By Sumaila Isah Umaisha
The story is a critical statement on Nigeria's socio-political experience since she gained independence from the British colonial rule in 1960.
It had been quite hectic in the office. Writing the murder story had been as tortuous as the millionaire’s strangling of his wife must have been. They said he did it out of anger, but I still don’t know why he did it. Nor do I know why I chose that particular day to see the man at the roundabout when I should have gone home to rest my tired brain.
"Good day, King," I greeted as I approached the centre of the roundabout. That’s what they called him - King. And like a king, he ignored me and my greeting. He kept on mumbling away and killing flies as he squatted among his madman’s things. He would trap a fly in the fold of his rags, press it dead and flip it into a can.
"Good day, Sir, King," I repeated, adding the ‘Sir’ with the hope that it would break the ice. But the impact it made on the king was no more than the impact a fly could make on a mound of faeces. He killed several flies before he replied.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes, King, I came to…"
"Then sit down," he cut me short. "You can sit on any of the chairs, except one. That one over there… It belongs to the King himself."
I looked around but I couldn’t see any chair. Of course, I didn’t expect to see any. I expected to see scraps of bicycles, motorcycles, cars and the like. And those were all I saw - hollow things from the anonymous folds of the past. The seat that belonged to the king himself was an upturned canoe. And it was the filthiest of all the junks; it was smeared with shit and something like dry blood. I didn’t want to sit on any of those messy things. Not on my life! But I wouldn’t tell him that, lest he turned me away without answering my question. So I stood there trying to decide on the best way out.
As I tried to decide, I was at the same time wondering why the king was allowed to occupy such a strategic place; the major roundabout in town. Why didn’t the task force on environmental sanitation force him out of the place? Since the task force was set up a year ago it had demolished not less than a thousand structures said to be illegal. Why did it spare the king’s palace..?
The concept of ‘palace’, which spontaneously sneaked into my stream of thought, amused me and I burst into laughter. And the king also burst into laughter; a stormy laughter. He was so loud that he attracted passers-by. Pedestrians and motorists hurrying back home after the day’s work glanced up at us, and then hurried on. It would certainly form part of the day’s tale at home - the sight of two madmen gone haywire.
"Now you can sit on the king’s throne," he said after the tumultuous laughter.
"You are qualified to be the King for today."
"No! I will sit here!" I protested and made to sit on the nearest scrap. But he sprang up and pushed me towards the canoe.
He pushed me again even as I staggered, and I landed on the canoe with a deafening crash.
"OK, OK, I will sit… I have sat…!" I stammered, trying to avoid another push. "I have taken over the throne…!"
"That’s better," he said and relaxed. Then, laughing heartily, he went back to his squatting position. "Now, king, what do you want?"
I wanted to say "nothing" and take to my heels. But something seemed to bind me to the canoe and I heard myself saying: "I only came to find out if it is true that you claim to be sane. And if you do claim that, I want to know the basis of your claim."
He chuckled. "You sound authoritative, like the King that you are. I love that. Yes, it is true that I’m not mad. Unless you think otherwise." He gave another laughter, which degenerated into a metallic guffaw. He laughed loud and long like the madman he claimed not to be. Then he snorted to a sudden halt and said: "King, I will tell you the basis of my claim. But first, tell me, is it true that one millionaire murdered his wife yesterday?"
"How did you get the information?" I heard myself ask.
"I have my ears to the ground, you know. Moreover, the poor woman is my ex-wife. She left me when I became a king.
“Now, tell me, is the millionaire mad?” he asked, ignoring my question.
"No, he is perfectly sane. They said he did it out of anger. But…"
"Out of anger? From the way you speak, you don’t seem to know the story well… I’ve never seen a millionaire who is not mad one way or the other."
"I know the story very well. In fact, I have just finished writing the story. I know every detail of it."
"You are a journalist or a policeman then?"
"And you are saying the man is sane?" I saw a mocking laughter frolicking round his filthy mouth.
"Yes, for now, he is sane; till his lawyers prove otherwise."
"So the determination of a man’s sanity rests with his lawyers? Anyway, I don’t blame you, King. I used to think the same way too. That was a long time ago. Now, I will tell you how I graduated from that lowly stage of thought, and by so doing, tell you the basis of my claim to sanity. And since you said you are a journalist, I will be more specific on a particular aspect of the story, with the hope that it will help to refine your ignorance." He gave a mischievous grin and began to tell the story:
The story isn’t much of a story. The more you think of the major character the less you think of him. He was very insane, and as proud as if he were the heartbeat of time upon which the very existence of the universe depended. His official position afforded him the uncanny privilege of being a combination of a top civil servant, a politician, a military officer, a businessman and so on. He was all these at the same time, but you could not pin him down to any of these at any time. Due to the winner-takes-all opportunities attached to this special privilege, he became stinking rich as soon as he assumed the position in 1960.
He was in money right up to his neck. And this at times forced him into acts of charity. Afraid that he might be drowned by the excessive riches, he would dole out a few pound notes here and there. A few notes were often enough for some poor fellows to go down on their knees and weep their appreciation - an act he enjoyed tremendously because it gave him the feeling of being their lord and master. For others, however, a few notes were not enough and he could see the disappointment written boldly on their faces even as they pretended to show gratitude.
Sometimes he got fed up with them all, particularly the miserable fellows that frequented his office to ask for one form of favour or the other. At such times he would order his secretary to disallow everybody from entering his office, including those on official visit. And she would swing into action at once, barking, pushing and kicking them out.
This show of violence usually got to him through the keyhole of the door between his office and hers. And because of the tiny size of the hole, the intensity of the madness normally got filtered before reaching him. He loved the refined version of the violence. It made a melodious background that took the task off his work. One of such mad days as he stared idly at the keyhole, something happened; something that was to mark the turning point of his life. Through the keyhole, he overheard the secretary gossiping about him to a girl.
"This my boss is a real madman. Whenever his madness starts he would not like to see anyone. Like today; I have kicked out no fewer than thirty asses of different shapes and sizes." They giggled.
"He is indeed a madman," said the other girl. "And a womaniser too. Do you know that the other day I came here he made a pass at me?"
"Who does he not make a pass at? The dog!"
What! His secretary calling him a dog? He pressed angrily on the buzzer to summon her. This is an outright act of indiscipline and I’m going to punish her for it, he muttered. How could she say such a thing about me, her boss..?
He was so mad that he didn’t notice her coming in. He became aware of her presence only when she had got close to him. And before he could open his mouth, she had sat on his table, leaned forward and begun to whisper in his ear: "What’s the matter, sweetheart? You look mad; has someone offended you?"
His instinct for self-respect urged him to slap her right away. Kick her off the table! Push her out of the office! But, weakened by some kind of sweet emptiness inside him, he relaxed, drew her closer and covered her succulent lips with his. She came down and sat on his lap, trembling with passion. From below her blouse, his hand reached up for her bra-less breasts. The youthful feel of the excited breasts filled him with a stupid ecstasy. He began to pant like a thirsty dog.
"Let’s go!" she gasped, her eyes closed and her mouth slack, overwhelmed by the flame of desire. They stood up and headed for the toilet.
They emerged from the toilet some minutes later, perspiring profusely. They met the other girl in the office, on his seat. What the hell was she doing in the office? he wondered. The secretary simply walked out of the office without a second glance at her.
"What do you want?" he queried.
"And what do you think I want, you shameless dog!" she barked and made to grab his necktie. But he was too quick for her despite the fact that he was old enough to be her father. He jerked backwards and slapped her hard, sending her and the chair tumbling across the office. He went after her, intending to hit her again if she repeated anything funny. But she merely disentangled herself from the chair and sat down on the floor. Looking up at him, tears began to gather in her large, milky eyes like a cloud upon a clear sky. And the very first drop melted his heart. He raised her gently to her feet and enfolded her in a fatherly embrace. She murmured and sighed as she felt his heart beating against her breast.
"I’m sorry," he said and kissed her. She responded with a mad passion, holding him tightly and sucking his tongue with orgasmic pleasure. "I’m sorry," he repeated, wishing he had his Viagra handy.
"It’s all right… darling…" She was breathless. He felt her slim body writhing in the pain of desire. The Viagra… if only he could reach it… He would go for it first…
But as he started to disengage himself from her, she protested: "Take me!" He bent over and lifted her up and headed for the toilet.
When they came out later, she walked quietly out of the office.
He sat down and rearranged his chair and table to resume his work. As he picked the first file, he heard riotous laughter from the secretary’s office. Unconsciously, he joined the laughter. Crazy world! he thought, laughing heartily.
He was still laughing when the door burst open and a woman popped into the office.
"Oho! They are laughing at me and you too are laughing at me!" the woman thundered.
"Laughing at you?" He sounded serious.
"Are you asking me?" She sat angrily at the table and faced him squarely. "For over twenty minutes I was held up by your secretary on the pretext that you were busy…only to discover that…”
"To discover what? Look, darling, take it easy…"
"Don’t patronize me, you rascal!" She sprang up and kicked the table. "Shameless dog! After your shameful act with your bitches you still have the guts to call me darling…"
"Please, don’t insinuate anything. The laughter has nothing to do with your person per se, or anything I have done. I have done nothing shameful. I think they are laughing at your dress. See how transparent it is… One can even see beyond your pants!" The accusation dazed her into the mood he wanted.
"But… I…I…" Her spirit had fled.
"By the way, what do you want that you have to come to me in the office?" It was another damning shot.
She flopped down on the chair and began to sob. Sitting there with her head hanging down like a deflated balloon, she cut the gloomy picture of a grounded horse on the road to nowhere. He leaned forward and sniffed her breath…
"You have been drinking again!"
The silence that followed this shot was almost visible. Even her sobbing could no longer be heard, only the silent sound of the tears dropping on the table could be faintly perceived. For an endless moment, he stared at the drunken woman through thick jungles of a million thoughts… Poor woman!
The poor woman was his wife; the mother of his four children. She was completely innocent when he married her in 1960. She was totally green before the marriage. It was he who taught her all the crazy things she was now doing, including drinking and dressing in the latest and craziest fashions. He taught her all the evil things that had now reduced her to a forlorn figure of pity…
He heaved a deep sigh and then got up and went round to her. With a heavy heart, he raised her to her feet.
"Mother!" he called with a voice full of remorse. That was his pet name for her. "Mother, go home and wait for me. I will settle this once and for all." He wiped her tears with the edge of his shirt, smearing the white material. And, with his hand round her shoulders, he led her to the door.
Then he walked quietly to the safe, even as a violent wave of laughter assailed him from the secretary’s office. (They were laughing at her again.) He opened the safe and brought out the drugs. At a time like this he took a dose of the hard stuff to douse his madness. But on this particular occasion, he decided to take ten times his usual dose, hoping it would permanently shut him out of the world of madness.
And it did, for since then he has been operating beyond the failings of worldly madness - he has become a king...
"What a disgusting story!" I heard myself exclaim. "You mean this is a true life story? The story of your life?"
"No!" he retorted. "And good day, blockhead!"
"Don’t be offended please, but…"
"I-SAID-GOOD-DAY!" He sprang to his feet.
I didn’t want to be manhandled again, so I tore myself from the spellbinding canoe
Sumaila Isah Umaisha is the Literary Editor of New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna, Nigeria. He has written two collections of short stories; The Last Hiding Place and Burning Dreams, and a collection of poems; hell@heavensgate. His poems and short stories are published in seven anthologies. He is currently working on two books, collections of interviews with Nigerian writers; Nigerian Writers Talking (Vol. 1 & 2). He won the Association of Nigerian Author's Literary Journalist of the Year Award in 2004 and 2007.