She saw him for the first time that night.
Sitting at a table with two men and another girl she knew, she had allowed her eyes to wander round the dark club and that was when she saw him. There was nothing remarkable about him. You could see him or miss him. That was how average looking he was. Not plain, not ugly, not handsome. Just normal. Medium height, regular everyday clothes. Yet, she stared at him. Three things grabbed her about him. One was the stillness. It was a night club after all. Loud music, loud drunks and even louder body gyrations. But he stood apart . . . , no, above it all. Not just that he wasn’t moving. It was more than that. There was an air of stillness around him. As if anything that moved close to him would be caught and frozen like the biblical Mrs. Lot. People were bumping and grinding beside him but they didn’t seem to touch that air space he occupied all by himself.
The second thing was that she was sure she knew him. Somehow, somewhere. But she could not place him. The third thing was that he was staring straight at her. Despite the moving bodies between them, there was a clear line of sight across the room. From her seat at one end of the large room to where he was standing by the wall at the other end, no body obstructed their view of each other. Despite the distance, she could see his eyes as clearly as if he was standing in front of her. And there was nothing ordinary about his eyes. Piercing, bottomless, black and dark, so dark. They held hers.
Kate was suddenly afraid. She didn’t know why but she had the feeling she should run. Run far far away from this average looking man with the dark eyes. Summoning a nonchalant bravado she was very far from feeling, she tossed her head and turned to the man beside her. When she raised her head a moment later, he was gone. She looked round the club, searching every face but couldn’t see him.
She shrugged and put him out of her mind. She had work to do. The illness that laid her low for the past couple of weeks had made it impossible for her to work and had put her behind on her daily rent. Fari had been understanding but now that she was back on her feet, albeit shakily, he would expect to be paid for the arrears and would not tolerate any delay in the daily bills either. She had to earn a lot of money, fast. And she had younger, prettier competition to pitch her aging skills against.
With the sultriest smile she could muster, she leaned over the table and deftly slid her leg up the thigh of the man beside her. He responded immediately as his eyes bulged at the amount of flesh threatening to spill out of the low neck.
Kate saw the scary man again the next day as she was going out for another night’s work. He was standing at the end of the long hallway with his hands in his pockets. She had just locked the door to her room and turned to walk down when she saw him. The hallway was dingy and badly lit but she could see him as clearly as if it was daylight. He seemed to be waiting for someone or something.
Kate hesitated then started determinedly towards him. Just then someone bumped into her and she dropped her purse. She bent down to pick it up and when she straightened, he was gone. Again! She ran down the hallway, looking into open doors but she already knew she wouldn’t see him. Halfway down, she gave up and made her way downstairs. She somehow knew she would be seeing him again.
And she did.
The next morning, making her way gingerly back to the dirty, rodent ridden motel turned flat now known as brothel inhabited by aging prostitutes like herself, the place she called home, she saw him. Standing in that still way of his against the wall. Hangover forgotten, she rushed across the road to him. He saw her coming and pushed away from the wall. Fearing he would disappear again, she reached out a hand to grab him but, …….. she couldn’t quite touch him. Her hand rose then dropped to her side. But he made no attempt to move. Neither did he touch her. He looked at her with those fathomless eyes and said “Hello, Mary Katherine”
Kate froze. It had been a long time, in another life, that she had been called that. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. She tried again. Fear, hope, despair, longing, love warred in her to make her voice come out as a squeak, “Did my…… did my parents send you?”
Not taking that steady gaze off her, he shook his head. Somehow she believed him. Her breathing eased, but, “Do I know you?”
He stared at her intently for a moment before saying quietly, “Yes.”
“Where?” she demanded.
He looked at her but did not answer. She somehow already knew he wouldn’t.
Just to goad him, she said “If its sex you want, you’ve come to the right place but I don’t give freebies. You have your money?”
He didn’t answer but his steady gaze did not waver and she suddenly felt ashamed.
They stood staring at each other. His dark eyes repelling yet drawing her. Finally, she broke eye contact and started up the stairs. Halfway up, she turned back. He was standing there looking up at her. “Are you coming up?” she asked.
He shook his head, “Not now”.
She shrugged and continued up. She was certain she would see him again.
That night, the sickness started again. Worse than before.
Pain in her chest, wracking cough, burning fever. She tossed and turned and groaned. There was no going out for her that night. It was dawn before she could sleep. When she opened her eyes hours later, she was not surprised to see him by her bedside.
He was standing beside her. Watching, waiting. She struggled to sit up and failed. He made no move to help. She fell back, panting and closed her eyes weakly. When she opened them again, he was still there.
He stayed with her all through that day. Nobody came to her room. There was nothing unusual in that. It was the way of things in this rundown building downtown. Everybody kept to themselves. Even Fari hardly ever entered any room. The only time he did was if you were behind on the rent.
As darkness spread its tentacles across the evening sky, he stepped away from her bed and went over to the window. Kate followed him with her eyes. She was too weak to move her head. She didn’t feel good at all and was glad that someone was here with her even if it was just this strange stranger.
He stood with his back to her, wearing that unfathomable stillness like a garment. He looked up at the sky till the darkness was complete then he turned back to her.
Something in those eyes told her his waiting was over. That same something had her struggling to get off the bed. Panic drove her but her weakened body failed to obey her mental demands. He moved to her side and stretched out his hands towards her. She stared at those hands, the slim long fingers, and shrank back against her pillow, straining away from him. But there was nowhere to run to.
The deep wracking cough gripped her and she struggled to find her breathe amidst the rolling pain, all the while staring up at the hauntingly familiar face bending over her. She knew she could not avoid those hands yet she still tried. It was a fruitless effort.
The cold hands closed over hers and at that moment, she knew who, or rather what he was. There was a brief flare of panic then her heart settled and she opened up to him. With the last rattling breath, she smiled as she embraced the rushing void.
It was over.
He laid her hands gently on the bed and moved back to the window. To wait. His work for the night wasn’t done yet.
It was nearing midnight when the door opened and Fari entered. He had knocked but when he got no answer, had gone downstairs for the spare key. He switched on the bare light bulb. One look was enough to tell him Kate would no more be paying any rent.
“Wahala so!” (this is trouble) he was sorry she was dead but sorrier about the money he had lost. Damn! She still owed him! “Shit! Shit! Shit!” he muttered. As Fari turned to leave the room, he saw him.
“Hey! Who are . . . . . .” the words stuttered to a stop in Fari’s throat as the man moved away from the window and came to stand in front of him.
Fari stared at him. He could not remember the last time he heard his given name. no one here even knew it. He stared harder at the man. He was sure he knew this man. He wanted to ask but a nameless fear held him back. The unremarkable man with the paralyzing gaze stepped by Fari and walked out of the room. Fari drew in a breath he had not been aware of holding. His knees suddenly felt weak so he sagged against the wall. He could not understand what had just happened but he knew he didn’t want to see that eerily familiar man again.
He saw him again.
As Fari went down to the bar he operated below, he saw the man almost immediately. He was standing off to the left side of the bar. His hands were in his pockets and he had an air of patient waiting. He was watching Fari with those all seeing, all knowing eyes.
Fari wanted to go to him. But he also did not want to go to him. He stood there, indecisive, forgetting about the dead body upstairs and the call he should make. He stood, staring at the man almost against his will.
It was a loud noise that jerked Fari’s eyes away from the man’s. It was with great relief that he saw a fight had broken out between two drunks. It gave him something to do. Something to take him away from the scary man. He moved there hastily, “Hey, knock it off!” and stepped between the two grappling bodies.
What happened next was too fast for anyone to understand but one moment, Fari was reaching to grab one of the drunks and the next moment, he was lurching back, clutching convulsively at his throat. The bone handle of a knife was protruding out between his fingers and blood was leaking out of his mouth and between the fingers of the hand around his throat.
The room froze. The still blaring music might as well be off. That was how silent everyone was. Nobody moved. Shock held them immobile.
Fari staggered and his eyes connected again with the ordinary man. In his gasp for life, something dawned and he understood what had so eluded him earlier. He knew the man. He didn’t take his eyes off those dark eyes as he fell to the ground.
Nobody saw the man that crossed silently to the fallen man. No one saw him squat beside the dying man. No one saw him stretch his hands and enfold Fari’s hands in them. But everyone saw the flare of panic in Fari’s eyes. Everybody saw him try to get away from something. And they all saw when he breathed his last.
Two weeks later, the man walked across a neat lawn, sidestepping elaborate tombstones and stopped by a huge iroko tree. He stood silently there and watched the couple standing together by the open grave. They were the only ones there. They held each other and mourned a child they had lost long ago. In their grief they were wondering what they had done wrong as parents as they watched their daughter being laid to rest. They hoped Mary Katherine had now found the something she spent her life searching for. The elusive something that made her turn her back on the mother and father who loved her and would have given her the world if only she had asked.
So lost were they in their painful thoughts that they didn’t see the man leaning against the tree till they got to the waiting limousine parked close by. But as the old gentleman helped his wife into the car, he caught sight of the man. His first thought was that it was someone, a friend of Mary Katherine’s but as he straightened and looked closely, he saw the eyes and experienced a dizzying case of déjà vu. He was sure he had met the man before. And he was equally sure he didn’t want to meet him again.
Almost against his will, he took a step towards the man, then another and another till he drew up to the man. Behind him, his wife called his name questioningly but he heard it only dimly as if from a distance. His whole attention was focused on the man in front of him. “I know you”, he said in his cultured gravelly voice.
“Hello, Howard” the man responded and stretched out his hands.
Fear coursed down Howard’s back, making his body shiver but it was followed almost immediately with calm acceptance. He raised his hand and allowed it to be swallowed up by the man’s cold ones. His last thought was of his wife who would now be alone.
Behind him, his wife saw only her husband. She saw him shiver slightly; she saw him raise his hand as if to touch the tree. Something, a sixth sense maybe, suddenly screamed in her and despite her age she started running, at the same time her husband’s knees buckled and he pitched forward on his face. She got to him.
She was too late.
Howard Adekolu-Cole was laid to rest beside his daughter. There were more people at his funeral than had been at his daughter’s. A whole lot more. Howard was the immediate past vice-president and before that an ambassador and before that a minister and before that . . . . . . . He was an important man. The number of important and wealthy men who took time off their busy schedules to come pay their last respects attested to that. But there was also a whole lot of not so important and not so wealthy people there. For Howard was also a good and kind man. They all came to mourn the seventy nine year old man who had died of a heart attack brought on by the death of a child he had not seen in more than twenty years.
Their sympathy and attention was also on the widow he left behind. A good woman, who at the eve of her life was now totally without any family. With such somber thoughts it was no wonder no one noticed the unremarkable man standing off to one side and watching the proceedings with intense eyes. His eyes roved over each and every one there but did not single anyone out. They would all still meet him one day but that day was not today. So he left them there and walked away as silently as he had come.
He had another appointment.
In a small town thousands of miles away in another country, a young teenage girl walked slowly out of her house. Her father followed her to the porch. He opened his mouth to say something then closed it again. He didn’t know what to say. He knew she needed time to absorb what he had just told her. Seeing the papers that morning had made him decide it was time to finally tell her the truth. And he had. But now he knew he had to give her space to assimilate and understand it all.
Megan moved down the stairs and started walking down the road. Her eyes didn’t lift up from the paper in her hand. The mother she thought died when she was born had actually just died weeks ago and she was the granddaughter of a Howard and Folashade Adekolu-Cole! It was too much to comprehend. Her whole life had been a lie! She shook her head and tried to understand it. She stared harder at the paper in her hand. It was the picture of Howard’s (she still couldn’t think of him as her grandfather) funeral, with his and Mary Katherine’s pictures inset. She was trying to see these people who her father said were her family.
As she looked, it was as if the picture altered subtly. She blinked and the picture became clearer. But not the whole picture. A man, in the background by the left side suddenly stood out in stark relief. Megan stopped in the middle of the street and bent over the paper. The man was becoming clearer and clearer, till she could see his eyes. They gripped hers.
Megan looked up and saw the same eyes looking into hers. She was suddenly scared. She opened her mouth to ask who he was but she was afraid she already knew.
At the corner of the street, tires screeched as a vehicle lost control and came hurtling towards them.
Megan did not hear. She was lost in those dark eyes and could only raise her hand up mutely.
The cold hands met hers halfway and enfolded hers.