Obioma is wiping his sweat-drenched face with a white-turned-brown handkerchief. He is walking the length of Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, and, as he shoves the handkerchief into the back pocket of his trousers, he is looking to the faces of young people obviously his age grade, driving expensive SUVs, while he mutters “God’s time is the best. God’s time is the best,” his mantra, to himself.
After a third Time and just before the third Is, thick muddy water lying peacefully in a pothole leaps dramatically and lands on top his navy blue trousers, interrupting him. His head shoots up to see who is guilty of such great injustice. He is confronted by the apologetic face of a young looking—early twenties, twenty five at most—girl behind the tinted windows of a G-Wagon.
She waves her left hand toward Obioma, her right hand limp on the leather steering, indicating that she is, indeed, deeply sorry. He nods, smiles, cusses under his breath, calling her a bitch and all other impure words his heart can render. As she resumes driving, he returns to his muttering: “God’s time is the best, God’s time is the best.”
Obioma is a graduate of the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He was one of those students who would sit inside the stuffed library clogged with ancient textbooks to read all day, and then move to a lecture hall bristling with mischievous youths with shady intentions to study even more at night. Obioma would have graduated with first class honours, but, the department of Estate Management had not graduated a first class student in exactly fifteen years, and the lecturers were not willing to permit a common omo nna—Igbo boy—break the pristine record they were so proud of. So his final semester results were riddled with Es and Ds, plunging his CGPA down from a 4.52 to a 4.23.
Obioma, upon graduation, vowed never to practice estate surveying. After a year of waiting for his alma-mater to post him to a state for his mandatory youth corp service (which he ended up spending in the northern state of Benue where their radio stations were fraught with adverts advising people on the perils of unsafe sex, and even more on how deadly ogogoro, their local gin, is), Obioma made his way to Ife from Lagos to discover that unlike his mates, the only reason he hadn’t been posted for his youth corp was because his results hadn’t been processed. The lecturers really had it in for him. A few wads of naira notes to grease the right palms solved that though. And four months later, Obioma was climbing ropes and rolling in mud like a hog in sunny Benue.
Obioma bloomed in Benue; the girls were loose and they worshipped the corpers; and since it was rumoured they loved private university graduates even more, Obioma announced to all that he graduated from Covenant University. The girls were bees and his one room apartment was the beehive. Obioma had a different girl for cooking, another to wash his tough brown khakis, one to sweep his always dusty rugged floor, and a particularly fair-skinned one to anoint him with rigorous and thorough sex everyday. Benue was heaven, he would often say to his friends whenever he was on the phone with them. He would never have left if it wasn’t so rural.
Upon his return to Lagos, Obioma immediately commenced searching for a job. When he succeeded in getting an interview at a bank, he decided to forgo it, commenting that bank jobs were for graduates with a second class lower division grade and, considering his upper division grade, he deserved a job where he could actually put his brains to proper use. His friends would ask how the job search was going and Obioma would answer: “Nothing’s happening.” After a year of applying, sending out résumés, filling various forms on the internet and taking online tests and online interviews, nothing kept happening.
Obioma is sourcing for properties and he has found one his boss just might like. You see, Obioma’s boss is very picky when it comes to properties he is willing to market. He believes that only when one markets the best would one get the best clients; a belief that is yet to lead him astray. Obioma sees this property, an office space, from the outside. The windows on the second floor are without blinds. He almost leaps. He shuffles to the gate, forking his handkerchief out his pocket. He is knocking and he is wiping his face again. The sun is out for blood. The gate croaks, swings, and a uniformed man is behind it. He wears a poker face as he asks “What can I do you for?” Obioma pushes his lips up in disgust. Only a gateman working in Ikoyi can talk to him in this manner. “I’m here about the vacant floor,” Obioma churns out in his finest accent. The gateman sizes him up, his gaze lingering when it finds the mud stain splayed across the hem of his trousers. “Let me go and tell them upstairs,” he finally says. He continues, his back now turned and the gate shutting in Obioma’s face: “Wait here.”
Obioma is mad, but he waits regardless. Beggars cannot be choosers. After fourteen minutes of waiting—Obioma checks his wristwatch for accuracy—the gate makes that croaking sound again and the uniformed man resurfaces. He motions for Obioma to follow, his right palm drawing in air. Obioma walks past a long wooden bench seated beneath the shade cast by the gate house, a long hiss like a snake’s escapes him. Why did the gateman not invite him here to sit, instead of drying him outside in the sun? He doesn’t say this out loud; he bottles his anger. He walks behind the uniformed man and, taking him all in; his faded blue shirt with black stripes sown across both arms, his black khaki trousers wearing at the seams, with its hems tucked into a pair of ugly black boots, he shakes his head. Such disrespect from a common gateman.
Obioma is seated still on a metal chair in a frigid air conditioned room the gateman led him into. It houses a lone desk with a pretty lady seated behind it, her eyes cemented to her smartphone as her fingers bounce up and down the screen, typing into it. She inflates and pops bubbles made out of gum with her tongue and lips. He makes a mental note to ask for her number before he leaves the building. He is straightening the polka-dotted tie he bought for One-Fifty naira from a woman with a transparent polythene sheet laid across the roadside floor; her makeshift stall. He is choking but he doesn’t mind. On the television is a white CNN reporter, his face wrinkled and his voice like a cartoon character’s.
It is not long before the intercom blares and the pretty lady picks the receiver up to answer. Her voice is even better than her face. But after a long sentence, it is revealed that her accent isn’t. She replaces the receiver and addresses Obioma: “Oga will see you now.” Chai, he thinks, she sounds nothing like an Ikoyi receptionist should.
Obioma is directed to a fourth floor office, and as he checks himself in the elevator mirror, a ding and the door slides open on the third floor. A smiling man with two giggling women spill in, conversing in what sounds and smells like alcohol induced tones. The man’s brown shirt and trousers match his teeth and the walls of the elevator. The women are an array of colours, their faces rainbows. Obioma composes himself. The elevator makes that leaping motion that makes Obioma’s heart rise to his throat again. It stops almost immediately and, the doors parting wide open, empties on the fourth floor.
Obioma walks behind the party of three and they don’t stop talking. His gaze is glued to the women, their behinds dancing beneath tight and skimpy skirts; one two three four five, as if choreographing to a nursery rhyme. He has forgotten the directions prescribed to him by the receptionist. Someone clears their throat and Obioma lifts his gaze to meet the sniggering face of the lone man. Obioma smiles but the man doesn’t return his goodwill, he hisses instead. Obioma wonders why some men act like pussies once it comes to female matters.
Obioma turns, retracing his steps to the elevator, going left this time instead of right, following the instructions given to him by the pretty receptionist, before he finally finds another receptionist, this time, a fat woman with a face that looks to him like a bloated toad. She is punching letters on a keyboard placed between storeys of files. Her eyes are not looking away from the desktop screen as he recounts his mission to her. She instructs him to sit. He tells her the receptionist downstairs told him the Oga was ready to see him, and the woman, not missing a beat, tells him to sit.
He sighs, then sits.
A huge wooden door behind the receptionist swings opens almost immediately. It reveals the backs of what to Obioma looks like two men in shiny black suits. A sweet aroma envelopes the room. It looks like they are shaking the hands of their host, saying their goodbyes.
As they walk toward Obioma, he sees a face he recognises. He rotates his head to the right, his gaze still fixed to the face he’s now sure he recognizes, as if trying to recollect where from he knows this person. The Oga, walking behind his visitors, ushering them out, notices a lingering gaze on his face. He looks to the person and what he feels isn’t anger or disrespect, not because he is used to rude and wonderstruck stares by now, but familiarity, because he actually recognises this guy.
He tells his visitors he’d have to leave them now. They turn toward him, shaking his right hand one after the other again.
As he discharges them, rather hurriedly I might add, Obioma stands, assured that this man standing, the man saying goodbye to the two men in shiny suits smelling like only rich men do, the man referred to as Oga by the receptionist, which probably means he owns the damned building, was his classmate back in the university.
“Obi!” The man roars, stomping his feet on the ground, hands flailing like King Kong. He doesn’t believe his eyes, so he scratches them even though they don’t itch.
“Eze!” Obioma retorts, also stomping his right foot on the tiled floor.
Eze, short for Obi Ezenwa Obi, was one of the other four Igbo boys in Obioma’s class in the university. Unlike Obioma, however, Eze only read when necessary – only during tests and exams, passing only by a hair’s breadth, (mainly due to Obi’s benevolence in the exam hall). What Eze lacked in brainpower, though, he made up for—and abundantly—In looks. Eze was one of those fair-skinned Ibo boys with a face like heaven. His smile melted hearts. He stood tall, straight spined, adequate biceps and triceps like someone who visits the gym but not too often that he looks like he is overdoing it. Perfection is, however, only a myth, as Eze has a small flaw: His right eye is a little crossed, so when he looks to the right he looks surprised.
This simple flaw did not deter the ladies in the university from flocking around him, as he was known as a rather notorious ladies’ man, “cancelling” girls like a wealthy man’s chequebook.
Eze leads Obioma, who is now leering at the fat receptionist with his tongue out, into his office. He is slapping the big wet patch on Obioma’s clothed back with his ringed fingers. They are laughing boisterously.
Eze’s office intimidates Obioma who can’t take all the space in with one sweeping motion of his head, so he does it again, then again, and again. The desk doesn’t look quite like wood, he lumbers to it and slaps his knuckles against it; it feels and sounds like wood. The glass wall by his left overlooks both the bridge and the commotion that is a result of the traffic beneath it; Obioma feels like God watching his creations. He doesn’t want to look away. A loud sigh bursts out of him, and his old friend just laughs. He turns to the other wall and is confronted by art he doesn’t quite understand. To him, that just validates its expense. Behind the desk is another large painting, this time of Eze, and Obioma looks to his old friend’s face to compare the resemblance. It is uncanny. Impressed doesn’t quite encompass what Obioma feels about his friend’s wealth.
“Show me the way,” Obioma laments, drawing out the Y in the way for a couple of seconds.
“Where have you been since graduation?” Obioma asks in Ibo.
Eze explains that he had a semester extra and did not graduate with his mates.
“Then how did all this happen?” Obioma asks, mouth agape.
“It is God oo,” Eze replies, laughing.
He asks what Obioma is doing in his office, and Obioma answers, saying he saw the vacant floor from the outside, and was hoping to secure it as a listing for the estate firm he works for. His voice lowers to almost a whisper as he says this, something Eze recognises as shame. Eze tells him, now in Pidgin, that he is a developer himself, and his company operates somewhat like an estate firm.
He leads Obioma to the leather sofa sitting beneath the art as he speaks. They sink into it, the chaos of the traffic below their view. He asks if Obioma would like anything to drink – wine, soda, water, Obioma requesting for wine, and as he stands to go fetch it from inside the fridge sitting across from them, the soles of his shoes clucking against the marbled floor, he tells Obioma that giving him the floor to market will not be a problem; anything to advance the career of a friend who used to let him copy off his answer sheets back in school. This leads to more laughter.
They discuss life after school while sipping on sweet red wine. Obioma tells his friend how he waited three years before finally folding to pressure and applying to an estate firm. He doesn’t tell him how he first worked as a marketer for a bank after two years at home, and on his first assignment, at some senator’s house, the bald man with a potbelly the size of two watermelons had led him to his bedroom the size of a football field and almost forced himself on naïve Obioma. He does not tell him that although he did not let the politician have his way with him, he let the man give him a blowjob (which only resulted in him shooting blanks), after he had promised to reward him monetarily. He does not tell him all the clients handed to him by his bank manager continued to be randy bald pot-bellied men (once, a man so old his skin had cracks like damp soil) with a hunger for fair boys. He doesn’t tell him how his manager sacked him after receiving several complaints from unsatisfied clients. How his manager had asked him, after Obioma asked if he knew what the men always wanted from him, that What was new under the sun.
Instead, he tells him how his boss at the estate firm, who is only five years older, often sends him on errands like getting him recharge cards or bottled water or food from eateries several streets away. He tells him how his boss who says things only the truly sated say like “It’s not about the money” once slapped him, his yellow face turning a bright orange, for forgetting to address him as Sir. Eze punctuates Obioma’s story with Chais and Kais and Ewos at intervals, indicating that he is listening and he feels his pain.
“Please, show me the way,” Obioma repeats when he is done.
“Ah. It is God oo,” Eze answers.
After collecting details of the vacant floor, including its size and asking price, Obioma stands to leave, before asking for Eze’s phone number, which Eze reads out offhandedly.
Obioma, walking dejectedly toward the door, his eyes cemented to the floor, feels a hand on his back. As he turns to look, he sees Eze whose expression is now as serious as a politician giving a speech on world peace.
“Wait first,” Eze says.
Obioma stands, his face a maze of emotions, an island of creases like waves on a beach.
Eze continues in Ibo: “What I want to tell you, you cannot say it anywhere else. You cannot tell anybody. If you don’t like what I have to say, just go and don’t come back. Okay?”
“I will like it, Eze,” Obioma promises. “I swear, I will like it. Just tell me.”
Eze tells Obioma about how he, too, stayed idle two years after graduation, applying anywhere and everywhere for a job. How he worked for rich bosses who treated their employees like slaves, paying them peanuts, knowing they couldn’t leave because finding a job in their economic clime was difficult. How he wrote and failed two professional exams he hoped would give him an edge in employment processes, and how he got duped off some four hundred thousand naira he managed to scrape together after years of working, by someone who promised to use it for his visa application to take him overseas. He tells him how, after a visit to a friend at the University in Ondo, he was introduced to a Baba who promised to alter his destiny, and after a brief ritual, riches flooded him like a hurricane.
Obioma doesn’t know what to think. He is looking as still as a lagoon, but his insides are a waterfall.
What is his friend saying? A herbalist? Juju? Actual juju? But what if this is his only hope? What if this is his only chance at wealth? But God’s time is the best. God’s time is the best. Obioma makes to turn toward the door, but is held glued to his seat by a memory that hits him like a train on the track. A certain story.
It is a story about a woman, who, lying on a log of wood after a terrible tsunami and during the heavy rainfall after, prayed to God to send her a helper. A small plane appeared, letting down a ladder with rungs made of strong wire, the pilot calling out to her to hold on to the rungs and climb to safety. She refused, commenting that God was sending her a helper. The plane jets away and the woman returns to her prayer. A helicopter soon surfaces, flying very close to her, the water beneath and around the log of wood rippling. A lone passenger lets out his hand calling for her to hold on to him. She refuses once again, commenting that she is waiting for God’s true helper and returning to her prayer. The third time is a speedboat, the driver asking for her to climb in. Again, she refuses, saying she is sure God’s helper is close by and she doesn’t want to miss him. As she returns to her prayer, now maybe a little too fervent, a voice booms from the heavens, the carpeted clouds parting, the sudden sunrays blinding her.
The voice proclaims: “I am God, why do you disturb me so?” She shivers like a ripple. What is happening?
“I am God, why do you disturb me so?” the voice repeats.
“My God, I need a helper to save me from my predicament,” the woman replies shaking like a jellyfish, her hands raised over her head to shield her from sunrays, her tone uneven like a fleeing chicken.
“I have sent you three helpers, all of whom you have refused and sent on their way,” the voice retorts, “what more do you want from me?”
“My God. I am sorry. I did not know.” She looks like she is wearing a smile but her cheeks tremble.
“You people never know. You will perish in your ignorance,” the voice booms.
As the clouds returned to their original position shielding the sun from both the wicked and the just, a loud cry can be heard, stifled by the sound of pouring rain on water.
It is this story that holds Obioma to his standing position. It is this story that clears Obioma’s throat, parts his lips, makes them whisper “Ehn, so can you take me to this Baba?”
This story is the root of Obioma’s turbulent sleep that night, the night after, and the three nights that follow, before they finally leave for Ondo on the day Eze can take off work.
At the Baba’s place, after bowing to enter through a small door made out of plywood and decorated with red beads and gourds with mystic signs etched unto them, Obioma sees the Baba seated on the bare concrete floor.
The Baba is small, draped in a snow-white cloth that contrasts with his black as charcoal skin. He looks like a tuber of yam wrapped in a very large sack. Several beads are dancing around his neck with every move he makes, drowning him. Behind Baba is something that sits like a throne, but may be too narrow and high to sit a person. There is a blood red cloth draped over it, just like the wall behind it. A wooden god with eyebags perches upon it. Several more gods hang firmly at different angles of the wall, some big, others little, some plain-looking, others terrible enough to incite terror even in hard hearts. In front of Baba are beads of various sizes flopped on the ground, a calabash containing a milky red liquid sitting beside the beads.
“Omo Nna!” Baba shouts upon sighting Eze. His smile begins at his left ear and ends at the right.
After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, they flop to the floor opposite Baba, Eze telling Baba what it is they are here for.
Baba is tossing his beads. He is vibrating as he speaks in a strange language, chanting what they reason is incantation. He shoots his head forward, Obioma and Eze darting theirs backwards, their heads almost colliding with the red wall behind them. Baba smiles that smile again, a gold tooth visibly peeping out his partly open lips.
He tells them they’ll do it like they did the last time. They will bring with them a male chicken with a large red crown. The chicken shall be made to feed on the seeds of the gods. They should not worry, Baba will provide those. He says this in Broken English. He tells them that after the chicken has had its fill, it will be beheaded with the knife of the gods, and torrents of wealth shall rain upon Obioma so much that he will not know what to do with it.
However, he continues, the number of seeds the chicken shall eat will represent the number of years Obioma shall live on earth after the ritual, one seed equating three years.
Obioma shifts uncomfortably, the concrete floor scratching his worn back pockets, but Eze just lays his right hand on Obioma’s left thigh, indicating for him to calm down. Eze tells Baba they’ll return in three days with a chicken, its crown redder than blood, larger than two earths. He dumps a large wad of cash on top Baba’s beads as they make to leave, and Baba is smiling that smile again, picking the cash and counting it, telling Eze he shouldn’t have bothered.
Outside in the car, Obioma is complaining, asking what would happen if the chicken decides to eat only one or two or three seeds. What is the point of wealth if there is no longevity? Eze tells him to calm down, reminding him he had gone through the same thing, and his chicken had eaten thirteen seeds. All they have to do is buy a chicken on their way to the hotel they are lodged, starve it for two days, then take it back to Baba on the third day. The chicken will feast, he proclaims. Obioma laughs at his friend’s genius, then praises his wit. Such a great plan, he says, laughing and banging his fists on the dashboard in front of him. Such a great plan!
It is the third day and they are seated on the floor of the shrine opposite Baba. The black and white feathered chicken is standing mysteriously still between Baba and his two customers. Baba retrieves black seeds from inside a white sack tied at the brim with a red cloth studded with cowries. He pours them into a white concoction in a calabash, and it begins to bubble. The concoction sizzles. He forks them out and, his fingers remaining dry, spreads them across the floor in front of the chicken whose head is now dancing from left to right. The chicken cannot believe this is food. It maybe even smiles a bit. It gobbles up five seeds at a time, then three more, and as Obioma cheers, Baba looks at him to quiet him down, throwing calloused fingers and bulging eyes his way. The chicken gobbles up one more seed. It stands still. It coughs, head awkwardly bobbing forward. It coughs again. It sounds like the last embers of air leaking off a balloon. It vomits seven seeds. Leg swivels. Head rotates to the right like an owl’s. It flops to the floor, lifeless, head lolling first then torso following without delay. As Obioma stares at the chicken, then to Baba whose hands are folded on top his head, then to Eze who is seated by his left, what he feels isn’t fear, isn’t anger, is not even terror, but surprise at his friend’s apparent surprise, as Eze looks to him by his own right.