Sound City, Southern Nigeria 06:45am
I jump off the bed and scamper to my prayer mat. My journal and Bible lie untouched. I rush my prayers. I have 5 minutes for everything: thanksgiving, for all the goodness I have received; prayers for my pastor and the church; prayers for God to raise godly leaders for Nigeria; prayers for my family scattered around the world, the new babies we have, and their mothers; prayers for wisdom, grace and favour; prayers for patience, lots and lots of patience.
I read just a verse of the Word today.
“There’s a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof is destruction.”
It gives me shivers.
I dash to the bathroom. I brush my teeth while doing squats. Brown love handles wobble and wriggle by my sides, I ignore them and keep squatting. I bath in two, dress in three. Ten minutes later, I am guzzling down cereal like a refugee. My wife, Mfoniso looks at me, snorts and shakes her head. I focus on the food, on making sure it doesn’t go the wrong way.
“Is the commissioner coming again?” She asks.
“Maybe.” I reply.
She walks over to me and gives me a peck. “Take it easy soldier. This too will pass.”
“Amen.” I say closing my eyes, drinking in her lavender and mint scent.
In a blink it all comes back to me. The life I led before everything imploded.
Snapshots of : lounging around the house in boxers, tending my plants, reading the papers, flick past like a pantomime. Those were good days, good times.
Everything changed when the fire nation attacked –sorry– health commissioners were swapped.
I want to hold her closer and get a full kiss. I want to drink the mint and lavender in, but my eye catches the clock on my phone and I grab my keys and run. I jog to the car, tucking in my shirt while I am at it.
I take deep breaths as I ease my Benz 190 down the street. The potholes are craters that I sink in and out of; sometimes I imagine I am driving on the moon. Soon I am on the dual carriage road that was resurfaced last week. It’s only in Nigeria that some roads get ‘resurfaced’ six times while some others are made of mud and craters.
I fly past the serene green of the playgrounds. Egrets jostle atop dying palms, white rollers in a balding black woman’s hair. Three black birds cackle among them and I wish I had the time to stop and stare. I wish I could google them, these three brave black birds in a gaggle of white.
I am almost at the crossroads. I have to think fast and decide which route I’ll take to Cassava Land. It takes forty minutes to get to Cassava Land if I drive through Obasanjo Way. CassavaLand is an ancient semi-urban town. I work as a medical officer in its general hospital. I apply for transfers every year. The director of medical services just laughs “All of you doctors want to stay in Sound City ehn?” He says and nothing happens.
Goodluck Way will get me there in thirty minutes, the road is new, dual carriage, made by Julius Berger. When I’m on it, I think of Germany and the autobahn; and making a giant I love Julius Berger billboard. I am tempted to turn left and blaze down Goodluck Way like a Jason Bourne clone, but I don’t. It’ll gulp more gas and there’ll be less to see: just coal tar and grass. Obasanjo Way is where the fun is, and I know it like the lines that criss-cross my palm , so I head straight on.
Obasanjo Way has also been resurfaced. My tires roll on the uneven lumps and I almost regret choosing this route. O imagine the millions of Naira that this will cost the state coffers, it nearly screeches me to a halt.
Soon we are at the flyovers, another Julius Berger marvel. We never had theses sort of wonders in my part of the Niger Delta. God bless democracy.
A red Kia Picanto zooms past me and my eyebrows flip into my hair.
“You are losing touch man.”
It’s Alan. My ‘other self’. He’s silly like that. Sometimes you don’t hear a thing from him for days then when you least expect it he pops out and starts prattling.
I keep my eyes on the road while I answer. “What do you know about touch. Loser.”
That keeps him quiet for a while. He thinks he is something special. Just because he can bake and play professional chess and write novels. When we were kids, he wanted to go to Russia and become a real grandmaster, West Africa’s first. Somehow Mom got wind of it. That was the end of that.
“Akan, don’t say that to me that again. I am not a loser. I have dreams and I get joy out of what I do. You and your World champion worrier mother wouldn’t let me live them but they are still here. Soon I will find a way to make it happen. What can you brag about? Bottom cadre doctor in the civil service. Ha! The civil service Akan. I thought you were better than this–Watch it!”
A motorbike swerves across the road, inches from my bonnet. The rider makes a face that says, “What are you looking at? Are you blind?”
I exhale through clenched teeth gripping the steering wheel and quelling the volley of abuse that is at the edge of my lips.
Alan starts laughing and holding his sides. soon he is breathless and tears are streaming down his face.
The irritation I feel morphs into cold white anger.
“Oh lord, oh dear,did you see the guy’s shoes. Lawd have mercy! He must have stolen them from a museum.” He giggles some more and I find myself chuckling. The anger ebbs, I realise he isn’t laughing at me.
Ahead there’s a crowd in a circle. Young men form the core, women and older people are at the fringes craning for a better look. A young girl’s corpse is on the ground. Her pink dress is soaked with blood. We all slow down. Everyone. Even the commercial drivers that act like they have appointments in Heaven. The wreck is grotesque, metal mangled into a steel tomb. the carcass of an orange tricycle peeps out from the belly of the ex-Jeep. The ex-Jeep is empty. The driver must have fled for dear life.
In a moment, someone fetches fuel and a match. The young men work in tandem like they have rehearsed this; like it is just normal, setting a ten million Naira SUV ablaze. Maybe they have, it is the norm here, once a car kills someone it has to be burnt, preferably with the driver in it.
Billows of black smoke rise into the air and vultures begin to circle. I look away from the rear view mirror. I want to shout at the young men to stop. I want to take the other victims with me to the hospital where they can get help. I don’t do anything of the sort.
I look at my dashboard, it’s 7.40 am.
I bear down on the throttle and keep a straight face.
Relief settles on me like dew. I am going to make it. I won’t be late. The odd of queue of vehicles jostling along on the single carriage way isn’t bothersome anymore. I take my time to savour the rustic beauty of shops, shrubs and mango trees. Then Kuku the lunatic floats into focus and my spirits dips again.
It is hard to ignore his state of total neglect. The clumps of congealed hair that flap behind him, his dirt brown clothes, the ever-present vapid smile that dances around his lips. Kuku is a nickname; something I made up on one of the more leisurely drives before the madness began….
“Crazy isn’t it.” Said Alan with a smirk on his lips. “One would think science would have found a cure for manic schizophrenia by now. Or a vaccine. All they care about is beauty products and performance enhancing drugs. Viagra and stuff shame. That Kuku would have made a fine athlete.”
It is true. Kuku has the build of an athlete. His illness causes him to pace without rest. Morning noon or night, if you drive past that bit of the road you’ll see him prancing along the edges with his high stepping gait, like a gazelle. Or like model on a runway.
My trusted ride eats up the miles. I am making good time and I am sure I will be there before Dr Eduwem draws the red line.
He never used to do that before. But since the commissioner paid us a surprise call and someone told him he was being considered for a promotion, everything changed. Now he jogs across the road from his flat at exactly 08:00 to draw the red line.
Some people like Dr Akpan don’t care. He still saunters in by 10:00. Sometimes he signs 08:00 under the red line. Other times, he finds a spot to squeeze his name in the early bird section. Folks say the governor is his in-law. I don’t have any influential in-laws. I step harder on the gas.
I am cruising past my favourite stretch of the road. Four other cars bop ahead looking like they are heading somewhere important. Everyone knows it is a ruse. Unemployment level are higher than 30%. It is part of our national culture– struggling, we are used to scarcity and it shows in our driving.
“Don’t” Alan says.
“Why not.” I reply
“Cos you don’t need to. You’ll be there on time.”
” Yea, but this is more fun.” I say, slouching in a corner of the seat, a pilot about to take.
Then we soar. It is dizzying, whizzing past the other cars, gauging their speeds, keeping an eye ahead. It’s a lot of mental math, but the thrill is electric. Beside me, a woman ferries a cage full of dogs, I wonder if they know they’ll be dog meat within a week.
I drive into the premises humming to myself. Then I discover I have forgotten my tie. A low groan fills the car and for a moment I don’t know what to do. I scrap through my pigeon hole and find a wretched one with pink boxes. I toss it back it. I’d rather look casual than stupid.
I walk-run down the corridor to the Medical Superintendent’s office where the staff time book is. You can’t trust Dr Eduwem. Even though his car isn’t there he might be at the muster point: red pen in hand, trousers hoisted to mid abdomen, spectacles dangling dangerously close to the tip of his nose.
That’s when I notice the nurses. Gathered around the empty table with their arms folded making clucking noises like hens.
The time book is missing.
Alan starts laughing again. This time I know I am the clown.