November 2013 (the present moment)
Since the beginning of man has freedom been appreciated, an abstract object that might be paid to get or paid not to get depending on what situation one finds herself. A lady in police custody would gladly pay to get her freedom if she could afford it. Another person surviving to breathe would pay to be admitted on a sickbed, his freedom taken away and tied with a drip hung for him to look up to. But whatever the case of each individual, freedom was a thing of value and each was purchasing freedom from one thing to lose it to another. Martha could argue which of the two sides of freedom was good and which wasn’t. She knew there’s always a clause. Once a person bought freedom from the police custody, he got back to her life – of drinking, partying, misery, responsibilities. The man on the sickbed had been limited to a sickbed but he is negotiating his freedom from sickness or in the worst case, death.
There was a sudden sadness that enveloped Martha when she opened her eyes and found she was sitting in a hospital, her freedom limited to the white walls of the room and the smell of drugs, iodine and Detol. She wished to be free, to be outside of the walls, to be back to her life in Rendezvous, that was preferable to being tied to a bed with this smell or this sheet or this wall. The length of her worries increased when she received her first visitor, the same police officer who came an hour ago. The woman smiled a stupid smile and Martha wished she could knock it off her face.
‘Miss Martha, I’m Ngozi Wilson. Thank God you are back,’ she said, ‘how is your body now.’
Martha nodded. Her head was heavier and her arms felt bigger, her legs were covered in a piece of clothing and she knew she would need a few steps as a practice to get back to walking properly.
‘Please, be comfortable and don’t mind to tell me what you will like to eat or anything. I will be coming back,’ she said.
Martha tried talking. Her voice was a bit croaky. She cleared her throat and it seemed the little change in her voice wanted to stay longer. ‘Where is my mum?’ Mum, it is funny you can call her mum after disappearing her for so many years.
‘She is fine,’ the woman said. ‘The important thing, for now, is that you get better and return to Lagos.’
Whatever bad news the woman wanted to hide, Martha caught a glimpse of it from the way her pupils dilate and her facial expression changed too. She wasn’t thinking of going to Lagos this soon but once the bad news was delivered about Ayo, she would be there anytime to find out it wasn’t true, to know what kind of epic dream all this was.
‘Ayo, please, what happened to him?’ she asked as if she wanted different news, a kind of assurance: ‘we have good news; he is responding to treatment, he isn’t dead as we have said earlier.’
‘We will talk about that when you are fine,’ officer Ngozi said and walked out without looking back.
Their next discussion happened in Lagos at the police station, where Martha sat down answering everything she knew about the case. From the briefing, they had found a text on Ayo’s phone which says: At least talk to mum. This is her number 08133344455. Then they found a note on his table, which was addressed as ‘Bye-bye, Ayo. I have decided and maybe we will talk when we get to meet there. And please pick your calls.
Officer Ngozi was a bit different on this day. She didn’t wear that stupid smile again; her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, her white shirt still properly tucked into her trousers. Her eyes were moving fast from one corner of Martha’s body to another, her shoulder, her eyes, her fingers, randomly and quickly that Martha felt she was naked.
She spread some pictures on the desk. They were pictures of Ayo, the dead Ayo, the bearded Ayo, her step-brother. Here, he was soaked in his own blood and here it seemed he had widened his eyes so badly like one who had seen the scary face of death, and here there was a gash at his back, his jacket a lot of fresh blood and torn clothes and inner skin. Martha held the picture and as much as she tried to imagine what happened, she shook so badly like someone who had caught a cold, her lips vibrated, and soon, the flesh of her face shook so much like it would fall off. The flood gates opened and she could not hold it, although she thought she could hold it. It came loudly at first and reduced and she wept silently, her shoulders vibrating slowly, hardly could a person next door hear her now except her face was in view, the face was like a flowing river. Her step-brother was displayed before her like a chunk of meat. Lifeless like a log. Had been in great pains for doing nothing wrong. ‘what did he do wrong?’ she said not looking from the picture. Her fingers were shaking as if they would let the pictures go but she held on to them and allowed it to be the inspiration for her tears. If she could turn the hands of time, she would be there when it happened and maybe they would be dancing in a club instead or he would be backing her like a baby, throwing her weight upon his back to carry her better. She sniffed and the tears kept pouring.
Suppressing her tears, she tried to keep a calm face but soon her lips vibrated. And the tears, again. She allowed it. It was becoming stronger than she could control.
‘I’m sorry, you have to go through this.’ Officer Ngozi said. ‘We would like to bring this criminal to justice with your support. If you will cooperate with us. You need to tell us all you know.’
Martha remembered all and told it plainly, cutting out the considered unnecessary. ‘I saw him about a month ago. I have left home for three years and he was excited to see me. We went celebrating the reunion and since then we have been meeting and talking.’
‘Where? Like what do you talk about more often.’
What do they talk about? It was a question she could answer in three words ‘nothing’ and ‘home’ and ‘future.’ They talked about what two people could talk about when they have been separated for many years. They talked about life, the stupid things they did in childhood, the silly actions and childish act. They talked about dating briefly and she had waved it away but surely that was what she wanted from him if possible. They never seized talking about it, how great it would be, how mannered and beautiful their kids would be. He did the talking and Martha listened, letting her own wish flexed excitedly in her head. It wasn’t appropriate, she has thought, that she married her stepbrother. The night she discovered there was another girl in his life, it seemed it would be the end of the world but he had calmed her in his arms, patting her back and her hair. This girl would have to give way for us, he had said, she’s nobody when we both exist; we are more than what she would stop, we are made from heaven, fate wanted us together and brought us closer since childhood.
Ngozi was looking at her closely, and fresh tears fell from Martha’s face. All that promise, all the sweet words and life and moments had been wiped away, stabbed to death by one bastard. She wished she could say ‘we talked about love and our future together.’ She would say the exact words and sentences and gestures as he had given them so that Ngozi would know how painful it was to lose him, to see him soaked in blood, to notice what pains he had being through before death seized him. But she wouldn’t invite more trouble. She wouldn’t run her mouth like a tap giving Ngozi ideas that she was his lover, ideas that she could be stupid to date his own brother. Officer Ngozi tapped her finger in front of her nose. She exhaled ‘he talked about going back home. He wanted me to go back to our parent,’ she said and folded her hands over her black vest, a black scarf decorating her head.
‘Did you have a quarrel or a fight about this topic?’
She stared for a minute before she proceeded.
‘I heard you ran away from home. Why? Telling us could help, you know.’
That was it. She would have to leave. She shifted on the chair and folded her hands on her chest like a mother looking at a spoilt kid in public but could do nothing. She would not come out with her reasons just like that. It could land her in more trouble. It would get to that stage where she would ask more stupid questions. How did you come to Lagos? What have you been doing all this while?
‘I ran away because I wanted to live alone,’ she said, looking at the corner of the office. There was a shelf of centuries of files, dusty and smelling of paper.
She ignored the question, thoughts of her foster father running through her mind. He was in the hospital during the last hour when she was in Abeokuta. Mrs Ajasin should be with him, like a good wife that she is.
‘Well,’ officer Ngozi cut her thoughts, clasping her fingers, ‘Your mum told us. Your foster mother, I mean.’
Martha’s eyes widened. She wouldn’t have thought Mrs Ajasin would say such things to a stranger. That woman had always been a good dog for her family’s sake. She would challenge her husband sometimes about how it was wrong to punish a child with horsewhip that could scare a donkey but a slap would decorate her face pink. It was for the family, she would tell her friends or neighbour when they come to say ‘sorry ooo’.
‘What did she tell you?’
‘Your father’s atrocities. She said she wasn’t sure until now. They have been bedroom issues for some time now…’ she stopped, perhaps spotting the curious look on Martha’s face. ‘Back to our discussion. Do you know any suspect? Anyone who he fought with? Anyone he argued with or awkward encounter?’
Martha shook her head. If there was an awkward encounter, it was meeting her again after many years. They had spent a good amount of the past weeks together, catching up on the past, and building what Martha thought was the future.
Ngozi closed the ledger in her front. She had written nothing in there for long and she waited some minutes as if she wanted to say something and do not know how to put it. She stood up from the table and walked to Martha’s side. Placing a hand on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. ‘Your father,’ she said and waited, ‘has been paralyzed with the shock. The doctor said only a miracle could raise him.’
How could one take this news? Martha mouth curved to a little opening and her face wore a frown. Even the news of Ayo lying in the morgue sometimes came to her mind as if he was lying there to receive treatment, that somehow he would wake up from the coma. She closed her mouth and wiped her face. She should not be sad and she wasn’t. But this was not the way she would want the man to hear it. It was all wrong for him to die that way when the last thing he heard was that his son was dead and one of the questioned people was the daughter she picked from a refuse bin. She wished to go back to him and say she didn’t mean all she said. He shouldn’t die for Mrs Ajasin and Florence’s sake. It would be hard on the innocent woman if her husband died when her son died. It was your entire fault, she thought, is it that you are cursed or something. How could it be that when she came back to their life that bad things were happening in the family?
Oh, he’s not dead yet. He’s in a coma. But Martha waved the thought away like a fly over a bottle of beer. People rise from coma as often as dogs rise from the dead.
‘The doctors are doing their best,’ Ngozi said, ‘let’s hope for the best… And by the way, what’s your relationship with the DPO of Ikeja branch.’
Uchenna! Martha almost smiles and says he’s my ex-boyfriend.
She didn’t believe that Martha could tell. Ngozi snorted and scribbled on the paper and said, not looking into the case. ‘He is looking into the case because of you… You can go now. We will call you again when we need your attention.’
So that night Martha lay on her bed, thinking what Uchenna could have told Ngozi and what exactly he is doing about the case. She wasn’t a major suspect as she had thought but she should pray about it. She knelt and prayed for her freedom again, and to her own surprise, she asked ‘her God’ to save Mr Ajasin and that it was better if he didn’t die. She thought of going to her family in Abeokuta in these trying times but she wasn’t sure if she would be welcomed or they would hurl stones on her face like a witch. She prayed anyway for God to reveal her innocence like the opening of curtains in a stage play. She had a habit now of looking at the face of Ayo before she sleeps. She had a hardcopy picture they took two weeks ago on the day it rained badly and their shoes were wet and when the rain subsided, they shared an umbrella he newly bought at twice the price. He had told her I could walk in the rain but for you. She fetched his picture from under the pillow and stared at it before placing it on her chest, her back on the mattress. She slept for three nights before two important pieces of news arrived from the police station like a loud bang and a parcel of gifts.
‘Your father is dead. And we have found the killer.’
When Ngozi said those sentences over the phone three days later, Martha heard the call as if she had been hypnotised, as if life has been taking out of her body and it was now staring at her, a lifeless, soulless body. It was fast. Too fast. Did Uchenna help? Her father — foster father — was dead.