The smell of sweat, smoke and alcohol was overpowering. In a way, it is not entirely accurate to describe this as overpowering because the men, more than a dozen, in the room were in no visible manner affected by their polluted atmosphere. In fact, it comforted them, and almost shielded them from their debts, wailing kids, nagging wives and innumerable other woes in the land of the living.
It was a moonless night with a restless cloud that barked and groaned intermittently for more than an hour and half an hour, but unable to summon enough courage to cry. The parlour was lit by a big kerosene lamp on the barman’s counter, close to a radio speaking in conspiratorial hush-hush, and two or three burning cigarettes. As the counter was in the other end of the room facing the door, and since the counter was nearly five feet above broken floor, and the drinkers’ tables were ankle low, the lamp didn’t do more than designing grotesque pictures of their heads on ill-painted walls. The men didn’t mind. They knew where to find their mouths, what else mattered?
But the barman, with a toothpick in the corner of thick lips made half-sincere apologies and excuses over the absence of power. His generator was in the mechanic’s, fuel was scarce, he lent the generator out for his neighbour’s funeral wake-keep, etc. Each excuse as ridiculous as he perceived the hearer was stupid. Some made disagreeable noises, one even hurled a bad word, but their displeasure never went beyond one bottle.
They drank. They talked.
At the table just after the barman’s counter, sat a diminutive fellow, so small he would be mistaken for a dwarf in a night like this, but thankfully the people here might find it difficult telling the difference between him and his shadow, if they looked at him, if they saw him, at all. But his voice, a bass rumble, they heard so well, and judging from this alone, thought him a giant. In fact he was a giant, he was in charge here. He brought the topics, he decided how long each topic lasted on the table of dialogue; he was the chief speaker. He had just finished analysing Boko Haram issue, proffering a sublime solution to the menace which pleased him so much.
‘Boko Haram,’ he had said, ‘can be solved without firing a shot.’
‘How?’ the barman asked.
Bassey sipped from his glass in a snail’s pace. He wasn’t to be hurried, no, if Bassey hurried, Bassey would no longer be Bassey, and his story would lose its potency. More than a score bloodshot eyes regarded him, or claimed to regard him. Bassey savoured this; this was the only place where he was given his due attention. His wife who was twice his size, who made from her hair salon thrice what he made selling pirated DVD plates never had time for him, and when she did, trouble. ‘I say you can solve the Boko Haram enigma without resorting to arms.’
Another snail sip. Then, ‘If federal government have any sense they should expunge the terrorists states out of the country and stamp the new demarcation. Period.’ He was glad to see that most of his comrades didn’t understand. He grinned. He had a diploma, they didn’t. ‘How many states are Boko Haram in?’ he asked.
‘Three,’ said Raph, a rake slim fellow who had been silence all the while save for his tuberculosis-like coughs.
‘Three states. Borno, Yobe and which?’
Someone said Gombe, another said Bauchi. One, perhaps the most drunken or an outright idiot, said Kogi. Bassey laughed mockingly but he didn’t give them the ‘third state’; he didn’t know. He went on. ‘So get Borno, Yobe and all the other terrorist regions and remove them from Nigeria. Then government can concentrate on the remaining 33 states.’
‘I swear this solution na the best,’ said Luka. He was a freshly retrenched banker. When he came here he had spoken polished English. Three bottles later he dropped his ‘colossal’ and ‘recalcitrant’ for ‘na wah o’ and ‘na so’.
‘What of the oil for Borno state?’ asked Chidi an enormous one whose giant palm around the bottle neck gave the bottle the appearance of a candle.
‘Forget about the oil,’ someone said.
‘I am a geography,’ Ayo said, his face half hidden in a cloud of smoke from his cigarette. ‘Oil cannot stop the removal of Borno from the map. We can recover all our oil through submarine drilling.’
‘Borno must go,’ they concluded.
Two men at the table opposite the speaker’s were conversing in low tunes but the silence that followed the deletion of Borno was total they were heard by all. ‘How can a man live in a house with his wife for months upon months without one day raising his hand to beat her?’ the first asked. The second grunted his amazement. ‘Does it mean,’ the first continued, ‘that the woman is perfect and cannot be corrected, or that the man is afraid of her? Or…’
‘The man is a fool,’ Chidi cut in. ‘A man who doesn’t beat his wife has no authority over his family.’
‘Yes,’ the barman nodded, ‘women wahala too much, man wey be man must to beat his wife.’
‘That is the point,’ the man, Friday, who had began the talk said. ‘But my neighbour will never beat his wife. He says he loves her.’ The mob laughed. Someone was waken by the laugh, he joined the laugh and laughed the hardest.
‘He’s a stupid man,’ Ayo said.
The conversation stopped for a moment as they awaited the analysis of their speaker, Bassey. But like an old woman on a discussion of bones, Bassey was uneasy whenever men talked about beating annoying wives. He regarded Onome as the most foul-mouthed wife on the planet, and it ate his heart that he couldn’t beat her. The only time he tried, the return slap sent him clearing the dishes, the table, and his ego to the carpet, and for a week his left ear was delayed one second; when you tell him ‘good morning’ he would hear it for one full second with his right ear before his left ear picked the sound. Since then he had told his neighbours that he didn’t beat his wife because he was a gentleman. But he had even contemplated surprising her as she slept with a pestle but hadn’t come around to making a final decision yet.
‘Did you see what happened recently in soccer?’ he asked, changing subject, and quickly put the bottle in his mouth to calm his disgust. When he got enough money for her funeral he would put rat poison in his wife’s pap, he decided.
‘What happened in soccer?’ someone asked.
‘The only thing I know that happen in soccer is that Dangote have buy Arsenal,’ said the barman.
‘Dangote buy Arsenal since three years ago,’ Chidi said.
The barman called him a liar. Chidi called him a fool. Angry words were generously swapped but Bassey, like a learned older brother stepped in masterfully to resolve the issue.
‘Actually Dangote bought Arsenal three years ago but you know how the United Kingdom works. The proposal was submitted to the House of Commons after which it went to the House of Lords committee on Foreign Purchases. It was last week that the buy was formalised.’
The two arguers were placated. But the judgement had cost Bassey his well thought out soccer story. He no longer remembered his story. No one asked. Silence ruled.
‘Women are evil,’ Friday said; ‘my wife is in the village and I go visit her and the children once a month. That is the only way to keep a marriage because I don’t want to commit murder.’
‘No single woman will make heaven,’ Friday prophesied.
‘Woman descended from the devil,’ Chidi said.
‘The devil is a woman na,’ Ayo said. ‘Lucifer. Lucy. Have you ever seen a man named Lucy?’
‘Hahahahaha.’ The barman came into the bar for the first time tonight, he was wearing a promo gifted white washed brown shirt over a pair of shorts which the manufacturer designed as skirt but changed their mind in the last minute. The barman slapped a bottle of hero on the table before Ayo though Ayo was drinking star. ‘Free of charge.’
Two persons shook Ayo’s hand to congratulate him for his words. In effect Ayo repeated his great insightful statement. ‘Woman is of the devil…’
Bassey interrupted him and hijacked the talk. ‘God created Adam in his image. The Bible says, “And God said let us make man in our image after our likeness”. But nowhere in the Bible did God say let us make woman after our likeness. A woman was created in the image of Lucifer after the likeness of the serpent. That was why the serpent didn’t go to Adam, he went to his junior sister Eve with the apple.’ Now that he had rapt attention, he began to fill his half-full glass with liquor, and didn’t stop until it began to overflow. My cup runneth over with wisdom.
In the silence that followed, the man who had woken from sleep to laugh hard rose to his feet apparently to go give Bassey a congratulatory handshake. He fell on the way, and remained there. No one bothered to even say a word about him.
‘Woman,’ Bassey shouted in continuation, delighted to be talking women in general, not wives, grateful to condemn them, not talk about beating them, ‘is a photocopy of the devil.’
‘That is why we suppose beat them everyday.’
‘Shut up,’ Bassey said.
‘You don’t beat them,’ Chidi corrected, ‘you panel beat them. Hihihihi.’
Bassey stirred the conversation out of beating. ‘Woman is even worse than the devil. What did the devil do wrong? Nothing. He only eyed God and when God questioned him he murmured. He just murmured, ordinary murmuring, and God threw him down! Now compare this to the atrocities women commit today, poisoning, armed robbery, terrorism! Yes, girls in hijab now carry suicide bombs all over the world…’
‘Oho,’ Bassey shrugged and sent his throat gurgling with beer.
‘I must beat my wife tonight,’ someone said, ‘first thing when I get home.’
‘I would beat my wife every day if she were with me.’
Bassey sighed with frustration. Every body talked about and actually beat their wives except him. He had said all that he said in other to sidetrack the talk about beating wives, but like a ball hard with air, the talk wouldn’t be suppressed, the more he vilified women the more beating them became the only solution. Now he began to think that beating as a concept would never be suppressed; as long as he lived, as long as couldn’t beat his wife, he was not man enough. He could talk, sugarcoat his words, tell outright lies even but he was still short of manliness. Even the dumbest person here beat his wife, ruled his family. Except him. ‘I will beat my wife tonight,’ Bassey suddenly uttered.
‘That is the spirit man…’
‘I swear to God I will beat Onome first thing when I get home. I swear by thunder!’ He was angry and shouted at the small doubt in his mind. ‘When I say I will do something I must do it. I will go home, open the door and beat her. Fullstop.’ Seen through the frothy screen of alcohol, his wife’s sins were unforgivable; weighed on the scale of beer, his wife’s strength was insignificant; analysed on a drunk barometer, he saw in himself a superman: now, it wasn’t a question of why he hadn’t been able to beat Onome, it was now why he hadn’t been beating Onome.
He rose to his feet and slapped his breast. Then he slapped his hip. He slapped his breast again. He still couldn’t find his wallet. ‘Barman!’
‘Ehen.’ But he ignored the barman and continued slapping his pockets. The truth was that his wallet was in one of the pockets he slapped, but he must have been too drunk or too consumed with wife-beating lust to get it. He suddenly made for the door, stumbled on a furniture limp, regained balance, stumbled on a human limp, fell down. He rose sluggishly to his feet. The barman was furious. ‘You dey craze? Your money nko?’
Friday stopped the barman. ‘I will pay for him. Never interfere with a man who wants to beat his wife.’
Bassey was gone. The barman returned to his throne. They continued drinking. But they didn’t know Onome. If they knew the kind of beast she was, they would have stopped Bassey from going to his death. But by paying for his drink while he went into Onome’s den, they had, without knowing it, saved him the ignominy of appearing in heaven’s gate a debtor.
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