I have been reading Ben Okri lately and have decided to try my hand in his art. Don’t read this at night.
After weeks of sleeping under the bridge with urchins and goats as bed mates and enduring hunger and moving about in rags like a newly mad, I got a well-paying black-collar job. Black-collar job. What else do you call the job of keeping guard in a mortuary? There were two mortuaries owed by the General Hospital. It used to be one, but due to the boom in deaths the well-thinking Hospital Authority of the hospital thought it good to build a bigger, safer mortuary. The mortuary was built and the small, old one was decongested. I was hired to man the older rest-room of the dead while the veteran guard who had manned the mortuary for forty years moved to guard the new death base.
The mortuary I man was separated from the main hospital buildings by a space of erosion-ridden land which someone had been trying to force into a corn farm. The land wouldn’t allow the growth of corn but in spite of the farmer, the land sustained a dozen of cashew and mango trees and some evil looking weeds. The new mortuary was further from the hospital, behind mine, separated by trees, shrubs, grasses and graves of children and the unwanted. The two mortuaries are connected by a big pathway that would allow a motorcar if the car would slide and motor on one side of tyres…
On my first night on my post I sat on a bench by the door of the room where about twenty dead bodies lay in cold silence. I was happy to have this job. The pay was good and you don’t need accommodation—you live in the mortuary with dead bodies as neighbours. The bench cannot be said to be a good bed but it was luxury when compared with the cracked rubbish littered, evil smelling bottom of the bridge. And there was good food too, on credit too (as hospital staff)—morning, afternoon, evening, at the hospital gate. The mallam who sold cigarettes at the kiosk along Hospital Road too accepted to give me cigarettes on credit. It was good to be employed. Who cared about the colour of the collar of the job?
So I sat there with my small world receiver transistor radio by my side, wide awake. At midnight my eyes began to soften with the faint desire to sleep. I shook off the devil by shaking my head rigorously, perhaps too rigurous, as though I would snap off my neck. Sleep would dissolve like the smoke of cigarettes on the atmosphere. As gradually as smoke travels, it will return and I would only catch myself after two or three nods. Then I would get up and walk about. It was in one of this walks that I saw it. A silhouette stood by the door of the mortuary. My eyes were deceiving me, certainly. ‘Who is there?’ I shouted.
‘Me,’ came a shrill childlike voice of an adult.
My head swelled with fright. ‘You—who?’ My voice was husky, clouded with black fear.
‘One of your talents,’ came the reply. ‘The room is stuffy, so I am out to get fresh air.’
‘You mean—you are dead? Woooo.’ I didn’t wait for his reply as I jumped off the veranda and ran mad steps, head-first into the bush. ‘Woooo! Woooo! Wooooo!’ Like a rabid dog. I fell on the pathway/road, shot up and ran down-hill to the new mortuary building, a sticky rolling ball gathering evil moss.
‘Who is it?’ the veteran mortuary attendant asked me.I hugged his dwarfish body nearly knocking him down (would have knocked him down if he weren’t the devil or a close relation of Lucifer), shaking like a bird in a thin branch. ‘Wooooo, woooooo, woooooooo.’
‘What is the matter, my frien’?’ The man pushed me off.
‘Hey, talk to me and stop who-who-who like nkapi!’
‘Dead body talking… dead body talking wooooo.’ My tongue stuttered. The effort to talk was too much for me; I sat on the ground.
Then the man laughed a long ghostly laugh. ‘Is that why you are running like a woman? And where is your bra? Kwakwakwakwa.’
‘Heeii, heeii, heeii’ my breath was dripping out in slow broken pauses.
‘Come, let’s go and look for your fallen bra,’ the man said.
What was he talking about? I decided to leave this mad presence and go look for sane people. As I rose to my feet he grabbed my wrist. The man was old, perhaps seventy, but his grip was steel strong and held me jim. Hard as I tried I couldn’t break his grip.
‘Let go of me!’
‘You have never seen a dead body talking before?’
‘Welcome to my mortuary. These dead bodies here are unlike other dead bodies; they are unruly. But I am equal to their insolence.’ He let go of my hand, took up his shepherd stick and led the way back to my—yes my, my—mortuary. ‘You have to be very firm with the corpses. Don’t condole any act of disrespect…’ the man was saying as we walked back. He wasn’t really saying these, he was shouting on top of his voice like he was talking to the mallam in Hospital Road and not to me who was right behind him.
As me reached the building of my mortuary, I heard commotion at the door as two or so corpse rushed back to the room. The door slammed shut. The old man kicked the door open and entered the dark room. The oldman stamped into the room. I stood at the door, peeping. The old man flashed his devil’s torchlight at the dead bodies all covered with white shrouds.
‘Hey, who was at the door just now?’ he demanded.
My heart was now in the backdoor of my heart, my stomach croaked with horror as fear swam inside, unabated by nothing, my intestines and tissues having all deserted me.
‘I said who was at the door?’
No answer. Does any normal human being really expect corpses to talk?
The old man in anger kicked the corpse right before him and snapped off his shroud. The corpse sat up, crying, his head was broken and black blood was making a slow descent on his cheek down his neck.
‘What did I do wrong?’ the corpse demanded, ‘did you see me outside?’
‘Who went outside!’ the guard roared.
The guard hit him on his head.
I held my stomach as my bladder freely flowed in my trousers.
A corpse in the extreme right lifted the shroud off her body and said, ‘He is not the man who went out, it is Juba!’ I gave the corpse who spoke a look and shut my eyes. But even in the black darkness of my shut eyes I could still see her. She had small clean-shaven head with a heavily made up face.She was wearing nothing except a peach brassiere. Her bowel was open from what looked like an abandoned caesarean operation.
The corpses began to argue among themselves. I shut my ears but couldn’t shut out their brutal voices as they hurled bricks into the evil air. Then I heard the old man cursing as he beat a corpse who was wailing…
I passed out.
I woke up on the floor of the mortuary. It was morning and the light from the half-opened door shone on my eyes. I sat up and looked around. No! Shrouded corpses lay about. I jumped to my feet and looked back. I had been using the feet of a body as pillow. I crashed out of the room as one or two dead bodies giggled.
I have had enough. With no word to anybody I left the mortuary vicinity. Better the cold under the bridge than the madness of being guard to unruly dead people. Crazy world, stupid life, stupider death. I didn’t run but such was the speed I walked that I was in the hospital gate before my thought reached their; but I must confess that my thoughts were sluggish, dragging back a little and I kept waiting for it to catch up with me like a hunter would wait for his limping dog.
Here I discovered that my stomach was burning with hunger. I had been hungry throughout the night, even; but my brain in the slow movement of a virus-infected movie was just alerting me. I still had credit rights with the woman who sold food by the gate. I knew I had no means of paying her but I would still eat her food. I had earned the food. In fact the food was inadequate consolation to my immortal ordeal.
The food stand was a large dirty umbrella which failed to cover two benches for the hungry who faced the table laden with two enormous coolers of rice and stew. These coolers are manned (or womaned if you like) by an enormous creature. She dished out the food with the authority of Mother Nature, her heavy bosom and the beef of her triceps doing a dance, urged by the music of aluminium laden on stainless plates.
‘Food,’ I called.
The woman gave me a motherly stare—a cat-mother’s stare. ‘How much?’
She weighed me like a merchant would inspect a piece of second-hand cloth. ‘Do you have money?’
Her voice was strong, direct and angry. Like stones on my jelly head. ‘I work here.’
‘Where?’ I heard WHERE! I shut my eyes.
‘He is the mortuary guy,’ someone said.
‘He should say it himself.’ But the woman still dished me the food, cat-mother’s affection perhaps.
The benches were occupied by a pair of two dozen buttocks, I had nowhere to sit. So I stood. It is called a food stand anyway.
I stared at the food. The food stared back at me. I am not for literary here. The food was staring at me. Its two eyes in either side of the stewed face of the plate. Like the eyes of a tilapia. ‘Oh no!What is this?’
One of the eyes in my plate winked at me. I ran to the enormous creature/cook. ‘L-look—l-look your food has eyes!’
‘And so?’ came her reply. ‘Eat them and wipe your mouth.’
The hungry men laughed. The plate fell from my hands and shattered on the ground. I turned on my heels. My legs were rheumatic and my eyes rheumy; I didn’t see the ambulance crossing the road till it was too late. Black out.
The old man was shouting in my dream. He was shouting so hard I woke up. But he was in reality shouting harder than in my dream. He stood in his dwarf tower over me who lay on the cold floor of—where? I snapped my back of the floor and looked round. I was in the veranda of my mortuary not inside my mortuary. I was relieved, as relieved as you would be if you suddenly discovered you were not in a lion’s den but in the highway of cobras. I fell back on my back. But there was no rest for me, the old man was screaming so hard I feared he would burst his lungs. He was shouting so hard and fast that even a brand new recorder would not catch up the words…
‘You are disgracing the human race… How dare you fidget over mere dead bodies… We are super beings… Flog them if they cross your paths… Why piss on your pants over…?’
He kept shouting at me that I lost what was left of my temper. ‘I quit,’ I shouted and made to rise but the old man’s eyes turned an evil grey colour. He raised his stick above his head, I thought he was going to hit me. I shut my eyes. He didn’t hit me. I opened my eyes as he pointed a dwarf index finger on my face. ‘Sit down there.’ He pointed at the bench. When I sat on the bench I was crying. Not the tears shedding cry of a woman but the whimpering of a girl-orphan. I was now on the edge of my sanity. A small spark and I was gone into the tunnel of insanity.
The old man dropped his stick on my lap. ‘If they misbehave, hit them.’ And he left. I wept for twelve hours.
I didn’t have any sense of time. I only knew of darkness and light, couldn’t say it was this or that o’clock or quarter past there or here or few minutes to Lagos or Potiskum. It was just day and night to my shady brain. It was night. I sat on my bench fighting sleep and terror and insanity. I just wanted to be left alone by everything. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to be left alone by death, as well…
‘Well done sir.’ I heard the whisper. It must be that most unruly ghost.
‘What do you want?’ I shouted with a mixture of the gases of anger, fear and duty.
‘It’s just me… I want to go watch Champions League; I will pay you if you allow me slip out…’
I didn’t wait for him to finish. ‘Get back in there! Get back!!’ I was a shed away from the tunnel of insanity… tunnel of insanity? Like I have used this metaphor before, yes I have. But I will use it again. Why should I extend so much time to fetch a good metaphor then use it just once? So, I was an inch from the tunnel of insanity and I wasn’t going to be pushed further. I shouted at the corpse and advanced angrily. The corpse ran back to its shroud. I am battle ready for business.
The concluding part of this ghost piece will return soon, ‘soon’. If you are not already in the er… er tunnel of insanity, then wait for me in this mortuary.