The sun was at its furious best. Even the expressway in Ikirun was deserted, save for a few people foolish enough to be about. Micah was travelling to Lagos to attend a cousin’s wedding but such was the ill will of the sun that I began to question the existence of Lagos and the sensibility of marriage.
But Micah, already hidden behind his Will Smith sunglasses and under NYSC cap, with his rug sack hung behind him like an adopted hunchback, seemed barely affected by the terrorist sun. The way he stood, I was sure he wouldn’t budge until he was carried to his wedding.
“Ehen, I have been thinking,” he began.
“Even a mad man should think now and then,” I interjected.
Micah hissed. “Be serious joor.”
“You must love this your cousin o, because this weather is Lucifer incorporated. What has Einstein been thinking?”
He sighed. “Guy, we will pass out in three months’ time. Now what skill can we say we have acquired during our service year?”
“The skill of survival… It requires skills to survive in Cemetery Lodge.”
Micah’s face crowded with annoyance. “Why are you like this na?”
“Ibadan?” a driver in a slowed-down station wagon shouted at us. Micah shook his head. The man stepped on the metal.
“What did you learn during SAED in the orientation camp?”
SAED was Skills Acquisition Entrepreneur Development, I think, or something equally abbreviated from folly. In the camp, the soldiers had a tough time forcing the likes of me to go out for SAED in the midmorning all through to noon.
“‘I attended make-up class on the first day, then German class, then agro-allied. Then I settled for auto mechanic.” I didn’t tell Micah I settled for auto mechanic because its canopy was close to my hostel, which meant I could slip in and out when I heard soldiers coming and going.
Micah shook his head with something that looked like pity. “So why didn’t you do off-camp training?”
He was starting to sound like Uncle Dayo, which irritated me. “This weather is evil,” I responded instead.
“Forget the weather. We just have to learn something before we pass out,” he said. “Just look around. Everyone in Cemetery Lodge has one or two skills except us.”
“It’s a lie.”
“It’s true. Look at Edwin, he is a good barber. Fisayo and Fatima are learning shoe and bag making. Agatha is a fashion designer, Mercy is learning that. And Tina is a professional hairdresser. Just me and you, nothing-nothing.”
“I am a writer,” I said and regretted it instantly.
Micah laughed, a scornful bark of mirth. “Yes, you run a blog that you force us to read. How much will that make to keep you off the streets. Just look at your laptop for instance…”
I began to walk away, but Micah blocked me. The sound of his laughter and the heat of the sun bruised my sanity.
“Man, don’t be emotional about this. Come on!” he urged.
“You brought me to Ikirun to assault me, abi?”
“No assault intended.” He laughed again. “I sing and write songs myself but I don’t count it for now. Nigeria is too intolerant for you to bury your eggs in your talent basket.”
“What about Uncle Dayo, Agu and IBK? Is it only me and you that you see?”
“Agu is already set for the Jamaican embassy. Uncle will work in the Lord’s vineyard. As for IBK, never mind.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Her father is bastardly rich. Then she’s an experienced tourist. See, if you are in love with that girl for real, you should be worried that Mister and Missis have no single skill.”
This touched me deeply. I began to see that it wasn’t all that bad to learn something, no matter what. But what? Most of the programmes I wished to learn were only run in Oshogbo, Ile-Ife, or Ilesa. “There’s nothing to do around here.”
“What about mechanic?”
“Not for me.”
Micah sighed. “What do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
A Sienna came to a stop before us. “Lagos?”
Micah said yes. I asked how much.
Micah turned to me. “Man, think about the SAED stuff. I trust you. I will learn anything you decide. Please, give it a long thought.” He hugged me. Micah had never hugged me before. A small sadness pricked my chest as he slapped my back.
“When are you coming back?” My voice was husky with emotion.
“Sunday. I really should stay longer but you know NYSC rules.”
He was CLO, which made the NYSC rule of not traveling at all (except for a grave reason with written approval) hold water for him. So he had to sneak away on Friday and sneak back on Sunday. Poor boy.
“Take care of yourself,” he said as he opened the car door.
I nodded. Micah was acting strange, telling me things he never said to me, sounding more like a responsible brother. I turned to the driver. “Be careful,” I said gravely. “You have a very important corper in your car. Nothing should dare happen to him.”
The driver said something, but his voice was drowned by the ignition he had started. Micah began waving. I nodded and stood watching until the car disappeared. It felt like Micah was gone from Osun forever.
Whenever I felt unhappy or hit by the early pangs of depression, I went to IBK and got a refill of happiness. So my first port of call when I returned to the Cemetery Lodge was her room. I found her stirring a pot of stew.
“Boo, you back?”
I nodded. I waited for her to look at my face and say something softening, but she was more interested in the stew.
She had placed stew above me! Without turning her face from her pot, she said, “Get knife please and help me cut these onions.” Like my immediate elder sister, IBK would never cook anything without turning everyone around to her handmaid.
“I have headache.” I began to leave the room.
“Get panadol and then attend to the onions. Please cut them round-round.”
“I need to lie down. I will cut you a thousand onions when I get better.”
She looked up then, and searched my face with her beautiful eyes. I managed to keep my face straight and sickly under her scrutiny. She shook her head. “Okay o, go and lie down. Just help me put four cups of rice on fire on your stove.”
She blew me a kiss which weakened my resolve to argue. In fact, it healed my ‘headache’. I suddenly observed that she was wearing a singlet over bum shorts and took a step forward. She said nothing, just continued stirring the pot more forcefully. If she had said ‘No, don’t come near me’, then I was safe. But she said nothing, and she had a hot soup spoon in her hand. I decided to go and boil rice.
I had just gotten the pot on fire when I got the phone call. It was Micah’s number. He had arrived Lagos so soon? “How far?” I said.
It wasn’t Micah who replied me. In fact the person spoke Yoruba. I ended the call. Micah had lost his phone and I wouldn’t give the thief the honour of mocking me. The phone rang again. I took the phone to IBK.
“Someone is rapping Yoruba to me,” I said and returned to my rice.
Seconds later, I heard IBK shout. I dropped the pot cover and fled back to her room. “What happened?” I panted.
My heart took a sharp brake that shook my entire being. IBK dropped to the floor, her head on her hands, whimpering. I forced myself to take charge. We wouldn’t get anywhere if everyone lost their heads.
“Where is Micah now?”
Edwin, Agu and Agatha had joined us.
“I don’t know. They said the driver died on the spot.”
“But Micah isn’t the driver!” I screamed at her. “Where did they take him to? What hospital?”
“Take it easy,” Edwin said.
IBK said she couldn’t remember. I went into the room and picked up my phone on the floor where she had dropped it. The screen was shattered. I dialed Micah’s number. I gave IBK the phone.
“Leave her alone,” Agatha said.
“We can’t help Micah by leaving people alone. IBK alone speaks Yoruba here! Ask them what hospital he is admitted in.”
We succeeded in getting the hospital name somewhere in Ibadan. I called Uncle Dayo and we began making arrangements for a car. In less than three quarters of an hour after we heard the news, Uncle Dayo, IBK, Edwin, Mercy and I were in a chartered car to Ibadan.
During the drive, I made passionate deals with God. God, if you save my friend’s life, I will take to the streets and win souls for You. I will not abuse anyone for ten years. I will give April allowance to NCCF…
Behind me, Mercy was praying, Edwin was mouthing the beads of his rosary, and IBK was trying not to cry aloud.
Lord Jesus, please, mercies…
The car brought us to the hospital gate after an hour of trial-and-error calls. It was now dark. As the others rushed into the one-storey building, I stayed behind to give the driver half of his exorbitant fee, as he said he wanted to buy fuel. He complained about not being given the whole money. I ignored him and entered the hospital.
In the waiting room, I saw my colleagues coming down the stairs. Edwin had his face covered with a handkerchief. Dayo was leading Mercy down. They were all shedding tears.
“Don’t tell me anything!” I roared as Dayo made to address me. I ran past them with absent legs up the stairs. The stairs ended on a long passageway. IBK sat by the door on the opposite end, like a statue. I ran into the ward just as the nurse was covering Micah’s body.
“Why cover his face?” I screamed.
The woman turned and blocked my way. She was small but possessed the energy of a horse. I managed to grab the sheet as she began to shove me out. It wasn’t just her energy; there was a painful reluctance in my bones against confirming the worst. The sheet in my hand had slipped from Micah’s body when we reached the door, and just before I was pushed into the passage, I summoned all my will and looked at Micah’s face. Even in death, he was cool, charming and handsome.
Written by Kingsley Okechukwu, tweets @Oke4chukwu