Wednesday, August 14, 2019
short story by Nigerian writer Chiamaka Ojiyi Ibuodinma

In the glistening heat of the afternoon, the sun a luminous hot haze, Bank Road a flurry of cars, buses and pedestrians gauging traffic, gearing for a sprint across the road, Arinze stood bent with his hand to his chest, coughing and feeling his eyes burn and water. A convoy of tinted jeeps sped past, their sirens loud, jarring. A rundown overly tinkered bus stood parked by the road, its speakers blaring advertisement in Igbo about a herbal concoction that cured erectile dysfunction.
O ga eme ka ihe gi kwuru attention! It will make your thing stand strong! Young boys wearing green tee shirts and carrying green bottles in plastic baskets trooped out of the bus, running after potential male customers and holding out the green bottles.

In that heat, in that bubble of discordant sounds, Arinze felt marginally conscious. He lowered himself to the ground, his chest thrumming with pain, his mouth collecting with saliva. A girl in a tight short skirt, a basin of plastic soft drinks delicately balanced on her head walked up to him. “Bros, make I find you chilled Coke. This sun too hot,” she said, slightly moving her neck, attempting to keep the balance of the basin on her head.
Arinze looked up at her, at the plastic bottles of Coke, Fanta and Sprite, at the tempting beads of moisture on the bottles and in that moment he realized that a bottle of Coke had never looked so appealing.

“Bring Coke,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his wallet. He patted both pockets, his eyes darting about desperately, the fact that he had been robbed dawning on him. The girl in the tight short skirt hissed, a drawn impatient hiss, then turned and walked away, shouting “Mineral, mineral,” as she went by.

The burning in his eyes had begun to subside but the pain in his chest remained. Turning his head aside, he spat out all that phlegmy saliva and made to get up on his feet. He had seen on TV how police officers released tear gas to disperse angry protesters but had never really imagined how it would feel, to be in that chaos, breathing in that swirling cloud of gas, people screaming, scampering, falling. Waking up this morning, he did not think of tear gas. He had thought instead of possible aptitude test questions, he had spent the night on Nairaland, clicking links that redirected him to WhatsApp groups of hopeful job seekers, he had tested himself on the job questions other group members had posted and had traded good luck wishes with those active that night. So when he arrived the state conference center this morning to write a job test for the Imo Youth Must Work Programme, dressed in his crisp, heavily bleached shirt and brimming with all the information and helpful tips he had crammed last night, when he saw the desperate crowd of young and not so young people, mostly holding file bags probably containing their credentials, standing and waiting for the main entrance doors to be opened, he did not think of tear gas.

He had joined that crowd, waiting for the personnel who would conduct the test, sharing in the familiar anxiety of job seekers, listening to how much other candidates knew about such tests, measuring their knowledge against his, gauging if he could beat them in the test, after all they were all his competition, and not everybody would get the job.

The test was scheduled for 9 am but the entrance doors remained closed till 12pm when some men and women carrying bulging brown oversized envelopes, escorted by Civil Defense officers in their sallow blue uniforms arrived and proceeded to the doors, their demeanour imperious and domineering. The men and women with the bulging envelopes were asking the candidates to form an orderly line when the hurrying began, a buoying of feet toward the doors, an uncontrolled concerted buoying of feet, people pushing, shoving, toppling over each other. The delay had created in that horde of job seekers a desperate impatience, an agitated longing to get into that test hall, write that test and relinquish that lingering anxiety that would not go till they divulged all that crammed information into their answer booklets.

In that charged rush, Arinze felt himself floating, his feet slightly above the ground. One of the officers took out a whip. Arinze watched the swift movements, heard the delicate swish. There was more agitated pushing, people falling, people being stepped on, people becoming breathless. Arinze lounged forward, holding tightly to his file bag. A girl was screaming on the floor, holding on to his leg, her lipstick colour a startling red. He felt stifled, swayed and crushed in the frenzied madness, smelling the fetid mix of multiple deodorants doused in underarm sweat and feeling the sinking softness of the bosom of the girl pressed against his back.

There was a fragment of a lull and in the manner of soap micelles dispersing dirt, breaking surface tension of water, Arinze saw the motions break up, making a reverse turn, people scampering away from the entrance doors and that was when he thought of tear gas. He did not smell it. He just knew it. A forced knowing, stemmed from the severity of a new experience. The pain was sudden and intense, coating his face, his eyes, leaving a near-blinding burning sensation. With partial vision and a terrible tightness in his chest, Arinze made to get away from the premises and that rolling cloud of gas.

Now in a bus heading back to his brother's small room in Mbaitoli, he sat quiet and overwhelmed. Realizing that someone had even had the opportunity to steal his wallet in that commotion and knowing he had no money to return home, he had tentatively approached an elderly woman standing by, his shoulders weighed down by a sudden humility. He had narrated his story to her, his voice imbued with a strong sense of personal distress, his eyes fixated on her turban. He did not look her into the eyes. Rather his eyes lay on her turban, at the seemingly endless folds of it, each fold a probable reinforcement of her piety. She looked pious. Arinze imagined she would be a devoted member of one of those Pentecostal churches that banned their members from wearing makeup or jewelry and uplifted a holiness of dull faces and tasteless, loose-fitting clothing. At the end of his story, she had simply exclaimed Rochas and promised to pay his bus fare since she was headed the same way. In the bus, in this new blur of humiliation, Arinze thought he should indeed blame the state governor for his missing wallet. He had a moral right to blame Rochas.

That night, outside his brother's room, the air still, the sky cheerless, Arinze washed his clothes by the tap, largely surprised by the brownness of the wash water. He had left that test venue with a shirt smudged with various shades of face foundation. Spreading his clothes on a line, a fleeting panic crept up on him, swamping him. He felt lost. Where was his life going? What was he doing with his life? He longed for something big to happen for him, something to show he was making some progress in his life. Soft singing floated from the shared bathrooms, distracting him from his moodiness, and Oge emerged, carrying a plastic bucket and smelling of delicious citrus. She was a neighbor, occupying one of the rooms in this public compound his brother could afford.

“Arinze, how far? Amam na idegbugo ha,” she said in that her chirpy voice marked by an undeniable Igbo accent, assuming he had aced the test.
“I didn't even enter the hall sef,” he said, looking at her in the incandescent light of the security bulbs screwed to the compound wall. There was an aspiring vainness about her. It was clear in the thinness of her brows, the intimidating sweep of its arch, in the arresting flutter of her artificial eyelashes. A vainness that was hopeful, that only needed more money to swell out of proportion.

He told her what had happened to him at the test venue, how he had thought for a brief moment that he would die there, that he would never get to hear his mother say that he had matured into a real man, a man who could afford to do things.
Kpele eh. I know you will still make it. It's just a matter of time,” Oge said. It would have irritated him, this saying of sorry in Yoruba by people who were not Yoruba, who could not speak Yoruba, but would say kpele anyway because it was what they saw on social media and because it was on social media it had to be cool. But he had no energy for petty irritation. He hoped instead that by some clairvoyant power, Oge was seeing into his future, a future that was air-conditioned and seamless. A future in which he made it.

Inside his brother's room, dipping well-rounded morsels of garri into okra soup flecked with slender strands of ugba, Arinze heard the turning of the door handle and saw his elder brother Nnamdi walk in.
“Namo,” Arinze said, fondly. “Welcome. Should I remain soup for you?”
“What soup?” Nnamdi asked. He was unlacing his shoes.
“Okra soup with ugba.”
“From Oge?”
“No, thank you. I don't know how you manage to eat Okra soup that has ugba in it. This Oge girl has corrupted your tongue.”

Some minutes ago, Oge had knocked on his door and handed Arinze a warm lidded-bowl wrapped in a rumpled polybag, saying, “Okra with ugba, to calm you down.” She had come to do this often, knocking on his brother's door and offering him a warm bowl of okra soup with ugba. At first he had disliked it, found it strange, eating okra soup garnished with slices of soft fermented oil bean seeds.  But he had eaten it all the same because to Oge, to people like her who were natives of Imo State, adding ugba was the height of culinary finesse in preparing okra soup. And he knew that to Oge, this was a grand gesture of hospitality.

He thought Oge to be benignly fond of him, a fondness that could easily tilt towards attraction but was hesitant. Oge who worked as a hairdresser in a beauty salon on Ikenegbu Road, and saw different shades of feminine power and aspired to one day hold such power. Oge who was at more than one time dropped off by a big car, very early in the morning while it was still dark. Oge who somehow happened to know the best eateries and the nightclubs that were on point. He thought this fondness of hers silly because he knew she did not want a man like him, could not afford to want a man like him. A man who was still struggling to get a job, to find his feet. But always, he humoured her, was nice to her because somewhere he thought it must be draining, this constant hustle to attract the attention of a man with means, a man who may not really see you but what he may get from you.

Once he had thought of kissing her, tempted by the crimson pout of her lips. She had asked him to take photos of her with her phone. Photos which she intended to post on Instagram. She had pouted her lips, a duck-like contortion of her lips, and slightly turned her back to him so that he could capture a good angle of her backside in the photo. He had stood there, taking shots after shots of Oge, the thought of the softness of her lips dancing in his mind. But he did not kiss her. He did not know why he wouldn't make a move. Surely, he thought of Oge as malleable, melting easily at his touch.  Or was it a mental image of Nnamdi that stilled that thought?

“Be careful of that girl,” Nnamdi would often say to him, whenever Oge gave him a bowl of soup. “You cannot do anything serious with an Owerri girl. They've all been used.” It had amazed him, this offhand generalization of his brother. Nnamdi who gloried in his Anambra roots, who had inadvertently shown that he thought of women as things to be used.

Still Arinze did not kiss her. He had helped her select the best pictures, the ones that made her backside look bigger. She was entering for a contest on Instagram and if her pictures had the most likes she would win.

“Don't forget to like my picture,” she had said to Arinze and when he answered that he did not have an Instagram account, she had asked a gawking “why?”

“Because Instagram is for fake people,” he said, flatly.

“But I'm not fake,” she said, batting her false lashes rapidly and playfully boxing him in the shoulders and Arinze smiled a foolish smile.

Later that day he opened an Instagram account, setting his Bio as: Coerced into opening this shit and searching for Oge’s handle. There was her username ogeonthegrind_1 sitting right above a profile picture of her reclining at a bar and holding a half glass of wine. It amused him, this manipulated display of a life that was not really hers. This was Oge. Oge who shared a slimy bathroom with five other tenants in a public compound. He wondered if it was the man in the big car that had taken that picture of her. Arinze saw the pictures he had taken of her that morning, the tone and colour scheme altered, the numerous hashtags. He liked the post. He soon came to learn of the ways of Instagram, the unwritten rules governing the behavior of people on the platform.

Instagram suggested to him people to follow, people who he knew and did not know. It amazed him how everyday unimportant things suddenly became important things worth documenting for people to see. A person having breakfast in bed. A person sitting and eating ice-cream in delectable colours. A screenshot of a person's music playlist with the hashtag moodrightnow. And what was it with girls dancing solo in front of a camera when it wasn't even a party? It irked him, that word follower. But soon he found himself constantly on the Discover people page, following people, double-tapping their photos and leaving a shameless “please follow back” comment. Gradually he began wading into this world of numerical validation.

Nnamdi was adding drops of Dettol into a bucket of water, a towel showing the beginnings of fraying wrapped about his waist. Arinze was done eating and he laid sprawled on the full-size mattress on the floor, scrolling through his Instagram feed. There was a direct message from officialbaron, a friend from his university days. But “friend” no longer seemed an appropriate classification given the schism that had grown between them, the years lived apart in silence. Someone Arinze followed also followed Baron, and Arinze dazed by the poshness of Baron’s posts had quickly followed him and sent him a direct message. Nudged by something Arinze could only call longing, he had perused Baron’s posts—smiling pictures of Baron seated at an office desk, looking into the large screen of a desktop with the icon of a half-eaten apple conspicuous, Baron holding a bottle of wine, a wine glass, open laptop, smartphone and air-conditioner remote all strategically strewn on a table with the post captioned “Thank you @thecellarplace for the wines. Love it.” Baron standing beside a gleaming SUV, a cheery caption of how undeserving he was of God's blessings resting peacefully under the post.

The direct message he had sent to Baron two days ago had been genial, Arinze speaking of days, back in the university, when they had crash read a course, doing till-day-break and feeling groggy in the exam hall because they had stayed awake all night. Did Baron remember those days? He wrote he was happy that life was good to Baron and ended with “hope we can connect on here”. Now two days after sending that brightly warmed message, a reply stared him in the face. Of course, I remember you. That was it. A short crisp reply and Arinze felt a sinking in his stomach. What had he really expected in Baron’s reply? A connection? A promise to hook him up with some of the good life he was enjoying? The message pained Arinze, left him feeling deflated and he cursed himself for creating an avenue to be insulted. He quickly logged out of Instagram, put on his earphones, the voices of Chinko and Zlatan filling his ears. Able God, shower your blessing. We want this money. The lyrics floated in his head, numbing him, comforting him. He fell asleep.

In the morning, the sky a fresh splash of brightness, Arinze stepped out of his brother's room with the intention of getting into town to make some cash withdrawals at the ATM, buy some foodstuffs and a new wallet. After turning the door handle to make double sure he had locked the door, he turned towards the clothes line to see who was coughing.  Oge was crouched down facing the small bushes where nearly every tenant brushed their teeth and where the guys preferred to urinate because they were too disgusted by the shared toilet. Oge was coughing and spitting. Arinze wondered why she was crouched there. Did the smell of those bushes layered with virile urine not choke her?

He walked to her. “Oge, good morning. Are you alright?”

She looked up at him, her eyes dull and flecked with a bit of red. “Arinze, I don't understand what’s happening to me. I've been coughing and vomiting since last night. My chest is seriously paining me.”

“Sorry,” Arinze said. He took her hand to help her up. “Maybe you should go to the hospital”. He looked away from the revolting sight of her vomit, a salivary pool of digested food.

She said she did not think it serious enough to enter a bus and go to the Federal Medical Center. She would instead go across the street, to the small shabby medicine store and ask Ubaka to mix her some medicine. She would also call her Madam, she said, and tell her that she was sick and would not come to work at the beauty salon today.

“Take care of yourself,” Arinze said. “I'll see you when I get back.”

As Arinze walked out of the compound, he thought Oge looked smaller, sitting on the concrete pavement and waving at him.

At the bank, the queue at the ATM was too long. The morning sky had transformed into an expanse of glaring hotness. Arinze secured a position on the queue, telling the man standing in front of him “Please remember, I'm at your back,” and moved away from the queue to stand under the shade of the car park canopy. Two men were discussing about the nonsensical and sudden erection of molded statues in Owerri by the governor.

Ori mma. Owerri adila ka small London,” one of the men said, looking at Arinze. He was short and verbose, spitting many words in Igbo and making theatrical gesticulations. He was in support of the governor erecting those frightful statues of past African leaders, saying such statues were beautiful. That they made Owerri look like a small resemblance of London. The man was still talking, occasionally looking at Arinze, and Arinze thought that if this man was trying to elicit a response from him, to rope him into this pointless discussion, he would not oblige him this.

A black glossy SUV pulled into the car park where Arinze was standing and Arinze turned away from the men discussing, to look at the car, a Toyota Venza, to admire its smart curves and imagine a life where he drove shiny cars. The driver's door opened and a young man in a flowing jalabiya climbed out. He was fair-skinned, a little too fair for a man and though he had a tapered fade with short highlighted dreads, Arinze could see in him a glimpse of his teenage years.

“Izu Bekee,” Arinze said, loudly. He thought he was thinking, going through mental files from his past to find one that matched this fair guy in dreads.
The man turned. His eyes were searching and Arinze knew that for sure he was Izu Bekee. Arinze walked to him, gingerly. “Izu! Is this really you?”

The fair-skinned man squinted a little, then smiled a broad smile. “Ahn ahn, Arinze Udeh. See this world o.”
They shook hands, stared at each other and shook hands again. Izu said he wanted to fix some money and asked Arinze to wait for him. When he was back, he asked Arinze what he came to do at the bank and when Arinze said “to withdraw some money” in a voice too modest, Izu said, “No worry, I go settle you. Let's go drink and catch up.”

At a lounge in Owerri Mall, bottles of spirit on the table, Arinze flushed by Izu’s moneyed air was saying, “Guy, show me the way. Hook your boy up.”

“Can you do what it takes? Ifaa bu egwu onye okalu obi,” Izu replied.

“I can do anything. I have the heart.” Memories from their teenage years came flooding by, memories of when Izu would invite him to a hang-out at Obinna’s house to watch a blue film. Arinze remembered sitting in Obinna’s living-room, his legs pressed together to mask his hardness, watching a pornographic film and never trying to talk to Ifeoma. Izu had arranged the hang-out so that Arinze could make a move on Ifeoma and have his first sex in Obinna’s room since Obinna’s parents were not home. But Arinze was not bold enough.

Izu began talking about a Baba who did a charm for him, a charm that required him sleeping with girls who would then become, in his words, useless. And because of this charm, he could scam white people off their money. He was then showing Arinze on his iPhone, a photo of a duplex he was building for his father in the village when his second iPhone rang and he stepped away to take the call. Arinze was looking at the duplex when he mistakenly swiped and saw a photo of Oge. A bathroom selfie of Oge in a white bathrobe, her cleavage visible. When Izu came back to the table, Arinze tilted the phone and asked, “Guy, na your babe be this?”

“No. Just a bitch. She's the kind of girl I'm telling you about. She don dey useless.”

More calls were coming into Izu’s phone and he said he had to go. He gave Arinze his phone number before saying, “Make a decision and call me.”

Walking out of the mall premises and onto the main road, Arinze felt the wad of fifty thousand naira notes which Izu gave him, too heavy for his trouser pockets. Inside a taxi, heading home, Maggie, a neighbour, called his phone, her voice delirious. “Arinze, we are at FMC. Oge has been coughing blood. The doctors are asking for money. Please come. I just pray she would make it.”

A coldness enveloped Arinze. He asked the taxi driver to drive just him to the Federal Medical Center. He would pay him more money. A tendril of fear was wrapping itself around his throat, almost choking him and he wondered if this was what Izu meant when he said, “She don dey useless.”

Postscript: Please leave a comment below to say what you think of the story. This story was written in February, 2019, and I would like to add that my writing has changed and I have moved past the form with which I wrote this story. 


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