TJ Benson explores mental illness in a haunting and beautiful story which explores the relationship between a man and his wife and how they both navigate through it.
When he opens his eyes it is 1985, the room is hot in spite of the creaking fan orbiting from the ceiling above his head, the light from the thin curtains so fiery the blue of the walls doesn’t seem just blue and beside him is a sleeping, half-naked woman. He reaches for the cigarette and lighter on the bed stool but his hand swipes air. Where is his cigarette? He has to get home and read for his afternoon exams. Then he will be able to go to the cinema and watch Nigeria kill Tunisia in the FIFA World Cup. He swings his legs from under the sheets to the ground and the ground has a chill that bites his feet. When he stands up, a sharp object gorges deep into his thigh and he screams out, startling the woman and falling back to bed.
‘What happened? What is it? What is it?’ the woman crawls out of the covers to him, smoothens his face with her palm. ‘Joe, what is the problem,’ she asks when he only groans. ‘Where is the pain?’
He points to his thigh repeatedly and bites a fistful of the red bed sheet, groaning some more. The woman relaxes and explains, ‘it’s a wound. You shouldn’t worry, it has been bandaged. Look at it,’ she urges him ‘look, see it.’
He looks. His thigh has been wrapped in thick white fabric, but a huge blot of red is visible. ‘What happened to me?’
The woman climbs out of the bed and ages before his eyes as she carries her naked body past sunlit curtains. Ages into someone he seems to have known for a long time. ‘Armed robber,’ she says, pulling on her bathrobe. ‘You fought him away. The doctor said you might not remember some things,’ she continues, knotting the sash. ‘But I am here with you so you will be fine.’ She turns to him with a smile, a flash of an idea lighting up her face, ‘You want to touch the baby?’
He forgets about the burning hole in his leg and looks at her, waiting for the joke to pass but she cups her belly and walks to him beaming.
‘But that is not from me! I just met you last night! I’m only twenty-two, I can’t be getting someone in her forties pregnant!’ he has jumped out of his bed and is pacing the room. ‘You are Arese, are you not? Is that not what you told me last night?’
‘Yes, I am Arese.’
‘Ehen! So all I’m to do is pay you your money and be going.’
‘I am Arese, your wife. We have been married for thirty years.’
He stops in shock.
‘We have a son working in Kano. We didn’t expect this baby. I thought…’
But he can’t hear her anymore. He is looking for himself in the dressing mirror. The only available body is that of a man who looks like he is in his fifties, sagging chest that must have once stood firm under light brown skin flawed with tiny white spots. The face wrinkled at the eyes. Where was he?
‘But I am twenty-four and I can’t afford a baby,’ he is whispering now, her voice drowning in the whir of the ceiling fan. He feels he is floating, falling down as he speaks. ‘I have to be at the cinema, we are playing Tunisia this evening…’
He comes back from work with a headache. Where are his keys? He digs his travelling bag for them, wishing the flashes of fugue that almost ruined his merger meeting in Abuja were somehow linked to the headache. Perhaps if Arese could tell him what drugs to take the headache would go away with the recent loss of concentration. It was getting hard to focus on things. He doesn’t bother shutting the door behind him once he rushes into the house. ‘Arese!’ he calls, but the living room is empty. So is the dining room. Panic rises to choke his throat, then it occurs to him that she is resting in the room. Her pregnancy has been a rocky one; a baby at fifty, ha! Doctor Evans was ecstatic but he recommended that she leave her Chief Nurse chair in the teaching hospital to rest for a while. He smiles as he climbs the spiralling steps at the thought of her bringing forth a baby. Even with the tiny baby bump, it was still so unbelievable he had to laugh sometimes. He would be a father in some months. A new father at fifty-one.
He throws open the door, half deep in his reverie so that it takes a bit of time for him to understand what his eyes are telling his brain, that the image before him is actually Dipreye; Dipreye, his neighbour, pounding his wife, whose face bobs in and out of view as he goes up down, up down her body while she shrieks ‘Jesus! Yes! Jesus!’ with his loud grunt like the grunt of a pig. He takes this in for at least three minutes or five without saying a word, trying to digest this alien event, trying to make sense of it because they have a son, because they have been having sex for thirty years ever since that first day he went to her apartment in Sabon Geri with its faded blue walls, because he had fallen in love with her, the actual real thing, from the moment he dug into his jeans pocket on the bed for some five naira notes to give her and she, instead of being offended, had laughed with her short fat braids covering her face, ‘So, sebi that is what I am worth?’
‘Please calm down,’ she begs when, eventually, he grabs a lampshade. ‘Joe, it is me, your wife. I…’ but he has already flung it at Dipreye, who already has grey hair, who has at least ten years on him. Dipreye doesn’t duck fast enough and, at the impact with his head, Arese screams ‘Joe!’
He staggers to the wall in defeat. This is the woman he is fighting for; Dipreye, as it turns out, is a goat, but she is part of it too. She too is a goat. ‘You people are animals,’ he says, shaking. ‘I will not end up in jail because of both of you, get out!’ he screams. Dipreye limps out, shameless and naked with his head full of white hair, grateful that at least Joe was insulting him and giving him a chance to escape.
Arese walks out with a towel wrapped under her arms and returns with the vacuum cleaner. He boils on the ground beside the door in silence while the small roar of the vacuum cleaner fills the room. At some point the towel loosens so she quickly straightens up to secure it in a firm knot and that is all he can take. He rushes to her and squeezes her neck in his hands, ‘I will kill you, Arese! I will kill you!’
It is the calm with which she begs him to calm down that makes him calm down. Her composure horrifies him. ‘This has happened before,’ he whispers, sinking into the bed. ‘That is why you people are behaving like this. This has happened before!’
Arese doesn’t lie. It has been going on for a couple of months but, she assures him, her baby is his. Yes, she noticed his memory lapses; he started to forget his signature almost a year ago. She didn’t take it seriously until they would wake up some mornings and he wouldn’t remember her. That was when she panicked. She asked Doctor Evans what to do and he told her to make sure he reduced his workload, rested well.
‘I think it is Alzheimer’s,’ he says, staring at the mirror, seeing a young man instead. He ignores his alarm and turns to her, ‘I think it is Alzheimer’s.’
‘God forbid. Haba,’ she actually laughs. ‘You are Nigerian, and even if you were White, you would be too young. Alzheimer’s is for sixty-five and above, sebi you are fifty.’ She drops the vacuum cleaner, ‘Doctor Evans went to Germany. Once he comes back, I promise I will ask him; maybe there is a food you are not supposed to be eating.’
‘Arese, I just caught you in bed with Mr. Dipreye from next door!’
She pats his shoulder and sighs, ‘and I am sorry. I only started it because you have not been really here,’ she squeezes his shoulder. ‘Anytime I start you will be asking me of a match Nigeria played with Tunisia in 1985. I have been careful; you have only caught us four times. I promise it won’t happen again.’
‘You have a son, Arese,’ he is crying now, ‘how could you do this to us?’
Arese gets on the floor to comfort him ‘you will forget I promise.’ She starts to unbuckle his trousers and he begins to feel something stir in his lower belly. ‘Let me help you forget,’ she unzips the trouser.
Out of the storm of desire swallowing his body, ‘you will forget’ echoes and he jumps up. He dashes out of the room in long strides and she stumbles after him calling ‘Joe, wait now. Calm down, calm down,’ until they reach the kitchen. He grabs a knife from the counter and she stops at the door. Her eyes widen in surprise for the first time this afternoon.
‘Joseph calm down.’
But he doesn’t want to calm down, he doesn’t want to forget. So he raises the knife, her screams already dull in the background of his thoughts, and drives it into his left thigh.
Mosquitoes singing in the dark. He opens his eyes and, seeing nothing, knows nothing. Where is he? Who is he? What is that pain in his thigh? He knows there would be a body beside him if he checked. He doesn’t know how he knows this but he knows there is something he must remember. What is that thing? What is it? It looms in the dark then presses down on him, this secret information, yet never revealing its true face. Without knowing it, he reaches for a stick of cigarette in the dark. His hand grabs air. What is this thing that he is missing? What is this precious warning? He must ask somebody, he decides, and that somebody must be someone else, not the person on the bed with him. As he sneaks out of the room, through the network of stairs and corridors, he is surprised at how his body navigates; it knows this place so well. Outside, the chilly after-rain air scented with akara frying somewhere hit his face and the questions returned. How did I get wounded? More importantly, who am I?
The woman out on the street doesn’t have the answer to that question so he goes to the maize seller, who gives him the same answer.
‘See, make I pay you,’ he digs into his jeans pocket and finds crumpled five-hundred naira notes. He has no idea how many cobs cost what but he knows the paper has to be exchanged for something. The maize seller rejoices and points ahead ‘that hall where they dey watch ball.’
His eyes spark at that and he struts briskly down the street. He meets the person selling viewing tickets outside ‘Who am I’ or though he senses this is not the question he wanted to ask at first so he starts to cry.
‘Abeg na who carry craze man come hia?’
‘No be craze man, him jeans never spoil.’
‘God-God see as him piss for body!’
‘Let’s get him to the hospital’
‘You and who? Abeg, allow the man mek him craze proper inside street.’
He is not bothered with the growing crowd surrounding him in the cold night because the year is 1985, and the heat is so unbearable he has to wriggle out of his jeans but it’s alright because he knows how the Nigeria-Tunisia match would end.
‘We won!’ he shrieks, feeling at home in the company of his new friends ‘One-zero, we won!’