by Morrison Chibuzor
I am an up and coming writer, born on 22nd February, 1987 in Kwale, Delta State, Nigeria.
CONTEXT OF THE STORY
Lagos city, in Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa is a city that controls over 70% of the wealth of the wealth of the entire country and, in as much as it so rich, there also very poor people swarming in their numbers in the various slums scattered all over the city. This story examines this gap as well as life in the city as viewed from the perspective of a down and out.
A DOWN AND OUT IN A LAGOS PARTY
Upon a Sunday evening, a dreary October’s day, Owukoko found himself treading the path to a lounge bar in honor of the summons of a friend. He had no qualms about it – right from that morning when he got the invitation from Mark – because he had been locked up in his solitude for too long a time that he felt it would be proper if he went out that night and carouse with friends at the revelry (party or groove it was called), help his hunger and depression for that night, at least, and stand to get a favor (like money) from Mark whom he knew would be pleased to do him any favor if he honored his invitation and would be angry if he failed to do so.
He had since been keeping all his friends, including Mark, at arms length for a good number of reasons: in the first place, he had nothing income with any one of them, they did not share the same feelings and thoughts, and each time he came in their midst, they were always discussing on subject matters which were too alien and foolish for him to contribute even a word. Whereas, clichés like their la dolce vita palavers, love lives, university days, jobs, European premier league – Chelsea, Arsenal – do far more staring up in him shame, pity, hate and anger than any urge to contribute and participate. The kind of friends with whom he wanted to be around were people who shared the same feelings with him and who would agree with him that life was unfair, that the government was cruel and corrupt and had failed to provide jobs and accommodation for ghetto men like him, rather than confine his very situation to the back burners to argue about irrelevant issues which, to Owukoko, would take them no where. And were these rich friends of his to be humane enough, in terms of financial assistance (which he was always in need of), towards him, he would have no grudge against them. But unfortunately, they were not; some one like Mark was prepared at all times to buy him drinks – hot drinks – for him to drink to stupor. But if he was hungry and asked for Mark’s assistance, Mark would never give him even a dime – the reason he had been avoiding every one of them all this while.
He got to gate of the lounge and hovered for a while pretending to be making a phone call, intimidated by the good looks and dazzling outfits of the people going in and out of the lounge and ashamed of himself for his odd, shabby looks and outfit. He had not thought of meeting this kind of splendor if not he would have given a thought to his appearance before coming and then gone with his best clothes. He looked down upon himself and noticed for the first time that his trouser – his worn trouser which he had been putting on for the past two weeks – was very dirty and his toe nails needed trimming. He wanted to turn back but he could not, because he had trekked a very long way to the lounge. He would go in like that and explain to Mark – if he cared – that he had not expected anything grand about the lounge, if not –
A car came and slowly drove past him into the yard and he slunk along sheepishly behind it, and then turned towards a section of the lounge which Mark directed him to go as the car drove down to parking lot. He stood before the doorway and stared with disgust at what he called, his murderous, grotesque image – exactly, as he had always seen of his image, like the statuesque image of a dead, old man pasted on a funeral bill – reflecting from the glass door. He straightened his bent neck, pressed down softly with his palm, all over the jagged surface of his bushy hair, adjusted his collar, pushed the door open, and went right in. A disembodied love tune was booming out from the walls and nearly all the tables were occupied by the drinking customers.
His eyes darted about for Mark but there was no trace of him and as he turned to go outside and hang around in wait for him, he saw him enter from the exit door. They both exchanged formal and handshakes and greetings and Mark told him it was good he came, encouraging him to keep coming down to his ‘parties’ and have a swell time rather than hide all day in his solitude, telling him to be a man. He then led him to the counter and asked him to sit on a high stool by it which he lolled upon. Mark then disappeared through a door by the other side of the counter through which a waitress came with a hand trolley containing bottles of beer all of which she kept on the table in front of Owukoko. Mark came and encouraged him to drink, opening a bottle for himself and filling up his glass. Owukoko also followed suit, though he did not really want alcohol simply because he was hungry and had hoped that Mark would give him the opportunity to request for whatever he wanted to drink, so that he would ask for bottles of non-alcoholics. But he was determined to take whatever he was offered in silence and not demand for any other thing, come what may: if he would die for drinking alcohol upon his empty stomach, let him die, after all, what was he still living for; or if he would get drunk, let him be, and, it would even be better because for twelve hours at least, he reflected, he would not be bothered of his problems, as he would not be able to think of them. Though drinking to stupor was one habit he had always kicked against, maintaining that he would have nothing to do with what ever that would make him unable to think about his problems, as in thinking of his problems, solutions could come at any time, where as, if he got drunk, the drunkenness would go after a short while for him to be awoken to the reality of his problems once again.
“That’s my music,” Mark told him, stretching his body tautly across the counter from the opposite side in which he was standing which his halved glass of beer, to enable Owukoko hear him better. A not-too-bad music had started to boom.
“Oh that’s your music?” Owukoko asked indifferently.
“Yes. The guy – an up and coming artist like me – with whom I did the colabo happens to be the DJ that works in this bar. He’s the one playing the music in there – and once in a while, he just plays it to promote the album.”
“OK – “
“Have you met him yet? the DJ?”
Owukoko waved his head. “No.”
“He’ll soon come down here and you’ll get to meet him. And any time I leave here, I’ll bring the casing for the music to show to you.
“OK – “ Owukoko would have also commented “it’s good” but stopped short, feeling it was no use since Mark, who had already stood erect and started sipping from his glass, would not hear.
Mark took a stick of cigarettes from one of the packs on the counter in front of Owukoko, lighted it, and began to chant and rap along with the tunes coming from the speakers. Just then he bent over the counter again and asked Owukoko if the music was OK and Owukoko had told him that it was very good and that he should keep it up. But Owukoko did not really like the music. As a matter of fact, he detested. He did not want the music to disturb his ears any more; he felt like telling Mark pointblank that he wanted this ‘mad blend’ he called music removed and changed to the regular naija-music-in-vogue, and that he (Mark) should, for his own good, face his clearing and forwarding agency and abandon music forever because as far as he was concerned, there was nothing professional about this music. How ever, he stifled his disgust and continued to follow the rhythm of the music with the nodding of his head and moving of his feet as he could not dance, sipping his beer from time to time.
Mark then dropped his emptied glass on the counter and walked away smoking along through the door behind the counter, through which, moments later, a young man came, introduced himself as DJ Wytewush, and asked Owukoko what his name was, grinning disarmingly, a gesture which charmed Owukoko.
“Owukoko,” Owukoko replied.
“That’s Owubaba for short?” DJ Wytewush put in.
“Precisely!” he said.
DJ Wytewush picked up a stick of cigarette, lighted it, and began to smoke, sing and dance. Owukoko stared at him, intrigued of every thing about him. He wished he was this tall, fair, cute, trendy looking, gifted, and with such sexy, communicating eyes and not that dispiriting image he had seen of himself on the glass door that evening.
Mark then came and flicked their jewel case across to him on the counter and he picked it up and started to stare at all the information on it. Two good looking young men also entered one after the other, both of whom shook hands with Owukoko, greeted him formally, and told him they were J-4 and YJ respectively.
Also at this time, the music that had since been booming out from the speakers – Owukoko critically called it a nonsensical piece – was changed to the regular tunes his ears had been itching to hear. He brightened as the four corners of the wall began to reverberate with
Baby girl I feel like I’m flying over the moon –
At once, he felt like jumping upon his feet and dance ‘alanta’ with the other boys but he could not budge, partly because he could not dance. He wondered what he was that was weighing him down on the stool, preventing him from getting up – even if he could not join the others on the dace floor, but at least, walk about a bit – and constraining him to the nodding of his head, and steady gulping down of his beer as a way of keeping himself busy, resulting in him emptying his third bottle when the others (including Mark) were about there first.
The ever communicating eyes of DJ Wytewush winked as they met with Owukoko’s.
“Guy ginger, ginger,” he beamed, dancing. He was encouraging Owukoko to dance but Owukoko only tried in vain at forcing out a smile and began to nod his head better than before as if to make up for his not dancing, still sipping his beer and going from one bottle to the other. He wondered why he came. He was ashamed.
“Guy you no bone reach me,” DJ Wytewush beamed at him again with a bantering tone of voice, this time encouraging him to smile at least. Owukoko tried again to smile but he got nowhere. He could not smile. Perhaps his many years of job hunting pressures had deformed him, but as far as he knew, he had not the vaguest recollection of the last time he smiled, if he ever smiled. He had never smiled and would never smile.
“Abeg bone me jo-o” [please don’t mind me], he had replied resignedly at length.
Then DJ Wytewush, perhaps noticing Owukoko was the only one who was not smoking in their midst, offered him his half burnt cigarette, grinning in his characteristic manner which always intrigued Owukoko and Owukoko took it and began to smoke immediately. He was aware that he was doing something that he decided never to do but he could not help doing it. Smoking cigarettes was an habit he decided long ago never to cultivate because of the attendant pressures associated with it, like having to stint one self on food – if there was just a little money left – in other to smoke, whereas he was just a poor laborer struggling to feed twice a day and to have a little transport fare with which to hunt down the few job openings in Lagos and follow them up – if he had enough transport fare – till he lost out finally.
He finished off the half cigarette, threw the butt into the ashtray, took another one from the pack, lighted it and began to smoke. He could not help smoking and drinking more even though his head had begun to spin at the fifth bottle, because since he could not smile, dance or sing, he could at least drink and smoke and ought to drink and smoke to show the boys that he could still do something.
For while the boys danced and crooned the same tunes coming from the speakers with all joviality, and at times, would sit on the high stools with Owukoko and smoke and sip their beers briefly, or go out to receive phone calls, but just kept themselves busy one way or the other, Owukoko’s own occupation was to sit, drink, smoke and watch. He would watch the four boys about him sheepishly; full of praise and admiration for them for their stunning, worshipful features and wishing he was every one of them instead of his miserable self. And at times – times he vented his frustrations on them – his admiration of them would give way to a secret scorn and despising of their ‘crazy’ hairstyles, dancing antics, musical career and ‘mad’ names (stage name it was called). And from the boys, his eyes would flit to the flat screen TV on the wall to his left which was airing a documentary whose sound was suppressed, then to the jewel case where he would fix his eyes for hours, and would finally begin to dart about in the lounge.
Yells of hey waitress! beer! black and tan! yoghurts! fried meats! Echoed off the walls of the lounge consistently to the accompaniment of the booming background music, and in the air, vague eddies of white fumes mixed with the heady smell of beer and cigarette hung. At this moment, night had fallen completely and the depressing blackness that attended it had revealed the dappled lights in the lounge reflecting a variety of dull colors, and dimly illuminating the whole place.
Drinking, smoking, chatting and dancing where, he could notice, going on at each table, while on his own table, the counter (also the VIP), more drinks and cigarettes were coming in. Perhaps Mark and the other boys who were ordering for them felt that he was still interested in more.
Just then, a celebrity singer entered, decked in a drop-dead, trend-setting attires and accompanied by a dark, hunky young man and two slinky ladies, all decked in trendy attires as well. He carried an air of grandeur and opulence about him which was some how disarming. Owukoko gazed at him as he shoke hands with some outstretched hands and took a table for him and his companions, immensely glad he came. He loved meeting celebrities because it always left him feeling relieved, fulfilled and hopeful at the end of the day. And today, he even felt on top of the world. Where as, this la dolce vita life was a life he had never known, and never smelt, just like he had never known the moon; and the name alone which to him, was a vague blend of letters, was as vague and nebulous just like Latin was to him. But today, he felt he was in it already. He felt equal to it, he felt he was worth it, and he felt he was as great as every one in the lounge particularly because he was drinking with musicians on the VIP table where as every other people, including the celebrity, were on the floor. He could even, if he chose, get down onto the floor, walk down to the celebrity and exchange handshakes and banters with him as bold as brass because they were on the same plane as far as he was concerned.
But there were also times his inferiority came back home to him. Those were times he remembered that ‘murderous, grotesque’ image on the glass door carousing with these trendies with so much flamboyance every where. At such times, he felt he was curiously out of place, and was undeserving of his acceptance. It even occurred to him to wonder how come that Mark and the other three boys all did not seem to show any sign of disgust at his odd and clumsy looks and even treated and related with him as if they thought he was a musician like them; or as good looking as they were. He also wondered even more wildly, what it was that always endeared boys generally to him, and why it was that they would never let him be. Some one like Mark would just keep scouring round the slums and tracking down a-nobody-persona-of-Owukoko, in other to bring him out of his hiding, and pique his interest in one thing or the other. That thing, whatever it was, must, he reflected, be his saving grace; the reason he ought not to dismiss life yet as totally unfair and cruel; a cause to believe that this life still had something beautiful in stock for him. Yes! He had to find out this thing; he had to discover himself! He knew this was not drunkenness though he had had ten bottles already.
His eyes burned and reeled like a ton of bricks and at a moment, it seemed he would be knocked off balance soon; he could not even tell where he was, or if he was either standing or sitting or facing anything. Every thing seemed blurred in his sight. Yet, he still could not help going for more bottles even when he noticed that bitterness was beginning to creep into the heady taste of the beer. But a sip more at his twelfth bottle and he could not stand the bitterness any longer. He could no longer drink for the day. Even the blue label on the wine was making him want to throw up. He had to go. He looked around; he was left with onlyJ-4 sitting with him on the high stools. Mark and the other two had all disappeared one after the other. He wanted to wait for Mark before going but suddenly, as if prompted, he just saw himself get up, have a parting handshake with J-4 who encouraged him to come next Sunday, that he enjoyed his company, then stagger up to a bargirl, his sixth pack of cigarette in his left hand, a stick of half burnt cigarette clasped in between his right fingers, his mouth and nostrils belching out smoke every now and then, and demand in his coarse, slurring voice for a fried meat. He was giving the fried meat which he paid for with a hundred naira from his pocket. This was exactly the same money he had been salvaging since morning – since after his loaf of bread breakfast - to use for his dinner in the evening, his last money, yet he felt no qualms about it and went on and ate the meat. (Though it was the time he got home in which he was to regret dearly about it. A time in which he was to rue the loss of the money and wish he had not wasted it on meat so as to use it for his dinner, wishing he had not drunk, wishing he had not been to the ‘party’, and wishing he had not honored Marks invitation.)
He went through chewing the meat but Mark had still not come. Some thing told him to wait no more for him. He started to go, lurching drunkenly towards the vague outlines of the already opened exit door where he, as he got to it, stumbled and fell. Snickers trickled off the walls to his annoyance that he became determined to control his gait hence. He knew he was still staggering and he knew it was connected with that twelve bottles, but he did not want to think it was drunkenness and, as far as he was concerned, he was not drunk. His old problems he was still conscious of.
Wobbling along the gloomy ambience of a one way street whose little illumination were just dull filters of light coming in part from the street lights in the nearby highway, and in part from the nearby buildings, and moaning disgustedly about life all along, he made for the highway. He bemoaned the fact that some people were so rich as to spend the kind of money he saw those people spent in the lounge on drinks alone, while he was poor and miserable and could hardly feed; why it was that he had remained jobless and the state government, to compound his woes, took wanton pleasure in beating a man when he was down, threatening to carry its vicious demolition of makeshift structures round the city to his own very slum area, to wipe out backstreet life from the foot of that bridge, as in other bridges, and render him completely homeless; how he was tired of living and ought to have died, and how he was tired of toiling, struggling, starving, contemplating, and being sexually frustrated and needed to rest.
As he approached the highway, he noticed it was already late in the night because the heavy duty trucks had started to pass. He dared not cross because he knew he could not. So he took the pedestrian bridge which he ascended its terraces with difficulty. But at a point, he stopped and lolled tiredly against the banisters, not feeling like continuing to ascend any more and feeling like sitting down there, to sleep there. But he could not do it and started to push on again. He knew that if he sat there, passers-bye would stare at him warily, and pass with tacit fear because he even knew he looked for all in the world like a murderer, where as, he did not want to be an object of fear on the bridge, to any one.
As he continued to push on upon the terraces, clutching on to the banisters for support, his old problems which he was not supposed to remember now, formed the only preoccupation in his mind, as clear as ever. There was nothing he knew before that he did not remember now. He even knew he still had two more of this pedestrian bridge to cross or else, risk his life attempting to cross a ten-lane expressway and another deadly dual-carriageway road. He was also aware that he had a very long way to trek and would, at some point ahead, encounter an uphill task of having to scramble upwards upon the jagged, steeply sloping surface of the arch of a flyover bridge as a short cut to get onto it at the middle, or else, trek backwards to where the slope began, and prolong his journey. Above all, he knew his arriving home that night would be miracle because his strength was ebbing away very fast, he was very sick, drowsy and hungry; perhaps he would, at some point in the dark ahead, drop dead. Or perhaps –
Alas! There was the tell-tale numbness on his left arm; an undisputed pointer to anticipate death. Surely, somewhere in the dark ahead, danger looms, even as sure as the vertiginous, steep flight of terraces was there at the other end of this pedestrian bridge waiting, for him to descend when he got the end.