“They were coming out now. The rats were the first as usual, led by General. He had named him General because he was the biggest and boldest of the rats and the top of his head was shaped like a general’s cap…”
It was dark when Ajambene got home. Children were playing in front of the compound, or at least he thought they were playing until he got closer. There were about seven of them, all boys, and they had formed a ring around a big rat. Its eyes, wide and round with fear, were shining in the dark.
Ajambene stopped and watched them intently. He rubbed the smooth edges of the small brown bottle in his trouser pocket, feeling the beginning of red hot anger in his belly. The boys were closing in on the rat now. Nobody spoke. Silence hung over the place like thick Harmattan mist. The street lights were dead. All Ajambene could see were the blurred, shadowy figures of the boys clutching sticks and stones and crouching in a tight circle around the rat.
Suddenly a Danfo came speeding down the road. For a brief moment Ajambene saw the boys clearly in the hard yellow light of the headlamps. Their faces were drawn. Their eyes were wide and flat and told you nothing. The boy nearest to Ajambene had his mouth open. He was breathing in short, harsh gasps.
Nuru, the landlord’s son was the ring-leader as usual. Nuru was short and squat and broad-shouldered like a wooden mortar. He was only thirteen but looked eighteen with his rippling biceps and shaved head and dull beady eyes which were perpetually yellow as though he was suffering from yellow fever. He had an old iron spear whose tip had been filed to a razor-sharp point.
Nuru’s mouth was open. He was panting. His tongue stuck out of his mouth and he licked the edges of his lips like a dog. The others were waiting for him to make the first move. And he was moving now, still standing but rocking his taut, squat body gently toward the rat as though there were springs hidden in the balls of his feet, the spear stiff and moving smoothly along as though it was a natural extension of his body.
Ajambene shouted just as Nuru let the spear fly. The ring broke apart in confusion. The rat jumped high into the air and vanished into the dark.
‘This is my kingdom!’ Ajambene shouted again and shouldered his way through the angry and confused boys. ‘I am the King of rats!’
He heard the boys screaming abuse at him but he did not stop. He strode down the dark corridor, navigating his way through the enamel buckets and crawling babies and women hurrying from the backyard with steaming pots.
He opened his door and entered and quickly slammed it shut again, still clutching the small brown bottle in his trouser pocket. He stood still in the centre of the darkened room, his head cocked to one side, trying to isolate the various noises: the steady burr of Boniface’s transistor radio in the opposite room, the chatter of the women in the backyard, children laughing and fighting and crying in the corridor, a Danfo driving past. He identified them all and put them away in one corner of his mind, to make way for the rats and cockroaches.
He listened. The scratching and squealing was still as loud and vigorous as the evening before. The poison had not worked in spite of the vendor’s loud declamations. In any case he had suspected the vendor was lying even as everybody in the Molue rushed to buy the rat poison.
The vendor had called it “Touch and Die.” ‘When rat or cockroach touch am e go die one time. Na only one day you go use am and all rat and cockroach dem go just die throway.’ Some passengers had bought two, three bottles apiece. One fat prosperous-looking trader in embroidered lace agbada had even bought a whole carton, declaring proudly that there was not a single rat in his three storey mansion but that he intended to distribute the medicine ‘free of charge’ to his tenants who did not know the value of a rat-free house.
Ajambene stood quite still in the centre of the dark room, holding his breath and willing himself to become one with the six-spring Vono bed, the chop box beside the door, the stack of blackened aluminum pots and plates on the floor, the stained walls with the greying posters cut out of old issues of Daily Times. Gradually his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He could now make out the shadowy shapes of the various items in the room.
The rats and cockroaches were still scratching away in their holes and crevices under the bed although they were yet to venture out into the open where he could see them. He understood the game perfectly now. Whenever he opened the door they dashed back to cover, into their holes. There they remained, peeping out furtively from time to time and waiting for the unwelcome intruder to finish whatever business brought him into the room and go away again. Then they would saunter out again and resume their activities. But when he came into the room and shut the door and stood quite still, neither moving nor breathing, they took him for a part of the furniture or yet another delicacy and nibbled at his toes. If he stood still for a long time, they became bolder and shinnied up his trousers. Sometimes he even allowed them to venture into the pockets of his coat. But that was a long time ago, when he liked to play with them and even had fatherly affection for them. They knew their place then and it had not gotten into their heads that they were the owners of the room and not himself, King Ajambene.
They were coming out now. The rats were the first as usual, led by General. He had named him General because he was the biggest and boldest of the rats and the top of his head was shaped like a general’s cap. General was the biggest house rat he had ever seen. His skin was a furry, luxuriant grey and he exuded good health and vitality. Ajambene had tried to trap him several times but General always managed to elude him. Nothing seemed to touch him: the poisonous concoctions mixed with dry fish which he laid out for him, the lethal steel trap, the gummy fish broth that caught the others—but never General. Once, he had lured General into the upper locker of the chop box in which he had liberally sprayed a new rat poison and slammed the door shut. He had gone to bed, happy and secure in the thought that he would wake up in the morning to find General dead. But General chewed a hole in the side of the wooden box and escaped.
Ajambene had spoken to countless rat poison vendors about General. They gave him the latest in their arsenal, assured him that General would be killed, wiped out if he as much as laid eyes on the killer poison. But somehow, General managed to survive them all. Ajambene was not quite sure but it seemed to him that the poisonous concoctions even agreed with General. He grew bigger, healthier, and more daring. He walked with a swagger and was always the last to scurry into cover when he came into the room. It was as though General was contesting the ownership of the room with him. It was true that he had established his authority over his fellow vermin but he Ajambene was still the undisputed King of the room.
But what riled him the most was that a mere rat dared question his suzerainty while still living in his own palace. He remembered the Saturday night he came back to the room after drinking Ogogoro with Akanni and Boniface in Papa’s Tavern and found General holding court right in the centre of the room. The other rats and cockroaches were gathered around General, nibling on delicacies they had purloined from the chop box. Ajambene spoke to them in a thunderous voice, ordering them to disperse at once, that he was king of this palace and nobody, General or not, had the right to hold court in his palace while he was away. The other rats immediately scurried away under the bed, under the old settee, under the chop box. But not General. He stood his ground, staring back at Ajambene with an insolent look in his eyes!
At first Ajambene did not know what to make of this new, impudent General. Then the alcohol rushed to his head all at once and he screamed in anger and outrage and lunged at General with the first weapon he saw—the big china tea pot the Minister of National Planning had given him as a long service award. General neatly evaded the flying missile and it crashed to the floor and scattered into bits. Blinded by rage and Ogogoro Ajambene threw himself at the rat. Again General evaded him and he crashed into the pots and plates at the far end of the room. By the time Ajambene managed to extricate himself from the debris General had vanished. That night, lying in a drunken stupor in the mess of the broken china, he declared a genocidal war on General, his brother rats and the cockroaches and vowed that he would not put down his arms until they were wiped from the face of the earth.
There were about ten of them now and they were heading for the chop box, for the bag of beans he had put there. He still waited, watching them crawl past his feet. The rats and cockroaches were now in the open space between the settee and the bed. Taking care not to excite them, Ajambene quietly retrieved the small brown bottle from his pocket. The vendor’s instructions rang in his head: smash the bottle on the floor and get out as quickly as your legs can carry you!
Ajambene’s heart was thumping now. There was a queer sensation in his belly. He licked his lips with the tip of his tongue, his eyes locked on General. He was even bigger than he had been the day before. But this was his last day on earth. He, Ajambene had decreed it.
Bye-bye General, he whispered and hurled the bottle with the deadly liquid to the floor with all his strength. There was a loud plop! Instantly a fine red vapour filled the room. Ajambene stood rooted to the spot, fascinated by the strange spectacle. The room looked as though it was enveloped by harmattan mist, only this time a bright red. Then remembering the vendor’s instruction, he dashed out of the room. Slamming the door quickly behind him he fairly ran down the length of the long corridor, bumping into bodies and things. He heard curses and oaths and cries of protest but he was already out in the street, only aware that he felt strangely light-headed and powerful at the same time.
It was raining.
He hurried down the road and turned the corner into Yala Street. The street lights were on and light also shone through the windows of the shops and beer palours on either side of the road. Everything looked bright and cheerful. Even the rain did not dampen his happy mood. He would celebrate General’s death in grand style.
He crossed the road suddenly and nearly collided with a speeding Molue. The driver swerved to avoid him and for a moment the bus lurched crazily. The passengers began to scream but the driver quickly righted the bus. As he sped off, his conductor leaned out of the doorway and screamed at Ajambene, ‘Foolish man! No be my bus go kill you, you hear?’ Ajambene muttered something about the boy’s genitals and went into Papa’s Tavern.
The juke box belted out Fuji music. A thick odour of stale beer and cigarette smoke hung in the air. Ajambene pushed and shoved his way to the bar and shouted on top of his voice to make the barman hear. ‘A bottle of Star! A very cold bottle of Star!’
He went to his favourite table in the far corner, away from the music. He wondered why the barman never played Cardinal Rex Lawson or Osita Osadebe or even Tunde Nightingale. Star always went down well with good highlife music. Once he had spoken to the barman about it but the young man merely smiled and blew cigarette smoke into his face.
‘Highlife na colonial-days music.’
He would have stopped coming to Papa’s Tavern after that but for the fond memories the place held for him. Cardinal Rex Lawson had played in Papa’s Tavern one Saturday evening in 1967, just before the civil war broke out. That was when Papa was still alive and Papa’s Tavern was the most popular nightspot in Little Bassa.
He would never forget that night. He Ajambene was the most eligible bachelor in Little Bassa then. He was a senior messenger in the Public Works Department. He owned a brand-new His Master’s Voice record changer and rode a stylish Raleigh bicycle to work every morning. On the night Rex Lawson played with his band he had come to Papa’s Tavern with Monica. Monica! She had just won the All-Lagos Star Beer Beauty Contest. Her photograph was all over the newspapers and everybody said she was the most beautiful girl in the city. When he entered the night club with her on his arms everybody stopped talking and stared.
Rex Lawson sang like a man possessed that evening. He sang about laughter and tears, about love and pain, the simple joys of living, the inevitability of death. He sang about the blinding beauty of his native Kalabari landscape and how it was that the Kalabari man was the first on earth to go to God in heaven to borrow the recipe for Ogogoro, the favourite drink of virile men.
The dance floor was packed but Monica stood out. She wore a tight-fitting nylon gown – it was the craze then – that hugged her bosom and thighs so that you saw her full figure in all its wonder and beauty. And she danced with the ferocious grace of an Ijele masquerade. Rex Lawson sang her praises. He weaved her name into his song. Monica was the antelope in the folktale whose beauty struck the expert hunter blind. She was the gazelle whose graceful dance softened the rain god’s heart so he relented and let rain fall again after a seven-year drought. She was the lone flower in the wilderness, demure and tender and beautiful, teaching all that came her way that truth was beauty and beauty, truth.
Ajambene’s head swelled and he felt goose pimples envelope his entire body. He brought out his wallet and emptied its contents on Rex Lawson and his band boys. He danced like he had never danced before, fired on by the sight of Monica’s writhing body, Rex Lawson’s magical voice in his ears and the sweet alcohol in his head.
The early morning sun was peeping furtively through the windows of the nightclub when Rex Lawson finally laid down his guitar. Ajambene staggered home with Monica in his arms. They made love all through that morning and well into the afternoon.
But he did not marry Monica. He did not marry her because whenever he tried to picture Monica and himself at the altar exchanging vows what he saw instead was the hazy blue of the Lagos skyline that rainy Saturday morning when the canons boomed and the doves fluttered in the air like wisps of white smoke. Ever since he had attended the Independence Day ceremony at the Race Course he had felt that he and the country were destined for great things. A future, far more interesting than making babies and fending for them, awaited him.
It had rained heavily that morning but he defied the rain, like thousands of other young men and women, to be present at the historic occasion. He was there when the country’s new leaders emerged from the black limousines to take their seats on the podium. He saw the Union Jack lowered for the last time and the new national flag take its place, fluttering bravely in the wind. Canon shots rent the air. Everybody clapped. A hovering helicopter showered the gathering with flowers and buntings. The police band played the new national anthem. The band leader threw his baton high into the air and caught it again like an acrobat. There were loud cheers. Then the Prime Minister gave a speech. He had a golden voice, and the things he said brought tears to Ajambene’s eyes. Right there he vowed to develop himself intellectually and spiritually and to dedicate himself to making the country great and prosperous and powerful. He was twenty-one, he had been working at the PWD for three years and he had only a Standard Six certificate. But when he got home that evening after celebrating with his friends at Papa’s Tavern he wrote to the University of London and enrolled for a correspondence course in Law. He wanted to be a lawyer and politician and help build up the country. He bought the West African Pilot every morning and read it with avid interest, following political events in the country closely. He liked the way the great Zik spoke at public gatherings. He thought him a wonderful orator. He tried to imitate him. He dug deep into his old Michael West dictionary and excavated jaw-breaking words to dazzle the other messengers and clerks during their lunch-time debates in the junior staff canteen. Everybody called him Junior Zik. Ajambene was flattered. He bought himself a fez cap, the type Zik wore. He carried his law textbooks wherever he went. He did not join any of the three big political parties but he attended the colourful political rallies, especially the ones he knew Zik would attend to give a speech. He saw himself as an apprentice politician. He was convinced that a great future lay in store for him. One day he went to the British Council library on the Marina and read Zik’s Renascent Africa. He liked it. He read Facing Mount Kenya and liked it even better. He bought himself a carved walking stick – the type Kenyatta used. He grew a Kenyatta beard.
Then rumours began to fly all over the capital that the politicians were stealing all the money in the country. The newspapers wrote about pogroms in the north and threats of secession. Ajambene did not know what to think. People gathered at the bus stop in front of his home every morning and talked about the worsening political situation. In the office everybody complained about the rising cost of living and the greed of the politicians. Then riots broke out in the western part of the country. People were burnt alive on the streets. Political thugs took over whole towns and villages sowing death and anarchy.
People talked about civil war. The politicians haggled and bickered bitterly; nobody knew what to do. Then one Saturday morning young army officers struck and chased away the politicians. They shot the ones they could find. Some other officers did not like this. The army broke into ethnic factions. Civil war broke out and Ajambene fled to the east.
He joined the flood of refugees. They roamed from village to village, fleeing from the flying bullets. There was chaos and misery everywhere. Children with bloated stomachs and spindly legs rolled in the mud and cried for food that was not there. He saw whole towns and villages burnt down by the ever-advancing Federal troops. Then one day Federal Soldiers surrounded the village school which served as their refugee camp and began to shoot every living thing in sight. He still did not know how he escaped certain death that afternoon. Ten soldiers had driven into the school compound. They jumped down from their Land Rover and locked all the gates, trapping five thousand men, women and children within the high cement walls. They had three sub-machine guns between them. They set them up in the football field and opened fire.
People began to scream. The thick odour of blood and gun smoke filled the hot afternoon air. Mothers ran to shield their children from the flying bullets with their bare bodies. The bullets felled them all. Ajambene did not know how he escaped death that afternoon. All he remembered was that he suddenly found himself shinning up the flame of the forest tree behind the headmaster’s office. He expected to be shot down any minute. But he reached the top and buried himself in the thick foliage.
The shooting went on for a very long time. When he finally summoned the courage to peep down through the leaves, the slaughter was over. He saw the soldiers singing and passing a bottle of White Horse whisky from hand to hand. His heart was beating so loudly he could hear it. His hands felt clammy with sweat. His nostrils were clogged with gun smoke. He waited until the noise of the Land Rover died away and then climbed down from the tree.
There was blood everywhere. Corpses littered the football field. The odour of blood and gun smoke floated in the air. Ajambene thought he was having a nightmare, he thought he was going mad, that his head was about to explode. He shut his eyes. When he opened them again the school compound had disappeared and he saw a big surging river of blood and thousands of bloated bodies floating on the surface. Ten soldiers stood on the far bank. They were laughing maniacally as they pumped bullets into the floating corpses. The muzzles of their machine guns glinted in the hard afternoon light. Ajambene looked up and saw that the sun was the colour of fresh blood, blazing and waning and blazing again. Then he saw the vultures beginning to circle, casting a dark ominous shadow over the bloated corpses. He screamed and fled into the hot afternoon.
Ajambene went through the rest of the war in a daze. Twice he was conscripted to fight the Federal troops but he ran away. He wanted to be a politician, not a soldier. He did not understand the war. He did not understand anything. He wanted to be left alone to fight his own private battle: the nightmare that visited him every night when he went to sleep – the blazing afternoon sun and the screams and the drunken soldiers jumping down from the Land Rover and singing and laughing and shooting women and children.
The war ended and Ajambene returned to the capital. He returned with nothing but his memories and the threadbare clothes on his back. He went to his room in Little Bassa. There was another tenant there. He told the new occupant that it was his room but the man began to scream abuse at him. Then the landlord came out and chased Ajambene away with a machete shouting, ‘Biafra rebel! Biafra rebel!’
Ajambene slept in a church that night. He woke up in the morning and washed his face in a public tap and went to the PWD. Old Charlie the gateman was in his usual place in the security shed. He came out, shielding his eyes from the morning sun. The ever-present chewing stick was stuck in his mouth. Ajambene thought he looked more grizzled than ever.
‘Yes? Wetin you want?’ Old Charlie’s voice was cold and hostile.
Ajambene stared at him. He was too surprised to speak. This was not the kind of welcome he had expected. He tried to force a smile onto his face.
‘Don’t you remember me? It is your friend Junior Zik. I’m back. The war is over.’
‘I no sabe you. You be Biafra rebel. You be enemy soja.’ Old Charlie spat bits of his chewing stick in Ajambene’s direction.
‘I am not a rebel. I didn’t fight in the war. I was a refugee.’
‘Na de same ten and ten pence. You be Biafra. All Biafra dem na rebel enemy soldier.’
Ajambene became angry. ‘Look, I work here. I am a senior messenger in this office. Now open the gate this very minute so I can report for duty!’
Old Charlie laughed. He planted his two arthritis-ravaged feet firmly on the ground. ‘If you like shout from now to tomorrow. Orders is orders. Oga dem say don’t open gate for enemy Biafra soja.’ He shifted the chewing stick from one side of his mouth to the other and spat again. He seemed to be mulling over something in his mind. Then he said suddenly, ‘If you no sabe make I tell you. Dis na new Nigeria and dis place na Federal Ministry of Works and Housing now. PWD don die, just like your Biafra.’
Ajambene saw the freshly-painted sign nailed to the wall of the security shed. The notice said that a new military decree had renamed the PWD and that all returning refugees who wanted to be re-absorbed in the new Federal Civil Service should report at the military cantonment for security clearance.
Ajambene read the notice all over again, slowly, trying to understand what it all meant. Then he turned and went into the street, dimly aware of Old Charlie’s mocking laughter ringing in his ear.
He did not go to the military cantonment. He had heard tales of what the soldiers did to returning ‘rebels.’ They herded them into a guard-room and horse-whipped them every morning. He went to the Central Market and began to carry loads for the market mammies. It was hard brutal work and he earned just enough to enable him eat one good meal daily. In the night he slept in the burnt-out hulk of a Molue under the pedestrian bridge near the Police Station. He did not think about his law books. He did not think about Zik and his grandiloquent speeches. He dreamed of the day he would save enough money and buy his own wheel-barrow like some of the other load carriers in the market. Then he wouldn’t have to carry the heavy load on his bare head any longer.
One afternoon Ajambene overheard two men in a buka saying there were jobs to be had in the Federal Ministry of National Guidance which had just been established. The next morning he borrowed a clean shirt from one of the load carriers he had made friends with and went to the Federal Ministry of National Guidance. It was a rambling, Brazilian-type two storey building on the Marina. It had just had a fresh coat of paint and it looked nice and beautiful.
Ajambene told the gateman what he wanted and was taken to a room on the first floor. There were six other men in the room. They all wore anxious expressions on their faces. Ajambene sat down on a long wooden bench beside a tall thin man who wore a faded black jacket and muttered to himself.
They waited. Nobody spoke. Only the tall thin man muttered loudly to himself. A young man carrying a sheaf of flat manilla files would hurry into the room, clear his throat as though he wanted to make an important announcement and then hurry out again, not saying a word. When he came in the fourth time and was about to hurry out again still not saying anything, the tall thin man who muttered to himself suddenly sprang to his feet and grabbed him by the collar.
‘What is the meaning of this, eh? We have been waiting here since morning. Is there vacancy here or not?’
The young man stood quite still, stared at the tall thin man for a long moment and walked out again.
The tall thin man went back to his seat and slumped down. He began to mutter to himself again. Ajambene wanted to tell him to stop but kept his silence. It was afternoon now and it was hot and stuffy in the room.
Still they waited. Then another clerk came in. He was an older man and he held a piece of paper. He began to read out the names. Each man, when he heard his name, jumped up and shouted, ‘Present sir!’ When the clerk had finished calling out the names he looked around the room and said casually, ‘Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard his name?’
Ajambene raised his hand.
The clerk looked at him for a moment. Then he said, ‘You came late. Come back tomorrow.’
‘But I have been waiting here since morning like all the rest’ Ajambene protested, rising to his feet.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ the clerk said in a flat voice. ‘Your name is not on the list of applicants to be interviewed today. This paper says so. Come back tomorrow.’
For four days Ajambene kept going to the Federal Ministry of National Guidance. The clerk with the flat voice would look up from his piece of paper and say exactly the same thing. ‘Your name is not on the list of applicants to be interviewed today. This paper says so. Come back tomorrow.’
On the fifth day, desperate and starving, Ajambene barged into the Permanent Secretary’s office on the second floor. Before the shocked and outraged clerks in the outer office could rush in and drag him out again Ajambene threw himself to the floor and narrated his ordeal at the hands of the clerk with the flat colourless voice. The Permanent Secretary, a fat man with a double chin thought it was all very funny and chuckled into the folds of his richly-embroidered Babanriga. He told Ajambene to get up. The sight of Ajambene standing stiffly at attention, his two big toes peeping out of the old canvass shoes sent the Permanent Secretary into a fit of laughter. Then he sobered up. He drew a file to him and assumed an officious air.
‘What is your name?’
‘You are a Biafran, aren’t you?’
‘So you are a rebel.’
‘Was, sir. I mean, I wasn’t a rebel soldier. I was a refugee.’
The man considered this for a moment. Then he shrugged suddenly. ‘It doesn’t matter, really. Anyway, have you been cleared?’
Ajambene hesitated. Then he blurted out, ‘I have been to the military cantonment, sir.’
‘Excellent!’ The Permanent Secretary beamed. ‘So you are now a Nigerian, eh?’
‘No longer a rebel Biafran?’
‘No sir, I mean…Yes sir.’
‘Do you like the new Nigeria?’
‘Very much sir.’
‘And General Gowon, our new Head of State?’
‘He is a great soldier, sir. Very brave. We heard stories of his exploits over Radio Biafra, sir.’
‘Good, good.’ The Permanent Secretary paused. Then an idea seemed to strike him. ‘Spell Gowon, my friend.’
‘Excellent! One hundred per cent! Now what does it mean?’
Ajambene thought hard. He stared at the ceiling. He stared at his two toes peeping out of the cracks in the canvass shoes. Then he looked up and said in a low voice, ‘I don’t know what it means, sir.’
‘Do you want to know?’
Ajambene injected eagerness into his voice. ‘Very much, sir.’
‘Gowon means Go On With One Nigeria. Now repeat it.’
‘Go On With One Nigeria.’
‘Excellent! One hundred per cent! Now you are a true Nigerian.’
Ajambene was employed as a Messenger Grade Two that afternoon. The Permanent Secretary took an instant liking to him and gave him a salary advance. ‘Buy yourself another pair of shoes,’ he said, chuckling again at the sight of Ajambene in his canvass shoes.
Ajambene had not seen so much money since the war ended. He went back to Little Bassa and rented a room in a new tenement. He bought a Vono mattress and a small kerosine stove. He cooked his first meal that evening, a steaming pot of rice and fresh fish stew. It was the first hot meal he had eaten for a very long time.
Not fair, Iko! So was General ever caught? And did the poison kill the other rats? What a captivating piece! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!