The Ache of Longing

Chukwuebuka Ibeh

It was a mistake. The only thing the Professor was capable of doing effectively nowadays was making mistakes. Once, he had slipped his house keys into his shirt pocket and had spent the next few minutes searching for it when he had to lock the door on his way out. Just yesterday, he had mistaken the detergent in an unlabelled container for salt and had watched in horror afterwards as his pot of food lathered. This time though, it was a good mistake, the kind that was accompanied bya flush and an odd sense of accomplishment.

It was in mid-November, an unusual season, with gloomy clouds that promised imminent rain, and bleak, soulless days that blended into each other; nothing like the hazy, brisk air that usually preceded Harmattan, and the Professor, as always, was at significant crossroads. However, it was different this time. It seemed as though he had gone through a spontaneous phase of his life and had suddenly emerged, detached from himself and from reality, with only a vague recollection of what his life had been and what it now was. And something had somehow gone wrong somewhere. It had to be his phone. He was so sure that the small Nokia phone Chibuzor had gotten for him years earlier had developed a fault, even though the bright engineering student who repaired gadgets in a makeshift stall down the street where he lived had conducted a check-up at the Professor’s request and assured him there was absolutely nothing wrong with the phone.

“Then… why don’t my children call me anymore?” he asked the boy.

The boy shrugged and said nothing.

It was easy, at first, to try; to make calls that went unanswered and never returned, and then formulate excuses later for the silence, to go to bed with the resolute belief that all was well, to remind himself each day to check another professional gadget repair store, and not some juvenile undergraduate who had no idea what he was talking about. But with time, with the new method of forwarding or diverting his calls, so that the steady mechanical voice over the line left him disconcerted, he had come to accept reality. They no longer wanted anything to do with him. And so on those days, when he sat by the desk in his airless study to dial their numbers from the worn-out slip of paper that had the numbers carefully outlined in their order of seniority, he sometimes missed a number or two and ended up calling a wrong person, a stranger.

The first time it happened, it had been a mistake. He had intended on calling Chibuzor and had consequently been taken aback by the sharp female voice that prodded “Yes? Hello?” almost immediately the phone rang. The abruptness of the tone, coupled with the implausible fact that someone had finally taken his calls, a woman for that matter, had stunned him into petrified silence. After the receiver was dropped by the woman over his long delay, he checked the number again only to discover he had misplaced two numbers. It took him a moment to realize the receiver was a total stranger. He cradled the phone in his palms, a part of him wondering why he felt this warm leap in his chest. And then he was suddenly and instinctively thrilled by the prospect of hearing a voice, however unfamiliar, from the other end.

The second time, he punched in Kamsi’s number into the phone, and although he was vaguely aware of the number displacement this time, he held the phone to his ears still and, as he listened to the caller tune release vibrant music,he took several deep breaths to steady himself for the terse voice that would follow, but the feminine voice that said ‘hello’ was subdued, hollow, as though the receiver was wary of being overhead.

He was silent. He ran his hand through his smooth shaved head in an attempt to coalesce his thoughts. He wondered if his hands were really shaking, or if it was just his imagination.

“Hello, who’s this?” the voice demanded.

“It’s Frank,” he said. His throat felt suddenly parched, his muscles taut and aching.

“Frank,” the receiver repeated. There was a deliberate slowness to her voice. “Which Frank?”

“Your friend,” he said. He felt ridiculous, tainted. And yet he felt something else- an unfurling of excitement.

“My friend?” the receiver repeated again, doubtfully. She paused for a while, made series of inaudible sounds, and then exhaled. She had given up trying to recall. “No, I don’t know any Frank,” she said, and the dull click of a line gone dead pervaded the Professor’s brain.

No one seemed to know any Frank in their past life. Most of them hung up the moment he said the name, making the Professor wonder if a ‘Frank’ they had known was someone they would rather not talk to. Once, after he said the name, the man on the other end laughed for a full minute before he disconnected the call. The Professor considered choosing a more generic name. Maybe John or Peter. But the woman who took his call once paused after he said the name, and he waited for her to disconnect the call. But she screamed instead: “Oh my God, Frank!”

The phone fell slightly from his ears. The scream, so abrupt and so unexpected, threw him off balance, and when he finally positioned the phone the way it had been, he could not seem to recall what had been said, what was left to say. 

“Frank, are you there?”

“Yes,” he stammered, clasping and unclasping stiff palms, hoping the thump in his chest was not loud enough to be heard from her end. He wondered who Frank was, what he had been to this woman to make her scream like this.

“Jesus Christ, Frank. What has it been like, a year?”

“Maybe two,” he said, chuckling softly, trying to sound normal again.

“You just stopped calling,” she said, sighing, her voice taking on a delicate timbre.

“I’ve been busy.”

“Busy? That’s so unlike you.”

He chuckled again. He hoped she would not ask him any questions, would not share a mutual joke whose meaning he was supposed to grasp being the Frank that he was, and so when she said, Can I call later tonight? Is this your number? He was dizzy with relief. He told her of course she could, anytime, and after she disconnected the call, he held the phone mid-air and stared for a long time at the framed picture of Kamsi as a baby, holding unto a wooden stool, staring wide-eyed, bewildered, at the camera. He could remember with surprisingly luminous details how Kamsi had stayed calm only long enough for the picture to be taken and then had burst into tears almost as soon as the flash went off, somehow managing not to ruin the picture, desperate to get back onto the arms of his father. The last he heard of Kamsi was that he lived in Abuja with his fiancée. He was doing okay, Chieloka had intoned in the brisk manner she recently adopted with him, and he had stopped himself from asking just how okay Kamsi was.

That night, he fell asleep on the desk waiting for the girl’s promised call to come in. And then days came and turned into weeks, and she never called back.

*

He was used to the present – to the staid routine that had gradually formed the boundaries of his life. He was used to having his whole day ahead of him, with nothing but his own inward bemoaning for company. He was often dispirited by the monotony, and the sense he got that he was going around in circles and getting to no destination. Other times, he was able to convince himself that he liked this life, how it enabled him to go on living, not requiring all the energy and concentration he was unwilling, and indeed unable, to give.

On weekdays, he spent most of the morning in bed, circling crossword puzzles from an outdated newspaper with a pencil or re-reading yet another Buchi Emetcheta novel with pages creased from years of flipping. The long hours spent in bed each morning tired him, but even the thought of getting up to make breakfast for himself was far more tiring. His social life was all but dead. When those increasingly rare invitations – to house warming ceremonies, children’s weddings, grand-children’s dedications – came, he found himself declining even before he opened the envelopes. Once, for lack of a plausible excuse to ward off Prof Nduka’s particular persistence, he had attended the traditional marriage of Nduka’s last daughter, Chinwendu. It had seemed only yesterday that he attended her dedication and there she was, her right palm spread atop a glass cup while a procession of young women in uniform trailed behind, her heavily made-up face only faintly recognisable. The noise all around him, the laughter that floated, and the irritating voice of Prof Nduka in alcohol-drenched breath, bothering him every now and then if he was alright had made the Professor long for the womb-like comfort of his bed. He ate little, and yet he threw up on getting home and took to bed for a few days.

The last recipe Nnanna had sent from Canada, with detailed instructions on healthy diet and allergy management, hung on the wall of the kitchen next to a five-year-old calendar that displayed skinny black models with sharp collarbones and impossibly white teeth, advertising a body lotion. He followed the diet rules strictly. Aside from the fact that the recommended meals improved him, he felt a connection to Nnanna simply doing what Nnanna had expected. The recipe had been the last present from Nnanna before he cut contact. When he had first left for Canada, a few months after completing medical school in Ibadan, he had called every day, using cheap phone cards he bought at departmental stores, urging the Professor to apply for teaching jobs in Canada. Gradually, the calls had become less frequent, and finally they had stopped completely. He still kept the first present he received from Nnanna after he got a job in a public health centre: an expensive pair of sandals that Nnanna stresses was handwoven by the ‘native’ women in India. He did not understand how Nnanna could talk about ‘native’ without a hint of irony, and what was it with that voice? And yet he spent his months afterwards tracing the sandals, searching for possible fingerprints of the makers. The sandals made his feet look feminine, and for some reasons, this saddened him, as did the crisp shirts with sparkling designer labels which Nnanna sent in the months that followed. They made him look younger, different from how he wanted to be seen and it seemed, in retrospect, a foreboding of sorts, of a desertion to come.

On some days, when he met colleagues at the market in New Haven, or in the community library down the street, they remarked with unconcealed envy on how well off he looked, and it struck him, their ability to see versions of him he was unable to feel. He knew they thought of him as lucky; the retired professor who did not have to worry about pension and all the burdens that came with retirement because he had well-to-do children, even one who lived comfortably as a doctor, abroad. But they also regarded him with a new wariness, and the pitying look in their gazes held questions they were only too polite to ask aloud. He was generally reserved and polite towards them, saying very little, responding in monosyllables, agreeing too easily with arguable ideas, acutely aware of their scrutinizing, puzzled gaze. It was so unlike him not to join in as they moaned about the increasing decadence in the system: the billions of naira meant for establishing infrastructure that were instead being stacked in the bank accounts of top officials, and how the university was like a shadow of itself, with alarmingly inexperienced individuals posing as academics, stealing their students’ theses to publish as their own research papers in international journals. He did not indulge them with that zeal that was becoming of him when they complained about their pension not being paid on time (and sometimes not being paid at all), did not snap his fingers reproachfully or furrow his eyebrow to express his grave disapproval when they talked about the government systematically tracking down activists and academics critical of the so-called democratic government. He merely listened, making vague sounds of ascent, bidding his time until it would not be rude to walk away. Once, Dr Chima, a retired Economics lecturer, had asked him over drinks, his expression morose and browbeaten, ‘How do they expect us to feed, especially now that we are no longer active in the system?’, and the Professor who was known for that effortless spirit of activism, he whose valiant opinions could easily spur others into action, had replied, limply, ‘Only God knows, Doc’.

And so the calls were to him a source of temporary comfort. With them, he had a semblance of purpose. He would never have guessed that the sound of a human voice over the phone could fill another with such hope. He had developed with time the habit of guessing, before he made the calls, what kind of person the receiver would turn out to be. Sometimes, he was right and the receiver turned out to be just what he had expected, and other times he was wrong. Like the one time he had been so certain the receiver would be a man who was involved in some business or the other, but turned out to be a grieving woman who had recently had a miscarriage, and assumed he was a public health representative who had promised to contact her. He listened to her narrate her story in between constant hiccups and a tone of heavy despair and he felt something die inside him and he did not have the heart to tell her what he thought: that children were not worth it; that the baby she mourned would one day grow up and get tired of her, and dump her, all used up, like a rag.

*

The last time Chieloka visited was a few weeks after her wedding in Port Harcourt. He had not attended because Chieloka did not think it ‘convenient’ to have to move him from place to place, the ease with which she explained thisto him hurting him more than the words themselves. In her expression was self-assuredness, a blithe oblivion. She would never know what it meant to see himself as she saw him -an invalid, a thing that caused’inconvenience’. He had not approved of the man Chieloka introduced as her fiancée, a semi-educated, successful business man who lived in South Africa and lacked enough home training to be able to tell Chieloka to shut up in the Professor’s presence. He had refused toreceive the man’s casual handshake and he had half-hoped this silent rebuke would send some sort of signal to Chieloka. It had not made a difference. She spent entirelyof that visit sifting through files, gathering her documents and accumulated certificates, and ignoring him. The day she left, he stood safely at a corner of the motor park, watching her bus leave and he wondered if she had always hated him and had simply not been old enough, not independent enough, to show him how much.

Occasionally, he wrote long, detailed, unaddressed letters to his children.He talked about the present, careful not to sound too demanding or too accusatory, making light jokes about some event that had occurred sometime ago – a bird’s dead stare that gave him goosepimples, a child who had hurriedly clasped his unconsciously outstretched hand at the market in New Haven, perhaps assuming he was someone she knew – and even then, he felt melodramatic, the jokes having a bitter aftertaste. He made constant references to their old life, asking them urgently if they could still remember Chiejina, the bad-sighted lecturer in Microbiology who liked to visit on Sunday afternoons to share in their lunch and who often called Nnanna ‘Chairmo’. He was arrested just weeks ago for daring to publish an article calling out the President’s ruthless handling of innocent secessionist protesters. He had been detained for weeks with hardened criminals, refused bail, and rumors were rife that he would be charged with treasonous felony. ‘An old academic who had spent most of his life in the classroom, trying to make a positive impact in his country, and whose reward was not a pleasant pat on the back but a space in prison, he wrote, and afterwards, he wondered what his children would make of his story, if they would somehow see themselves in it, if they would easily decipher the accusation in the anecdote. And he thought of all the ‘remembering’ he had asked of them, half slighted by the certainty that they would not remember, wounded by the fact that ‘remembering’ had become a luxury only he could still afford.

He constantly thought of mailing the letters, in that fleeting way he thought of things he would never do. He imagined his children reading the letters,eyebrows furrowed in concentration, lingering upon each word, trying to grasp a meaning, the same way they did when he had given them simple exercises to aid their understanding of an assignment or a school lesson, but he was not sure if they still lived in the houses whose addresses he had, and he could not bring himself to decide who he would send to as a start, who was more likely to read, and, at best, reply.

*

He cleaned the house on Fridays, simple activities that loosened him within and tired him easily at the same time. Always, he calmly declined Obianuju’s offer to help with the cleaning. She lived next door with her mother, a Professor of Creative Arts with whom he had discussed at length in the past about pottery, which she said was losing its ‘African originality’. But he could not succeed in rejecting Obianuju’s offer to do his laundry, and so he gave in to her. Sometimes he would be embarrassed as she handed him back his laundry, his underwear clean, the milky stain gone, and the scent of the pile fresh.She was an International Relations major, in her penultimate year, and the few times she tried to engage him in conversation, asking him what he thought about the United States’ attack on Iraq, or what his views were on the constant failure of the Nigerian government to prepare a referendum for the secessionist state of Biafra, he calmly reminded her that his chair was in Education, and not social science or humanities. He sensed her puzzlement at his quiet but firm reluctance to engage her. He was touched by herpersistence in keeping him company despite his hints he did not need it. She was intelligent and well mannered, the kind of girl his wife Nkoli would have liked for one of their sons. He wondered what Obianuju thought about his children’s absence. She was always careful not to ask him anything personal but he saw in her eyes a mild curiosity. Sometimes, in the middle of a random conversation, as though to make up for his peevishness, he would start to tell her about his children, to explain how confused he was that they had deserted him now that he needed them the most, but it felt too much, too difficult to intricately trim into words, and he had the feeling that he was demonizing his own children. So he left most of the stories unfinished, illogical, and teeteringawkwardly between them. Although he could see the eagerness in her eyes to know more, she never pushedhim to say more.

Last Christmas, he received a watch from Obianuju wrapped in silver foil, and safely tucked in a drawer in his study, never to be worn. This Christmas, only three days away, he wondered what she would bring, or whether she would even remember. He wondered how much longer before she came to the conclusion that he was a senile old man undeserving of her kindness after all. He imagined her getting married – hadn’t she mentioned something of that sort lately? – and forgetting all about him, her only possible reference to him lumped in general enquiries on how everyone over there was doing, on phone conversations with her mother. He was surprised by how resentful he suddenly felt – of her, of a future to come. And then, almost immediately, he felt sorry for her. She had been nothing but kind to him. He had no way of knowing that would change. 

He was still thinking of her that Sunday when yet another formulated number went through, but because he had not guessed in his usual way who the receiver might be, had not known what to expect, he was momentarily thrown off-balance when the voice came after the first ring, slow and sensual. “Nedu. Good evening. I almost thought you would never call.”

He stared at the wall. Other receivers were always curious upon taking the calls, wanting to know who exactly they were speaking with, and the desperate ones paused midway, abruptly, as though they had suddenly realised the caller’s identity was actually unverified, but he always maintained his stolid silence, only making muffled sounds of ascent to show he was following, and perhaps this convinced them somehow that they were speaking to the right person (they did not, of course, expect anybody to go through the trouble of making and holding on to a fake call). But this one, soft-spoken as it was, seemed so sure.

“Nedu?”

“I’m here,” he said, hoping he did not sound too eager. For some strange reason, he did not want this receiver to go.

“You called,” the voice said, awed, as though the receiver did not believe Nedu could ever call.

He took a deep breath. He was acutely aware of the clock ticking, which seemed too loud in the relative quietness of his sitting room. He wondered who this receiver was. His best guess was a young girl obviously smitten by a man. It had to be an older man; what with the exaggerated regard, the careful pronunciation of the name Nedu, the overly solicitousness of one who was wary of slightly offending.

There was a let out of rasp breath from the other end. “Nedu?”

He thought of the name: Nedu, an unremarkable name for a man who was the case of an intense obsession by this teenager.

“Nedu?”

He smoothened the arm of the cushion and realised that whathe felt at this moment was fear, a vague inconsequential fear of the unknown; the receiver could just be anybody, and here he was absorbing titbits of emotions that were clearly not meant for him. His fears gave way to a sudden need, so acute, it made his joints ache. He imagined the caller in bed, propped on her elbow, straining and hoping in vain that Nedu would respond, and for the first time, he felt the prickle of guilt.

“Won’t you talk to me?” the voice asked again, bellowing into the silence that had settled between them.

 And for the very first time, he disconnected the call.

*

Nkoli was never embarrassed to touch herself underneath the sheets at night. He teased her often that the American movies she was fond of earnestly watching corrupted her, had made her brazen. But he liked it, the way she took control of her own pleasure and moaned as though it was his fingers, not hers, that were setting her on fire. More than once, he found himself climaxing without even touching himself.

He was still coming to terms with her death; one moment she was the young woman striving to organise his life and the next, she was a waning figure stretched out on a bed in Park Lane, battling cancer, making him promise to look after the children when she was gone. He still felt occasionally what he had felt that blistering Thursday afternoon when he was informed of her death: a sudden calm, his senses abruptly cut off so that he was unable to hear anything for minutes despite standing in a crowded hallway at the University with students impatiently shuffling past.

In the painful months afterwards, Chieloka had begun to observe him carefully. She often asked if he needed something. She was only a teenager and yet she appeared to understand what he felt, how hard it was for him to come home after teaching to meet an ’empty’ house, how strange it was to bath alone, sponging his back himself, reaching out unconsciously on his bed for mid-night comfort, to the embrace of a numbing vacancy.

By the time she had reached university years, Chieloka had been able to tease him, jokingly making references to a woman or two who were suitable for marriage. Once there was even a mention of a course mate of hers who wouldn’t mind an older man. Although he was touched by her concern, he resented her for thinking he needed a wife to somehow fix him. A few months before she moved out, she asked him why he had not re-married. He stared at her from across the dinner table, his own daughter, as she made her point about the handful of suitable options he had. And afterwards, he had said nothing at all.

As Nkoli lay opposite him tonight, he straightened on the bed to enable her access to his underwear, but she reached out for his palm insteadand took his fingers one after the other in her mouth, and just when he was going to ask her what she was doing, she called him Nedu.

He woke up with a start. The early morning sun filtered in through the many gaps on his window and made bright yellow patterns on his wardrobe. He reached out for his glasses on his drawer. His joints ached pleasantly. The person in the dream had not been Nkoli after all. He sat up in bed for a long time and tried to picture Nedu, tried to craft an image of Nedu in his mind’s eye, but his mind formed nothing at all.His eyes caught the giant mirror on his dresser as he turned to his other side and he studied his image – how gaunt and slender – and wondered if he was losing his mind.

*

He was making dinner when the phone rang from the study, a jarring that was alien to him, perhaps because his phone had never rung before. He moved towards the room, dazed, and for the slightest of all moments, he imagined it was Nnanna calling from Canada.

The voice was unfamiliar at first hearing, and distant, as though the caller was paces away from the phone. He took a deep breath, listening to the hasty background noise, and waited.

Finally, “Hello?Nedu?”

He swallowed hard, reached out to place a palm on the wall to steady himself, and held the phone firmly to his ear with the other palm. He could hear his own breathing receding loudly as though he was out of breath, blending with the painful thump in his chest.

“Nedu, are you there?”

He lowered himself on the sofa, worried that the creaky sound the seat made as it took in his weight would be overheard on the other end. He was too scared to breathe too deeply. There was something in the air he didn’t want to inhale.

“Nedu, can you hear me?”

He stared at his crammed book shelf; the termite-infested hardwood was gradually coming apart. Chieloka had suggested getting a new one for him on her last visit, and the thought of his books leaving the shelf for another, the thought of one more familiar thing giving way for something new, had terrified him.

“Nedu?”

“Yes. Yes, I can.”

“I thought you cared about me.”

“Yes.”

“But you’re playing games with my feelings.”

“I’m not.” He sat up. His back ached

“You hung up on me the other time.”

“I’m sorry”

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want us to go back to how we used to be. You used to always want to know what was going on in my life. Nowadays, you don’t even call’

“I… ” he faltered, on the brink of saying again that he was sorry. And he was sorry. Sorry to have taken this call, to have ever dialled this number and ruffle up feelings that seemed to have been best left buried.

“Why are you playing this game?” the voice prodded.

“Listen, I’m not playing games.”

“Aren’t you? You haven’t spoken to me in a long time and the first chance I get to fix us, you… “

The Professor hung up. He remained sitting, looking at the books lining his shelf. Of all his children, only Nnanna had inherited his love for reading. There were days spent in mutual silences, while they, ignoring everyone else, got lost in the worlds of books. Their tastes widely varied. He considered crime fiction, Nnanna’s obsessive genre, shallow; Nnanna scoffed at his love for dreamy poetry, his fondness for the old African Writers Series that occupied the top shelf, his particular affection for Buchi Emecheta. “She’s boring, why do you like her?” Nnanna asked once, and the Professor, knowing as he was, was bereft of a response.

He stood up and walked towards the window. The ground was littered with ripened mangoes and guavas and they smelled sweet-sour. He could smell something else too. He hurried towards the kitchen and took the pan off the stove and stood there staring at the blackened mash of sweet potatoes.

*

The third day, the receiver broke down in tears after the first hello, and the Professor held ontothe phone, listening.

“They waylaid me after classes yesterday.” The voice, although sobbing, was clear. “Kene was amongst them. The woman who sold food along the road helped me get home. Kene said it wasn’t the end. They would go on with this until I start behaving like a man.”

“Oh,” the Professor said. He did not know what else to say. Of course, the receiver was a boy after all, not a girl. He had known this all along, and yet he had listened, had allowed himself to revel in the thought that someone somewhere cared about him, a boy for that matter, him being an imaginary Nedu and all. He took off his glasses and looked at the sketches he had made all morning on a blank piece of paper, the name Nedu stylized in different fonts. He was filled with an unreasonable urge to laugh.

He looked at the photo framed above him – he and Nkoli in their oversized wedding attire, Nkoli clutching at her plastic flowers too tightly, her right arm wound around his left, both of them radiating happiness.

He wondered if he had been truly happy then, if he was truly happy now, if he would ever truly be happy. As the boy spoke, pausing in between his monologue to cry, the Professor searched amongst the emotions swirling in his head for what to feel. He finally settled for complete. This was where he wanted to be.

“Nedu,” the boy said, finally. The sound of his voice newly warmed the Professor. “Can you hear me?”

 “Yes.”

“I… ” He paused to blow his nose. “I just don’t know who else to call.”

“It’s okay,” the Professor said sitting up. His free hand was curved as though in an imaginary embrace. He had never wished to hold someone so close in his life.

“I know you no longer want me, but… “

“Of course I want you,” the Professor said, the force of his own tone startling him. “Look, I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you all this time, but that is going to change now. Alright?”

The boy paused for a few moments. “Okay,” he said quietly and blew his nose again.

*

He woke up feeling tired, and as he circled cross-word puzzles in bed, he rehearsed the lines over and over. He had been lying. He wasn’t Nedu, he didn’t even know who Nedu was. He was just an old man withered by his own personal failure and constantly longing for a life that was clearly not his. He would beg, he would admit that he understood perfectly if the boy was angry and stopped talking to him, but hoped he wouldn’t.

“We’re both broken people who need each other,” he said out loud and he couldn’t help the smile. He was being absurd, and, at sixty-seven, a little pathetic. But the boy did not call that day; neither did he call the next day, or the next. The Professor’s dialling went unanswered and when the mechanical voice informed him yet again that the receiver was not answering, he fought the urge to smash the phone across the wall.

But he waited. He re-read old books and cleaned the house and cooked simple meals and when Obianuju came on Saturday to take his laundry she stared at him with an alarmed expression and asked him if he was alright and he said yes.

It was the brutality of the silence that tore him apart. After each unanswered call, he promised himself not to call again, to move on with his life, which, if he thought of it, had been going on quite well without this stranger in it. And yet, even on the days he said those words, he reached out for his phone to dial the boy’s number, willing him to pick up the phone, even if for the last time. The silence made him feel as though he was trapped in an airtight room with nothing but his own ghosts bearing down on him.

*

And then, one Monday evening, the boy picked on the second ring.

“Hello?” There was something slightly impatient about the tilt of his voice.

“Hey…” he said. It occurred to him just then that he had nothing to say at all, no apparent reason for calling. He visualised the boy perched close to a table, shifting weight between two legs, contemplating dropping the call. “It’s Nedu,” he said.

“Nedu.”The excitement was slow, gradual, and even he could not fail to notice the theatrics behind it. “How are you?”

He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what his children would say if they somehow learned he was now an insane man who stalked strangers over the phone; that he now listened with conviction to a young boy profess undying love to him.

“I’ve been calling,” the professor said. He felt stupid, all the more because he could hear something like the stifling of an amused sound, as though the boy had pressed his face against a pillow at the last minute to prevent laughter. Perhaps the boy had discovered he was a fraud, and only decided to play along for the fun of it. The phone had begun to shake in his hands. He wanted to scream into the receiver and let this boy know that he – Professor Odinchezo, Doctorate in Education – was not up for the fun of it; that he did not have to be Nedu to feel this weightless desire.

“Been a little busy, sorry,” the boy said.

The Professor sighed. For a fleeting moment, he wanted to think of himself as Nedu, as the centre of this boy’s affection. He wanted to imagine them laughing together at something funny and familiar.

“With what?” the Professor asked.

The boy hesitated. His voice, when he spoke, was tinged with surprise. “A couple of things.” He stopped. There was a total silence, and the Professor strained for the sound of an even faint background noise. When the boy came back on the line, the Professor was surprised by the relief he felt.“My mother thinks I need deliverance.”

“Why?”

The boy sighed. “I don’t know Nedu, I don’t know.”

“Listen,” the Professor stopped. What could he say? What on earth did he know? “I think you are fine the way you are.” He finished, sighing again. He was aware of the limpness of the words, the impractical artificiality. He realised he didn’t even know the boy’s name, could not say it from time to time to solidify the bond between them from his end. For a desperate moment, he worried the boy had noticed this.

“When did you become this corny Nedu?”

“I love you,” the Professor said. He let go of the edges of the table he realised he had been gripping all the while, relieving the ache that spread all over his palm. Now that it was out, he could breathe freely. He could sleep with the curtains drawn; he would wake up with his head clear.

The boy chuckled. “Say it again.”

“What?”

“What you just said. Do you mean it?”

He nodded, even though the boy could not possibly see him. In the candlelight, he could make out his shadows on the wall, elongated, repeating his furtive movements. He could see his children shrieking in horror and making plans to bundle him off to a psychiatric home; and behind them, standing at a remove, he could see his Nkoli, after all these years, watching him steadily with a quiet and reserved disappointment.

“I love you,” he said into the phone, and for the first time in years, he was buoyed with a solid sense of being.

Chukwuebuka Ibeh is a Nigerian writer. His short stories have appeared in McSweeneys, Clarion Review, Charles River Journal and The New England Review of Books.

 

This short story was shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award and appears as ‘A Sickness Called Longing’ in the anthology ‘The Heart of The Matter’.

 

*Image by engin akyurt on Unsplash