ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1982 (Part Thirty-Nine)
Rufus rushed straight to the black box and opened it. He looked anxious. He knelt down by the box and began to inspect the content one by one.
“The batteries are all dead,” he muttered to himself, caressing the cameras, microphones, lenses and other things in the box.
“Are you a photographer?” Hilda asked Rufus.
“Excuse me, Hilda,” Kole said. “I should have introduced you. This is Rufus. Teaches theater, film and television at the University of Benin. You know, the ancient city of Benin City that the British sacked, I believe, in 1897. That’s where these people live. That is Moyo. Graduate student studying fine arts at the University of Benin. And that is Steve. Visiting from Britain. Londoner like you.”
“I don’t consider myself just a Londoner,” Hilda retorted. “I am particular. I was raised in Brixton. I think of myself as being from Brixton. It’s strange to call myself a Londoner.”
Steve quipped, “But seems to make some sense to do so here in Nigeria. Nobody here knows Brixton.”
“Well, they know now,” Hilda countered.
I thought she was a bit on the edge.
“Se awon ti won n pe ni akata niyi, Papa Ru?” I asked Rufus.
“You guys talking about me,” Hilda asked.
“They speak in Yoruba all the time,” Steve said. “You soon get used to it. Or learn some Yoruba. Yes, they are talking about you.”
“I was not talking about her, Steve,” I stuttered. “What did I say?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, “but it sounded you were asking Rufus a question about Hilda.”
“He wasn’t talking about her,” Rufus came to my aid. “He was asking me when we were getting back to Benin City.”
“Sure didn’t hear Moyo mention Benin City in that sentence,” Steve said. “Now I’m even more convinced it’s about her.”
“You don’t speak any Yoruba,” I told Steve, “but you certainly know how to cause problems with the language. So, when are we getting out of here? We still have to pick up Jimi Solanke and his guest. If we are returning tonight, let’s start thinking of going.”
“You returning to Benin tonight?” Hilda asked. “You all sound like a riotous bunch.”
“Please let me apologize on behalf of both of them,” I turned to Hilda. “we will soon get out of here.”
“I had Benin City on my list of places to visit,” Hilda said. “At some point, I’m coming to Benin and would like to hang out with you guys when I visit.”
“Come with us now, Hilda,” Steve said. “You and I can speak English while they speak Yoruba.”
“Well, Rufus has not invited me,” Hilda replied.
“You better pack a bag then,” Rufus said, “and let’s get going. The night will fall pretty fast, and that road to Benin is not good from Ife to Ore.”
“Oh, I travel light,” Hilda said. “Just a bag is all I need. And it’s mostly packed.”
“Go and get your bag, Hilda,” Steve said. “I need rescue from these people. They have eaten me up.”
“Are you calling them cannibals?” Hilda asked.
“Yes,” Steve responded. “And I am Tarzan.”
“I really don’t appreciate racial jokes,” Hilda said. “You guys should go along. I’ll come to Benin at some other time. Thanks, Rufus, for the invite.”
“Better go with them,” Margaret said. “They are just joking around. You’ll get used to them.”
Kole Omotosho supported Margaret. ”You’ll love Benin, Hilda. And if you don’t like their company, you’ll find some affordable hotel in Benin to move into. Or just return here to Ife. You have thirty days on your visa.”
I grabbed the black box with the equipment. It was heavy when I lifted it. I hauled it into the back of the bus.
When I returned to the house, Hilda was in her bedroom to get her bag.
Margaret began to fix some food for Hilda to take with her to Benin. “Hilda will soon be hungry and may not be able to stop by the roadside to eat as you do.”
Soon, Hilda reappeared. She looked like one of those Egyptian queens rendered in gold in the pyramids.
She wore a black maxi gown reaching down to her ankles, with a black silk scarf binding her long hair in the middle of a loop.
She wore a large gold necklace and a gold brooch on her cleavage.
She stood on high heels of three inches.
She looked divine. A sweet scent wafted from her skin. She clutched a medium-sized travel bag.
Steve immediately took the bag from her.
“Kole, please extend my apology to Kongi that I can’t come to dinner tonight.” Hilda gave husband and wife a hug and kissed the little baby.
“Ready for Benin if you guys are ready,” Hilda announced. “God bless you for the snacks, Marge.”
We went out to the bus. Steve went to take the wheel.
“You guys trust him to drive you around in this crazy traffic,” Hilda asked. “And may I sit in the front? I just want to be able to take pictures.”
She went and opened the front door.
Rufus and I climbed into the back. We exchanged glances. And I repeated the question I had asked him earlier in the Yoruba language. He nodded.
Hilda suddenly yelled, “Stop, stop, please, let me take this picture.”
It was a red-neck lizard, nodding its head assertively at her.
“Oh, they are everywhere,” Steve said. “They are not shy at all. If you try to—.”
“Steve, please stop being my tour guide,” Hilda complained. “If I need information, I will ask you.”
“You’ll see,” Steve said. “These two are going to be speaking Yoruba between them. In the city of Benin, everybody speaks pidgin. You don’t speak pidgin. And I speak pidgin. No be so, Rufus?”
“Na so o, Oyinbo pepper,” Rufus responded.
“So it’s just the two of us, and I speak some Yoruba and pidgin,” Steve reiterated.
Hilda turned to me. “Rufus and Moyo,” she said, “you will leave me at the mercy of this white man?”
“No, o,” said Rufus. “We dey your back, Hilda.”
She looked bewildered.
We arrived at Jimi Solanke’s house.
The others decided to stay in the bus while I went to get him and the new guest.
I met them eating. “Toyin just made this amala with okro for us,” Jimi Solanke said. “Call everybody up to come and eat.”
I said we were in a hurry and wanted to get on the road before it got dark.
“What is wrong with the dark?” Jimi asked. “Does the bus not have traveling headlights?”
“It does but—”
“But nothing,” he completed the sentence for me.
Then he went to the balcony overlooking the parking lot and yelled, “Hey everybody, come on up! We are eating. Good quality food made by someone who knows how to do it. Come and get some for the road.”
Steve turned off the engine, and the three of them joined us.
It was more than two hours later before we left the house.
Toyin carefully washed the plates, dried them and stacked them away.
She took a minute to tidy up the kitchen.
“It should look decent when we return home,” Toyin said in her radiant, yet shy voice.
By the time we got on the bus to start the trip to Benin, it was already dark.
We were all drunk—except for Toyin.
Hilda loved the local ogogoro gin that Jimi Solanke brought out for the road. He brought two bottles of the liquor, which I thought was excessive. “One for the road,” he said, “one for when we get home.”
Jimi Solanke did some prayers to Ogun, the divinity of the road, and poured some libations.
We all took a shot of the local gin as participants in the libation ritual.
Toyin, apparently a Christian, did not drink.
Jimi Solanke brought his box guitar and sat at the far back of the bus with Toyin.
With his mesmerizing and raspy baritone, Jimi serenaded us with folk songs all the way to Benin City, as we took turns taking shots of the ogogoro.
By the time we entered the city limits of Benin, the second bottle was already quite depleted.
We were all singing along with Jimi Solanke.
Toyin remained silent throughout the trip. Jimi Solanke checked with her regularly: “Honey, are you doing fine?”
And she would nod her head.
When we arrived, we trooped inside the house, still singing our jolly songs.
I entered first and turned on the light.
What I saw stunned me: sitting there in the dark, all by herself, waiting for us, at the kitchen table was Gina.
We were all surprised.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Gina said. “But I just wanted to sit for a while here in the dark.”
I went to join her. “Have you been here long?”
“No,” she replied. “Arrived only about thirty minutes ago. I was going to wait for just about one hour and if you didn’t return I would have just left. You showed me where you always leave the key.”
“You are doing well?” I asked her.
“I’m doing good enough,” she responded. I could see there was a lot she wanted to say. But with everybody standing around looking shocked to find her there in the dark, she couldn’t say anything.
“Should we go into my room to talk?” I asked her.
“Yes, please,” she replied. “I have some important things to tell you. Urgent things.”
I led the way and she followed me into the room.
We both sat on the bed.
She looked around the room, sighed and relaxed. “I’ve missed this bed,” she started.
I could not take my eyes off her. The last time I saw her, it was at the NIFOR staff club, when Obaseki was supposed to be taking her to Jude Hospital for emergency treatment.
There was a knock on the door.
“It’s open,” I said.
Steve peeped in. “You guys doing alright? Just wanted to check.”
“Yes, we fine,” I said.
“Hi Gina, long time no see” Steve continued, waving at her. “You all need something to drink or anything?”
“Hello Oyinbo,” Gina said. “You are looking really tan. Yes, it’s been a long time. I don’t want anything to drink.”
“Alright, folks,” Steve said, “we were just thinking of going out to party. We are going dancing at some nightclubs. Friday night. We want to show Hilda a bit of our city!”
Steve sounded really drunk.
“You guys go have fun,” I said.
“Not joining us?” Steve asked.
“No, Steve,” I said. “Enjoy the party.”
Then he moved into the center of the room and started gyrating his hips like Elvis Pressley.
“Na poi tonight o!” Steve screeched, winking at us. “Di two both ofu una na poi night o!” He slammed the door and left.
“See wahala o, Moyo!” Gina said, her jaw-dropping. “Moyo, I have a lot to tell you tonight. So much on my mind”