose lumpy filling reminded her that she needed a bed frame, a microwave, a charcoal painting or two. It was nauseating, the scent of fresh paint, but the soothing contrast of mint green walls and crisp white trim made it bearable. She heard scattered cheering from outside; probably the men in the neighbourhood barber shop, electrified by a Premiership match on TV. Her eyes were closed for about a minute when a knock sounded at the front door. She didn’t get up. She suspected it was Tega, the lean-muscled young man who lived downstairs. He had offered her a lift in his sleek Honda and asked her out to dinner right after she moved in. She couldn’t decide why he amused her. Perhaps it was because of his cloying sense of entitlement, or his grave nod whenever she turned him down, as though in a matter of time she would come to her senses and realise she was his. She heard the knock again, three weak taps, and then silence.

On Monday, when she returned from work, the gateman welcomed her with a hushed, “Madam dey inside o.” A ladder was leaning against the house. A shirtless man stood on it, sweating, chipping off flecks of wood from the roof decking. Madam sat in the shade of a mango tree, her headwrap awash with polka dots. She called out orders. You missed that spot. Don’t hit too hard. Be careful, this property is very expensive.

“Good evening, Ma,” Khinde said.

Madam glanced at her then back at the shirtless man. “Seyi, she is back.”

It was troubling, the evenness of Madam’s tone. Khinde’s temples began to throb. “What is the problem, Ma?” she asked.

“Seyi, did I say there was a problem?”

Seyi replied with the jocular eagerness of a servant agreeing with his master. “God forbid bad thing, Madam.”

Madam turned to Khinde. “All I meant, my dear, is that we were hoping you would come home in time to clear out the mess on your balcony. As you can see we have a lot of work to do. In fact I sent Seyi here on Saturday to inform all the tenants. He knocked on your door but you didn’t answer.” She smiled in a way that made Khinde feel underdressed.

“Sorry, Ma. I’ll clear it now,” Khinde said.

Later, as she dumped the empty beer crates—the previous occupant’s ‘mess’—behind the house, the smallness of her own voice began to annoy her. Surely Seyi could have left a message with the gateman. Besides she had paid her rent. She could keep a bloody horse on her balcony.

Back in her apartment she switched on her laptop to watch a movie. It was difficult to focus with the steady clink of the hammer outside, with the unyielding momentum of Madam’s voice. She was there again the next day and the day after; supervising the digging of a gutter, acknowledging greetings from passers-by, giving more ridiculous orders. Each time the noise grew intense, Khinde wildly imagined that Madam would demand to makeover her apartment with a chisel. Then she got home two weeks later and found the renovation complete, and Madam gone.

 

*

 One night the power went off while Khinde proofread a manuscript. In the yard she found her I-Better-Pass-My-Neighbour generator outside the shed, its long gray cable unplugged from the socket. She pointed the torchlight to the left and saw that her neighbours’ generators were unplugged too.

The gateman mumbled, “Sorry, sorry,” even before she finished complaining. Every tenant now had to keep their belongings upstairs. Madam’s orders. The shed would be demolished.

Khinde knew, then, that she could not handle a screeching machine right outside her room. She phoned Baba Femi in her bedroom and embellished the story so he would sense the urgency of it.

“Baba Femi, are you still there?” she asked. He had been so quiet that she feared he had hung up on her.

“Yes, sister.” He cleared his throat. “Look, Madam is not a bad person. She just likes to do things her own way. You know she is a big woman. But I’ll talk to her. She should allow you keep your generator downstairs.”

“And why did you lie to me? You said she never comes here.”

“Calm down. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

He didn’t call. What he did, instead, was ‘flash’ her. He ended the call immediately after the first ring so she would call him back. She was downloading music in her office. When her mobile phone vibrated she went into the restroom.

“Baba Femi, what did she say?”

“Madam did not agree o. She told me categorically that she will return your rent if you like.”

Khinde stared at the air freshener on the wall and thought of pouring the greenish fluid into the sin, emptying her rage. She was irritated by his sheer ineptitude, by his smug inflection when he said categorically, as if he merely wanted to show off his knowledge of the word. “Give me Madam’s number,” she said. “I’ll talk to her myself.”

“Ah! Nooo! I don’t want her wahala abeg. Let me call her again, you hear?”

             The call end beep sounded. Baba Femi would not persuade Madam any further because he knew, he had always known, the kind of person she was. What piqued Khinde most was not the realization that she had been conned, but the fact that she had been conned by a partial illiterate.

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