Home IF DEATH IS FREEDOM

IF DEATH IS FREEDOM

Late evening, just as the last light of dusk is being swallowed in sips,

Mozwa, a sprawling slum of shacks and shanties scattered somewhere along the fraying hemline of one of the big West African coastal cities.

A light knock on a door – the knock of a gentleman, of which there are none in Mozwa.

A sharp reply like a gunshot, through the door: YAS!

‘Good evening,’ the knocker greets; an insufficient voice, inappropriate in the present surroundings.

Bia finish!’ the voice on the other side of the door delivers like a slap.

‘I don’t want a beer,’ the gentler voice says, sounding bruised from the slap, its owner’s lips almost touching the red rust of the metal-sheet door; he seems pathetically unable to project his voice in a shout to match the other’s. ‘I just need a place to lie for the night.’

‘Hia not hotel!’ There is a dismissive tone in that last shot.

The soft man is unrelenting, ironic for someone with such a wooly voice. ‘I was told I could get a room here for a night.’

Blossom, out of curiosity cultivated from years of living around criminals and their crimes, comes to the door with the dull shuffle of a large, languorous person. She opens it a crack and quickly sizes the stranger up in a practiced look that sweeps him from top to bottom – that is, cream fedora to velvet loafers – and back up to the mirthless eyes on her. She takes in these neat aristocratic features casually.

‘Five hundred,’ she says.

A crisp note appears in the man’s hand – ‘Here.’

She hesitates, eyeing the fine fingers with a wary tilt of her head. ‘You not blackey?’

‘What?’

‘Po-lis.

‘Oh. I’m not.’

Relief passes briefly over her brow. She snatches the bill and lets him in, shuffling aside heavily. He notices that the reason for her shuffling is not actually the encumbrance of her massive frame, which it should have been, but it is largely due to the weight of the inertia sitting on her slumped shoulders, such that she has to drag herself, bosom, belly and bottom, around with some effort. And everything about her seems to fill the room – her wide, proprietorial frame; her heavy breathing, which is a throbbing presence on its own; the thick stench of a week’s worth of sweat hanging about her armpits; and her big, manly voice.

‘Only one night,’ she booms, gloomily.

‘I don’t intend to stay longer than that.’

‘Only one room hia o.’

‘I won’t be needing more than one.’

‘Fine. Come.’

She leads him through the only other door in the place. The room they enter is the size of a pantry. Her size makes it look even smaller, shrinks it, as everything about her – voice, stench, limbs, breasts and buttocks – takes up all the space in the room. Dusk shadows gather and crowd the walls to shrink the room further. This room has its own odour, which is so heavy it manages to wrestle the woman’s to insignificance, and the poor man’s lungs almost collapse under the weight.

‘All this for just five hundred,’ he says, looking around, as limited as ‘around’ is.

‘Just five deah,’ Madam Blossom purrs, in a most unladylike manner which gives her masculine voice a grotesque texture, shoving the fresh note far into the depth of her bra, out of the reach of the man’s second thoughts.

The man, not one of many words, gives the door a long, hard stare. She follows his gaze.

‘Oh, sorry. . .’ she says, reaching for the door. ‘Shout if you need me, or anything.’ She smirks, and winks.

He winces. He doesn’t see how he would need her, or how anybody would for that matter.

‘All I need is rest . . . and some quiet if you can manage it.’

‘Ahhh. . . plenty quiet hia! Just shout me if you need anytin’.’

‘I’ll shout,’ the man promises, in that small voice that is unaccustomed to lifting beyond genteel whispering.

‘Good,’ she smiles, ‘Shoo-gah. My name.’

‘Sugar. Sweet. I’ll remember . . . Goodnight.’

He holds the door open for her, pinning a hard look of contempt on her vast unyielding forehead, until she moves.

She stops in the doorway, filling it, her figure looming ominously like a mountain. ‘An’ if you hia gunshot don’t die, is jus’ children playin’.’

‘Thank you.’

He closes the door on her reluctant behind.

He lies awake, listening to the night – frogs’ raucous discussions, babies’ weepings, fishwives’ relentless rantings, churches’ chantings, random gunshots, cries of Tif! Tif! and scattering feet – until fatigue breaks into his thoughts and sleep steals him away.

*

An hour later, a young thin-faced girl enters the front room. She is wearing the miniest dress from which her legs continue for miles; beautiful, lengthy legs with boy’s hips to go with them; narrow, bony hips that make her body look attractive in that fragile anorexic way of models.

Her dainty face does not carry the dampness of apathy that prostitutes wear over the cacophony of their make-up; she wears her ugly, personalized scowl like a fashion accessory, proudly, but instead of marring her cherubic beauty the frown seems to accentuate it, and makes her small face seem crowded, with worry.

Her tired jaws are working old chewing gum around her mouth mechanically. She flings her empty handbag into a chair and herself into another.

‘I need a damn beer!’

‘Bia finish,’ Madam Blossom says. ‘You finish?’

‘Yeah,’ the girl answers, shutting her purple eyelids and snatching the scarf off her hair; the full hair falls and pours everywhere, some spilling over her face.

Madam Blossom glances at the clock on the wall. ‘You finish early.’

‘The streets are slow tonight.’

‘Street always slow foh you! Every time! Everytime street slow street slow, why?! Ehn, if street slow night still young. . .’

‘Well, maybe this rubbish job is getting too old for me, boring. Besides, it is too cold out there.’

‘Too cold, ha? Or you just too lazy! Everynight you back early – if street not slow, outside too cold, if outside not cold, blackey sniffing aroun’ . . . only you! Man no work no wack o!’

‘Well, I’m not a man.’

‘Ehn-hen? Okay, you no even have where to sleep foh di night, so is better you go back to sleep outside.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that person rent yaw room foh di night.’

The girl’s lithe body whips out of the chair like a lash.

‘You can’t just give my room out like that! I pay for it!’

Madam Blossom chuckles, ‘He pay more, deah.’ She pulls the crisp note out of her bra and thrusts it under the girl’s flaring nose, ‘Smell dis, di man stinkin’ rich!’

The girl slaps the note out of her face. ‘I don’t care if he stinks! I pay you what you ask for the room!’

‘No deah, you pay me notin’, chicken food. Dis one pay me sometin’ good. How much you pay foh one month he pay foh one night. See?’

‘I pay you what your stinking hole is worth!’

Shhhh . . . see, no disturb di man wit’ yaw cry, you know dis bigmen no like shoutin’. Go, go . . . shoo.’

After a moment of baleful silence, the woman fills the room with a sigh. And all of a sudden, her tone takes on a strange hue of maternity that surprises the cold anger out of the girl, thaws her.

‘Or you will sleep wit’ di man, so that you don’t sleep outside in di cold.’ Then she adds, so that her suggestion of ‘sleeping’ is clearly understood, ‘He have plenty money. You can charge him high . . .’

The girl spends some time (too much time for a girl of her kind) in contemplation of this sudden proposal; time that Madam Blossom passes in her own silent contemplation of the girl’s contemplation and countenance, trying to judge whether the girl would need further persuasion or not.

Without a word the thin girl marches towards the room.

‘Hello?’ she says, after stepping out of her dress into the darkness.

Silence.

The man must be asleep. Or even dead. She hopes it is the latter; that would get Madam Blossom in a lot of trouble.

‘Hello?’ she tries again, moving into the bed.

The body stirs. ‘Gladys?’

Recognizing the whisper she leaps from the bed as if stung.

‘Gladys . . .’

That whisper. How did it find its way into this room. The whisper that had filled her nightmares for years. The whisper of the Serpent himself. How had he crawled into her bed again?

‘Father? . . .’ she asks, familiar tears already clogging her voice.

‘Gladys, yes . . .’

‘How . . . did you find me? What are you doing here?’

‘I came to ask you to return home, to ask for your forgiveness . . . I will never let these hands . . . touch you again. Please.’

She flinches at the mention of his hands.

She thought she had escaped their clutch, thought she was free; that he would never find her here in this abyss of the earth. Now he had, and she saw her freedom diminish before her eyes; thin into nothing.

Freedom; it is only temporary, a fleeting thing; that must be why a poet had said that Death is a slave’s freedom; because it is only in death that permanence can be achieved – the permanence of freedom, genuine freedom.

Indeed, death is a slave’s freedom; but it doesn’t have to be the slave’s death.

‘Let me pack my things,’ she whispers.

‘Thank you,’ he breathes, the relief pushing through the flood of his tears like a gush of air. ‘Thank you, darling.’

She leaves the room.

Madam Blossom is already snoring on a mat, her .22 lying next to her head. It is a very small pistol. But its presence seems to give its owner a solid sense of security so that she can sleep at night.

Gladys had always found it amusing that a woman of Blossom’s imposing size and authority would put all her trust in such a small gun; she found it strange that a woman would even sleep with a gun beside her. Now she was grateful.

 @Olubunmi Familoni

P.S: Check out his new website here

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