Quarantine and Other Images
Today, Javins is learning how to spell quarantine. He places the rumpled newspaper on his knees and tries to straighten it with a spoon. He continues to move the spoon over the paper until its headline is clear: Quarantine: Centres not Adequately Staffed, cries Medical Director. He mutters the word three times, and then says it aloud, as though challenging it to a battle. His empty flat hurls his gruff voice back at him. He doesn’t shudder, like he used to when he newly moved in. Now, he’s accustomed to silence and echoes and space. He’s adapted to the loud slurps his bare feet make on the tiles. He’s used to eating alone, listening to his jaws crunch food, staring at his reflection on the table. He’s used to nights bereft of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. But after three years, after moving to this cold, unfriendly city, he hasn’t got used to learning to remember words like he used to.
Javins moves to the centre table. He takes down the vase, unfurls the cardboard, and starts to engrave the word, quarantine, on it. Then he goes through the ritual of studying every letter and comparing it to the newspaper. He hasn’t made any mistake. It’s a rare thing, considering the fact that he hasn’t even created an image for the word yet. He runs his eyes across what he’s written over and over again, and he rolls up the cardboard. Today, he’s able to spell quarantine right after two attempts.
The next thing is to imagine how quarantine would feel or look like if it were concrete. This technique helps him remember spellings. If he only looks at the words, only memorises them, he’d lose hold of them in minutes. Sometimes, the loss is partial; letter remnants still cling to memory like claws, taunting him, making him labour to remember the rest, the strayed letters. Other times, the loss is whole. A chunk of letters dissipating into vapour, floating away. For Javins, the whole loss is less painful. He could easily accept defeat and either try again or move to a new word. Or gulp down a glass of water and climb into bed before the visual snows start raining.
Now, he splits quarantine into two segments for easy imagination. The first part, quaran- feels coarse. Like the ruins of Dholavira. Like mouldy groundnuts. Like a sky of choppy clouds. It looks rust-coloured. Like the Dashavastara Temple. Like the collapsing roofs of shanties in Mum’s hometown. Like wet loam.
He can’t exactly picture what -tine looks like, but he imagines shiny, circular things: orbs, frisbees, domes; all painted in the mutes: grey, beryl, cinnamon. He thinks about the domes of the Taj Mahal and the Roman basilicas he’s seen on ArchiFirm. None seems to fulfil its purpose. He should have thumbed on his data to browse more images, but COVID-19 news will pop up again. And horrifying pictures will fill his head: frail women dying, streets deserted, statistics rolling in millions, glass-eyed doctors with green masks risking their lives to save the world.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Klex told him: The media is the root of anxieties in a world brought to its knees by COVID-19.
Klex was still his therapist then. They still sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the portico, still giggled and mocked awkward and gritty and half-formed words. On that day, Klex was painting words according to how they sounded. Sublime was white, and so were subtle and queen. Whistle, wiggle, quagmire, ambidexterity were all burnished, like sun-heated adobe. Dream and redeem were as sickly as yellow; and mottle, scatter, tragedy, antagonist, sounded crunchy.
Javins had been able to memorise fifteen words that day, so Klex decided they take a break. On TV, a double-chinned woman announced that COVID-19 had killed more than seven hundred thousand people globally. Perhaps that was what washed colours from Javins’ eyes, the fact that she personalised the virus, ascribing a verb to it—killed. Other newscasters placed the victims first, made them actors even in their deaths—seven hundred thousand people have died from COVID-19. It made more sense that way. It saved feeble people like Javins the horrors of imagining the virus straddle people, snatch life from them, strut away undeterred.
Klex turned off the TV and placed his hand on Javins’ chest. I’ll advise you avoid the media for now, he said. Javins grunted in response, groped to his bed, and sprawled on the sheets. Tiny dots twirled round everything he dared to look at. His temples drummed hard. He felt vertiginous, the walls whizzing into circles. Still, he noticed Klex for the first time. He noticed his square shoulders and imagined his fingers untangling his beard. He imagined how his lips would taste, raked through his mind for images that described taste. And he came up with orange-flavoured lollipops. Orange-flavoured lollipops someone half-licked and drooled on.
Javins closes his eyes and tries to spell quarantine again, but he’s strayed too far, and so the words have dissolved into air. Snapping his eyes open, he squints at the cardboard. The words are blurred, as though glazed in grime. He shuffles to the window and looks out. The empty streets gawk at him. They dare him to come out, to feel natural sand against his soles, to breathe natural air. He backs away, horrified.
Because he’d never had a life, Javins only listens when his friends vent over the compulsory self-isolation. His neighbour, Chita, says it’s been a while she hugged a breathing soul, ruffled a child’s hair, clinked glasses over a friend’s new car. Her voice is robotic on the intercom. Terry misses the Transgender League, the roulette wheel whirring offstage, the diamond rings floating in champagne, the crowd nudging a man to say yes to his kneeling partner. Sey misses sex. Real, raw, rustic sex, he says, rolling his eyes for emphasis. There’s nothing as fake as wanking to a screen, snapping your cum, recording your moans, and sending varicose, ladle-hard dicks to someone who’s probably into sextoys, disgusted by your blurred face. All fake and deceptive, Sey mumbles, but what does a horny and confined man do?
Javins met Sey on a dating site. Same with his second friend, Pally, who has a boyfriend as thin and frail as slippers. The third, Terry, is acarophobic: every faint itch in his hair is lice invasion. Once in a while, the four friends hooked up for beer and pureed catfish and serious, table-thumping criticism of r’n’b.
And when these routines wore Javins out, he took a walk in the dark. At night, tiny lights blinked in the distance like a constellation of fireflies. Billboards blazed with backlit words. Sometimes, Javins mouthed the words and tried to memorise them. But times like these, times he took walks, were rare. He mostly remained at home, perched before his computer, editing content for the Real Estater. Or cooking. Or sitting in front of the mirror, talking to an imaginary Klex. Or listening to Mum on the phone.
You better go and settle with your sister, Mum would say. Oh, here she comes. Should I give her the phone?
No, Javins would reply.
But none of you wants to tell me what happened. I know what you two are doing. You’re trying to protect me, right, so that I don’t die quicker?
Is that what she told you?
Are you answering me with a question?
You don’t even call her husband anymore. Or do you think it’s easy to keep your crippled mother-in-law with you and—
Look Mum, I’ll call Heiress. I promise you.
That’s what you always say.
When? Tell me when you want to call her.
I can’t tell you now, but—
If you two don’t make peace with each other, then why am I still alive?
Look Mum, I have to go. Talk to you later. I love you. And I promise to call Heiress. Soon.
But Javins never will. He knows that as much as Heiress does. He misses her, his sister with whom he’d moulded clay Hercule Poirots and Sherlock Holmeses. He misses her easy laughter, her avuncular disposition. He misses her WhatsApp VNs, recordings she called rants: endless fretting about the difficulties of being a mother and a wife at the same time, and the impulse to want to pack up and leave a note that said, I’ll come for my kids when I’m settled. Bro Jave, don’t console me or tell me anything nice, she says on the VN. I’m only ranting. Just listen and laugh. I know you need enough laughter in your life. You’re too moody for any girl’s liking. That’s why you haven’t found a wife. What are you cooking tonight? My husband is peering to know if I’m talking to my boyfriend. Can you imagine! Oh, Carl, jealous boy, stop! It’s Javins! Stop! I’ll smack you now…
Heiress found out who he was. She saw evidence on his phone: grid photos of men kissing. He could have denied it, because, though Heiress folded her arms across her chest and stood on the balls of her feet, there was still skepticism in her eyes. If he said it was a mistake, or some random lady sent them to him, she’d have believed him. But he nodded yes. She muttered disgusting, first tasting the word, rolling it around her tongue, then blurting it out like an accusation: disgusting! She threatened to expose him if he ever dialled her number again, unless he was ready to change his ways. Before he could say anything, Heiress pulled at the doorknob and whomped the door close behind her.
He moved to this city after Heiress stomped out of his room. At first, he was scared. Mum’s words echoed in his head: You can’t make it alone. Remember you’re not as whole as you used to be. He didn’t turn back, anyway, even when this city’s skies leaked too often and cold managed to sneak under his blanket; even when his neighbours shrugged his greetings off. He got a job at Real Estater. He found friends like him, who understood his condition. He met Klex, a young therapist with sand-coloured hair and aquamarine eyes. Klex was the first person in this city he told about the accident.
Javins had the accident three years ago. A cow ran into the road and his Audi rammed at its horns and somersaulted over the kerb. His father came to see him at the hospital. He came with The Other Woman. Javins dared to pinch her baby’s cheek because Mum wasn’t in the room. When she came to ask how he was doing, her voice echoed and vibrated, as if it came from caves underneath the terracotta flooring. His skull felt like it was caving in. His vision blurred when he focused on an object for a minute. Brown stipples floated about the room; he swatted at them for days and then he embraced the fact that he alone could see them, and they were visual snows, and they might last as long as he lived.
Javins is spelling isolation today, but he can’t find a perfect picture because the word doesn’t feel isolated. It feels clumpy, jampacked—crunching consonants woven into airy vowels, cacti hedged between cottages, a phalanx of roofs observed from a mountain. Because of this, he isn’t sure he could memorise it. From the same word though, he’s able to generate an opening sentence to an article about private cities he’s been struggling with for days now. Normally, he’d grab his laptop and start typing. He’d misspell words. He’d jump keys. But the laptop, his most reliable companion, cleaned up the trails as he plowed through. It punctuated his sentences, corrected his spellings, read out the articles to him while he imagined each paragraph a lattice of colours. Then the lockdown came, and he thought it an opportunity to try hard at reclaiming his mind. He’d write by hand, he said to Klex. But now, four months later, he’s still struggling to master word coherence rules.
The ringing of his phone wakes him in the morning. Mum.
Have you called Heiress?
You’re the older one, Javins. Show some maturity. You know, I’m dying gradually. I can’t book appointments now because of this virus. My legs are swelling, thanks to rheumatism. If I die and you two are still not talking, I’ll never forgive you both.
So you have asked her to call me several times and she said no?
Are you doubting me?
No, Mum. It’s just that, if you bug her half the way you do me, I’m sure she’d have either called or run mad.
Mum laughs, a dry laugh, more of a cough. He can hear her wheelchair screeching on the tiles. He imagines how swollen her legs are now, and hefty yam tubers come into his mind. For weeks now, she’s been complaining about grit in her eyes whenever she opens them in the morning. Her heartbeat accelerates at the shuffling of feet outside. Who knows, she told him last time they spoke, who knows if I’ll reach the next day? Javins dismisses thoughts of her dying and tries to imagine the colours of her words.
She continues: I’ve never asked you for anything, Javins. Or have I? No, tell me if I have. But just this once: call your sister and make peace with her. Do you remember all I’ve done for you? Javins, because of you, l left your father. Remember the day he chased you into the rain because a girl slapped you? Remember his words? ‘Go and fight back. You must fight back today. I didn’t raise a coward. It’s either he fights that girl back or he leaves my house.’ Javins, it was raining. Heiress was still five months old. We didn’t have blankets, let alone umbrellas. Yet I picked up my stuff and carried Heiress and we left his house.
Javins remembers. His memories of childhood are unbroken, concrete, untouched by the accident. His class teacher said he was too weak to be prefect, or did he think it was all about scoring hundred-over-hundred? Because he has gynaecomastia, children poked at his breasts and brought their infant siblings, begging him to milk them. The girl in question beat him because he tried to fight back. She called him breast factory and gathered her skirt and ambled away. He slung a pebble at her. She swung back, dazed with fury, and jammed her knee into his belly and fed him sand. That day, his father reeled off his belt, whipped him until welts rose throughout his back, and shoved him into the rain. Mum grabbed Heiress from The Other Woman, held Javins’ hand, and the trio fell into the rain. She was fed up, Mum. Dad beat off the one after Heiress from her womb. Dad said she was too beautiful, and beautiful things must be jealously guarded. So, Mum daredn’t overstay the allocated time at the market. She daredn’t wear jeans too, because jeans showed your contours. When Dad finally allowed her work, she hugged a male co-worker the third day, and Dad slapped her in the office and pulled her home. Her certificate continued to languish in her box even after she plodded away with Javins and Heiress in the rain.
Two days after Javins discontinued his therapy, the provincial government imposed the lockdown. The implication was a double-edged sword for him. No one would rap at his door on Saturday mornings anymore. He’d not be able to step outside again, not even for fresh air. He braved two bottles of balsam brew. He started to text Klex, but stopped when the screen blurred off. He closed his eyes and began to spell lockdown, comparing it to subways paved in asbestos, roofings glazed in refined argil. He scribbled the words on his cardboard, woke up to it next morning, danced all day, and treated himself the luxury of spelling it correctly before going to bed.
How do you spell asymptomatic? Or is it asymtpomatic?
First, you write an a—first letter of the alphabet—followed by symptom, then attic, with one t though: asymptomatic.
1. COVID-19 is daedly because many victims are a-symptom-attic. Asymptomatic.
2. How do you test for the virus when poeple who carry it do not show sings (asymptomatic)?
Javins is still working out a third sentence when his phone rings. It’s Kingdom, the PRO of Real Estater.
After a sequence of cold pleasantries, Kingdom says: We’re laying some of our staff members off. We can’t afford to retain them; the pandemic has grossly reduced the efficiency of their jobs…
Javins imagines Kingdom rehearsing the words in front of his mirror. He imagines him keying in his number, taking a deep breath, then pressing the call key. He imagines he’s death, a wandering headless entity entrusted with the power to take, to yank, to snatch, to leave gorges behind.
You’re one of them, Javins. I’m sorry. And also, I apologize for the spontaneity of it all. You know the critical times we are living in have rendered official procedures stale.
After the call ends, he gulps a bottle of balsam brew and makes to text Klex. But he ends up calling Terry. He demands they hang out, as if the government would review the lockdown just for them to gurgle beer and critique r’n’b.
Something bad is happening to you, Terry says. Talk to me.
I’m fine, man. Goodnight.
Javins. It’s twelve noon.
Yes, oh. Talk to you later.
He wakes with migraine the next day. He gropes for the adapter, puts on the lights, plods to the rack, swallows his pills. He lays back to sleep. The screel of his phone makes him jump.
Mum’s getting serious, she says. We’ve been moving around hospitals but no one would answer us because of her cough. They think she has corona and they don’t have apparatus.
Where’s she now?
They can’t attend to her until she provides a—
I say where is she now?
At the lobby. We’re at St Louis’.
Do you really believe in him—
Not now, Heiress. Can I talk to her?
Seconds later, Mum’s on the phone. Javins can hardly hear her. But he knows she’s calling his name. Her words are caught up between retches. Javins can hear people shouting corona, and thudding feet, and Heiress telling them it is their mothers that will die of corona. Mum continues babbling.
Mum, I want to quickly tell you a secret, the reason why Heiress and I are fighting—
Mum! It’s because I like men! I like men, Mum. Not girls—
Javins? Heiress’ voice. The doctor won’t see her. They won’t see Mum. They say we have to book appointments first. I don’t know what to do—
Where’s your husband?
He was arrested yesterday. He went to buy drugs for Mum. He wasn’t wearing his mask.
Javins. She’s—I don’t know what to do!
Please, tell her not to leave me. Show her. Show her we’re both talking again. Go ahead—
Heiress lets out a yowl. Javins hears stampeding feet. There’s another woman crying in the background, and her parched voice is eerily familiar. Before Javins can enquire what’s happening, Heiress has hung up. Javins catches himself flinging out clothes from his wardrobe, biting his lower lip, saving his eyes from streaming out. He stuffs the clothes into his holdall, presses its velcro shut. He grabs his nose mask from the shelf and proceeds out to the intercom. I’m leaving, he says to Chita. Somehow, they’ll let me pass. I’ll beg them. Chita doesn’t hear the buzz because she’s playing the keyboard. The sounds fill the hallway, reminding him of the days Chita’s living room was alight with people who applauded her musical skills. Bony women laughing like crazy. Older women drinking and belching and falling asleep on the rug. Keyboards. Keyboards. Keyboards. Dong-ding-dong-ding-dong.
Javins steps into the sun. The silence breathes soothing air, following him down the lane bordered by zinnias and butterflies. There’s no one in sight. When he reaches the main road, the junction where billboards used to blaze in the night, he sits on the kerb. The road is entirely dry. He hears the sing-song sirens of police vans in the distance. Heiress calls again. Mama is dead, she says. And as though he might not have heard her, she repeats it: Mama is dead.
Javins rushes back home and erupts into tears. His whole body quakes. His head hits hard at him. A wild sense of vertigo seizes him and brings him to his knees and he jerks backwards and comes crashing against his mirror. A dislodged shard slices open the skin of his left hand. He lounges on the floor, and not knowing what else to do, he starts to unpack his holdall, throwing the clothes at the wall.
ỌLÁ W. HALIM writes fiction and reflections somewhere in Edo State, Nigeria, where he also teaches English Language and Literature. He was a finalist for the 2019 Teach for Change Teacher’s Prize in Literature, and also for the Sevhage Short Story Prize 2019. He won the 2020 LitFest Prize for Prose for his short story, “Miracle”. He has mentored storytellers under SprinNG and The Edo Gong. He currently edits prose at ARTmosterrific.