Prose Winner of the 2016 Winter Tangerine Awards
The booming orbs of the giant radio glare down at me like two bug-alien eyes. The sound makes the plastic table gidi-gidi-GBAM under my palms. Phyno. I know it will make the boys around here act like they are anything but dry cleaners and barbers and houseboys and mostly just plain jobless niccurs hanging around. Waiting for something that will most likely speed past us when it comes, if it doesn’t knock us over first.
Tricia leaves me again. As soon as Alobam comes on, she jumps up, waving her skinny arms around and around like a spider caught suddenly in the light, so that her bangles jangle against each other. Then she starts to scream, ‘’This one na my jam o! My jam!’’ baring four rows of teeth before running like a mad person and drowning in the dance space that is starting to form in front of the giant radio. She is usually rather self-conscious about her teeth. ‘’Too many and too small,’’ she says. Maybe it is the drink.
Someone tumbles into the seat next to me. He is wearing a tight, black T-shirt stretching ‘Louis Vinton’ in large gold letters across his bulging middle, followed by a bunch of letters too tiny to read in the sparse light. His strong perfume is from somewhere in my childhood, but I cannot remember where exactly.
‘’Bros how far? My name na K.C.’’
His voice is a low tenor, almost conspiratorial. His perfume is not nearly strong enough; he leans close enough to me that I can fully appreciate the engulfing mist of the egusi on his breath. He must have seen me wince because he moves back to allow me to breathe.
I don’t respond but pretend to go through the old messages on my Blackberry. It doesn’t work. My phone, which hasn’t been charged in close to a week for lack of electricity, lets out a loud warning. K. C. laughs and asks
‘’Your own name nko?’’
‘’Uchendu. Just Uche,’’ I say. I hope this is the end of our conversation.
It is not.
‘’Ah-ah. Oga Jona’s brother,’’ he says. I don’t know how to respond, so I just smile. He is silent for a while, so I go back to my phone. I want to text Tricia to come and rescue me, but cannot decide whether a text will not cost me what is left of my battery life, when K.C. leans over again (I hold my breath), and shouts, over the music:
‘’So Uch-man… why you wan donate your kidney?’’ He glides over the ‘donate’ like a wink. No one I know calls me Uch-man.
Something in my face makes him burst out laughing. He pours his head back like a sack of ijebu garri and just lets it out. When he calms down again, he says
‘’Na me be your person na. We talk for phone. Wetin? Your girlfriend tell you say na secret?’’
I go over my earlier conversation with Tricia the day I got the news, almost two years ago. You need money, Uche. This thing will give you money. Shikena.
When I find my mouth, all that comes out is ‘’She’s not my girlfriend.’’
He continues as if I haven’t spoken.
‘’Look around.’’ I do. All the tables close to us are empty, but for bottles of Star and Orijin standing un-opened or half-finished on them. Everyone else is on the dance floor. It is like the radio has swallowed them all, Tricia included, and left me alone with Mr. Louis Vinton.
When I look back at K.C., his smile is triumphant.
‘’Na K.C. build dis joint. Dis place na my own. Everybody for dis room go happily leave here with one kidney tonight,’’ he says. ‘’They fit even dash me two sef if I gree.’’ His laugh is beginning to grate on my eardrums. He continues
‘’You know wetin K.C. stand for?’’
‘’Kenechukwu?’’ I offer, awkwardly. Again, he pretends I haven’t spoken.
‘’Kidney Chief. Na me be de chief supplier of quality kidneys. I dey get customers for Belgium, Dubai, even Togo here.’’
The music changes to a distinctly American-sounding electro-dance song with the refrain ‘’one morning in September,’’ and someone yells that this is neither morning nor September, abeg change it to Dorobucci. Everyone laughs. The DJ, a skinny, sweating man with a thick pair of glasses covering half his face, reluctantly obliges.
‘’Those people for Europe, small tin fit kill them. But our people dey even drink exhaust smoke like say notin dey happun!’’
He brings out a square piece of paper from his back pocket. It is almost black with tiny-lettered notes. He writes something I can’t see over a less dense part of the paper and turns back to me.
‘’How old you be? And no be football age I dey talk o!’’ he laughs again.
‘’Twenty-five. Twenty-six next month.’’
He nods his head and writes this down.
‘’Correct. Blood type?’’
‘’I don’t know,’’ I say. It is true.
‘’No problem, we go find out. You get HIV?’’ He laughs at my expression again. ‘’I suppose make sure na. Young boys like you like to dey run like say condom na bad tin these days.’’
I shake my head, no.
‘’Diabetes, hepatitis, heart and liver disease?’’
I have never been tested for any of these, but I shake my head anyway.
I want to tell him that I have a second-class upper in Applied Mathematics. Not from any yeye backyard school either. From Nsukka. I want to add that I stood in for the valedictorian when he got a throat infection the morning of convocation. That I gave an extempore speech so rousing that the husband of the assistant to the Deputy Governor had walked out in tears. Mid-speech.
‘’I ride an okada,’’ I say instead. ‘’For now,’’ I add.
‘’For now?’’ he looks vaguely interested. ‘’Wetin be de other job?’’
‘’Nothing yet,’’ I say, feeling useless.
‘’Ahn-ahn so you be okada rider now. Okada rider full-stop. No dey do sme-sme here o!’’ He grunts and adds something else to his paper.
He comes close to my face again, blasting me with warm egusi fumes. I notice the tiny oil-bumps on his nose, the kind that spits out yellow pus if you press hard enough with tissue. I even see the ends of the hair in his nostrils.
‘’You be sickle-cell?’’ he whispers.
‘’Eh-heh, I no tink so. You no look like sickle-cell. Person like you look like strong man.’’ He slaps my shoulder so hard it feels like hot water has been poured on it.
He writes again in his paper and puts it back in his pocket. He is smiling at me.
‘’Wetin you need de money for sef?’’
Tricia arrives, to my relief. The DJ has stuck to his American-electro-dance music thing, and there is an exodus of loud complainers pouring from the giant radio. Tricia is sweating so much the tips of her purple braids drip water on the white plastic table. Her bright orange lipstick has escaped the limits of her small mouth so that she looks like a child that has smeared Nutri-C all over her face.
‘’Na you be de Oga K.C.? Why you dey question my niccur like say him be criminal? Collect de kidney may we comot abeg. My guy done already fast finish today.’’
‘’Tri-baby, I no fit do am today.’’
K.C. smiles broadly. He knows he is a Big Man, and he wants to make sure we know, too.
‘’Ahn-ahn now, Oga,’’ I know from Tricia’s expression that she knows the game and doesn’t mind playing along. ‘’You talk say may we come today.’’
‘’Well, I done change my mind. Tomorrow na my wedding anniversary. We done already buy two cows. Big, fat cows. I wan comot house go thanksgiving for seven sharp-sharp.’’
‘’Oga K.C. please now. I tell you say Uche na my personal person. And my guy need de money badly.’’
He sighs heavily, like we are bothering him.
‘’OK now, and una no go say wetin he need am for? He wan pay your bride price?’’
Tricia laughs so hard I am not sure whether I should be offended.
‘’Me marry Uchendu? No-o. Uche na my brother na. From childhood.’’ She pauses, glances at me, and continues with an unconvincing reluctance. ‘’He wan use the money bury him papa for village abeg.’’
K.C. looks genuinely surprised.
‘’Choi. Sorry o. Na so dis life be. Which time your papa die?’’
‘’Over two years now, Oga K.C.’’ Tricia continues before I even think to reply. ‘’He no wan tell anybody because de money for de burial party no dey. In fact de mortuary done dey call am since to come collect de body. Even relatives dey ask where him papa dey since. Nobody fit believe old man go go Lagos two years come forget himself.’’
K.C. observes me with an unreadable expression.
‘’OK. OK. Na just for you Tri-baby. Oya mister man follow me may we dey go.’’
He finishes his can of Star with a noisy gulp and leads me across the room towards the giant radio.
As the music gets louder, I feel a sudden urge to grab the orbs of the giant radio, to feel the vibration of the sound under my palms. So happy am I to finally be able to fulfill my role as okpara. A true first son. I am reaching out to touch the radio eyes when the skinny DJ gives me a look. I don’t care. The net part is rough against my palm.
Like a good okpara, that Uche sent his father away very well, I can already hear people saying. Yes o, one good son is better than many rascals. Did you hear he made second-class upper at Nsukka?
It has taken close to twenty-four months to come to this decision, but I am certain now, in a tiny nightclub in Festac blasting American dance music from a giant radio, that it is the right one.
With four hundred and fifty thousand naira, I will not only give my father the burial he deserves, I will even have some left over to pay my NEPA bill. Or buy a second-hand generator. Maybe even look for a new flat, somewhere in Apapa or close to Ikeja, and finally get a real job. A math teacher at a government school in Ikeja is better than an okada rider anywhere in this country. Besides, wasn’t there one story about that woman that rose from assistant English teacher at a public school to minister for education? With the rest of the money, I will move to Ikeja. I will take my time to search for a good job, however temporary, and grab hold of my destiny with my two korokoro hands.
I can picture my father saying:
‘’Uchendu my son, my only child, I am so proud of you,’’ with that his shrill, trembling voice, like he did on the day of my graduation from Nsukka.
Perhaps I should start to look for a wife even; thirty is not too far away. The children can wait a little, though. I will start my flat search tomorrow; ride my okada around town without picking any customers. Maybe even drive close to someone, ask where they are going, and just speed off before they can talk. Suddenly, I’m laughing and laughing and laughing and I cannot stop. A few stragglers on the dance floor stare uncomprehending at me, but a woman in a nice, Rihanna-red weave smiles at me. I wink at her and she turns away, still smiling. A feeling like something warm against my calves lifts me across the dance floor and the bemused DJ. I would have started to break dance to his electro-dance music if K.C. wasn’t at the end of the room now, glaring impatiently at me.
We are done by 5:45 am. K.C. says he can’t have me walking around with four hundred and fifty thousand naira in cash at night in Festac. He’ll call me and have the money in my account in a day or two. After the surgery, Tricia drives me to my flat. She sleeps over on the sofa ‘’in case you need anything.’’ Apart from some cold water around noon, I don’t. In the evening, she makes ogbono with stock fish for me and leaves for her own flat.
I spend the next few days waiting for K.C.’s call. The recovery is quicker than I expected. By the third day, I am able to mount my okada and start work again.
The first week passes and there is no money in my account. Tricia tells me to be patient. Another week passes. K.C. doesn’t call.
It is Tricia who comes up with the idea of ambushing K.C. at his nightclub. Early one Saturday morning, we get on a bus to Festac and take a taxi to the front of the club. In the daytime, it looks rather unimpressive. It is just a tiny bungalow with peeling green paint.
We go to a Mama Put joint across the road from the club, order one Fanta to share, and wait. We wait for a long time. When we are about to give up and go home, a shiny, gray Lexus pulls up next to the club. An artificially yellow, very large and very pregnant woman in green and gold ankara manages to push herself out of the passenger seat. She is followed by K.C., with a practiced slowness, in an agbada made from matching ankara material. Tricia squeezes my hand and smiles at me. My heart feels like it will run away from my chest and cross the road before me. I get up and we leave quickly. The Fanta is only half-finished.
The sun starts to drill a deep hole my skull as soon as we reach the road. K.C. and the woman are about to enter the club hand in hand, but no car is willing to stop for us to cross. In mild panic, Tricia starts to call out
‘’Oga K.C., Oga K.C.!’’
Bright Yellow stops, narrows her eyes at Tricia, and clutches K.C.’s arm possessively.
K.C. turns around and stares at us like he thinks he has seen us before but isn’t sure where. He waits with exaggerated patience until a small, brown Benz finally lets us cross.
‘’Yes. Can I help you?’’ he asks, peering at us under bejeweled Prada shades, no doubt obtained from the same place as that his Louis Vinton shirt.
Tricia laughs. I laugh too, but I am not sure why I am laughing. The sound is painful. K.C.’s expression does not change.
‘’Oga now. The kidney. You forgot to pay us the money for Uche’s kidney.’’
He frowns, baring his teeth. There is a large gap between his incisors I don’t think I noticed before. He is a good actor, I think. The role is Big Man Interrupted by Needy, Irreverent Strangers in Lagos. Complete with Yellow Lagos Wife Exhausted by the Sheer Effort of Being Married to Big Man in Lagos (the largeness is optional). Low-voiced Mr. Louis Vinton has been put to sleep somewhere beneath the luxurious folds of agbada.
‘’Three weeks ago, we came to see you here for kidney surgery-‘’ Tricia begins.
‘’Eh? What are you people talking about?’’
Tricia coughs, violently, and I want to tell her to stop. This is ridiculous. She continues
‘’No, you must understand Oga K.C. Please understand me. Three weeks ago, my friend here had his kidney removed here-‘’
K.C.’s face swells up so much and so suddenly I fear it will burst.
‘’There is no surgery place here! There is no surgery place anywhere! Are you people drunk? This is a nightclub, not a hospital forcryingoutloud!’’
His wife laughs, a fat, pleased sound.
‘’Honey, let’s take them to the back so they can see where we keep the drinks.’’
‘’Don’t mind these ignoramuses. Instead of humbly asking for money, they are accusing me of selling kidney. Am I a ritualist?’’
The yellow woman laughs again, observing us with something that looks like pity. Somehow, I know it’s true. There will be no trace of a surgery room in that dark room at the back. The cold, steel table where I had lain for hours three weeks ago would be long gone. Something that has been at the back of my mind suddenly flashes across it. I want to vomit.
Tricia starts to stutter, but I grab her arm and lead her away. We catch a taxi two streets down.
Tricia does not give up. She calls K.C.’s number again and again with no success. She texts him my account details over and over and asks me for my account number so many times that I start to snap at her. Then she, too, starts to ignore me and keep to her flat.
I stop picking up the phone because the mortuary director has started to call me with random phone numbers to yell come and collect my father! along with an impressive splattering of pidgin and Yoruba about a good-for-nothing child who would watch his father buried like a criminal. I imagine my father shaking his head at me
‘’Uchendu Unoka. Have you learned nothing about being a man?’’
Life continues. The NEPA bill piles on and on. Along with the estate levy and other bills I care nothing about. The water in the shower stops running, so I start to fetch water from the borehole downstairs. Most days I return from work too tired to cook even Indomie. Tricia gives in to her guilt and sends me food once in a while. My father has spent two years more than he bargained for over the ground, and I am walking around with one kidney because I have dashed the other one to a kidney thief. Maybe a ritualist. I know she wants me to tell her it is not her fault, but I will not, because it is. I would never have met K.C. without her.
I return from business one evening to find members of my umunna congregated in the narrow hall in front of my flat. I recognize a few of them: Dee Marti, who was a close friend of my father, Uncle Tac, who used to drive me and Tricia to school in Aba with his own kids, and Uncle Charli, whose wife my mother once had a disagreement with over buying crayfish for their businesses at different prices from the same supplier. Uncle Charli’s wife had accused my mother of sleeping with the supplier, and they had fought each other till my mother’s death from a fever nine years ago. The old hag was still fighting my dead mother, would ignore my greeting whenever I bumped into her during the Christmas breaks I used to spend in the village with father.
I pretend I don’t know why they are here, and greet the men cheerfully. Only Dee Marti replies my nno, but he says it like it is an insult. I start to walk around them towards the padlock on my flat door. Uncle Tac blocks my path.
‘’Where is your father?’’ he demands.
‘’I don’t know,’’ I reply calmly, even though my heart is exploding in my chest.
‘’What do you mean you don’t know?’’ someone else shouts. ‘’He came here, to this your house, over two years ago now, and he has disappeared?’’
I know that in the flat next to me that old gossip Mama Bomboy will be pressing her mosquito ears to the door. In five minutes, this whole building will know my business if I don’t get these men into my room soon.
‘’Young man, you have one week to tell us where your father is. The next time we come here, it will not be a peaceful gathering,’’ Uncle Charli warns, sitting awkwardly on my tired mattress. He refuses the Ribena I offer him, muttering something about children without manners these days.
The men don’t stay long, perhaps because of the suffocating smallness of my flat, perhaps because they have someone else to bother. As they file towards the door, Dee Marti is the last to speak.
‘’Uchendu Unoka, I know your father and I know you. You are a respectful child, very well brought up. No one here is accusing you of patricide. But I hope you understand that your father’s people deserve to know where he is.’’
By the next morning, I have come to a decision. My father will go away with a decent burial party, even if I am the only attendee. And he always said he enjoyed my company. My father used to say that once you settle the big things, the smaller ones come easier.
Like a good okpara, that Uche sent his father away very well. Yes o, one good son is better than many rascals. Did you hear? He made second-class upper at Nsukka. Couldn’t even get a real job.
I wake up early and get out my rusted razor to shave, but it keeps getting caught in my beard, so I give up. When I’m warming the Jollof rice she left, I realize that the only person I feel bad for is Tricia. But I know she will get over it. I finish eating, comb my afro, wash my face and put on a starched white shirt and a clean pair of jeans. In the blue light from the window, I wash my tires, pulling out sand and tufts of grass, and blacken the leather seat with shoe polish. I carry my okada to the hall, lock my door, and head outside. The chill is mild, carries no clue that the harmattan is really just a few weeks away.
I mount my okada and ride slowly. The only time I speed up is when a schoolboy attempts to stop me and haggle. When I’m past him, I slow down again. I’m not in a hurry.
I get to the mortuary around 2 pm. The large, two-storey building is undergoing a reconstruction, and the air is thick with cement dust and turpentine. At the front desk is a secretary, a pretty, coal-skinned woman with two small scarifications along her cheeks like tiny flowers. She tells me in confident, rapidly-spat English that the ‘tilektuh’ will be with me soon. I seat on a creaking wooden bench and wait.
The director who has spent the last two years tormenting me over the phone is a small, nervous-looking man with a balding scalp. He looks strangely disappointed when I tell him why I am here.
‘’I thought you would leave the poor man to rot here. Nonsense!’’ he says, leading me to a room next to the one I have just been waiting in.
It is already evening when I return. Mama Bomboy is waiting outside her flat. She is sprawled on the floor, with a noisily-suckling Bomboy on her laps.
Since she is just there, just smiling at me, I ask her for kerosene.
‘’Wetin you wan use am do?’’ she asks, detaching Bomboy’s small mouth from her nipple. I ignore her and start to unlock my door.
She hefts the now-sleeping Bomboy with one hand, ties her wrapper with the other, and rushes into her flat. She is back with a small kerosene keg by the time my door sighs open.
‘’No finish am o.’’
I thank her and wait patiently for her to leave, but she keeps sitting there, smiling at me. I am about to scream at her to go and do something when from the door of her flat the sound of a wailing child bursts through.
She smiles apologetically and stands up to go to her flat. I wait until I am sure no one else is waiting to surprise me in the hall, and go downstairs to my okada.
My father is heavier than I remember. I lug him in the black nylon up the old stairs, fearing with every creak that someone will come out and find us here. I feel a strange mixture of guilt and something else, something warmer, and almost find myself apologizing to him.
When he is safely inside, I lock my door.
I drop the nylon bag on my mattress and open it slowly.
My father is wearing a singlet, oily and stuck to his stomach in some places. His face is very black and almost featureless, like something a child would paint. His swollen body looks like he swallowed the real-life version of my father, and his head, which was somewhat large in life, now looks like it will fall off. The big toe on his left foot is missing. So are a couple of fingers on both hands. If he smells, I do not notice it. I try to take off the singlet, but it comes off with pieces of his flesh, so I give up. His hair, or the tuft that remains, is the only thing that looks familiar, but even it has taken on a sticky sheen. I think this is the first time I have seen my father naked, and something like shame enfolds me.
‘’Papa nno,’’ I begin, but it feels strange, so I just shut up. I open the keg and pour what I think is half of it on him. I empty the rest on my shirt. The kerosene feels hot and dry. It enters my nostrils and makes my head feel heavy.
I start to panic because I cannot remember where I left the matches, but I find the box beside the lamp by the broken TV. I carry the box of matches to my bed and lie beside my father. I wonder if K.C. will read about it. I wonder if K.C. has time to read. The thought makes me laugh so much my head starts to hurt.
The first time I strike, nothing happens. I strike again and a small, green flame comes on. I set it on my father’s swollen stomach. The light moves leisurely down his singlet, tracing a clean, sharp line to his chest.
Someone is banging on the door.
‘’You done finish? I need my kerosene o.’’
‘’Wait small,’’ I call back.
Mama Bomboy stops banging, uncertain. The last things I hear are her footsteps receding from my door.