‘Elizabeth?’ I said to the young woman in front of me. She looked to be in her early thirties, like I was, but there were worry lines on her forehead that spoke of an older age – maybe she had just been through a lot.
‘Elizabeth?’ I repeated. She continued to walk on, not responding. I hurried my steps toward her. She was suddenly within reach.
‘We went to Our Saviour’s together,’ I said emphatically. This time, I saw a clear hesitation in her movements.
But she still did not turn to acknowledge me. Exasperated, I grabbed her arm. ‘Don’t I know you, Miss? We were childhood friends. What happened to you?’
This time she turned around to face me, eyes flashing a stormy rebuke. ‘Look here, mister, I don’t know your angle, but this is a busy street and if you don’t let go of my arm, I’m going to scream.’
A little surprised, I let go of her arm. She glared at me, visibly upset. For a moment I was unsure, then finally I blurted out, ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.’
She turned away briskly and stomped off.
I stood alone in that busy Lagos street, not really aware of the many eyes that stared at me as people brushed past me on their way home from work.
It was six in the evening and I had just popped out for lunch. I wasn’t going to cook – that particular skill was beyond my many talents. And so these days, I was increasingly getting hooked on all the junk food this thriving, throbbing metropolis had to offer.
I lost my young online business just three months ago. We sold organs created from a standard cloning process. A lot of Japanese were coming to West Africa now to set up these kinds of companies. Since digitising memory for a kind of pseudo eternal life was illegal here, the organ transplant business and its sister industry, organ growing and harvesting, had proven very popular – and I was still feeling the harsh depression, anxiety, and disillusionment that comes with any failed enterprise. I had always thought that I had an edge over my fellow Japanese, because I was not just coming here in the organ-harvesting boom. I had grown up here and this was my home. This was why it hurt so much – the rejection of my company I considered to be a rejection of me.
It had started to rain but I took no notice, allowing the cold downpour to drench me. All this while I was thinking: Elizabeth!
I missed my friend, and seeing her here, or at least someone that looked like her, stirred up all sorts of memories in my head.
I scratched my temple, remembering. She had been abducted when we were only ten years old. My parents had had a hard time explaining this to me. I had always expected that she would turn up, my best friend, who was always there … forever, until she wasn’t.
‘Mister, are you okay?’ someone said. I snapped out of my reverie and saw that it was a Chinese man that spoke. There were a lot of Chinese here in the city, but they had come long before the Japanese had – at the turn of the new millennium, to be exact.
‘I’m Fine,’ I said, surprised that my voice had come out as a tiny squeak. I cleared my throat and managed to say again, this time managing to sound manlier, ‘I’m Fine.’
The Chinese man walked away. I continued on to the fast food place. Their menu was an eclectic one: Indian food, Chinese food, Nigerian, even Iranian. The only thing missing was bangers and mash. I ordered the Chinese and it arrived five minutes later – so much for fast food.
The fried rice was bland, even with the sweet and sour sauce. It seemed that this place delighted in the number of dishes served, not in their quality. I remembered Joe’s. I had been using them for many years now, but the business had gone bust. I felt bad when I heard of it – it just added to my mounting frustration.
I finished my rice and ordered another meal to go.
Another five minutes and the robot arm put my order in a dispenser. I picked up the paper bag with my food in it, bending a little to look through a glass shield at the cook. He looked Indian, and overworked. You and me both, I said to myself.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle now. Nevertheless, I threw my hood over my head. There was a phone on Adekunle Street and I walked to it.
It was going on eight now. Can’t believe I’ve been out for two hours. I found the phone booth and walked in. I picked up the receiver and dialled Japan, missing the International code the first time and then getting it right on the second try.
‘Hello’ – a female voice came through. It sounded sleepy. ‘Who’s this?’
I hesitated for a while, so that the voice asked again, ‘Who is this?’
‘It’s me, Mama,’ I finally said.
‘Yes, mother, it’s me.’
‘Oh, my baby,’ my mother said, and when she did, a weight seemed to lift off me. I rested my head against the inside of the phone booth and sighed heavily.
‘Michael, you sound tired,’ she said with concern. I did not tell her about Elizabeth.
‘It’s all right, Mama,’ I said. ‘I’m sure my father told you I lost my business.’ There was much resentment in my voice. I had hissed out the word “father”.
‘Your father loves you, Michael,’ my mother said.
I knew you would say that, I thought.
‘Michael, are you taking your drugs?’
‘I hate those drugs,’ I said.
If it were possible, it seemed she said with even more concern: ‘I know, baby. But you must take them. They help you.’
‘I know, Mama,’ I said. ‘I’m taking them.’
‘That’s good,’ she replied with relief. ‘Michael, will you be fine?’
I nodded my head in the phone booth, but as she could not see this action, I said, ‘Yes, Mama. I am looking to start a new business.’
‘That’s good,’ my mother said. ‘I’ll tell your father.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘don’t. He’ll only assume I need his money to start up. And I don’t.’
‘Did you save up some money?’
‘I did, Mama.’
‘That’s my boy.’
We were silent for a little while, then she broke the silence. ‘Michael,’ she said.
‘Be a good boy for your mother.’
She dropped the phone. I did the same after some time and walked out of the booth. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, heaven trickling down water. I started to walk back home.
It was going on half-past nine and the streets were unusually deserted. It must have been the rain, I thought. People will be coming out soon, their reluctance at being drenched having been satisfied. But for now, the streets were quiet. For now, I was alone.
I climbed down from the curb and walked on the street. Some stray dogs were fighting over their dinner in an overturned rubbish bin.
I stopped to look at them. They had been rejected by society and were now fending for themselves, free from the restrictions of any owners. I thought about my father. Then I thought about Elizabeth.
Was that her earlier?
I started to walk again.
I heard a noise; someone had disturbed a bin. I turned around. I saw the bin lying on its side, but there was no one around. I waited for the intruder of my thoughts to show himself. A dog came out from the shadows. I turned around and started to walk again.
As if on cue, the streets came alive again. I was again surrounded by a thriving and throbbing city. The rain had stopped now, and yet my hood remained over my head, shielding me from people – all those people; and the smells they carried with them. I scrunched my nose up when a man passed me. He obviously had plans for a one-night stand tonight. I frowned.
Still more people.
I felt as if they were drowning me. It was hard to breathe. Still more people.
I stopped and got on the ground on the side of the curb, making an effort to breathe.
‘Mister, you okay?’ This time it was an African, a Yoruba man.
I nodded. ‘Thank you. I just needed to catch my breath.’
The man walked away. I felt alone.
After a minute, I got up and continued, getting home a little after midnight.
I shut the door after me and locked it with its heavy bolt. I pulled the doorknob and shook it to make sure it was secure. I was scared, scared of people. Since I lost the business, all I knew was fast food and fear.
I took a seat opposite the box and turned it on. The Nigerian currency was catching up to the dollar again.
I turned to the entertainment channel – another celebrity dead from drug abuse, another one married their cat, another caught with an ex….
I switched the box off. I collected the take away I had bought from the fast food place with the eclectic menu, and I went to the basement.
I switched on the basement light and started down the stairs. My movements were heavy. I was exhausted.
Below, I slipped the food through the bars of the cage.
‘I thought you were gone for good,’ the man inside the cage said. He collected the food and started to eat ferociously. ‘This is good.’
I told him that it wasn’t. He shrugged and continued eating, not minding the bones in the fish and instead swallowing them.
‘I’m sure you cried out for help at the top of your lungs,’ I said.
‘It’s never helped me before. The place is soundproof.’
I studied him with an intense gaze. He continued to eat greedily.
‘I’ve decided to let you go,’ I said.
‘Why should I believe you?’
‘There’s too much heat out there. Everyone’s looking for you’ – actually they weren’t. ‘The news can’t stop reporting about you.’
The man looked at me with great apprehension.
‘So what will you say?’ he asked.
‘I mean, if you let me go, aren’t you afraid that I’ll tell people about you?’
‘You don’t know who abducted you,’ I said. ‘To you, I’m just a face.’
He looked at me, his mouth full of food, but he did not swallow, just sat there, staring.
@ Uzor Chinukwue 2011