It wasn’t my fault I was laid off, discarded like a worn, dirty rag if I were speaking the truth, but it seems the truth couldn’t save me from being called a thief by the chairman, who had once told me that I was the future of the company. In his own words, “you young bloods are what this paper needs” And truly, I had the nose for front page news.
I remember it was a windy night. Maybe that was why I heard him before I saw him. The chilly breeze shoved his rich baritone laughter into my cramped hole as if to punish me for defying gravity, like a boring afterlife wasn’t enough punishment. It bounced off the walls, and passed straight through my body. This belly laugh that must have started from the pit of his stomach, travelled haphazardly through his lungs did something I had thought I would never experience: butterflies.
I had grown up in a small village in South-central Nigeria that is bordered by vast water mass on every side. As many folktales go, Amadioha was in an ugly mood because other gods tried to steal his thunder. He roared in his thunderous voice, and sent his minion, lightning to strike them dead. There was chaos everywhere lightning struck: houses went up in flames, children were separated from their parents by the swirling wind sweeping through villages. The villagers cried out, and offered up sacrifices, but this time, Amadioha couldn’t be appeased with the blood of goats and chickens. Where lightning struck, nothing remained. One of the lightning bolts struck the ocean, and created a land mass of what will be known today as Ayamelum.
I liked boys but pretended not to. I had read about how one’s stomach would be dancing like butterflies were prancing about. I wanted to experience this feeling but mama warned that I would get pregnant if a boy, including Mazi Okeke’s blind son looked at me. It didn’t matter if we were in different locations, as long as our heads were inclined to face each other, the pregnancy virus would travel by air to find a home in my stomach, and I would also lose my virginity in the process. I had always wondered how it could track me; would it sniff the air and shift through the many odours until it zoned in on my scent. The only rational answer I could come up with was that mama knew better.
From then on, I learned the art of averting my head whenever I saw any boy approach me. I was saving my amaghi nwoke, my virginity till I got married. I didn’t want to be the laughing stock, like my friend, Chidebere. A rich man from the city had come to pluck her flower. And he didn’t come to prune her garden with empty hands; he came bearing gifts loaded inside his big car. Yards and yards of expensive George fabrics in different colours, and patterns that were part of the padded bride list for her Igba Nkwu took up more space than his relatives that escorted him. Chidebere’s father began raising his shoulders as he walked around with his hand akimbo, like he was the one they had come to marry. His greetings were always accompanied by name dropping. He would say, as if one didn’t know, that his daughter was getting married to Cletus, the sole distributor of Mercedes parts in Nigeria. And as a parting shot, he would exclaim, “my daughter has a good head”.
Everyone had their version of the drama that unfolded. Some said they were awoken by the sound of loud drums, others swore they heard the rustling leaves whistling “akwuna”. By morning, it was no longer a matter of dem-say-dem-say. They could all agree on one thing as they congregated in front of Chidebere’s family house: This gist was smoking hot, and it was sweeter than oka and ube. Chidebere didn’t pass the virginity test. In-fact, she tried to pull a fast one but was caught while trying to swap the red-stained handkerchief she had kept under the bed. Unknown to her, Cletus had seen the bowl filled with red liquid under the kitchen sink, and decided to hide behind the door to see what would become if it. He watched as Chidebere dunked a white handkerchief into the bowl; this reddish piece of cotton would later help her announce the demise of her purity, wipe away her tainted past and wrap her secrets in its stained folds.
Cletus was livid. He called all his people to deliver the news: He had married used goods. He, Cletus, the sole distributor of original parts had married a second hand girl, okrika. Tufia kwa! After all the money he had spent paying school fees for cousins, brothers, sisters, even cousins that couldn’t trace their branches on the family tree. What does he get in return for his toils? Spoiled fruit! The only conclusion he came to was that women are the same everywhere.
From then on, parents frightened their daughters with the “Chidebere” curse. If one was caught sneaking in after dark, you would hear them exclaim, “If you don’t take time, you will end up like Chidebere, or “Oh! You want to be like Chidebere?” and their favourite, “Who will marry you if you let every nwa na- enweghi see the colour of your pant”. These were some of the many cautions and advices dished out like oha soup. The virginity test was dubbed Chidebere test; mothers pleaded with their daughters to tell them the truth before the elders collected the bride price. Some girls were made to swear before Amadioha that they were truly innocent. The wedding night was a vigil of sorts for the village. Everyone banded together and waited for the news in apprehension. Those who couldn’t resist making extra money placed bets to predict the outcome. And if the bride passed with glowing colours, a large feast that could occasionally stretch into three days would be arranged in her honour.
As for Chidebere, she had become invisible. One day, I overheard Mazi Okeke tell his wife that a wallpaper is more useful. He said half-jokingly “A wallpaper knows its job is to be fine. Chidebere is fine but she failed at the only job she was created for”. Her family, especially her father had disowned her after she disgraced their name. He threw her out of his house alongside her Ghana-must-go and a warning: if I smell you around my house eh, you’ll wish your mother didn’t give birth to you. It took the intervention of the village elders for him to allow her live in the abandoned hut 1km away from the main house. However, he issued an ultimatum – he should never set his eyes on her, not even her shadow.
And a shadow she became; the once beautiful flower began to wilt. An outcast, sentenced to a life of loneliness because of one mistake. So I took it upon myself to take on a project Chidebere self-loathingly called “Bring Back Chidebere”. One Sunday morning, I arrived at Chidebere’s with a basket filled with different home delicacies: fried plantain, roasted oka, and ube, garden egg soup, pounded yam, palm kernel seed, and palm wine. We were going to have a picnic at the river bank, laugh like little girls, race each other, and have the best time. I was going to make her happy again even if it killed me. Little did I know that it would kill me. That that would be the last time I had a body.
It happened in a flash. One minute I was on the river bank, and the next I was looking down at my body lying close to the river bed. Chidebere was shaking my body, screaming at me to come back. I tried to go back but it felt like I had slammed myself into a wall. I tried again but this time it felt like sharp needle-like pains; my body had betrayed me. I’ve become something the world doesn’t believe in: ghosts.
Now every day is a painful reminder that I do not belong to this world, and I have no home to take pride in. I wonder if mama could have foreseen what would happen to me, she wouldn’t have given me the name, Ugoulo. I couldn’t dwell on possible names my mother should have settled for because I was clearly intrigued by the human that was making me feel all this butterflyish feelings. Who was this human that was capable of making a ghost feel alive? I slinked out of my hole and I saw him with a woman. It must have been his wife since what they were doing was what my cousin, Tobe, said she and her husband did that got her pregnant. She said his John Thomas entered her thing. She said it was painful, and she didn’t enjoy it and couldn’t wait for it to be over. It was usually over in one minute. But this couple seems to be enjoying it. Or is his John Thomas not Nigerian? Because I wanted to hold onto this new way of life, this joy I feel whenever I hear his voice, I became a regular visitor, more like wallpaper, and thankfully, I know my job. I was there when they got their first car, when they argued, when they tore the sheets like wrestlers; they called it love making. How does one make love by fighting? I was there when things started to take the turn for the worse; when the laughter turned to screams but the butterflies in my stomach kept fluttering.
I remember the first time I saw her. I was dashing out of the house, and trailing closely behind me were screams, and curses; my wife’s trusted assistants. I call them that because they seem to take on a life of their own, and today, they are perched comfortably on my ears whispering loudly, as if my wife, Rita had issued an ultimatum – succeed in reminding me I had become a nobody, or suffer the consequences of failure. Knowing her, I could picture what she would do to them if they failed. I tell them that I’m already losing my mind, that my head had begun to throb, that they could go back to report to their madam; their task is all done, and maybe they could even ask for a raise seeing as they’ve been doing a good job since I lost mine. But I guess the fear of Rita is the beginning of wisdom.
As I turned to take the next set of stairs that would lead me to freedom, I saw a deathly figure. I remember one little detail; she was white. Not oyinbo white. More like transparent white nylon white. And she began floating towards me like a chunk of Agege bread tossed into a cup of tea. I couldn’t move. I willed my legs to run, but I was rooted to the spot; my fingers gripped the rails as I held my breath, and chanted: “The blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus”. But still, this deathly pale figure inched closer. I clamped my eyes shut and swiftly changed the course of my prayers because this battle was no longer against flesh and blood. This time, I wanted Angel Michael and Angel Gabriel to swoop down from their posts, and cast into hell this vile creature who had come for my soul. I wasn’t ready to die and be remembered only as a rich man whose fall from grace had enough force to mow a grassy football field.
It wasn’t my fault I was laid off, discarded like a worn, dirty rag if I were speaking the truth, but it seems the truth couldn’t save me from being called a thief by the chairman, who had once told me that I was the future of the company. In his own words, “you young bloods are what this paper needs” And truly, I had the nose for front page news. I could sniff out a story, smell a scandal, whiff out corrupted officials and root out any lead like a dog in search of a buried bone. I have travelled to the creeks of Bonny, interviewed aggrieved militants, facilitated the release of a white shell worker, and obtained an audio recording of a corrupt serving minister planning to transfer state funds to his offshore account. There was nothing more rewarding than writing for the Daily Star; the best newspaper company in south-west Nigeria. I had always wanted to be a journalist and I started writing for my university’s monthly magazine. By the time I graduated, I had a enough editorial pieces to show editors. But I didn’t just want any job, I wanted the Daily Star. They were bold, unapologetic, and their editors had cool names. My favourite editor went by the byline, wordsamurai. I still can’t describe the thrill that coursed my body as I signed my employment letter.
For 10 years, I gave the company my blood, sweat and ink. Never called in sick, had close to five months of unused leave, and what do I get as an award for the being a model staff? A front page press release with the headline that read: Every day for the thief, today for the owner. I couldn’t show my face anywhere. I stopped picking calls, and I told my wife to tell everyone that I had travelled out of the country. This disgrace was because I was falsely accused of stealing one million naira! Imagine that. Me, the best investigative journalist couldn’t unravel the mysterious disappearance. While the culprits walked freely, lining their pockets with riches, spark that held my forever and a day marriage together started to fizzle out
Now, life has become a pendulum rhythm of chasing elusive job offers, begging for handouts from friends and family, passing out call cards at different writing conferences and enduring the taunts from my “beloved” wife. That’s not including the pitying glances from neighbours or the subject of the compound gossip that quickly give way to an uncomfortable silence whenever I happen to be within hearing distance. One day, I overheard a neighbour saying my wife’s voice was his alarm clock. She could wake even the dead. Wait, could she have woken this figure coming for me?
I waited for the crushing blow, but nothing happened. I did a quick pat down but didn’t feel any bruises, so I opened one eye, and then the other and staring straight at me were the prettiest brown eyes I had ever seen. This ghost wasn’t like willy willy; the evil ghost that tormented little children in their sleep. This one looked Casper friendly and she was even smiling. I guess I could call the parting that separated the lower half of her face a smile. She raised her hand and touched my face. It was cold. Like cold winter nights in Akure. Seeing as I hadn’t bolted, she became bold and began to touch me everywhere. Feelings I thought were dead sprung to life and I’m ashamed to say I was aroused by a ghost. I couldn’t reciprocate the gesture because every time I touched her, my hands passed through her body.