At exactly twelve noon, she was found dead. Sitting all by herself, a fat old cat resting at the foot of her chair; oblivious of the sudden demise of its owner. Much of the afternoon sun is kept at bay, a balcony smelling of filth and blood. There was a bottle of whiskey sitting carelessly between her thighs, a stick of cigarette leaning at the edge of an open mouth like a pot without a lid – completely dry and lifeless like shriveled leaves. A book laid on her breasts and her glasses smeared with blood and dirt, hung on her neck. Poor aunty Philomena; she was kind and loving to all that knew her during her lifetime. Many had anticipated an end to her miserable life, maybe, soon enough, but not now. Death, having snatched all five children with the blink of an eye, it would return finally to claim another victim; death is as greedy as a tortoise, always taking, never giving. All five children died from leukaemia. With the arrival of the fifth child, came a swift wind of peace and joy, blowing in the home of Mazi Pascal, Aunty Philo’s husband; I didn’t get the chance to meet him, the day I arrived the neighborhood, he was gone, like the wind. Not dead. He left, since he could no longer bear all of it – the thought of losing all five boys wasn’t as disheartening as having to be greeted every morning by the unending moaning, and a face vitiated by so much tears and agony from his wife. Every morning she would go by her window, leaning against the windowpane, crying hysterically, calling her dead children by their names.
‘Where’s Ude ! I know Nonso, is coming back. Chikamso where are you now. Come out. Then she begins to yell the name of a dead fourth child, Ahamefula! Where are you?’ While her frustrated husband draws near, wrapping her gently in his arms like a baby, consoling and trying to bring her poor mind back, which had wandered off, far from home.
And I was told by some neighbors (the sort of people that would bring a gossip to your doorstep, before you even arrived) that one hot afternoon, the poor man, dragged a piece of luggage downstairs, and left without a goodbye. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Or, he should have. But, you can’t heap all blame on the man’s head. Who would want to live under the same roof, with someone who lives as if you don’t exist. Mazi Pascal was practically a mere shadow in his own home. Aunty Philo would spend almost all day, in the balcony, staring at the sun, puffing on a cigarette or two, or three, and more, in those big reading specs and a book in hand. Not to mention, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, yet, she wouldn’t give up drinking and smoking. She was at the end of her tether.
A month, following my arrival on Atiku street, Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, I heard a knock on the door, like a peal of thunder, and a silhouette figure stood against the bright blue sky, with a strange smile, which ran from one end of her mouth to another.
‘Hello! Philomena is the name. But I go by Aunty Philo! She extends a hand towards me, and I grabbed it quickly and gently.
‘Good morning Ma!’
‘Philomena would be just fine.’
‘My name is Rachel.’
I could still recall those tiny creases at the corner of her brown eyes, dark short hair, looking so unkempt, as I invited her in for tea and the lights cast heavily against a fair skinned woman with countless freckles on her face. I would have mistaken her for someone in her late seventies, but she wasn’t. Based on the information I gathered, she was just in her early forties; but she looked like a granny with a rumpled skin, and tannings due to long periods of exposure to the sun. She wore a thick jacket and blue jeans. Her hair was bound carelessly with a piece of pink ribbon; almost looking grey. She wore a pair of black rubber shoes; and her fingernails needed some manicure as they resembled long dark nails with rusty edges. Aside the alcohol reeking breath and choking smell of tobacco, I could taste several years of fear, pain and misery from her voice as we chatted. She didn’t talk much. While we sat to a cup of tea and few slices of bread, I was eager to tell her that I was a graduate, new in town and got a job already and can’t wait to resume work fully, but she wasn’t so keen at what I had to say. It seemed she had a lot going on her mind. Then she would begin to look around my small apartment; maybe, there was something she wanted to see and wasn’t there. Then, she heaves a long sigh, cleared her throat ( it sounded like a roaring lion) before fixing her eyes at me. ‘Do you have children?’ For a moment, I thought it was the voice of my dead mother, saying: ‘it’s time Rachel! It’s time to settle down. You’re twenty nine already. So don’t waste anymore second. You’ve got a job, a house… So what are you waiting for… I must carry my grandchildren before I die!’
She would keep ringing it into my ears like the peal of wedding bells. ‘Else you would end up like Sandra,’ her friend, at forty she is still without a husband and child and she seems not to give a damn about it.
Marriage was the only thing she kept reciting to me like a hymn. Then her death. ‘I’m sorry mum, I couldn’t give you the grandchild you so much desired.’ Not like it’s actually my fault. There was this guy, we had a thing going so well; he was like Romeo and I was his Julliet. Then, he cheated, not once, not twice, but more than I could recall. So, that was the end of our love story.
‘Uhm… No… I mean not yet.’
I realise she was looking for my supposed wedding pictures, and some child somewhere.
‘I’ll take my leave now. It was nice meeting you. Welcome to Akwa Ibom State.’
‘Oh! Thank you. Are you from here.’
‘Nope.’ Then she doesn’t say a word. And walks out, picking her steps quickly, and not turning around.
I found her company strangely interesting. So, I would find myself thinking about aunty Philomena all day; not sure the very essence but I would come to like her sort of person. Curious to know more about her, after work, I would drop by her house, get to know her and help out in one or two household chores.
I waited patiently, in front of the big brown gate, while she carried herself carelessly down the stairs and came out, the tangerine sun behind her, my hands hid in the tiny pockets of my Jeans. She drew towards the gate. Breathing heavily, my hands gradually crawl out of hiding, now laid flat on my laps, and I try to calm myself, taking in the first wave of air, through my nostrils; it would sting and force those tiny hairs to rise to their feet. Now, she’s right before, staring without a smile or frown – completely expressionless! Good morning ma. I thought it wise to stop by at your place after work.
Oh! That’s nice. But it’s ten in the morning. You’re back so early?
Eh…er… I mean… Yes, I just went to get my appointment letter and other necessary documents. Would start off the following week.
‘OK. I see… Come in then.’
There was a cat, fat and with adorable blue eyes like the sea; it seemed to be having great difficulty carrying those fat heels around, so she just helped it up her breast.
The chairs sat in a concentric circle, heavily crowded in dust. The rug gave off a rough and slushy feeling to the feet. The TV set was as dusty as the rest of the house. I was careful to lay body on anything that was repulsive.
I remained still (standing but not leaning against the television), while she went ahead to the kitchen to fix something. I had insisted strongly that I was fine, there was need for her to bother; but she would return with a tray of cookies and a cup of hot tea, oozing in fresh clouds of steam.
The offer was tempting and I salivated my way to the dinning. Frankly, I had not taken anything for breakfast and the whole dusty and slimy atmosphere, just gave felt awkward and appalling.
‘You shouldn’t have bothered yourself. I’m fine. Really.’
Please, just have it. It’s my little way of saying thank you.
‘The other time, I was in your house.’
OK. I nodded slightly like an agama lizard, picked up the hot cup of tea, and sipped gently, then hissed like a serpent about to bite. The hotness would bite my tongue and a strong wave of heat rush down my spine, gradually ascending until I feel it in my head, soon my whole face almost covered in beads of sweat. I would rub my face with back of my hand and make for the second sip, blow air over the cup, reconcile with it perfectly, and the taste would be friendly and all refreshing unlike the previous which was harsh. I would add some cookies to boost the sweetness.
We talked, this time she wasn’t as reticent as the other time, although, not too much. I didn’t want to inquire about her husband since I had heard stories about him. But I wanted to hear it from the horses mouth. So I tried to inquire and she shrugged and hissed. Then she rose to her feet, beckoned on me, we both walked up a flight of stairs, up to the balcony, while she led the way. I was poised, wandering what she was up to. In the balcony, there was a chair, a bottle of whiskey, an ash tray full of cigarette stubs and more stubs laid carelessly on the floor, a stack of books neatly arranged. But one rested on the arms chair.
You read? She inquired dryly
‘Yeah! I love novels.’
You have quite a handful of them.
‘I keep myself busy with them, anytime I’m bored.’
She goes in for a while, then comes out, carrying a catalogue of old photographs, smeared with long years of dust and grease. She displayed the ones she wanted eyes to see.
‘You are beautiful here.’
She smiled faintly, those tiny creases saluting briefly at the corner of her eyes and a forehead broke in long rows of rigdes. Her skin lacked luster – dry and almost lifeless.
Standing with her back against the wall, she works her fingers through her breast pocket, a stick of cigarette from a pack full and sticks a match. Then she puffs vigorously, coughs, then sneezes. She wipes off her nose with a handkerchief stained with blood and sweat and offers another stick to me.
‘Nope, I don’t. Thank you.’
I could smell the disdain from her eyes and lips. And it’s saying : ‘so I’m now the worst being on earth.’
I was already getting exhausted, and about to take my leave when she held my hand tightly and said : beware of wolves around, they present themselves like sheeps. Then she loosened her grip and my hand would fall slowly, to my side. I tried to make sense of the whole statement, to fathom its meaning, although, I wasn’t sure I was eager to begin an investigation. Maybe she heard something about me. Or she was just trying to ensure my safety, since I was new here.
After work, I would drop by her house, to check up on her. Kept my hands busy with a few chores and got her to change her hair and some new clothes. Forced her to come out her house and she would take a walk on some days and visit the salon when she needed to; at least she wasn’t all by herself all the time, in the balcony, like some prisoner. Aunty Philo and I became good friends all of a sudden.
Then One day, something happened. She wouldn’t come out at all. I tried to check up on her, called out her name repeatedly, no reply. The door was locked from inside. So I threw a jab on the door knob and broke it. I ransacked the whole house, yet, couldn’t find her. Then, I took the flight of stairs, towards the balcony, where she would be. At first, I thought she was probably reading, or sleeping. She sat, with her back leaning against the chair and her head thrown backwards. The floor to the balcony was smeared with blood and thick mucus. I was in a complete state of shock as the pale blue face of Aunty Philo stood upwards; her whole body was stiff. I felt a twinge in my neck as I beheld those big eyeballs, lame and devoid of life.
The knuckles were cold and as hard as any rock. There was a terrible smell as she had started to display those early signs of rigor mortis. I couldn’t help it. So, I ran out of the house, paused to catch my breath, the eyes of onlookers drawn to me, before calling the police.
It wasn’t murder, neither was it suicide. Her time was up and death arrived to grab its final victim; the cancer had completely devoured what was left of her.