They say to travel is to take a journey into oneself; perhaps to attain self-forgiveness, or tranquility of mind. Where else is better than a seaside town to achieve this? The soft sound that comes with the buoyant waves, as they gently drench the shore could accompany one in meditation. Then there are the tourists who giggle in high spirits as they splash water on each other. One might be contaminated by such joy. But what I prefer is the calm and majestic water that stretches endlessly. With this, we are constantly reminded how tiny we are in the face of nature. But would these be enough to free oneself from remorse? Would it liberate me from the intense pain which slowly reaped my soul, leaving nothing but a shell? Three years after my fiancé, Ayo, died, the contrition only got bigger. The thought of being responsible for his death haunted me, especially on July 25. It was the day he died. It was my birthday.
Everything in Douala reminded me of Ayo, especially when my birthday was imminent. Something ached inside me. The thought that I killed him slinked through my mind and gave me insomnia. I had to go through a journey of atonement, to seek self-forgiveness and serenity of mind. I had to move to another town. Limbe was the ideal place for that. I believed I could find some inner peace, and be freed from the agony stranded in a part of my heart which crushed me and left me broken. I moved away to Limbe, far from friends and family to find myself.
On the birthday morning, I woke up in my hotel room. Ayo was by my side. His lips extended into a smile. It was so attractive. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. His faultless and well-disposed teeth were gleaming. His dimple crinkles, as usual, attracted my fingers to his face. I caressed his flabby face gently, removing his eyeglasses to carefully contemplate his eyes. He looked at me and gave me a broad smile. His look was genuinely innocent. There was something unique about it. With just the right movements of his eyes, he could get an inscrutable comfort rush through my veins.
“Happy birthday Klaudy” he soothed, with a mischievous look.
“Thanks A.” I tittered.
“Guess what I got for you.” he said excitedly.
“You know I’m not good at guessing. So just tell me.” I chortled.
In my mind, I started guessing. Ayo didn’t tell me. He simply came closer to me, kissed me by the ear, gently drifting down to the neck. I shuddered against him. He held me tighter, leaning down to kiss me. His pulpy lips got closer to mine. I placed my hand on his jaw. My fingers slowly moved to the back of his neck, mildly pulling him closer. His left hand tousled my hair, while the right held my waist still. My hand tightened firmly at the back of his neck, while the other tried to undo his buttons.
My eyes gradually squinted open to the sound of the buzzing phone. My phone called me back to reality. I missed several calls from my mother, and my friend, Nafi. There were also some text messages, all of which were birthday wishes. I didn’t read them all. I scrolled through the messages and read Nafi’s text:
Hello Friend…Happy Birthday…hope you are fine…I wish you what you wish for yourself.
I had only one wish at that moment, but it was impossible for it to come true. Ayo was dead. I wished he came back. I wished I just had the opportunity to tell him how sorry I was. Maybe all of these would free me from the guilt and the inside pain I felt. I lay back on the bed for a while. The thoughts of what I had just dreamed about came back to me like a tornado. It was more than a dream. I began to think I was going crazy. I was losing control over my mind and over my imaginations.
After Ayo’s death, I started having similar dreams. They were so real, so sensational. I believed he was actually with me, and this made my heart lurch. Sometimes they seemed so real that they made me sick with fear. I believed it was normal to have hallucinations after such a tragic loss. They might have been as a result of the post-traumatic disorder. But they were becoming too normal that my stomach clenched after they occurred.
Remembering why I came to Limbe, I pulled myself out of the bed. I gazed at the ocean from my hotel room. It was majestic and endless, with gurgling waves crawling slowly to the shore. The bleak sun was blooming on the horizon, faintly illuminating the ocean. I moved down to the beach at the early hours of the day. I stood there, staring at the endless choppy water.
It was immensely calm. The type of silence that makes the weather colder than it actually is, especially on a morning devoid of the brightness of the sunrise. In the silence, I felt Ayo wrap his hands around my waist from my back. He grabbed me, and pulled me closer. He rested his chin on my shoulder for a while, and then softly bit the tip of my ear. This gave me goosebumps. I felt so cold, but I didn’t need to say a word. He pressed me against his body while his hands played with my hair. “Missed me?” he whispered delicately. I sent my hand backward to hold him. It ruffled through his hair, clutching to the back of his head. The other hand fondled his hand which was wrapped around my waist. I slowly turned back to face him. Ayo wasn’t there. He was gone. For all I know he had never been there all along. It was just another delusion my mind accustomed me to. Three years after his death, I still kept a strange relationship with him. The gap between imagination and reality had been bridged. It became difficult to discern what was real from what was not. I could still hear his silvery voice, smell his pleasant whiff, see his beautiful smile, and feel his warm skin bash on mine.
I could not continue living a life of phantasms, living with the feeling of always being under the weather. Maybe it was just a well-deserved punishment for what I did. Like a ghost, he came back to haunt me, a romantic haunt that killed me slowly. An immense void filled my soul after such strange encounters. His whispers filled my head. His soft voice clinked again and again deep in my brain leaving me in a frosty blur.
My lips trembled. Tears began to surge, but I didn’t let them fall. My heart became heavy. I started to harbour doubts about the success of my journey. I sat on the sandy shore, contemplating the endless water in front of me. I looked at the waves which crept towards my legs and went back, crept and went back. It was unending, it was eternal. “Maybe my self-reproach is eternal like the waves.” I thought. There was only one way to get rid of the spirit-sucking leech. I stared at the endless ocean and got lost in my thoughts. I began to foster the darkest ideas. The ocean was calling. I could hear its voice in its calmness. I got up from the shore and walked towards the water to answer the call.
My vision became blurred as I walked further into the ocean. I was conscious of the water slowly rising above knee-level, filling me with peace of mind. I was serene. I perceived no fear and no guilt. I felt like a feather falling from the sky. It was an unusual sensation to feel at such moments. I was willing to go further. A sense of freedom had taken rule, and I felt it was the best thing to do. I wouldn’t have to ever regret again. For a very longtime I hadn’t felt so alive, so free and so tranquil. I believed the ocean would free me from the longtime remorse that had eaten me up for years. I decided to answer the ocean’s call, to let the water envelop me until I was completely healed. The more the water got up, the more I felt serene. “No journey can save me.” I whispered. Death was probably the price to pay.
I unexpectedly sensed a tap on my shoulder. I flinched, but I didn’t turn to look back. The water suddenly became cold. I was frozen.
“Calm waters are the wildest, you know?” said an unfamiliar voice from behind. Its strange cadence couldn’t go unnoticed. It had a whistle-like quality that reminded me of a hissing snake. It was a French accent, perhaps southern. I heard him loud and clear, but I didn’t turn immediately. I threw a quick glance at his hand on my shoulder. His fingers were calloussed, but they had a gentle touch. “Vous allez attraper froid mademoiselle.” he warned. This time his intonation seemed normal. It was his language.
“Who are you Monsieur?” I asked with a trembling voice, calling him “Monsieur” instinctively. Probably because of his French.
“Miss, you should get out of the water now.” he said, getting back to English. For sure, he was a French-speaking man from his pronunciation. I didn’t look at him. I was still facing the vast ocean which I believed was still calling.
“Are you the owner of this ocean?” I asked disdainfully, but I was afraid his answer would be “yes”. He could still be a marine spirit, one of those mami wata guards who patrolled the ocean to drive away useless souls like mine.
The strange man had stopped me. I couldn’t go further. He had stopped me from getting rid of the heavy weight that my heart bore for so long. I would still live a life of remorse after I had finally amassed the courage to end it all. Even without looking at him, I already hated him for that. But with his hand on my shoulder, I felt some warmth, something I hadn’t felt in years. Who was he? Where did he come from? I turned around and finally looked at him from bottom to top. He had a white baggy short, with a close-fitting white shirt which he left unbuttoned, exposing his flirty white inner wear. All about him was white. My first impression was that he was a god-sent angel, sent to save me from myself. Why would an angel have an accent? Was French the heavenly language?
I looked at his face attentively. I had never met him before, but there was something familiar about him, something intimate in his eyes and in the way he looked at me. From the very first look, I was attracted to him. It was out of the ordinary, it was strange. I felt I knew him. He stood still, looking at me without uttering another word. Fear gripped my throat. It was becoming unbearable, so I tried to escape eye contact. There was something mystical about him; something was strange in the way we communicated without uttering a word. Looking at him was spine-chilling. A creepy feeling grabbed me by the chest. How could I be attracted to him and be scared of him at the same time? The silence of the beach gave way to an eerie environment.
“Excuse me.” I muttered, pushing his hand off my shoulder.
I shoved him and dragged my legs out of the water to the shore. I walked in the direction of the hotel without looking back. I was tormented. My legs didn’t seem to feel the ground any more. It was as if I had seen a ghost. I noticed he was right behind me, walking slowly in my direction. I increased my pace, but he was still walking towards me.
“You following me? Stay away from me!” I blurted, pointing my finger at him, ready to defend myself.
“Non mademoiselle, I am not following you. I reside at the Diamond Hotel.” he relented. I was reassured, but embarrassed.
“Oh… okay…good!” I stammered, looking abashed. I turned and walked towards the hotel without saying a word.
I couldn’t remain indifferent to his accent. The way he dragged his “R”, and the way he mixed both languages made him look innocent like a child trying to explain something in a foreign language.
“And you, Klaudy, where do you live?” He asked.
“Huh!” I snorted, “But how do you…” The fear that had grabbed me in the water suddenly came back. In three years no one called me with that name. Only Ayo called me like that. Who was he? How did he know my name? So many questions wriggled through my mind, but I had no answers to this mystery. I believed he was a mysterious man who probably knew everything about me. Or maybe I was just becoming extremely paranoiac.
“Monsieur, how do you know my name?” I asked, paralyzed by fear once more.
“Facile!” he shrieked, “Your chain. It has ‘Klaudy’ written on it.” he said, pointing at the chain on my chest.
“Oh…okay…okay…good!” I stuttered like a cracked disc in a player, hiding my chain with my hand. I was embarrassed. I watched in awe his facial expression, and I saw nothing short of mockery. A smile appeared on his face as I turned myself into an object of ridicule. He had a charming smile despite the mystery around him and the fear that clawed up my throat.
“It could still be someone else’s name.” I protested frantically. I wished the waves could swallow me up and save me from such embarrassment.
Droplets of rain began to fall. We both rushed in the same direction. I knew we shared the same hotel, but what was strange was that we moved to the same floor. I thought he was stalking me. I didn’t want seem paranoiac again, so I didn’t say a word to avoid more embarrassment. Our rooms were on the same floor. There were just two rooms between my room and his.
“Uh…it was nice meeting you Klaudy. Hope to see you again soon.” he said.
“Okay…Good for you Monsieur.” I snapped.
“Uh en fait, my name is….”
“Whatever!” I cut in. I entered my room abruptly and slammed the door.
I missed several calls when I was out, especially from Nafi. I didn’t care to call her back. I thought about what I was about to do earlier before Monsieur intervened. How many calls would I miss before everyone noticed I was gone forever? Maybe they would all be glad I was gone. For three years I had been the capricious “widow” everyone avoided. I could see it on their faces. I was becoming a burden. What would they have written on my tombstone if I had ended everything at that moment? Something like Here lies the body of Klaudia O. Fiancé Slayer! Rest in perfect peace. July 25, 1990, to July 25, 2016, would have been perfect.
My thoughts turned to Monsieur. Perhaps he saved my life. Or maybe he appeared to stop me from dying because death was an end too simple for me. Did I have to curse him or thank him for his intervention? Normally I liked to lie in bed and fall asleep when the rain fell, but it was different that morning. Monsieur occupied all of my thoughts. He was intriguing. I developed the urge to see him once again. It was more of a haunt than an urge. His strange but familiar look haunted me. I couldn’t be at peace. Perchance my imagination was playing around with me again. He revived something in me that had been asleep for long. I could feel it.
In the period of calm after the rain, I stood by the door listening attentively to door slams, blenching at every sound. I hoped I could guess right and go out at the same time with him. I had to see him again, to look straight into his eyes and experience what I felt earlier at the beach. Within minutes of peeping, the figure of a middle-aged man came out. He had a bright face under well-combed hair, and wore a well-tailored three-piece dark suit. It was Monsieur. This time all about him was black. Perhaps a demon sent from the pits of hell to intensify my punishment.
“Klaudy.” he called.
“Monsieur.” I retorted. Hearing him call me “Klaudy” still took me by surprise. We walked down the stairs together and no one said a word. Walking side by side gave me heart thumbs. Although I knew nothing about him, an indescribable feeling pushed me towards him. The look which emanated from his eyes and how I felt when he touched me were familiar. Only one person made me feel that way, but he was dead. It scared me, but I wanted to be closer to him. My phone broke the embarrassing silence with incessant buzzes.
“Won’t you pick your call?” he asked.
“Don’t worry ‘bout that…just my friend trying to wish me a happy birthday.” I said, not really knowing why I was giving such details.
“Oh lala! Happy birthday to you!” he exclaimed. “But the day doesn’t seem to be a happy one.” he added. His accent became more evident when he increased his pitch.
“Yeah I don’t celebrate birthdays…well not any more.” I said.
“Oh domage! Do you mind talking about that over some coffee?” he asked. From the look on his face he hardly expected his invitation to be accepted.
“No…not at all.” I said. I didn’t think twice. All I wanted was to solve the mystery around him, or just be with him. I wasn’t sure.
We got down to the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. He called the waiter who filled our mugs; tea for him and coffee for me. “No sugar please!” he squeaked. It was simply amazing how different he was from Ayo. Ayo was the coffee guy with sugar; Monsieur was the tea guy with no sugar. I watched him brew more coffee into his mug. Every single gesture was different. How could they be so different and make me feel the same way. How could different people release such identic aura?
Seated with him, the uncanny feeling was expected. There was a bloodcurdling sensation at the moment. Just by the way he looked at me, I felt lofty in his presence. His talk was one-sided; I got lost in my own thoughts as I watched him talk. His voice seemed to be getting further away until I could no longer hear what he was saying. I filled my mind with many questions as he talked. I looked at him carefully, but I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying.
“Allô Allô! Are you with me?” he asked. It was as if his call woke me from a deep sleep in which my thoughts had left me.
“Yeah, I’m with you…” I said, getting back to him.
“So what do you say about it?” he asked. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was completely lost.
“Uh no problem… I think it’s okay.” I said, not actually knowing what I was getting into.
“Parfait!” he squeaked. “You won’t regret this.” he added. What was there not to regret? What did I agree to do?
He took me downtown to something which looked like a library, or a bookstore. I wasn’t too sure. I might have missed something important when he was talking back at the hotel. It was a high-ceilinged not too large room with storm windows facing the ocean from a far distance. It was over-furnished with books, both old and new, but mostly old. He took me to a table where it seemed was his private working space. There was a little bookshelf beside the table. It had a few books arranged in two columns. They were books he had already read. “Books on the right are books with happy endings, books on the left are books with sad endings.” he said. I nodded, not knowing exactly what he was talking about. Asking him would be a sign that I wasn’t following from the very beginning. I thought about a question I could ask to make him explain again without me seeming ignorant of the whole situation. “So what do you intend to do now?” I asked delicately.
He told me was a writer. Monsieur had a writer’s block; he didn’t know how to end the novel he was writing. He wasn’t sure if he would give a happy ending or a sad ending to his story. Monsieur believed coming to relax in Limbe would probably inspire him to find the right way to end his novel. But who came on holidays to Limbe to read books? It sounded ridiculous to me. How could someone travel just to find a way to end a story? What did it change if he gave it a happy or sad ending? I asked myself questions to find some sense to what he said, but I found none. It just seemed to be esoteric the more he tried to explain.
“The way we decide to end it all matters.” he suddenly said. I felt concerned by what he said. I knew it was me he was talking about. He was surely not talking about his novel. He had seen me in the water, and he knew what I tried to do earlier. He never said a word about it and it was strange. I wasn’t at ease. I suddenly felt ashamed.
“So how will you end your story?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I don’t yet know…maybe I will get inspired by all these books…maybe I’ll find another way by myself. Tell me, what do you prefer? Sad or happy ends? he asked.
“I used to love happy ends, but it’s not the case now. Sad ones are better; they show what life is really all about.” I said.
The few minutes spent there seemed to me an eternity. I tried to figure out why he had brought me to such a place in vain. But the gentleness and good cheer in his voice when he talked about his passion was so natural that it got me passionate about him. He triggered some hope in me. Maybe he wasn’t the devil after all.
Monsieur took one of the books from the bookshelf. He flipped over the pages, and then handed the book to me. I was dumbfounded. It took a little time to realize what was actually happening. I pressed both hands over the book, my legs suddenly became weak. I sat down, silently reading the title of the book. “Through the Storm”, I whispered. I had never read the book. I wasn’t fond of reading like Ayo was. I wondered if Monsieur deliberately gave the book to me, or it was just a mere coincidence. It was the book Ayo was reading before he died. I believed because of me he never had the opportunity to read it to the end. My surge of fear and wonder was so exhilarating; I feared it was reflecting on my face. I kept my voice steady and asked, “How do you know about this?”
“About what?” He answered.
“Never mind.” I said.
“It’s a good book. You should read it.” he said.
From his answer I knew it might have just been a coincidence. I forced myself to believe it was one. It had to be one. Somehow deep within myself I was beginning to feel less frightened by the situation. I felt he was a trustworthy person. Even without knowing who he was, I felt I could tell him everything. And to me, that was the true trust; trusting someone not because he has been with you for long, but because you feel you can just do it for no good reason. I felt good in his presence. A sensation I hadn’t felt for long. The type of feeling you have that makes you think you deserve a second chance.
“You can sign in… to get the book home.” he said.
“Don’t worry…I have a copy back home.” I said.
Monsieur became conscious of the prolonged silence that followed. He blenched as if waking up from a deep sleep. “Oh non…non! I suppose you must be starving Klaudy.” he unexpectedly yelled. I hadn’t noticed I was hungry until he said it. I can’t be certain what time it was, but it was obvious time had gone a long way already.
He took me out for lunch. The restaurant wasn’t far from our hotel. It was a hut-like building carefully lifted above a pond. The water, so brilliantly clear that the colourful stones in it seemed magical. After we had lunch, we discussed for a while over some soft drinks. He made me laugh. I hadn’t done that for a while. Each single minute I spent talking with him seemed to be pushing aside the toxic thoughts that had crowded my mind for so long. How could a perfect stranger succeed where my family had failed? The good mood gradually faded away when he said, “I hope you are enjoying your birthday Klaudy. They are not all bad.”
“It was good. Thank you. But it doesn’t wipe what made me hate birthday celebrations in the first place.” I said. I was happy and I felt guilty. I didn’t deserve to be happy.
“Alors…why do you hate them?” Monsieur asked.
“My fiancé died on my birthday because of me.” I responded.
It was the very first time in three years that I said it out loud. He didn’t ask me what happened, but I felt the urge to tell him, to finally tell someone. Nobody, not even Nafi, knew what actually happened to Ayo, yet I was willing to tell a stranger whom I deemed trustworthy for no good reason.
“If only… I hadn’t been so whimsical.” I mumbled absentmindedly. He adjusted himself to listen to what I had to say. Recounting made me relive the sad day when I lay on the bed waiting for Ayo to get home for my birthday celebration. He came back late at night. He had forgotten it was my birthday so I got angry and capricious. He felt sorry for what he had done. But I believed it wasn’t enough to be just sorry. “Sorry won’t change anything.” I told him. From my behaviour, I forced him to do something more than just apologize. So, he took his car and went out to get me something before the day ran out. I waited for long, but Ayo didn’t come back that night. During the first hours I was still self-centred. I was angry because he delayed, and not worried he wasn’t home already. It was in the early hours of the next day that I received a call. Ayo had a car accident. He died on the spot. He died because of me. I sent him out to his early grave. And all I did that night was blaming him for not coming back early.
“If only I were more understanding. If only…if only…” I stuttered with a brittle voice, tears began to roll down my chicks. Monsieur removed a tissue from his pocket and wiped the tears.
“He loved you. I’m sure he holds no grudge against you wherever he is.” Monsieur said. My body suddenly lost its stiff posture and a discreet smile came to my face. I had the impression it was Ayo telling me all that. It seemed I was getting relieved from a weight I carried for so long. Maybe there was hope for my soul after all.
The sun was setting, so we walked to our hotel. We stopped at the shore for a while. The lavish sunset brushed upon the ocean, creating an idyllic atmosphere-one that makes such moments fanciful. We walked side by side on the shore. Monsieur subtly grabbed my fingers, pulling me closer to him. We stared at each other for a while. He leaned his forehead on mine, gently moving his hands to my arms. I could feel his gentle breath sweep through my face. It was warm; it was comforting; it was passionate; it was thrilling. “Klaudy…” he mumbled. Maybe it was my imagination, or I was simply carried away by the passion of the moment, but it was Ayo’s voice. My heart beat faster as his lips came closer to mine. “What’s that noise?” I said, interrupting what seemed to be a magical moment. The voice of howling teenagers could scarcely be heard from afar. A few seconds later, we could see shirtless teenagers with knee-level shorts running behind a football. Monsieur tried kicking the football in the direction of the boys, but he sprained his ankle. The boys laughed. I laughed too. He was limping, so he slightly leaned on my shoulder and we walked to the hotel.
“Don’t mind what happened there. I’m a great player.” he said.
“Yeah, I believe you.” I teased. I noticed I stopped paying attention to his accent.
We got to the third floor where our rooms were found. Monsieur opened his door, but he didn’t enter immediately. He stood with a leg slightly above the other waiting for me to open my door.
“Good night Klaudy.” he said.
“Give the story a happy ending?” I said, and then smiled broadly.
“Get the courage to move on and be happy.” he said.
“The way we decide to end it all matters.” We said simultaneously. We laughed and got into our rooms. That night, I slept like a baby. No hallucinations.
I woke up in the morning with a radiant face. I walked to Monsieur’s door. I knocked for a while, but there was no response. I guessed it was too early. I came back three hours later, but still no response. I began to imagine possible reasons why he didn’t open his door. His sprained ankle might have aggravated and he had to leave for the hospital. Perhaps he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Maybe he was unconscious and needed help. Or he was just in a deep slumber, and he didn’t hear me knock. Could it be my birthday was cursed and something terrible happened to him? It was also probable that he simply left the hotel. I knew he owed me no farewell, but I also knew I would be disappointed if he just left without saying a word. There was only one way to be sure. I walked down to the reception to clear my doubts.
“Excuse me miss.” I called the receptionist. She seemed distracted by a fashion magazine she was reading. “Has the man in room 318 left the hotel already?” I asked. She gently removed her hair pin and placed it on the page of the magazine she was reading.
“Which man?” she asked.
“The man.” I said. She gave me a quick look of puzzlement, and then she flipped through the pages of her log book.
“Ma’am the room you are talking about has been empty for weeks now.” she said. I was astonished. I could feel my facial muscles cringe. My mind was still trying to assimilate the perplexity of the situation. “What’s his name?” she asked.
“Huh… well I think…huh…I don’t really know.” I said. I saw her forehead wrinkle as she turned the pages. I remembered I spent a whole day with him and I didn’t even care to ask his name.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but the room you are talking about has not been occupied.” she said, getting back to her magazine. I tried to keep my composure and fight the rising panic, but my feet wobbled with fear. I didn’t know what to believe any more. Maybe it was the most vivid hallucination I had ever had.
My feet couldn’t stand any more, so I sat on the nearby sofa. I thought about all what had happened. Memories of the previous day came back to me. They were so clear, so intense, so vivid, but I began to doubt if they were real. Did I really spend the day with someone? Maybe I made up everything in my mind from the beginning. Perhaps he wasn’t real. He was just an illusion, a figment of my imagination. My hallucinations had all been alike in a particular way, but this one was different. It made me feel better; it gave me the strength to move on. That morning, the happiness of the previous day had turned to utmost dismay. But I had to see the good side of it. I couldn’t let the hope become despair. The journey might have been a successful one. I took out my phone and replied to every message. I called Nafi to tell her I was coming home. I walked back to my room and I began to pack my bags. As I bent the dress I wore on the previous day, I could smell an exquisite scent. It was Monsieur’s perfume. None of mine smelled like that. I smiled. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. “Thank you Monsieur.” I whispered.