Thunder muttered in the sky and the rain threatening all evening came in a soft drizzle. The enormous rats scuttling around in the pile of rubbish across the road darted into their holes. A stench of putrefaction rose from the refuse dump as the rain beat on it. Pushing open the front door of the building, I raced inside, pursued by the rain and the smell. My footfalls echoed on the bare concrete steps as I went upstairs. Somewhere in the three-storey building, a door slammed shut. The squalling of a baby floated out to me.
Getting to Chika’s apartment on the first floor, I rapped on her door and after a while heard a muffled, ‘Yes!’ from inside.
‘Onye?’ Chika asked in Igbo seconds later. ‘Who is it?’
The door’s bolt drew back with a click and the door creaked open. The woman’s small eyes squinted at me.
‘May I come in?’
She opened the door wider without saying a word.
I stepped inside the wide room, glancing around me. ‘Where’s she?’ My voice was an angry grumble.
‘In the inner room.’
Parting the curtain to the bedroom, I went straight to the baby’s cot beside the bed and stood over it. Our three-month-old daughter, Adaeze, had her hands and legs in the air as she amused herself. I tickled her plump cheeks, and she smiled, showing pink, toothless gums. I breathed a deep sigh and felt relief wash over me.
Back in the living room, Chika said to me, ‘The way you asked of her, did you think I’d lost her?’
I shook my head. ‘No.’ But the woman didn’t look convinced. Her eyes bored holes in me. ‘I didn’t think you had lost her and there’s no way you could have. What?’ I asked because, despite my answer, she still glared on at me.
‘You drank again.’ It was a question and a statement rolled in one.
I breathed a deep sigh, feeling the strength go out of me. ‘Mba. No. I didn’t drink. Not even a drop of alcohol entered my mouth today.’
Chika rose and came to stand in front of me. ‘Are you saying this odour of stale liquor I’m perceiving is coming from me?’
‘I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s not from me.’
The woman stood on tiptoe, brought her face to mine, making as if to kiss me, sniffed my mouth and recoiled. She turned around, backing me. ‘Ogu, please, leave. You drank again against my wishes and can’t man-up to admit it.’
‘Kam ofu, even a drop of alcohol, I did not consume. I’ve lost the taste for it.’
‘Go dry yourself out and come back. I’ll be here waiting. But don’t forget I won’t wait forever.’
‘I––’ I stopped, seeing the determined set of her shoulders and the stiffness of her neck. ‘See you later.’
Disappointed, I shuffled along the dreary first-floor corridor, tailed by the sharp smell of burning food, the antiseptic odour emanating from the rows of public toilets at one end of the long passage, by the snatches of noise from blaring television sets and the mildew reek of damp walls. Thunder boomed overhead, trying but failing to stop my mind from wandering.
Chika and I had met at a concert. We’d hit it off immediately, dated for a while, and within six months, I proposed to her. But she turned me down.
‘No. It’s too soon.’ She shook her head, her hair extensions bouncing up and down on her shoulders. She averted her face, but not before I glimpsed something in her dark eyes. ‘For now, let’s just continue as we are,’ she added.
At a loss for words, I lowered my hand and the engagement ring. I rose and dusted off my left knee. Walking over to my desk, I slid open the drawer, placed the ring among the jumble of papers there and shut it.
Chika was twenty-five, attractive and vivacious. Everything was a source of joy to her: the cooing of the coo-coo on the ube tree at the back of the house, the musky yet sweet smell of the blooming mango trees at the wildlife park, the howling of the wind as it chased dead leaves and polythene bags up tree trunks before the onset of rain and the earthy ozone odour of the rain itself. She liked to sit on the edge of the man-made lake close to my house and gaze for hours on end at the rippling waters. She delighted in the jumping fish that broke the water’s surface every once in a while, and the endless susurration of the water as it lapped the lake’s edges was music to her soul. Even the sharp pungent taste of unripe udara fruit captivated her.
It was weeks later before she told me why she had declined my proposal and added a caveat that unless I stop my heavy drinking, she would never marry me. Head over heels in love with her, that was all I needed to turn over a new leaf. Though I’ll confess the sight of a bottle still pulled me, still drew me the way the Sirens’ call drew sailors to their ruin. But I tried to fight it. I fought the urge from the time we discovered she was pregnant to the day she delivered a baby girl at the hospital. I proposed to her a few more times throughout those nine months and as before got turned down. Though I still drank a little every once in a while, not as heavy as when I first met Chika.
When I looked in at our daughter after her birth, heard her tiny voice squealing away in hunger, I felt impediments break up and fall away. Because I wanted to be a part of her life, to be the best father I can be to her, I resolved to quit drinking altogether. Not just cutting it down as Chika had requested, but to quit it outright. And these three months since Adaeze’s birth, I’ve kept away from the bottle. But what baffles me now more than ever is that Chika still complains of catching the odour of liquor on my breath. Where she smells it from, I can’t figure out.
Shambling down the steps now, I cupped both of my hands around my mouth, breathed into it and sniffed. Unbelievably, my breath reeked of liquor. But I’ve not put a drop of alcohol in my mouth in three months. I don’t even know what it tastes like anymore. I resolved there and then to see a doctor.
One hot afternoon a few days later, trying hard but failing to ignore the drab first-floor corridor and its potpourri of smells, I sprinted upstairs to Chika’s apartment and banged on her door. When she opened up, a curious look seemingly etched on her face, I thrust out a sheet of paper at her, beaming a wide, contented smile.
She took the paper, asked me in and shut the door. ‘What’s this?’ She righted the paper as I’d given it to her upside down and peered at it. ‘What’s this?’ she repeated, hardly looking impressed.
‘What? Is this a joke? How much did you pay him?’
Humour drained from my face the way the last rays of the sun drain out of the sky at dusk. ‘You think I paid him to write me that report? Oh my God! What do you take me for?’
She stared at me, searching my eyes, my face. Then she returned her gaze to the paper. ‘Is this real?’
‘Yes. According to the doctor, it’s called Auto-brewery syndrome or gut fermentation syndrome.’
‘You mean fungi or bacteria in your gut are producing ethanol through endo-endogenous fermentation.’ And for the second time, she asked, looking up, ‘Is this real?’
‘Yes. Yes, it’s real.’
‘And that’s what you’re suffering?’ She eyeballed me.
‘I’ve not been speaking Latin and that document surely isn’t written in Latin.’
We were both silent for a while, staring at each other. Chika’s chest rose and fell as she heaved a sigh. I had an urge to sigh too, but I couldn’t because my breath had got stuck in my throat.
The woman sighed again. ‘I’ll like to meet this doctor.’
I shrugged. ‘Fine. I’ll make the arrangements.’
Despite her scepticism, her coldness towards me thawed. On the appointed date, we both went to see Doctor Amuzie, who had written the report. He confirmed what was in the report and subsequently placed me on an extensive treatment program.
When next I proposed to Chika, she said yes, to my greatest delight.
—About the Author—
Michael Emeka is a writer, a teacher and lover of nature. His works have appeared in Volney Road Review and Potato Soup Journal. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria and can be found on Twitter @michael64639151.