Rumours of Abacha’s death spread through Lokoja as if carried by birds in the air to every part of the city, to Yusufu, where he stood at his office window looking out in awe of the blazing sun. He had heard it before but dismissed it, as he did now, as nothing but a pub story peddled by idle drunks like the news bearer Caleb, who came to work reeking of alcohol, lunched on schnapps, and afterwards converged with his ilk under the mango tree to barter tales from their imaginations, fable for fable. After Caleb left, however, Yusufu returned to his desk and began to ponder the plausibility of the story.
‘Abacha dead?’ he said, getting up, hands akimbo. ‘Impossible.’
He plopped back into his chair and from his desk picked up a spiral-bound document from the Ufedo Women’s Association, requesting approval for the establishment of a cooperative society. The president of the association was a friend of his wife, so, dispensing with the formality of scrutiny, Yusufu started to flip the pages, looking for the box in which to append his signature. His eyes were set on the task but his mind was a track of fleeting, distant thoughts. As he often did to unwind, he tried to spin in the swivel chair with – he had forgotten – a broken lever. It squeaked and bucked. He spun with force until he crashed into the cabinet behind. Lifting himself and dragging the chair back to base, he returned to the document, pen lodged between his sweaty fingers.
If only he could strip to his singlet and boxers to air himself, Yusufu thought as he pored over the document. He eventually signed in a box at the top right corner of page seven where he should indicate the date. By the time he realised his mistake, he had shut the window, taken his leather briefcase and was locking up.
‘Closing for the day?’ Danlami asked, standing at the entrance of the shared office next door.
‘No,’ Yusufu said. ‘No, I need to get to the secretariat.’
As he walked towards the gate he wondered if the mango tree in the compound had grown more branches overnight that now stretched across the fence. In any case, the sun overhead burned brighter and hotter than ever and there were never more people on the street at this hour going in such haste – never more cars. He crossed the road and stood among other commuters under a neem that provided inadequate patches of shade. A green minibus filled with pupils of St. Anthony stopped before them. The conductor jumped down.
‘Going? Going?’ he said – beckoning to the commuters who ignored him. ‘One lucky person.’
The conductor hopped back into the bus and banged on its door. ‘Going?’ he said once more as the vehicle rattled into motion, puffing thick, black exhaust.
Yusufu soon found a ride in the backseat of a taxi. A spring jutting from the driver’s seat gored his knee but he sat stoically, between a passenger and the door, legs clamped. There was no space to extricate the hem of his kaftan which was trapped under another passenger who would have to trouble two others to make any adjustment. Yusufu set down the rule for the commute: be silent and vigilant. Be silent, however inviting the conversation, however innocuous; be attentive, however frivolous the subject. Listen for cadence, for the unspoken.
The passengers decried the driver’s greed, cramming humans into the vehicle like tubers of yam. They also agonised over the unbearable heat of the day.
‘Who needs a stove when you have this kind of sun?’
‘Yeah, this sun can cook stone to pulp.’
‘Please o, aren’t we supposed to be in raining season?’
‘God, what is our offence? Is this the hell promised?’
‘No, it’s just hell leaking.’
‘It will rain tonight, surely.’
Meanwhile, Yusufu was thinking: really, is the weather the hot topic of the day? Then he chastised himself. Just listen: don’t think. How much longer before your thoughts crawl out with a voice? His taciturn mood carried over to the house, where he ate in silence the bean porridge set before him while his wife bothered him with chatter.
‘You are home early today,’ she observed, after saying something about a power bill.
‘Hope no problem.’
‘Do I now need to sound a gong before coming to my own house?’
‘Sorry o,’ she said. ‘I meant no offence.’
After a moment he asked, ‘Have you listened to the radio today?’
‘No. Any news?’
He shrugged. ‘Rumours about payment of salary arrears have been flying about.’
‘I heard that too, but I don’t believe it for a second. Better we just pray for the salary and forget arrears. What is gone is gone.’
Yusufu had spread the food in his flat stainless-steel plate and was scooping around the perimeter. On a different day, he would gripe about the mushiness of the meal. Today, he carried on without fuss. He used his shirt to fan himself and to wipe the sweat running from his face and bare chest. When he finished eating, he lay supine on the sofa and closed his eyes.
Had uncertainty not had him lying sober, he would have been up, roaring like a jubilant child. He would have run out and reached the sky with a leap of joy. Back in, he would sing Igala folk songs and re-enact long-forgotten dance steps. Neighbours would dash in and out of the house to see how the celebration was carrying on here and elsewhere. Baba Sam and Baba Ede would stay back and, with Yusufu, they would recount in slapstick tales of hunger and other hardships. They would choke on their laughter, holding their stomachs to cut the guffaw.
‘It is like the blind seeing for the first time,’ Yusufu would say when he recovered himself ‘Like the first day out of jail after a long sentence.’
Baba Sam and Baba Ede would offer complementary descriptions of the moment. Then the party would move out and mix with groups of men on the street. There would also be groups of women, of youths and of children, and individuals would extend congratulations to one another. Some would have drinks in their hands, others pots and silverware for percussion.
Moments later, fantasy became nightmare.
In his dream, Eugenia Abu comes on air at nine o’clock, reading the news with her dimpled smile and perfect diction. The first story, sure, is on Abacha. He is shown in khaki and black shades inspecting a road construction project, attended by a troop and anxious engineers in helmets. The team marches from sections of freshly tarred road to dusty and rocky terrain. The General is alive. Yusufu mutes the television and swallows his disappointment. He goes to work the next day – no mention of death throughout – and every workday after, and returns home punctually to his usual meal of bean porridge. Two weeks pass, and then lunch becomes sour garri soaked with water, eaten with or without sugar and groundnut. He asks his wife to take beans on credit from the kiosk up the street. She passes the request on to one of the children, who circles the estate and returns to say that the kiosk is closed. The last quarter of the month seems longer than those preceding. At that time, Yusufu searches for and cannot find his disappointment over the leader’s longevity. Hunger, his dominant emotion, has eaten up his gut and the will to rage.
June 8 was also Blessing’s birthday. Her day was passing without fanfare: no party, no gifts, no cards. Not from her sister, who had done her part in wishing her happy birthday as they trekked to school in the morning, and not from her mother, who had on their return prayed for her for long life and prosperity. It was now time, Blessing thought, to wring some money from her father. She had waited in the wings while he ate and had cleared his plates to the kitchen, only to return to find him asleep.
‘Daddy,’ she mumbled, knowing that he forbade rousing anyone from sleep because at the moment of unconsciousness he or she, for better or worse, belonged to the dreamland, that boundless place of illogical possibilities. ‘Today is my birthday.’
Her father opened his eyes and yawned, stretched and then sat up. ‘What?’
‘Today is my birthday.’
‘Really? How come nobody told me since morning?’
‘I told you yesterday.’
‘Oh, yes, yes. You did. Congrats.’
‘How old are you now.’
‘Wow, eight. You are an old woman now. Many happy returns for your day.’
Blessing grunted. ‘But Daddy, you will give me money for coke, o.’
‘Yes, that,’ he said, and lay down again.
‘I heard you,’ he said. ‘Coke, right?’
‘But you are going to sleep.’
‘I will give you the money when I wake up.’
‘What is the difference? Give me now.’
‘There is no money on me now. Later, alright?’
Blessing continued to hassle him, until he confessed, that actually, he had no money to spare for merrymaking.
She began to moan and stamp her feet. ‘But you gave Lynda money on her birthday.’
‘She was ten!’ he shouted, then added, calmly, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll throw a party for you on your tenth birthday. Two years from now. New millennium. It will be big.’
‘I don’t want a party for my tenth birthday. Give me the money now.’
‘What do you need coke for? Haven’t you had lunch?’
‘Daddy just give her the money, na,’ her sister Lynda said. She is seated on an armchair nearby, studying.
‘You are very silly,’ her father said to Lynda. ‘Now leave here. Both of you.’
The girls remained, Blessing still buzzing and stomping. Her father urged her to reason with him. He had no money now, but at the end of the month he would recompense her patience with double the amount he had given Lynda. Blessing didn’t budge.
‘What is it?’ her father said. He sat up again. ‘What is the meaning of “birthday”? Am I the only one who has kids? You should be grateful that you have food to eat! There are children who don’t get three meals a day and they are not dead.’
He turned out the coins and worn, crumpled notes in his pocket onto the centre table.
‘Look!’ he said to Blessing, who had started crying. ‘This is all I have. And we haven’t even reached middle of the month. Have mercy on me, please.’
He sighed and added that he was expecting some money at the office tomorrow.
‘Tomorrow,’ he said, and Blessing, still in tears, rushed out to the courtyard.
Early in life, Lynda learned the art of pretence, to sit engrossed in a book, waiting for a chance to sneak out of the house. She longed for the playfield, the unclaimed plot between blocks 186 and 187. She wanted to be out till evening, skipping or racing or playing football, like the children of liberal parents. Her father, lying on the sofa with his shirt spread over his chest, was the impediment. Lynda peered into her reader, peeped at her father, read some more, peeped, swung her legs and waited for her chance. When her father seemed to be nearing oblivion, eyes closed, hands loose, she went and crouched behind his sofa, listening for the snore of his slumber. The clang of the ceiling fan drowned out every sound he might make. Lynda crawled to the door and pushed it open with her fingers.
‘Who is that child going out?’
Her father’s voice stops her astride the threshold, hands out, legs in. She got up and ran into the sun, all the way to the field, which turned out to be empty, no footprint in the sand. There was no shade nearby to sit and wait. She looked in every direction for a miracle. After a while, she turned back towards home, then detoured to Aunty Lawyer’s house, a flat that had become a rendezvous for girls in the neighbourhood. The lawyer, a petit young woman, single with no children, was rarely at home and even when she was, tolerated their chatter and cleaned up the mess left behind.
Lynda sat alone on the veranda of the house until Blessing, still sullen, joined her. Then came Taiye, but her mother recalled her home for lunch before she had finished making inquiries into Blessing’s countenance. Taiye promised to be back as soon as she was done eating. Lynda was still rueing Taiye’s departure when Regina came sprinting towards them.
‘Let me tell you something,’ Regina said. She cupped her hands over Lynda’s ear and whispered into it. Immediately, Lynda darted across the street, with Blessing in pursuit, begging her to wait.
‘Are you coming back?’ Regina shouted after them.
The parlour was empty. Lynda, calling ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ proceeded to the master bedroom, where her father was sitting on the edge of the bed.
‘Abacha is dead!’
‘Shush,’ Yusufu said, putting a finger to his lips. ‘Who told you?’
‘Regina,’ Lynda said, and gave Blessing, who just burst in, a bemused glance.
Regina’s father, a journalist, was the neighbourhood news broker. He was also a renowned drunk, not that it interfered with his ability to dispense the news. Even when he was a staggering, bumbling, burping mess with shirt buttons undone, he was still as accurate as NTA news. Only when pressed for updates on salary arrears did he resort to fabrications. Otherwise, unsolicited information was almost always accurate.
‘Regina told you?’ Yusufu said, a smirk spreading across his face.
The girls nodded. Their father called to their mother.
‘Mama Lynda,’ Yusufu called again as his wife entered the room. ‘Have you heard what these children are saying? Abacha is dead.’
‘Really?’ his wife said, shutting the door and leaning against it. ‘That is some big news.’
‘I mean it’s still a rumour. But it’s everywhere.’
‘I have not stepped out of this house today.’
‘I don’t believe it, though. Abacha. Dead. I mean, that sounds too cheap.’
‘But why not? Is he not human?’
He was disappointed by her indifference and tried to convince her of the General’s immortality; that the story, despite its association with Baba Regina, had an air of implausibility. Who knew what this was, really? Anything but death. A setup to ensnare gullible civil servants. A coup. The speed at which it was spreading, it felt more like a whirlwind moving about town, gathering momentum, sweeping away everything in its path. If it were possible, Yusufu would plug every crevice in the house to keep out the sinister wind.
‘You know what?’ his wife said. ‘If he dies, heaven won’t fall.’
Yusufu ignored her and turned to the girls. ‘You must not step out of this house before bed … There is a chance,’ he added, hushing their chorus of complaints, ‘that the gentleman on the street asking directions is a member of the SSS.’
The girls exchanged glances as their father reeled off further instructions: there would be no romping, no talking, because walls have ears; if they contravened any of his instructions, the police would arrest them.
It was time for a roll call. Two of Yusufu’s four children were present, one was away in boarding school.
‘And where is that boy called Sunday?’ Yusufu shouted.
‘You are talking as if he is ever home before sunset,’ his wife said. She took an old newspaper from the chair and left the room, and the others followed.
In observance of the rule of quietude, Lynda and Blessing sat on the bed in the dining room with their backs on the wall and their legs stretched. Staying indoors was hard enough, but keeping silent was impossible. Lynda wondered: should they really not speak at all, even to each other? It was Blessing’s idea to get a mirror to use as telescope. It was Lynda who ran to the bedroom and returned with a hand glass. She knelt on the bed and held it against the window, which had several panes missing, and tilted the mirror left and right to catch a view of Aunty Lawyer’s house. The street was deserted, bequeathed to domestic animals. Goats dogs, trees, houses with washed out paint and rusty roofs, potholes, cobblestones, power poles, black and white polythene … everything but the lawyer’s house moved in and out of view. Then a man in white polo shirt and blue jeans walked into the mirror.
‘This man has passed here before,’ Blessing whispered. She was also looking into the mirror.
Lynda angled the mirror for better view. ‘It is not true.’
‘I saw him in the afternoon.’
‘In the afternoon.’
The man loomed larger and larger as he advanced, almost stepping out of the mirror and into their faces. Lynda ducked. ‘SSS.’
‘Did he see us?’
‘I don’t know,’ Lynda said. ‘Yes.’
They sat waiting for consequences. After a while, Lynda kneeled, drew the curtain and raised the mirror again. Down the street, Doctor was struggling to move his red Volvo. He had succeeded in pulling out from his frontage but the car balked in the middle of the road. It chugged and quenched as often as he tried to start it. He gave up and sat in it to wait for help with pushing it. There was nobody outside, as far as Lynda could see, but he got out and beckoned on an invisible passer-by.
Yusufu always spoke harshly about the man whose illegal abortion practice, he believed, was the cause of the doctor’s impotency – the result of dragging innocent babies out of young women and flushing them down the toilet. His impotency, naturally, led to his divorce. And the curses from all those women he threw out after their abortion, even when they were too weak to walk – not that the whores deserve any kindness – ensured he would never find another wife. His loneliness was the reason he clung to his jalopy when all sane men had since parked theirs and watched the tyres sink into the ground.
On hearing the doctor call for help, Yusufu went and sealed the windows properly, then switched on the television from the socket. It came on with a shrill and snow.
‘It is not yet time,’ his wife said.
‘Yeah. Just checking.’
He turned to the radio which sat on the television and tuned into Radio Kogi. Celine Dion was singing ‘Because You Loved Me’. Yusufu hissed and returned to his seat. ‘Nothing to do but wait, I guess.’
‘What are we waiting for exactly?’ his wife asked.
‘Well, for Nigeria to explode. I tell you, this country is pregnant.’
She snorted. ‘It has been pregnant for as long as I remember. High time it popped so we know exactly what we are in for.’
‘It may be a coup.’
‘One has seen worse in this country.’
‘We can’t afford a coup now. Before you know what, it would escalate into a war. Hausa vs. Igbo, Christian vs. Muslim.’
‘There is nothing new about that, if you have lived here for a while.’
‘You have never witnessed a war. That is why you talk about it carelessly.’
‘And you are what? Ojukwu?’
‘You are very stupid,’ Yusufu said.
His wife started to speak but was interrupted by a knock, at first distant as if at a neighbour’s door, then more insistent. Yusufu, in a performance of bravery, opened the door without asking the caller’s name. It was, gratefully, Baba Sam. He refused the seat offered because, he said, he only wanted to say hi.
‘At least sit and drink water,’ Mama Lynda said.
Baba Sam sat down, drank from the glass Blessing brought him on a plastic tray and chatted with Yusufu. They laughed over every staid detail of their conversation and fanned themselves with raffia fans. When the television, with polychrome columns on the screen, started to hoot, Baba Sam announced his departure and Yusufu accompanied him to the veranda where they lingered.
‘Have your ears been blasted?’ Baba Sam asked.
‘My brother, I heard, o. Only, it is hard to believe.’
‘It is a sure thing.’
‘You believe it? Who told you?’
‘I can’t say it is from this person or that person. You know, it is from everybody and nobody at the same time.’
Together, they went to Baba Regina’s house. His parlour was full with known and strange faces conferring on a single subject. Yusufu did not tarry. He left as soon as he got the information he wanted.
It was dark outside; a cumulonimbus eclipsed the setting sun. As Yusufu made his way home, he became nostalgic for those moments of disbelief when his mind was closed to this tiding. He resented this newfound faith that buoyed him along the vacant street, prompting him when he reached home, to empty his pocket to his wife to make a feast for Blessing’s birthday.