You struggle in vain to remember when it all started. But the more you think, the murkier it gets in your brain, to the point that you can’t distinguish reality from daydream. You try harder, but all you can remember are the dog days in a dimly lit open office you shared in the Madagascar neighbourhood in Yaounde. Its white walls smelled of whitewash and mould.
That is when the migraines started, you think. But you are not sure.
Your head is pounding. The clickety-clack of keyboards is the only sound you hear all day. You are staring at an abysmal computer screen and the words on your word processor soon start to run into each other. Despite all this, you can’t take a break because the company is always looking for excuses to take a slash at your meagre salary.
It is supposed to be an easy job. All you have to do is answer the phone, make appointments and reply emails, according to the job description. Maybe it’s an over simplification of a job which can get really frenetic sometimes, like when you have to cover up for your supervisor – who happens to be your brother, and the reason why you have this job in the first place – when he is purportedly in a board meeting, but is actually banging his secretary in the elevator that is out of order. Or when your brother’s boss, Madam M, asks you to spy on your brother, because she suspects him of embezzling company money.
The office is so small and so hot that you can swear the walls are gradually closing in on you. Ndoumbe, your brother, walks by, ignoring you. You don’t mind. People have ignored you for most of your life, except when they needed something from you. In secondary school, you didn’t have any friends, although people occasionally pretended to like you when they wanted to read your unlimited collection of comic books. It’s not different here at work. Your coworkers talk to you only when they need a favour, like when their personal computers need fixing.
Once every year, Madam M organises end-of-year pool parties. You hate those parties because being around people makes you nervous.
The last party almost went well. Almost. It was at Mont Febe, a government-owned hotel that sits atop a hill surrounded by lush vegetation, overlooking the presidency and the conference centre. The former and the latter sit atop hills as well, surrounded by overzealous flora and fauna. These three hills shield the once-affluent neighbourhoods that sprawled beneath, as if sprinkled between them, from the outside world.
You couldn’t take your eyes off the hotel’s transparent sky-blue pool, surrounded by a terrace with hypnotic white circles, no matter how much you tried. Pools weren’t accessible where you grew up, and those you knew were an eyesore: they contained sky-blue-turned-black-brown water, and when an initiative was taken to keep the water clean, it was not without consequence. Delinquency was birthed in the absence of neglect, and soon after, the once-clean pools contained floating chunks of excrement. This experience had marked you many years ago, so much so that you quit swimming classes without entering the pool.
At the end of the party, you had joined the others for a picture by the pool. Seconds before the picture was taken, your brother pushed you into the pool in what he pretended was an accident. An enlarged copy of the photograph now leans conspicuously in the office, and the morning sun’s reflection on it seems to accentuate your discomfiture in that moment, captured by the camera as you were tumbling into the pool.
As far back as you can remember, Ndoumbe has always played mean tricks on you.
This year’s pool party has been announced and your gut tells you that your brother is planning something behind your back. You wait for him in front of the office after work and confront him.
‘Why do you keep doing this to me? I’m your brother!’
‘If this is about Sabrina, it happened only once –’
‘It’s about the pool, last year!’ you cut in quickly, trying to avoid bringing up Sabrina, your first love, who became your brother’s baby mama before you could figure out what they were up to and why she wasn’t returning your calls. Their picture currently drapes part of the wall of the old family house in Melen, a large framed photograph of Ndoumbe, Sabrina and Shey – their baby – hanging next to a large framed photograph of your parents standing by a Peugeot 504. Beside these two photographs, as if an afterthought, hangs a smaller picture of yourself, barely visible because it is partly masked by the artificial Christmas tree that has not been moved for the past twenty years.
‘Bro, that thing be be na accident,’ he replies, almost dismissively, in pidgin.
‘But you know se i no fit swim nor? If i fo drown you fo do weti?’ you reply.
He looks worried for a few seconds, and is about to reply when your coworkers walk out of the office building, and nod at you in acknowledgement as they pass by, ignoring your brother. You wonder why they nod at you. It’s no secret that they think you are weird and they usually do everything to avoid you. Ndoumbe follows them down the street, leaving you by yourself.
You stand there awhile, speechless, and almost teary as the night slowly crawls up on you. At night you dream of an incident that happened a few years ago, when your brother wasn’t yet a bully, and forget it almost instantly.
* * *
The next day you wake up with a headache and ignore it, hoping that it will disappear. At work, there’s an envelope at your desk, with a note that says you have been laid off. The letter, signed by Madame M, says you are constantly distracted at work and are a liability to the company.
You head upstairs toward Madame M’s office. The cool air from the AC numbs you almost immediately as you get to her office floor. You realize you haven’t been upstairs ever since you were hired three years ago. You look around: there is a delivery man going from desk to desk sharing croissants, coffee is boiling in a brand new coffee machine, someone is drinking filtered water in a cup from the water dispenser in loud rhythmic gulps, and another person is taking a selfie with the immaculate white walls as background.
Her office door is open, so you enter without knocking, and show her the note from your desk, looking at her beseechingly.
‘You had it coming. You are always daydreaming and hardly get any work done. Your performance reviews are disastrous,’ she says.
‘This is about Ndoumbe, right? He put you up to this, didn’t he?’ you ask. ‘I too have dirt on him, he –’
‘What are you talking about?’ she blurts, almost annoyed. ‘Who the hell is Ndoumbe?’
‘Ndoumbe… Ndoumbe, my brother… who works at Human Resources,’ you say, unsure why she is getting worked up.
‘I don’t know any Ndoumbe at HR,’ she says. ‘Stop wasting my time.’
‘But… but…’ You are taken aback and unsure why she is reacting this way and pretending not to know Ndoumbe. Then you say, almost whispering, ‘You asked me to keep an eye on him because you suspected him of embezzlement.’
‘What is this? Is this some sort of joke, because it isn’t funny, and you are starting to get on my nerves,’ she says.
Nothing makes sense anymore. You feel dizzy as you pack what is on your desk into a tiny box. You’d gone to Madame M’s office to say ‘You can’t fire me, I quit,’ but you’d instead walked out feeling something was terribly wrong with the world.
Ndoumbe is the only thing on your mind as you walk out of the building in Madagascar where the company you worked for rents office space. You are lost in a reverie and fail to acknowledge that you’d never return to this hell hole. You’re struggling to find a comfortable way to carry the box containing all of your office belongings when you see your brother across the street. He is buying a cigarette. You jump into the road, waving at your brother, and the next thing is darkness and excruciating pain. You are not sure which came first as you pass out.
* * *
You wake up with bandages on a bed in a dimly lit room.
‘Thank God, you’re okay,’ a woman says as you struggle to sit up. ‘You’ve been unconscious for weeks.’
You try to say something but can barely open your mouth. She draws closer to you and says you’ll be all right. Drowsiness takes over you and you fall asleep.
The next morning you are not awoken by rats scurrying their way across the room as they habitually chase and tease each other playfully in your apartment. You are awoken by the aroma of coffee that hangs all over the room, reminding you that you are in a stranger’s house. You don’t remember how you got here. Every part of your body hurts
The woman you saw the previous night sits by you. She says you were in an accident and she took you to the hospital. You were discharged weeks later despite your state because she ran out of money, and no family member had come to check on you. You are speechless. Grateful. Suddenly, you remember Ndoumbe and are overwhelmed by an avalanche of different feelings.
* * *
During the days that follow, you don’t see much of her because she goes out in the morning and returns in the afternoon to change your bandages and feed you. She hardly talks and you are usually asleep or drowsy from the medication she gives you. At night she goes out late and returns in the small hours.
Weeks go by and you feel better, but you are still bed-ridden. You no longer have bandages. You’ve called your brother several times, but he hasn’t returned any of your calls.
‘I owe you my life,’ you tell her one day. She is silent.
‘How will I ever repay you? I will pay you back, even if it is in fifty years,’ you say.
‘You don’t have to repay me,’ she says. ‘Besides, you have not completely recovered. You’ll have to stay in bed for a while.’
You look at her and wonder if such people still really do exist.
You ask her about her medical knowledge. She tells you she’s a medical student, then takes back her sentence and says she was a medical student. You’re not entirely sure what the was in the sentence means. She says she does voluntary work now.
‘Did you finish medical school?’ you ask.
‘To cut a long story short, let’s say I turned down a lecturer’s advances. He said nobody had ever said no to him, adding that he always had his way. I never passed any of his courses or those of his friends after that.’
You feel sullen, outraged, powerless and bitter at the cruelty. You are reminded of lines from the beginning of Zadie Smith’s NW: ‘Shrivelled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year.’ You want to ask her if she reported the lecturer when you notice the look on her face: her eyes speak of the prelude of a broken dream long forgotten. You try to change the topic.
‘Where do you go to every night?’
‘You ask many questions,’ she says
‘One last question.’
‘What’s your name?’
* * *
Time goes by. It’s hard to keep track because you sleep a lot. You can’t tell for how long you’ve been in this apartment. You feel better and gradually become obsessed with where Alice goes every night. You know it is a bad idea to entertain these thoughts but curiosity is a stubborn lump in your throat.
You are alone. The sun makes its way through the partly open window and sits on your bed. You can hear the boisterous city bursting with activity and you realize you’ve never really looked around the apartment. The room smells like a pharmacy. You make for the window and open it completely. Looking down, your neck craned forward, you notice that you are on the fifth floor. You spend the rest of the day looking around the apartment.
You pretend to fall asleep after you’ve had dinner. You are gripped with guilt over your decision to follow Alice.
The door slams shut with a loud bang as she leaves the room. You jump out of the bed and go toward the window, look out and see Alice walking down the front stairs and onto the sidewalk. You hurry down the stairs as curiosity swallows guilt. Deep down, you know this is a mistake.
You are limping at length behind Alice on the street and she takes a bend. You hasten your irregular pace. When you take the turn, you realize that she has slowed down and do same. The street is peopled with loosely dressed damsels who flutter and flicker around street lights like moths, in a manner reminiscent of the cover of Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls’ album. You can hear Donna Summer’s voice in your head, singing ‘she works hard for the money so you better treat her right’.One of the women greets you and asks if she’s the one you are looking for. You ignore her, trying not to lose sight of Alice who has just entered a disco. ‘Tant pis,’ she says in French, and heads toward another stranger.
As you get closer, you notice that there is a long, endless queue meandering out of sight. You approach somebody in the queue and propose to give him your phone in exchange for some bank notes, which he heartily accepts. Once the exchange is done, you force yourself into the queue and those behind boo and curse.
After what seems like an endless amount of time, but is just about forty minutes, you finally make it to the door. The guy standing at the entrance is tall, with a ‘50s beat-up beatnik face that looks slightly funny because his tattoos look incomplete. You hand him the required amount and he lets you in. Once inside, you realize that you had not had the time to look at the name of the disco. The atmosphere inside is spirited and psychedelic. Your senses are taken aback by the sirens, glitter balls, strobe lights, spot lights, flash lights, light guns, battle lights, black light, and finally, red and blue Bengal lights flaring up.
You describe Alice to a waitress and ask if she knows her. She shakes her head from side to side. You ask another and she says that information is expensive, so you pull out a bank note and ask her if it is enough motivation. Her face lights up. You can barely hear each other over Eko Roosevelt’s deafening voice reverberating as it ricochets on the sound-proof walls while he croons:
‘Attends-moi, attends-moi, attends-moi… attends-moi, reste avec moi, je ne peux pas me passer de toi, je veux vivre avec toi…’
She snatches the bank note and says ‘over there’, pointing to the strip poles.
You head toward the adjoining strip section, which is less populated. You spot Alice… she is dancing alluringly around a pole, getting tips every time she undoes a button of her blouse.
You think about keeping a low profile but your eyes meet hers before you can do anything. She freezes immediately she sees you. You can’t decipher the look on her face. Is it surprise, disappointment, shame or anger? She jumps off the mini stage without saying a word and, ignoring the spotlight that is on her, as well as the cacophonous catcalls, she retreats through the rear door.
You follow her, but a bimboy-ish bouncer stands in your way in front of the door. The other men who were watching her are confused, but get just as quickly over the incident, head to the next stripper, and start tipping her. You leave through the front and head straight to Alice’s place, wondering why you’d followed her in the first place. You have a bad feeling about how she may react, so you hasten your pace. At length, one of your legs starts hurting. You’d ignored the pain initially when you left the comfort of the bed. You slow down. It is very late, but you have no idea what time it is. A chilly breeze sweeps past you and you start shivering. The night is silent, except for the ridiculous clip-clop sound the soles of your shoes make on the macadamized road as you limp.
After what seems like an endless walk in the silence of the night, you reach the building where Alice lives and look up to her window. There is no light. Maybe she’s asleep or not back yet. You hastily open the main door which is unlocked and climb the steep, winding staircase leading to her apartment. You realize that when you left the apartment in a mad rush to tail Alice, you didn’t pay attention to the surroundings. Finally, you reach her apartment on the fifth floor and open the door. As you turn on the light, you feel that something is not right. The light blinks a couple of times, then illuminates the apartment. It is empty. You blink out of surprise and head over to the rooms. They too are empty. The apartment reeks of misuse and abandon. The whole place is cold and smells of mold. You helplessly pace from one end to another, trying to make sense of what is going on. You decide to knock on the door of the adjacent room. A short, bald man wearing horned-rimmed glasses comes out and asks why you are disturbing his sleep. You ask him if he knows Alice. He says he is not a tenant and is crashing at a friend’s here. You ask if his friend who rents the apartment is home. By now you are begging him. He goes inside and his friend comes out.
‘Do you know where Alice, the girl who lives in this room, has gone to?’ you ask.
‘Are you her friend?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ you say.
‘It’s a pity. Alice died in her room two years ago and the room has been unoccupied ever since.
You swallow to hold back discomfiture. Your heart is beating fast and loud. You must be dreaming. You bite your lip to make sure that you are not, and it hurts.
‘Nobody wants to live in the room because there are rumours that the room is jinxed, so it has been unoccupied for two years. Why are you asking me this in the middle of the night? Where did you know her?’
You are speechless. You muster almost all the strength you have left and apologise for interrupting his sleep. You throw one last glance at the apartment where you’d spent what seemed like more than a month, and you head down the stairs with a sullen face, confused.
Outside, you sit on the small stairs which lead to the main entrance of the building and try to make sense of what is happening. Nothing makes sense. It is often said that artists are creatures of infinite melancholy. You wonder if you have the soul of an artist. Your head starts aching. It is pounding, as if something from within wants to burst free.
Your mind drifts back to the day you were laid off. Had Madame M been right all along? After your mention of Ndoumbe, she’d pulled up the employee records, turned to the page listing HR employees, and then tossed the document to you. You’d picked it up, almost as confused as she was. In fact, she was no longer confused at that point, she was angry. You’d looked through the names twice, trying to find Ndoumbe Ngwananjam. Nothing!
She’d pulled out your psych evaluation and you’d stared at it with a preoccupied look, after she’d handed it over to you. Your family records with the company said you were an only child! How could that be real? And if it was, what exactly wasn’t?
Nothing makes sense anymore.
You reflect on how meaningless your life has been and wish you were an insouciant, inanimate object with no worries. Or if you are to remain a living thing, you wish you were a tree. Without warning, a mango tree starts shooting out of your head, and you feel its roots digging deeper into you as it grows so fast and tall that its branches and green leaves scrape the old corrugated iron roof.