ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Fifteen)
Where they sat was a tightly confined space. It looked like an afterthought. You could bet it was not planned into the original structure of the two-story building, which now stood like a backdrop or stage for the entire scenario. Several long rows of metal poles carry welded umbrella-like tops. They rise rather haphazardly as one umbrella seemed to compete with slight height differences.
“Each of these umbrellas is a story of my life,” Obaseki said. “It is the story of the space where I started looking for my lost soul after I returned from Belgium a couple of years ago.”
From where we were, we could not see anybody in the space with any clarity. At least, I couldn’t. I could only make out the silhouettes in dark backgrounds.
But it was different for Obaseki. From where he was, he knew everybody who was there because each person had a personal table and with a specific, marked position. Using walkie-talkies, the ushers also knew who arrived when anybody got there and the ushers took care of them personally.
“I know exactly who is at the club,” Obaseki boasted, “everybody. I have their names up in my brain, here. Nobody else has that information. But when I sit here, I see which space is occupied, and I know who is here.”
I saw what Obaseki meant. Where we sat was almost a hideout, which appeared to have been a natural growth of plants and rocks, but which could also have been constructed to look natural and plain. Obaseki’s face took on a new glow the moment we stepped into the premises. Though the place was dark, Obaseki blended colorfully into it. He carried himself with a sense of belonging that was connected with being in that particular space. There was a profound sense of animation to his face, but also a sadness came from that vigor that made it even more urgent.
As soon as they placed some cold beer in front of us, I asked for snail with hot spices, which Obaseki advertised as the signature note of the joint. He was right. The snail was crispy with lots of hotness to it.
“This is really good, Obaseki,” I said. “Who would have known that this place is real, and so near the main road?”
“It is real, yet not real,” Obaseki said paradoxically. “Some five years ago when I returned from Belgium, there was none of this. I was a total mental and physical wreck. I wanted to kill myself. But as my mother explained, once I committed suicide, I would erase forever and ever an entire royal line, I knew it was larger than myself. These matters are complicated, and are further magnified by the issue of my being born outside the wedlock.”
I was not interested in all the details, and he could see it from my boredom. But he still wanted to impress me with the magnitude of his achievement.
“I never should have gone to Belgium, “Obaseki continued. “But everything fell to pieces. Things collapsed even before we left Nigeria, and I should have known better.
Marko, his Bulgarian drama teacher at the university in Ibadan invited him to his house. Marko was dating Oyin, one of the drama students, and Oyin liked Obaseki. Oyin had been long in the University of Ibadan campus, as she attended the on-campus secondary school, the International School. Obaseki, on the other hand, a total stranger, all the way from the Bendel States. But Obaseki could not tell that Oyin liked him.
But one day, she was getting into Marko’s car, saw Obaseki, and called him. Oyin introduced Obaseki as an old friend. And Marko said Obaseki should come for a meal at his place.
Oyin was there when he arrived but left soon after to run some errands. She wasn’t sure if she would return, she said, because it was already getting late. But she has prepared fried rice and chicken with dodo—which Obaseki once told her he liked.
Marko brought out his collection of jazz records. Obaseki got an ear load of jazz history, which he didn’t care for. But he cared for the excellent meal, and the wine they drank over it. Obaseki had never had wine before, and as they listened to the music, Marko smoked strong-smelling Turkish tobacco and they drank the wine.
Obaseki enjoyed the wine, and Marko brought out a second one. The following morning, when he woke up, he was the same bed with Marko. He was totally naked, and Marko, all naked, was curled all over him.
Marco went into the kitchen, made some omelet and prepared sandwiches. Obaseki ate his sandwiches with cocoa, and Marco took coffee. They sat together all day reading love poems from Bulgaria, which Marco translated to him. He was there until the following day, a Sunday, when Oyin returned.
“Did you guys hit it well together,” Oyin asked. Marco nodded with wink. Obaseki was lying on the couch.
“I knew you would be okay together,” Oyin said. “I’m returning from church and wanted to see how you were doing. I also needed to relax. It’s been a frenzied weekend. Two papers were due. Thank God I’m done.”
She collapsed on the couch next to Obaseki, resting her head on his thighs. “Marco,” she said stretching out her hand to him, “please fix me two shots of whiskey and lime, please, on ice.’
“Sure thing,” said Marco. “Obas liked the red wine. But he hasn’t tried the whiskey yet.”
Marco mixed the drinks for Oyin and brought it over to her where she was sprawled across Obaseki’s body. She took a sip of the drink, exclaimed, and said, “Obaseki, you must try it.” She placed it next to Obaseki’s lips and he sipped it. “Wondrous,” Obeseki said. “This is good.
“Then you must have your own glass,” Marco said, “and let’s just make it rain.”
They made it rain regularly, the three of them, for two years. The third year, Marco’s contract was over and they could not get it renewed, or his home university in Belgium refused to extend his leave. He had to return. He wanted Oyin and Obaseki to return with him to Belgium. They could come as students. Oyin declined. Obaseki agreed to go with him to Belgium.
Obaseki did not hint anyone at home that he had plans to travel when he boarded the plane from Ikeja for Belgium. Even his mother thought he was still at the University of Ibadan as he sat so quietly, next to some strangers. It was the first time of his life on a plane, and he was flying away from Nigeria to a land to which he had never before been.
It was when the plane took off that he finally heaved a sigh of relief. Even until the moment the plane door of the main cabin was locked, he still expected his mother to break into the plane and drag him out. But when the engine began to turn, and the plane was rolling away slowly on the tarmac, Obaseki began to understand that he had gotten away with his ploy.
Then with a couple of clanging sounds, the plane gathered speedy, and the wheels lifted off the ground. That was when it dawned on Obaseki that he might never see his mother ever again. But he took solace on the assurance that at the other end, Marco was waiting.
TO BE CONTINUED