It was at eleven o’clock when Dennis left Afara. He had left immediately the deceased was lowered into her grave. He’d been driving for about eight minutes and the next village was within his sight now. Presently, houses flashed past and he could see individuals on foot, bicycles, and motorcycles going up and down the wet narrow road.
Something ticked in his brain which made him put his foot down on the brake pedal. Getting out of the car, he took a wide sweeping glance at his surroundings. The weather was cool and the sky an endless expanse of lead. He walked up a muddy path, his tired eyes roaming, scanning. A few moments later, he espied the retreating figure of a young female in blue jeans trousers, some distance ahead.
She didn’t turn, but her shoulder-length hair swayed and her impetuous hips took on a new exaggerated swing.
“Please, excuse me, my dear!”
the girl stopped and waited for him with an arm on her flared hips and a pout on her lips. He took his time and strode up to her.
“Good morning. Sorry to trouble you. D’you live around here?”
She nodded, surveying him with dark eyes.
“You know any Janet around here?”
She looked at him curiously and slowly said “yes” in a low raspy voice.
“Could you, please, show me her house?”
“That’s it,” she said, pointing at a bungalow within an unpainted fenced compound nearby. Her eyes glittered inexplicably.
“Thank you very much.”
He felt her eyes on his back as he walked through the open red gate and stopped at the door of the building. When he turned to look at her, she was gone.
The compound wasn’t very well kept; the gate was rusty and leaned to one side, weeds grew everywhere feet did not trample, and the wall was almost covered with green-brown moss. The house itself was a wee bit shorter than normal, like it had sank into the earth with the weight of the occupants; the roof was rust-brown, contrasting greatly with the ashen walls. The place was dotted with a few mango and guava trees that appeared to Dennis like bored watchmen.
Dennis glanced at his watch and pressed the doorbell; he heard it reverberate inside the building. He let a few minutes tick by and was readying himself to press it again when he heard the hurried patter of feet and the clang of iron as the bolts to the burglary-proof were undone.
A light-skinned young man in his early twenties stood in the doorway, his frame partially hidden in the curtains. He had a look of surprise on his face; it was obvious he was expecting someone else.
“Yes…” he faltered, staring me straight in the eye.
“Mmmm…I’m Dennis and I’d like to see Janet.”
“Who?” He corked his ears towards Dennis and the left side of his twitched as he did so.
“Janet—I presume this is where she lives?”
“Lived,” he said.”
“She doesn’t live here anymore?”
The young man took on the appearance of one who was considering the appropriateness of disclosing some essential family secret. However, before he could respond, a high harsh voice spoke from within.
“Who’s that?” it demanded.
“One Mr. Dennis—He’s asking to see Janet,” he announced over his left shoulder, and making a way for Dennis, said “Come in.”
The inside of the room sharply contrasted with the outside: expensive-looking dark blue leather armchairs, a plush red rug, heavy electronic appliances, and cream walls.
There was a sofa with a man and a woman sitting in it. Both were tall and nearing middle age but it was the woman who had striking features. She was big and tall and Dennis could see sprinklings of black kinky hair dotting her fat fair cheeks and the sides of her face. Her eyes were dark and sharp and glistened in the light. Her partner was darker in complexion, appeared quieter, and soft-spoken.
“You want to see who?” It was like a challenge from the woman.
“By the way, who are you?”
Dennis was both indignant and uneasy; he considered apologizing and taking his leave—forgetting the girl and his jacket. But no, if he couldn’t see Janet, he wouldn’t leave without his expensive American-sewn jacket.
The quiet-looking man interposed:
“You want to see Janet?” His voice was weak and slightly nasal.
“Yes. Can I see her, please?”
“Are you a friend of her’s?”
“I would say yes.”
“And you don’t know?” The eyes of all three were focused on him.
The man had been slightly leaning forward, but now he sight and placed his on the chair, resting his tired head on the backrest.
The young man spoke–softly, almost imperceptibly:
“Janet is dead.”
“My God! When was that?”
“Three months, yesterday.”
“Impossible!” Dennis exclaimed, searching their faces to see if it was some sombre joke. But no, adults don’t trivialize the death of a loved one and, certainly, this couple were too dignified to pull a joke on a complete stranger. “I saw her only yesterday night!”
The woman just stared at Dennis with a glum inscrutable expression on her face. But her husband smiled grimly and asked him to sit down. Dennis didn’t hear him, for his eyes were riveted on a large family photo on the wall.
“You must have seen someone who resembled her,” the man was saying. By now Dennis was standing right before the picture. It was a recent one. There was the man and his wife, the young man who had answered the door, another boy of about thirteen and, of course, Janet.
“This is the person,” he said, pointing at the picture. “This is the person I saw and gave a ride yesterday!”
“Young man,” the man said in a firm voice, rising and walking towards Dennis, “Janet passed on last April. Could you, please leave it at that? Besides we don’t even know you; could you just leave?”
Dennis was sure the girl in the photo was the same girl he’d given a ride and a jacket. He wanted to tell them, so but one look their visibly distressed faces made him change his mind. Apparently, she had been their only daughter and they were yet to get over her demise—that is, if their story were true. He moved slowly towards the door with the young man trailing him.
* * *
The young man’s name was Uche. Outside, he told Dennis how the commercial motorcycle on which his sister, Janet, was riding was ran over by a a speeding dumper truck on her way back from a birthday party. She and the cyclist had been horribly mauled and had died instantly. And she had just been offered admission to study medicine at Unical.
“I’m so sorry,” Dennis murmured, his eyes on the weed-strewn earth. By now he was unsure of what to believe. Maybe it was a ghost, a look-alike, or maybe the girl had lied that she lived here. Or maybe he this was not happening—only a continuation of yesterday’s dream. Just maybes upon maybes. Then he remembered something.
“The girl,” he said, rather sheepishly, “she said she was cold and asked for my jacket.”
“And you gave her?”
“Mmmm. I took pity on her. She was trembling with cold. In fact, that’s the main reason I’m here: to get it back.”
Both men sauntered lazily towards the gate, hands-in-pockets and eyes on the ground.
Uche said, “What colour is it?”
“What’s the point?” He raised his head and looked sideways at Uche.
“Nothing,” Uche said, returning the stare.
“Thick, navy blue, with three white horizontal stripes across the chest. It cost me almost four thousand naira!” he added. Then, suddenly, he turned to Uche, grasped his hand, and asked to see Janet’s grave.
“What’s the point? Or don’t you believe our story?”
“I do. But I’d like to see it—or is her grave far from here?”
Uche led the way to the back of the house. His face was set and his lips trembled as he chewed behind them.
“There,” he said, pointing.
In the shade of a mango tree with very dense foliage was a mound of earth out of which a few green spiky weeds had sprouted. At one end of the mound, stood a short white cross, the crosspiece of which was partially concealed by a black material draped over it.
Both men approached the grave.
“What’s that?” a voice asked behind them, startling them both. They turned around to see Uche’s father staring past them at the cross.
“You mean that cloth hanging on the cross?”
The man nodded.
“Just saw it—Have no idea who put it there.”
“Then find out what it is!”
Uche walk gingerly towards it, his back towards his father and Dennis. He got hold of the material and spread it out in the grey noon light. Then slowly he turned towards the others and stretched out his arms sideways: hanging from his fingers was a dark blue woolen jacket with three horizontal stripes across its breast.