THE LADY IN BLACK SKIRT

It was the kind of weather that tried everyone’s patience. You could see it in the irritable frown on everyone’s face. There was not a single happy face about. It was this kind of weather that gave the art of smiling the status of the costliest precious stone. But no one could be blamed, no one had the luxury to blame anyone; everyone was embattled by the glare of the vindictive sun seated on its furious throne on high heaven. Frustrated, impatient.

The traffic was busy and crawling. Road Safety officers, their brains cooked out by the aggression of the sun were not in position to direct vehicular movements. So every vehicle in a craze to get ahead was slowed by the other vehicle’s need to move an inch. Everything under the sun wanted to hurry, nothing was moving. Except mouths from which curses and oaths for/from drivers, conductors, keke napeps riders, okada riders and trekkers were launched. The honks of horns, the hooting of engines and the gasps of exhausts tormented ears. Smell of body rot, the foul gutter and miscellaneous rubbish punished the nose. And there was no oxygen anywhere. People breathed out carbon dioxide and gratefully breathed in carbon dioxide.

It was the end of the world. It was Kano in November.

I stood by the side of the road, a dozen newspapers in this arm and flashing the headline of another with the other hand. The headline was a vendor’s delight.

JOS BOMB BLAST CLAIMS SCORES

*Presidency: It is a Dastardly Act

*This is worse than Civil War, Says the Opposition

*More Deadly Attacks Coming—Prophet

But nobody was buying the papers. They were so blinded in the sun to care for papers. The only ones that as much as glanced at my direction were the pedestrians. The hawkers, the wheel-barrow pushers, the insane, the beggar, the idle, the stalker, the criminal. These people don’t buy newspapers; these people cannot even read. There was a conspicuous absence of the studious/pretentious/worldly youths, those pencil jeans-wearing and punk-hair-cutting boys who bought sport newspapers. So I was left in the mercy of the sun and cunning hope. My eyes were fixed at the faces of drivers of cars like a starving baby would stare at dripping breast. I ought to pity those inside the oven of the cars, they were the most unlucky ones, they were being baked alive. But I pity myself more, I was being baked for nothing.

Then I saw it. A dark blue Sienna drew level with where I stood. The glass wound down and a man hiding behind dark glasses beckoned me. As I made to walk towards him, the tail of my eye caught Abu my snake-rival vendor making towards him. You see, this business of selling newspaper is the worst kind of trade on earth. If you were selling oranges you could always claim that yours were the sweetest ones; you could claim your bread were the fleshiest ones; you could claim your banana were imported from Germany. But in this cursed trade of ours, what could you claim? It was the same news, so your only advantage was on your legs, your ability to outrun your rivals. I outran Abu and stopped before the man, panting.

The man had a fat face and small head, but his smile was rich and confident. Who cared about small heads? He bought six dailies and gave me two shiny one-thousand naira notes. ‘Keep the change.’

I was elated beyond measure. At most, people bought two newspapers plus a sport newspaper if they must add a third. But this man bought six and I should keep the change! ‘Ranka ya dade. Na gode.’

‘Wait,’ he called. I turned. ‘I need little help,’ he said.

At this point, I could carry him on my shoulder to Sudan if he asked. ‘Say it.’

He brought out a big black nylon bag with fabrics of sort inside. ‘I cannot leave my car in this jam, could you please help me deliver this in that super market. Ask for a lady in black skirt. Give it to her; she will know who sent it.’

‘Kwarai,’ I said, happy to be of help to such a kind fellow. I hurried off to Bame Plaza. I had never entered the popular shopping mall before. But I knew it was big; I had stood on the entrance many times to sell newspapers to its opulent customers trooping in and out in great numbers. As soon as I stepped into the mall, the chilly breeze from the air conditioner hit my face and I sighed with relish. My senses, having being burnt char became alert, like an unconscious body at the dousing of cold water.

‘What do you want?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘Please stay out.’

‘I am here for the lady in black skirt. Alhaji asked me to give her this package.’

At the mention of alhaji the girl’s patronising frown softened to an inquisitive concern. The lady in black skirt?’ she stood up and peered. ‘Let me see… Yes, see her over there.’ She pointed at a neat pair of hip-lines outlined in a short black skirt. The lady was backing us as she talked excitedly to a lady in red skirt. I hurried towards her. I stopped by her side just as they began to chuckle. ‘Sannu,’ I said to call her attention. She turned. She had a round, attractive face with innocent eyes and calm red lips.

‘Yes?’

‘He said I should give you this.’

‘What is it? Who?’ she collected the package and gapped the sides to glance into it. That was when it exploded, I heard an atomic blast for a quarter of a second then saw myself lifted up in limbs, torn from myself, bursting through the roof amidst cries of shocked agonies. Just as my lifeless carcasses returned to the mass of pieced bones, charred flesh, smoke and fire I thought of tomorrow’s newspapers headlines: Suicide Bomber Ribs Kano Plaza Apart, Kills… how many?

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PRIVACY

My sister lived near the graveyard. My sister’s compound shared walls with the massive resting place of a thousand bones. It was a children’s cemetery but my sister said that occasionally some unclaimed corpse, perhaps a lunatic or a leper, was buried there. If you peeped over the wall you would see the small cemented portions, given shady covers by dry overgrown weeds.

Peeping into the graveyard was a daily comic feast for me. The epitaphs on the graves always pressed me to a throaty release of mirth. This one was my favourite:

Death of BaT: 7th seTemBer 2oo6
Death of DieD: 4st maTcH 2oo9
We LoVEs u
BuT GoD most LoVE u

My sister didn’t like me peeping over the graves. She said dead people needed to be respected and allowed their privacy. Dead people don’t care, I would laugh at my sister. Although I was four years her junior I teased her a lot. She never rebuked me; she would smile and call me Prof.

It happened last Friday. My sister, the husband and their kids left for a wedding in Kaduna to return Monday. I had the whole house to myself. My brother-in-law thought I would be afraid to stay here alone and suggested I go stay with his parents. The thought of living with grey-haired people with insatiable domestic requests didn’t appeal to me. I said no, I would stay here. The abundance of space, food and electronic pleasures sent my blood racing with warmth.

That night I sat on the sofa with my bony legs on the table, a plate of chicken soup at this elbow and a bottle of stout at the other. A pop music video was blasting before me, deafening everybody in one-hundred miles ambit. Both the fan and air-conditioner were on. It was good to be alive. ASUU Strike wasn’t a death sentence after all!

At a little past mid-night I made for the toilet. The door was surprisingly locked, or was I drunk? A kick at the door would confirm it. As I shifted back and lifted my leg up, I heard a tiny voice of a three or four year old: ‘Please disturb me not; don’t you know that dead people need their privacy?’

My head swelled like a giant balloon, inflated with hot air. I ran to the nearby kitchen door. It was also locked. I kicked it. It didn’t open. Then I heard, another little child’s voice, ‘Who is there? Don’t you know that dead people need food?’

‘NO!’ I shouted and ran full speed out of the passage to the door leading into the compound. I must have smashed Usain Bolt’s record in my dash. At the door, I heard knocking. ‘Thank God.’ I sighed, someone was around.

‘Open the door,’ chorused a dozen little voices, ‘outside is cold; don’t you know that dead people need warmth.’

I don’t know which one happened first, the urine bursting from my bladder or my falling into a faint.

ghost

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