If Johnson had known, he would have taken the advice of his white flat mate in Montgomery, to stay in America and never return to Nigeria, even with the assurance from the minister of information that Boko Haram insurgency had been defeated. It was not the minister’s assurance, though, which formed his decision; it was the only thing he could use to convince his flat mate – Murphy – that he was finally going back. He had made it in America, more than he had ever dreamt of: he had gotten an American passport; been an assistant sales manager at Health Wise Foods for many years. His flat in Hampstead – the one he shared with Murphy – fascinated him with all the beautiful couches, the tiled floor and neat glass panes. But he had decided to move back despite his achievements. Already, he had acquired a house in Lagos Island from his little savings ten years since he had been here. Now with his Master’s degree – the one he bagged from Alabama State University – he could seek a lecturing job at the University of Lagos.
The first time he told Murphy about his plans of relocating to Nigeria about a year ago, he had noticed a sudden change in Murphy’s countenance: his smile went dry on his face and his chubby cheeks became so pinkish that Johnson worried they would never become normal again. They were in their flat, lying on the floor, eating pizza and watching Baseball – the only sport Johnson had come to love in America, deliberately because of his love for Jackie Robinson.
‘What a fuck!’ Murphy had said, ‘With all that goin’ on in Nigeria. Boko Haram would chop off your head before you fucking know it. You go when all is calm.’
Johnson felt sorry for him. Murphy had said what he had said because he was scared of the loneliness his exit would cause him. Johnson could not tell him how each year he had been here; a deep longing for home had dug up a little happiness from him and then refilled this space with creased loneliness. He could not tell his flat mate how he had missed Grace, his University girlfriend; that the more he tried to live a normal life in America where all memories were swept off with affluence and abundance, the more he drifted from happiness unto a space of depression, wide and boundless. But that afternoon, in their flat in Montgomery, because Murphy had hidden his fear in the fact that Boko Haram insurgency was still very strong; because Johnson was scared to hurt him; because Murphy had advised him to return when everywhere was calm, he decided to delay talking about his relocation until that afternoon Lai Mohammed appeared on CNN to announce that Boko Haram had been technically defeated in Nigeria. They watched it together in their flat that Saturday. Murphy became silent. He knew his friend would leave for Nigeria, and that finally this fear of loneliness which made his face so pinkish must have to be contended with. They had been together for nearly five years now, working together at Health Wise Foods as sales assistants, watching Baseball together, eating pizza on their cool tiled floor on Saturdays, yet there had been no serious quarrel whatsoever to severe their glass of friendship. They had had quarrels of course – like their argument over Murphy’s dirty clothes on the sink – but these were flimsy, as they had described them, not solid enough to create tension between them.
The afternoon Johnson left Montgomery for Birmingham to board a flight to Lagos, Murphy stood in the doorway, his shoulder – slumped like a defeated man– rested on the doorpost. The taxi was waiting just beside the concrete path – walled by flower hedges – which led to their door. The taxi was parked on the clean, tarred street and in the brightness of the afternoon, its yellowness was smooth, pure; there was no stain. Johnson looked back to see Murphy – his chubby friend – to see his cheeks pinkish again, and at once he became heavy with guilt and uncertainty. He turned away sharply from him and hurried into the taxi held open for him by the black American driver, before he would change his mind. He would call him. He would call him only when he landed in Lagos.
Grace was the first person he knew that he saw when he came to Lagos. She did not come to Murtala Mohammed Airport to welcome him back home, because he insisted she should stay in his duplex and wait for him. It was what he wanted, what he had decided. He did not want to see her ruffled outside or see her rimmed with a film of sweat. He wanted a calm meeting, with cool aura which he was sure his duplex at Badore could offer.
The dirty yellow Audi he took from the airport had mimed along the still Third Mainland Bridge traffic which linked the Island and the Mainland. The windscreens were opened, yet Johnson felt the surge of heat overwhelm him, making his vintage shirt too tight for his stout frame. The driver was a middle-aged man, with deep Yoruba tribal marks lacerating the sides of his face, straight like the claws of an eagle. And somehow, Johnson felt pity for him: his smallness – the way he stretched himself to get a clearer view of the road; the way he spoke, heavily accented with Yoruba, speaking as if there was too much air stuffed inside his mouth. They passed through the busy Ajah market; market women, almost pushing their wares into the tarred road, caused a heavy traffic which flared car-horns. The driver manoeuvred his vehicle dexterously, and soon the road was clear again. Johnson looked across the windscreen. He had sat in front beside the driver despite his protest.
Not long, they were in front of the large gates at Cooperative Villa. The car horns blared in front of the large black gates, separated by a concrete column: scratched midday to reveal the rod it was reinforced with. Johnson came down with his square black box. The driver alighted almost immediately, opened his boot and brought out his luggage – the one which looked round and cylindrical like a drum. Johnson took it up and slung it across his shoulder while he held his box with his other hand.
‘Sah, your money na five thousand,’ the driver said, almost genuflecting. There was a miserable smile on his face which made Johnson pity him more. The right gate creaked open and a burly man with a navy blue khaki walked out slowly towards them dodging the sturdy well-trimmed yellow-bush hedge. Johnson brought out a hundred dollar bill and gave the driver. The driver looked agape for a split second before he prostrated to thank him. It struck Johnson how easily this man – definitely in his fifties – could fall down and prostrate before him. He did not ask him to stand up; he was too choked up with pity for him. And now, as he pushed his wallet down his trouser pocket, he wished the hundred dollar bill when exchanged would be the same value as five thousand naira the driver demanded as his bill. He did not know the exchange rate because he had been away for a long time and he knew the driver did not know either, but like most poor Nigerians, the driver would genuflect like this even if he had given him a dollar bill. These people adored dollar bills no matter the denomination. When the driver stood up and left, his heart relaxed.
‘Oga Yankee! Na my own remain o,’ the burly security man said, with a demeaning smile Johnson hated. He hated his lack of shame and his bushy moustache. He examined him very well now; they were of the same stature and height, and he thought in his mind that even in a dire economic recession like this, he could not imagine himself begging another man. He would rather prefer to die of stomach ulcer or be a night-soil man. He gave the security man a hundred dollar anyway, squeezing it a little harder as a way of registering his displeasure. But Johnson soon realized that his message might not have been received wholly; not with that brimming mood the security man sooner possessed or the force with which he lifted from the ground as if he were a child. Johnson became disappointed.
‘I just returned from America,’ Johnson announced as if the security man did not know. But his trick to calm the security man worked, as he stopped to look Johnson with a calm venerating countenance, as though he were just noticing himself Johnson was from America. Johnson hated all of this; it pricked him, it made his breath inconsistent. He wanted to say something harsh to shoo him off, rather he said, ‘I have a building in this estate.’
The man’s expression became calmer and subdued, like a child who has just realized that all along, while he played wildly in the street, his father was there watching him. Johnson realized that in the man’s dim gaze clogged with fear, he could do whatever he asked him to do just to cleanse himself of the sin of knowing he owned a house – a duplex for that matter – in the estate.
‘You are Mister Johnson, sir,’ the man said with certitude. It shocked Johnson for a while before he shook his head slowly, unsure if he should shake it or not. ‘Sorry sir for keeping you waiting. Your wife dropped a message at the gate this morning that you will be coming.’
Johnson shook his head briskly. He loved the fact that the security man referred to Grace as his wife. He had always loved it. He wondered if Grace had introduced him as her husband. Of course, she should have, he thought. There was this comforting lightness he felt; like hot air gushing out of a balloon, and he felt himself hovering in the air above him.
‘Please sir, come in,’ he directed. Johnson followed him into the Villa. There were some tricycles at the entrance by the left. The security man beckoned on one with authority and he rode towards them. ‘Carry this Oga go the first house for Frangipani Lane.’
The rider turned his tricycle on the tarred lane. Johnson sat on it, at the back. As the rider started off slowly, the security man began to wave. Johnson did not wave back; there were too many things in his mind. Even now as they entered a bend, turning back, he could still see the security man waving; the vigour with which he started had not waned.
The double lanes were clean and dark, not dusty as he would have expected because of the crazy harmattan. He loved the harmattan though; he had missed it for a decade. He had remembered one white Christmas he spent in Denver, with the snowflakes covering the streets, he had thought of harmattan – the way, when he was quite younger, he would coil on his mat at dawn because of the freezing cold; the way the wind blew the trees in an afternoon clad with mildness – and realized how hollow he felt, like someone whose bones had been made soft like clothes. He had felt this strong conviction that his childhood was stolen and in turn replaced by a boisterous adulthood.
The rider took a turn again. The streets which branched off the main roads were clean and straight, walled by flowers in which they were named: Bougainvillea, Cactus, Daffodil; and in the dull light of the evening, Johnson admired how the disco lights twined around flowers which were shaped like Christmas trees flickered their different lights. The duplexes he had been seeing had been charming like those in Hampstead, built almost alike with fences so low that he could see the tiled compounds and some swimming pools. Grace had made a right choice for him; Cooperative Villa was a nice neighbourhood. She had told him after he sent the money to her account that she had bought the duplex from a Chevron Engineer who had recently relocated to Banana Island.
The rider of the tricycle who had been silent all through the journey stopped when he got to a lane lined with Frangipani trees. They were well-shaped, appearing like great apple fruits inverted on the soil. The smell of their purple, yellow and white flowers attracted Johnson. He looked at them for a moment not knowing whether or not to yank off a petal to inhale the darling smell. He finally plucked a petal and inhaled it greedily. In the corner of his eye, he caught the pitying gaze of the rider who perhaps had thought him mad.
‘This na Frangipani Lane,’ the rider pointed after a while, ‘and this na the first house.’ Johnson raised his gaze to the duplex the rider had pointed out and discovered in the half-light of twilight that it was the building Grace had sent him a picture of on Facebook: the two-storey building was painted light brown halfway up and then laced with dark brown marble halfway down. The duplex was decked at the top, rimmed with silver metallic strip. Certainly, it was his duplex. He loved the way the compound was tiled and the flowerbed against the wall of the building which was lined with hibiscus. A smile lit his face, a rapturous smile which began from his lips and spread across his face like drop of petrol. He searched his pocket for his wallet. When he had found it, he brought out a hundred dollar and handed it over to the rider. He did not say thank you like the others. He put down Johnson’s bag and box and veered off to where they had come. It surprised and exasperated him at the same time.
He picked up his bag and box and walked into the lane. Dusk was hurrying near, but the street lights gave their effusive lights and insects chimed against their glass faces. His mind went straight to Grace. He could not imagine he was this close to her, breathing in the same breath as her once again. When she called her while at Birmingham, she had told him she would collapse if she saw him. Of course, he knew she was not serious, but something inside him still wondered if she meant it.
He had met her on a cold December evening like this while they were in their final year at the University of Benin. She was in Mathematics while he was in Engineering. For that year’s Christmas break, he had decided to stay back on campus and read in order to better his grades. Grace might have had the same desire too; if not, she would not have coiled up on the back seat of the theatre at Medical Complex, reading, disregarding the danger of being alone with a guy in the cold night. At first, he had fallen for her courage and then later her utter focus. She wore a thick white cardigan and her hood covered her head completely except her face which she pinned down on her book. For a long time, they were there alone reading, not moving to see each other’s faces. When he had read enough, or when he could no longer stand the embarrassing silence which existed between them, he closed his book noisily and put it into his black bag which had the portrait of Jesus. It was only then that Grace turned her face to him. Johnson loved the smoothness of her face and the way her pointed nose mounted her lean face. In the bright fluorescent light of the theatre, Johnson discovered that there was boldness on her face, and that his presence there had perhaps meant nothing to her after all. He became angry with her as he stood up. Yet, when she inquired if he was leaving her alone, Johnson shook his head briskly, feeling exalted that he had gotten her attention at last.
‘Please wait for me let me pack my books, I can’t be here alone,’ she said with an ordinariness which infuriated him momentarily. But his heart melted. He marvelled at the ease with which things had played out in the last few minutes. He stood up and moved to one of the back doors to watch her pack. She had stood up already and he noticed her voluptuous body. He noticed this stiffness overwhelm him; this grave desire to romance her, to kiss her until his lips were motionless, then at once he felt a soggy wetness in his trouser which embarrassed him.
On their way to their halls, while they walked the lonely but well-lit road of the campus, Johnson marvelled at how free with her he was, how easily he told her things he considered secret; things he couldn’t voice to himself when alone. He told her he lived in the village, with an aged grandmother he did not believe could survive that year. His parents died in a motor crash while he was ten and he had left Lagos after their funeral to live with his paternal Grandmother in the village. Grace had felt a pity for him that he both liked and disgusted with equal strength. He didn’t know why he decided to tell her these secrets, but he noticed a sudden lightness in his chest, like the lightness of fur or a piece of thread. It was perhaps what made him like her – that pity which poured out of her eyes to becloud his face. She did tell him about her background, but slowly as if she did not want to. Johnson had felt enraged at first for being foolish to have told her his secret. He felt naked and cold as if he were standing outside in a harmattan night. But later he would think that Grace perhaps was unable to tell him her background because they contrasted his own dark background, and that she might have relaxed in talking about herself in order not to hurt him; about her parents staying in Maitama, Abuja; about her constant holidays abroad. She might have felt all these would hurt him if she said them in haste.
In his first few years in America, when their relationship seemed waned and jittery, when they stayed for months without talking because he could not bring himself to tell her his constant disappointment of an America he had assured her would be good or putting up a pretense that all was well with him in America when in fact he stayed sometimes hungry, he had ignored her calls and her emails most times. On rare occasions when they finally spoke, there was this stillness which hung between them they couldn’t stair way. But Grace continued to call despite the frustrations. She did not usually sound frustrated over the phone; and this worried Johnson that perhaps she had moved on, she had filled the valley his absence and coldness created with another warmth. He did not ask her though, because he feared she might confirm his suspicion. Imagining another man atop her was something which cast on him a spell of dizziness, a thorough weakness like someone whose bones had been crushed to a pulp. Thus, he had tried to fight off this thought, to thrust it behind him. Yet on this harmattan night, cold like the breath of refrigerator, this thought crept into his heart again and he was numbed. He was so close to seeing Grace after a decade, yet he was unsure if he wanted to now.
The air was dry. His nose was dry. The breeze brushed his ears like the soft breathing of a dog which has run many miles. When he saw a lady leaning against the short pillar, he froze momentarily: a short pause; he had no power over himself. His heartbeat accelerated and he felt itchy sweat packets under his armpit. He knew it was Grace the first time he saw the figure: it was the same height of her he had stored jealously in the recess of his memories over the years. He did not know why his heart still beat fast on seeing her. Perhaps, he had presumed his balmy thoughts about her since he alighted the tricycle had become vocal, and on seeing her now would pour out to her like May rain.
For a moment, she didn’t move, she just stared at him like something carved. The short gate – flung open – was a little above her waist, and from the white light which reflected from the compound, Johnson observed that the floor of the entrance to the wide but short gate was sloped down to allow easy run off of water from the compound during the rain. He stopped moving towards the gate and then dropped his bags without bending to place them properly on the ground; some mad spirit had inhabited his brain, he knew. Suddenly, like a wild ghost, Grace ran towards him, and coiled around him like those creepers that coiled around electric pole in Johnson’s village. Her excitement was wild like harmattan fire and it was difficult for it to go off. When Johnson noticed he couldn’t bear her weight anymore, he lowered to the tiled entrance and she followed her down. She kissed him – a wet and familiar kiss he had longed for all these years – and he kissed her back; smooching all over, their frantic movements betrayed how much they had missed themselves. When they saw the lights of a car approaching, they hurried up laughing like College lovers in Hollywood movies, each took a bag and they entered their calm duplex. They did not close the gate. It was not necessary because of the security, Grace had said.
The next day, as soon as the sun rose over Frangipani Lane, butterflies hovering over the sweet-smelling petals of Frangipani trimmed like inverted apple fruits, birds hovering in the sky twittering, they set forth to his village in Edo state. They drove Grace’s Vendza which she had parked beside the house. There they would see Johnson’s relatives and then head to Abuja to see Grace’s family. They would marry as soon as possible, Johnson had suggested last night. Although she was calm, he noticed how a smile Johnson loved curled her face like spirals. That was her agreement. The road to Benin was bad, potholes larger than the car itself spread across it. When he noticed Grace was asleep beside him, her head irregularly placed on the head rest, he wished it was his arms she slept in.
They got to Uokha – Johnson’s village – in the evening when the lazy sun lay against the western sky. The harmattan was severe here because it was closer to the north. The piercing sun rays were defeated by the hazy atmosphere, so that Johnson could look at the sun without blinking his eyes; its ball was pale and harmless like the afternoon moon. The banana trees and cocoyam at the back of Johnson’s bungalow rustled in the severe harmattan wind. Here, Johnson replayed his childhood: in the fierce harmattan, the burning bush crackling as if someone was hitting a perfectly dry log with a blunt cutlass, strands of burnt grasses which broke on impact flailing the hazy air, he riding his motorcycle tyre that he was a little taller than with naked stomach that was as pale as those of the children moving around him now; his grandmother calling him from the room or cooking in their makeshift kitchen.
She was dead now – his grandmother. She died the year he left for America and her grave was in between those blabbing cocoyam and banana trees. The unfamiliarity which embraced his gaze struck him, together with the fact that everything had become smaller in his sight: people, buildings, trees; and he feared that one day these things would become smaller and smaller until they vanished, leaving him lonely in the world.
It was Grace who suggested that they threw a small party to celebrate his return. It was her who organized with the villagers to buy drinks and make goat and fresh fish pepper soup. When the party started about midnight, it was her who gave the opening remark and introduced Johnson to his people as though they did not know him. Johnson was inside his room trying to fight the memories which hurt him when he heard the cries. The DJ was still playing Golden Lucky’s local music, but the ominous cries soon rose above the music. Johnson stormed out bare only for his boxer and singlet, to see people running in disarray. Few men dressed like the Fulani went on slaughtering with their long daggers bent like a sickle. At first, he was stunned, unsure of his senses of sight and hearing. Later when he saw one of the armed men pursue Grace to the backyard, beyond the shadow of the light, he ran after them; his heart was in his legs.
By the time he got to the backyard, he saw the armed man hit Grace hard on her head with the head of his dagger. She fell down with a howl. Fearlessly, Johnson sprang on the man from behind. The man smelt of stale urine and Johnson noticed he was not that strong as he envisaged. He escaped Johnson’s grip, and seizing a comfortable stand, he stuck Johnson on his arm with the sharp weapon. Johnson felt no pain. He made another move towards him and hit a hard blow against the man’s hand and his weapon fell. Johnson, madder with fury, wrestled him to the ground and strangled him to death before he began to nurse the slightest pity for the beast. Johnson fell to the ground. Blood was gushing out profusely from his arm. He became weaker and weaker. Staring at Grace lying beside him on the ground, he smiled – a dull smile – and then slept off.