The girl is here again. She is talking to the boy under the flame tree. The boy often sits there with a book during his thirty-minute lunch break while fellow workers congregate behind the kitchen to chat up the young cooks, smoke cigarettes, and swap gossip. She is wearing a print dress with multicolored petal design: the petals explode in brilliance under the Lagos sun. From the window, Etenga can see her face clearly: she can’t be more than twenty. He wonders who she is, what she is to the boy. He wonders who the boy is—a student most likely, trying to make some money over the break doing odd jobs.
Unusual neighborhood. Etenga chose it deliberately. Lowbrow, even by Lagos standards. He chose it so he can be close to people like these kids, ordinary people, the salt of the earth. From his bedroom window on the left, he can see into two separate streets—one going north, the other going north-east. He has never failed to be amazed by the bustle, the energy that seems to radiate off the people: the mothers with their kids strapped to their backs, the children kicking a ball in the schoolyard, the hawkers and bus conductors and commercial bikers, and the policemen stopping them for bribes.
Why would an ex-minister, from a foreign country, choose to live in a Lagos slum?
The bedroom window on the right opens onto a more sedate street, Ikorodu; here he can see bus stops and a few offices facing a bendy, tarred road running south. It’s deceptively peaceful: twice he has witnessed a fight break out from nowhere with men jumping out of cars and facing each other and pointing fingers. Soon, fists and objects flew. Passersby, almost on a whim, then rolled up their sleeves and hit out at random. That too is why he wanted to be here, in the heart of the city.
Why would an ex-minister, from a foreign country, choose to live in a Lagos slum? The reporter asked him this when he moved into the neighborhood last year. Why not Victoria Island, or Ikoyi, or the ultramodern, ultra expensive Victoria Garden City, where he could live out his years of exile behind tall walls, safe and listening only to the sound of the waves?
He looked at the reporter’s simple face and saw how his mind was already formulating the next question, his recorder thrust into Etenga’s face. He wanted to ask him if he had ever heard of the myth of Anteaus, the hero who was said to renew his strength by lying on the ground—and when in a fight he was thrown to the ground, it only reinvigorated him.
—I am a man of the people. It makes me happy to be so close to the ordinary people.
—But you were kicked out by the “ordinary people” of your country. The masses rose up against you after thirty years in power.
Crafty. Not as stupid as he’d appear, after all.
—I left when my leader left, we resigned voluntarily. Get your facts right.
Damned journalist. If he were back in his country and back in power, he’d have this buffoon whipped to within an inch of his life. Then, such a buffoon wouldn’t even be allowed within a mile of him.
Damned journalist. If he were back in his country and back in power, he’d have this buffoon whipped to within an inch of his life. Then, such a buffoon wouldn’t even be allowed within a mile of him. But that is all in the past: now he is an exile, dependent on the Nigerian government’s charity. They took him in when every country, including his own “mother country” Belgium, turned its back on him and the president. The president, the illustrious father of the nation, is now in some tiny Caribbean country, alone. And the minister, once tagged as the president’s successor, is here watching through windows just to kill time.
In exile, nothing much happens, not even in Lagos. He spends most of his time talking of the good old days with his “council-in-exile” made up of the head driver, the head cook, the head gardener, and the secretary—they came with him from his country, the only ones to stick by him when even his wife preferred to go to Belgium, taking his sons with her.
That first time he saw the girl, she’d brought the boy something in a bowl: water or food. They sat side by side under the flame tree, her head resting on his shoulder. That was a month ago. The minister would have dismissed further thoughts of the couple—pretty as they were—but yesterday, the driver told him the boy saved him from a robbery attack.
The driver had gone into a store to buy cigarettes and when he came out, a group of boys was there, taking off the front tires. When the driver accosted them, they threatened him and took his wallet and his jacket and were about to beat him, when the boy appeared: he’d recognized the driver and also the boys; they all lived in the same neighborhood. The boy chased them off and helped the driver fix the tires.
Tomorrow he’ll send for the boy, present him to the council. Why not? It will wile away the hours: God knows, there are so many hours.
Every Saturday and Sunday, the protestors come to march in front of the gates, to raise placards and wave their ineffectual fists at the house, watched by the uninterested security guard in his little lodge inside the gates. From the balcony Etenga can see their heads bob and weave like swimmers as they mass before the gates droning a soulful song in French. They sing like a choir, the altos waiting for the tenors to finish and the bass hovering in the back, humming.
Most of them are elderly and he almost feels sad for them in their worn-out shoes and clothes, with their wives and a few grandchildren, all waving placards at the unresponsive gates. A police car parked across the road watches them, ready to intervene if things get too serious—after all, he is a guest of this country. Most of them he has caused to go into exile–they belonged to the old, corrupt regime–and the first thing he did as education minister was sanitize the system, the universities especially, festering as they were with doctrinaire Marxists and ideologues. These were the ones who made it across the border. Many didn’t: they ended up in prisons where they could spend their time discussing historical materialism and proletarian vanguardism.
Now, this is their idea of getting back their own: placard waving. Church songs. Pathetic.
—Show me your neighborhood.
It’s Etenga’s seventh month on Ikorodu Street and not once has he set foot in the neighborhood. The boy looks surprised, skeptical. His name is Tayo. But Etenga says, —Don’t worry, I’ll not complain wherever you take me.
What he wants to say is: I may have been an education minister and a professor with a PhD, but I am also a general. I lived in the bush as a guerilla fighter for ten years.
—It can be a dangerous neighborhood, sir, the boy says. The minister laughs and his council members sitting in their formal suites and ties also laugh, recognizing the joke.
Etenga explains the irony: —You must excuse our little humor, but we are not really as helpless and soft as we may look.
What he wants to say is: I may have been an education minister and a professor with a PhD, but I am also a general. I lived in the bush as a guerilla fighter for ten years. I led a section of rebel army that pushed the national army out of the capital; my soldiers were the first to arrive at the capitol building. I am not scared of being robbed by a bunch of slum dogs. But he doesn’t say it because it might sound too much like boasting.
Once, at a council meeting, he held his gun to the head of a fellow cabinet member, the information minister, ready to shoot if the president had not intervened. The information minister, filled with vague idealism, didn’t understand how complicated power was, how sometimes a leader must make tough choices even if they may seem undemocratic and dictatorial to the ordinary person, and to the easily excitable press. And Etenga just couldn’t sit there and watch the president, whom he called “Our Father,” being gainsaid and disrespected.
The boy sits beside him in the car, uncomfortable, fresh-faced, smelling of cheap soap, and dressed in his new jeans and shirt.
—This is my former school, he points out as they pass a long, factory like structure with broken windows and doors and a caved-in roof. Next to it is a new building with a cross painted on the façade.
—And that must be the church.
They pass boys standing in groups in storefronts, looking scruffy and desperate, smoking cigarettes—perhaps the same boys who tried to rob the driver.
Flogging. That was how he controlled the spate of petty theft that became so rampant in the camps as his army pushed for the capital, hungry and tired and almost on the verge of giving up. He maintained morale by strict, fair discipline. He had them flogged in public, one had died—regrettable—but he suspected the boy died more from malnutrition and some illness picked up from the dirty water, not the flogging itself.
When they get tired of driving around, Etenga says to the boy, —Perhaps we should take a break. Let’s have a drink somewhere. Any good place nearby?
—We used to live here, the boy says, pointing to a flat at the head of an alley, standing alone, with a little garden at the back. It is shuttered and the gate secured with a huge padlock. —My father lost his job with the ministry, so we had to move out.
—So, where do you live now?
—With my uncle. Not far from here.
When they get tired of driving around, Etenga says to the boy, —Perhaps we should take a break. Let’s have a drink somewhere. Any good place nearby?
The boy directs the driver to a bar by the roadside. Why is he wasting his time with this boy? Surely the councilors must be asking the same question. The general is going soft, they must be thinking. A group of rat-faced boys stand by the entrance, trading playful blows and whistling after a group of girls standing in the shadows in the car park, perhaps waiting for men to escort them inside and buy them a drink.
—Hey Tayo, one of the boys calls out.
Etenga stands by patiently as the boy shakes hands and exchanges a few words with them. He can’t hear what they are saying, but one of them looks at him and says something. They all laugh, except Tayo, who shakes his head and leaves them. The walls in the bar are unpainted, and in some places the exposed concrete blocks are chipped and broken, the roof is un-ceilinged, and the afternoon sunrays fall down straight like ropes from nail holes in the zinc sheets.
The boy is obviously a regular; he leads Etenga to a closed-off section of the bar with the sign “VIP” over the door. It is a tiny room off the main lounge with two cushion seats, two tables, and a TV on the wall. The carpet smells damp.
Her skirt is so short he wonders how she manages when she has to bend down to pick up something. When she comes back with their drinks, a bottle of Fanta for him, and a beer for the boy, her breasts threaten to pop out of her skimpy V-neck t-shirt as she places the tray on the table. He notices her shapely calves, and the curve of her hips; a big girl.
Tayo goes out and a few minutes later returns with a tall girl wearing a wig. Etenga doesn’t recognize her immediately until she looks directly at him and asks him what he’ll have. It is the girl. A barmaid. She can’t be more than twenty-one, though she seems to be desperately trying to look older, with bright red lipstick, teetering high-heels, and a wig. Though she waits for him to give his order, her eyes are on the boy, and a coy smile plays on her full lips.
—Juice, orange juice? he asks.
Her skirt is so short he wonders how she manages when she has to bend down to pick up something. When she comes back with their drinks, a bottle of Fanta for him, and a beer for the boy, her breasts threaten to pop out of her skimpy, V-neck t-shirt as she places the tray on the table. He notices her shapely calves, and the curve of her hips; a big girl. When she opens the beer she says to the boy playfully, —Don’t get drunk.
Tayo waves her away, shaking his head.
—What’s your name?
She turns and looks at Etenga, as if seeing him for the first time. She grows serious, adjusting her wig.
—Bukky, it’s a very nice name.
She giggles. Clearly, she isn’t used to such innocent compliments from men.
—Do you have children? the boy asks him. It is his first direct question to Etenga, fueled by the beer, no doubt.
—I have many children, by many women. When you are a minister, women want to bear your children.
—Ha, ha, the boy laughs. But does he understand? The animal kingdom has always been like that. The Alpha male always gets the women. He turns to the doorway through which they can see a man and a woman dancing.
—She used to live in your house, when it was a hotel.
—Bukky. Her father owned it. Did you know that, that your house used to be a big hotel?
—I didn’t know that.
Bukky joins them. By now, Tayo is getting slightly tipsy. Etenga watches him twice try to hug the girl and once he lands a clumsy kiss on her cheek. Then abruptly he stands up and asks her to dance. When she refuses, he goes out and starts dancing alone. He stumbles slightly as he descends the steps to the dancing area in the centre of the lounge.
Tayo dances effortlessly, beautifully, and gradually a circle forms around him, the other dancers turning spectators, clapping and urging him on.
—He is so sad, Bukky says, his parents divorced recently, after his father lost his job.
Now the dance floor is full of jostling bodies, jerking, twitching, and stomping in a vain attempt to keep time to the loud makossa music. Tayo dances effortlessly, beautifully, and gradually a circle forms around him, the other dancers turning spectators, clapping and urging him on.
Etenga watches, surprised by the boy’s effortless mastery of the floor; impressed by the expressiveness in the winged wave of the boy’s arms and his tightly shut eyes. He feels a vague sense of pride, like a manager watching his boxer execute a perfect knockout. An appreciative onlooker offers Tayo a bottle of beer, but Tayo dances on, his eyes closed, his arms flapping away.
Bukky goes over and takes the bottle of beer, and before she returns to the table she takes out a handkerchief and wipes the sweat from the boy’s face. Etenga feels sad, jealous, and old. He used to dance like that: tireless, effortless, boneless. He used to be the last one on the dance floor, and the others would sit on their chairs, exhausted, but unable to leave, captivated by he and his beautiful partner’s motions.
But that was in another country. A long time ago.
When the boy returns from his dance, there are three bottles of beer waiting for him on the table. He drinks thirstily. The girl reaches out to stop him when he takes the second bottle and is about to gulp it down like he did the first.
—What, you think I can’t handle my drink? I am not drunk. I am okay, the boy protests. He wrests the bottle out of Bukky’s hand.
—Do as you please, she says. She leaves, close to tears. Etenga watches, saying nothing. Twice the girl returns to check on them. The third time, the boy is sleeping peacefully, his head on the table, the drool making a thin gelatinous line from the side of his mouth to the table.
—Well, sit down, Etenga says to her. —Don’t worry too much, he will be fine. A slight headache in the morning maybe.
—He always does that, she says, sitting down.
—He is young. Tell me more about yourself.
—What do you want to know?
—Do you know who I am?
—Yes, he told me.
—He said you used to live in my house?
—Yes, I was born there. My father owned it. It was a hotel. We lived upstairs. She smiles. —I have good memories of the place. It was the happiest time of my life.
—And where is your father now, what does he do?
—Well, he started this place after the government bought your place from him. But as you can see, it is not doing that well. I help out whenever I can, during the holidays.
—Well, come over then and I’ll show you around. I hope you will approve of the changes I have made to the house. When she says nothing, only gives him a calculating look, he realizes she is far more experienced than she looks, and he wants her in an undefinable, dull, achy way. They both look at the boy sleeping peacefully between them. She turns away. He says, —You can come with him, of course.
She comes alone. He doesn’t ask her about the boy, but deep inside he feels triumphant, like he used to feel long ago when he laid an ambush and an enemy walked into it. He takes her hand, careful to keep his eyes away from her dominant breasts, her full pouty lips, and they begin in the living room.
—This used to be the barroom, she says, standing with her back to the front door, there used to be a wall facing you as you entered. There was always music playing. In the wall was a window through which you could buy drinks. My mother was the one behind the window. She always had a cigarette in her mouth, like this. Bukky inclines her head, pursing her lips to hold the cigarette, squinting her eyes to avoid the rising ribbon of smoke. He laughs. He wants to lean forward and place his lips on hers.
They eat in the huge dining room, she sits on his right, and although there isn’t anything to talk about, the silence doesn’t weigh too much on them. He sends her off in his car, laden with presents: a pair of shoes, a perfume, a necklace.
Knocking down the wall has made the living room larger, a staircase has been built in the center, leading to the first floor. Most of the renovation was made by the state government before he came. He takes her to the council room and shows her the pictures on the wall.
—So many pictures. This is you, with our president!
He inclines his head modestly. —And what was this room used for?
—My father’s office. He’d be seated before his desk, and in the mornings, we’d tip-toe in and he’d give us pocket money before we left for school.
From there they go to the library, and the music room, and then the kitchens, and not until they are in the back garden, standing side by side over a bush of roses, does he ask her about Tayo.
She shrugs, as if she finds the question irrelevant, which again delights him. —I am not sure where he is. Maybe he’s still hungover. Really, I am a bit tired of his foolishness. He is such a kid.
They eat in the huge dining room, she sits on his right, and although there isn’t anything to talk about, the silence doesn’t weigh too much on them. He sends her off in his car, laden with presents: a pair of shoes, a perfume, a necklace. He is sure she’ll come back, and she does, the next day, wearing the shoes and the necklace. This time he takes her upstairs to the tiny sitting room next to his bedroom, and he puts on the radio, he holds her hands as they dance, she is shy at first, then she relaxes and he draws her closer.
—You are such a good dancer, she says.
—You make me feel weightless and graceful, he says to her.
She becomes a regular visitor. In the evenings, after he has finished holding court with his council-in-exile, he’ll change out of his military uniform. Over dinner he’ll tell her about grand dinner parties at the presidential palace back in his country, showing her pictures of him next to the president and his family.
When it comes time to leave, he hands her a bag with more presents. As the days pass, as their dalliance becomes more intimate, he begins to look forward to her visits, to depend on them.
—Look at the diamonds on that woman! she exclaims. In her voice he can sense her desire for such things.
—That’s the president’s third wife, he says. He had many wives, up to seven at one time, though only one, the third wife, was his official consort. She had a PhD from Harvard and was thirty years younger than the president.
When it comes time to leave, he hands her a bag with more presents. As the days pass, as their dalliance becomes more intimate, he begins to look forward to her visits, to depend on them. He’ll stand at the window through which he can see her approach. She always comes in the late afternoon when the workers are gone for the day. Her taxi parks at the gate, and then she walks up the bougainvillea-hedged drive, to his front door. He offers to send his driver to her, but she says no. Tayo has stopped turning up to work since that day at the barroom, and they never mention him again.
Today is a special day. He meets her at the door, dressed in his general’s uniform. He takes her hand and leads her inside. Today his wife has called to tell him she doesn’t think she will join him in Nigeria: she prefers the comfort of Belgium more than being with him in Lagos.
—I want to see the basement, she says.
They take the long, dark flight of stairs into the basement, their hands on the rail guiding them. It isn’t really a basement, just a room slightly below the foundation level, dug into the little hill on which the house is built. She tells him it used to serve as a utility room, sometimes as storage for food, or whatever material needed to be stored away. Once, during her father’s second wedding, it was used as a kitchen.
—It is so dark and cold, she says, standing in the middle and holding her arms against her chest. He goes and opens a window and the light immediately throws the wooden furniture and the dark corners into view. There are a few sacks of grain resting against a wall.
-It will make a nice prison, he says.
He doesn’t know he has spoken out aloud. Memories playing with him again—these days, the memories keep coming back, especially at night. They used to have dungeons like this one, where enemies of the state would be kept for months and years in isolation and total darkness, where their screams for mercy could never be heard by unintended ears. A few never made it out, like that uppity information minister. He lasted ten years in isolation before he went mad. Etenga pushes aside the thought.
—Marry me, he says, taking her arm. She looks around the damp, cold room and shivers.
—Can we get out of here, please?
Going up is harder than coming down, and now he uses the rail to haul himself up, like a man swinging up a rope from a deep hole.
Perhaps she needs time to think about it, but it won’t hurt to bring it up again, and he does before she leaves. She looks at him and gives a little laugh. The laugh is inconsequential, almost a nervous gesture, something to serve in lieu of an immediate answer, but he knows immediately that she is never going to say yes. She leaves. He never sees her again.
Every day for a week, he stands by the window in the late afternoon but she never shows up. Once he sends out his driver to the hotel, but he comes back alone. In the dungeon, he could have the boy, kept in darkness until she comes to him—but what purpose would it serve? It won’t make her say yes. Besides, he is in another country, a guest, an exile. He has to be careful.
And then a thought occurs to him: what if all this was planned, to get him involved with the girl so they could get whatever they could from him? He does make the perfect mark, doesn’t he? All they needed do was dangle the girl before him.
But what of the tire robbery and the trip to the barroom? Part of the plan, or just a serendipitous addition to it? No, he mustn’t think like this.
Surely, they can’t have counted on his feeling jealous as he watches the two under the flame tree, her head on the boy’s shoulder, and on his natural desire to compete against the boy, especially after that dance at the bar? He feels old, so old. He used to be full of fire, a long time ago, full of plans for his country, but where has all that gone to? He wonders how his president is doing, if he is still alive.
Today the demonstrators are out in huge numbers, it seems as if passersby have joined them, swelling their ranks, pushing against the gates like a tidal wave. Once he thinks he sees the boy with the girl beside him, standing on the edge of the crowd, looking up directly at him through the window. But he knows they can’t see him. He has had the windows darkened and thickened against eyes and stones. And bullets.
Helon Habila a former journalist from Lagos, Nigeria, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001. In 2002, his first novel, Waiting for An Angel: Fiction won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel (Africa Section) in 2003. In 2007, his second novel, Measuring Time: A Novel, won the Virginia Library Foundation’s fiction award in 2008. Habila’s third novel, Oil on Water, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2011 and the Orion Book Award in 2012. It was also a runner up for the PEN Open Book Award in 2012. In 2011, Habila edited The Granta Book of the African Short Story. He has been a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review since 2004. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three children.