Excerpts from ‘An Assignment in Owerri’

One

 JULY, 2012. PORT-HARCOURT.

Luciano knocked on the towering black gate; three rasps in slow succession with his bare knuckles. He looked up at the still relief of the lion head baring its sharp teeth as though to scare away any visitors. It was the second time in that week he was standing before the now-familiar gates. He nervously patted the edges of his small afro, dabbed his forehead with the back of his hand, and tugged at the tweed jacket he wore in spite of the promise of a warm morning. Being aware of his nervousness unsettled him the more; he didn’t like the feeling. It had a way of sneaking up on him moments before any meeting with a prospective sponsor for his book project, especially one as important as Chief Ofodile. The loud clang of a bolt being slid back startled him. He took a quick step backward. The gate opened a fraction. A small head poked out. It reminded Luciano of tortoise. A dismissive frown was plastered all over the leathery face indented with a woven pattern from sleeping on a mat. Luciano recognized Ali the security man. His face was puffy and his eyes had that wildness that came from being roused suddenly from slumber. Luciano braced himself for the hostility that was sure to follow. Ali sized up Luciano, and then snapped: “Ehe? Menini? Wetin be that?”

“E..m. I am here to see Chief Ofodile.”

Him don commot.”

“What?”

You no hear wetin I talk?”

“But I was supposed to meet with him. We have an appointment for this morning.”

Baa naji turanchi.  I no hear all that plenty oyinbo you dey talk.”

“Oh, sorry,” Luciano flashed an imploring smile. “I suppose see Chief Ofodile today. Na him say make I come.

Ali appraised him again as though gauging the truthfulness of his claim. “To. Wait here. I dey come.” He retracted his head, clanged the gate shut and rammed the bolt in.

Luciano dug his hands into his trousers pockets, more to hide their quivering than to strike a trendy pose. He hoped Chief Ofodile wasn’t trying to avoid him. All these important people and their methods of saying ‘no’ to a proposal. Or could it be the gateman was just acting silly in a bid to throw his weight about a common visitor? He couldn’t understand why important people made themselves unapproachable by keeping idiotic hounds around them. He had had such experiences when searching for jobs; the illiterate morons at the gates would act very tough and assertive so that if you eventually met the man who called the shots, his very simplicity would break your very soul. He only hoped Ali wasn’t out to spoil his morning. Getting to meet with Chief Ofodile had been tougher than he had anticipated, with the arrogant Ali telling him on every one of those visits that ‘Chief’ wasn’t around. His desperation had led to his stalking Chief Ofodile until four days ago when his efforts had paid off. Chief Ofodile had listened with uninterrupted interest to his proposal and then had scheduled an appointment for this morning and in his house. He fought off the mounting possibility that the man was going to put him off. If it came to that, he resolved, he would simply give up the whole idea of ever becoming a writer and then join the host of other young men like him in search of some ‘dream job’ as real as a gold-paved Timbuktu.

The bolt slid back again.  Ali stood aside, holding the gate open for him. “Shiga mana!

He didn’t understand a word of Hausa, but he understood that Ali meant for him to come in. The compound was smaller than it appeared from outside. He made towards a white duplex with freshly-watered potted flowers marking the way to the entrance. He knocked timidly on a heavy wooden door. It flew open almost instantly as though someone had been stationed behind it, awaiting his arrival. Chief Ofodile stood in the doorway, holding the door open, but only long enough to say “welcome”, and then he hastened into the house, leaving the door wide open. Luciano followed him, past a small and cozy, dimly-lit sitting room, through a spacious irregular-shaped hallway with reflective floor tiles, and into a kitchen designed after some exotic pattern and completely furnished as such. The red digital readings on the overhead panel of a monstrous-looking refrigerator caught his eyes. A small round dining table with three polished wooden chairs took the centre stage of the kitchen. Luciano felt intimidated. He took in the details of the kitchen, conscious that his lower jaw wasn’t hanging down. Everything held his attention. It looked like the world one saw only on glossy magazine pages.

Chief Ofodile unhooked a chequered apron from the kitchen door handle. He draped it over his head with the rich crop of greying hair, securing the strings expertly behind his back as he made towards a gas cooker. Luciano came alive to his surroundings, and that was when he noticed the smell of frying eggs coming from a medium-sized wok on a gas cooker. On the marble tabletop, some half-cut lettuces lay on a wooden chopping board besides. There was a gleaming knife amongst the lettuces. Luciano watched Chief Ofodile grab a stainless steel ladle and stir the contents of the wok in a frenzy, his back turned to him.

“Make yourself comfortable, gentleman.”

Luciano settled into one of the dining seats. The aroma of the eggs was a welcome sensation. It had been a long while he perceived fried eggs, but then Chief Ofodile’s cooking stirred the emptiness in his stomach.

“You could help me with cutting some more lettuces for an extra mouth.”

“No thanks. I am actually not hungry.”

“Nonsense! I am about making a partnership with you. It would be helpful if we developed something personal between the both of us, or don’t you think so?”

Luciano went to work. He washed his hands in the sink, pressed down the ends of the green leaves together onto the chopping board and then sliced through with the knife. The knife was heavier and sharper than he had thought it to be, and so he made a mental note to keep his fingers as far away from the cutting edge as the task would allow. Chief Ofodile turned around from his cooking. He hastily scooped up some diced onions standing in a little pile on the table top and dumped it into the wok from which a burning egg smell now emanated. He stirred aggressively again, scraping against the work as he did. He returned to the remainder of the diced onions on the table, scooped them off and dumped them into the work, and then clapped over the hissing wok to shake off evey bit of onions clinging onto his palms. He swiped his hands across the belly of his apron and then attacked the wok with the ladle yet again. Luciano, with some effort, restrained himself from pointing out that the onions seemed too much for the quantity of eggs. Soon enough, a strong smell of cooking onions mixed with the smell of burning eggs filled the kitchen with such unpalatable pungency that eased the pangs of an empty stomach in ways which the weight of food couldn’t.

“You have to be fast with the lettuce. The eggs are almost done.”

“I’m done.”

“Good.”

With the equal haste, Chief Ofodile scooped up the sliced lettuces into his palms and threw them into the wok. He appeared to be a wizard adding a very active ingredient to his potent potion. He repeated the exercise twice more and all of the sliced lettuces were gone from the table. He continued the stirring with a renewed fervour.

“Being alone could really be messy sometimes.”

The sudden statement startled Luciano. He didn’t know what to say in reply. He sifted his weight uncomfortably onto his other foot and then leaned against the table. The knife hung loose in his hand.

“Anyway, you wouldn’t know. It is not like I expect you to know. We are just two different people in two different worlds. We might not be able to understand what inward battle each one of us has to contend with in our different worlds and with every passing day.” Chief Ofodile turned off the gas cooker, hefted the wok from the cooker, and dropping it rather roughly onto the dining table. The silver ladle still stuck out from the mass of the wok’s contents. He walked to the king-sized refrigerator and returned to the dining table with a loaf of bread stashed under his arm and a tin of Peak milk in each hand. One of the tins was half-full, the holes on the lid sealed with bits of moistened paper. He let down the provisions on the dining table and then went off to one of the closets high up on the wall, he rummaged through tins and bottles until he found what he was looking for; a tin of Horlicks.

“But either way, life is never a bed of roses, not for you and definitely not for me,” he lectured on as he returned to the dining table, settling down into one of the chairs. “Take a seat, and please pass me the knife. I will be needing it for the bread.”

“Oh, sorry.” Luciano reached across the table to hand him the knife, with the handle first.

“Thanks.” He swiftly swiped the flat sides of the blade twice on the apron, across his small pot-belly. “But then, like I was saying, it is a hard life either way; for me, and as much as I can guess, for you too. You see, as for me, even though I wish for more money, I don’t wish for more of the many inconveniences it brings with it….. oh shit! I forgot the mugs.” He slapped his forehead. “Please my dear, they are in the closet there.” He pointed with the tip of the knife to the closet on the wall behind Luciano. Luciano went about the task.

“And some spoons too.” He called out.

“Sure.”

Luciano found the mugs and the spoons where Chief Ofodile had directed. He brought two saucers too, but they were all covered in a film of dust and thin threads of cobwebs. He washed them in the sink and then settled down at the dining table opposite his host and prospective patron. To escape the uneasiness which his host’s strange demeanour was causing him, he busied himself with spooning some Horlicks into his mug. Chief Ofodile punctured two holes on opposite ends of the full milk tin with the sharp tip of the knife and then slid the tin of milk over to Luciano. The jug on the table was empty, and so Luciano had to go to the sink to refill it with hot water whilst his host made a crude sandwich from two slices of bread and a generous amount of the wok’s contents. Luciano returned to the table unsure of how his taste buds would react to the first bite of one of Chief Ofodile’s ‘sandwiches’. He thought he could feel the man’s watchful eyes bore holes in him as he went about making his own sandwich. He took a bite.

“You aren’t used to the cooking of a lonely old man?”

Luciano chewed animatedly, mindful not to offend his host. “Not that bad.”

“Come on, you don’t have to hide it.”

Luciano shrugged and Chief Ofodile chuckled and then bit into his ‘sandwich’ with relish. Luciano chased down every bite of the ‘sandwich’ with generous sips from his lightly-steaming mug of sweet tea.

“You will be wondering why a man with plenty money lives by himself in a big house and refuses to hire a cook. I just can only imagine what sort of a miser you might be thinking of me.”

Luciano thought it over before replying: “It is probable that you like the exercise of making your own meals.”

Chief Ofodile laughed with mirth and then bit into his sandwich again. From the corner of his eye, Luciano observed the man gulp down mouthfuls of his culinary disaster with such gusto that made him put up a considerable bit of effort to restrain from shuddering, especially when the man smacked his lips and licked the spots on his fingers stained by the fillings of his idea of a sandwich.

“For the record,” Chief Ofodile said. “I don’t like it, and it is no exercise. Let me let you in on a little secret; out there, many people wish to be me, but they wouldn’t wish for the torturous and insipid life I lead: that is if they knew.”

Luciano listened on like a very attentive student, biting sparsely into his sandwich. But his mind wasn’t with the man’s lecture; it was beginning to dawn on him that he might have stumbled onto a man with some psychological issues. Unfortunately, he would have to endure through it all. If this was the cross he was to bear for tapping into the man’s deep pockets, then it was a very small price to pay. Many successful people have been known to bear much heavier crosses along slippery slopes.

“You see, all my life, I have always been the envy of many; I got a scholarship to study Economics in the United States when many of my friends were still hoping to be accepted into the universities in Ibadan, Lagos, Ilorin and Nsukka. I got married to a Canadian, my course mate and girlfriend in my university days. Her name is Ella. A very beautiful lady she was. You could see yourself clearly in her eyes, and she had such legs that carried her gracefully as though she was an angel walking on clouds. Anyway, we had children who looked like they stood astride two different worlds. Then, I was a celebrity amongst my friends back home, every single one of them. They worshipped me. I could see how they would nearly prostrate on the earth I trod on. It was like I had many badges of honour bestowed upon me by virtue of my having sojourned abroad, studied there, married a white woman and had half-caste children. I must confess to you that it felt princely, those days. But to be honest, I wasn’t seeing what they saw. I returned to the country for good, and three months later, I took up a job with the Nigerian Customs Service. I made very serious money, enough to convince Ella and the kids to join me here, to a life insulated with comforts, away from the quagmire of a failed country.” He bit a mouthful of his sandwich and chewed, and then he washed it down with a gulp of tea. Luciano waited patiently for him to continue; he never so much as took another bite from the ‘sandwich’ hanging limp in his hand. “I made very serious money, acquired properties in all major Nigerian cities because I wanted a good inheritance for my children. Yes. I was a good father. I brought them close to their roots, gave them privileges which most other Nigerians abroad can’t even afford their children. Well, so I thought, but then this life could be a bitch most times.” He sipped from his mug; it was the last drop of his tea.

“I had the kids study in Nigerian boarding schools but they went on to Europe and Canada for university studies, and that was it. Kelly got married to some Indian boy whom she had met in school and the last time I heard, they were living in Zurich. Suzanne, my favourite, got married to one guitar-playing, carefree Briton. I guess they live in some obscure rat hole in rundown Budapest. You know, hers breaks my heart the most; I have always had a partiality for her right from the night when we were stuck in a hold-up on the way to the hospital and Ella had given birth to her in the car, with only me doubling as the panicking driver and care-giver.” He let out a quiet laugh as though the memory amused him. “Information getting to me says that the vagabond Briton, her ‘husband’, plays his guitar in parks while she holds out his upturned withered hat to passersby to throw in their worthless pennies, and shriveled notes and what have you. That is how they get money for cheap transport to tour all the rat holes in Europe so he could sing out his perverse soul all the more in smoky bars, underground train stations and in all the rotten places where the part of a deranged Western world we don’t get to see on television sinks down to. What a way of life for a daughter with a secured future in Nigeria, her own fatherland?” He wiped his brow. In spite of the last bit of sandwich in his mouth, he sighed before continuing with his pained lamentation: “Of course, it isn’t just the two of them I have. Melinda is a lesbian, she plays basketball in the United States and honestly, the thought of my own daughter being a sworn pervert kills my very appetite.”

He went about cutting out another two slices from the loaf, about to make himself another sandwich. Luciano watched on. The fillings of his uneaten sandwich were beginning to spill out.

“I thought you have a son?”

“Regrettably. That one lives with his mother in Quebec. He hates Nigeria so much. The hatred for his own country is so glaring that a bat would see its clear outlines in broad daylight. Ella tells me he is a photographer.” He didn’t hide the distate on his face as he pronounced the word ‘photographer’. “He cares for no other thing except traveling the world and taking shots of anything that catches his fancy. The last time I heard, he was in Paris taking pictures for a pornography magazine, of naked women willing to pose for him for a few Euros. I hear some even pose for him for free. The little rascal gives Africa a wide berth and refers to it in such derogatory terms like The Heart Of Darkness, The Land Where The Sky Isn’t Blue and all that. At times I wonder what wrong a man could have done to deserve such punishment as this in his old age. I still ask; for whom have I laboured all these years? Surely not for myself for I wouldn’t have labored that much nor would I have taken certain risks in the past.”

Luciano knew of nothing to stay.

“Well, the world is a crazy place. Only a thin piece of glass separates reality from illusion, it all depends on what side of the glass you are standing. We will have more to talk on a subject indirectly related to it, but I will have to finish my breakfast first.” With that, Chief Ofodile continued from where he had left off on his breakfast. He ate silently and greedily, as though the spilling-out of his emotions had whetted his appetite.

Coming soon in ebook  format on http://www.okadabooks.com, http://www.softcopydownloads.com and http://www.kobo.com

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