He was a long young fellow. He didn’t fancy the description. But it was how the professor often referred to him. He could not tell the old man to use tall instead. He did everything he could to keep his employer pleased with him. The professor paid him consistently, even in months the Government owed them. For four years, he worked at the department, taught the courses assigned to the professor when the man had other appointments, and graded his students’ work.
There were two other young men around, long before him. One of them was a graduate student, popularly known as the dean’s boy; the other, a junior lecturer. The two negotiated with students to better their grades. He wasn’t aware of this until a student offered to pay him N7000 to upgrade her result. When he vehemently refused, the girl whose breasts were threatening to punch his face accused him of pretending to be more righteous than his colleagues who made students’ lives stress-free. Although he needed to refill his cylinder, buy a fast charger and repair his favourite shoes, he didn’t think the girl was capable of keeping the deal a secret. He could have seen her nipples if he looked at her transparent gown with more intent, so he couldn’t trust her. He didn’t want to lose his position. It was not just about the job. It was the agreement, or rather, the promise the professor made him that he was determined to protect.
The professor’s students were at first disappointed to see Onyeomere in class, but when he began to speak, they were enchanted by his aura, and intrigued by his theatrical display. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm with which he spoke about Christopher Okigbo and Edger Allan Poe. The way he made Shakespeare come alive.
He wasn’t always like that: serious, uncompromising and bleak. When he was still a student, he once paid a lecturer to pass a course he couldn’t pass otherwise. It was in his final year, and he wanted to have the last bit of fun, as his friends called it. In those last undergraduate days, he spent most nights drinking, smoking and having sex with just about any girl. His friends enjoyed the parties when he was there; he wasn’t just smart, he could make people laugh by saying things that would sound absurd or insensitive in other peoples’ voices. His friends couldn’t understand why he became boring after his grandfather died. After the loss, it was difficult to have fun without him, but later, they realized that drinking and banter felt good when they didn’t have a friend frowning at one corner.
Ever since Onyeomere learnt to recite the alphabet at the age of two, his school fees and allowances came from his grandfather’s pocket. Ifeyinwa often said that her father did not care for her, and the only times he spoke to her was about his grandson. But she only complained about such matters to her husband who almost always acted mute whenever she talked about her father, Chief Theo. But in any case, she was happy for her son. She only wished for her father’s wholesome forgiveness.
Ifeyinwa did not plan to marry Nnadi. When her father saw that her belly had grown almost as large as his, he swore to throw her out of his mansion. Chief Theo was the chairman of the parish council at St. Martin’s Catholic Church, and a Knight of St. Mulumba. He didn’t want to be the subject of poor people’s gossip, so he drove his Mercedes to Nnadi’s father’s compound and told Nnadi to come to his house the next day with palm wine for Ifeyinwa’s hand. He threw a bundle of naira notes at Nnadi, and returned to his car before the young man could bend over to pick up the money his trembling hands couldn’t catch. Chief Theo preferred the shame of giving his daughter’s hand to the son of a bicycle mechanic to the torture of having an unwed daughter pregnant in his household. So, the next day, he blessed the union with a sullen face. There were only three witnesses present.
In the beginning, Ifeyinwa did not dislike Nnadi, because he adored her. But four months after they began living together, she told Nnadi, in a voice loud enough for the cracked walls of their rickety room to hear, that she did not deserve a wretched husband. At that time, she was already nursing Onyeomere. Their eavesdropping neighbours, who predicted that Ifeyinwa would go back to her father’s house once her son began to walk, were shocked when they saw her pregnant again. When she gave birth to Chinenyenwa, the neighbours thought the couple had found peace, and began to doubt all the quarrelling voices they heard coming from Nnadi’s house. It’s probably their television, they said. But everyone could see that Nnadi lost his usual joviality and indeed a lot of weight the months following his daughter’s arrival. That was when the neighbours began telling jokes about Nnadi. Soon, the whole village was whispering that Nnadi aged by the minute while Ifeyinwa glowed by the second. Anyone who did not know Nnadi in those days would think he was a madman the way little children chanted his name when they saw him in the streets. Because they saw that Nnadi did his carpentry work almost every day, the few villagers who claimed they were more critical in their thinking, suggested that he brought his meager wages home and put them all in Ifeyinwa’s hand to please her. But, they added with rehearsed concern, the amount Nnadi gave her was a tissue paper compared to what she received from her father.
As Nnadi’s clothes continued to grow bigger for his leaning frame, people became more critical about employing him, saying that they only want to patch their roofs, not bury a man whose death was a sneeze away. Then his accident happened. When he fell from the roof of his cousin’s house, people thought it was the end for him. Indeed, he never recovered from that fall. Onyeomere was in primary five at the time. He came back from school that day, and saw his mother sobbing, scooping jollof rice into a food flask. She told him she was going to the hospital. She told him that his father fell. He didn’t even say chai. He took out his report card from his school bag, and got on his bicycle which his grandfather gifted him. Then he rode to his maternal home, to show his grandfather his end of the term result. Ifeyinwa couldn’t cry again after her son left. She wiped off the tears that still strayed on her face.
The professor was not the first old man to promise to help Onyeomere advance his studies in America. It was Chief Theo, his grandfather. He rarely prayed, but sometimes, Onyeomere wished that God would take the remaining years of his father’s insignificant life and add it to the professor’s remaining years.
Onyeomere didn’t visit the faculty cafeteria regularly. It was where lecturers gathered in the late afternoon and exchanged radical philosophies over kegs of palm wine and bottles of beer. He was there the day one of the lecturers, Anyika, a lanky man who came to school every day in one brown pair of trousers that made him look older than he is, raised his voice and told Onyeomere to consider himself lucky to be in such elite company, and especially under the mentorship of the stellar Professor, Ndubuisi.
Onyemere thought he was more fortunate to have finished the food on his plate before the man began to talk. For although Anyika was at a different table, his spittle had the propensity to travel as far as three tables away.
Amidst spraying alcoholic saliva, Anyika was saying that the professor was an iconic scholar whom he considered energetic and unnaturally brilliant. You young men of nowadays, he said, do not pay attention to worthy interests. My first son lies in bed the whole day, staring at his phone, grinning. Sometimes he laughs so loud, the neighbour’s dogs begin to bark. When I ask his mother what is funny, she says he is watching Tiktok. I don’t even know what that is. I hope your interests are not swayed by such temporal nonsense.
Onyeomere shook his head respectfully, took a sip of his coke and capped the bottle again. Anyika continued. He was sitting with three of his colleagues who seemed to be dozing off and waking up at short intervals.
Follow Prof’s work. Have you read his most recent paper?
What is the title again? He asked his colleagues who were leaning on the edge of their bottle-crowded table.
Are you asking me, are you not the one that said you read it? One of the men said chuckling.
Yes, he called it Humuor as the Sole Mask of the Contemporary Satirist. Yes! That’s the title. A Reading of Elnathan John’s Becoming Nigerian. Intriguing stuff, Anyika concluded, as he raised his cup to his puffy lips.
Onyeomere thanked him for the advice and promised to read the paper. It would be reckless to tell the man that Professor Ndubuisi’s only contribution to that paper or any of the books he had published in recent times, was writing the acknowledgements in which his name, Onyeomere Ibegbulam, was not even mentioned.
He is meeting with the governor this afternoon, Onyeomere replied when Anyika asked why the professor was not in the cafeteria that evening.
Brimming with energy, Anyika shouted. From the Vice Chancellor’s office to the government house, he does all these for the state and the school, and still has time for his research. You should emulate that, young man! Anyika concluded yet again.
Professor Ndubuisi dealt with politicians and often got what he desired from them, but when it came to writing and academic research, Onyeomere handled that for him. Perhaps there was a time when the professor ploughed on the field of scholarship with hands on his own hoes, but if such a time existed, then it must have been in his youth.
As Onyeomere spent more time at the university, his mornings grew into the hardest time of his day, more daunting than his nights. He would wake up on some mornings, and begin to reevaluate his decision to remain in Owerri instead of moving to the village to assist in his mother’s shop, cutting vegetables and pounding fufu until he could find a proper job. On such mornings, he would tell himself that working for the professor was an ache he had to endure to keep his dreams from dying, that moving to Orlu would mean accepting the paralysis of his potential. He would remind himself that it was Professor Ndubuisi who helped his predecessor, Chuka to secure admission into the University of Nebraska on scholarship. He would remember his grandfather and almost weep. If death hadn’t snatched the man away from him, he wouldn’t have to pretend to be comfortable with a life of subservience and compromise and endurance. His real self was buried with his grandfather, he thought. Sometimes, he marveled at how low he was willing to bend for the professor who was his former lecturer. He began to work for Professor Ndubuisi when his mother could no longer afford to send him money after Youth Service. Since then, he seemed to be descending daily into depths of unhappiness.
When three years passed, and Onyeomere was still a personal assistant at the state University, he threatened to suspend his work on Books in the Age of TikTok: Getting the African Youth to Read Again, a volume he was writing in his mentor’s name. The professor admonished him with a harsh tone when he heard the threat. He smacked his table, and Onyeomere flinched.
I am making efforts every single day to help you. I don’t sleep well at night because I am planning your future. And you speak like that to me? Nobody knows you.
The professor’s large stomach swelled up and down as he shouted.
And because you’re inexperienced, it is difficult to get you published in reputable journals! I’ve told you that your publication history is a key prerequisite for your admission on scholarship. I’m using my connections to help you but it’s not a simple task. So, be patient and complete that book. It would be a groundbreaking book, I know it. Wouldn’t you like the author of such a pioneering academic work to write your recommendation letter to Yale or Glasgow?
Onyeomere went home earlier than usual after his confrontation with the professor. That night seemed infinite. Charles, his old friend and former course mate, had called the day before and offered him a job that would pay higher than the stipend Professor Ndubuisi handed him at the end of the month. The job was in a livestock farm; he would earn N35, 000 monthly which was almost twice the amount the old man paid him. He was tired of slaving around but he didn’t want the three years he had devoted to the professor to be for nothing. On the other hand, the animal farm had the potential to grow as fast as the chickens they reared there. But it would be a menial repetitive job that would involve picking animals’ shit and breathing in their farts. He preferred jobs that enriched his intellect. There was also a possibility of an unknown disease killing all the animals in one night, like an assassin sent by ill luck. A mosquito flew by his face and he clapped.
But have I not been unlucky? He asked himself. Have I not been an academic slave? he screamed. What’s the difference between me and my ancestors who were shipped to the Caribbean islands?
It was around 2am and the night was quiet. The caretaker’s dog heard the noise and didn’t stop barking for nineteen minutes. On the twentieth minute, Onyeomere sprang to his feet and brushed off the latch on his door, the metal cut his palm, intensifying his anger. He ran to the caretaker’s quarters and began to pronounce a litany of curses on the dog and its puppies. At that moment of tense exchange between Onyeomere and the dog, the caretaker opened his narrow door, a flashlight in his hand. The ray met Onyeomere, and the dog began to chase him. He ran to his room calling on his God. He closed his door, leaning his back against it. The dog was in front of the door, sniffing and growling.
Hope! The caretaker called, and Onyeomere heard the dog running outside. He cursed the caretaker with eternal diarrhea, after bolting his door.
When the day broke, Onyeomere went outside with a bucket to fetch water from the tank. But when he saw Hope lying in its locked cage, he walked to the caretaker’s door, and began to knock on it with unrestrained aggression. Then, the short hairy man came out in his boxers.
Sir O, good morning, he greeted.
They called Onyeomere Sir in the neighbourhood because he worked at the University and never spoke Pidgin English. They called him “O” because it was easier to pronounce.
So last night, you told your dog to bark without cease, and when I came outside to complain about it, you sent the beast after me. Onyeomere was shouting, his finger a whisk away from the caretaker’s eye.
Sir O, the caretaker called, motioning him to calm down, no be so. I no tell Hope mek e chase you o. I no even know wetin sup for night sef. I been hear when my dog de bark, I con say mek I check wetin de happen, he explained.
I won’t have your mockery, Onyeomere thundered. You’re implying that I am a fool who doesn’t know what happened to him in the night?
At that point, some students who lived in the compound began to come out of their rooms because of the noise. A chubby girl, from her window upstairs spoke in the hearing of everyone, and in favour of the caretaker and his dog. Seeing that engaging the girl in an argument would be a waste of his time and intellect, Onyeomere carried his bucket of water to his room.
When Onyeomere arrived at the faculty, he walked past Dr Okemmadu in the hallway without regarding him. Instead, he hissed and walked away after brushing shoulders with the senior lecturer.
In the evening, Charles called him and reminded him that he needed to make a decision about the job before 9am the next day. He couldn’t sleep that night. In the morning, he called Charles to tell him that he would not be accepting the job.
He remembered how Charles used to quote Soyinka with awesome accuracy when they were undergraduates, how Charles once wrote a twenty page essay on Ulysses. In those days, he never had a doubt that Charles would be a remarkable scholar. But now, he was an untrained animal farmer.
Onyeomere usually took campus buses, but that morning, the buses were demanding N100 instead of N50.
From here to Front Gate? He asked the driver whose only response was, fuel don add money.
He cursed the driver with poverty, insisting that he was the cause of Nigeria’s problems. The driver sped off while returning the curses; his bus empty.
It was the second Wednesday of the month, a day designated for faculty meetings. The dean’s secretary came to Onyeomere’s desk with a letter that morning, inviting him to the meeting. He thought it was odd. Perhaps, they have a good proposition for me, he wondered.
In the afternoon, during the meeting, Dr Okemmadu brought up the issue of his assault by Onyeomere in the staircase, stressing that the young man nearly pushed him down the stairs but thanks to his daily push up exercises, he caught himself after descending two steps. Most lecturers in the room knew that Dr Okemmadu was Professor Ndubuisi’s arch rival who would say anything to cause the good professor distress.
The dean spoke afterwards, inviting Onyeomere to give his account, out of respect for his mentor. But Onyeomere remained seated, his hand on his jaw and covering his mouth, his gaze on the ticking hand of the wall clock.
Anyika sprang from where he sat beside Professor Ndubuisi. Directing his finger at Onyeomere, Anyika reminded the young man how lucky he was to be in the company of such calibre of learned men and women, how disgraceful it was to be alleged to have exhibited such behaviour and how insulting he was being by ignoring the dean. He paused, and the room was quiet for a few seconds. Onyeomere still maintained his posture. The dean scoffed.
Anyika continued. He went on about how young men no longer had regard for their elders. The words, “moral turpitude” were still on his lips when Onyeomere pushed the long table, stood up, and told him to shut up.
Are you not the same Mr Anyika whose female students come to me in tears, complaining that you thrust your dirty finger into their vaginas? Onyeomere bellowed.
The lecturers whose gazes were on Onyeomere turned their faces away, some looked at their feet, others inspected the blue label of the water bottles in front of them.
What is your relationship with these girls of whom you speak, that they come to you with such ill complaints? Anyika finally said, his voice gentler now.
Maybe they come to me because I have never touched their breasts. Maybe they come to me because no one else listens to…
Get out now! Professor Ndubuisi ordered. Go home at once. The conference room was quiet again except for the whirling of the fan.
All of you…Onyeomere began again.
Out! The professor thundered, his belly rising to his jaw. The senator he was wearing looked so tight on him. When he shouted and his stomach swelled, it seemed as though he would burst.
Onyeomere hissed and left.
Walking home, Onyeomere was grateful that he didn’t get the opportunity to mention Clara during his outburst. Clara was the Philosophy student whom he used to fantasize about marrying. But one evening after assessing the professor’s students’ scripts, he was getting ready to lock the office when he saw Clara exiting Dr Okemmadu’s office, her fingers tucking her blue shirt into her rumpled black skirt. At first, he didn’t think about what he’d seen. But when he saw Dr Okemmadu a few moments later, buckling his belt as he came out of his office, Onyereomere ran downstairs to look for Clara. When he emerged at the entrance of the building, he looked around but didn’t see her. Later that evening, he went to her hostel and asked her if she was in Okemmadu’s office. She began to sob. She told him it was what Dr Okemmadu demanded; it was the only way she could pass his course.
Onyeomere didn’t bother so much about whatever he said about Anyika. Nobody took the lanky man seriously anyway. That evening, he called his mentor to apologize for his misconduct. The professor told him he would no longer need his services. But when Onyeomere begged him, Professor Ndubuisi said he could still be writing the book, but he would be working from home.
When he rose, he decided that after completing the professor’s manuscript, he would focus on his own creative work, writing short stories and poems, and perhaps, he would win a literary prize and begin his life afresh.
Months passed and Onyeomere did not win any prize. He ghostwrote stories and was paid as low as one naira per word. He began eating only once a day. His mother called him almost every day to ask about the prize he said he was close to winning. Eventually, he asked his mother to not talk about the prize anymore.
Somehow, Onyeomere fell onto the belief that he could make something out of life through creative writing, that writing could change his life. In the evening, he danced to highlife or bongo in his bathroom, especially when he completed a difficult part of a complex story.
His life did begin to change one August morning. He had just written a tender poem titled August Drizzles on a Lover’s Hair, when he heard a knock on his door. He opened the door and saw the caretaker who looked as though he had spent the night in the rain.
You suppose de happy now. You don finally kill my dog, the man said, a catch in his throat. Na only bark she bark. Dogs no de bark for your village?
Onyeomere said nothing. The man walked away with hands on his bald head, leaving a circle of dampness where he had stood.
A few minutes later, Onyeomere heard the caretaker’s voice. He was recounting how he saw Hope playing with her puppies the night before, only to wake up in the morning to find her lying stiff, flies hovering around her. All because she barked and that heartless giant didn’t like it. Onyeomere smiled in his room when he heard the caretaker’s narrative. He felt no need to explain his innocence to anyone.
The next time the caretaker knocked on Onyeomere’s door, the building manager was with him. The caretaker was aware that Onyeomere had only paid half his rent, and he wanted to get back at him for killing his dog. The building manager came with a key, and locked Onyeomere’s room when he couldn’t pay.
On the bus to Orlu, Onyeomere thought of his father who was as useless to him as the navel on his belly. He wondered if his mother still beat his father, if he still wastes his miserable days in bars, drinking gin and smoking cheap cigars. He remembered his sister who in March married a middle aged widower. He thought of his mother, how he wanted to make her proud, perhaps by buying a gas cooker for her fufu shop, so that she would stop using charcoal, which was bad for her eyes. He wanted to do this before his brother in-law would do it. Also, he considered getting her a pair of glasses as soon as he had a literary breakthrough. As he thought about all these, he conceived a short story idea. He opened his recording app and began to speak the outlines of the story to his phone.
The bus had stopped at a military check-point, and a soldier while shoving a N100 note the driver had given him into his pocket, glanced at the passengers on the bus and what he saw almost crazed him: a terrorist phoning his cohorts! The soldier screamed at his comrades for backup, and soon Onyeomere was being dragged out of the bus. Before he could explain that he was merely recording his voice with his phone, they slapped him and smashed his gadget on the newly tarred road. When they searched his bag and saw that he was actually a poor writer, they decided to punish him for not knowing when to put his phone away. They gave him a blunt cutlass and ordered him to clear a nearby bush.
Onyeomere arrived home with a blistered palm. He saw his father sitting in the front yard and passed without saying a word. In the evening, his mother returned from her shop and served him bitterleaf soup and fufu, which he ate with his left hand because his right palm had pink swells, threatening to bust. When he finished the food, he told his mother how the soldiers at Ogbo-Oshishi smashed his phone. She cursed the soldiers and those who sent them there.
Onyeomere found life in the village annoying and boring. He felt as though his days there were being wasted. There was often no electricity so he couldn’t write except with a notebook which he eventually shredded and burnt because he kept cancelling out and rewriting what he had written. His kinsmen wouldn’t understand his frustration; they persuaded him to start attending village meetings.
The first day he attended the monthly Saturday meeting at Obi Okoro, the executive officers placed a thick exercise book on his lap, and told him to take the minutes.. They said he was a writer and therefore could do the absent secretary’s duty. He wondered how they knew he was a writer.
During the next meeting, Onyeomere read the minutes and the villagers were pleased with him. They said he wrote in the language they could understand, unlike someone they knew.
Onyeomere looked forward to the next month’s meeting. The things that interested him during the meeting were the things that would be redundant if included in the minutes, such as the poetry with which Chief Iyiora broke kola, the proverb-rich Igbo that flowed out of Nnayi-ukwu Emeafor’s mouth. There were also things that infuriated him during the meeting. For instance, Chief Izuagba’s irrelevant speeches delivered in a tasteless blend of Igbo and English. Chief Izuagba was an old man who liked to be noticed. Onyeomere imagined making the old chief a character in one of his short stories, but when he sat to write, all the first sentences he tried were horrible.
After about two months in the village, Onyeomere stopped writing altogether. He stayed in his room, only coming out when he needed to use the toilet. His hair grew thick and grey. His mother would find him one evening, scratching his hair when she brought him food. Even though the smell in the room disgusted her, she only spoke to him with the benevolent tongue with which snails crawled on thorns. She wanted him to clean his room at least.
To Ifeyinwa’s knowledge, the last time Onyeomere left the house was the day he hushed Chief Izuagba at obi Okoro. The chief was delivering one of his pompous speeches when Onyeomere hissed so loudly that the woman who fried akara across the street claimed to have heard the tearing sound. Every eye in the obi turned to where Onyeomere sat. Then he went on to say that if the chief had nothing significant to add to what had been said, he should save his deficient grammar and sit down.
Chief Izuagba did not hesitate to remind Onyeomere that he knew the day his father was born. He also added that Onyeomere was just as useless as his father. Nnadi who usually said and did nothing at meetings upheld his reputation even as his son charged towards Chief Izuagba. Two young men grabbed Onyeomere, and pinned him to the floor.
Ifeyinwa heard all that happened in the meeting that Saturday, but the thing she could not stand was her husband’s silence when Chief Izuagba spat at her son, vowing that Onyeomere’s head would be incorrect till his seventh lifetime.
After that incident, Ifeyinwa fought Chief Izuagba and his evil plots in her prayers every morning and night. But her son seemed to get worse.
One day, a pastor Ifeyinwa’s friend had recommended came to the house and prayed from morning till dark. After the prayer, Onyeomere took off the black shirt and blue shorts he had worn for weeks, and stepped into the bathroom.
He insisted on keeping his hair, but he combed it after rubbing it with the oil the man of God gave him. Ifeyinwa forgot the money the pastor’s visit cost her when she saw that her son had started changing clothes again. But it wasn’t up to a week after the prayer when Onyeomere walked into his mother’s fufu shop to confront her on her persistence in feeding him only fufu every afternoon when there were other food items such as rice and yam, in the market.
One of Ifeyinwa’s customers who saw Onyeomere shouting at his mother tried to explain to him that his mother was running a fufu shop, and so wouldn’t have the time to cook rice for him in the afternoon, but he barked at the lady before she could finish, and accused her of being a prostitute who was trying to get his attention for marriage. The lady, embarrassed, ran outside the shop with tears in her eyes.
Ifeyinwa stopped going to the shop after that incident. She stayed at home and cooked whatever Onyeomere desired to eat, even though he no longer said more than three words in a day.
Ifeyinwa’s husband left the house early in the morning, and returned in the evening, staggering. She thought it was strange how Nnadi was able to totter home on one good leg every evening without falling inside a ditch. She always insulted him when he returned to eat her food. He would beat his chest and say, you used my in-law’s money to cook the food.
She would remind him how ashamed he should be. Nnadi would tell her that it was not her father’s money. She would remember that some money was missing from her purse, and accuse him of stealing and spending the money on kaikai.
Onyeomere would be in his room while such arguments went on, his door shut. He no longer opened the door when his mother knocked. She would knock once and leave the food on the floor; he would open the door, drag the food inside, and push out the plates after emptying them.
Onyeomere left the house on evenings when no one was watching, to meet the boy who sold him mkpurummiri, AZ, SK, and occasionally loud which he used inside his room. He paid the boy with the money he took from his mother’s purse and would sneak back to his room.
One day, the dealer told Onyeomere to try and take a bath. The boy spat into the nearby bush and chuckled. But Onyeomere who didn’t think his odour was funny kicked the boy on the belly and he fell on the grass grimacing. He took some wraps of loud and extra wraps of sk from the boy’s leather bag and ran back to his room.
The boy usually came on Fridays and Tuesdays. At 6pm the next Tuesday, he didn’t show up by the plantain farm where they always met. Onyeomere who had run out of stock waited for him the following Friday, but he didn’t come.
On Monday, the following week, Ifeyinwa went to the community vigilante office to report his son missing. Some villagers said that it was kidnappers who took him because his sister whose husband owned three shops in Aba could pay for his release. Others said Onyeomere’s madness had reached the stage of wandering. Ifeyinwa heard all these gossips through her friend, Bethie. But she knew that the villagers were all wrong. She maintained that her husband had a hand in whatever took her son.
Image: Public Domain Pixabay