The studio went dim, and then there was that sound that has become the trademark of the game show. Then it was all silent. I felt my grip on the arms of the black swivel chair popularly known as the hot seat, tighten.
“The next question is for one million” the moderator said, his eyes on the screen in front of him.
My eyes too stared eagerly at the flat screen in front of me. I could make out a million tiny particles dancing along the lines of white rays from the screen. They seemed like the bubbles in a chilled glass of beer. A million golden bubbles which I always took time to admire when I was at the bar. I was playing for a million Naira. That was my mark. I could see the cheque with the six zeros being handed over to me. I wanted to reach out and grab it. An army was marching in the area where my heart used to be.
“On what date was Murtala Mohammed killed…?” the moderators voice jolted me back to reality. The question echoed in my head even as I read it again on the screen before me. I wasn’t seeing a million tiny particles anymore. All I saw was a question and a set of four options. After reading the question and the option for the third time in a minute, I knew I did not know the answer. The boot soles banging against the left part of my chest grew in threshold.
“Do you have any idea Mr. Ben Okafor?” There was a grin on the face of the moderator. He alone could see the confusion written all over my face. I made a sound in my throat which neither said ‘yes’ nor ‘no’. It was the best I could mutter at the moment. My eyes were going from one option to the other, searching for the slightest clue.
“First of all, do you know who Murtala Mohammed is?” The moderator was a very witty fellow. His question sounded more like asking a primary six pupil what the name of his school was. I could hear the audience giggle. I didn’t think I needed to answer that, so I just giggled too.
Of course I knew who Murtala Mohammed was. He was that ominous head on the twenty naira note. The airport in Lagos was named after him. The long bridge in Lokoja also bore his name. I knew his middle name was Ramat. As a child, my school once went on an excursion to the museum in Lagos and we had been shown the Peugeot car he was being driven in on the day the bullet of a lone shooter took life out of him. I knew that the name of this shooter was Dimka. I knew that after his death, Obasanjo took over power. I knew he took the first step towards moving the Federal Capital to Abuja. I knew he died in 1976. All the options before me bore 1976. But I did not know the exact day he died.
I ran my left hand through my hair, scratching at nothing in particular at the base of my skull. That was my way of saying “No idea”
“Well, you still have a lifeline. Don’t you think you should use it or would you prefer to simply walk away?”
I looked from the screen to the moderator. He was young and handsome. For years I had watched this show from the comfort of my uncle’s sitting room admiring not just the wit with which he had transformed the show to the most popular in the country, but also his well tailored designer suits which held on to him like a spoon against another. They were those kinds of suits that had price tags that ran like telephone numbers in city boutiques. I had always longed to wear those kinds of suits. With one million, I could now afford them. I was going to take all my chances.
“Phone a friend” I replied.
“Ok. Mr. Ben has chosen to use his last lifeline” the moderator thundered. “Which of your friends do you want to call?”
“Ben” I replied
“O, your namesake. I see. So let’s call Ben and see if he can save his fellow Ben who is on the hot seat.”
There was a brief lull, as the computer dialed the number. I took the opportunity to say a Hail Mary. First, I did the sign of the cross, before mumbling the lines of the prayer I had not said in a long while. As a child, I always said it when I was in trouble and about to be whipped. I would mumble the lines of the prayer, seeking a miracle. I always got whipped anyway.
“…your friend Ben is on the hot seat and needs you to help him answer a question to win a sum of one million naira.” There was a note of excitement in the moderator’s voice. “The next voice you will hear will be Ben’s voice. You have only twenty seconds to furnish him with the answer. Your time starts now.”
I read out the question trying to be as clear as possible. From the episodes I had watched from home, I had noticed that the time was never enough for the contestants to sufficiently repeat the options to their helper’s hearing. More so, the options were in themselves a source of confusion. The trick I had concluded was to read out just the question and if the helper really knew the answer, he would just say it. That was what I did.
“13th March 1976” Came the smart reply just as I finished reading out the question the first time. It was the option “C” on the screen.
With some time left on my hands, I took the liberty of asking how sure he was. He affirmed that he was certain. There was a bold smile on my face by the time the call ended. I could now see my one million Naira clearly. The marching in my chest reduced in wavelength.
“How…well…do…you…know this Ben?” The moderator crossed and uncrossed his leg, dragging the words as he spoke. His hands were folded against his chest.
“I know him very well” I replied, nodding and smiling.
“How long have you known him?”
“For about seven years.”
“Seven years! Hmmm…”
“I met him in the University” I added.
“O, I see. You must trust him very much then?”
If there was anybody I trusted to get the answer to such a question right, it was Ben. We met at a football pitch one morning during my freshman years. He had come around with leather boots in hand looking for a game. As the pro tem captain of the day, he approached me to ask if he could join us. After the game he came to say thanks and to introduce himself. We had played on the same side and our combination had gelled well in the defense for our side.
After finding out that we were namesakes, he requested for my GSM number. I asked him if he had a pen.
“I don’t need one” he replied. “I will remember it”.
Knowing that had his name not been “Ben” too, I would have forgotten it shortly after our handshake, I was certain he would forget the number before he got home.
To my amazement, later that evening he called me. That was the first of his memory feats that I would experience. I would get to know he was the best student in the History Department and that there was hardly any date of any historically relevant event he couldn’t give off with ease. He was yet to disappoint me and even on this day, he had given an answer without asking what the options were. I trusted him very much.
“So you are going with this your Ben friend? Remember, if you fail this, you will be crashing back to two hundred and fifty thousand naira. But you have the option of walking away with your five hundred thousand Naira.” The Moderator sounded so concerned. I could make out that trademark mischievous smile of his with which he toyed with the sensibilities of contestants. Sometimes, it was a wise caution. Other times it led astray. I was certain it was not a wise caution this time.
I nodded. My eyes scanned the options again. The drumming in my chest was resumed. To push any emerging doubt away, I nodded again.
“Alright, so your final answer is C then?” The Moderator asked sitting up.
A million thoughts sped through my mind. I suddenly wished to use the toilet. I wished we went on a commercial break. I wished I had paid more attention to my Nigerian History class. I wished I had another lifeline to use. The million particles from the screen blinded my view.
Just as I stepped out of the studio and had the opportunity of switching my phone back on, I immediately received an SMS from Ben. It was an apology. The date of Murtala Mohammed’s assassination was actually 13th February 1976. It had occurred to him just after the call ended. He hoped he had not cost so much damage.
I smiled as I returned the phone into my pocket. My cheque of five hundred thousand Naira was safe in my wallet. He really didn’t do any damage. I had been wise enough to walk away at the last minute.
(c) Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
Winning entry, Abuja Writers’ Forum 2009 Short Story prize.