I had been reading The Sibyl in Her Grave by Sarah Caudwell. You’d agree with me that some novels, out of no fault of the writer, get one bored at some point. The Sibyl was such a story. Though beautifully written in mesmerising English ethos and nuances, the book was more or less written in pieces, a literal correspondence between many characters. Reading a story written in that style could be tiring.
What I do in cases where the structure of a story becomes too slippery or evasive is to get a conventional novel to read between; make some sort of assorted experiences just to wade through that moment of the reader’s block on a difficult novel, that moment which inevitably comes.
I knew I wanted to finish The Sibyl, but wouldn’t want to get tired of it before doing so.
The book my hand found to help with the assorted idea was Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a very sad narration of the life of a young woman in the time of the holocaust in Germany.
Few pages into the book and it already started evoking rather strong emotions in me, feelings so strong I seldom dropped the book altogether and brooded on the deeper meanings the sentences might want to convey. There were one too many of such sentences for the little portion I had read, perhaps more so because the book was a translation (not originally written in English).
If I was succeeding in making the assorted idea work I couldn’t tell at the time. Soon, I dropped the two books and decided to have a stroll in the neighbourhood. The midday heat had subsided, gradually welcoming the evening breeze in its wake.
It was a new neighbourhood, having just packed in a new apartment less than a week ago.
I had had a similar stroll the previous day and ended up exhausted from trekking a long stretch on beach sand. This time, however, I decided to stop at a very quiet junction with a lot of virgin vegetation. Some of the trees were so high up in the sky they formed more than one crown. The one in front of me, in an abandoned but fenced plot, had three crowns, each branching out like a beautiful terrace. It was astonishing to behold; although the vegetation was mostly of tall wild palm trees and weeds entangled so thickly they formed impenetrable bushes.
I found an afrobeats playlist on Boomsplay and put the headphones in place to accompany the mood I was in. After listening to a couple of tracks, it occurred to me to call Vivan in Britain. The mood had swelled and now I wanted to hear her beautiful voice. Vivian had caught Covid-19, but wasn’t suffering gravely from it.
I called her every evening since she told me of her health status. We always had long talks. Primarily, I wanted to know if she had not lost appetite for food and if she was physically in good condition. But she always branched off talking about other things; family, friends, studies and her new life with the English folks.
She was in the middle of telling me how to make assorted cereal for breakfast using…cornflakes, grapes, banana,fruit loops, coco pops milk etc when he came along.
“Make your cereal more interesting, Dare” she jested in her angelic voice.
I said I would try out her recipe. To make sure I did, she sent GIFs of what she was eating via WhatsApp. It looked lovely. The meal was so colourful it was like an artwork.
But then there was a passerby who had suddenly stopped in front of me, gesturing to have a word. He wasn’t looking quite good.
I told Vivian over the phone that I needed to briefly speak with someone.
“Who?” she asked.
“I don’t know him,” I said. “He seems to be needing something.”
I put the call away and asked what the man wanted, thinking perhaps he lost his way in the neighbourhood.
He wore a very faded sky blue long sleeve shirt and a trouser that seemed to be a little oversized. I had prepared my mind to say “Sorry! I’m new here, too. Don’t know anywhere yet.”
But, “excuse me!” He said, raising a finger towards himself, as though trying to say he doesn’t mean what he was about to say.
“I’m sorry to disturb you. I need your help.”
His finger still to his chest. “Any amount you have.”
I have lived in Lagos for years and I am not new to being begged for alms. It comes in various ways and manners, sometimes from some of the most unexpected quarters. But this met me rather unprepared, off guard. The environment was so serene one forgot there were still woes in the world on the outside; situations tearing humans apart and denying them their humanity.
I stammered, said I didn’t have any money on me. Because I didn’t.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Presently, I have no money on me.”
And then he sighed “Ahhh!” suddenly disengaged and resumed his walk on the sandy street.
He was not used to begging. He was not a beggar. He had seen me and took the chance to try it for the first time.
I felt genuinely sorry that I couldn’t immediately hand him what he asked. At the same time I felt a sense of relief that he left at once, before I could feel the weight of his need on me.
I had a five hundred naira note in the house that I was fully aware of. I could go and fetch the money. I rarely held cash since I could pay for almost anything virtually with the aid of my phone.
For a few seconds I was torn between giving the five hundred to the man or letting him leave. Instinctively, I left the spot and rushed home. But the man was going further away.
Why didn’t I tell him to wait?
I got home, picked the money and headed back to the spot. I began to falsely hope I would see him still trekking the street, or tired and sitting down under one of the trees, or just there, doing what extreme hunger condemns one to sometimes: doing nothing and having nowhere else to go.
He was nowhere in sight when I got back to the spot. I waited a bit. Just before it started getting dark, I left and headed home.
But all along, the image of him kept recurring in my mind; his lips were as though he hadn’t lifted anything to them in days. It wasn’t only the lips that were thin and flaky; the fingers, eyelids, wrists — with the harmattan haze on them — all looked like dry leaves. As though they would drop and break to smithereens under the fragility of his breath.
I opened the door to my apartment, came in and sat demurely on the couch, not particularly placing what I was feeling. Was I being heartless? Was that a fault of mine? Why didn’t I call him to wait?
The Hunger Angel was in close proximity so I picked it and continued to read. A few paragraph into reading and I was stabbed unexpectedly with the understated sentence:
“How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry.”
The poignantness of the sentence to the unfolding event around me was a pang in my heart. I dropped the book as though I had suddenly lost the ability to hold it.
Truly, the man never told me his name or his address or his occupation or his hobby…his love, lust, dreams or aspirations. The whole of his existence had been compressed to one sentence:
I looked down to my hand, to the five hundred naira which I still held, and felt a rush of guilt. I tossed the note away as though it was now cursed, and muttered: “I should have given this away!”
Fully admitting my err and wearing my guilt now, I laid there and dozed off on the couch.
It couldn’t have been upto an hour lying there when my phone started to ring. Vivian wanted to know why I didn’t call back. And if I made a bowl of cereal for myself the way she had told me to. While we spoke, I headed for the kitchen and fetched all the flakes of cereals I had in the cupboard, including Golden morn. I felt Golden morn would give the mix a unique taste.
I had mixed them all in the bowl with little water before realizing I was out of powdered milk. What to do? I told Vivian we would talk the next day, ended the call and dashed out with the five hundred naira note to get liquid tin milk at the makeshift store belonging to a malam out on the street. I already took a knife to give the tin its eyes before realizing how old the tin looked. I checked beneath it for the expiring date: PD: 23/03/2020
BN: 23E20TITA 12:36, it read.
I hesitated for a short while. “Could this be expired already? Should I drop it in the bin?”
“But this is January,” I said. “Not yet expired!”
I made the punctures and bled the tin all into the bowl of cereals.
What I made at the end of the day was distantly different from what Vivian had shown me earlier in my phone. No colour. No nothing. And the Golden mourn had made unusual clumps as part of the mix. The milk, too, was not freshly coloured.
I swallowed everything nonetheless while watching a crime series on TV. A few minutes later, I went back to sleep.
My sleep, I perceived, was normal until around Midnight. An unease woke me up. I felt a hand clutching my throat and twisting it. And there seemed to have been a rock lodged between my upper rib cage.
Sometimes your body suggests to you how to get rid of pain. I stretched until it felt as though I was trying to tear myself apart. The rock in my chest remained and the hand on my lungs held even tighter. I knew then I should get out of bed. I came down to the sitting-room and started taking water to dissolve the rock. But the rock remained undissolvable, resolute in its hardness. It wasn’t coming up or going down — coming up because I also tried to vomit. One sachet, two…three. I must have taken half a bag of sachet water and yet nothing moved except the water.
“It’s the cursed money.” I said. My eyes were now full of watered. “The cursed money wants to take me.”
Soon it was time to ease myself and peeing became so painful and little and as colourless as water.
I laid down on the couch in every possible direction and coughed and beat my chest and couched more. Nothing moved an inch. The rock sat heavy as a house in my ribcage, and my lungs were still being held in a twist.
“This is how people die in their sleep,” I said, “with a curse heavy in their chest.”