The Escape – A Fragmented Reality: By Kikachi Memeh

“A tale of three lovers and a home that can no longer be home.” 

I was already late for the family meeting when the danfo I was in stopped at the side of the road. The bus had jerked sharply along the long stretch of Ikorodu-Igbobi expressway, so hard that the woman beside me, followed by an agreeing chorus, urged the bus driver to pull over and check what was wrong. I had gotten numb to the frequent jerking and was focused on calming my nerves than worrying about anything else. “Driver park this bus now!” The woman shouted. “Madam calm down, we dey express na,” the bus conductor said in an attempt to calm her. The bus jerked again and the woman’s coke spilt on her tight-fit skirt. “Oga!” she beckoned.

When my mother first met Ikenna, she said he made her feel warm, just like Obiugo had made her feel when he was born. Obiugo was my late brother who was killed during a cult attack on campus, back then when cult attacks were rampant at the University of Lagos. The campus security man that lived adjacent to our two-bedroom apartment, broke the news to us when he returned from work the next morning. Every time she saw Ikenna after that, she made sure to remind him how the little things about him remind her of her Obiugo. When Ikenna came to ask for my number after pestering for it at the kiosk down the road, she told him how his smile reminded her of Obiugo. When he came to pick me up for our first date to the movies, she told him Obiugo once had a shirt similar to the turquoise striped shirt he had on. And when he visited to console me after failing my Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria exams, she told him the chair he sat on was Obiugo’s favourite chair. The day Ikenna asked my mother for my hand in marriage, she didn’t point out any resemblance with Obiugo. I knew because I had been eavesdropping from the outside window. Although it was unlike her, she seemed sceptical to approve his request. I didn’t notice if her eyes lit up or not, but it took more than two beats before she finally said: “ọ dị mma”.

***

My phone buzzed just as I stepped out of the bus. It was my younger brother Cheta, Are you close by? , his message read. I tucked the phone into the back of my jeans, the weather was too hot to make promises. “Oga check this motor quick abeg, I get person wey dey wait for me,” the man in the suit said, sounding irritated. I didn’t blame him. My chiffon blouse was also already sticking to my armpits.

The driver and the conductor were hurdled in front of the bus’ open bonnet. I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were doing and from the looks of it things, they didn’t. All they seemed to do was fiddle with a couple of knobs, and jerk some wires every ten seconds.

A few of the passengers walked further away from the bus, they figured it was a lost cause. Some started to flank down speeding vehicles. I and five other people sat on a nearby slope. I needed to take this bus because I did not know the route to mummy Odili’s house. Mummy Odili was a distant aunt I visited only on special occasions because her home was considered diplomatic for emergency family meetings. The last time I visited, I was barely fourteen, that was the year Uncle Dozie brought home a white woman as his wife. The last time I was supposed to visit was twenty years ago, the day after my introduction. I’m visiting today because two days ago my mother went to bed and refused to rouse up the next day. Cheta had only given me a detailed route for this trip; a coach from Mobutu Seko street would take me straight to Oyingbo, and from Oyingbo, and board a bus straight to Ikorodu.  I wasn’t ready to get lost on my first trip back home. I waited. 

The first time I visited Ikenna’s mother in Awka, I knew Ikenna and I was going to have a blissful marriage. I had been awfully excited about that trip. I packed both our duffel bags the night before because I needed everything to be perfect. I was more excited about the trip itself than I was worried about Iknenna’s mother deeming me fit for her precious son. Ikenna wasn’t exactly a mummy’s boy, but from the way I had observed them converse on the phone, I knew she adored him the way all mothers adored their last born. Our bus was set to leave the park at 8:00 A.M, I made sure we were there by 6:15 A.M. I wanted us to get the most comfortable seat on the 60-seater bus. If it was up to Ikenna, he would have had us sitting beside the driver that had a pungent smell of unwashed fermented sweat. I didn’t pay fifteen thousand Naira to not be able to enjoy the journey. I loved being able to breathe in the cool air as the bus sped through the express and when it was stuck in gridlock traffic on smaller roads, I loved being able to buy things at will.

The Nwaokocha family house was quaint. The walls were unpainted and the floors looked like they were in the process of being interlocked. The entire street was quiet, and so was their compound. The only sounds that interrupted the silence were that of chirping birds and the swaying leaves of a plantain tree by the gates. Ikenna’s mother was also quaint. Her stick-like glasses hung off the bridge of her nose as she quickly shuffled out of the house at the sound of Ikenna bolting the gate. She was short, unlike her sons who grew like palm trees. She did however have the same honeycomb-coloured skin as Ikenna. Her embrace enveloped my entire frame, it was warm. “nwunye m,” she said, and slipped out of the embrace. She twirled me around, inspecting my clothes and skin. She hailed me in a type of Igbo I couldn’t particularly translate, but from the tone of her voice, she was impressed.

She ushered me into her home as Ikenna smiled proudly behind us.

***

Another bus had stopped by the side of the road, not due to a faulty vehicle part, but to pick up a lucky set of passengers. I watched the bodies shuffle to fit through the mouth of the bus. The woman with the coke stain was the first to power through. The young lady beside me got up and dusted the back of her skirt aggressively as she jogged to the new bus. 

I contemplated joining the new bus, I had no idea if this bus would continue its journey today. “Madam, you no go follow them?” The bus driver timely interrupted. I shook my head “I’ll wait for you.” “This isn’t a waiting matter madam, my second don call mechanic, e go tey o” he insisted.

“I’ll wait.”

We had been to three asoebi stores in the last four hours, but my feet were giving up by the time we walked into the fourth. My mother was unfazed by the tiring search, in fact, she was proud of it. “Did you not hear me say my daughter is getting married?!” was a statement she repeated each time a subpar fabric was presented to us. To her, this outing was a reward for her twenty-three years of hard work.

While waiting for the shop attendant to get a different fabric from the store across, a familiar face walked in.

“Oge?” She asked, as took off her sunglasses. “Oge! It’s me, Cynthia,” her silky hair swayed as she walked towards me for a closer look. Who was she? Her voice didn’t sound familiar, and neither did that name ring a bell. “Hey, what brings you here,” we embraced awkwardly. 

“IK’s wedding, of course, his mother asked me to scan some fabrics in the market, you know, to see if there’s anything nice enough.” I watched her move her hands around as she spoke. The only time I heard people refer to Ikenna as IK was at his secondary school reunion. She must have been a childhood friend, but I couldn’t recognise her. Who does she think she is? sourcing for materials for MY wedding. “Oh that’s nice, that’s lovely,” I said, conjuring the softest smile my face could deliver.

“What about you? What are you doing here? Any new man?”

“Something like that, I’m getting married in June.”

I didn’t know when she started squealing, all I knew was that my ears couldn’t stop ringing. “Does Ikenna know?” She came closer, holding my arms. My mother heard and chuckled “Of course, he knows, why wouldn’t he?” Cynthia looked confused. “She knows?” 

I only nodded. 

“I’ll make sure to save you an invite to the wedding okay? I’ll get your details from IK. Be sure to bring your new boo” she winked as she sashayed away to survey some fabrics on display.

          ***

When we got home from the asoebi store, fatigued from running our fingers through several yards of materials and listening to Iya Ibeji boast about having only custom fabrics, all I wanted to do was go up to my room and sleep. 

My joints ached as I eased into my twin-sized bed. I tried persuading my mother to get me a new bed years ago when I noticed my feet peeked out the end whenever I laid down. “when you get to your husband’s house you’ll have as big a bed as you want, while you’re here manage this one” was her reply every time. It’s only a matter of months till I finally get the bed of my dreams. I would show Ikenna the bed I saw at Lifemates furniture last week. I’m sure he would like the gold headboard. I let the thought of Ikenna and I sleeping on our new bed on our wedding night serenade me to sleep. By the time I woke up, the room was pitch black. NEPA. I put my slippers on and creeped out of the room, I didn’t want mummy to wake up. As I inched downstairs I noticed a faint light from the living room. 

“Mummy, what’s the matter? Why are you sitting in the dark?” I said moving towards her.

“Who was that girl that was asking about your husband?” 

“Is that why you’re sitting in the dark mummy? Let me go and put on the gen first” 

“Come back here.” Her face was flat. “You need to be wary of all these small girls, if you don’t open your eyes they will snatch your blessing from your hands, I hope you are hearing me?” She pulled her ear. 

“Yes, mummy”-

“The chicken looks up when drinking water because what kills it comes from the sky.” She clicked her tongue. When she started speaking in parables, I knew trouble was looming. She gave me a long look as I walked outside to turn the generator on.

The other bus zoomed off once it had enough passengers. Still, I was seated on the slope, awaiting the driver and his long-awaited mechanic. There were two other passengers from the original bus who didn’t join the other bus. I assumed they also weren’t familiar with the route and didn’t want to take chances. They stood perched beside the driver and his conductor, who were now discussing adjacent to the passenger seat.

My phone buzzed in my back pocket, it was Cheta again but now he was calling. “Yes?” I answered.

“Where are you? It’s been over two hours since you gave me an update” I could hear kids laughing in the background. Were those his kids?

Cheta stopped telling me things about his life after I left. I had hurriedly given him a number to reach me if he needed me, while I packed my bags one fateful evening. The first time he called was to ask me if I would be back in time for the introduction. He told me everyone was waiting, that mummy was getting worried. I told him to be patient, “Tell mummy I’m sorry,” I said covering the microphone, I didn’t want him to hear the honking on buses and chants of bus drivers at the park. 

“What are you apologizing for? Just come please, Uncle Dozie is trying to calm her down, she just wants to see you” he pleaded. “I’ll call you back,” I said and ended the call.

“Oge? Can you hear me? Are you close by?” He said repeatedly, the kids still laughing, I could also hear a woman’s voice, followed by silence.

“Hello, yes I’m close by, the bus I was in broke down, they’re trying to get it fixed,” I answered. 

“How close are you, do you need me to come and pick you up?” He said. “Jennifer please get my keys from that table” I heard him say to someone in the background.

“I’m still quite far away, don’t worry the bus is already getting fixed, I’ll be there soon” I lied, glancing over to see the driver and his conductor cackling over God knows what.

The day before our introduction, I went over to Ikenna’s house to finalize the order of events for the big day. My mother wanted to be sure everything was set and he knew exactly what needed to be done, she was worried none of his family people had been responding to her calls. To put her mind at rest, I decided to personally deliver some of her messages and sort everything out.

When I arrived, Victor, Ikenna’s gateman, was hesitant to open the gate. I had been visiting for over two years, why was he hesitant all of a sudden? “Victor it’s me o, what’s all this rubbish, open the gate!” I demanded.

“Madam, em, oga say make I no open door for you” he looked at everything except my face, he avoided my eyes like a plague, as if looking me in the eyes would let the guard he forcefully put up, go down.

“Is he inside?”

He nodded.

“I need to see him, it’s urgent,” I pleaded. Through the cracked gate, I saw a red corolla perched behind Ikenna’s range rover. When did he get a new car?

Victor battled internally. “Please,” I pushed on the open gate and he let me inside.

The red corolla had a rosary hanging behind the windscreen. Ikenna was not religious.

As I fondled within my bag to retrieve the spare keys Ikenna gave me, I heard laughter coming from the living room windows. Not just any kind of laughter, laughter that bubbled from within, borne from familiarity and intimacy. I thought about walking in while I turned the keys. What if I just turned back, walked home, and told my mother that Ikenna wasn’t home. I would have promised to check in on him later in the evening. I pulled from my thoughts when the door swung open, leaving the key at the mouth of the door.

“What are you doing here?” Ikenna asked.

He looked different. A chubbier version of the Ikenna I saw two months ago. His belly peeked out of the bottom of his singlet. The Ikenna I knew will never be caught dead in a singlet with untoned muscles.

“I came to talk to you about-” I tried to say when a figure sashayed to his side. “Oge? What a pleasure,” She said.

“Cynthia, what are you doing here?” Her eyes burrowed into a confused frown. “What do you mean? Is it a crime to be in my fiancé’s home?” She moved closer to Ikenna as if asserting her ownership of him. 

I felt like I was in a dream. What did she just say? “Ikenna please we need to talk, my mother wants me to tell you the order of events tomorrow,” I said making my way through the door. He moved forward blocking my path. “I didn’t say you could come in Oge,” He turned to Cynthia “Don’t worry babe, I’ll handle it, you can go back inside,” He said.

She looked hesitant to leave his side, I noticed her squeeze his arm lightly before she sashayed out of frame. He walked out of the door onto the little verandah where I was.

“Oge, what do you want? What order of events? What’s happening tomorrow?” He asked, pulling the bottom of his singlet to hide his peeking flab. 

***

It had gotten much hotter and humid by the time an old jalopy parked at the side of the road. An older man stepped out of the car with a torn, worn-out bag that had pieces of metal scraps and tools sticking out. “Bros where you don dey since now,” the conductor said walking towards the older man and his car. The man said nothing and walked towards the open bonnet of our bus.

“Wetin do am” the older man finally said, inspecting the insides of the bonnet. The driver was already by his side, also inspecting the insides of the bonnet. “E just dey jerk for road,” the driver said.

I shield my eyes from the scorching sun with my handbag. It was 3 pm on a random Wednesday in July, why did it need to be this hot? I thought to myself in frustration.

***

“Please tell me that question is a joke, you cannot seriously be asking me that,” I said. His face was unwavering as he watched me. “Our introduction? To marry, Ikenna, why are you acting like this?” He moved back a bit as if my words hit him. 

“Oge, what is the meaning of this? Have you lost your mind? We are not getting married. How many times do I need to reiterate this to you?” He said in a tone I had not heard in a long time.

“What do you mean we’re not getting married? Are you okay in the head? I didn’t dream the night you proposed to me in front of our friends in that restaurant” I charged. Why was he trying to make me seem like I was crazy? “Or were you not the Ikenna that went on one knee and rambled about how in love you were with me and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together? Or was that a different Ikenna?” I asked. He seemed genuinely confused by my perfectly rational questions.

“We already talked about this countless times, we can’t get married, you know this.” He said softly, with a glint of pity. He glanced over my head, shifting his gaze to the gatehouse. I could tell Victor was watching us. 

“Send him away,” I told Ikenna.

“Huhn?” He said, refocusing his gaze on me.

“You know he’s watching us,”

“Victor! Come here!” he shouted.

I could hear him scrambling around in his gatehouse, his slippers shuffled as he ran over.

Ikenna dug into his pockets to bring our crumpled naira notes, he shoved them at Victor.

“Take, go and buy a pack of water,” he said.

Ikenna counted the money “Oga this is seven hundred Naira, water is two hundred Naira,” he objected innocently.

“Then buy the seven hundred naira pack,” Ikenna added.

Victor ran back to the gate. 

“You were there when my mother sat us both down and had that conversation, you know we can’t be together,” Ikenna continued. “Your mother loves me, she wants us to be together, she blessed our union the afternoon we visited her,” I said. I remembered vividly. 

After we got inside, she offered Ikenna and me a glass of water. She then urged us both to go and rest after the six-hour journey. I gushed about how sweet she was while Ikenna and I unpacked our clothes in his childhood room. We had kissed in between the conversation and he assured me the week here was going to be amazing. 

“What are you saying? You didn’t stop complaining about her from the second we got into the house, you-” he tried to say but was cut abruptly as Victor struggled with the padlock and keys.

“Victor, leave the padlock, I’ll lock the gate, just go,” Ikenna said with a hint of irritation in his voice. Ikenna’s face calmed as Victor walked out, leaving the gate to clang against each other as he closed it.

 “You complained when she commented on your weight, when she offered me water when she insisted we slept in separate rooms, you complained the entire day,” he explained. 

“That’s not possible,” I said. My eyes started to hurt a bit, why was it so bright all of a sudden.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Let’s go inside, you don’t look so good,” he said and ushered me inside.

Cynthia stood up when she saw me walk into the parlour with Ikenna. “Please can you excuse us for a few minutes,” he told her. “Is she doing this again?” She asked, glancing at me. He nodded softly.

“Doing what?” I asked as Cynthia turned the TV off and disappeared behind the door to the bedroom.

“Have you been visiting Dr Ibinabo as we discussed?” He asked, sitting on the sofa and offering me a seat.

 “Who is Dr Ibinabo?” I asked, which only made him sigh. He picked up his phone and dialled a number. I snatched the phone from his hand, I didn’t want him to call some doctor, I wanted us to discuss what would have been the start of the best years of our lives. “I came here to talk about tomorrow, this is the order of events my mother and Uncle Dozie have drawn up,” I said, handing over the neatly folded paper I retrieved from my bag. He only looked at my outstretched hands and shook his head. “Oge this has gone too far, if you’re serious about there being an introduction tomorrow then you’ve gone too far,” he said, trying to control himself. 

“I respect you Oge and I don’t want to raise my voice at you. We are not getting married. I can’t go against my mother’s wishes and do that. She respected us enough to talk to us and we both decided to cancel the wedding.” He said.

“I didn’t decide anything with you, you must have come to that conclusion by yourself and must have forgotten to inform me,” I said.

He inched closer to me, taking my hands in his “Listen to me, I can’t keep doing this with you, every three months you come in here acting like we’re still together,” he looked conflicted “You need to get help, really Oge, I’m getting worried. It’s been over a year and you still haven’t stopped this,” he said concerned.

“Ikenna, i-i-i don’t know what you’re talking about.” Where was all this coming from?

“We can make this work, we can talk to your mother again and work through whatever it was,” I pleaded. I couldn’t lose Ikenna, I wanted to be his wife, I wanted to be his everything. 

Ikenna was my first for many things. He was the first person I opened up to about Obiugo’s death. I remember crying my eyes out behind our compound. I shared a part of me I couldn’t talk about for years with Ikenna over a  crumpled old newspaper filled with peppered meat and onions.

“We can’t make this work, how many times will I explain to you, is it by force?” he said.

I couldn’t think of doing anything else, I fell to my knees in front of him. 

“Ikenna don’t do this to me, we have our introduction tomorrow, our families are going to be there waiting for us.”

“Which families?” He laughed at my face. His patience started to wane and he threw my hands off his lap.

“I’ve had enough, it’s time for you to take your leave Oge,” he said, getting up and shoving me to the side. 

“Please stand up from there,” he clapped, gesturing for me to get up. I couldn’t move, I sat there sobbing, embarrassed. Why would he do this to me? 

“Are you deaf?!” He asked. “Stand up and leave this place, Oge,”

“I’m not going anywhere…” I said under my breath.

“What did you say?”

“I said I’m not going anywhere. If you think you can leave me because of that thing you call a fiancée then you are mad,” I said softly.

Ikenna was the first man I believed in. From the first day I met him, I knew he would be a great man. I saw his potential, and he made me see it ever so clearly. So clearly that when he asked me for five hundred thousand Naira to start his cyber cafe, I begged all my well-off aunties and uncles for the money under the guise of retaking my ICAN examinations.

If that idiot Cynthia thought she was going to snatch my emotional and financial investment just like that then she must be sniffing some of her fake makeup powders.

Ikenna grabbed my arm and dragged me up. He was always much stronger than me.

“I won’t go anywhere, leave me alone!” I snatched my arm from his grip. 

“I don’t want to mistreat you, leave here peacefully and go and visit Dr Ibinabo if you love yourself,” he said pointing at the door.

I was not leaving that house until Ikenna and I sorted things out. I stood by the pillar that shelved Ikenna’s awards and plaques. Seated beside his Entrepreneur of The year 2006 plaque was a picture of Ikenna and Cynthia on the beach. He had his arm over her neck and they sported the widest smiles as they stared into the camera lenses. 

“Victor!” He beckoned. 

Cynthia emerged from the bedroom at the sound of the ruckus. “What’s going on here?” She asked surprised.

“If you love yourself I advise you to get back into that room,” I told her. She looked to Ikenna for answers. 

“Don’t worry babe, just go back inside, she’s already on her way out,” He assured her. She hesitantly went back into the room.

“Is that all?” The driver asked, peeking out his window. The older man nodded as he wiped his hands with a rag. “Correct!” The conductor smiled. “Oya may we dey go o” he beckoned at us. 

I was the only one still seated around. The other two passengers grew tired of monitoring the driver and conductor and had retired to a spot under a tree a bit further down the slope. 

They were engrossed in a conversation they had started that they hadn’t heard the call of the conductor. 

“You think you can just leave me Ikenna? How low of you to use your mother as an excuse.” I said, eyeing the picture of him and Cynthia. “If it’s her you want to be with, just say so, stop this mind games, trying to make me seem like I’m crazy,” I picked up the picture.

“Put it back down and leave, I don’t have patience for this anymore,” He said.

“Were you deaf when I said I wasn’t going anywhere? It’s either her or me,” I said. 

“Then I pick her, go.” He said still pointing at the door

“You are very stupid,” I said as I threw the frame at him. He shielded his face with his elbows as the frame crashed against the wall.

He charged at me, grabbing my arm and pulling me away. “Leave me alone! I said get your hands off me!” I struggled. I grabbed the nearest plaque and slammed it into the back of his head.

His grip loosened and I moved away. He stumbled away grabbing the back of his head. 

“What did you just do ?” He asked, stumbling towards me.   As he tried grabbing my arm again he tripped over the side table and fell to the ground. 

It was then I noticed the bloodstain on the corner of the plaque at the front of my feet. No. I peered over the sofa to catch a glimpse of Ikenna. The back of his head, once light-skinned, was now purple with blood oozing out of a gash. No, no, no.

My limbs, frightened by the situation, became unresponsive. I watched Ikenna’s blood being soaked up by the centre carpet. I willed my legs to walk to the side, I bent over to pick him up by his arms and tried to drag him to my car. I would have taken him to the hospital, and waited for the doctors to tell me that even though there was a thick pool and trace of blood in his house, he didn’t lose enough blood to die. As I plopped his body up so I could open the front door, a scream pierced my ear. I jerked and lost my grip. The scream was silenced by the wet thud of Ikenna’s head hitting the tile.

“What did you!” she shook as she eyed the crimson trail.

“None of this was supposed to happen, I was trying to -” I tried explaining as I gripped the door handle. 

“H-Howww! What did he ever do to you?” she asked in disbelief. She properly assessed Ikenna’s body and my stance by the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked charging toward me. I struggled to open the door and run out before she could get to the door. She grabbed my arm and slammed the door shut, backing me into the corner.

“I was only trying to take him to the hospital” I pleaded. 

“You did this and you think you can get away with it?” she spat and clenched my arms tighter.

“I swear it was a mistake, he was pulling me and I tried to get him to stop” I attempted to explain, but Cynthia was filled with rage, one that could not be reasoned with words.

“HELP OOO! She has killed my husband!” she cried, opening the front door. I kicked it shut with my leg. “You don’t want to do this I promise you, just listen,” I said trying to wriggle my arm out of her grasp. 

“See this idiot, are you mad? Do you still have the temerity to open your foolish mouth? HELP OOOOO!” she howled.

I managed to free my arm as she opened the front door, I shoved her away as I slammed the door. I hoped no one had heard her incessant screaming. I heard a thud as I yanked the door, planning to make a run for it. Cynthia was on the floor, legs maroon-stained as she lay unconscious. This can’t be happening. I dashed towards the gate when I noticed it was still unlocked, not looking back at the home I had wrecked.

***

“The bus is fixed, it’s time to go,” I said to the other passengers as I stood up. 

I took my place in my original seat as the driver closed the bonnet. The conductor took his place in the designated seat by the door. The other two passengers strolled in, taking seats beside one another at the back of the bus, still engrossed in their conversation.

The conductor slammed the door shut just as the bus roared to life. He turned to scan the scanty bus, maybe comparing it to the bus’ previous occupancy level only four hours ago.

“Madam this one wey you no join the other bus, be like say you no too sabi this Lagos like that,” he joked. I forced a smile and nodded. “You be Togolese abi you be Naija girl?” He continued. “I’m a Nigerian,” I managed to say. “All these fine-fine girls, I wonder why they like running from Nigeria, we don’t bite here o” the driver chipped in from the front.

The conductor chuckled. “You don find one correct Togolese gbola, na why you run leave us Nigerian men abi” he laughed heartily. 

I couldn’t conjure a fake smile this time, I only looked out the window as the bus eased out of the side of the road, and back into the express.