Early afternoon on the twentieth of July—a date which seemed significant, though he couldn’t readily say why—Seno LongJohn journeyed north, wiggling for shoulder room in a rusty old bus that barely bounced along. He’d suspected things might come to this when the conductor twanged down short planks between the aisle seats to create backless attachment seats where more people could perch, never mind that the bus already listed like a troubled liner destined to cruise beneath the waves.
Last night Seno had been at work cleaning the meat cleaver when, out of nowhere, into his mind popped his mother’s neck. He realised then that a man could feign ignorance for only so long before the forces troubling him began to fraternise and gain on his sanity, leaving him tottering on the threshold of providing material for a beer-garden anecdote that began with: Did you hear how he gutted his own mother like fish? There seemed no help for it but to immediately distance himself from his mother. And, if only so he could acquit himself, his perpetual lack of money demanded a change from how he’d been living his life.
Now his getaway bus had become a get-delayed box. He might as well have showered with his clothes on, and not even with water at that. With every kilometre, the stench of reeking bodies pummelled him, urging him to concede that his presence on the bus, in itself, told all that ever needed to be told about him. Even without gritting his teeth, without pantomiming any supposedly heroic antics, Seno refused to make any such concession. Despite everything, he still wanted to believe that a man lured his own luck; not even the stink of rotting meat could change his mind on that. He did want to get off the bus, though, with just as much fervour as he’d wanted to leave Dodo the previous night.
At least the other passengers gave him reason to feel better about himself. They chomped eggs and exchanged fart-induced insults. Seno saved himself the additional burden of beefing, but he didn’t really blame them.
That had nothing to do with him being the kind of man who wouldn’t beef under any circumstance. Far from it. He just couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t spare himself more wahala when the one before him already demanded his full attention. Besides, all the way up north it had been one thing after another with the bus. Apart from everyone having to scamper down to push the damn thing several times, he’d spent the entire trip silently urging the bus along so he wouldn’t end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Yet he saw no signs they were anywhere near Abuja. And dark clouds were gathering all around them.
The bus slowed to a stroll, coughed something querulous and then shot forward as if it had miraculously unlocked some reserved mechanical energy. They galloped along for a kilometre or so—bushes flashing by, cool air breezing through—before the bus emitted a loud hiss and rolled to a stop. Seno exhaled. He knew they were going nowhere soon.
About six hours later, as the overcrowded 44-seater finally trundled through Abuja’s unimaginatively-named City Gate, a rainstorm thundered down and brought night with it. Through the haze, Seno spied silhouettes of tall buildings that might have been wavering against the city skyline; or perhaps they weren’t there at all, but merely part of Abuja government magic. What he knew for certain: one moment they were passing a road sign announcing Utako District, and the lights of the city were shimmering in the downpour; the next moment, the city went dark—nothing magical about the process. The bus belched and bucked to a shuddering stop.
The rain pounded the corroded roof with such force that Seno worried the bus might cave in on itself. Such aggression from nature pointed to the city not wanting him and that rankled Seno. He’d paid his fare out of Dodo after pawning his treasured BlackBerry at a give away price. Now, without letting him get off the bus, the city had pelted him with rain and a blackout. Surely the bad-luck bus had triggered this unfavourable turn of events. But why did the city disapprove of him? Could it be his disfigured hands? He looked down at them, the three middle fingers fused together. Or his shortcoming as the one LongJohn who hadn’t inherited the typical family feature? If Abuja would only offer the same depressing things he already knew from home, wouldn’t it be best to head right back?
But Seno didn’t want to go back. His fun-loving cousins lived in Abuja. He’d been close to Enasni and Kate when he’d spent time at their university chasing an indigent student scholarship—which turned out to be the type of government magic that existed only on paper. Now he planned to stay with them awhile and see how things went, but he didn’t come seeking free stuff.
Seno worked harder than most people he knew. Besides running the kitchen of a restaurant back home, he partly supported his mother—who’d taken early retirement from nursing—and two younger cousins. He just wanted better opportunities to earn more money so he could pay for his cousins to study beyond secondary school. It would also be great to buy nicer clothes and a power bike that would attract a girl with an ass to live and die for.
He began calling on his maker. Didn’t he deserve a chance? True, he didn’t have the capital to start the restaurant he wanted, but couldn’t he just set his feet on dry ground and see what he and the city might gain from each other?
In the middle of this interrogatory prayer, the bus conductor yelled, “Come down and watch ya luggage.” Seno thanked God he’d travelled light, grabbed his backpack and joined those who wanted to get off the bus, rain or no rain. Before he reached the exit, the rain stopped as abruptly as it had begun. His face lit up.
Off the bus, he dug a new notebook out of his backpack. In it, he’d copied relevant phone numbers. He looked around for a pay phone vendor. He spotted one who did business sitting inside a roofed tricycle. How unusual, Seno thought. He’d seen similar vehicles in Dodo. They were pesky Indian imports but he tolerated them because they could weave through traffic jams and get you where you wanted to go in time. He’d never seen them used as pay phone units. An idea began to form in his mind. He flipped through the notebook and approached the tricycle.
“Kate, it’s Seno.”
“Seno. Long time.”
“Too long-o. Abeg, I just enter Abuja, I’ve been calling Enasni but his line is not going.”
“He might have forgotten to turn it on again. Where you dey make I come pick you?”
Seno and Kate hugged. She praised the lushness of his Afro, then frowned at the backpack.
“Is this all your luggage?”
“I be action-man. No plenty wahala.”
Kate shook her head. “Seno DeVito. The same yesterday, today, and forevermore.”
The idea that he couldn’t change didn’t sound right but, pleased at hearing his old nickname, Seno shrugged and squeezed into Kate’s surprisingly small car. Why, he wondered, would a full-bodied LongJohn like Kate buy a matchbox masquerading as a car?
“So, this na your ride,” he said, not bothering to make it a question.
“No, just assigned to me for now. I’m getting a bigger one soon.”
Seno nodded. A LongJohn could never be content with something this small.
Kate took her time easing the car back into traffic. She checked left, right, the rear-view mirror, left again and right again. It all seemed an agonisingly long process. Seno wanted to ask her when she’d become such a lily-livered LongJohn. But she immediately fired a series of tiresome questions about uncles and aunts and nephews and nieces at him. He barely restrained himself from reminding her that she had a phone, as did virtually all of those relatives.
When she asked what had brought him to Abuja, he mumbled something about Dodo being fine, looked out the window and noted with surprise that the silhouettes of the tall buildings he’d seen earlier did belong to actual houses. What could he tell her, in any case? That he’d started having matricidal thoughts? That he’d gotten tired of being referred to as ‘Seno No-hands’? He did have hands, except that the same fire that had disfigured his mother’s face had also fused together his three middle fingers on each hand. They couldn’t afford to pay for corrective surgery. Still, he’d become adept at using his webbed fingers. Any time anyone called him Seno No-hands, he retorted, “Seno Super-hands!” But that only made some fools eager to tease him more. And when it came to his mother, he really couldn’t say Mama Super-face and hope to level things out. Even the thought of saying something like that felt sacrilegious; his mother would still be a woman of celebrated beauty if she hadn’t gotten burned while saving him. He knew deep down that he could never hurt her, though he wished she could go back to how she used to be.
As they stepped into Kate’s flat, where the sitting-room-cum-bedroom seemed about the same size as a garage back in Dodo, the electricity came back on. Her cheeks glowed.
“Seno DeVito, you brought light. That’s good luck, you know?”
Seno nodded and gave silent thanks to his maker, then went off to take a proper bath.
Kate went about fixing Seno a meal of the cassava-based staple, garri, and the smooth paste vegetable, afang soup. When he came out of the bathroom, his heart welled with gratitude; not only did she remember his favourite food but she seemed determined to prepare it the way his mother would have back home. He swallowed and sought ways to distract himself while he waited for her to finish.
Kate’s eyebrows went up. “Me and Enasni, we live in this Abuja, but I might as well live in Burkina Faso and he in Russia.”
“Life happened. I try to visit but he acts like I’m disturbing him.”
Seno didn’t get that. Enasni and Kate used to be an inseparable happy-go-lucky brother and sister team. That they lived separately seemed extravagant. Unless...
“Is somebody living with him?”
“I doubt it. He used to date this other teller at my workplace, but I heard they’re over.”
“No be my business, abeg, and I avoid going to his place.”
Kate sneered. “He might be in and pretend he’s not. Like today, it’s his birthday—”
“Today is Enasni’s birthday?” Seno’s heart jumped. No wonder the date had struck a chord. “How could I forget?”
“That’s growing up, Seno. Besides, Enasni is consulting for the city these days, so I’m sure he can’t be bothered. What’s a birthday compared to a payday? Come and eat.”
Seno watched the 9:00PM TV news while he ate with relish. A graph with an arrow pointing upwards illustrated a story about how the economy had once again grown in double digits in the last quarter. Seno knew this type of government magic; just another form of paper reality. A different report focused on improved power supply. These lies did not concern Seno. Enasni’s birthday did. Fresh-faced Enasni, always sporting a sharp haircut, the most fun-loving man in the world. Even the forces of evil could not stop Seno DeVito from attending the party.
He finished eating, freshened up and put on a pink-patterned shirt.
“How do I get to Enasni’s place?”
Kate did a double take. “It’s almost ten-o. Why not wait till tomorrow?”
He could have, but Seno recalled Enasni had three years on him, which meant his older cousin had just hit the big three-zero. Seno knew Enasni loved partying. And they were in Abuja, the city that gave the nation her first carnival. The jam might stretch into a three-day festival, a once-in-a-lifetime party that no right-thinking LongJohn ought to miss.
“It’s today that’s his birthday, not tomorrow.”
“Guess you’re right. Enasni lives in Wuse II at 1461 Nantucket Crescent.”
“Many streets in Abuja come with names that somebody probably copied from an atlas. You’ll know his house when you see it—it’s the only one with a blue roof.”
Four other passengers hurriedly squeezed into the taxi with Seno. A big fat man, the luckiest of them from where Seno sat, soon began to snore from the front passenger seat while an equally fat loaf of bread rested on his lap. In the back seat, a sweaty, angry-looking woman dug her elbow into Seno’s side until he flinched. He could have elbowed her back but instead he leaned out the window. A LongJohn picked his battles carefully.
They were stopped at the military roadblock in front of the Abacha Barracks. After a cursory search by the soldiers, the driver got the nod to go on, but then the engine died.
The driver tasked everyone with pushing the car. All complied except the passenger in front. The driver shook the big man. He jumped in fright. His loaf flew through the air, landing in front of the soldiers. Meanwhile, Seno and the other passengers pushed the taxi and got the engine started. A soldier picked up the loaf.
“Which kind bread be this? You want to feed the whole Abuja?”
The big man grabbed the bread, tried to pry it away from the soldier.
The soldier held on and his eyes bulged. “You dey craze? I dey joke with you, why you come dey behave like fool?”
The soldier snatched the bread out of the big man’s hand and flung it as far into the bush as he could. Then he unslung his rifle and cocked it.
All the occupants of the taxi were kneeling by the roadside, facing the bush, their hands on their heads. The taxi stood idling in the middle of the road. One of the soldiers chatted on a walkie-talkie. Seno gathered that the soldiers had caught some ‘suspicious characters’ misbehaving in public, and they were trying to decide what to do with the offenders. Seno didn’t want to be a part of the whole nonsense. He had a once-in-a-lifetime party to attend.
A roaring motorcycle approached. He turned round to see the make. A power bike all right, but not the type where a girl could cling on to her man, stick out her ass and make everybody else jealous.
“Why you no wear helmet?” the soldiers asked the rider.
“Because I no intend to fall,” the rider said with a chuckle.
“Abomination!” one soldier said.
“Against the law,” said another.
The soldiers forgot about Seno and company. They pulled the rider off the bike and made him frog-jump by the roadside. One of the soldiers then motioned to Seno and his group to leave. They scrambled into the idling taxi and the driver zoomed off.
After they passed the Wuse II sign, Seno alighted and trekked into the district feeling tall. A little way in, he found himself admiring some skimpily dressed girls standing by the roadside near a swanky hotel. A man in a hooded tracksuit sat near the girls with a small box by his side. He sold sweets, chewing gum, cigarettes, condoms and all manner of knickknacks. Seno bought two packs of condoms. There’d be lots of opportunities to use them at Enasni’s party.
He asked the hooded man how to get to Nanakuchet.
“Ba Englis,” the man said.
“No English,” one of the girls interpreted. “Nantucket is on the other side of Wuse II.”
Seno thanked her and set off in the direction she’d pointed.
“Better take taxi,” the girl said. “You no see time? Police go catch you.”
Seno thanked her again. He surmised from her tone that Enasni’s street might be some way off. The thought rankled him. But a voice within urged him never to forget that a true LongJohn drank the bitter dregs with as much gusto as he had drunk the sweet palm wine. Besides, he’d made it to Wuse II. Nanakuchet or whatever they called the street couldn’t be that hard to find.
He’d just started trekking again when a police pickup pulled up by his side and several guns pointed at him. Seno froze. He put up his hands.
“Small man looking for big trouble,” a gruff voice said from the pickup. “Identify yourself. Why you dey here after midnight? You be wizard or armed robber?”
Seno garbled out his situation.
“You done pass Nantucket by your right,” the officer said. “If we see you again, you go sleep for cell.”
Seno thanked the policemen and hurried back to Nantucket Crescent. The street went on and on and round and round and he hadn’t found 1461 when the lights went out again. If it weren’t for the firm pavement under his boots, Seno could have mistaken the street for one of those spooky trails in Dodo’s swampy forests.
He’d been certain loud party music would guide him to Enasni’s place. Now, with the electricity off, the darkness whispered all manner of fearful nonsense in his ear, and the bile in his stomach became a poisonous traitor. But knowing that, at this stage, the partygoers were most likely occupied in a way he wholly approved of, he kept a stranglehold on his nerves. Just one thing: how would he spot a blue roof in the dark?
He stopped outside the gates of one house and peered at the roof. No luck. Moving closer, he came face-to-face with a uniformed guard holding an upraised baton.
“I no be thief,” Seno said. “I dey look for 1461. Abeg, help direct me.”
The guard snorted. “You think my job na to direct people up and down?”
“No vex. Help me because of God.”
The guard reluctantly pointed to a gate two houses away.
Seno hurried to where the guard had pointed. A light shimmered through a downstairs window. Now and then someone passed by, momentarily blocking out the light. Seno had no doubt the party had tapered to the most interesting part. He pounded on the gate.
A voice from within yelled, “I haven’t finished. Wait till daylight.”
“Enasni, it’s me, Seno DeVito.”
A figure came out of the house and approached the gate. “Seno?”
An old-looking man, his hair unkempt, inched forward. Seno cringed.
“Seno, is it really you?”
“It is me-o. How did you get so skinny?” Seno couldn’t find his fun-loving cousin in the hungry-looking mad professor who stood before him.
Still in shock and studying his cousin, Seno sank into an armchair. Enasni kept shuffling around a big desk which stood where most people typically kept a centre table. Two rechargeable lamps were placed on lamp holders at opposite ends of the untidy living room. Papers, pens, a laptop and a carton of milk littered the desk. Every now and then Enasni would mutter some figures and then slap his forehead.
“Ol’ boy Enasni, na wahala make you forget your birthday?”
“Birthday? Oh, that.” Enasni seemed lost. Then his eyes twinkled as if he’d just become aware of Seno. “You used to know maths, didn’t you?”
“A little, why?”
“I have to figure out how many litres of water five million people living in this city need every year, while factoring in a monthly population increase of—ooh!”
Enasni clutched his stomach.
Seno jumped up. “What is it?”
Enasni took a packet from his pocket, rushed to the desk, snapped two pills out from the packet and swallowed them with a lot of milk. He grimaced and belched.
“What is it, Enasni?”
“Just ulcer. Nothing to worry about.”
Seno shook his head. “When did you eat last?”
“Ah . . .” Enasni peered at Seno. “It doesn’t matter. Can you help with the figures? I need to submit it to some committee tomorrow—I mean today. This morning.”
“Let’s get you something to eat first, abi? Anything in the kitchen?”
Enasni shrugged. “Kate brought some yams when she came the last time.”
Seno took one of the lamps and went into the kitchen. He located pots, pans, knives, spices, and oils. Here, whether the electricity came back on or not, it didn’t matter to him.
He set a pot of water on a burner and peeled the yam. On another burner, he placed a pan and trickled a few drops of olive oil into it. The oil sizzled while he chopped onions, relishing the familiar sting in his eyes that reminded him of Dodo and his mother, and he felt even more convinced he’d been right to leave town, right to leave her so she could be safe from the evil forces that were pushing him to harm her. He cracked four eggs, poured the yolks into a bowl, sprinkled in salt, thyme and nutmeg. Battering the eggs, he thought about the new Enasni who had forgotten his own birthday. Clearly the partying days were over. He wondered if he would like the grownup Enasni as much as the fun-loving one he’d known and admired. In any case, whether the city wanted him or not, whether he had money to start a restaurant or not, Seno DeVito would serve his first dish in Abuja. And if he continued to lure his own luck, perhaps he could persuade Enasni to spring for a tricycle, and maybe he could sell snacks and soft drinks out of it. Not the same as a restaurant, true, but then no LongJohn, not even a short one, stayed small forever.
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