The Caller

Ope Adedeji

As with most things, it didn’t start as an obsession; it was an interest spurred by a documentary he watched as a boy. He told himself he was a collector of voices, like his co-worker, Nnamdi who collected jewellery from the women he slept with. Or maybe not like him; Nnamdi was odd – an oddly shaped man with oddly shaped interests.

In the documentary, a journalist working undercover as a hotline worker was on a mission to track down a man who masturbated during crisis calls. She had stocky legs, and wore red wool sweaters that made him want to peel his skin. At 10, he didn’t know what masturbation meant, or what a crisis hotline was. He knew though that the man in the red hoodie and sweatpants was trouble. It was in the way he slouched and clasped his stubby fingers. His face was blurred out, yet, he seemed to be staring into the camera when he said he heard a smile in the voice of the hotline workers. “If they don’t want to hear me do my thing, then they could just hang up. Easy.”

All week, the boy wondered how it was possible to ‘hear’ someone’s smile. He wondered if it was a superpower only the man had. And though several years had passed since he saw the documentary, the man’s words had stayed with him.

He was a 30-year-old man with a wife and child when he first attempted to experience it. It was a Sunday afternoon, just after he’d returned from church. During the service, the priest had briefly mentioned something about an inner demon and the documentary man’s body had floated into his head and twisted something inside. It wouldn’t leave, not even later that afternoon, when he stepped out of the house, into the heat and walked to the business centre down the road.

Business centres were not as popular as they had been in the noughties. His mother had owned one. It was an umbrella and a table by the road where people could pay 20 naira to make calls. She also sold recharge cards and sweets in colourful wraps. The business centre on his street was different. It was a small kiosk which had a photocopy machine and computer that people could pay to use. He purchased the sim pack from a pimple-faced teenager. Her front tooth was stained with stew; he imagined that she’d just eaten amala, abula and shaki, and that it was the shaki that left the stain as she tried to tear into it. He asked her how school was, and when she said, fine, he told her to keep the change. She smiled and said, “Thank you, Uncle.”

As he walked back, he wondered which room in the house was suitable for a private call. He didn’t want his wife, Mary Magdalene to know about this – the new adventure he was beginning. She probably wouldn’t. If she did, all he had to do was think up a lie.

Mary didn’t care about much. Her indifference was in her lack of jewellery and the way she dressed – tying a wrapper or walking about naked when indoors, wearing oversized black jackets and long Caribbean skirts to the school where she worked as a secretary to the head teacher. It was in what she called him, Baba Tito, when all his colleagues had wives who called them ‘darling’ with extra effort on the ‘r’. She showed little affection: a kiss here, a hug there. Even the sex was mechanic. If anything, she cared about keeping her family well fed. She busied herself with cooking several meals, stocking them in ice cream bowls in the freezer, in a bid to outdo an invisible competition. She pounded yam on Friday evenings, turned garri on Saturday evenings, made ikokore early on Monday mornings, making sure the lumps of water yam were extra small, the way he liked it.

The power was out when he got home, so the house was dark, except for the light from a window in the kitchen. Mary stood behind the sink, washing something. Most likely rice. On her weekly menu, Jollof rice and plantain was the post-church meal, followed by dessert – wara, made with soybeans soaked the night before. He walked as fast as possible into his room and closed the door quietly. After putting the new sim in the empty slot of his dual sim phone, he realised he couldn’t do it. Perhaps, it was the smell of plantains wafting from the kitchen. Or that he didn’t know how to spring up sex with a stranger. It was partly Mary’s fault. During sex, he was quiet and she was quiet. Once he had called her ‘baby’, and she had told him never to do that again. “What if the baby thinks you’re calling her?”

He understood that the entire arrangement of the phone conversation was built around words, that he had to be vocal. But how? He dropped the phone on the bed and walked out to the dining room where Tito, his five-year-old daughter with too-thick lips and full natural hair like her mother played tinko with an invisible companion. He pinched her cheeks and joined her in the game

*

The next real time was a few weeks later. He was on his way home from work on a Friday evening when he decided he was confident enough to try again.

He picked Pretty because he knew that she always sounded like she was experiencing pleasure. It wasn’t just her voice though, it was her look – the pixie cut, the tattoo just below her neckline, the cleavage, the pout of her lips. It was the name, Pretty. Everyone at work called her Pretty because her handle on Twitter was @Prettylola298. Her actual name was Lola, and during appraisal week, she was nothing but Ms. Lola – HR and cofounder.

He dialled from the toilet. He’d had bread for breakfast – toasted with eggs, onions, tomatoes and sardines – and coconut rice for lunch, so his shit was hard. It was softer on the days Mary didn’t make as much carbs, but he’d never managed to convince her to do otherwise; she sulked when he complained about food. Earlier when he’d walked in and saw her sitting on a stool, slicing a tuber of yam into a red tray, he’d chuckled and thought to himself, This woman, don’t kill me with food and she’d looked up with a knowing smile, saying, “Ahn, Baba Tito, welcome back. How was work?”

Pretty picked up after two rings. Her mouth sounded full when she said hello. He heard Wizkid’s old song, Holla at your boy in the background, and conductors calling for passengers. Noisy and not a good time, but he listened anyway.

“Who is this?” She asked. The voice was crisp now; she had swallowed whatever had been in her mouth.

“It’s me now, how are you?” His usually soft voice was deep. He achieved this by squeezing his neck into his chest and spoke barely opening his mouth.

“Who is ‘me now’? I don’t know you. Who are you?”

“Ahan, you can’t remember me again?”

“I’m not sure that I do.” Her mouth was full again. He imagined she was eating fried yam or something situation-fitting like cucumbers. “I don’t recognise the voice,” she said, chewing. “Please, who is this? Introduce yourself. I do not have this number saved.”

He held his penis in his free hand at this point. As a boy, he was fascinated at how it could grow from something so soft and almost lifeless, to something big. His mother once caught him with his hands down there and punished him by rubbing Cameroon pepper in his palms – he didn’t touch it for weeks, except when he had to pee or take a bath. He thought of a name and remembered a boy from primary school he’d once had a crush on. The boy had been one of the cool boys who brought lunch packs and Supa Strika comic books to class. Mike.

“It’s Mike,” he said, stroking slowly. A random, yet common name. She was bound to know a Mike or Michael.

“Mike. Hmm, I’m not sure.”

He closed his eyes, replayed the words ‘hmm’ in his head. He moaned, “Oh yes, oh yes. Tell me what you’re wearing, Pretty. Talk to me.” He didn’t feel too odd saying this.

“What the fuck is going on?” There was a small, barely-there pause where both their breathing synced. He focused on a dark patch on the wooden door, waiting. An interrupting sound floated into the toilet and stayed: the too-close tap-tap of rubber slippers on the floor, some shifting, a human hum – Mary’s. Unconcerned, but human. Something gospel. The world stopped, his heart was caught in his throat. He didn’t know when the line went dead, or when he heard himself say, a little too loud, “In Jesus’ mighty name I have prayed, Amen.”

*

Over the weekend, Lola did a Twitter thread about her experience using the hashtag, #WhoIsMike. Women responded with the sickly green emoji. They told her they were sorry she had to go through that, and sent her the words ‘love and light’. It gained 429 retweets and 2745 likes in three hours. At work on Monday morning, she told the story again. A couple of colleagues gathered around her by the coffee maker in the lounge, listening.

He walked in with his backpack and lunch box when she started expressing her shock.

“I thought it was 419 at first,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “You know, I read about women who get sex called, but I never imagined it would happen to me. Me? God knows I’ve suffered.”

She gesticulated, squeezing her face as if she was going to cry. She added some jara, saying, “And oh how he kept asking me to repeat his name. Mike or something. Gosh, the pervert!” She told them she had reported the number to the network provider and hoped that he would be barred soon, but she couldn’t trust them. “I’ve done my part, sha,” she said as she walked back to her office.

By lunch break, it was all anyone talked about. Even Nnamdi spoke about it with raised eyebrows: “If we were in a civilised community,” he said, “that person would get arrested.”

He thought about the man from the documentary and wondered about his fate. Had he been arrested? Or was he free? Did he live life normally, perhaps with a wife, three girls and two dogs or several cats?

He didn’t say much in response to Nnamdi. He sighed, shook his head and asked, rubbing his chin, “I just wonder if it’s someone she knows.”

Nnamdi shook his head. “My guy, those callers don’t operate like that. They call a random number and start doing their thing.”

He kept a low profile through the day, turning in designs only through Slack. In the lounge during lunch, he searched her face for the possibility of knowledge. In one brief moment, their eyes met. She looked away. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. What if his voice hadn’t been as deep and obscure as he wanted it to be? He didn’t talk much — not to her especially. Still, she was bound to know what he sounded like. Too close to home, he warned himself.

There was also the other thing that gave him a headache. Mary. If she’d heard anything of the conversation, she didn’t say and there was nothing on her face at dinner. He doubted that she had. It was after all Mary, his wife of six years, who mostly lived in her head and didn’t care for much. He decided to be careful either way. If they can bleed for five days and live, who knows what else they’re capable of, he thought, starting to clear his lunch.

Later that day, he scrolled through Twitter looking for his next pick. After a few hours of switching between mindless and thorough searching, he settled on @santaKlara2008. Her bio read: “Feminist Nazi. Single. Communications Manager. Believes in Unicorns.” The feminist bit scared him because feminists scared him, especially the young ones who wrote threads about not cooking for their husbands and organised protests against abusive pastors. He was sceptical. But when he imagined the sound of her voice – creamy with an Igbo accent – and that she would call him ‘Nnayi’, he had an erection at his desk.

That evening, instead of taking the straight road home, through Maryland and then Ikorodu road, he took a U-turn and went to church to say confessions.

*

Klara’s thread was long and thorough. She posted his phone number, his now deactivated burner Twitter account and screenshots of the conversations they had before the call. Their call happened on a Saturday afternoon when Mary had gone to get her hair twisted. Once bitten, twice shy. Klara created her thread only a few hours later. She tagged the Nigerian police’s official Twitter account, the governor and the network provider. “I don’t want sympathy,” she tweeted, “I want action.” Her Twitter hashtag was #JusticeForKlara. It was at the top of the trend list for a hot minute, before another scandal popped up on the trend list and overshadowed it.

He felt a little bad that she was distressed by the call, but he also felt good – he’d done it all through the call, and she didn’t realise what was happening until the last minute when he moaned her name and asked her to call his name – the fake one, Emeka. He came, sticky and disgusting on his hand.

After the call, he washed up, got dressed in a blue kaftan and took Tito out to a new ice cream place. They had ice cream dates every other Saturday, something Mary complained about. They had managed to compromise on it, as long as they were out long enough for Tito’s sugar high to wear off and Tito had to take agbo once a month.

He had his regular: vanilla in a cup. Tito, who usually had chocolate, said she wanted something different. “Daddy, I’m feeling a little adventure.”

“Adventurous,” he corrected her, laughing.

She laughed too, showing a slightly chipped front tooth, half confused by the difference between ‘adventure’ and ‘adventurous’. She had strawberry-flavoured ice cream with oreo toppings in a cone.

They spent the afternoon sitting on high-top chairs laughing at a Mickey Mouse mascot that danced outside the ice cream shop.

When they got home, it was still bright outside. Mary was home, bags of groceries sat on the kitchen counter, unpacked: plantains, bread, ugwu, beverage tins and cereal, but no dinner. He checked in their room and saw that she was asleep, her back moving in slow, irregular rhythm as she snored. It was a little odd, but not too odd. He was tempted to wake her, only to ask if she was okay. He decided not to. He was a good husband, and if she needed the night off, she would get it.

He whipped up noodles for Tito, and she complained with folded lips that it was too spicy and left it half eaten. After she went to bed, he decided to call a random number. He got comfortable in the parlour – naked, feet on the table, body on the cool leather sofa. He set up a new sim card and drank mortuary-standard Heineken as he strung numbers together.

Dialling random numbers was hard. He had to keep trying until he was able to get through to a woman who sounded young. He was still trying when he heard the sound of pots and pans moving in the kitchen. He went to check it out. Mary stood at the edge of the sink, a wrapper tied loosely around her neck, cutting ugwu. Her head was bent into the sink, concentrating on the leaves as if her life depended on them.

“Baba Tito” she said, “when did you come back? You should have woken me now.”

“It’s alright. We ate indomie.”

She nodded, pointing to the used plates and empty wraps lying on the counter – showing him his mess.

He stood at the doorway for a second, a little awkward. The sound of the knife hitting the chopping board and the hum of the freezer stood between them.

“Goodnight,” he finally said.

“Okay, I’ll join you soon,” she said without turning to face him. If she had, he’d have seen a smirk on her face.

*

The transition from interest to obsession happened fast; there were no in-betweens, no clear lines. He started extensive research on how to sex call and discovered that there was an art to it, that it was a skill he had to learn. There were rules: don’t call the same person twice, always use a new number, have a story for each character you take on. He used the office Wi-Fi to download video and article resources. He even tried to find the documentary. Instead he drowned in a Reddit rabbit hole of men who masturbated during calls from telemarketers, just to stop them from calling – or so they said.

Customer care agents were the way, not Twitter feminists or Facebook pick-mes. He called one every other day, sitting in the toilet, even if he didn’t have to shit. There was something comforting and homely about the toilet; in between calls, he came up with the best design ideas. It was how he came up with the design for the breast cancer awareness campaign that had been retweeted 10,000 times on Twitter. Pretty had even congratulated him for creating something so great that went viral.

The tub was white, with brown edges that had been scrubbed and scrubbed, but remained stubbornly brown. Mary stocked magazines on a raffia rack below the tissue papers and towels. He wasn’t sure why; perhaps, keeping magazines in the toilet was just her way of doing more to make her home, a home. The magazines were basic lifestyle and celebrity gossip magazines that bored him, but he liked to flip through them and stare at random photos.

The women he called had names like Nancy, Kemi, Funke, Loretta and Nneka. They worked in the customer care departments of large organisations. If a guy picked up, he ended the call immediately, a little pressed, as if they had done it deliberately. His voice was gruff or soft or silky or shrill depending on what name he went with. There was Femi and Dauda, Donatus and Momola, Nduka and Bright. He wasn’t good with coming up with names, so anytime he read to Tito from her comprehension passages, he noted the names of the characters in the stories. He practised them in front of her, asking, “Tito, would you like me if my name was Cletus?”

She would furrow her brows together and ask, “What does Cletus mean, daddy?” and they would burst into laughter.

This went on for a while until it ended in the rainy season, exactly seven months after he first called Pretty. It wasn’t a simple ending, neither was it exactly complicated. It was just that, an ending.

*

In the seven months, he successfully sex called 42 women, some of whom cussed him to rotten deaths – “I pray maggots feast on you till you die”, “God go punish you”, “You’re a vile, disgusting human being, I hope you rot in jail”. There were threads, WhatsApp broadcasts, tweets and even one poorly written article in a leading newspaper about a rise in what the journalist called ‘prank calls’. Over a dozen registered sim cards – most of which he bought from that shop down the street – sat as souvenirs in an old Bible case beneath the bed he shared with Mary. He lived with the small fear of Mary finding out, but it was just that, a small fear sitting on the nape of his neck. She remained unassuming, a good wife. He was lucky.

The day before it ended, it rained while the sun shone. He told Tito that the reason it was raining and the sun was shining was because a lion had just died. He wasn’t sure if that was the theory his mother had told him as a boy, but he knew that it was close enough. She looked wide-eyed at the clouds. They sat on the balcony, picking out ewedu leaves for lunch while Mary dusted the sofas and mopped the floors. A call came in the middle of this. There was no ID, so he didn’t want to pick. But he imagined it was a work thing, and eventually picked up.

“I know what you’re doing,” the voice said immediately. No ‘hello’ or ‘hi’. Straight to the point. It was the voice of a woman – quiet but serious. He didn’t recognise the voice.

“What?” he asked, stuttering. Tito tried to clasp the fingers in his left hand, but he shrugged her free, looking at the sun, but not seeing it. His mind went straight to every call he’d made in the last seven months, to the potential newspaper headline: 30-Year-old Father and Husband Found Guilty of Masturbating During Calls. Was it a crime? He wasn’t sure.

“I know what you’re doing, and you’re going to get in a lot of trouble if you don’t stop.”

“Who is this and what are you talking about?” This time, he was loud, loud enough for Mary to appear behind the screen door and ask what was happening.

The line went dead.

“Baba Tito, are you okay?” she asked.

He nodded, not looking up at her — in fact looking away, straight at the sun, and then at the clouds. He didn’t say anything to her, and because he didn’t respond or look up at her, he didn’t see that she struggled to hide laughter that would have torn her face apart in her eyes, nose, mouth and ears.

His mood that day was fowl, so that at night, when she asked again, in between dipping her eba in oha. He said, “Mary, I’m okay, I told you I’m okay. What is it you want?”

“You don’t look okay. You look stressed. Is it work?”

Mary, unassuming Mary, was bad at taking cues, at reading the layers in a person’s voice or in their silence. A blessing and a curse, he thought to himself.

He shrugged. He eventually mumbled something about workload when he realised she was not going to back down. He chewed slowly, enjoying the konk taste of ijebu garri. He wondered how any of the women – because it had to be one of them behind the call – had gotten his personal number which he had not once used. And if it wasn’t about the calls, who was it that called and what was it he was doing?

He decided he would change his sim card. It was impulsive, but he blurted it out anyway. “I’ve been getting calls from 419s.”

Mary nodded. “Ah, why didn’t you say something? I’ve been reading about them in the news. Aren’t we suffering enough in this country? It’s just sad. Thank God you didn’t fall prey to any of them.”

He laughed. “When I wasn’t born yesterday.”

She nodded and later gave him a back massage like she used to when they got married. She poured almond oil on his back and used her elbows and fingers to massage the tension points. Then she started to trace lines and kiss it. He was shocked. For a split moment in the darkness of their room, he imagined it was Pretty sitting on him and sighed.

They made love for the first time in over seven months, and he was so caught in it – the pleasure, the potential of actually enjoying sex with his wife – that he didn’t notice, didn’t hear when she mumbled, “Oh, Mike.

*

The next afternoon, after church, he went to the business centre down the street to get a sim replacement. The pimple-faced girl laughed at his declaration that she won’t be making money off his sim purchases anymore.

She said, “Uncle you’re always buying sim cards, if I didn’t know aunty Mary and your baby, Tito, I would have called you Yahoo Yahoo.”

He faked a laugh and told her to keep the change.

He didn’t realise he was walking fast, almost running to his building, until he got in, slammed the door and started gasping.

“Baba Tito, are you okay?” Mary called out from the parlour where she was watching a Mexican telenovela.

“Yes yes,” he called out from the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge. He went into their room and laid on the bed. What if the business centre babe knew? What if she was the one who called him, asking him to stop? Would she blackmail him? Were her words a subtle threat? He rubbed his temples. There was a little drumming in his head, the beginning of a headache.

At mass, he’d made a promise to God to stop. He’d asked for forgiveness, quoting all the right scripture: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Afterwards, he took communion and felt new. The feeling of newness was short lived. He couldn’t find it on his bed at home. He brought out his phone and set up his new sim. Then he went on his real Twitter account and saw a message — ‘Hi’ — from a woman, @LazyMarthaaaaa_ who he had spoken to on the timeline a few times. He decided to respond. They talked about nothing serious – a little flirting here and there. He had no plans of sex-calling her because it was his actual Twitter account with the bio: graphic designer, husband to one lucky woman, father to one naughty girl. Everything he tweeted from that account was on brand, even though he rarely tweeted. It was career opportunities, design tips, cat videos and Odunlade memes. He searched for their Twitter exchange, blushed at one where she called him handsome and laughed at a comic skit he’d shared with her weeks ago. He liked her. Part of the appeal was that she was anon on Twitter, with a little less than 100 followers. She didn’t tweet much and she didn’t come off as feministy.

He thought again: if I’m quitting this thing, why not have one last one?

He asked for her number, sure that he wouldn’t get it. When his phone vibrated with a response, he was partly shocked that it was her phone number. He convinced himself that this was going to be different. This time, his name was Alade, a name he felt comfortable in, a name close to his actual name. He waited till evening to call, when he was sure Mary was consumed with kitchen work.

When he called her from the toilet that evening, he asked her what she was wearing: “nothing”, what she was doing: “cooking”, what kind of hair she had on: “braids”. His voice did not conceal his intention as it usually would. He seemed eager to get it over with and that he did; he came in no time.

“We should do this again,” she said. He found that strange and thought her voice was slightly familiar. Had he called her before? Was she a psycho? He hung up and placed the sim in the Bible box under his bed. He’d have to get a new one from some other place and stop. For real, this time.

When he got to the dining table, there was no food, which was odd. Mary usually had the table set for 8pm, and it was almost 9pm. Tito was drawing and colouring a church and priest in a colouring book. He pinched her cheeks and went to check on Mary in the kitchen.

“Food will soon be ready. Five minutes. You just wait, okay?” she said looking up at him.

“Yes ma,” he said from the doorway. He returned to the dining room to help Tito with her colouring. They were colouring the church gate black when he realised something that might otherwise be coincidental: Mary had been cooking rice almost naked except for the wrapper on her waist. She had been cooking. Naked. Half-naked. In the kitchen. With waist length braids. He looked up, his lips slightly parted, his face twisted. Like the woman from the call. Just then, Mary walked in holding the ceramic bowl she used to serve rice. She had a weird look on her face.

“Hello, Alade,” she said, smiling – not Baba Tito, Alade, a name that was close to his, but not his. “It’s me, Martha.”

He remained silent.

“There are games meant for two people that one person can confidently play. But this game? Only two people can play it. Me and you.”

Ope Adedeji is a writer and editor living in Lagos. She is the managing editor of Zikoko Magazine and was the managing editor at Ouida Books. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Afreada, Arts and Africa, McSweeney’s Quarterly and so much more. She is an alumnus of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. She is the winner of the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for African Fiction.

 

*Image by Ilias Chebbi on Unsplash.