Ewaen heard himself snore.
This was something he had not become used to even though it had happened more than once. Ewaen knew he snored; it wasn’t that. He had to know because Sissi would not let him not know. But Sissi did not know this: that at times when waking up Ewaen could actually hear a snort or two of his sonorous breathing. And this morning as on the few other mornings – and afternoons, or evenings – when it happened, it still brought a smile to his face.
This asleep-smile was something to behold, Ewaen knew. He could imagine his girlfriend looking at his face as he woke. He could see Sissi smile in response to the slight, silly upturning of the corners of his mouth. How she would think that he was waking up from a pleasant dream. How she would watch him for a few more minutes, not interrupting whatever she thought he dreamt about. He longed for when she would whisper in his ear. Wake up, Ewaen. Wake up or you’ll be late. Now that he was used to, but not to the point of being bored with it. No. He was used to it the way one became used to ice-cream, or a sweaty tumbler of Gulder. Sissi’s lips against his ear, whispering. She made his mornings smile, she did. Ewaen curled himself into a ball, his shin hitting the pillar of wood.
Pillar of wood?
Oh yes. Now he remembered. Sort of.
He opened his eyes and received his second surprise this morning. He was on the rug. He tasted it first – granules of sand mixed with lint – because his mouth was open and he had recently begun sleeping on his face. Sissi had suggested that sleeping face-down reduced snoring.
Still, he was surprised: sleeping face-down did not mean sleeping on the ground, did it? What was he doing down here?
He had not yet awakened enough to have the energy to move his head so he used his eyes. They took in through half-closed eyelids the foot of his bed that rested against his knee. They scanned across to the empty snow of an absent TV station. They glanced, and looked properly a moment later, at the socks that dangled in front of his face. Brown cuddly socks with a picture of Winnie the Pooh over each big toe, socks that smelled of old wrappers and an orange rind.
What were Sissi’s feet doing on his bed? Oh, that wasn’t even a good question. A better one was this: if Sissi’s feet were on his bed, why was he on the ground?
Oh, yes. The Onyinye argument.
Slowly other sounds joined his snoring. The banter of a morning at Aiwerioba Estate: water splashing into plastic buckets from the tap outside his window; the vroom-vroom of warmed-up cars. The noises, smells, and chatter from twenty-six kitchens travelled to him in waves, waves that drowned out the sound of his own snoring.
As arguments go, this was slowly becoming pyrrhic. There would be no winner.
“I cannot believe you’d call her name when we were in bed together. So you are dying for her?”
“I didn’t call her name.” But he did, didn’t he? Ewaen spoke above the roar of the shower. He hoped the flat was now empty. It was nine already, everyone would have left for class. As the spray of cold water hit, cold water that helped to rouse him now that Sissi and her waking-tongue were on strike, he tried to play the tape back. The tape of last night. They had been in bed. She was on top. She always liked being on top. She liked to wrestle him for the position and would give a whoop of triumph when he finally let her win. They had put on the condom before starting anything, even before Ewaen had all his clothes off – she said taking the break to put on the rubber later would kill the illusion of spontaneity. He now moved in her; he watched her climb towards her climax. He watched the reflection of the TV lights on her sweating breasts, he watched those breasts heave, watched them rise and fall, faster and faster. His hands were on her hips but his mind was on Anatomy, wasn’t it? Yes, Anatomy. Tuesday. Cognition, association, and word play: that was what he used to prevent coming too soon. Think of a very bad book, last weekend’s football scores – okay ignore the fact that Arsenal won. That mightn’t work. The brain moved in mysterious ways. He had been thinking of when they would wake up if they kept this up for much longer, thinking if he’d be late for class, thinking that it would be his turn to lead dissection tomorrow, that he would need to pack his pen torch, his lab coat, thinking that Onyinye would, as usual, be in front of the cadaver first, thinking that he would have to do better than last time, if only to prevent another argument with Onyinye. And as most brain teasers and association word games go, he had come full circle: if he didn’t want to prevent another argument with Onyinye, he had to be awake early, he would have to end this quick. Sissi’s breathing was faster now, irregular, more urgent. It wouldn’t be long now. Ewaen had spoken, tried to say something. Sissi liked it when he called out her name.
Ewaen turned off the shower, dried himself with the blue towel, a souvenir from daddy’s celebration of ten years as a banking entrepreneur.
That was what he had called out, her name. Sissi. Onyinye? But what did it matter?
“What does it matter? I am your girlfriend! Not Onyinye. And you know I don’t like you mixing with that stuck-up crew!”
Oh. Did he speak his thoughts? The shower was off. She heard. “That was not what I meant, Sissi.” He hated using that name Sissi, but next to the full version, Akpanusikekesi, he felt he had no choice. No one called his girlfriend Akpanusikekesi. “Okay, even if I said her name, what does it mean? You know she’s in my Anatomy group; I was preoccupied with prepping for dissection today.”
“You were preoccupied while making love to me? That is what I am now, a mercy fuh . . . you were doing it because of pity?”
Ewaen muffled his chuckle by biting on the towel. She still couldn’t say the word. He came out of the toilet dragging under his feet a length of toilet paper he had stepped on. This drew a smile from his girlfriend. “See how stupid you look. Comot that shit paper from your leg, my friend.”
Good, comedy usually worked. She had laughed.
“So it’s all forgive and forget?” Ewaen asked.
“Forgive what? No. Go and ask your Onyinye what you and she have. When you’ve done that, then we’ll see.”
Sissi left. Ewaen stayed back for another ten minutes doing the things she normally helped him with. He dressed his bed, packed his videogame controllers in a heap by the TV stand, and swept. He heard his neighbours from next door, 42W, waking up. Noisy, as always. Doors banging shut, mosquito-netted shutters swinging open. Boisterous laughter. Ewaen closed his room door.
Ewaen said see-you-later to his only flatmate who would still be at home after nine in the morning, Harry. Harry was washing clothes in the parlour. Ewaen was going to say something but stopped himself. Why waste spit. He knew what Harry riposte would be.
“Me, wash clothes outside? No, Ewaen. That na fuck up na. You no see the chicks don already wake up. They go laugh me say big boy no fit afford dry cleaners.”
Why were Lagos boys so full of it? Ewaen pointed at the puddle forming in the middle of the parlour. Harry nodded: I will mop up when I’m done.
It was sunny outside. Nine in the morning. Vitamin D sun was what Professor Okafor called it. It was healthy; it made you grow strong bones. Yes. It also made trekking to class hell.
God, I hate sweating, Ewaen thought. He saw Tuvo from next door and shouted a greeting, “Forty-Two-Warri! Una good morning o!”
“Dude, aren’t you late for lectures already?” The boys of 42W were all Warri boys. Ewaen had often wondered himself about the coincidence. They never went for lectures and this morning they already had the football out. They would still be sweating, playing ball when everyone else on the estate got back from class.
He waved at them. “Today na Anatomy. I won’t be late.”
“Don’t put that in your mouth!” Onyinye said. Ewaen’s pen dropped to the floor. It landed with a clatter that brought a look from Professor Okafor. Ewaen mouthed an apology and bent to pick it up. The pen had been on an absent-minded journey from the green atrophied muscles of their subject to his lips when Onyinye slapped it from his fingers.
Was he really going to put it in his mouth?
Ewaen supposed he was. He liked Anatomy that much. Sissi said it was the only subject that brought him to class. He felt his girlfriend’s stare, a feeling of heat, a wire-mesh of light electricity on his back, and glanced up at the group working on cadaver number 4. Sissi looked away as soon as their eyes met; Ewaen put the pen in his pocket and smiled.
Anatomy was the only subject that disrupted Ewaen’s conceit of feigned flippancy in school. His routine on other days was wake, play videogames, trek to the buka in front of estate, eat, sleep, maybe gist with the boys of 42W, play videogames till late at night, and sleep. He supposed that a few more meals could be interspersed within this routine. Maybe Sissi would come to visit; this would change the last two items in his daily itinerary to make love, no sleep, wake up hearing yourself snore, a whispered “Wake up, Ewaen,” from wet lips next to your ear, make love some more, and miss classes for the day.
But not on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays he would try to leave the estate before nine. Anatomy began at ten-thirty, so to kill the extra minutes waiting for the Pharmacy class to finish with their dissection, Ewaen and his friends would drink tea at the Tea House. The Tea House was a brown Art-Deco hut just at the gate to the Medical faculty. It was run by the Filipino wife of one of their lecturers. Ewaen, Onyinye, Eric, and Taseh, and sometimes Sissi, would sit there sipping cups of the boiled green herb. Sissi didn’t always sit with the four of them. When the bell rang they’d make for class.
Ewaen had become used to the smell of formalin, so pungent that it left an acrid film on your tongue; he had adjusted to the yellow glow of incandescent light-bulbs swinging above the cadavers; to the click-clack of cock-shoes and high-heels on the white-tiled floors. He swam in a glow of expectation every time they were in Anatomy lab – great expectations and ambition. I will be a doctor after all; a good one, a surgeon.
“Lift the ventral patch of skin medially, expose the forearm wrist flexors and trace the median nerve distally to the carpal tunnel.” Onyinye spoke and frowned at Ewaen. Oh shit; it was his turn to read today, why he had hurried to class this morning determined to be here before her, why he had had the argument with Sissi in the first place. Word games and association. Ewaen thanked goodness he was dark, if he could blush he would have gone purple; he suddenly saw Onyinye with her shirt off, with her bare chest rising and falling, her shiny sweat reflecting the yellowish glow off the swinging incandescent light bulbs. It was absurd. His bulge, thankfully hidden by his lab coat, told him that it was sexy as hell. Especially now that Onyinye had gone red in the face. Her short reddish-brown hair seemed to stand on end.
No, Ewaen thought, he hadn’t said anything out loud.
Onyinye was a tyrosinase-positive albino; this diagnosis had been made during physiology class by their lecturer at the beginning of second year. It, the diagnosis that is, made Onyinye self-aware. When she blushed she would try to hide it by holding an open book to her face. She did the same now, Ewaen saw. She held up the dissecting manual to her face as if ashamed that he had made her angry. Ewaen apologised to the dissector of the day, a bespectacled tribal-marked boy who had geek written all over his face.
The first thing they had noticed about Anatomy was that the textbooks had it all wrong. In the books nerves were yellow, arteries red, and veins blue. The muscles that were drawn in Gray’s Anatomy were always bulky and coloured a juicy brownish red, just like beef. That wasn’t the way Thriller’s muscles looked. Or his nerves, or his arteries or veins. Everything, every tissue opened in front of Ewaen’s group varied in colour between bright-green and a sickly greenish-brown. But they had been assured by Professor Okafor that when they became doctors, surgeons, or whatever speciality they chose after graduating, they would notice that the insides of living humans smelt the way a live wristwatch battery tasted and that it was all red. No yellow, no blue, no strings of carefully separated nerves, arteries, or veins. All red.
All the anatomy groups in Ewaen’s class had named their cadavers. Eric and Taseh’s group called theirs Fatty-bon-bon. She was a fat middle-aged woman who, according to Professor Okafor, had died after losing a particularly vicious battle of attrition with cancer. That she had maintained her weight during this battle surprised her dissectors. Thus her name. There was Billy Jean – a twenty-something year old whose broken ribs confirmed death following a car accident. She was being worked on by Sissi’s group. Her official moniker was cadaver number 4. Prof. Okafor disliked the students naming the cadavers. He said that it was disrespectful to these fine, honourable people who had donated their remains to medical science. Ewaen thought only two of the one hundred and thirty-three-strong class fell for that line. Nobody donated their bodies to medical science here. Maybe in some oyibo country were the idea denoted romantic notions of altruism. In Nigeria nobody was that idealistic. Look at Thriller, Ewaen and Onyinye’s cadaver. Prof Okafor had quickly said that he had been executed for armed robbery. He had said this and hurried along that first day of Anatomy Orientation. But the more Ewaen’s group dissected, the more they studied their subject, the more they reached a different conclusion.
Onyinye had first voiced what was in all their minds one afternoon after dissection a month ago. They had just started on his torso, had had to work around bullet wounds, had had to dig out pellets long forgotten from a police shotgun.
“Does the army execute with shotguns?” Onyinye had asked. They sat in C6. The garage beer parlour owned by one of their lecturers. It smelled of fish guts and goat hair, and beer; thankfully these flavours never got into the pepper-soup.
Eric had sat beside Onyinye. His long head, balding, was bigger than Onyinye’s head and neck combined. They made a nice couple, even as far as embodying the cliché of finishing each other’s sentences. He smiled at Onyinye’s question and asked, “Did you really think he was killed in a firing squad?”
“How do you mean?” Ewaen had asked.
It was early evening that day. The shade of the ebelebo tree, under which they sat drinking, leaked drops of water from a hesitant mid-April rain. Ewaen sat with his back to the road. Behind him he could hear a practical demonstration of physics – the waxing and waning of passing cars came to his ears; a Doppler Effect dance of sound. Four of them sat at the table that evening. They were always four of them; Ewaen, Onyinye, Taseh, and Eric. Sissi didn’t mix well with this crew. Ewaen didn’t know why: she just didn’t.
They all knew the answer to Ewaen and Onyinye’s questions: Taseh, plump, red-faced, and almost always drunk, even after he said, “Maybe na accidental discharge;” Eric, big-headed lover boy, the only one in the clique with a car, an old Volkswagen that belched black smoke each time it moved a kilometre; even Ewaen and Onyinye knew the answer. Why did they call cadaver number five Thriller? He was emaciated; his closed eyelids sunken, his jutting cheekbones draped with too tight skin, his cracked lips pulled back over green teeth. His muscles were thin strips of tissue that came away with no difficulty from the overlying skin. The bullet wounds were in his back. And they were shotgun wounds. The army, which carried out state-sanctioned executions, did not use shotguns. Anyone who had watched a televised Bar Beach execution knew this. Thriller was maybe an awaiting-trial guy. He had probably spent months in a dark cell waiting for a family to come ask for him. He had probably been killed when a guiltier, more affluent, bigger-spending murderer was let go and the police had to produce the dead body of someone shot while trying to escape. Onyinye still tilted to the innocent-bystander-killed-by-a-stray-bullet story. Ewaen had agreed with Taseh that maybe he was a victim of accidental discharge. But Eric insisted that Thriller had been in prison for a long time; he pointed to his wasted muscles, to his concave stomach. He wanted them to have no pity for the criminal who eventually became cadaver number 5, who became Thriller. Eric made them wonder – since they all felt pity for Thriller – what he would have done to each of them if they had met him on a dark night in a lonely city. No pity.
All of this might have been true, but it still spoiled their evening that Tuesday from a month ago. They agreed to avoid bringing up Thriller over beer again.
“See I told you Taseh would make it.”
They all turned and followed Eric’s gaze. Taseh jogged in the rain towards them, his rolls of fat bouncing (Ewaen could swear he heard the rolls slapping against themselves) and his white lab coat drawn across his shoulders and over his head, serving as a makeshift umbrella. Anatomy had been finished for about two hours. Sissi had gone back to her room in the hostel. Ewaen, after looking for her and deciding that she was still upset with him, had jumped into Eric’s car with Onyinye and come to C6.
“What were you guys talking about?” Taseh asked. He had just downed a glass of beer in record time and spoke as he wiped the foam from his mouth with his shirtsleeve.
“Ewaen and Onyinye will not stop talking about their cadaver. Wetin una call am again?”
“Thriller,” Onyinye said.
“I thought we had decided to stop doing that,” Taseh said. “You guys are lucky that he looks like Michael Jackson’s zombie. At least all you dissect is muscle and skin. You should see Fatty-bon-bon, our cadaver. And they say she died from cancer. I’m dreading the day we get to Abdomen in class. Her insides must be all mush.”
“Hey! Make una stop am. Can’t you see I’m eating?” Ewaen spoke out of a mouthful of goat meat pepper-soup. His nose ran. He did not want to talk about the cadavers today. It was Tuesday. His girlfriend was angry with him. It was a day to get footloose and party.
“So wetin be the waka for today?” Taseh asked.
Ewaen looked at Eric. Eric didn’t disappoint. “Oboy, my allowance just landed. I say we hit the town this evening. What do you think, Onyinye? Let’s go for a drive in my limousine.”
“Eric, your tortoise-car may be called many things. Please never call it a limousine.”
Ewaen watched his friends laugh; the way Eric used it as an excuse to rest his hand on Onyinye’s lap; the way Onyinye eyes didn’t laugh like her mouth did, the way she didn’t seem to notice what he was doing even though she still managed to pick up his hand between forefinger and thumb like it was something rotten and drop it on the table; and the way the most boisterous of them did it. Taseh threw his head back over the head of his chair and let out a loud guffaw. Other patrons, medical students, young doctors, their girlfriends, turned and stared. Was this what Sissi didn’t like? Did she want to be only the one who made him laugh, who made him happy. Ewaen pushed away his plate. He emptied his glass of beer. He spoke. “So when will you guys be ready? All I have to do is reach my room and change.”
“And your girlfriend? Will you be taking permission from her today? Abeg don’t tell her we are going to the club o. I no dey for her wahala o.”
Eric could be an arse when he wanted to. Ewaen knew this and ignored him. He would not tell Sissi that he was going clubbing tonight. They were quarrelling. He looked at Onyinye’s hands, the fingers she had used in removing Eric’s paws from her lap, and for some reason he remembered the vision from dissection: her naked chest, the swinging light bulb. Ewaen would go clubbing today; he would enjoy himself.
“I will branch your estate at seven P.M.,” Eric said. “We will all be in the car. So be ready.”
They left the club early.
De Limit had been packed with people: Jandons, returnees from Austria and Germany, with rolled up Cartini jeans and garish jewellery; Old-Papa Aristos with svelte students writhing on their laps; medical students celebrating passed exams. The confraternity boys stood in groups in dark corners, their faces lit up in flashes by the disco lights: all grim expressions and hard-guy poses. Ewaen didn’t dance. He drank his beer (he nursed two bottles of Gulder over three hours – who could blame him. They cost triple the outside rates). It wasn’t the meagre amount of alcohol that he had consumed that made him melancholic. He missed her. He missed Sissi. Everyone around him danced. Taseh got drunk, Eric and Onyinye wouldn’t keep their hands off each other. Eric’s hands, the same hands that, earlier, had been like poison on Onyinye’s laps, wandered everywhere else during the four hours they had been in the club. The boy and girl had snuck off to what were decidedly not unisex bathrooms. To ease ourselves, Onyinye had said.
When Eric and a flush-faced Onyinye returned from the loo and announced that they’d be leaving for campus, Ewaen was happy. He ran off to pull Taseh away from impending disaster; the plump joker had been on an Aristo’s girl all night. Ewaen figured he had just saved his friend from getting beat up by Oga’s goons.
“Why are we leaving so early?” Taseh had asked.
Early? It’s bloody 3 A.M. in the morning.
Taseh continued complaining all the way out of the club: “It’s only 3 A.M. Oh, Eric and Onyinye again? That’s why I don’t like going out with those two.”
Ewaen had ignored his tipsy whining and half-led, half-dragged him to their car.
They were now on Sapele Road; the next junction off First would take them to Lagos Road, and then it would be a straight trip to Uniben. Eric’s Volkswagen had a loud sound system, loud enough to drown out the rattle of its engine as the speedometer’s needle nudged 100. Snoop Dogg drawled out the lyrics to Gin and Juice over Dre’s syncopated beats. The four of them sang along with the chorus, laughing and shrieking when they came to the line, “Rolling down the street, smoking indo . . . Laid back!”
Ewaen, from his perch in the back seat, looked out the window at a city asleep. When he got back to school he would tell Eric to drive past Estate; he would come down with Onyinye at Female Medical Hostel. Okay, so Onyinye wouldn’t be going back to the hostel; he would still make Eric drop him off there. He pictured himself as Romeo. Yes, he would make an arse of himself at his Sissi-Juliet’s window all night. He would remember some lines from secondary school literature class and shout them as loud as he could until she forgave him. And then he would run off before the Hostel matron descended on him. Yes, it would work. Ewaen sank back into his seat. He looked across to where Taseh snored and he smiled his asleep-smile as he remembered this morning. A few streetlights, islands of brightened red dirt separated by miles of gloom, flew by the car windows. Even the maiguards who stayed up late to serve hot tea and boiled noodles had closed up.
3 A.M. Bad hour.
Everyone locked up early in Benin. It was the robberies of the last few weeks. Eric had decided that these had increased after the military governor dismantled the police checkpoints after too many complaints of accidental discharge. But they had no reason to fear, as Eric always said. Any robbers who stopped them would instead dash him money for driving such a jalopy.
Ewaen noticed the light first. Far in front of them, along a darkened, unlit stretch of tarmac, red, first brightening to a small glare then growing dull again. The pulsations interrupted his thoughts about serenading Sissi from under Juliet’s balcony. Eric and Onyinye still sang Snoopy’s lyrics. Taseh snored in the back beside him. What was that?
Eric sped on, oblivious to the small knot that was tightening in Ewaen’s belly. Why didn’t Ewaen speak up? Why didn’t he say: Eric see that light? Wetin be that?
Too late a torchlight shone in front of them, its glare blinding.
“Park or we shoot!”
“Park for checking!”
To Ewaen it seemed like the panned shot from a movie, a Hollywood Swords and Sandals epic.
Eric hit the brakes.
Snoop Dogg still sang over Dre’s beats. It seemed an odd soundtrack to what was happening. Rolling down the street, smoking indo, sipping on gin and juice. . .
The side of the street where the policemen stood passed by in slow motion: Ewaen saw the open mouths, the surprise on the policemen’s faces. He saw the one with the torch; he saw the torch slowly move to his head; he saw the policeman mouth, “Noooo!”
Laid back! With my mind on my money, and my money on my mind.
Ewaen saw the flickering red light in another policeman’s hand. In the short time he had left Ewaen didn’t know how sure he was that it was marijuana and not a cigarette.
Somewhere he heard Onyinye scream; a trailing sound like the vroom of a passing car driving past to eternity, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred.
He did not hear the car hit the concrete base of the unlit streetlight. He did not feel the Volkswagen roll over, again and again and again. He did not hear the grinding of metal, or the squeal of useless brakes on upturned tires. He did not hear Taseh awaken with a cry of indignant surprise. He would not hear anything, not ever again.
“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.”
“Shut up my friend!” Inspector Benson screamed at the whimpering idiot beside him. “Put out that igboh. I told you to pay attention to the road! Idiot.” Benson dragged the constable by his collar and slapped him to the ground. He was going to kick him to death. He was going to kill him. Two of his men, corporals, had run ahead to where the Volkswagen lay on its roof, the tires spinning. Something had leaked to the ground around its cabin, a slowing spreading puddle that reflected the light from their swinging torches. Benson pulled his right boot back, ready to land a kick to the constable’s belly. He was dragged back.
“Oga stop. Stop!” Sergeant Denmark pulled him back. He hugged Inspector Benson from behind, whispering in his ear, “Make we go look the car. Make we go see.” Benson’s head still rang with anger. His nostrils burned, expelling wind from the furnace that was his chest. This idiot! This big fool! Keep your eyes on the road. Do not let anybody pass. Watch the logs we’ve placed across the road. Shine your torch on them, no, not on the car, you idiot! On the logs. Put out that igboh. Put out that weed!
The sergeant and the inspector ran to where the Volkswagen lay. He saw the look on the constables’ faces but still hoped. He saw the puddle of – Please God, let it be radiator water, let it be petrol. But he knew it was blood. Okay, so someone was injured, maybe dead. They could still be armed robbers. He had seen that the car was full; four armed robbers. He would get a golden handshake from that Anatomy professor at the university if he brought him four cadavers. As Inspector Benson drew closer, he calculated what he would tell his DPO: Ah yes, on a tipoff my men pursued the gang of notorious thieves along the expressway. No! We didn’t erect a checkpoint, sir. Yes, we know checkpoints are banned. The Inspector made a note to himself. He would have the logs his men had dragged across the expressway removed; removed before anyone saw them. Thank God it was just past three, the roads wouldn’t be full of the convoys returning from that night club on Sapele Road for another two hours. They would have time to do this. Yes, as I was saying, DPO: we pursued the armed robbers and due to our superior driving skills they crashed into an unlit streetlight. Yes we got them, sir. Yes we did –
Then he saw the passenger in the front seat. Earrings reflected the light off the corporal’s torch, earrings that hung from blood-stained ears, from an upside-down blood-stained face. The driver’s hand was on her lap.
“Cadavers, all of them,” one of the corporals said.
Inspector Benson’s eyes rested on the girl’s face, he looked at her unseeing eyes and knew what he must do.
“Sergeant Denmark, pick that idiot constable off the ground. Corporals come back here and help me move these logs. We are going back to the station to report a car accident.”