The old peoples’ home was a rather unusual place to go on a date, but Omore herself was quite an unusual girl. Edwin was surprised at her choice for their second outing; it certainly seemed less romantic than their first. As he signed his name in the visitor’s booklet that lay open at the entrance, he admitted that this was too much of a sobering environment for him.
‘I like the fact that you have a heart for such things and all that,’ he said to her. ‘But I wonder that one might get depressed hanging around aged folk all day long.’
‘Depressed?’ She laughed and shook her head. ‘Not at all. Mind you I don’t spend all my weekends here.’
They passed through the gate and into the compound. A few of the home’s occupants were relaxing outdoors. Some of them had dozed off in the shade, while others just sat staring into space and enjoying the serene atmosphere with its attendant cool breeze. They all reacted with excitement at Omore’s arrival, as though she was their communal daughter. Omore, in turn, greeted each one with a special closeness that showed how much at home she was among them. She had barely introduced her companion, when one of the old men decided to jump the gun.
‘Omo dear, have you finally brought your intended hubby to see us?’ He asked with a youthful twinkle in his eyes.
The others let out amused chuckles, while the young lady smiled in embarrassment. But she was used to their ways and had a ready answer for them.
‘Ehn, Pa Ralph. But you know you are still my one and only husband.’
More chuckles followed. Biting her lip, she turned to Edwin.
‘Would you like to see inside?’
He nodded eager to save, not only her, but himself as well from further scrutiny. Leading him through the front door and down the hallway, Omore was the perfect tour guide, as she introduced him to the other folks who remained indoors and acquainted him with their routine.
‘It’s a fascinating place, really’ she said, as though to reassure him that it would be a worthwhile date. ‘The folks here might be advanced in years, but there is so much to them that makes for excitement.’ She paused at the entrance of a wide mahogany door and her face took on a pensive expression. ‘There have been a few who, though they are no more, have left me with fond memories which I won’t forget in a hurry and in some cases, bizarre messages which I am yet to unravel.’
Edwin looked at her curiously. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ll show you.’
She knocked lightly on the door. When there was no response, she opened it with care and entered, Edwin going in after her. The large library, into which they stepped, had rows of shelves built against the walls with a plethora of books neatly stacked on them. There was something strangely isolated about this room. Stepping in was like entering into seclusion, as though they had been cut off from the rest of the home. It so happened that the impressive lineup of classics and rare books - some of them even older than the people who lived there - held little attraction for those who came visiting. The old woman who owned the house once called this library her favorite spot, but now the wardens described it as a forgotten room and the most neglected section. Omore’s first assignment when she began volunteering here was to clean out this room.
‘Not that the place was dirty,’ she explained. ‘It’s just that the people who live here have this thing for being immaculately clean.’
She paused and slid a finger across one of the shelves as if checking for dust, and then lifted up the spotless finger to prove her point. Edwin nodded as she continued.
‘I had to pick out each book and dust them, one after the other; a task which I started very studiously, only to get distracted along the way.’
She feigned a guilty expression and Edwin laughed. Omore told him how, being her curious self, she soon lost interest in the work and instead began nosing through the shelves, lifting out books randomly to see if any of the titles would interest her.
‘It was such a wide array,’ she remarked. ‘It was almost frightening. I mean, I don’t consider myself to be a natural born reader. Even now I still feel overwhelmed standing in here.’
But something else caught her attention that first morning. As she flipped through the pages of one of the many books, a letter fell out. Addressed to no one in particular, this worn-out piece of paper was folded into four with words scribbled on the front and back. It would also be the first of many others like it, which she would discover.
Over the course of the next few months, Omore would find close to a hundred of such letters, all of them clearly dated, folded and tucked away inside different books. The sheets of paper, on which the notes were written, had an off-whitish color, faded over time. When she first started reading them, Omore wondered why anyone would make such an effort to put pen to paper this way. In this day and age, very few people bothered with handwritten letters anymore, especially those of a personal nature such as these ones. She had concluded that the writer of these letters must have been way past his or her youth - and she was right.
The notes, she discovered, were the ruminations of an old woman who was nearing the end of her life. A few lengthy but mostly short pieces written to herself, they reflected her musings on the present world, as well as her yearning for the one to come. Reading in between the lines, Omore could tell that the old woman’s exit was around the corner at the time she wrote:
Heaven is a beautiful place and a trial-free zone. Yet there is one challenge I am certain I would have to deal with when I get there - and that is being able to contain my joy at seeing Christ my beloved Redeemer, face to face. Yet I wonder if the experience would be totally unfamiliar, if one walks closely with Him while here.
The old woman captured thoughts about old friends who had already gone ahead of her and her eagerness to reunite with them again when they gathered around God’s throne - Iyogie, Chief Idusefe, Enoma and others of like precious faith with her. She penned their names legibly and spared few words in expressing the special place which each one held in her heart.
She wrote of her six children, all of who still kept in touch with her. Having flown out of the nest, they showed the proper piety; remembering their aged mother and sending her a regular monthly allowance. But they all lived far away and only the youngest came to see her often. Their now and then phone calls were a trifle compared to the good old family days, when they had spent many evenings close together. In a few of her written pieces, Edede expressed how much she missed them. Old age, she had come to discover, was the loneliest period of her time on earth and as such, she cherished the presence of the visitors who frequented her place.
Omore never met the writer of the notes. But Sewa, the nurse, who showed her the ropes during her first few visits, had much to say about the old woman. The neighbors often came calling on her; some out of a charitable heart, others seeking counsel. There were many one-off visitors but there were also others who returned again and again, looking to strike a deeper friendship. Some came bearing gifts - a cooked meal, toiletries and even cash; others came empty handed. A few times, her visitors spent the whole day with her; but more often than not, she received flying visits, with the passersby lingering for no more than ten minutes. On rare occasions, her visitors -like the last one she received the day before she passed on - would spend the night. Whatever the reason or the length of their stay, Edede was warm and receptive to everyone who came through her doors - both young and old. She never forgot anyone who came. Some of those visits were so unusual she was moved to write a short piece about them. Whenever the old woman bemoaned the absence of her immediate family, Sewa would jokingly counter her by saying that she challenged any celebrity to try and match Edede’s popularity. Edede had been Sewa’s last ward, before the latter got married and moved out to settle upcountry. She told Omore how her love for the old woman grew when Edede began adopting elderly folks. The young nurse always believed that the concept of adoption was reserved for when one took a child under their wings, but her ward changed that mindset when she invited two ‘abandoned’ senior citizens, who had no one to look after them, to live with her.
When the old woman passed away and was eventually laid to rest, her children and grandchildren came home to pay their final respects. Their initial plan had been to let out their parents’ house and divide the rent between themselves as added income, but it seemed their mum had a better idea. At the family gathering, the siblings had looked at one another and scratched their heads. Each one seemed to know what the other was thinking. None of them, from the oldest to the youngest, had the heart to even suggest evicting their mother’s two old friends from the house. The inclination was to continue what she had started. When Edede’s first son finally voiced his thoughts about opening the doors of the bungalow wider to accommodate some more, the decision was unanimous. Now years later, the family of senior citizens living in that home had grown steadily from two to more than twenty. Though Edede had never expressly stated any final wishes to that effect, her children knew that converting their parents’ house to a home for elderly folks would have gladdened her heart.
Omore paused for a while and picked a book from the shelf as Edwin stood by, waiting for her to go on. She recalled reading, but not fully understanding a lot of what was written in the old woman’s letters. Arranging the detached pieces of papers by their dates, she had stapled them together to form a journal of some sort. She kept it away and for the greater part forgot about it. But she admitted that, every now and then, when she came volunteering at the home, she still called it to mind and found herself pondering over its contents. And though she would have loved to have the journal as a keepsake, Omore never felt right about taking it away. She always thought it deserved a place among the ancient and rare collection of books that lined the shelves - so she had found a little corner for it. Turning to look at Edwin, her eyes flashing in excitement, she asked.
‘Would you like to see it?’
‘Sure,’ he responded, feeling more amused than ever.
She fished it out from the bottom row of one of the shelves and gave it to him. Edwin took the journal from her and opened it. All the notes showed a similar trend. The words that formed each of the first few lines were crooked, as though the writer’s hand shook badly as she wrote. But towards the end, the penmanship improved considerably and the words became more legible.
‘Did you notice that?’ he asked, flipping back and forth through the pages.
Omore was impressed. She had not expected him to pick such a detail. It was something she had also observed back then, when she stumbled on the notes. She too had pointed it out to the caregiver at that time and now related to Edwin the explanation Sewa had given - how each evening when the old woman sat down to write, as her hands grew weak and shook so intensely that she could not grip the pen anymore, she would dictate the rest of her thoughts to her nurse who in turn helped her write them down.
‘Her manner of expression makes the things written in this journal hard to understand,’ Omore concluded. ‘She sometimes wrote in her native tongue. Needless to say, the switch in languages happened at the most intense points in her writings and I think I can understand why.’
Anyone could relate to that point in a conversation when one is so passionately engaged in expressing a point, that it strikes a chord in their being, triggers hormones and impulsively makes them switch to their mother tongue. Such was Edede’s manner of writing. Sometimes, the import of what she was trying to say was so heartfelt that no English words could convey its depth. The frequency of her switch from English to her native dialect varied with each letter.
‘It’s just frustrating,’ Omore noted. ‘That those statements that reflect her heartbeat the most are the ones I do not understand.’
‘I have no idea what they mean either,’ Edwin said. ‘But I must say that a book does not do much good to the mind if left unexplored on the shelf, where all it does is gather dust.’
Omore shrugged. ‘Maybe I can ask the new warden for permission to borrow it just for a few days. Hopefully I will find an interpreter who can translate those few lines and help me make better sense of the journal.’ Tucking the stapled sheets under her arm, she led Edwin out of the library. ‘One must forgive my less than impressive grasp of my mother tongue,’ she continued. ‘In this case a reversal of training might be necessary. I’ll need to get a local guru to teach me the native dialect just like the foreigners taught our forefathers to speak English.’
‘Well, left to me,’ Edwin said, smiling as they rejoined the seniors outside. ‘I would gladly forgive you for anything.’
‘Home, sweet home,’ Stella chimed sweetly to herself, as she stepped into the compound.
Spending time overseas with her brother and his family had been worth every minute. The two medium sized travelling bags which she brought back contained mostly gifts for friends and family. Her assistants would be particularly pleased with the embroidered handbags she had bought for them and Otas would love the matching gold earrings and necklace. The house looked the same as she had left it a month ago, except that it was unusually quiet, the mai-guard was not at his duty post and there was a strange car obstructing the entrance. As she placed her things on the front porch to catch her breath, the two strangers emerging from the backyard startled her. Their dressing was distinguished so they might be customers, Stella thought, but what were they doing walking round the premises? Trying to find the entrance, maybe? With the way they strolled, it appeared they were taking a tour of the compound. So engrossed were they in their discussion, they did not notice her. Stella could not be too sure but if she heard correctly, they seemed to be negotiating the price of the property.
‘May I help you?’ She asked.
The two strangers turned around and their faces registered surprise at seeing her there. ‘No madam,’ the woman replied. ‘The question should be: How may I help you?’
‘Is that your car at the gate?’ Narrowing her eyes, Stella looked towards the bottom flat. ‘Where are my girls?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘The studio assistants, of course.’
‘Ah! You must be the former occupant of this place. I don’t know about any assistants, but Gina sent the mai-guard away.’ The woman cleared her throat exaggeratedly. ‘I don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m the agent and if all goes well,’ she smiled knowingly at the man who stood with her, ‘this will be the new owner.’
Taking a step back, Stella almost lost her footing. ‘Um, huh?’
‘Yeah,’ the woman nodded. ‘He plans to buy the place.’
‘If the price is right,’ the man interjected.
Stella swallowed hard. Were they joking? ‘Madam, Sir, I think you must have the wrong address. This is my house.’
They glared at her and then at each other. It was not clear who was the most surprised of the three, but one thing was for sure - none of them was amused.
‘The old tenant has to be out before any transaction is made,’ the man said sternly to his companion who nodded vigorously.
‘And I assure you, she will be.’
Stella felt her blood grow hot. To hear that her property was being put up for sale seemed like a tasteless joke. She had never given anyone the impression she wanted to give up this place or sell it. But apparently someone had gone through that trouble on her behalf and without her consent. Marching past the strangers, she proceeded into her home. She was surprised, almost scared to find the door downstairs unlocked. As she entered the studio, she tripped over something. Wincing, she picked up the object from the floor, where it had lain carelessly. It was the radio and it was broken. The entire studio was in disarray and there was no one there. She would have expected to hear the usual casual conversation among her staff, but an eerie silence greeted her. Where on earth were those girls? Feeling panicked, she hurried upstairs to relieve herself of her luggage, her mind reeling as she went. That little incident that happened the month before came back to her. At the time, it had seemed a mere distraction; so much so, she had gone back to business as usual and did not remember to mention it to anyone. Yet true to their word, when the ultimatum elapsed, Orobosa’s step siblings had come to take over the place.
The assistants’ phones were all switched off. Dumping her bags carelessly in the room, Stella returned to the ground floor and peeped out through the window. The so called agent was gesticulating as she conversed with the prospective buyer, who looked taken aback that the building was still fully occupied. He had been told that the last tenant was on her way out and would clear out the rest of her things without delay. The more the agent tried to convince him that this was still the case, the more skeptical he got as reaching into his shirt pocket, he fished out his phone. Stepping outdoors once again, Stella called out to them.
‘You’ll both have to leave - and quickly too.’
The man’s irritated expression intensified and the muscles of his forehead contorted in deep displeasure. This acquisition was going to cost him a substantial sum and he expected to possess it with ease. The obstinate-looking woman standing before them, right now, was not part of the agreement. He turned to the agent.
‘Will I be paying for the trouble too?’
Appearing destabilized, the agent faced Stella. ‘You heard him. We don’t want trouble.’
‘Then don’t start any.’ Stella replied, her voice firm. ‘This is my place and it is not for sale. I am not part of any bogus agreement between you and Gina.’
Stepping aside, the two strangers argued intensely between themselves. The man briskly placed a call and spoke at length on the phone. When they finally left the premises, Stella willed herself to breathe calmly as everywhere became peaceful again. But the coming of the two strangers had dampened her high spirits and left her wondering what to do next. Call a lawyer? Call the police?
Her car wouldn’t start - the battery was flat, which was so annoying, particularly since she left the spare keys with a neighbor, along with instructions for warming it every morning. She went to find Gift, her older assistant, who usually spent after-hours at her mum’s shop some road turns away. Sure enough she was there, as she had been every day for the last few days, waiting for her proprietress to return. As Stella approached, Gift ran to hug her, momentarily forgetting the hierarchy that separated them. Visibly shaken, she reported how that frightful woman came back to the studio and warned them to stop coming to work, even threatening to deal with them if they did not heed her warning.
Stella was livid. Her first reaction was to scold Gift for her lax attitude in not getting help, only to realize that her aggression towards the girl was misplaced. Gift meekly pointed out that she took the cue from her boss who had not bothered to call anyone’s attention the first day Gina came and issued her threat. Stella was left with very little time to think up her next line of action. She spent the next five hours, calling on Otas and a family friend. They jointly agreed that something needed to be done about these incidents - but only after Stella had rested for she was extremely tired and jet-lagged.
On returning home, she was stopped at the entrance, not by anyone but by the heavy metal chains and padlocks that had been securely fastened on the gate. Frowning in disbelief, she reached out and grabbed them, shaking and yanking, to be sure of what she was seeing while at the same time hoping they were not really there. The loud clanging sounds, as well as the feel of cold, hard metal assured her that she wasn’t imagining things. It did not require much reasoning to realize that Gina and her people had been back here within the space of a few hours that Stella stepped out. They were nowhere in sight now, having stealthily come and gone, but they had left a mark that screamed:
‘You have no part with us!’ and ‘We don’t want you here!’
Dumbfounded, Stella stared at the crudely sealed gate. She wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or angry that she had missed those who came to lock her out. The confrontation that would have ensued was best only imagined. Trying to avoid drawing too much attention as people passed, she took a few steps back, dragging her legs as though the heaviness that weighed her unwelcome visitor down the first day she showed up at the studio had suddenly been transferred to Stella’s two feet.