The air was cold. It came a long way from the sea. And so, by the time it got to our house, it was cold. Because of this, it sucked at everything in its path as it traversed the long and dusty road that led to our house. If anything tasted bad in its mouth, it spat it out on the nearest object. Splashes of these were all over the walls of the houses that were closer to the sea. When it got to our part of the street; quite a long way from sea, it was so cold that everything tasted bad in its mouth. So it spat almost everything in the faces of the houses as it rushed down. When it hit us, we felt its fury first before its soothing wetness. It struck at the prepared and tightly shut windows and rattled the closed doors. Seeing that it was fiercely resisted, its head bloody but unbowed, it slipped through the cracks on the walls. It slipped through the tiny openings around the closed windows and doors; it came in through the roof. It was relentless. Still cold but a bit weary from the fatigue of resisting resistances, it mellowed down when it finally got into the house. And then we felt its coolness. It was blissful.
The house was old. The house was old and… yes, cold, this particular night. Its doors creaked when you closed and opened them. The noise they made when they creaked reminded one of screeching tyres on a smooth-as-ice road. The windows were like old whitewashed clothes that give you the same appearance if cleaned a million times. The walls, they looked forlorn, deepened with cracks of various sizes and shapes. These cracks were like wrinkles, evidences of old age and signs of having knowledge of secrets. If houses had lives of their own, this one would be a griot.
On this street, this house was an ancestor. It saw the birth of the street itself. From the cutting down of the thick bushes that first inhabited the large mass of land to the first laying of blocks to demarcate the first plot of land- to the completion of the last building that signified the end of the street; this house witnessed it all. Because of its position on the street (first plot of land at the beginning of the street) it was aptly called First House by passer-by and early settlers. In time, the street itself was named same and a bus stop was created by the entrance of the street- First House Bus-stop.
When the rain started, I was with Papa. There, in his special one room apartment, I made to give him the report. ‘So what did you find?’ Papa asked anxiously. He looked whiter. He must be taller too this evening because his head nearly grazed the tall roof above us. Papa had never shown this kind of anxiety before. He was always calm. The way he smiled at kids and adults alike made him a favourite in the compound. He moved about his duties slowly like he wasn’t moving for anybody. He always took his time to explain things to anyone. I once asked him about his childhood.
‘I loved my childhood. Yes. But I don’t want to re-live it. No.’ And with that calm opening lines, he had launched into a most captivating account of his childhood to me that day.
Papa was the security man. He was the first occupant of First House. None of the tenant could tell when he got there. All they knew was that they all met Papa in First House. He was as old as the house itself. Tall and lanky, Papa looked like a carved image of docility. His complexion supported this assertion. Papa was white. No, he wasn’t light in complexion. He was white. His lanky height and uncommon complexion in a community of average-height and mostly dark-skinned people gave credence to the fact that Papa was not a native of the land. He would tell anyone who cared to ask that he was. Rumours had it that he was one of the masons that built the house. That, like most masons do, he travelled to anywhere work beckoned. So he must have travelled here from wherever that was. But that must have been his last masonic job. Because ever since he journeyed here from there; ever since First House was completed, Papa never left. Another rumour was that Papa was dead. They said he was dead somewhere faraway from here. But since his time was not ripe for death to take him, he was returned back to earth to complete his tenure. These things happen, they said. You can be dead and buried in a faraway land. But if it is not the appointed time of death for you, you will be sent back to earth. The extraordinary element in this account here is that you won’t be sent back to your former life. No. Your body will go to another land, far away from your former location. There, unknown and without any family, you start and complete your tenure on earth. And if it happens that you die again before your appointed time, you get sent to another faraway land. The whole idea is that nobody dies before his appointed time. And nobody dies after too. Our Creator is very time conscious. Of course, there are a lot of unanswered questions pertaining to this myth just like with every other myth. And so I asked questions. But they said I was too young to understand. Well, there were a lot of rumours about Papa. Some of these rumours I made up myself in my bid to try and understand him. I believed the other rumours I heard around the neighbourhood were made up too by neighbours who were trying to understand him like I was. I never told anyone my rumours though.
In those six blocks of flats that made up First House, Papa was the favourite of all. He was fondly talked about by all the families. If there was anything that needed fixing, Papa would do it. He was the handy man around the house. The landlord that all the tenants didn’t know communicated with us through him. So he was the caretaker. At the end of the month, when the rents were due, Papa would collect on behalf of the landlord.
‘So, what did you find?’ Papa asked again. This time there was no anxiety in his voice. This time he asked like someone that had given up. The sound of the rain on the roof somehow made his voice rainy. I made for my right pocket. After I have retrieved some finely folded papers that I had printed earlier on from a nearby cybercafé, I took a deep breath and answered Papa.
‘It is true, Papa. It is true.’ My voice was a whisper. It had to be. This was classified information. I was cold. I was livid with fear of the unknown. Let me tell you what was true.
Two days ago I was with Papa in his room. You see, he was my friend. A relationship that benefited me more than it did him. ‘I’m going to Papa’s place.’ is my password to anywhere at any time of the day. My mum would just nod and my dad would turn the next page of his newspaper whenever I announced my movement. It was on a bright Sunday afternoon. We were talking about this and that when Papa just switched the conversation without warning.
‘They say I’m dead.’ He cut through my last sentence like a knife cutting through hot butter. I mumbled a few incoherent words fearfully. He didn’t hear me. I didn’t repeat myself. He did.
‘They say I’m dead. That’s the latest rumour in town. They say I’m dead.’
The Academic Staff Union of the Nigerian Universities (ASUU) had been on strike for the past two months. And so I have heard a lot of things that I wouldn’t have heard normally if I were in school. Done some pretty damn stupid things too all because of the strike. And it loomed. But hearing a sixty-something year old man say folks were saying he was dead was the height of it. Albeit I had heard the rumour too, I was pleasantly jostled when I heard it from him. He was the rumour for crying out loud. People are not supposed to hear their own rumours. Or so I thought. Before I could finish thinking however, Papa continued with a Christ-like question.
‘And you. Who do you say I am?’
I didn’t know where the nerves came from but I answered him immediately. Here was a man I had known for quite some years asking me who I thought he was. No. Here was a man I had known for quite some years asking me if I thought he was alive or dead. I guessed that was where the boldness came from. The audacity of knowledge.
‘You are Papa, of course. What? You think I think you’re dead too? You think I will follow those stark illiterates and peddle stupid rumours about you, Papa?’
‘Can you Google it?’
The standing fan came to life. Its twirling was laborious at first and then it picked up speed, twirling and twirling till it maintained a high speed. And then you couldn’t pick one blade from the other. Electricity had been restored. Papa was sitting on the lone armchair in the room that directly faced the king-sized bed that I was lying in before Papa told me they said he was dead. I sat down on the mattress immediately he said that. Now I was sitting on the edge; kind of perching on it and then he said…
‘Can you Google it?’ again. This time there was a touch of finality in his aged voice. I didn’t even think of going around him. I stood up this time, grateful for the electricity. I would have been sweating if not for the fast-twirling standing fan. I didn’t ask him what he wanted me to Google. I didn’t tell him he needn’t bother. These myths are not true…I didn’t say that. I just got up, got out of the dimly lit room and climbed the stairs some few metres from it, up to our flat. I quietly let myself in and silently cursed ASUU for unlawfully making me a ghost-buster.
I avoided Papa all through the next day. I practically begged my mum to let me follow her to her shop. Yes, the table had turned. She had been the one begging me since the strike started. She said no. I begged. Then with the sweetest smile on her pretty, pretty face, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
‘Promise you will tell me what’s eating you up?’
I nodded and played my last card. ‘I will tell you as soon as we get to the shop.’ I said a silent prayer for her when she said Ok. I needed to offload that creepy stuff from my head in any case. My mum was a good listener. As soon as we got to the shop, I told her without any prompting from her. Of course, she was aware of the rumour. She just didn’t think Papa would entertain any possibility to its plausibility. She had calmed me down. I asked her what she knew about the myth.
‘Google it.’ She said. And there was no slyness in her voice.
And I didn’t say ‘What?’ but laughed with my mum. I made a mental note that I would start following her to the shop. When we got home that night, it was late and I had to do some chores for my father. And so I didn’t see Papa. The next day at the shop, mum had to practically push me out. She knew I was dilly-dallying. And so I went and Googled it. And that was the truth…
‘So I’m dead.’ Today he was lying in the bed while I was sitting down on the lone armchair.
‘No, Papa. I didn’t say that. I said it is true that there are reported cases of this myth. I didn’t say it applies to you.’ Doctors talk like this when they want to tell a patient that he has cancerous cells but that his case is different because the cells are detected in their early stages of growth. Early detection is the key. I felt foolish.
‘But it does, my son. Can’t you see? Well I can. For starters, I don’t have memories of my childhood. Yes, I lied to you when I told you about it. Listen, I see flashes of my life pass through my mind, my head, sometimes. These flashes include scenes at a funeral that I attended once. At the funeral, everybody was crying but me. This is normal at gatherings like this. But I wasn’t crying. It was as if I have lost that part of my sense. It was as if I have lost all of my senses, you know, like a machine that has been reset to factory settings. Sometimes I call out names that sound nostalgic. Names that nobody around here bears. I have memories of conversations, scenes, scents, that are so real I can almost feel them in my soul. Yet they are all so far away. Sometimes when you speak, your voice sound familiar from a faraway place. It sounds like an echo, reverberating from a past that I once shared from. What and where is this past? Why am I a mason? Why am I light-skinned and tall in a land of mostly dark-skinned and short people?’
The rain had stopped. The air around us was flirtatious. It played with the curtains and they responded, blowing back and forth to its rhythm. And you could almost smell its muskiness. It was almost surreal. Still, in that dimly lit room, Papa told me a lot of things that were more surreal. Google told me something about the kind of jobs these people engage in. They are faceless people so they take jobs that require little or no identifications. Masons. Beggars. Labourers. Destitute. Homeless people. They don’t have names. They don’t have faces. They are like those faceless beggars, labourers and perhaps prostitutes that Ben Okri talked about in The Famished Road. I almost told Papa this but I couldn’t. I was tongue-tied. I was in the presence of a dead man… so instead, I asked…
‘What do you want me to do, Papa?’
It was almost midnight. The whole world was eerily silent. Papa’s request cut through the silence of the dead night.
According to the weather reports, this was supposed to be the last rain of the year. I had a feeling this was the last time I would see Papa. Google already told me that these people disappear immediately their dead identities are uncovered. They will ‘travel’ to another faraway land to complete their tenure. I would miss Papa but I didn’t tell him that. I thought if I could keep the secret, if it was just between the two of us and our Creator, of course, he would not disappear. I thought if I didn’t peddle the ‘rumour’, he would stay…
*** *** *** *** *** ***
***Rumours have it that First House is now a shadow of itself. After Papa’s mysterious disappearance, the tenants deserted the house. Nobody has moved in since then. Homeless people, beggars, bricklayers and labourers sometimes take shelter there. They are all faceless people. Rumours have it that some of them are dead. And me, I’m still searching for my friend using Google. I’m sure that was what he wanted me to do that rainy night when he said ‘Google it.’