When Aniekan Usoro was summoned by 8pm that night, he was certain of only one thing: The landlord’s call had nothing to do with his rent. The rent wasn’t due yet. Important dates like that were always neatly circled and labelled on the wall calendar across from his bed with a sharpened pencil. August 26th, the date he labelled ‘rent expires’, was still three months away. He had checked it immediately after Oga Big Joe sent for him. The uncertainty made him nervous like a man set up for a blind date.
Aniekan wasn’t a rich man; but what he lacked in wealth, he more than made up for in self-respect and dignity. He owed no man. The thought brought a satisfied smile to his face as he walked to the landlord’s four-bedroom bungalow residence. He began to whistle an old church hymn to calm his nerves.
His whistling ceased when he heard the raised baritone voice of Madam Mirabel, his landlord’s wife. He paused at the entrance to eavesdrop, hoping to get a feel of the situation but couldn’t pick up much. All he heard was Madam Mirabel, cursing and threatening. He quietly let himself in.
“Uuuuseless, good-for-nothing man. You will not disgrace me in this town, you hear me? You will…” Aniekan cleared his throat loudly, announcing his presence and interrupting Madam Mirabel mid sentence. She gave him a cold stare for his audacity but said nothing to him.
“Ah, welcome, welcome. Have a seat,” Oga Big Joe said, rising from his armchair and offering it to his guest. “I am very sorry for disturbing you like this,” he said, smiling.
“Nooo, my Oga. No problem at all,” Aniekan said.
For a man on the receiving end of Madam Mirabel’s angry outburst, Aniekan noticed that his landlord looked very relaxed. His smile still shone. He was even watching a Nollywood movie. Two other people sat quietly on the couch: Job, the ten year old son of the Big Joes, looking glum with his two hands clasped on his laps and Benjie, the security guard, who seemed unfittingly keen and expectant. Aniekan wondered why Benjie was there. What role could Benjie possibly play in resolving a dispute? The man had such an ill-reputation on Cassava Street that one could never guess he’d lived there for only eight months. He was drunk most evenings, and then, he was a fighting bull in the ring.
Mr and Mrs Big Joe remained standing. From the way Madam Mirabel repeatedly tapped one foot on the brown rug, hands poised defiantly on her hips, it was clear that her silence since Aniekan’s arrival was only temporary. But it was her husband who spoke first.
“The lady has gone mad,” he said, pointing at his wife without looking her way.
“Which lady? It is you and your dead witch of a mother that is mad,” she said.
“I want you to be a witness.” Oga Big Joe said. He paused. “Mirabel would be leaving my house tonight.”
Madam Mirabel sneered, clapping her hands mockingly as if she’d heard the most absurd joke. Aniekan did the only thing that seemed reasonable: “Sir, can we all calm down please. What really happened?”
“The time for explanations is long past,” said Mr Big Joe. “A man cannot achieve much with a nagging, untrusting, inconsiderate woman like this.”
She made to respond again but before she could, he called “Benjie.” Benjie sprang to his feet and in seconds he was in Madam Mirabel’s bedroom, gathering her things and hurling them outside. She went berserk. “Benjie. Benjie. How many times did I call you? I will crush you. I will finish you.” Benjie kept at it. She turned to her husband: “Jonathan, warn your thug to leave my things.”
Mr Big Joe ignored her. His eyes were fixed on the panel that separated the living room from the bedrooms as Benjie bundled bag after bag and tossed them carelessly on the outside pavement. Madam Mirabel stormed out of the house and attempted to bring back one of the bags. Then something happened. Mr Big Joe leapt to the door and bolted it. He ran to the backdoor and bolted that as well. It wasn’t the action that surprised Aniekan –it was the person. He could partly relate with a man who would go any length to enforce his verdict on a defiant wife. But not this man. Not Oga Big Joe, who spoke in a whisper, smiled nonstop and bought biscuits and sweets for the compound kids.
Madam Mirabel banged on the doors, cursing and yelling. Job cried uncontrollably.
“Sir if this was what you intended to do, then why invite me here?” Aniekan said. “I beg you in the name of God; allow her come in. Let us resolve this thing as adults.” The landlord did not respond to him, neither did he respond to his wife’s raging nor his son’s tears. Aniekan saw in this man a killer instinct he’d never suspected him to possess.
For over forty minutes the situation inside the house remained unchanged. But outside, Madam Mirabel’s fits had given way to feeble knocks and a very conciliatory tone to boot. “Joe, please open the door and let us settle this as a family,” she repeatedly said. And sometimes she added, “…for the sake of our boy.” Despite her querulousness, Aniekan knew that Madam Mirabel loved and cared deeply for her husband and son. At exactly 9.10pm, Oga Big Joe rose and walked into his bedroom, ignoring Aniekan’s calls. Aniekan moved to follow him but decided not to when Job resumed crying. He comforted the lad, gently stroking his bobbing head.
Just as suddenly as he left, Mr Big Joe returned clutching a grey office file from which he withdrew a sheet of paper. He marched straight to the door.
“Mirabel,” he called out.
“Joe, dear, am here, talk to me, please open the door.”
“I would open it shortly,” he said. “But only on one condition.”
“Ok, just open first, we would discuss that. Together. As a family.”
“You still don’t get it dear. We are not discussing anything. You will do as I say.”
Aniekan moved closer to the door and listened.
“I have in my hand a letter of undertaking which you are going to sign.” Mr Big Joe produced his glasses from his right breast pocket and began to read the letter slowly.
LETTER OF UNDERTAKING
I, Mirabel Wogu, solemnly swear that I would at all times be completely obedient and submissive to my husband, Jonathan Wogu. I would shun acts capable of embarrassing him, especially those that question his fidelity to me. If I fail at any point to adhere to this vow, he is at liberty to take any action(s) that he deems appropriate, including sending me packing out of his house, penniless and without custody of our only son, Job. So help me God.
He waited a few seconds to let it sink in. Then he said: “Don’t be mistaken, my dear. If you default, I won’t sue you. God forbid! How can a man sue his own wife? What would people say? I’m only doing this for conscience sake. So that when I do what’s on my mind, I won’t feel somehow… I want to be satisfied… that I gave you a chance. That’s it! So… are you ready to sign?”
There was a long silence.
“I will sign your letter,” Madam Mirabel finally said.
Benjie opened the door. Madam Mirabel signed the undertaking, and then Mr Big Joe signed, followed by Aniekan and Benjie as witnesses.
When Aniekan returned home that night, his dear wife, Gold, was up waiting for him. She, just like every other tenant in 154 Cassava Street, had heard the ruckus coming from the landlord’s house. Aniekan knew the issue would be the subject of many bedroom conversations that night. In spite of his exhaustion, he patiently narrated everything to Gold. He asked her the questions in his heart like how it was that grief could become so quickly etched in a woman’s eyes, so real it could almost be handled and yet so far like the heavens that nothing on earth could alter it. The ever sensitive Gold knew that he did not expect a reply. She simply massaged his stiff back and stayed attentive. The last thought on his mind as sleep came was how blessed he was to have a wife like Gold, who knew when and how to speak to a man.