The house beside a gnarled cashew

FICTION: The house beside a gnarled cashew

A short story by Kelechi Njoku

BY KELECHI NJOKU

At the bus park, I’d said to Brian Metche, “Long time no see.” It was awkward, I realised now, as we reached my front door; long time no see was what you said to someone you last saw six months ago or three weeks ago. Not someone you hadn’t seen in twenty years, before the moustache covered the mole above his lip. But Brian had gripped my hand in a firm handshake whose memory I clung to later for assurance, as evidence that not everything had changed. I gripped his hand back and said, “Welcome.”

I collected his holdall as he stepped off the doormat into my sitting room.

We sat at the same time, on opposite sofas. He surveyed the room and his gaze paused on the carving of a grinning goat head beside the wall clock. The corners of his mouth hinted at a smile. I waited for him to say what he thought of the grinning goat head so I could inform him I’d got it from my sister Lenti when she returned with some outlandish, “cultural” artefacts from Sudan where she’d gone to volunteer with the UN. I wondered too if he, like some of my friends who came over, thought the turquoise curtains I’d chosen for the windows were too vulgar against the sky-blue walls.

I turned on the TV.

“You’ve got a nice place,” he said.

“Thank you.” I left him briefly to get water and a glass. I said he must be tired, when I returned; nine hours on a bus, with little legroom, and on narrow potholed roads bursting with traffic was equal to hard labour. There was even a sprinkle of dust on his hair.

The driver of the bus he came in, he said, had sped too fast and dared anyone who complained to jump off if they didn’t like his driving. “I doubt he was sober, that driver.”

I said I was glad he had arrived safely anyway, that the mad driver hadn’t gone fast enough to shoot his passengers to the moon. I laughed. He laughed.

I stood up and went into the kitchen to put some water on the cooker and look in the cabinet for a packet of spaghetti.

When I returned to the sitting room Brian was paying attention to the TV; a woman was singing a blues song on screen. The camera was zoomed on her peach-coloured lips. I knew the song but didn’t like it, even though it had topped the charts for three weeks running.

“Your dad, how is he?” I asked as I tweaked the edges of a cushion, wondering why Brian hadn’t said anything about our playmates – Seth and Dele Nemaku – from back in the day.

* * *

Two years ago, around the time I got a job with an insurance company, I attended a friend’s wedding in Jos and ran into Brian’s dad. Although I hadn’t seen the man in eighteen years and his scalp was clean of all hair now, I recognised him; there couldn’t be two people in the world with such long teeth glistening under a large nose that made all other features in his face drop into insignificance. I walked up to him, the wine in my glass sloshing. I told him who I was – first name and surname – and who I knew he was. Dr Simon Metche. His family and mine used to live in the same building in Okene, his on the third floor, mine on the ground floor, before they moved to Lagos in 1994.

He frowned, and stepped back, his wine glass tilted precariously. I opened my mouth to produce evidence of who I was, to describe an old photograph in my parents’ album in which my parents and Dr and Mrs Metche had posed in front of my father’s Peugeot. But it turned out there was no need. Dr Metche set his glass down on the nearest table – I did the same – and exclaimed, “No way.” His eyes lit up. He yanked me into a tight embrace, called me Jite without my surname, and asked how old I was when he last saw me.

“Five,” I said.

“No way! What are you doing here? You know the couple?

“Yes, the bride was my classmate at university.”

“My God, you don’t say. We are friends with the bride’s family. They go to our church. Small world!”

I asked after Mrs Metche, who I remembered as Aunty Jo. She usually gave my mother a bottleful of the fried groundnuts she made some weekends.

“Jo couldn’t be here,” Dr Metche said. “She had another function to attend in Lagos. She’ll be very happy to hear I saw you. Little Jite of yesterday, all grownup. Where are your parents now, how are they?”

I collected another glass of wine from a passing waiter and sipped from it, gratefully tasting joy and not fruit-flavoured alcohol. Then I asked about Brian.

Dr Metche laughed. “You remember him! Brian is fine. He just finished university – he studied economics – and is looking for a job. But we are hopeful. Your friend is a big boy now, a little taller than you, I think. I’ll tell him you said hi.”

I wrote down my phone number.

Brian called the following week: He was OK, he said, how was I doing? I was great, I said, and I was happy to hear from him again. Before the call ended, I said it’d be nice to have him in Okene sometime for a visit, perhaps to show him to some of the old places – the primary school we’d attended still had its pupils wear blue-and-white uniforms, did he know?

The next time we spoke, I mentioned that Lenti was away in Sudan on the UN job, and he said it must be tough having my girlfriend exposed to all that danger. I laughed until I hiccupped.

Then, last week, he called to say he would be attending a conference in Okene for a week. I agreed to host him.

“Seth and Dele asked me to greet you when they learnt you were coming,” I said before asking if he remembered the Nemaku brothers who had lived in Rayway Estate, a street from us. Seth was the dark-skinned and thin one with his elbow in a permanent crook from a fracture he’d had when he was four. Brian and Seth fought often and suddenly; they could be chasing a toad together one minute and turn on each other the next, their fingers tugging at their collars. Dele was quieter, and younger than six-year-old Seth by a year, and he never went anywhere without his green tennis ball. We’d found that ball together, the four of us – me, Brian, Seth and Dele – while seeing Seth and Dele off to their house, one afternoon. The tennis ball had been lying in the sand. Brian had seen it first and pointed at it, but it had been Dele who rushed forward and fell on the ball, covering it with his body, as if any of us would struggle with him for it.

“I’m sorry… Seth… Dele?” Brian said slowly, apparently careful to sound as though he genuinely cared to know who these people were, and not as though he wondered why he should care to know.

I explained who Seth and Dele Nemaku were in that breezy tone one uses when trying to joggle faint memory back to life, not give new information. I mentioned the hide-and-seek games we played most evenings, the birthday parties we looked forward to because we got to frighten the girls by bursting balloons with pins concealed between our fingers, and I mentioned Dele’s green tennis ball which we kicked as football, usually in front of our parents’ house.

Brian nodded as I talked, chuckling once, his expression the fascination of someone just learning of something they didn’t know before.

I glanced at the TV. Rick Ross was on now, throwing his arms back and forth in front of his large tummy as words fell over themselves out of his mouth. I started to work my lips to the rap but stopped; Brian, in his tie and tucked-in shirt, didn’t look like he cared for such music. It’d be odd leaving him out.

The water on the cooker boiled. I went to the kitchen and opened a packet of spaghetti.

* * *

While we ate, I regarded Brian – when he was not looking – the way a surgeon might regard a tumour when deciding how best to take it out without hurting any organs. It seemed impossible that he’d forgotten so much. We talked a bit about golf when CNN Sports came on, and we talked about the conference Brian was attending – what was new about medium-scale credit facilitation?  He said he had the same question too, but he was only representing his organisation. “It’s their money sponsoring this trip, not mine,” he said. “They should be grateful I helped them cut down on expenses by staying with you. The other woman I came with is in a hotel.”

His cell phone rang, and he spoke to whoever was on the other end in French for over ten minutes.

“You speak French.”

“Yes. I took a course some years back.”

“That’s cool. Wish I could speak French too. I keep procrastinating about taking classes.”

He shrugged and said, “Being able to speak French is not a big deal”, as if to say this was an ordinary detail that didn’t matter. Perhaps much like the things he didn’t remember, things which, to him, were are as good as never happened.

I cleared the table, and showed him to the spare bedroom; I pushed his holdall into the wardrobe, and said I’d be in my room if he needed anything.

* * *

The next morning, Saturday, it was still dark when I woke up to put on a tracksuit and grab my iPod and headphones for a jog. I knocked on Brian’s door, and told him to feel free to make breakfast, the kitchen and fridge were all his.

He glanced at me, head to toe. “Jogging?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“You do this kind of thing?”

“Every day. Sometimes morning and evening. Wait for me.”

I waited in the sitting room. I had switched on one of the four wall-lamps that lit the room. The lamp hung closest to the carving of the goat head. I sat on a sofa farthest from the light, and in the softened darkness, stared at the carving. Its grin was the type fit for hatching secret plans.

Usually, for my morning jogs, I ran to the Township Stadium where I joined a crowd of other people like me, who jogged several times round the race tracks then did press-ups and sit-ups, most likely because they wanted beautiful bodies, rippling arms and flattened tummies, and not because they really cared for the health benefits of exercise. But, this morning, I decided we would not jog along the kerb of the main road towards the Stadium. We would go through the street behind the house instead, and jog along the sandy road until we came to a place called Falls Junction.

“I hope you can withstand the dust,” I said when Brian joined me in the sitting room, dressed in a red tracksuit and carrying white headphones.

“Stop nagging, let’s go.” He punched and kicked the air as we left the house.

When we came out at Falls Junction twenty minutes later I was impressed to note that he was not panting. Dawn was approaching; streaks of amber light had stained the indigo sky and were spreading upwards from the base of the horizon. The road soon curved into a loop which circled a patch of mowed grass before straightening out southwards. We followed the kerb along this loop, each man to his thoughts and the music streaming into his ears from the phones.

In the distance, the lights of a motel appeared as we drew closer. The motel was a humble affair of rooms arranged in a semicircle, with a white-and-rust signboard – “De Modern Hotel” – that had fallen to lean against the motel’s wall-fence.

I staggered to a walk. “Guess how long this motel has been here.”

“Before this town got featured on the map?”

“Exactly. And what’s interesting is: it hasn’t changed at all. Not even that rickety signboard.”

“Maybe the owner is trying to prove a point: that he was here long before this town had mowed lawns in its streets…”

We doubled up, down a narrow path that skirted the motel and opened out, funnel-like, onto a wide space of ground, in front of a six-storey house.

The day was an orange haze now.

The apartments in the house were painted pink in the verandas and white on the outside walls. The front door of the apartment on the ground floor was made of mahogany. But it used to be of partitioned glass some years back until that style of door went out of fashion. Six foot-spans or so from the house stood a cashew tree. Stood is probably misleading; the tree’s trunk had grown horizontally along the ground for a few feet, as though it had thought it would be a runner; and then, when it realised its stem was hardening, quickly curved upwards leaving the prone section of its trunk to serve as a natural bench.

A white hen waddled to the tree, hopped over its prone section, and landed in the midst of a group of fowls pecking the ground on the other side of the trunk. The flock erupted in frantic cackles and pecked away at one another.

Brian raised his brows. I held up two fingers. I was going to explain in a moment. I stared at the cashew tree.

When I was four, my sister Lenti had injured her forehead against that cashew’s trunk. I don’t remember why but she’d been running from me, out of this house with the pink-and-white walls. And just as I caught her, grabbing her by the belly from behind, her body lurched forward. She banged her head on the rough trunk and shrieked. I dropped her.

That day, while my father ran up the stairs, to the apartment on the third floor, my mother slapped my face really hard and declared me possessed by the devil.

“Jite, are you all right?”

I pointed at the tree, and told Brian about Lenti’s accident many years ago. “It was your dad who treated her.”

* * *

We didn’t speak as we jogged back the way we came, until we got to the house and I took out a bottle of water and glasses from the fridge. I filled my glass, and passed Brian the bottle across the dining table. He filled his glass but did not drink just yet. “You know,” he said, “all this time a part of me dreaded your phone calls.”

I chuckled. I could see why he would be embarrassed about not knowing the things he should: our house, the tennis ball, the hide-and-seek, our friends Seth and Dele. But he had been five when his family left, transplanted from this environment before his memories of it had firmed. I might as well have expected him to recount events of the day he was born. Now we were saddled with a pile of my reality between us. A reality that was useless to either of us.

“We forget things all the time,” I said, “don’t sweat it.”

“But you didn’t forget.”

“There’s a difference. I lived in that house until I was nineteen.” I kicked off my sneakers. I shouldn’t have dragged him there.

Brian drank from his glass now. We were still in our tracksuits. And our headphones hung from our sweaty necks.

“But, Jite,” he said, quietly, “you know there was something about that house…”

I drew out a chair, sat, and regarded Brian, standing before me, saying something about our house beside the gnarled cashew where we’d shared a childhood. I heard his words but did not string them in my head to make any meaning. I did not want to, I did not need to. So, I asked him if he’d like to know my worst track in Rick Ross’s latest album.

He stopped talking, and frowned, as if considering a strange idea. Then he placed his palms on the table and said – actually – he’d prefer we talked about Pharrell’s album instead. He was a fan.

I smiled, and we started to talk about Pharrell’s album.

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One Comment

  1. BlackNerdChic says:

    Absolutely loved this! It’s something different being done with the idea of memory and place. Keep writing!

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