ABUJA Road is awake to the morning hurrying to lift the fog before the sun rises and falls on the hills, eyeballing the sky from across the road. The road is filled with everything you find in a car repair workshop-used tyres, wheels, iron bars-heaps of rubbish the constable, at the orders of the sergeant and inspector, piled on the road to obstruct traffic. By the side of the road, a middle aged woman called Sweet Mother stands on a bench spreading fresh thatches over the roof of the hut that serves as a beer bar and nearby an itinerant music seller fiddles with the play button of his music box to start the week’s chart topper. Down the road, and near the foot of the hill hugging the broken edges of the road, stands the signpost that warns:
Slow down, Cheque point Charlie ahead!
“Roger, this is for the road,” says one driver, letting a squashed bank note fly through the window as he swerves round between the tyres and wheels and speeds into the fog.
“Travel safely,” replies the constable, carefully stamping his right boot on the bank note to prevent the wind from blowing it away. He flags a car down.
“Park, park here, driver!”
“Get down and show me your license,” barks the constable, making frantic attempts to secure the bank note beneath his boot.
“I’ll obey your command, Roger,” replies the driver, prodded more by the Kalashnikov the constable is pointing at him than by his mad dog countenance.
“Roger, stop this harassment,” continues the driver, “let us talk business.”
The constable smiles, nods his head. The driver alights at the right spot, clutching a roll of crisp bank notes and a bottle of Johnny Walker. “Lower your gun, and have these for the Christmas and for the good job you are doing to keep the road safe. Christmas doesn’t come every day, does it?”
The constable, collecting the gifts, answers that Christmas comes quickly on those days when drivers cut to the chase and offer him what he does not ask for and double what he does ask for.
“Drivers like you don’t waste police time, they save it,” he compliments the driver.
Bobby Benson’s Taxi Driver wafts through the air and the music seller, riffling through the pile of counterfeit cassettes, selects the new release he intends to play. Encouraged by the crowd gathering around him, the music seller selects one cassette after another from his selection box, pitching his voice above the cacophony of voices. “Whatever satisfies your listening pleasures, I have it here. Whether it is made in China, Taiwan or Aba, it is here. Buy this one and treat your sweetheart to Stephen Osadebe’s One pound, no balance,” screams the music seller. “Reserve me a copy,” says the sergeant as he crosses the road, raising his hand like the stop-sign of a lollipop lady.
A Mercedes Benz 911 truck pulls up in front of the sergeant. The sergeant orders the driver out and marches him to the back of the truck.
“Well,” says the sergeant, “you won’t deny business isn’t good today?”
“Business is bad today,” replies the driver, bending his knees, his hands cupped in a plea.
“Look here, driver,” says the sergeant, “I have heard this from you before; you’ll have to drop something now or I’ll impound your truck, march you straight to my inspector. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Yes,” replies the driver, still pleading, “I’ll drop something on my return journey; I swear in God’s name, I’ll drop something-”
“You are wasting police time,” interjects the sergeant angrily, hitting the truck’s tailboard with the butt of the Kalashnikov. “If you don’t make me an offer now, you’ll offer my inspector double when I take you to him.” The sergeant orders the passengers down, leads the driver away. The passengers follow a short distance behind.
The sun hanging over the hills breaks out on the road; the passengers, particularly the older women, bring out their head gears and spread them over their cornrows while the younger passengers argue over the morality of giving bribes to the police. The argument moves forward and backward. One middle-aged woman, a petty trader, who has been quiet all this while, suggests she prefers to give bribe and regain what she gives out by putting up the prices of her goods. The argument moves from morality to collusion.
“Sir, this driver is refusing to drop something,” says the sergeant, adjusting the three V pinned loosely to his right arm.
“Why have you refused to drop something, driver? Don’t you appreciate the risk my men take to protect you?”
“Yes,” say some of his passengers in unison, “we do.”
“But, I have not said-” says the driver; but a Young man cuts in, “it is not for us to bribe your men who are doing their work.”
“Listen, Young man,” remarks the inspector, “I am not asking you to bribe my officers; just show appreciation, no matter how little, for the work they are doing. My officers accept anything you offer, even a cheque made payable in my name.”
“A cheque made payable in your name?”
“Now I understand why the signpost down the road warns drivers to stop at the cheque point,” remarks the Young man sarcastically.
“Yes,” says the inspector, “it is good practice to set up cheque points, even the Americans recognised that when they set up ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ in Berlin after the Great War.”
“To conceive of Checkpoint Charlie as a place where the Germans handed cheques to the Americans is to falsify history, sir,” protests the Young man.
“You don’t understand,” says the inspector, pouring beer into his half-empty glass, “Americans were so clever with the way they went about checking the influx of immigrants. They made the world believe that Checkpoint Charlie was a mere crossing point. But your history books won‘t tell you they collected cheques on the side, Young man.”
“If that was true, they would have called the crossing Cheque point Charlie rather than Checkpoint Charlie,” explains the Youngman politely.
“Well,” remarks the inspector, “this is where you get it wrong; Americans don’t spell cheque the way we do. Check is cheque.” The inspector adjusts his beret, turning to the driver, dismissing him with the wave of hand.
“Thank you, thank you, sir,” says the driver, promising to drop something on his return journey.
The passengers file out into the shaft of sunlight bathing the road. The driver, who was quiet while the argument raged on, pats the Young man on the back, raising his hand up just to show he won the argument. And inside the hut the inspector, inspired by the brilliance of the Young man, mulls over the failure of his own good-for-nothing son to climb the height his peers climb at school. He settles on the chair, staring at the dirty bank notes spread on the table, raising his empty glass, hailing the sweet mother with a clumsy slur, “Another bottle of beer, Sweet Mother!”
The music box restarts one of yesteryear’s classics. Sweet Mother, carrying a glass of beer on a tray, briefly shakes her body down.
She shuffles up to the inspector, watching him with admiration as he counts the cash and the cheques morning thrusts on him.
“If only my husband will learn to solicit something from pupils who turn up late at school instead of caning them,” murmurs sweet mother, rather sadly, “but he is a teacher who believes his reward is his salary.”
She serves him the beer, drops the tray on the floor. She sits beside him, the distance between them only more than the length of a match stick, and begins to mumble out the frustration that comes with being married to a teacher of a man who hardly survives on his slave wage beyond the payday. “Life is hard but you must look on the brighter side, he would always say,” she concludes.
“Life is hard,” echoes the inspector, wetting his thumb as he counts the cash and cheques, “but it could become a lot better if you do the right things, take the right steps.”
“How do you mean?” asks Sweet Mother, jerking her head towards the inspector, staring at him.
“It is very simple,” replies the inspector, inching closer once more to Sweet Mother, his thigh rubbing against her thigh, “if a teacher cannot provide for you, you look elsewhere for a policeman.”
“You m-e-a-n,” stammers Sweet Mother, following a short silence.
“Don’t tell me you don’t understand,” says the inspector.
He stops talking. He rests his right hand firmly on Sweet Mother’s shoulder, looks at her with a covetous eye. “The police is your friend; I want you to see me as a friend, take me as your special friend, your special friend who will turn your frustration into cash,” continues the inspector, obviously worried by the look of frustration on her face. He runs his fingers around the side of his glass; and he resumes the conversation, concluding with the promise to restore her to the good life. He hands her a roll of dirty bank notes. She smiles and collects the dirty bank notes from him, assured of a better life. She looks at him with the unmistakable expression of love, of admiration for a special friend she could depend on, banishing frustration from her face.
The inspector, half turning in his seat, invites Sweet Mother to sit on his lap. She obliges him, smiling. She mumbles, half to herself, “The police is my friend.” And for the first time he abandons the counting of the cash and cheques. Outside, right at the Cheque point, the constable and the sergeant are arguing over who should keep the bottle of Johnny Walker. The drivers at the front of the queuing traffic are ceaselessly hooting their horns at them. The traffic backing a kilometre down Abuja Road snails past the sign post.