WHAT PROFITS A MAN TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD, but to lose his soul? I smirked to myself, ruminating over the famous quote, staring through the living room window. Tiny droplets of water had begun to form on the pane, following a brief shower from the heavens; obscuring my view slightly, but I wouldn’t move. I couldn’t move. In the blackness of the night, it was as though time had come to a standstill, in unison with my feet, as I stood there gazing aimlessly into the quiet, dark road. Not a single car had driven past, a police siren heard, not a soul. Nothing had moved, but for the ravenous fox I had spotted moments earlier, meandering through the webs of the apartment block; it too, very much alone. It had been the strange howling sounds that had first caught my attention to the scavenger. But as it jollied amongst the scraps of a leftover fried chicken bucket flung amidst the dimly lit alleyway, I would later come to the realisation that these unknown tongues were in fact wistful tones of appreciation, gratitude to the higher being.
I too, should be grateful, or so I thought. After all, I was alive, and breathing, enough of a reason to give thanks. And I chuckled a little at the thought, as Mother’s words beckoned—give thanks. Two words Mother deemed appropriate for use in every situation. She knelt to the ground and, weeping, gave thanks when Morayo achieved three A’s for her A-levels, and also gave thanks that morning upon receiving the confirmation letter that Dolly would be offered the scholarship to study at the local independent prep; but yet, she confusingly insisted we give thanks during her lengthy unemployment spell shortly after she graduated.
“Don’t worry. Though God may tarry, He will surely do it!” she had said, pacifying the crushed soul. “But in everything, we must give t’anks.”
Mother would be of the same mind today. Today was a day to give thanks, every day in fact, but more so today, on my birthday. I smirked at the faint reflection in the glass, disgusted by the hazy image—a forlorn sight, unshaven, uncut; the creased skin lines beneath my eyes thickly drawn out, worn grocery bags heaving with unwept tears.
In years gone by I would have celebrated. I would have been awoken in the early hours of the morning by teasing hand strokes in between my thighs, followed by a birthday breakfast of buttered yams with fried eggs and stewed corned beef; which in a potion-like manner would knock me back to sleep shortly afterwards. I would have then celebrated at work, the faux “Happy Birthday Remi!” from eager colleagues who would probably have cared less but for the array of sweet delicacies surrounding my desk—assorted cakes, glazed doughnuts and those chocolate coated cornflake bites that I’d always loved as a boy. Though, I’d never quite understood this British custom, the expectation that one brought in treats, themselves, to honour their own occasion. Surely, things should’ve been the other way round; that gifts and treats were presented to the celebrant, not by. But I would play along, politically.
After hours, I would have popped open a bottle of champagne, or two, with the lads at a plush bar of sorts in the city. We would down incessant shots of Jägerbombs, mix untold concoctions of spirits with lime to disengage our own souls from reality; and with a glass in one hand, a brunette haired, olive toned waist embraced with my other, I’d dance—a mere two-step, but a dance nonetheless—until I could remember the events of the night no more.
I would be using the same soiled arm to spoon with Adaeze later that morning. But she, still half asleep, would, of course, push me away to rid the putrid stench of booze. And I’d join her in the land of dreams shortly after, only to be disturbed within seconds by the ‘not so’ heavenly coos of Amaka.
I took a deep sigh at the thought of Amaka; the one person in the world that had given me hope and a reason to smile. The sole reason I had held out up until this point. I didn’t need a card, a gift or the flurry of instant messages that had poured in after twelve. The, just wanted to be the first to wish you happy birthday hun xxx from Oyinda was sweet and Juwon’s laddish Happy birthday bro appeased me. But it was a hug from Amaka that I especially craved, that gentle tug on the drooping strands of my goatee. She always played with my beard, particularly during my arduous attempts to rock her to sleep come 8pm, smiling, fully aware that her antics were draining me. As much as I’d beg Adaeze back then—“take her joh!” I’d squirm, “You know you’re better at this?”—I’d do anything to rock her today, wrap her in my arms and sway her from side to side. I’d sing her lullabies and tell her that she was so beautiful, that I loved her, “more than anything in the whole wide world”. I would say it, so profoundly now, that I was proud to be her daddy and that no matter what, I’d be there for her, always. But that would be lying. I couldn’t be there now. Adaeze wouldn’t let me.
“5 minutes too late?” we had joked between ourselves, on the day she came. “But by no means an April fool!”
Adaeze’s mother would have none of it. “Please o,” she’d riposte, her traditional superstitions coming to the fore. “Don’t start with any of that. Be careful what you pronounce over your child. The tongue is very powerful you know?”
Tears would later stream down my cheeks that morning, holding her for the first time; a rarity, I never cried. It must have been the vision of seeing her grow up into the beauty that her mother bestowed, the overwhelming feelings of gratitude to God for entrusting me with such a diamond. A precious diamond clothed in the smoothest of cottons, the glint in her eye reflecting the ward’s light. My heart dissolved into my stomach the first time she said “daddy”, pronounced more like daahhee but I claimed it nevertheless.
Thinking about her now made me feel a tad better, but it wasn’t going to change anything. Mother had often chastised me all those years ago; that I was too stubborn. And now I could prove her right. My mind already made up. Today would be the day. Whilst others would normally expect to gather and celebrate the day my spirit came to being on the planet, I’d give them a date they’d never forget, by leaving it.
What did I have to live for anyway? The greater part of my soul had been drawn out of its socket. I’d gained the whole world and then some, but life now was miserable. A constant numb sensation had sunk into the lower regions of my gut.
I read a few more messages on my phone, but frowned within seconds. They felt hollow and somewhat scripted. Aunty Taiwo had composed a lengthy prose, on behalf of the church elders to remind me of God’s grace and favour over me. She would inform me yet again that he had “set me apart for a time such as this” and that it was time for me to “fully embrace and step into my calling”.
I reminisced as I stumbled across old posts on Instagram. A much thicker Remi in shorts and the infamous cropped t-shirt that Adaeze had brazenly disapproved of as “way too feminine”. And I could hear her now, the warmth in her chuckle as she took the picture, still felt the bouts of sweat dripping from my forehead, feigning to appear composed as I barely stroked the sedated tiger at the Thai animal sanctuary.
I continued on to another post from some months earlier; a selfie from Oyinda’s wedding. Amaka resembled the ingrained images of the baby Jesus, asleep, cradled in her mother’s arms, in the fairest of shawls. The figure hugging red and golden laced material accentuated Adaeze’s slender curves. But it was her eyes that had always captivated me; the dark brown, almond shaped matter. They would silently chant mantras every time my eyes caught hers, and draw me in. I was crouched in behind them over the back of a white silk draped chair encircled with a bold golden sash, which matched the array of gold dressings and red roses on the table. Half eaten plastic plates of Jollof rice, fried plantains and cans of coke sprawled across the white linen cloth. I had one arm wrapped around my beloved, the other earnestly clutching the phone; teeth baring grins galore. The comment beneath read: Counting my blessings & I can’t stop smiling! This year has been amazing, God has been too good to us… onwards and up!! #family #mywifeisbetterthanyours.
“Olori mi,” I would often call her. She was indeed, my queen. But Queen Adaeze had since denounced her throne. And Amaka had been impeached with her too; taken away as a righteous one swept up into the clouds. Now the rains had come to replace them. Torrential, acidic rains that fell almost every day in my world; flooding my entire being until I could no longer contain the waters, and they would eventually gush through the dams behind my eyes.
The crushing weight of it all had sloped my gait. The former bounce in my steps had transfigured into a daily trudge. Each morning I’d wake up angry at the universe, angry at God for daring to open my eyes that day to see the world again. So I’d shut them, almost immediately, squeezing them as tightly as possible, to the point where they would eventually begin to hurt. Yet sleep evaded me, betrayed me; conspiring with Adaeze to avoid me, to divorce me.
Now, I had my precious memories and the pictures in my camera roll to keep me company. Though, there was Jack, a renewed acquaintance. He had now usurped Adaeze in the best friend stakes. On what seemed to be becoming somewhat of a daily rendezvous of late, I’d have conversations at length with Mr. Daniels, clasping him firmly and caressing his stalk, before drawing the contents from his well with a kiss; resuscitation at its finest. Jack had a way of redeeming my yoke in a way that no one else ever could. He listened, wholeheartedly, never interrupted. I could simply bear my soul in peace, without fear of judgement.
“Thank you Jack,” I said, taking a sip of the brown liquor, and I grimaced at the slight burning as it struck the rear of my throat.
I rarely spoke to God in these dark moments. Though, I had made sure to give him a piece of my mind some days earlier.
“If you don’t take me, I’ll take me, myself!”.
I had snapped. But he hadn’t replied.
I became fed up of waiting on an intangible, ever-present help. The idea that there was an omnipresent helper, with the power to heal, save and “turn my situation around!”, as Pastor Steve had always promised, even though I’d never visibly seen or audibly heard from him, gradually began to dawn on me as a mere fallacy. And in these dark days, as I began to despise God, I would ultimately begin to despise Pastor Steve too. I would, at first, begin to despise his shiny, polished, demeanour, followed by the silver Mercedes Benz parked in the ‘reserved spot’ in the church car lot, the slick partitioning line that was etched ever so neatly along the side of his greying hair strands. And then I started to hate his suits, the tailored stitches of fabric I had once admired; and the florescent pocket squares that nimbly matched the elongated ties that swung as he paced the pulpits on Sunday Mornings, spraying bouts of saliva into the microphone.
“God is making a way! This is your season! This is your time!”
But I didn’t believe this anymore. I had come to realise that this was a lie. There was no new season, apart from the brownish leaves that had already started to fall earlier that autumn month, along with the chestnut seeds that littered the paths; timely snacks for the squirrels, and when attached to long pieces of string became captivating toys of leisure for us all those years ago in the school grounds. I loved playing conkers as a boy.
As for it being “my time”; time, that was almost up.
“So, God, where are you now eh?” I shouted.
Another tear escaped my left eye.
I had gotten used to the reverberations of my voice bouncing off the hollow walls in this now empty home. It had been that way ever since Adaeze had packed her bags. I hadn’t been asked to replace anything, let alone empty out the vase of tulips and roses on the side table, that I had bought for her that day, wistfully hoping that they’d convince her to stay. They were now greenish-brown in colour, withered stems disintegrating into toxic fluid. A foul putrid stench, an augury of imminent death, was adrift in the air. The home felt like a mansion these days. I was lonely; solitary confinement, for want of a better analogy.
As I started to meander the convoluted mazes of my mind, I still struggled to recall events in their entirety that day, the day she left.
“I am leaving you,” she had screamed, with an air of finality, pausing to wipe her eye. “And I ain’t coming back… ever.” Six soft words that had pierced me; apportioning my heart into six unequal slices, a sleek knife through a Victoria sponge.
Amidst the jarring noise of the door as it slammed shut, the wailings of a confused toddler, sadly awoken from her state of nirvana, “Daahhee … Daahhee …” I said nothing. And as I sat there in the aftermath, a hapless soul in the middle of a hollow living room, glancing at my watch every now and then, beleaguered hopes of their return, it was there that I would first meet Jack.
“She’ll be back. Won’t she?”
An hour passed, she hadn’t returned. An hour became two; two, twenty four. Days became weeks, but as much as I wanted to, the man in me somehow resisted the urge to reach out. I would not contact her; even if I were dying.
But, I already was. Dying, that is. A crushed soul, still breathing. Yet empty, a broken vessel.
As I pressed rewind and replayed the scene from a bird’s eye view in my mind, I began to see myself doing things somewhat, differently. I’d held her hands now, softly, drawing her closer into me as I kissed her forehead—a sultry exchange. I could see myself rekindling a long lost tongue of affection. “I love you,” I was saying say, whispering sweet nothings into her ear, and a long-lost smile had begun to crack—the first signs of dawn—as her cheeks reddened in the heat of our exchange.
“I’m so sorry I’ve hurt you,” I’m saying, wiping away a droplet caught in the crevice of her eye. “It’s all a misunderstanding. Baby, we can fix this?”
The day dream ended there, abruptly. I had long since grown to know that dreams simply dwelt within the realms of the sleeper. Sadly, there was no option to press a pause button and skip a scene, no option to rewind and rewrite the script, in real life. And these thoughts dawned on me even more now as I peered down at my tools on the window ledge—the glass of water, a dozen random pills—glaring back at me.
The warmth from the sun’s ray, mauve in colour, was beginning to protrude through the clouds now; providing some warmth and a pinch of light into the otherwise cold and gloomy room.
The world will be awake soon, I thought. The naïve birds will chirp pleasantries as they do each morning. The paperboy will assume his rounds. Children will flock in coloured uniform, crossing the road at the zebra crossing on the corner to the jovial smiles of the aged lady with her large wand in hand, ushering them by. The refusal lorry men will be out in full swing soon, flashing lights ablaze, alarms making that jarring sound. The Goliath-like vehicles will again block a lane and yet another traffic jam will ensue on Palmerston Road. The clean shaven gentleman will don a pleated tailor-made suit. It’s a Friday so he’ll select the large brown leather satchel to match his brogues this morning, grab a slice of buttered toast and daren’t forget to kiss his missus goodbye on the way out. And then the women—those multitasking gods, applying dabs of foundation, peering into small encircled clasps for mirrors—will hurriedly weave in and out on the curb, effortlessly, pacing in flats to catch the 8:08 to Charing Cross.
The world will be awake soon, I thought; the world awake, and I asleep. Sleeping a deep sleep, and neither chirping bird, nor hooting horn, nothing, would have the power to wake me up, ever again.
It needed to be done now.
“Ok let’s do this,” I said, attempting to psyche myself up, assuming a boxer like stance—swaying my neck from side to side and breathing in deeply. I picked up the glass and took a sip. The water was lukewarm now. It had been left out for a while and tasted bitter. Everything tasted bitter nowadays. I reached to pick up three of the pills, opened my mouth, and closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear to look; drawing my hands nervously towards my mouth.
“You really don’t have to this.” I felt a faint whisper across my right earlobe.
The tingling sensation shook me and water spilled on to my hand. A part of me hoped in that moment, a longing hope that someone was there. But I was still very much alone; clearly deluded or so I thought, strung off Jack and now hearing voices.
“Ok, here goes. Come on Rems,” I said. You can do this!”
Eyes closed again, I took another sip and threw in the pills this time without a thought. I tried. I tried so hard to swallow, but my glands would not bring themselves to. I choked and spat the contents back onto the ledge.
Why couldn’t I do this? After all, it was just a drop of water, a few tablets, and it would all be over—all the pain, all the guilt, all the shame.
“Remi, please stop”.
The voice, louder on occasion, shook me. I had definitely heard somebody.
I picked up the kitchen knife lying on the ledge and decided to check the other rooms in the apartment; only to return to the same spot in front of the window moments later, empty handed. Nobody.
The voice did sound familiar. It reminded me so much of my father, Paps we would call him. The nick name Dolly had given him one afternoon having spent the morning binging on episodes of Barney. Somehow it stuck.
“He’s gone to a better place” they had all said, feeble attempts to pacify us. “You’ll see him again one day.”
“Someday indeed…” I’d scoff at their words. “One day… up in the sky…. Yeah? Whatever!” They were just that, words; bland, empty words, that meant absolutely nothing. They’d do better to smile and keep shut. Not that I’d dare say such to them; aunts, uncles and the pastors, old enough to father me, some even grandfather. So I’d nod, insouciantly, and smile to appease; a fraud within. And so I vowed internally, I would never forgive God after that. Why would he take my Paps away?
I once cut my chin imitating his moves with his shaving cream and razor. He laughed at the sight. The whitish cream soaking my chin as the stale clumps of breast milk caught under Amaka’s chin after a feed, but he would come over eventually and dab at the wound with cotton wool and witch hazel. I treasured moments like this, the rare moments when I could be his son, he, my father. I wanted to be just like him; a view that somewhat began to deteriorate as I grew older.
“If only he was here right now” I said, clenching my eyes tightly once more, hoping this was all a dream. Any moment now, I’d wake up. I’d be five again. Paps would prop me onto his right lap like he used to, He would pat me on the back, as he sipped his brandy; me, my coke. We’d meet at the middle with a chink of the glasses, “cheers,” we would chorus. “Big ears!” my father would add, and then make funny faces at me as he pulled on them.
I could feel his hands on my ears right now just remembering it.
I opened my eyes again, back to reality. Nothing had changed, no Paps, no Amaka, nobody.
“Help!” I cried out.
From the onset, one would have assumed I was the ‘man’. After all, I seemed to have it all together. I was married to a pretty spouse. We had recently bought a nice car, renovated the flat and had never defaulted on the mortgage. But something was missing. Something far more tangible than facets I had built up over the years. That ‘man’, as successful and ideal as he was painted out to be, wasn’t me. Inside, I was still very much a boy; a thirty year old boy trapped in a man’s body; a man-boy. I once seemed to have it all, but somewhere along the line had lost it.
“Help,” I wept.
The pain no longer bearable, as the salty droplets ran down my cheeks, over my caked lips, falling to the ledge.
And as though in obedience to the falling water’s command, I too, as mother had done so, all those years ago on the gravel in the car park at Morayo’s school, fell on my knees to the ground, in submission.
“Help me” I said. “Whoever you are? I’m dying.”
Then the phone rang.