It all began with the fish. My parents came to visit me unannounced; it was more of a guilt visit, something like an apology. They had been enjoying themselves immensely because both of my older siblings have left home; Funke is married and Ade has gone off to Abuja to work. I thought they would be lonelier now that they were home alone but I was wrong. Instead, we seemed to have been some hindrance in their storybook love life. They were wearing the same dress prints, smiling at each other severally and I even caught them holdings hands twice while looking around my flat; ultimate lack of decorum.
“Where is Tope’s room?” They ask after my friend whom they knew since we were kids. They were not happy that I was leaving the hostel in my second year but they were consoled that I was going to rent a flat with Tope Adenle, someone they knew and an unknown third flatmate but he had to be good since he was Tope’s friend. The Adenle’s had been friends of the family for about twenty years, since their dad and mine worked on a project together. The friendship blossomed when they realised that there were other common friends between both families, like Tope and myself.
“His room is the one beside the kitchen, and the third is for Femi.” Femi Jeje, my second flatmate, my parents had not met him because this was the first time they were visiting me in my new apartment, although we moved in only two months ago. However, knowing my parents, they would have come to inspect, critic and pay for the flat with us. My new parents just sent money and believed their twenty two year old was old enough to make good decisions especially since it involved Tope Adenle. I was not complaining about the newfound freedom though, just wondering about my parents’ preoccupation with each other. They looked through the flat quickly and made a few comments, they especially wished they had met Tope and Femi at home, they also felt we could do more with the living room. I was not listening, they were doing the inspection hurriedly, otherwise my mother with her keen sense of smell and discerning eye for secrets would have noticed the packs of cigarettes we kept in the corner of the kitchen. They finished their tour.
“We brought you stew and some food stuff” my mum said “we know you won’t cook, but who knows when you may need it? And we also brought you fish.” They knew I loved fish, not just any fish but catfish, they brought me four large ones in a big plastic bag filled with water. That was the best part of their visit. We said our goodbyes and my parents departed leaving gifts for my flatmates.
My friends were excited about the fish, not so much because they had the same affinity I had for the taste but because of the spectacle the fish created when we put them in the bath in the central bathroom with enough water for them to swim at liberty. The next day, I decided to cook one of the fish; it was a disaster – too much salt, fresh blood still dripping from cooked fish and an altogether awful taste. My appetite for fish came to a halting low, even the memory of my mother’s special fish peppersoup could not wipe out the effect of this catastrophic episode. However, watching the fishes still pure magic; we would sit in the bathroom for hours, smoking and gisting while we watched the fish swim, twill, and jump in the water. Although they had a largely boring routine of swimming back and forth endlessly in our bath, the different ways they turned at the curves, the flicking of their tails and the seamless fin movements excited us nonetheless.
Eventually, one of the fish became slower, they had no food. Others began to nibble at the parts of the weak fish and in about two days, much of its tail and fins was bloodied from bites by fellow fish. Natural selection was happening in our bathroom. Since my catastrophic cooking experience, we had decided to wait for Omotola to help us with cooking the fish. Omotola was Tope’s girlfriend; lithe, beautiful and amiable. Everybody loved her and either loved Tope for making a good catch, or hated him because they were jealous she was with him. We tried to keep the predator fish away from the weak and prayed that Omotola would visit soon; she usually comes from her school about one hour away by road when school is on break or on some randomly chosen weekends. We pressured Tope to persuade her to come earlier than planned but he explained that just like us, Omotola is in second year and classes are really tough. We resigned to waiting.
While our fish were becoming carnivores, I noticed a change in my friends. They stopped sleeping at home and seemed quite jittery and on guard. I thought they were just being more serious with studies; however I became quite suspicious when they returned home in the mornings to ask if anything went wrong during the night. Were they expecting things to go wrong? I decide to ask them “what are you guys always up to, why don’t you sleep at home?”
Tope answered first “we need to study, not everybody is a genius like you John”
“But the exams are still far away”
“Early to bed, early to rise man. We need to prepare well”
“Good luck to you guys, but are you always in class alone?”
“Of course not, Deji, Ade, Emeka and some other guys all come around”
“Good luck once again” I decided to let it go.
The next day, I saw Emeka at our popular hangout in school; I decided to ask him about their midnight candles. He was surprised “I don’t come to school in the evenings, I love my sleep.”
Puzzled, I thought they were always in class with Emeka, but then it could be another Emeka. It was too flimsy to worry about anyway; late nights don’t automatically translate to better grades. I was about stepping out when I bumped into Richard, another of our friends; he pulled me aside and spoke in stealthy tones “are you going to be at the meeting tonight?”
“Be serious John, it is important, and they said there is an impending hit” his voice was becoming lower.
“What are you talking about?”
Then he was jolted from the inside; sudden realisation “Oh sorry, was just kidding with you, I need to get some things quick, see you later” and he hurried away.
I waved him off, it was probably stressed talk, I continued out of the cafe. I had only walked about fifty meters when I heard my name “John” I looked back, it was Maxwell. I thought he wanted to ask for loose change. Maxwell is the official campus urchin; he has been implicated in all of the major offences on campus – stealing money, cars, dealing drugs, prostitution, blackmail and extortion but has never been caught. We all kept him at arm’s length, gave him some money whenever he asked and definitely kept a rapport with him because for some strange reason, the women like Maxwell.
“Wait up, John”
“Hey, Max, how are you doing? I need to get going, will see you some other time.” I did not have time for loose talk.
“Wait up” he insisted. Then he pulled me by the arm towards the side of the road. “I was listening when Richard was talking to you in the cafe.”
“Oh, don’t mind him, guess he was stressed.”
“He was not stressed, he actually made a terrible mistake.” In very low tones, Maxwell proceeded to tell me how my flatmates were cultists together with Richard, how they had planned some recently fatal and popular attacks on campus.
“That was why they moved away from campus.” He continued. I was dumbfounded.
“Have they been sleeping at home recently?”
“No, not at all” I replied.
“There is going to be a reprisal attack, the rival gang is planning to hit them back. That is why they have not been sleeping at home.” The information was becoming too much for me but I continued to listen. “The attacks are usually terrible, anybody those guys meet in the marked house gets burned. Do you know what that means? ”
“Eh burned…eh… or what?”I was stuttering
“Killed man, killed!” Maxwell repeated it whispering softly.
Shocked to my bones, I thanked Maxwell, told him I would be fine. I rushed home with thoughts flipping in my brain and filling my bladder up. As I was about to urinate, I looked at the fish in the bath and did not see aquatic vertebrates, instead I saw myself with bleeding tails and fins, and my friends – Tope and Femi nibbling at my skin, peeling it off and feeding on me. I showed the first sign of weakness, like the weak fish was slow; I did not belong.
I decided to run, fight back, belong or find a solution. In my confusion, I picked up the extra keys that nobody knew I had and decided to search Tope and Femi’s rooms. Halfway through my search, in Femi’s room, tucked in the closet towards the back, behind a pile of stationary books, I saw shiny cold metal – two revolvers! For a moment, I was paralysed; I was shivering but my limbs were too heavy to be lifted. Slowly, I gathered myself, crawled out of the room, locked it and sat down to devise a plan.
In the late afternoon, they came home, we talked about the day and they thought I was edgy and nervous. I told them I had a terrible headache. Femi told me Omotola would come by the next day for a short visit; I should remember to tell her to cook the fish. They left for the night again; they needed to study hard. That night, I slept over at the neighbour’s house with half-opened eyes.
Omotola arrived at noon the next day, Femi and Tope had not returned from class. I welcomed her with an exchange of the usual student banter; the bad and good professors, the trendy things on both campuses and much later; studies. She was quick to ask for our famous fish, “Where are the poor things? Femi told me they are the new source of entertainment for the house.”
“They are doing well.” I led her to the bath to see our friends.
“Wow, they are lovely. But that one is injured, oh my, so sorry” she was pointing at me – the injured fish. “We have to cook it first, before it dies.”
“No” I replied. “We’ll cook the healthy ones first; let’s give the poor guy a chance to heal.”
“Ok” she agreed. She was not one to argue.
I caught the healthy ones for her and she began cooking; in seconds, the sweet aroma was all over the apartment. After she finished, I gave her the key to Femi’s room, “Sorry, I forgot all the while, Femi left his keys, said he left something for you in the closet, behind the books.”
“Ok, thanks. I’ll just go find it.” She took the key and headed for the room. I waited in agitation, it seemed as if she had gone in for an eternity, but my watch told me fifteen minutes. I was about to knock on the door and encourage her to look behind the closet when she screamed and ran out. She fell into my arms; shivering, babbling and crying all at once. I held her close, patting and petting; it felt good. After about five minutes of quivering, she started chanting “guns, guns, guns….”
“Calm down, relax, you’ll be fine….” I kept on imploring. She looked up at me as if she wanted to ask me questions; her eyes read “do you know about this?” Before I could muster a word, she broke free from my clasp, picked her bag and ran out of the house. I did not run after her, instead, I picked up the extra key and locked up Femi’s room like nothing happened.
My friends returned home later in the evening. We talked about the regular, “why didn’t you come to school?” Tope asked.
“I had a terrible headache.” Then Femi asked after Omotola, “she has not come, I replied.”
“She probably won’t come again, it’s getting late. I’ll call her later.” Femi explained.
While we were talking, the door bell rang. My friends scampered into their rooms, I wanted to rush after them then I called out “No, it’s nothing, it’s the bell.” Tope peeped through his bedroom door and shouted at me, “go and open the door!” he seemed to be holding something behind his back and suddenly my friend looked different; bigger and stronger, I felt something akin to fear.
I walked to the door and opened it, it was a man; burly, average height, in short sleeve shirt and cotton trousers. “It’s the police, C-I-D” he said in a deep throaty voice. I was still fumbling with a reply when he pushed past me and entered the house, in very swift movement, five similar men entered after him. As they approached the bedroom area, a shot rang out, heavy and tingling to the ears. I ran outside and laid flat on my face, clasping my ears with my hands.
The drama lasted about twenty five minutes and starred five shots in all. The first burly man came out first, then my friends in toll, handcuffed. From my disadvantaged view on the ground,only my ears were injured after the episode. All the shooters either played with the guns or did not have enough lessons. When they passed by me, he pointed to the last man and said “take this one also.” But the last man did not arrest me, he only nudged me by my side with his shoes, “get up; we’ll pick you up later” he shouted. The police always have reasons for not arresting their informants, especially those with timely prompts.
I brushed myself off after they left, walked into the house and put on some music. I dished myself some of the wonderful fish Omotola cooked before she left. It all began with the fish; the cooked ones. The way they preyed on the vulnerable, and their overly strong predisposition towards survival at the expense of the weak. These fish helped me save my life.
After my delicious fish meal, I walked to the bathroom and peeped at myself; swimming alone in the clear water. Time to heal.