A SHORT STORY
Unceremoniously and without warning, I and sleep are separated. The fog receding, I pick up my watch from the bedside table and the luminous dials inform me that it’s a quarter past one in the morning. I am wondering what snatched sleep away when I hear a loud sound. It sounds like a fire cracker. The earth just recently completed its usual revolution around the sun. Social miscreants and misguided youths where I live always seem to have large amounts of money to spend on firecrackers during the festive period and they have a nasty habit of lighting them up at odd hours of the night. The sound comes again. Now I have no doubt what it is.
I get up and walk to the living room. I peer through the window of our third floor apartment. What I see causes my heart to heart to sink all the way down to the floor and my heart picks up pace. From the glow of the street lights that pierce the darkness, I notice the gate to the premises is ajar.
I run back to the bedroom to wake my wife. “Tolu, Tolu, wake up.”
Most women I know are irritable when woken up. My wife is no exception. “What is it?” she asks, grumbling and hissing at the same time. She rearranges the covers as she tries to go back to sleep.
“I think there are armed robbers in the house.”
The agitated movements stop. She turns to look at me. Even though the lights in the room are off, I can see the fear in my eyes reflected in in the roundness of hers. She stares at me for some time. “Are you serious? They’re in our apartment?”
“Not in our apartment. At least not yet. I was woken up by what I believe to be the sound of gunshots. The gate to the compound is open. The only conclusion I can come to is that there are robbers on the premises. I can only presume they’re robbing our neighbours and will soon get to us if we are patient enough.”
“Have you called the police?”
One of our friends had decided we needed the numbers for the Rapid Response Squad, the supposedly elite team of police officers detailed with the act of combating crime in the state. He had sent us at least ten different numbers. We didn’t want to have anything to do with the police and had never seen the use for the numbers until now.
Tolu reaches for my BlackBerry lying on the bedside table. She scrolls through the contacts searching for the numbers. The first three numbers do not go through either because the numbers are no longer in use or because of the terrible state of the network. Finally there is a connection. After what seems like hours, the phone is picked up at the other end.
“Hello,” Tolu says, activating the speaker phone. “Is that the Rapid Response Squad?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Mrs.Tolu Akinpelu. I live at 14, Odo Street in Agungi. I want to report a robbery at our premises.”
“You want to report a robbery?”
“Ehen. So where is this robbery taking place?”
“I said the robbery is taking place in our premises.” By now my wife is shouting.
“Tolu, we need his help. You don’t need to shout.”
“Why are you shouting madam? Did I tell you I was deaf?”
“You’re not listening to me. This is an emergency.”
“Are the robbers in your house?”
“Not yet. But do you need to wait till they are before you come?”
“Come madam, all this shouting will not solve anything,” the voice on the other end says, his tone also rising. “Will your shouting chase the robbers?”
I prise the phone from Tolu’s shaking fingers. “Hello, please may I know who is speaking?”
“This is Sergeant Bodunrin. And you are?”
“My name is Tayo Akinpelu. I’m her husband.”
“So why were you not the one who made the call?” he asked. “Are you one of those men whose wife rules the home?”
I let the remark go. I am not going to enter into a discussion about the intricacies of my marriage at two in the morning. Calm heads are needed here. “Sergeant Bodunrin, like my wife told you, there’s an emergency. There are armed robbers in our building. We need to you to come and do something.”
“Is that so? So what do you want us to do?”
For a few seconds I do not know what to say. “I want you to come with your guns and chase them away or arrest them. If you can shoot them, it would even be better.”
“Ehen. Is that so? So how do you want us to get there?”
This was beginning to get absurd. Here I was, being asked by a policeman to advise him on how he was going to do his constitutional duty. A duty for which he was being paid from the tax I paid. At two in the morning. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself.
“I need for you to come in your vehicles with your guns and come and do something about the robbers on our premises.”
“We don’t have petrol in any of our vehicles. Will you come and pick us up with your car?”
Now this was definitely absurd. So he expected me to go past the armed robbers in the other apartments, drive past the ones probably keeping a lookout on the road and come and pick them up? At this time? I didn’t know if he was joking or crazy.
“Sergeant Bodunrin, I don’t know if you remember but I told you there are armed robbers on the premises. How do you expect me to get past them to come and pick you up?”
The silence stretches as he thinks about it. I can almost visualise the wheels in his head turning slowly till they come to a grinding stop without a resolution. “I don’t know,” he says finally admitting defeat. “If you can wait till morning, we’ll see what we can do.”
I can’t help it. The laughter burst from my lips, hysterical and lacking in mirth. “You’re asking me to wait till the morning. Oh, I can wait till morning. However, I doubt if the robbers who are taking all our personal belongings will be that willing.” I cut the connection in frustration.
“I see what keeping calm and being courteous has achieved,” Tolu says sarcastically. “Nothing.”
I give her a dirty look. I was about to ask her what we should do when there is a loud knock on the front door. We stare at each other. “Should we answer?” I whisper.
“Even if we don’t, they know we are here,” Tolu whispered back.
I think whoever it was at the door wanted to make sure we woke up in case we were still asleep. The loud knocking changed to a violent banging that lasted for about two minutes.
“We are armed robbers. We know you are inside and we want you to come and open the door yourself. Don’t wait for us to open the door ourselves because you won’t like what we will do.”
Fear climbs on my back. The speech, especially the words “armed robbers” suddenly makes me incontinent and my bladder gives way. I felt the warm urine slowly move down my thighs, soaking my pyjama trousers. I hope Tolu will not notice.
“What do we do?” Tolu asks, water beginning to gather at the edges of her eyes and a tremor shakes her voice.
For a long time, all I can do is stare at her. “I think we should open the door.”
Sobs begin to shake her body as tears fall. I gather her in my arms but not close enough for her to get wet from the urine.
“I’m going to count till 10. If by then, this door is not open ….”
We quickly break the embrace and standup. We know we have no choice. With my wife hiding behind me, I go to open the door to the locust knowing that Death might decide to come in with him.
My hand shakes as I turn the key in the lock. Opening the door slowly, I come face to face with those who seek to hurt me. None of them is wearing a mask. I have never seen a more ferocious looking set of people. There are five of them carrying various types of guns.
One walks up to me and strikes me across the face with the butt of the pistol in his hand. Fire shoots through my cheek bone. Warm wetness begins a slow descent down my face.
“I’m sorry sir,” I say. I know I need to quickly pacify him so he won’t inflict more pain on me. “I’m very sorry. I won’t do it again.” Who knows, they might like what they get from us so much that they decide to come back some other time. It wouldn’t do to annoy him the first time around.
“If you co-operate, no one will get hurt.”
For the next two hours, under the persistent threat of physical violence and death, Tolu and I are busy handing over parts of our life. Our money, the few trinkets Tolu has acquired pre- and post marriage and anything of value that’s small enough to carry and can be easily fenced like the BlackBerry Z 30 and Samsung Galaxy S4 phones we owned.
“Are you sure that this is all you have?” the man who hit me earlier says. Like the others, his breath smells of stale alcohol and marijuana. Our belongings are in a heap on the floor in the middle of our living room like an offering about to be set alight in honour of some pagan god. “Are you saying that if I search the house, I won’t find anything of value?”
Tolu and I look at each other. “There’s nothing else,” I say.
He stares at me, looking long and hard into my eyes. His gaze is unflinching as he looks for signs of falsehood in my eyes. Whatever he sees seems to satisfy him. He turns to Tolu. “I’m hungry. In fact, we are all hungry. We want you to cook for us. What do you have at home? We don’t want rice. Rice is for birds. Do you have garri?”
“What about soup and meat?”
Tolu nodded again.
“What kind of soup?”
“Okay. Make eba for all of us.”
I couldn’t believe it. They had come into our house and at gun point had deprived us of our property while threatening to kill us or do us grievous bodily harm. So not only were they not content with robbing us, they now wanted my wife to cook for them? “Alright sir. Tolu, please make eba for them.”
I watch them eating my food after they have robbed me and frustration and impotence well up inside me, threatening to choke me. I look at them and I want to shoot them all. I want to torture them and hear them scream. Then I want to watch as their screams die down into moans as they slip from this life into the next. In my mind’s eye, I see myself leave my body as I go about performing my acts of vengeance. I watch myself laugh in glee as I go about spilling blood and exposing guts. A feeling of satisfaction wells up in me.
“Why are you smiling?” Tolu whispers, digging her elbow into my ribs. We are sitting on the settee in the living room, watching the locusts devour all in their path.
“Nothing.” In my mind’s eye, the macabre movie I am watching comes to an end. I start the movie all over again.
Around 5 o’clock in the morning, after a four hour siege, the robbers begin to load all of our belongings into our Toyota Avensis. When they are almost done with the removal, we are made to lie face down on the floor. They warn that there will be consequences if we get up from our prone positions on the floor. We hear the click of the door lock and we become prisoners in our own home. A few minutes later, the diminishing hum of the vehicle indicates their departure.
Immediately the hum of the engines fade away, Tolu leaps to her feet before going down on her knees, thanking God for the fact that our lives were spared. Her body shakes with the force of her emotions and sobs. I get up from the floor at a more sedate pace, trying not to display any emotion. Trying to be the man. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely grateful for a lot of things, not the least of which is the fact that no one mentioned the word “rape” in relation to my wife let alone tried it. I have heard horror stories of robbers leaving behind dead bodies, rape victims, orphans or widows. They had taken our belongings but property can be replaced, a life cannot be replaced. But I need to be a rock for my wife now. I will deal with my emotions later.
Shortly after the robbers left, our neighbours in other houses around appeared. While the robbers had been with us we had neither seen nor heard from them. All of a sudden, our house was swarming with concerned neighbours. About half an hour after the robbers left, we were rescued from our apartment. Of course, Nigerians love a good story. After rescuing us, they stayed behind to hear us recount our ordeal. For the second time that day, my wife got busy preparing food for an invading army.
Hours later, I am busy recounting the story for the fourth or fifth time. By now, Tolu and I had changed into more presentable to hold court. I have the story down pat by now. As at the current retelling, the story has changed slightly due to certain embellishments as per standard Nigerian story telling procedure. In the retelling, I had suddenly become braver and bolder. There were certain things that had happened that my wife could no longer recollect clearly and I had to help her with.
For instance, she couldn’t recollect certain times I had stood up to the robbers boldly by refusing to accede to a demand they had made. She also couldn’t recollect the times when I had answered them without fear, practically telling them to go to hell, though not in those exact words of course. Once or twice, she tried to correct me, to state things as they had actually happened. When she noticed that people seemed to prefer my version and our audience seemed to accept that the ordeal and fear had addled her brain and crippled her recollection, she backed down. Which was a relief as I didn’t want to argue with her over it.
I wasn’t even considering going to work. Someone had lent me a phone and I had called my boss at work to inform him of what had happened. He had commiserated with me and proceeded to make the right noises to show his concern for my well-being. He had then promptly asked when I would make it to work. I wanted to rail at him and tell him I thought he was callous. I wanted to ask him how he could expect me to come to the office after such a traumatic experience. I did neither. Instead I hemmed and hawed about how I was still “in shock” and would be in when I was myself once again. We both knew he wasn’t going to see me at work today.
At that moment, our little soiree is disturbed by the sound of cars screeching to a halt outside. Shortly afterwards, a raised voice declaring “Okay, everybody come out. I said everybody come out.”
Immediately, fear lays its cold grip on my heart as thoughts fly at speed through my mind. Are the robbers back? In broad daylight? Were they not able to get away in the car?
One of the people in the living room looks through the window. He hisses. “It’s the police. I can’t believe they decide to show up almost three hours after the robbery is over and the robbers are gone?” For reasons like extortion, false imprisonment and extra judicial killings, the members of the Nigerian Police Force are not exactly on any Nigerian’s list of his favourite people. Coming late to the scene of a crime is their favourite method of trying to solve violent crime. Everyone knows they come late just to avoid any robbers as the robbers usually have superior firepower.
Just as it happened early that morning, there is loud banging on the front door. Someone goes to open the door. Two mean looking men with guns, no different from the armed robbers who came to dispossess me of my goods except for the dark uniform, walk into the room. “We want everybody downstairs now.”
I want to protest but again, the fear of the gun they are carrying added to the fear of arrest causes me to obey. I walk down the stairs to the courtyard in front of the house, a sullen look on my face. I am a victim yet I feel like I am being treated with disdain. I intend to raise my grievance with whoever is in charge at the earliest opportunity.
There are about twenty policemen standing around in the courtyard. My neighbours and the people who have come to hear our stories all look like frightened sheep. No one wanted anything to do with the police. They all look like they would prefer to be somewhere else, even those that live there.
“Which one of you is Tayo Akinpelu?”
I am surprised to hear my name. I raise my hand tentatively, like a nervous student, uncertain as to why his teacher has called his name. I feel every eye turn toward me. “I’m Tayo Akinpelu.”
Two policemen converse with themselves while staring at me. One of them begins to walk toward me. Without any warning, he raises his hand and slaps me across the face. The word “idiot” proceeds from his lips in a hiss. He grabs me by the waist band of my trousers and begins to drag me toward a police van waiting outside the gate.
“What have I done?” I shout as I try to dig in my heels. No one tries to come to come to my aid. In fact, out of the corner of my eye, I notice people moving back.
“Where are you taking my husband to?”Tolu runs after us, trying to remove the policeman’s hand from my trousers. Another policeman comes to remove her while another blocks her off. Yet another comes to join the one dragging me.
“Tolu, call our lawyer,” I shout as I am bundled into the back of a van. “Tell him what happened?”
“You had better tell him to come with a lot of money,” one of the policemen says.
At least five other policemen with their weapons climb into the back of the van with me. The last picture that sears itself into my brain is that of my wife reaching out her hand to me, crying as she is held back by other onlookers.