The Year Lilian Quartey Learnt to Pack a Bag

The Year Lilian Quartey Learnt to Pack a Bag
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I.

Apparently, the handle, @Tega_orFrank, had, for the past one hour, been rant-tweeting about the “outrageous” fees a friend of his paid for his kids who were just in kindergarten and preschool.

THE GOLD STANDARD Retweeted
Tega @Tega_orFrank . 15m
From St Agnes Sabo to Igbobi Grammar Sch, no pupil pays up to 1/4 of what folks pay for private education!! #NaijaPrivateEdu

THE GOLD STANDARD Retweeted
Tega @Tega_orFrank . 21m
WTF is a “preschool” anyway?????? Kids sliding from the uterus straight to the classroom…is that it?! #NaijaPrivateEdu

Lilian Quartey (@LQuartey), a university lecturer on strike since the previous week (and not particularly feeling up to going to her office that Tuesday morning), sat at her dining table in her home in Kumasi, checking her Twitter, when she stumbled on the frenzied tweets from this obviously Nigerian guy, which The Gold Standard (@GoldStandard_Gh) was, for some reason, retweeting. She knew St Agnes Sabo and Igbobi Grammar School. People she’d known from many years ago had attended these schools—some of them neighbours, some friends. She also used to know a Tega, but couldn’t remember if he’d also been called Frank. Maybe all of this was a quirky coincidence—wonderful entertainment for a half-bored lecturer who hadn’t taught a class in a week. Normally, she would be in her office by this time, even with the strike on: When her children were very young and on holidays, it used to be impossible to mark students’ scripts or do any writing at home against their shrieking, stampeding, and somersaulting. And even now they were all grown and out of the house, she fled from the quietness of the house, and the droning refrigerator, and often wondered how she would cope with retirement: Wouldn’t she wrinkle faster than a rubber bag thrust in fire and die within three months? Yes, she would.

THE GOLD STANDARD Retweeted
Tega @Tega_orFrank . 27m
#NaijaPrivateEdu Train teachers, donate to libraries, pay the fees of poor pupils! 2/2

Lilian went to @Tega_orFrank’s TL.

Tega Retweeted
Dat FAT Bitch @AbiesGuobadia . 3s
Private schools that one teacher will be teaching four different subjects. Smh. #NaijaPrivateEdu

Tega @Tega_orFrank . 30m
#NaijaPrivateEdu You’ve got money to run your own school? Don’t open one! Invest that money into improving GOVT schools! 1/2

Tega @Tega_orFrank . 35m
Visited a “Montessori”. School didn’t even have a playground. The entire school is a 2-storey building! #NaijaPrivateEdu

Back in the 70s and 80s, when Lilian lived with her mother in Nigeria, in Lagos, Tega, a boy two years younger than she, had lived close to her street, in a place called Bariga; he’d had two elder sisters and two younger brothers; his mother was a teacher, his father a motor mechanic; and he had been one of the people she knew who attended that Igbobi College. Same person? In one of his pictures, captioned “The Oderhohwo Clan”, he was standing with two men who looked thirty-something and who divided his features—the narrow stem of a nose sprouting towards wing-looking eyebrows—between them. “Oderhohwo… Oderhohwo…” Lilian didn’t remember a surname.

She sent @Tega_orFrank a message—Hello, I apologise for barging in like this but I stumbled on your tweets and am curious. Are you one Tega that used to live in Lagos, Bariga precisely, between the 70s and 80s and went to Igbobi Grammar School and had an elder brother that was very dark, we called him Black Polish? My sincere apologies if you’re not the person.

She stared idly out a window in the dining area: a grumbly breeze ferried the scent of damp soil, promising a repeat of last night’s rain. In her message to @Tega_orFrank, who may, after all, not be anyone she knew, she’d given him her maiden name, Lilian Adjei; if he was her old friend, he’d remember her—he’d remember Lilian’s mother, “Aunty Roseline”, the talkative hairdresser and Ghanaian woman who was probably the only woman anyone knew back in the 70s that wore her hair clipped very low—

@Tega_orFrank was replying now, each message popping up robotically fast, with a torrent of exclamation marks, even for the messages that were questions.—Where did you jump out from!!!!!!!! You won’t believe this, you crossed my mind some months ago!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Really?

*

Tega, it turned out, still lived in Nigeria, Benin City. He ran a car-hire business, had vehicles shuttling between Benin and Lagos often. His wife, he told Lilian, had run away a long time ago, when the older of their two sons was three. He and the woman never got officially divorced, and Tega didn’t know where in the world she was at the moment, nor was he looking for her. Last time he saw her, three years ago, she’d been in Benin “for something”—Tega hadn’t asked what—and had found her way to Tega’s office, just to greet him. (—It’s the children that are really in touch with her. Which one is my own? It’s not as if I need her to come and breastfeed them for me. They’re big boys now. Both of them are in secondary school.)

Lilian told him she used to be married herself; her husband died six years ago. She had five children, two of them twins, the youngest two in university. The oldest one, Nii, lived in Takoradi and worked for a firm that paid him an insult for a salary, as if he’d gotten his law degree for free. The one following Nii, Hector, was always in Takoradi whenever she called him, in Nii’s house, where he did some software-related business. Lilian suspected Hector had quietly dropped out of university—did Tega know, all semester that boy hadn’t asked her for money for anything, not even fees?—but she was yet to ask him about this. She’d married too early and had had her children too early—or didn’t Tega think so?—and now they’d all left home too early, when she was only forty-four.

It was past ten a.m. when Lilian and Tega began chatting, reminiscing, updating each other about their lives since childhood. By the time Lilian looked up again at the clock, its hands had circled down to 3:25 p.m. This was the longest she’d ever spent online, and she hadn’t bathed since morning.

*

Have you visited Nigeria again since after you left?

No.

Why?

Why?

For normal visit now.

Visit who? I don’t know anybody there.

She stood up to switch on the generator; the electricity had been off since around six p.m.

Tega tweeted a picture: a young boy and young girl, both of them holding hands as if on a date, backing the camera with their big, round, asses—Guys these days be growing big-big butts. Is this even legit? #AssogenicCouple #AllAreAllowed #ItsLegit

You tweet like a 19-year-old, Lilian was about to say in his DM, but worried this might offend him, and typed instead—There’s still a huge difference between the “assogenic-ness” of a man and that of a woman.

I agree!!! A woman’s ass is connected to all the best parts of her body too!! Yum!

“Best parts” as in her pussy?

Lol!

Why are you laughing?

Sort of had this idea in my head that you’d be put off as soon as I went raw, lol.

I’m not put off. Haven’t I seen my own vagina before? It’s a woman’s best parts, you’re right. Her engine room. Followed by boobs. Although boobs don’t really compare.

Errrrrrr………weeeeeeeeell………I like boobs as well, thanks very much!!!!

Hahaha. No wahala. I was just saying.

OK! What part of a guy’s body do you like?

Hahahaha… The black pole. Is there anything else to enjoy on a man?

Tega didn’t reply immediately. As Lilian waited, she checked out his pictures again, the ones that were of him. The wing-looking eyebrows seemed askew now on the face of a man his age, but he was handsome, even if in a hazy manner; and from the pictures that showed his full body, she made a note—in case he returned and got embarrassed at their flirtatious messages and their chat spluttered into awkwardness—to change the subject: ask him if he preferred sandals to shoes.

She decided, after twenty minutes, to type another message complimenting his sandals: They were made of “excellent leather,” she said. As if she was such an expert on leather.

She’d postponed her bath by thirty minutes since her last message about “the black pole”, and when, after five minutes, Tega still hadn’t replied her messages, she went ahead with the bath and, afterwards, tied a cloth over her naked body and went out to sit in the balcony. The night air was warm: rain was going to fall. From the headlights-lit street below, she could hear the yell of mates calling for passengers going to Tech.

She checked her phone.

The POLE is enough. Especially when it’s heavy. He sent a wink.

She winked back.

She didn’t go to her office the following day, Wednesday, as she’d planned. She watched the news in the morning and afternoon and also on the morning of Thursday for updates on the strike. UTAG and Government were still negotiating, she told Tega. Somewhere in the midst of the unspooling hours she spent chatting with him—and informing him that, since her husband’s death, she hadn’t found penetrative sex very satisfying, unlike before—Tega sent her a picture of his dick, with a complaint: He’d just had a girl over and fucked her and, now, minutes after she was gone, he was hard again. Lilian typed—Hahaha, and—I’m thinking of coming to Nigeria. Hope your bed is big enough for two.—and then, two long-lashed blush emoticons.

 

II.

On Saturday, 11:35 a.m., Lilian Quartey landed in Nigeria. She spotted Tega almost as soon as she stepped out of the arrival lounge of the Murtala Mohammed Airport Lagos, dragging two suitcases, and waited for him to spot her. Her handbag and passport, and a half-eaten pack of biscuits she’d had with her throughout the flight from Kumasi, and a white handkerchief were gathered in her sweaty hands. She observed Tega quietly: he had earphones hanging from his ears, and the large spread of his toes made her arbitrarily conclude that he must prefer sandals because he felt restricted in shoes. He had come with someone, a man. One of his company drivers, he would explain later, about the man. He spotted her then, and started trotting towards her. She smiled; he could have simply walked—she wasn’t a Maame Water, wasn’t going to vanish if he didn’t reach her fast enough. He squeezed her hands, laughed and looked away for a self-conscious, cute, second, and she died to beg him to fuck her right there on the hot tarmac—fill her womb with his come.

Walking to the car, past a harassment of voices inquiring if they needed an airport taxi, Tega said, glancing at her suitcases the driver was wheeling, “All this just for one week’s visit?”

“Oh, don’t mind me. I’m very terrible at packing. It’s as if I just throw in everything I think I’ll need, even for the shortest journeys! And then the bags all come out looking very unwieldy and difficult to carry. My late husband, he could pack the whole world into one suitcase and there’d still be space left. Besides, I prefer to be over-packed than under-packed.”

At the car Tega apologised for the inconvenience of a huge fold of rug occupying one half of the backseat. The rug was for his office back in Benin. Lilian agreed to sit in front instead, and he opened the passenger door, on the right-hand side, for her.

*

Benin City, five hours later—with most of its buildings painted dark brown and the tro-tros a reddish version of that—would be the first other Nigerian place Lilian was visiting, having never left Lagos in all the years she and her mother lived here.

When she and her mother fled Nigeria—a week after the Nigerian government announced that all illegal immigrants vacate the country in two weeks—Lilian had been eleven years old. Three days after the Expulsion Order was given, Alhaja, the landlady of the compound Lilian and her mother lived in, was already finding it difficult to answer Lilian’s mother’s greeting. She knocked on their door one evening, as Lilian and her mother were eating, and entered with a woman cuddling two babies. Alhaja greeted Lilian’s mother, then said to the woman with the babies, “Na the room be this. The toilet and the bathroom dey for back. The room get ceiling fan—shebi you dey see am? Na me install this fan with my money. All my tenants meet fan for here when them come. This side na parlour, inside na the bedroom. Shebi na only these two pikin you get, abi? Which day you dey come pay the rent…?”

The next day Lilian and her mother, chequeredly walking and running, went to Lilian’s mother’s hair salon, close to the University of Lagos, to pack what they could into a Ghana-Must-Go. Her mother—“What are going to do now, eh? What are we going to do now?”—glanced around the salon and began throwing things into the bag, instructing Lilian on other things to throw in: jars of hair cream and lotion, combs (some with oily strands of hair twined around their thick teeth), dividers and rollers, an extension box, a flask. Lilian threw a hand mirror into the bag, her mother threw it out over her shoulder; mirrors were sold everywhere “at home”, she said, the words meaning, for the first time, as far as Lilian could remember, Ghana—not their cramped rooms in Bariga. “What if the mirror breaks inside the bag and injures somebody?” her mother said, grabbing their radio and some cassettes from the dressing table. She forgot to fold in the antenna before pressing the radio into the bag. The antenna broke. She folded in what was left of it, put the radio in the bag, and, with Lilian pulling the zipper taut at one end, managed to zip the overfed bag.

They hurried out of the salon, abandoning the hair dryers (plugged to the walls but switched off and cold) and a calendar that had a picture of a woman holding a cigarette.

The following week, as they hauled their load into one of many, many, trucks piled with people and bags of yams and beans and clothes, pots, blankets, stoves, television sets, and photo albums and children’s schoolbooks and buckets and gari—and mattresses, pillows, and a bicycle—hurtling towards Seme Border, Lilian’s mother kept talking about the fine-fine things they would do as soon as they reached her people in Accra. Lilian wished she would shut up. It was her mother’s fault that they’d been reduced to travelling in a truck, like cattle, after losing everything: Lilian’s father, a man unknown to her, was Nigerian, but Lilian’s mother had lied to him that the baby she was carrying wasn’t his, because, she’d told Lilian, she could never marry a man whose four teeth were missing—a realisation she’d suddenly come to after sleeping with him long enough to get pregnant—and she’d threatened to pour him hot water if he ever came near her again. Lilian was raised fully as Ghanaian: Lilian Oforiwaa Adjei. No dot of her Nigerian blood existed on record. If only her mother had ignored what her father’s teeth looked like and married the man, they wouldn’t have to run away like this. Like homeless people.

But her mother couldn’t hear Lilian’s mind; she couldn’t shut up; she kept saying the Expulsion Order was payback for 1969, when their own people drove Nigerians out of Ghana—“It’s revenge. We did it to them first…”

Weeks later—after they, exhausted from days of travelling and hunger and being refugees at Benin and then Togo, limped off the ship at Tema Harbour, with their luggage on their heads, and going on to endure the incessant scrape and creak of containers, and the bass chatter of the dock workers, and the shouted invitations from the chop bars around selling kenkey and fufu and light soup, rice and tatale, and these food sellers saying, “Akwaaba! Welcome!”—Lilian saw her mother bow her head and wipe tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. They were standing with their family friends, Uncle Kofi and his wife Aunty Mary, who were telling them about the disappearance of the son of another family they all knew, Uncle Joe and Aunty Efua. While camped at Cotonou, the missing boy, Kwabena, had been sent to go and buy soap, and he never came back. Uncle Joe and Aunty Mary, still searching for their son, hadn’t come on the ship that had brought them home to Tema; in fact, Cotonou was the last place anyone had seen them.

“It didn’t make sense at the time what my mother kept saying—revenge, revenge, revenge,” Lilian would say to Tega a week later, on her second Saturday in Nigeria, as she folded clothes into her suitcases in preparation for her flight back to Ghana the following day, Sunday. “And it doesn’t make sense now. If you people were still aggrieved over 1969, would you have accepted us in your country when we came flocking in only a few years later?”

“Africans are not united, that’s always our problem,” Tega began, “and that’s why we can never develop. Look at the EU, Europe with all its warmongering and petty, passive-aggressive, alliances. If those of us in West Africa alone can study what they’ve done, imagine how far we would have gone by now! During Abacha’s time, we had—”

Lilian shook her head; he was missing the point. “Xenophobic resentment is natural, migration isn’t. If you study the history of mass human movements, it’s always in relation to unpleasant circumstances. If they weren’t chasing something desirable, they were running from something bad. Think about it. If you have a home, I say, live in it, and nobody will wake up one morning to insult you.”

“Are you saying we were justified in kicking you people out of Nigeria?”

*

After about ten minutes driving inside Benin, Tega pointed the driver towards an open double gate that led into a large compound and a one-storey building which looked like someone’s house but was actually a guesthouse.

Lilian stood behind him at the reception desk as he inquired about the price of a room for a week. “Do you want to give her cash or should I pay with my card?” she said uselessly and very loudly, avoiding the receptionist’s eyes in case she would find Aren’t you too old to be an ashawo? blinking along the girl’s eyebrows. Earlier, as they left the airport, Tega had told her he couldn’t invite her to stay at his place, because of his kids: it would be very awkward—“If they were still small, it would have been easier.”

“If they were little,” Lilian said, “that’s when it would have been more difficult. The next time they see their mother, they’ll just blurt it out: ‘Daddy brought one woman to our house and she slept in his room!’”

The driver carried Lilian’s suitcases up to her room, then left Tega and Lilian alone. Tega locked the door, kissed her, squeezed her breasts, licked her nipple. She chuckled, unbuttoned the rest of her blouse, and inhaled the stale scent of his skin, around his armpits. He pushed her head down to his groin and unzipped his jeans.

As they fucked she said, “Fuck me, fuck me, f-uck me!” over and over again, to stifle any chance of her head interpreting this thing she was doing with her childhood friend as incest.

After the sex Tega went downstairs to get some meat-pies and two bottles of malt. They would go out later to find something better to eat, Lilian said, tired. Tega promised to take her to his house in the morning, after his kids had gone to school, and cook her lunch: jollof rice—Had she tasted Nigerian jollof, which was better than Ghanaian jollof, before? Lilian wrinkled her nose and chin: Was he forgetting her father, whoever he is—or was—was Nigerian? And that she’d lived in Nigeria for ten years, and that, now, her country was packed full of Nigerians with their wahala? Of course, she’d tasted Nigerian jollof several times. Verdict: decent—nothing to write a poem about. “Wait till I prepare rice with shito for you.”

“What is shito?” Tega said.

“Wait.”

A while later, Tega said, as he scrunched up the serviettes they’d eaten the meat-pies from, “I need to rush home and check on those children. I’ll be back in thirty minutes. My house is not far.”

“Okay.” She slept off as soon as he left, woke up to see that he hadn’t returned. She had no Nigerian number yet to call him. 11:17 p.m. already, she assumed she wasn’t going to see him again that night, and went back to sleep.

*

She heard the knock in the morning as she stepped out of the bathroom and knew it was him behind the bolted door.

“Sorry about last night, I couldn’t come back again,” he said simply. “Good morning. How do you say ‘Good morning’ in Ga?”

Ojekoo.

Ojekoo,” he repeated, her obedient student.

“How do you say, ‘Did you remove the toothpaste in my bathroom when you were leaving yesterday?’ in, er…”

“Urhobo?”

“Y—yes. If that’s your language.”

“Okay. Wo see toothpaste na ne evu bathroom mee wo ke yara ode? Now, let me watch you bite your tongue and spray blood everywhere.”

“Psychopath,’ she said and heaved back into bed, Tega crawling on top of her. He unbuttoned his shirt but didn’t take it off. The hair on his arm caressed her tummy as he, without easing his gaze off her face, fingered her relentlessly, keeping her thigh slightly raised.

She should have remained in Kumasi, she thought after she came, volunteering this excess free time she seemed to have in teaching children catechism at her parish, St Dominic’s. But here she was, three countries away from home, with a man who was a boy she hadn’t known in thirty years, eating meat-pie bought off the roadside with him, and sighing, “Give me your black pole, give me,” against his lips.

In the evening, when Tega promised to return to the guesthouse in thirty, forty minutes—just let him get to his office first, and from there, the house—she shrugged. And when, eventually, on four out of the seven nights she spent in the guesthouse, Tega never returned, and called her on her fresh Nigerian number that only he had, to apologise, she shrugged but didn’t ask him what time in the morning he would show up. She was not the wife here; she was the naïve, pinafored, schoolgirl, who had flown all the way from Ghana to Nigeria just to hook up. As if she had nothing better to do with herself. Why hadn’t she asked Tega to come to Ghana instead?—after all, it was he who had first sent her his dick pic. Wasn’t she the one who was supposed to become a Professor by her thirty-seventh birthday? See her now. The next time she chatted with a guy she planned to hook up with, she would never, ever, mention “boredom”, or “university strike”—in case, this time, the guy thought to make her pack her whole life and meet him in Madagascar!

 

III.

On her last night in Nigeria, Tega took her to a spot called Sunshine. They sat in dense, pounding, music, ate fish, drank beer, and when they tipsily drove back to the guesthouse and she had her suitcases spread open on the bed, they had the light argument about the Expulsion Order, where she’d told him xenophobic resentment was natural but migration wasn’t.

Lilian balled two pairs of her worn panties together with a nightgown she’d repeated from the day before, sniffed them, tied them in a black rubber bag and pressed the bundle into a corner of the suitcase—for washing when she got back home. Her flight tomorrow from Lagos was at three p.m. They’d have to leave Benin early in the morning because of traffic, Tega told her, to make sure they made it in time for check-in.

“Is there anything you’re rushing back to Ghana to do?”

Lilian turned from her packing. Tega had his back against the wardrobe, lazily watching her. “What sort of question is that?” she asked, nicely.

“Just a question… Don’t worry. Don’t mind what I said.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing. Forget.”

Lilian paused the packing, came to him at the wardrobe. She pressed her body against his and slipped her hands into the ass of his briefs, ran her fingers up and down his warm ass crack, gently. “Should I go and call my dead grandfather to come and help you talk? Tell me what it is.”

“I said you should forget. I saw you in my dream last night—did I tell you?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

“Was I doing something bad?”

“No. You were carrying a bathtub on your head, with a cat in it.”

“How did I manage to lift a whole bathtub on my head?”

“I don’t know. Funny dream. I dreamt other ones throughout the night. Can’t remember them. There was one where you were taking pictures in front of a mosque. That’s the only thing I remember about that one… Dreams are so funny. What’s a normal day like for you in Kumasi after work? Did you enjoy your stay here? What if I ask you to postpone your trip, will you agree? I love your company. We forgot our change with that bar guy.”

“The strike may be called off next week.”

“One week won’t kill your students, Professor!”

“But why do you want me to stay longer?”

“Yes or no, first.”

“No, abeg.”

“Okay.”

“Why do you want me to stay longer?”

“Stupid question.”

“Not really. It’s not as if I don’t have my own house,” she said and winced at how the words, inadvertently, seemed headed back for their argument earlier about xenophobia. She was sounding too serious over a matter as flimsy as Tega’s goodbye blues—so she said, “How long do you want me to stay?”

“Stay till December! Stay one more week. But you’ll stay in my place, the guestroom.”

“What will you tell your children?”

“You’re my friend. I’ll tell them you’re my friend.”

Lilian smiled with only half her mouth: they were going to still be sneaking around, circumspect about the fact that they were having sex—just like cockroaches. Then again, if after a week, he could invite her to his house with his kids around, maybe, before her second week here was over, Tega would be confident enough to have her march in and out of his bedroom, with his boys noticing. Now that she was getting promoted from this guesthouse that forgot to keep toothpaste in its bathroom to a room in Tega’s house, she needed to lay down some very important rules: 1) no sex when they were both drunk; 2) no hard pounding during sex, because her waist was not fufu—and because the condom could break and she would get pregnant in her forties; 3) no sex before midnight, unless his children had gone to bed by then and were already snoring; 4) no interruptions from him whenever she felt the urge to take swipes at her mother, because—hadn’t Tega noticed?—she always ended these swipes with a chuckle, because she didn’t mean any harm; and 5) he should never massage the dimples above her ass, because that clichéd compliment men always gave her during sex, made her, for some reason, think there were round-headed pins underneath her skin, driven in there to hold her shattered hip bones together.

She changed into a purple, sleeveless, nightgown. First thing tomorrow morning, she would call Nii and his sisters and brother back home, to inform them she’d travelled to Nigeria for a workshop, would be back in a week, and that if Yvonne, her youngest daughter, was planning on coming to the house in Kumasi for the weekend, she shouldn’t, as she liked to do, (because her head was so big and her brains very sleepy)forget her own copy of the house keys.

Kelechi Njoku

About Kelechi Njoku

Kelechi Njoku is a former radio broadcaster, who now works as an editor and a ghost-writer. His story, "By Way of a Life Plot" was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He was the West Africa Regional winner of the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize, was shortlisted in Africa Book Club’s Short Reads (2014) and Naija Stories’ Best Short (2013), and has also contributed fiction to the Kalahari Review, Nigerians Talk LitMag, Open Road Review, and Aerodrome. He lives in Lagos and Abuja, and is working on a novel.

Kelechi Njoku is a former radio broadcaster, who now works as an editor and a ghost-writer. His story, "By Way of a Life Plot" was shortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He was the West Africa Regional winner of the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize, was shortlisted in Africa Book Club’s Short Reads (2014) and Naija Stories’ Best Short (2013), and has also contributed fiction to the Kalahari Review, Nigerians Talk LitMag, Open Road Review, and Aerodrome. He lives in Lagos and Abuja, and is working on a novel.

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