TEA OR COFFIN

It had been a while now, three years, four years, perhaps since I last tasted blood. Real human blood from a freshly killed. For one who sucked crimson cogitated juices off human marrows quarterly, for majority of the last eight of my forty-six years, it was a frustrating mortification going nearly fifty months without tasting my unsurpassed delicacy. It was one of those things living in the slums of Lagos offered one. You take a prostitute inside, no one asked questions the next day when they see her body, ripped, raped, floating the lagoon. No one wanted to think too deep on where they last saw the mutilated, with whom. No one looked too closely even; the police, livid with protective malevolence would easier handcuff the thinker than identify and fish out the body.

Tea or coffin? This was my trademark question. I always paid them before this, so that she wouldn’t die in my debt. I was that conscientious. Tea or coffin? They mostly replied tea, it never mattered because either way coffin was what I offered (or had in store). I would extend a glass of my drugged concoction. When the brew hit her system, and eyes dimmed and begin to roll, drifting to oblivion I would batter, rip off clothes and subject her mute body to my animal romance. Then I would fetch my axe and begin to butcher and suck. Then in the hollow of the night, carried the carcass to my car thence the lagoon.

Tea or coffin? Quarterly, in sweet rugged Lagos.

I had moved to Port Harcourt, lived here close to four years and I hadn’t had my blood mix. I made residence in a nearly neat and busy estate, miles from the waterfront, and my car was parked nearly half a mile from my door: the prospect of carrying blood dripping cadaver to the boot in a community of permanently raised louvers drew cold peddles from my spine which usually crawled to quench the fire in my loins and the buds forming in my redwashed tongue.

Today I felt I was ripe for the risk the moment I saw her. I was out to buy some groceries from the provision shop across the road when I saw the teenager. The sight of her carrying neatly plaited oranges tied in fours or five, in waterproofs was like a cigarette in me, burning the strength in my manhood, rousing it to murder high. She was shabbily dressed but even this didn’t alter her beauty, in fact, it tamed it. I forced my Adam’s apple down my belly and whistled at her. She stopped. At the sight of her half-cut pawpaw breasts, slightly revealed ebony laps, sensuous lips and promising eyes, my Adam’s apple rushed back to my throat and began to choke me. I coughed.

‘Orange?’

‘Blood,’ I replied but it wasn’t more than a mutter and she didn’t hear. She mistook it to ‘how much’ and said twenty naira per group. That was too costly. I couldn’t remember the last time I bought orange but it wasn’t half this costly. Perhaps it was the hike in fuel price and the resultant scarcity. The long queues at the filling stations had been making headlines but our military rulers had turned blind eyes. With this, the price of anything, everything quadrupled. Even shoe-shining which had no defined business with fuel had risen in price. And I, whose firm wasn’t more than six streets away hadn’t been to work in three days, no fuel to power the car; the only people who could query my absence had no fuel to enable their presence and where would they find the fuel to ink their pens?

‘How many do you want?’ the girl asked, a jolting steer off my reverie.
‘All of them,’ I bloated out.

A slight surprise crossed her face, so minute that if I wasn’t looking intently could have passed unnoticed, and which in the following seconds seemed like my imagination had put it there. She brought down the tray to her breast level and ran a quick eye over them. ‘Two-eighty,’ she announced.

‘I will give you 300; bring it to my apartment,’ I said and quickly marched past her so she wouldn’t catch sight of what was beginning to happen to my trousers.

Tea or coffin? I would ask this question once again. By the time I reached my door my body was charged with primal desire that my hands shook as I unlocked the door. I stepped aside and watched her enter. I shut the door, locked it and put the key in my wallet.

‘Where can I put them?’ she was unsuspecting.

‘To the bedroom,’ I heaved. I led, she followed. I hadn’t prepared any ‘tea’ for this but this wouldn’t offer more stumbling blocks that a luminous improvisation couldn’t arrest. My room was in disarray. My bed was unmade, my dinner dishes stood in the foot of the bed like abandoned burnt offering. My wardrobe was open and unarranged, and books and newspapers fought for supremacy on the carpet. I was ashamed of this, but coldly brushed it off. She would soon die and I would suck her blood; she wouldn’t live to tell of my unkempt lifestyle.

‘Put the tray there,’ I pointed to the stool. She placed the orange moulds neatly on the stool and lay her empty tray by it. I sat on the bed, watching. ‘Tea or coffin?’ I said when she looked up for her money.
Three pretty wrinkles formed on her forehead. ‘Did you say coffin?’

I was rudely taken aback. In all my years in the field of fair homicide, no one had been able to decipher that I actually say coffin and not coffee. And here was this girl, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, asking if I meant coffin? The anger that darkened my withered leaf-coloured face burnt my nose and pricked my heart. How dare she?

‘What if I mean coffin?’

She allowed a small smile that disappeared like a drop of water on hot plate. ‘Then you will have to put yourself inside,’ came her reply.

Calmly, I rose to my feet in all my murderous glory and lethal charisma. ‘Do you know who I am?’
She had no words for answer but her gaze was unruffled and challenging. ‘I am a serial blood sucker. I kill women, rape them, butcher them and suck their blood for sport. And I haven’t played ball for four years now.’

She didn’t as much as blinked at this revelation. I waited for the blow of fear to strike her handsome face but nothing was forthcoming.

‘Perhaps you have gone deaf,’ I said.

She snorted. ‘I think it’s time I try adults for a change,’ she said. ‘There comes a time in life when you have crossed the same stream too much and must get drowned. For four weeks now I haven’t eaten human flesh. And when I do I mostly eat children’s flesh. I prefer one and two years olds. My grandmother was sixty-nine when I ate her, but she tasted bitter and stale I gave up eating old people . But you aren’t that old, are you?’ An evil pause then, ‘How old are you?’

She took two audacious steps forward, her eyes shining with the fire of her words, so that it was impossible to say if she was bluffing or recounting true life experiences. ‘How old are you?’ she repeated, a perilous edge to her voice.

I wanted to laugh and tell her to try harder next time, in her next world, but that burning gaze held my mirth like vice. Where would a girl this young and harmless find such grandiose words if she wasn’t really old and hardened in the evil she professed? I watched as she examined me like a butcher would examine beef, then trained her eyes on my crotch. ‘You should be forty-something.’

She suddenly looked at and I looked away. She took a step forward and I took two backward. Then she laughed, a dry metallic laughter that hit the walls hard like stone and bounced off the walls like rubber. She wasn’t really laughing; something inside of her, perhaps her devilish alter ego was laughing through her, ready to break out and pounce.

‘Coward,’ she screamed, ‘coward! I thought you have balls.’ She hissed long and loud and turned. ‘It’s too hot to eat something cold and cowardly,’ she finalised.

‘Have you paid me?’

With quaking hands I counted fifteen twenty naira notes from my wallet and drop them on her tray. ‘Please go with your oranges,’ I drawled.

She shook her head as she took the money. ‘That is not how I do business. You bought my goods and you keep them.’ She counted the money and returned a note to me. ‘You overpaid me.’

‘Thank you.’

She stopped at the door. My heart stopped beating. ‘Didn’t you lock the front door?’

I quickly handed her the key. ‘If I were you I would stop offering coffins. You never know what coffin is made to carry you.’ And she was gone. It took long moments for my breathing to become human.

Many years later, I found out that the girl’s name is Sade.

Tweets to @Oke4chukwu

THE WRETCHED OF ADEOTI STREET

I introduce to you a special guest appearance. Kelechi. I visited Amity’s Blog the other day and I saw a story by him; I read it (read it here) and I went wild. Hey! Hey! Hey!! I shouted. My secretary barged into the office. Is everything alright? I waved her away. No, come back. Get me Kelechi’s number. Kelechi is a busy person, and I am not exactly of the devil’s workshop, but somehow we made out time and I flew into Lagos.

There, Kelechi showed me his collection of stories which made me look like a beginner. His art is rich; Kelechi is the best unpublished storyteller I have read this year. But the stories he showed me are for the big boys in Virginia Quarterly, New York Times, Granta, Paris Review, Per Contra, Kweli etc.

Give me something for my blog, and he gave me this. This story is a little long and I considered sharing it two times, but I decided to share it once—too much beauty in one post, yes I love you. But never read this in isolation, too much sweetness kills. I suggest you get your family or friends around and make sure the phone is handy, in case someone needs to call 911.

*

I always get down from the wrong side of my bed because the other side makes contact with the wall. My room is dark and I try to be careful not to wake my younger brother up as I feel my way to the door. But I hit my leg against a bucket and the noise causes him to start. Outside, it is dark too, and cold. A man walks briskly across the street and I feel a little fear as I watch him go.

I sit on a low stool and for warmth wrap my hands around my body. I came outside my room to think. I have slept little. Lying awake on my bed, tossing, and now and again thinking, ‘Will this work out?’

I am to be interviewed for a teacher’s post in a private secondary school. The school is big and in my own eyes, the teachers look happy. The principal, a rather fat, short man in the habit of keeping either of his hands in his pockets, asked me last Friday, Which subject can you teach?’

But I replied, ‘Mathematics” and to bolster my chances of getting the job, I added, ‘and the sciences.’ (If it was necessary, I would have told him that I could teach astronomy).

‘It’s all right,’ he said, ‘You can return on Monday.’

Since that day with the principal I have felt uneasy, I did not plan to apply because I know I did not have the proper paper qualifications. It was Kunle who encouraged me. He wrote my application letter for me and promised to help me get the supporting documents. All the hanky-panky and doctoring of documents were a trouble to me. I did finish Secondary School but I was unable to take my final exams. But all that is now in the past and there is no need to recall.

I was afraid. I told Kunle, ‘What am I going to teach these students, I can hardly remember anything from my school days.’

But he said to me, ‘All you need is confidence, confidence… Then with time you can read and catch up.’ I believe him. He gets along very well and I remember I was a better student than he was while we were at school.

But do I have confidence? I have worked at many small jobs, but this one will be different. I will have to go to work in clean clothes and carry books and stand facing a class of students. This last thought frightens me much.

The cold becomes unbearable for me and I go back inside. My brother is still sleeping. He is an early riser so I guess it is still quite early. My phone battery is dead. It strikes me now that I must buy a watch or a clock. I am about to become a teacher and I must have some order in my life. I lie down again. I don’t expect to sleep, but I do and it is my brother who wakes me up at dawn. I have a miserable time deciding what to wear. No sooner do I wear a shirt than I take it off for being worn out or unsuitable. Drawing the curtain to let in light and tilting my hand mirror, I look at myself this way and that in turns of resignation and hope.

As I walk to the school, I stop at a few shop-fronts and stare at myself in their plane glass. I am tempted to turn back and forget the entire business.

I arrive as the school is at assembly. The students are singing the national anthem.

I hide myself at a corner and wait, the assembly soon ends. The students go to their classrooms while I go to the principal’s office to meet with him. I wait in the secretary’s office and he comes in shortly, brandishing a cane in one hand and a sheet of paper in the other. I rise to my feet, I greet him.

He stares at me for a moment and then seems to remember. He says to me, ‘Remind me your name.’

‘Moses,’ I tell him.

He calls me by my name and tells me to wait. He walks into his office. I remain on my feet, but he comes out quickly enough.

‘Come with me.’ He gives me a sheet of paper, ‘Your timetable.’

He still carries the cane. I walk behind him. I can see the scalp of his head. The school has only one building for classrooms, but it is a long one, and has three floors. On the first floor, we stop in front of a classroom door. The wooden panel above the entrance reads JSS3A. A lot of noise is coming from the class, but as soon as we enter, taking the students unawares, they scramble to their feet to greet us, and afterwards fall silent on their seats. Again, I am afraid, but I bunch up my shoulders in a show of confidence. It is hard to look at their particular faces; they seem like a horde, so I stare at the walls. The walls are painted blue, and a lot of it is covered with charts, to help with the education of the children.

The principal says a few words to the hearing of the class, and some for my ears alone. I am to teach them mathematics, as a trial. And away he goes. There is an unoccupied desk and chair and I go to it and sit down. I lower my gaze; forty plus faces are staring at me. I smile and rub my hands as though I am very pleased to be amongst them. I ask aloud for the class captain, and a plump boy comes up to me, looking eager to please. I ask for his notes and textbook, look into them briefly, and picking up a piece of chalk, I rise towards the blackboard.

After thirty minutes of teaching simultaneous equations, I feel alright. In my time I was good in Mathematics and these students are clever. They nod their heads when I ask if they understand me. A woman’s head appears through the door. And then she comes in, but remains by the door, watching me.

I try to keep going on as before, but it is hard. I falter, I hesitate when I should speak, I get a question wrong. My performance has dropped.  When the full hour is done, the woman directs me to another class, SS2, where I am to teach chemistry.

There, in one of the desks at the front, a man wearing a wide, awkward tie already sits, and he tells me that I might teach any topic in chemistry I wished, he smiles at me, signaling to the class to pay attention.

Their eyes are on me. I look at their faces. I do not see them as a whole as I saw the other class, I see them as individuals. I am disturbed particularly by the girls.

‘I am your chemistry teacher,’ I say, and the class stands up to greet me. They call me sir. I tell them I am Moses Nnobi, and then ask their names ask their names of them. They stand up one after the other. Akeem Aluko, Sekinat Omole… the names roll from their lips. My eyes are on a certain girl, whose hair is done up in braids, she stands up and says her name. I am unsettled by her voice, by her presence. I am not so young but I have never learnt to be comfortable among women. Maybe it is because I have never been really close to any girl. The introductions are over and they seem to like me. I have spent about twenty minutes of my allotted time on the introduction and making small talk, but I still am unable to avoid teaching the chemistry, there is still over thirty minutes.

I am in a bad way, another man comes into the class while I teach and sits at the back. That means the two men are supposed to check me out. I was not doing very well before he came in, but he unsettles me and I begin to make more errors. The students sense this and they ask me more questions. If this is a test class then I cannot have passed. I am unhappy.

After the class the man with the wide tie, standing up and leaving the class says as he goes pass me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s never easy the first time, you’ll get used to it.’

The second man wants to make conversation. He seems a nice man; he wears a starched white shirt dampened by sweat.

‘The principal says you recently finished from the Teachers Training College at Ibadan, I was there too you know. I hear they’ve changed Provosts, who’s the new one…?’

##

It is two o’ clock. I have taught for the day and I go to the principal’s office. I am resigned.

I expect it, so when he tells me not to come tomorrow but to wait until I am contacted, I nod my head. I stand up from the wooden chair; he stands up too and offers me his hand. I shake him and the strange feel of his hand alerts me that this is the first time I am shaking him. As I leave his office, he calls me back and gives me two hundred naira. He says it’s for my transport. The money feels crisp in my hands; I put it in my pocket.

I walk home through the longer route, going through Bensther and Bola Dada Streets. It’s a pleasant stroll, serene too, for the roads are tarred and there is order in the way the houses are built.  For as long as I have known, the street has been for rich people. When we were children, my brother and I, we would veer into this street when any errands took us around here. As we went along, each of us would point at a house and choose it for himself, shouting, ‘my house!’ Sometimes my brother would point at the same house and we would have a long argument to determine who had the first claim to the house. These arguments once led to a fight. I punched my brother in the nose and he bled, but I’m now big and it is a funny thing to remember.

There is another reason why I go through this street. There is a girl, whose parents live on this Street. We were in the same catechism class for our first Holy Communion. We used to play sometimes after the classes. Kunle knows her, and he told me she is now a lawyer and that she drives a fine car. I know I will feel shy and ashamed of myself if I see her but I go on anyway. A short distance from her house, I look up towards her balcony and I see her, she is talking to another girl and they are both laughing. She swings her hair with abandon. I turn my head and face my front but when I get to the front of her house I can’t help myself and I look upwards again. She too looks down and instantly recognizes me, calls out my name and waves at me for a moment, I wave back happily. I stop walking and wait, but she turns to her friend and I hope that she will look down again, but I wait for half a minute and she does not look again and so I continue on my way.

I stop at the vendors stand. I love to read sport news. Arsenal won last weekend; they scored a late penalty. Two men are beside the stand arguing whether the referee had made a fair decision. I peruse the headlines of the popular newspapers; several of them write that dozens of people have perished yesterday in a luxury bus accident. One must be thankful for the gift of life. Leaving the stand I head straight home.

I live in a tenement with many other tenants, in Adeoti Street. The rooms are not many, only eight, although as many as eight people may live in one room. Sometimes some of my neighbours, if they have guests come to ask if they can stay the night with me and my brother, it’s a little thing. I tell them, ‘Come, no problem.’ I like most of them and most of them like me.

Many children are playing in front of my yard; they see me as I come and try to jump on me and make me carry them up into the air. I am tired and hungry but they are insistent, I have to be careful while I do this; some of the children are dirty and smell bad.

Drained of strength, I go into my room. My brother is not in. I guess that he is at a job. I take off my clothes and lie down, and when I am a little rested, I get back up and drink garri with sugar and groundnut. Afterwards, having gone back to lying down, I think of girls a bit before I fall asleep. I wake up when my brother returns.

He takes off his dirty clothes and goes off to bathe, and afterwards he takes his place on the mattress. He is tired; He tells me he has worked hard today carrying blocks up a floor. I have worked at this kind of job many times; it’s doable, but the problem is that it makes me so hungry that it takes a strong resolve not to spend most of the wages on food, and I often wake up the next day with my limbs aching. I am not very strongly built and I seem to feel it more than my brother.

My brother soon falls asleep. I feel like going out. I wear my trousers and check my pocket and count my money. Counting all the small change, it adds up to a little below a thousand naira. I go out of the room. Someone calls me while I am out in front of the yard. It is Lanre, my landlord’s son. He tells me to wait and he comes towards me. I really do not feel like standing at a spot, and he bores me with his jokes; he thinks himself to be a funny person, Lanre. He is a lucky guy; his father has given him three rooms to rent out and use the money as he pleases. He has many girls, and a daughter from one of them.

Lanre tells me that he would like to bring a girlfriend of his to my room tomorrow, I shrug, and I say, ‘Okay, no problem.’ I am often irritated by his behavior but I hide it from him. I try to avoid any trouble with him for he always helps me to explain to his father when my rent is due and I have no money at hand. He is saying something else but I begin moving away from him, so he says a parting word and leaves me alone.

Leaving my room I have nowhere in my mind to go, I simply wish to air my head, or maybe without admitting to myself, I am simply bored. I walk slowly; reaching the main street, and then walking for a few minutes, I enter into another side street. Jimoh Street. At the mouth of this street a woman smokes fish for sale. I wish to avoid this strong smell sticking to my clothes, and so I walk briskly, but after I go past, I raise my shirt to my nose and there it is, I do not escape it; if the smell has a human face it would be grinning at me in mockery, and I would probably sigh in response.

This side street is nearly a dead end, and a few of the houses it contains seem to express this too, old buildings which may have been quite respectable in their time, but now are falling to decay from neglect or reversal of the owner’s fortunes. But even in their descent into decay they give dignity to the street, since many of the more recent buildings are ramshackle and wretched. Or maybe that is just my silly idea. Getting to the end of the street, I walk through the narrow path to my left, that saves Jimoh Street from being a true dead-end, and come out into another street with a waterlogged road, so that I get along only by hopping on deliberately arranged stones which rise above the water and describe a path. After the water-logged section, walking is easier, and I resume my leisurely pace.

I see a woman; she sits on a plastic stool, under a yellow umbrella. She runs a call booth and sells recharge cards. She looks quite ugly to me and her skin is spoilt from bleaching. But she stares at a mirror and then moves it up and down, tilting it, searching for the position, perhaps, such as would make her appear beautiful. She tosses her hair from side to side as she moves the mirror, and with her other palm she dabs both sides of her cheeks lightly. After a time, she is perhaps satisfied, for she smiles. She looks up from her mirror and sees me watching her. I instinctively bow my head and greet her but she says nothing in reply. She does not look much older than me. Why did I have to greet her first?

I keep on walking. Several girls pass beside me, in my eyes pretty, and I stare at them as much as I can. As it grows dark, I begin to take my bearings, so that it is night when I enter Adio Street. Perhaps this is where I wanted to come all along. It is a noisy street because many of the beer parlors have generators so that they can play some music and attract customers. I walk past the beer parlors and go on to the end of the street. I see the building, it is one storied and the walls are of faded yellow. It was not like that before, when I was younger and the place was not so popular. It was a bungalow, but some years ago the owner added another storey, and if more people keep coming, he might add another. There are many girls in front of the building; it is called The Happiness Hotel. Because it is dark, I cannot make out their faces. They are quite bold and smoke cigarettes very freely. I stand at a spot. One of them begins to draw close to me. I know her, I have been with her twice before, but she does not remember me: in this business a girl’s memory for faces can quite easily become like a chalkboard dusted every morning. The girl comes up to me and drags me by my arm; she says persuasively, ‘Come no’, but as often happens, I shrink back, and stand aloof.

I look at the girls for a while, and turning away, I leave the hotel. But I only go away as far as the row of beer parlors, and I enter into one of them and sit down. Here, a filament bulb burns brightly, attracting insects that create a buzz around its light. A pretty, young girl comes to me; she is quite plump and walks in a lazy manner. She comes to take my order. She goes inside an inner room and reappears shortly with a bottle and a glass. She opens the bottle and I fill my glass and take a sip. She sits on a chair opposite mine; she is wearing a skirt that stops above her knees and she spreads her legs quite carelessly. I should like to look away from them, but it is very hard.

I do not have a strong head for alcohol. One day Kunle took me out and bought me two bottles of beer. I began to behave badly after drinking and I vomited on the way home. Kunle laughed at me all the way. He said, ‘Do you know what your father will think if he sees you. Only two bottles!’ But I hardly heard him, for I was in a daze. In any case, father is dead and my mother has returned to our village in the east. I have not seen her for a long time.

This bottle of beer has gotten to my head, I feel quite light and brave and I try to make some conversation with the sales-girl, but she talks to me sharply and I withdraw. Maybe it is because I am not handsome, or she noticed my shabby clothes. Who knows? I make up my mind now to return Happiness Hotel. I pay my bill and leave. I walk with quick steps; my body and soul are in agreement.

That same girl sees me coming and walks towards me. We do not even talk this time, but I follow her and she climbs up a dark, narrow stairway. We enter inside a dark room and we strip. It is over too soon. When I pay her she says, ‘Thank you.’

As I walk home, I feel happier and more purposeful, but I worry about how I will feed myself the next day. I stop at Bidi’s shop. He is a barber. He is a nice guy and is my friend. I sit on his sofa for a time and watch television. They are showing a soap opera but I am unable to watch the whole of it because he keeps turning off the generator when he does not have any customer. There is plenty of hair on the floor; he has not thought to sweep it off. There is a broom at the corner, and I pick it up and sweep all the hair and pack them all into the bin. I try to help Bidi a bit too, because he sometimes cuts my hair for free when it grows bushy and I have no money.

I chat for a while with him. He is a very funny guy, Bidi; I laugh very much when I am with him. But when it is ten o’clock I decide I should be going. My brother is awake when I get home. He has cooked some food and I help myself, that’s one thing about me; my appetite is always good, even when I’m ill. I’m soon finished and I recline on the bed. I feel very tired and sleep is not far off.

‘Did you forget your birthday?’ my brother asks

‘Ah! Yes, my birthday. Today. I forgot.’

I lied; I remembered and well, what difference does it make, for the day is all spent as well as the birthday, and again, I’m only twenty-five and I’ve heard it said that life begins at forty.

#Go follow Kelechi @kelechixyz, and when the big bang in Kelechi explodes, remember that you read him here first.