It is quite unusual to find a young man racing on his feet out of the village that early on a Monday morning barring the chance that he has a rendezvous with the gods. The village, like most Eastern villages, is far from the expressway as if intended to be left alone, unperturbed by the wild fire of civilization and industry. The walk down to the expressway usually takes lot of sweat and all of sixty-minutes, but Dunsin wants to make it in twenty.
Dunsin, a fair complected young man in his mid-twenties, adjusts the small rucksack he carries impatiently as he hurries along. He is better known throughout the village as Corper; his fair skin sets him apart, an insignia that ensures his popularity. He is currently undergoing the compulsory one year National Youth Service Programme. He teaches Christian Religious Studies at the Grammar school, his Primary Place of Assignment.
He should be heading in the direction of the school, but he arrives at the junction where he should detour and walks on. It is too early to be at school anyway. Life in the village, unlike in the city, begins slowly, listlessly. His students are recalcitrant late-comers, arriving at school assembly ground long after the National Anthem had been sung, so there is no real reason why he should be in school that early. His feet quickens toward the expressway, pregnant with ambition.
Monday night was our last in camp. We had very little sleep. The damn soldiers were on a rampage, chasing people out of Mammy market before lights out. I almost challenged one of the fools who had nudged me. Kewe stopped me.
I had to say a quick goodbye to her. Not exactly what I had in mind. I wanted us to walk down that path they said led to the stream. I wanted us to sit on its bank, listen to the crickets and frogs sing beautiful choruses to the gurgling stream. I wanted to kiss her lips. I wanted to caress her breasts. I wanted to slip my fingers down her underpants.
But here we were, left with just a second to bid ourselves good-night. Our hug was a brief gesture; there was no lingering, I could not feel her taut nipples pressing through her firm brassiere. The stampede of soldiers’ feet dissolved our brief hug. We ran for cover to our hostels, racing to our wafer-thin mattresses for a few hours of sleep.
We were expected to be awake two hours after mid-night to return our mattresses. Those selected for the parade were expected to rehearse one last time. We, the loafers, were expected to watch and cheer.
I woke up with a start. A quick bath and I put my entire load in the rucksack. I returned my bug-infested mattress. I obtained the small slip that would fetch me my posting letter. Then I went in search of Kewe.
I did not find her. The whole camp, about two thousand five hundred Corp members clad in ceremonial wear, were returning mattresses. There was a lot of commotion. Lots of noise and shouting. There was also a lot of cuddling.
It was three a.m. The Orientation Broadcast Service was playing love songs through huge speakers; an anchor’s voice intermittently interrupted the music, reiterating the somberness of the mood, the end of the three weeks orientation camping.
Lovers and friends huddled together, sniffing themselves like dogs, perhaps for the last time. It suddenly dawned on us that this phase of our life was over. Unfortunately, it was the shortest and, by far, the most interesting. We knew the fate coming for us. The fate of nondescript mammy wagons and placards of twenty-one local governments. The fate of teaching in hinterland secondary schools. There will be no Mammy Market. No loud music. No catfish pepper-soup. Just a solitary and religious confinement for another ten months.
I sat on the parade ground like other Corp members, puzzled about where Kewe was. I hoped the dude, one of the clerical staff of the Corps I paid to arrange our postings to the same local government, would deliver. The anchor’s voice in the speaker interrupted my thoughts; he was saying something about saying goodbyes that we might never be together again. Then he said he was going to play a song for the lovers; nothing Nigerian, something old, something popular. There was a short reign of silence and an undertone of shuffling. Then the famous opening strings of Temptation’s My Girl rent the air.
I hummed along with the song. Then a soft palm occluded my sight from behind. The light fragrance was unmistakable.
Kewe sat beside me and kept her head on my shoulder. She looked fair and beautiful. She almost felt like an apparition. And just to be sure that she was not one, I put an arm around her and huddled her closer. I said a short prayer.
The rhythm of his shuffling feet and swaying rucksack reminds him of the Endurance Trek, one of the activities of the orientation camping. But unlike the endurance trek, here he is the only one. He glides through the village square which is still asleep. The sculpture of a middle-aged man’s bust with a sneer for a smile stands in the middle of the square.
Dunsin stops. He hesitates. He walks to a closed shed and stands a recumbent bench. He sits. A crease of frown dominates his forehead.
Last night, a loud and urgent rapping on his door had broken into his solitude. The weak batteries of his transistor radio had finally left him with a meaningless buzz. He could not remember when power came last and he did not expect it. His Nokia phone was dead. He was too tired to walk to the village square to charge it for a small fee.
He opened the door and a fair girl courting puberty came in. Her hair was cut low like most of his students. He knew something was wrong immediately he saw Obiageli. Her face was the untidy mess of someone who had recently cried.
“Uncle, it is Ada.”
He hesitated. A frown etched on his forehead, “Ehen, What happened to her?”
“She tried to abort it”
“Where is she?”
“In the hospital. They say she has lost blood.”
“Blood. Who? When? How did this happen?”
“I don’t know, Uncle. Her brothers are coming to your lodge tomorrow morning.”
Dunsin had broken into sweat and despair. His thoughts flashed before him like strobe lights. Graphic images of the Nzeribe family. Ada’s well-formed fair thighs. Her hefty brothers with hulk hands and shoulders and their menacing mien. Their sprawl of a compound with palm trees and numerous graves.
He turned to look at Obiageli; she had left.
He slammed his door shut. He rested his weight against the squeaking door. He sank to the floor and sobbed for the first time in years.
The stupid Mammy Wagon laboured listlessly on the pot-hole riddled asphalt, its smooth tires reluctantly kissing it. I woke up from my slumber of languish only to find out that we were still on the road. The obese driver’s neck folds bobbed to the bumpy ride. I looked around and I saw other Corp members sleeping.
What could we do? Our fate was the destination of this slow vehicle. We were bored by the journey. We could as well be bored for the rest of our lives. Sleep sometimes came easily in the face of helpless adversity.
Kewe’s look of disappointment stuck to my mind. She opened her mouth in despair when she received her posting letter. She neatly folded it and burst into a spasm of sobs. I held her, saying nothing. I could not find the words to comfort her. I cursed the dude who had assured me of close postings. I cursed him again as the cadence of the mammy wagon’s engine changed; we were going up a small hill.
The unceremonious journey came to an end at the local government secretariat building. We were officially welcomed with garden eggs and shea butter and a smattering of Igbo. We put our names down and were told to report to our Places of Primary Assignment.
My village was a thirty-minute walk from the expressway. There were no bikes (there were never bikes) so we trekked, the five of us, posted to the school. The school had washed walls and many broken windows. We were ushered into the principal’s office. It had the rancid smell of stale vomit. The worn rug on the floor looked damp.
The elderly man stood up to address us. He said he had been dealing with Corpers for fifteen years. He lauded the youth service scheme and his school. He warned us about the female students, especially those in the senior classes and their tendency to seduce. We laughed in spite of ourselves. He shared subjects among the five of us (I got C.R.S) and ordered us to be taken to our lodge. The lodge was another thirty minute walk.
He stands from the bench and walks on determinedly, heading out of the village in giant hurried steps. He knows his chances are limited. But the instinct to run is overwhelming. So he sprints. His shoes hurriedly digging prints on the red path.
He courses past another village and detours to another path that leads to the main road faster. The abandoned beautiful houses look desolate, lifeless, empty. It only becomes occupied at Christmas, when the villages blossom with life.
His feet touch asphalt soon enough; everywhere is still, quiet. He keels over by the road, pouring sweat and breathing a tad fast.
Soon enough, a rickety bus comes his way. He hails it and hops in.
I have been bored for more than five months. Life in this village is pastoral, tethering on the cusp of death. The rural-urban drift had snuffed out vibrancy from the town’s soul. And everyone who had stayed behind had a reason or two that could not be divorced of some kind of misfortune. They were all in the village for a kind of recess. They were always sure of a grand return to the city.
And every so often, there was always another death. It was almost always a young person, less than fifty years old. A big sprawl of the deceased picture etched on an obituary banner. The obituary banners were usually exhibited at the village entrance. The picture was usually a graduation picture with a flash of teeth and a promise of life.
Every damn week there was another burial that began on Wednesday. The funeral rites, regardless of the deceased age, would last several days until the casket was interred six feet below and buried. And forgotten.
The reign of death alarmed me. I thought to myself that it was important to tread softly in such a place where death was so commonplace. The days were however painfully slow in their progression and the nights were hot. We went about our quotidian life with ambiguous ease so that the days would progress faster. And at night, we went to Easy Junction.
Easy Junction was the watering hole in the village, where men of all age groups gathered to chew roast game and drink watered palm wine over a game of draught. The men were usually past middle-age and its crisis, waiting for either their next meal or death. And in those five months we spent, one of them had died.
He was a rapturous singer of Highlife music until his band abandoned him on a case of misappropriation of funds. Now he was the best draught player known for his sonorous songs when he was winning a game and his uncommon prowess in guzzling palm wine. The eve of his death was a typical day that passed with his usual bragging rights and a fair share of palm wine. He went home, slept and never woke up.
And life continued with sluggish abandon. The draught players continued to play. The Easy Junction continued to thrive.
Sometimes when the evenings had been blindfolded by night, when the benches at Easy Junction had been deserted, when the palm wine gourd was precariously low in its content, I would stay back to listen to the permanent customer of the Easy Junction.
Obiwu was a small man in his forties, a plumber who had struck ill-luck in the city and had retired to the village to become a drunk. He abandoned his wife with three children in the process. He spent his days in deep sleep and at night, he showered and walked diligently to Easy Junction for his day’s spell of wine and entertainment.
“I used to be a Rastaman back then in Lagos”, he once boasted, claiming to have been one of Majek Fashek’s bandboys, “I used to work the drums, you know”, pausing to puff from his glowing cigarette, “I can drum anything man”.
His eyes roved to the round buttocks of Onyinye, one of my students, whose mother ran Easy Junction.
“I can even drum that ass” Then he guffawed shamelessly like he was not old enough to be her father.
He told me one midnight, “They are trying to trap the youthful minds by confining you to a place where your minds become redundant. Just look at you now, what is your benefit in this village whose sons have journeyed to several far distances to secure their daily bread?”
Many times, dismissing the drowsy effect of the countless cups of palm wine I have had, I wanted to argue that we were doing the village a service; but many times, my eyes would linger on Onyinye’s buttocks which had all the promise of her mother’s and none of its tiredness.
She, like Ada, had a succulent fair skin and the integrity of her cone-shaped breasts stood defiantly upright without the aid of brassieres.
It was one of those evenings seemingly insignificant in the life of a Corper. The sun was sluggishly setting westward and I was thinking about how long it had taken seven months to pass.
I had lesson notes to write and my note was sitting atop the Holy Bible and I could not just gather the momentum to put my brain to work.
I heard footsteps and I looked in the direction of the sound. It was Ada, the fair pubescent girl who was often discussed amongst Corpers. She walked with an assuredness reminiscent of Kewe.
I had not heard from Kewe since we left camp. The rumour was that she had redeployed, that she had chickened out of the intensity of our bucolic postings, wandered off to a better place where the pastures were greener, out of the vicinity of little huts and quiet villages where life was easy and cheap and effortless and almost purposeless.
“Good evening, Corper”, she greeted. She looked quite bigger than when she was in the school uniform; her features accentuated by the clasp of her fitted home clothes. Her hair was cut short, as the school regulations instructed, and I could just imagine how much of a beauty she would be if she let her hair grow.
“Nne Kedu? Did you come to visit us?”
She smiled at my attempt at speaking Igbo. “I came to see you.”
“Me? What have I done to deserve your visit?”
She smiled again and sat beside me on the wooden bench. She smelt fresh, like she had just taken her bath. A vague scent of soap lingered as her body edged precariously close to mine. Her breast brushed my shoulder and I remembered Kewe again. Those fiery kisses, those hot kisses. I could hardly resist the urge that was streaming down my loins.
I looked at her and I saw lust in her innocent eyes.
The night came upon us in my room. We were naked and moaning and writhing from pleasure. Her succulent nipples found my lips often, as we moved slowly with passion and poise. I shivered as I climaxed and her piquant cry rose as I dug deeper into her recesses. My hand found her mouth and my finger slipped between her teeth. She bit me.
Minutes later, spent, she picked her clothes from the floor where they had been scattered, peeled by the urgency of passion.
I remained in bed naked, ashamed of myself. I had done what I had been warned against. It was bad enough that I slept with my student and, worse, I loved it. The sex was consensual, unprotected and pleasurable. It lit up life in the village with such uncanny brilliance.
“I am leaving”, she said, fully clad.
I looked at her and I knew I was enthralled.
That night, after dinner, my colleagues and I had a talk about the Nzeribe family. I was told about her six brothers, the hefty men who were known for fomenting trouble in the village.
“You need to see them”, someone said, “They look like the well-fed Cannan men in the Bible”
“One of them is even a musician, the eldest”
“They all wear dreads like they are members of the Marley family”
There in the bliss of the night and the sweet relief of whistling wind and the stillness of everything around, my colleagues were making small talk for my benefit about the Nzeribe family. Their information was the popular hearsays that have been interpreted to them by friendly indigenes and they were relaying them to me for obvious reasons: that I should be careful about my dealings with Ada.
I wanted to lie that nothing had happened between us but I knew our helpless cries of passion were conducted through thin walls and heard by cocked straining ears. Sleeping with our students had been a taboo at first, but slowly it had become an indulgence male Corp members permitted, to the chagrin of the females amongst us.
It could have been envy on their part for they were not particularly good-looking; neither did they care for their bodies. They were more concerned about forgetting their allowances in the banks and living the parsimonious life.
Naturally, as in a commune, none of the males was open about their sexual intentions. There were preferences that waned with time and preferences that also blossomed with time as we got to know each other better. What was constant was the numbering of the days we had left in that god-forsaken village.
The rickety bus approaches Ekwulobia. He smiles. He alights from the bus at the Onitsha Bus Park. He takes a seat near the front of the next bus en route Onitsha. He looks behind — the bus has space for just one more passenger. He clutches his rucksack tight, his hands rummaging its contents — his credentials, original certificates, a change of cloth and his toothbrush. He rests his head and covers his face from the rising sun with his hand. His eyes close as he says a short prayer.
He looks up just in time to see a black sedan waltz to a stop beside the park. He strains to look inside the car and he sees Obiageli and six hefty men in dreads. His hand moves from the glare of the rising sun to his face like an improvised shield.
The last passenger hops in and the driver beside him kicks the engine into life. The weather-beaten bus hurtles out of the park towards the roundabout.
He looks behind through the side mirror watching six hefty men cross the road to the Bus Park.
He sighs and clutches his rucksack tighter.
Published at Kalahari Review