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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Old Cargo Aristo

As I stepped out of my brand new Peugeot 306, I could feel the envious and admiring glances from a group of people standing at the doorway of the hall; the venue of Agnes’ birthday party. I had come out of the car stylishly – leg first and slowly inching my butt out to give the onlookers a great show of my well-endowed body. I pulled out my dark glasses from my gold handbag and put it on for extra effect. I walked a few metres away from the car. Then, I turned back dramatically using the remote control to lock the car. I began to take calculated steps towards the hall; shoulders straight, chest out and head held up high. As I passed the group of onlookers, I could almost feel them holding their breaths mesmerised by my ethereal appearance.
I felt so good inside of me. I have always wanted to be desired by people. I have always dreamt of being the centre of everything. I do realise my behaviour has a tendency towards narcissism but if I don’t love myself, how am I supposed to love others?
I have always had big and great ambitions for myself. I had decided early in life as a ten-year-old girl never to lead my life after the semblance of my parents. Our compound was like an ant colony but it was quite different because there was no queen who was a drone. Everyone was a soldier working so that the anthill does not crumble. All the adults and grown-up children woke up at first cockcrow working at various household chores; from sweeping to chopping firewood for the day’s meals. Although I was not actually lazy, I hated the roughness of the work. I was not like my sister; Ojuolape who sang heartily and smiled merrily as she did her chores. I can still remember the funny view of her dancing and singing as she washed the dirty earthen pot and bowls that we had used to eat. There was a particular day, her merriment became mingled with tears – she was singing her favourite folktale song about the dog and the tortoise –
Aja ! Aja o! ran mi lerun
To ba ran mi lerun
Ma ke f’oloko…
In the midst of her singing and demonstration, the clay bowl in her hands slipped and broke into pieces. She had let out a piercing wail; clasping her hands on her hand. Mama had come in; running to see what was amiss. Her look of concern suddenly changed to anger as she saw the shattered fragments of the bowl on the floor. She exploded – “Oju, stupid girl, you have broken my bowl! Do you know how much I bought it on the last market day, ehn? Ten naira! Do you think I pluck money on trees? Amidst her tirade, she delivered two hot stingy slaps on her cheek and thundered out of the kitchen shed still puffing with anger. I had collapsed into laughter as I stood over Ojuola. Then I clapped my hands together and sarcastically sang her previous song – “Aja, Aja o …”. She eyed me fiercely and kicked at my legs. I fell down on top of her and we wrestled on the floor; tearing at each other faces like feline beings. My mother appeared on the scene with a long cane which she lashed out at us and that gave motion to my legs as I quickly escaped into open air.
Most of my age group in Ikotun village saw me as haughty, so I didn’t have many friends. The few friends I had, had to put up with my fancy stories of rich men and women who lived in big mansions and how I was going to become of these gentry one day. I got most of my imagination from the pacesetter novels I borrowed from the school library. While most of my mates stopped going to school after their junior secondary school exam; some of them either got pregnant or took to trading, I continued to trek several miles to school every morning. I voraciously consumed every book that came my way and I made up my mind to succeed no matter the cost. I was not going to be like my mother, who had become old even though she was still a young woman. Her skin was tar black and coarse from days spent working under the arid hot sun. Her hands were gnarled, her finger nails non-existent and her body flabby and shapeless from childbearing or should I call it child overbearing? My mother had 15 children with almost a new baby every year. But it was not entirely her fault as what other form of recreation does a poor farmer have; no television, no golf course, no expensive board games to play except the sport of copulation with his wife.
My opportunity of escape into splendour came some months after I finished secondary school. I almost didn’t get the chance to write my final exams as my father refused to pay for it since he thought it was a mere waste of time and resources. I had paid for my final exams with the money I saved from the sale of my tomato farm produce. My opportunity came when Chief Odegbami came to bury his father in the village. They had the biggest house in Ikotun and the place was virtually empty except for festive periods such as Christmas and the New Year, when the whole family came on vacation. All of the children in Ikotun were actively involved in the preparation for the funeral and we helped with various chores around the house. As for me, I had a particular target at heart and I worked towards it. I wanted to be noticed by the master and mistress of the house. So I put myself right under the glare of their noses at several occasions. There was a day, the madam was trying to give instructions to a boy to run an errand for her but he was at a loss as to what to do because the madam was speaking with a mixture of Yoruba and English. So, I came in and I asked the madam what she wanted done in faultless smooth English. She raised her eyebrows in surprise and called out to her daughter.
“Debbie, come over here. I can’t believe my ears.” She squealed like a rat.
“What mum?” I saw her daughter move towards us. She was wearing a tight jeans trousers and a “show-me-your-belly” blouse. I looked her over and wanted to burst into laughter but I quickly restrained myself. Instead, I made myself to look docile and na├»ve. Deborah was so painfully thin that even with her tight outfit, there was no aura of fleshy softness on her. Her legs stood wide apart and she resembled her wiry counterpart – the anopheles mosquito.
“She speaks good English”, her mother said.
“Really, mum. I don’t think that’s possible. Maybe, she memorised it.” Deborah said looking at me disdainfully.
I winced self-consciously. They were both talking about me as if I was not present there. Their conversation very much resembled a market scene; I being the hen for sale and the madam and Deborah, the prospective buyers speculating on the number of eggs I will lay and the chicks I will hatch.
“Anyway, I think she will do very well as a house maid.” the madam finally said as she made up her mind.
“Whatever. I just hope she does not stink”. Deborah said as she wrinkled her nose at me and went off.
I just left the stupid plastic smile plastered on my face through it all.
“Tell your father to come and see me” the madam said as she dismissed me.
After the funeral rites were performed in the village, I followed Chief Odegbami’s family back to Lagos. I tried not to stare at the magnificent things I saw around because Deborah was watching me to see my reactions. But when we got to a place which I later learnt was Third Mainland Bridge and I saw some vehicles down and we were on top of them; my lips gave way in amazement.
“Never seen such wonder? Don’t worry we won’t fall down below” Deborah said tauntingly.
I frowned and she pinched me hard on my wrist. I just pressed my lips together in a bid to suppress the pain.
When we got to the house it was another great marvel to me but by that time I had mastered how to keep my surprises from the open. The floor and the walls were polished with marble and I could see my reflection on the walls as I walked through the house.
I was shown to my room by a buxom woman, Mama Awe who was the cook. She was very nice to me. She showed me how to use everything in my room from pressing the light switch to flushing the toilet. However, she collapsed into a fit of laughter when she found me crouched on the toilet seat. Then, she told me I was not supposed to climb the toilet seat but sit on it. It felt so strange to the crouching I did in the public latrine or on a hole that I dug in the bush – this was cushion chair shit!
My problems started in the house when the madam found out I was the one stealing Deborah’s books. I didn’t actually steal them because I had always returned them after I finished reading. The madam had burst into an uncontrollable fit of rage –
“Foolish girl, do you think I brought you from your stinking village to come and be reading my daughter’s books? “Wait a minute, do you think Debbie is the same thing as you are? Ehn? Answer me!”
I just rolled myself into a tight ball taking the punches and quivering in silent rage.
“Listen to me, you are here to work and not to read books and if you start to give me problems I’ll send you back to your pitiable father in the village.”
“I’m sorry madam. It won’t happen again.” I recited docilely.
I remained curled tight in my foetal position long after she had left the room and I determined to be better than the madam and her daughter in everything.
That was when I started sleeping with her husband. Although, I wasn’t the cause of their non-existent relationship, they already slept in different rooms and only maintained a quiet civility when others were around. It started one night when he called me to bring a cup of tea to his room. I had gone to my room and pulled off my clothes and underwear and changed into my night gown which was very transparent. He had started perspiring like a he-goat on heat as he fastened his gaze on my breasts. He told me to sit on the bed and I watched him as he locked the door. Then, he was all over me huffing and puffing like an overworked trailer engine and sucking my breasts like a hungry infant. The next morning I felt a glow of satisfaction as I painted madam’s nails. I caught her watching Chief as he left for work and I saw the vacant stare in her eyes. It was the look of a frustrated sex-starved woman.
“Yeeee!” I protested as she hit me on the head for smearing the varnish on her big toe.
Chief and I later had a tryst outside the house. We met at one of his guest houses; I left the house under the guise of being sent on an errand by chief.
All along I knew the kind of game I was playing and I held the cards and rolled the dice. I got pregnant and told Chief about it. He offered to give me some money to get rid of it. I still smile to myself whenever I remember the drama that ensued. I had stood up theatrically –
“Not so fast, Chief. I’m not having an abortion. I think it’s time madam finds out that she now has a younger wife”.
“No, please Aina. That’s not possible. It will be a total disgrace for a man of my status to impregnate a common house maid” he pleaded bleary eyed.
“A common house maid” I blanched as I repeated it.
“I didn’t mean it that way. I will give you anything”, he said sweating profusely.
Then I gave out my demands – a place of my own, money for my upkeep and sponsorship of my education. Chief Odegbami readily accepted and that was how I became a kept woman.
I aborted the pregnancy and entered for the university entrance examination. I passed brilliantly and got an offer to study Management and Accounting. Yes, I was obsessed with money. So, I decided to have a career that deals with it to sate my growing avarice.
For the first two years at the university, Chief Odegbami was my sponsor and sugar daddy. But, when I began moving in bigger circles I came to the realisation that I was being kept cheap so I dumped Chief Odegbami and moved on to Chief Roberts who bought me a car in the first month and rented a bigger apartment for me. My classmates in the university envied me because I seemed to have abundance of everything – good grades, plenty of money to spend and a good body. I was always off on weekends to one party or the other and back in school on Monday or Tuesday to catch up on my schoolwork. They wondered how I made it since I didn’t sleep with my lecturers for marks. But I knew how I made it – my determination to be a success no matter the cost.
I know I can stop towing the line of being a sophisticated slut with my present status. I have a good university degree, a good job and lead a comfortable life, but the allure of the game has not lost its appeal for me. Each time I encounter these lewd old men running their eyes hungrily over me, I feel a thrill down my spine that has not been equalled by anything else. I enjoy the delight of playing to their fancies and giving them the expectation of conquest and suddenly withdrawing the prize. I don’t have to sleep with men for money. I can just take them for a ride and whiz off since I can now support myself without any man’s money.
“Hello beautiful. Can I sit with you for a while?”
I looked up and saw a dark broad-shouldered young man with flashing white teeth smiling at me and interrupting my deluge of thoughts.
I nodded as I evaluated him and decided he could pass.
At least, he was young for a difference and I guess I’m getting tired of the old cargo variety. “I think some young blood will do me good before I become an old cargo myself.” I thought to myself as I watched the dark silhouettes of couples on the dance floor gyrating to the Fuji rhythms of Wasiu Ayinde under the dim coloured strobe lights of blue and red.

Yoruba – a tribe in Nigeria

Translation of the folktale song –
Dog, Dog, help me to carry this load,
(kegbelesuke – a response)
If you don’t help me with this load,
I will cry out to the owner of the farm…

Aristo – This is a Nigerian slang used for older men that patronise younger girls for sexual privileges who get in return monetary favours. Sometimes, it is also used for girls that have sugar daddies.

Who are they?

The seeds of time
sprouting ever so slow
the yellowed leaves
are they tales to come?

The rain of time
preluded with heavy storm
wind-carried sand blind
are they tales to come?

The rush of wind
hurling leaves and dirt
upturned nothingness
are they tales to come?

The pull of mankind
propelled by time
trial of making
are they the talebearers?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Roadman

He tore out of the bushy pathway like a wild animal; eyes bloodshot, nostrils flared and teeth clenched. His clothes were torn in several places and dusty as if he had been rolling in the dust. His lips moved fastidiously as if he was reciting something like a prayer or an incantation. But it was a silent whisper as no sound of words came out of his mouth. He jerked his head as if in sudden comprehension of his environment. He started walking across the road and stood rock still when he got to the centre. With his head sunken deep into his chest, he looked like a lifeless statue.
A taxi with tires screeching grounded to a halt before him with the driver screaming obscenities – “Mad man, if you wan die no be me go kill you! I beg commot for road jo!” He just stared ahead with vacant eyes and made no move to leave the road. The driver got out of his taxi and pushed him roughly to the side of the road but he struggled and went back to stay in the middle of the road again. By now, a line of cars had gathered and were blaring their horns in anger.
A respectable-looking middle-aged man came out of his car and walked to him. He placed his hand on his shoulder – “My dear friend, looking at you closely, I can see you’re disturbed and you’re going through a lot of pain. I want to help you. I want to listen to you. I am a doctor. I treat people with mind problems. Will you come with me?” The road man looked at the mind doctor for some seconds and then looked around. He held out his hand to be led like a child to the mind doctor and a tear rolled down his cheek.
Shouts of ‘where are you taking him?’, ‘he is a ritual killer’ rented the air. The mind doctor calmly addressed the people – ‘he is my friend and I’m going to take care of him’. Is it not funny that the same people who had been previously belligerent towards the roadman should care about his fate?
They rode silently in the car and the roadman became somewhat relaxed. He released his clenched fist, closed his eyes and soon was fast asleep. The mind doctor smiled at him.
The mind doctor gently prodded him awake when he got to his house. For a moment, the roadman looked confused but when he heard the reassuring voice of the mind doctor, he relaxed. He took him inside his home. “We want to clean the outside first. Although the mind is more important, as you can see, the state of your mind has resulted in your drab outward appearance.” The mind doctor led him into the bathroom and showed him the soap and sponge. The roadman came out minutes later clean and sweet-smelling. The mind doctor smiled and thought to himself – “at least, he understands what I’m telling him”.
“Good, now we can work on the inside”. With that, he led the roadman to a table with an abundant variety of foods. There was a loaf of bread, butter, a cocoa drink, fried rice, chicken and even a bottle of wine. At the sight of the food, the roadman burst into tears and ran outside the house and would not stop running until the mind doctor caught up with him and stopped him some streets away.
“Torture”, that was the first word the roadman uttered. “Pain”, he continued as he wrinkled his face and touched his heart. “Heavy”, he said holding his head between his hands. “Light”, he said bending to touch his legs. “My life”, he said wringing his hands at the empty space of air. The roadman collapsed at the mind doctor’s feet.
The mind doctor brought him back to the house. He stretched him on a sofa. He looked lifeless in his lying position on the sofa and the mind doctor placed his hand on his chest to check if he was still breathing. His heartbeat was slow but regular resembling the tick-tock of a clock.
The mind doctor put on the T.V to listen to the news. He turned the volume down so as not to disturb the roadman. The roadman suddenly sat upright and fixed his eyes on the T.V, he shouted – “Murderer, thief, they took everything from me”. His eyeballs were dilated and his fingers quivered as he pointed to the governor on the T.V screen. The wild look left his eyes as suddenly as it had entered and he lay back on the sofa, closing his eyes.
The mind doctor went to his side and placed a hand on his forehead. It was cool; a contrast to the obvious raging fire that was ignited in the man’s brain. He placed his mouth close to the roadman’s ear and whispered into it – “who did he kill?”, “what did take from you?” At first, it seemed as if the roadman was asleep again. But, he suddenly opened his mouth and began to speak in a half-asleep state.
That day when I got to the office, the letter was already on my table I used to arrive early so when I checked the other offices, most of them had not yet resumed. I went back to my office and stared sightlessly at the paper in my hands. It was almost a page long but all the words just swam before my eyes and the only word that kept resurfacing on the paper was ‘retrenchment’. That was the only word that mattered at the moment. The long explanation of the statistics of the loss and profit in the company and the need to cut down on the quota did not make much sense to me. I would have continued staring into space the whole day but I was jarred back into the present with a knock on my door. “The director wants you to hand over all company’s property in your care before leaving, to the appropriate departments”, the director’s secretary recited, avoiding looking into my eyes. I finished writing my hand-over notes and putting everything in order at exactly a minute to 12 0’clock. The timing seemed significant as my life had just slipped into its noon status and I silently wondered when it will degenerate into night for me.
I walked home that afternoon as my car; the company’s car had also been taken away from me. My wife saw me approaching from her shop in front of the house and she rushed out to meet me. “What happened? What are you doing at home at this time of the day?, Did your car develop a fault?, Are you sick?, she went on and on with her barrage of questions. I just stared at her without opening my mouth. But as the days went by and she saw me waking up and staring out of the window, she began to understand my malaise. My wife was very nice at first and she carefully stepped around me in the house as if she was afraid of breaking my shell. But my apathy soon got to her and she began making hammered knocks on my protective shell. “Are you the first person to lose a job in the world? Ehn! You just sit there day after day not talking and doing nothing. You are scaring me to death and you had better start talking or I will just take you to your family house in the village. Who knows, maybe this is a spiritual attack!” she berated.
Then my daughter started swelling up. It started with her feet and some people first thought it was elephantiasis but her face soon started swelling. People looked at her strangely and my wife quickly explained to them that she was adding weight. Adding weight! What a twist of irony! How can she be gaining weight when our main meal in a day consisted of soaked gaari and groundnuts? My wife applied hot compresses on my daughter’s body every night. She said it will help melt the fat in her body. Then one day, my daughter could not urinate and by the next morning, her screams of pain could be heard three houses away. Our neighbours started trooping in, offering different solutions but none worked and as a last resort; we took her to the hospital.
That was the day I awoke from my stupor. The doctor took one look at my girl and reprimanded us for having kept her at home for so long. He told us that he would have to run some tests to know the extent of damage on her kidneys. I started running around to get money and I went back to the hospital with just enough money borrowed from my friends to pay for the tests. The doctor gave us the results some hours later and pronounced that our daughter had suffered a kidney failure and will need a transplant to function well in life. For the meantime, he said she would have to undergo dialysis twice a week to remove wastes from her body.
Our world came crashing, the dialysis will cost about twenty thousand naira and the transplant will cost millions of naira. My wife wept copiously for days. I felt crippled and castrated. I started doing odd jobs around. I even cut grass for some people. My wife also went around begging for help and she eventually got a Good Samaritan that was paying for the dialysis. We heaved a sigh of relief and for three months, our daughter received good medical care. However, our reprieve was short-lived as the doctor called us into his office and told us the sad news that a transplant was needed urgently or our daughter will die in some week’s time. We tried everything possible. The hospital staff even helped us to get on air; on the radio and T.V but the weeks passed by and the money was just coming in slow trickles. On a dark moonless night, our daughter gave up the ghost. Dried eyed, my wife packed her little belongings from the hospital and we went home. I couldn’t stop crying. Each morning, I woke up and thought of my failure as a man. Then, I noticed my wife had stopped talking. It was not exactly that she didn’t respond when talked to but she stopped making sense.
One day, I asked her where she put the keg of drinking water because I wanted to check if it was empty. She looked at me and said, “I am floating in it. There is water everywhere in the house. Don’t go and look for it anywhere”. Then she burst into a deranged cackle of laughter. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I looked at her far-away eyes and heard the sound of her dry laughter. She moved around the house as if she was automated and she started nursing our ten-year-old son like a baby. She will hold him on her laps and try to breastfeed him and when he scuttled away, she will burst into tears. So, I thought if she had a new baby, she might come back to life. As she lay asleep in bed that night, I reached over and loosened her wrapper. I caressed the flaccid flesh in my hand. Her skin seemed to have shrivelled since the last time I had touched her. I felt inside her with my fingers and rubbed her knob gently to create wetness in her dry cavity. She moaned softly and encouraged by her response, I mounted her. She reacted viciously like a tigress; screaming and tearing at me with her nails. I quickly got off the bed to my feet and watched in amazement as she tore at her hair and body, muttering gibberish words.
The next morning she woke up with scratches all over her face and all day long, she complained that she was attacked in her sleep by a witch who was killing her children. And she said, she was going to kill the witch herself that night. I just looked on; nonplussed.
One day, my son went to school and did not come back when the other school children had already returned. My wife became hysterical; saying that the witch must have caught him on his way back home. I went out to look for him and I kept looking for six months. My son had disappeared into thin air.
I started forgetting small simple things. I forgot to take my bath, to eat and even to button my shirt. I started talking to myself on the streets and I saw people pointing at me and shaking their heads in pity.
One evening, I came back from work. I was working as a carrier at a building site carrying water, sand and cement. I met the house empty. It wasn’t as if this was strange because the house had always been empty even though my wife was there. This time, it also smelt empty. It smelt like a cloth that had been kept in a wardrobe for so long without being worn. It was stale. I didn’t bother to look for her. I just sat down in the dark room without moving.
The next morning, I woke up to loud knocks on the door. As I opened up, I saw a little crowd of people clasping their hands on their heads and hissing with dismay. I saw her lying on the floor with a piece of white cloth wrapped around her. I looked up at the man talking to me – “We found her floating in the Obokun River this morning and one woman recognised her as your wife.” I opened my mouth to say something, but no sound came out. I left it open and continued to widen my lips; shining my teeth and the smile became laughter. I laughed out loud in a ringing tone and the crowd scattered in fright. Then, I broke into a run; running to complete the cycle of my fate.
I saw the woman carrying the child on her back. I saw the girl lifting a tray of plantains on her head. I saw the boy playing football with his friends. I saw the man picking a man’s pocket on the street but I couldn’t see myself on the road. I started looking into the faces of people, some trembled in fear and some grimaced in anger. I have looked everywhere and I will continue looking till I find…
The roadman’s lips snapped shut and his teeth in a spasm crunched against each other as if he was having an epileptic fit. The mind doctor wiped tears from his eyes. He now knew what the others on the road did not know – The roadman was not a mad man, he was an everyman.