K’s quiet life was shattered by a wrong number. It was a drizzling shy Sunday morning, K had just returned from the early morning mass and had just kicked off his shoes when his phone vibrated in his hip pocket. He brought out the phone, sank deeper into the crude softness of the armchair and connected the call.
‘Who’s on the line?’
‘You are to report to the police headquarters by four pm,’ came the voice, firm with authority.
‘I beg your pardon,’ K began saying but the caller had already disconnected. K hissed as he placed the phone on the table, it must be be a wrong number. He was a little agitated. K decided he was hungry. He rose to his feet and made for the kitchenette.
K returned a long moment after with a steaming cup of tea and a mighty bread in each hand. He took a sip and his seat. He sighted his phone and discovered he was no longer hungry, was not really hungry. He was occupied with the wrong number. He picked up the phone. He called the number.
‘Yes,’ came the curt voice.
‘There must be a mistake somewhere,’ K said calmer than he felt. ‘I am not the person you need in police headquarters…’
‘You are to report by four.’ The words filled K’s ears like hot lead. He suppressed the angry bile on his throat. ‘Why should I report to the police headquarters?’ K’s voice was now a pitch higher than he intended it.
‘You will find out when you come.’ And the call ended, just like that. Now K was thoroughly agitated. He loosed the necktie that was strangling him. What kind of trouble is this? He, needed by the police? But he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had paid all his bills, he owed no one; he wasn’t in charge of finance in the office or elsewhere; he hadn’t carried out any contract or assignment involving the trust of finance. He hadn’t fought with anybody; he couldn’t even remember a quarrel with anyone. How then could he be needed at the police command? No, it couldn’t be him. It was a wrong wrong number. It had to be.
He decided to call the number and calmly explain the error of identity to him. The man would understand and apologise. They may even share a laugh over it. K made the call.
‘Do you know me?’ K hastily asked when the call was collected.
‘What sort of question is this?’ the reply came with police harshness.
‘I mean–I didn’t do anything wrong, I can’t be wanted by the police, check the number again, it’s not me!’
‘Are you trying to say, I am not in my right senses?’
‘I am not trying to say–I am saying that you have got your number wrong!’
‘You are rude. Do you realise you are talking to an officer of the law?’
‘Do you realise you are talking to an innocent citizen of the country?’
‘Who told you you are innocent?’
K’s lips parted.
‘Report to the police by four pm!’
‘No, I will not report anywhere. My name is K. I am a law-abiding staff of the post office. I live in Hospital Road. Everybody can attest to my being an upright citizen.’
‘Then why won’t you report to the police Mr Upright Citizen?’
‘Because I haven’t committed any offence!’
‘It is for us to prove. See you by four.’ Click. The call ended.
What nonsense! K realised he was sweating and began to unbutton his shirt. A knock landed on the door, K quickly buttoned back his shirt, made for the wall and switched on the fan. The knock became louder. K opened the door. A tall graceful-looking middle aged woman with a hair carefully plaited and set like a bridge stood at the door. She was a childless widow next door, a good neighbour whom K suspected wanted more than just being good neighbours. K held himself from frowning, with both hands.
‘Good morning Peace.’ She had insisted he called her by her first name. So he called her Peace with the self-consciousness of someone who would rather say Aunty Peace.
‘You don’t look happy, K!’ she moved forward and he made way for her. She made straight to the table and placed the tray on it. ‘Tell me what the matter is.’ She then added quickly, as though she was about to lose the power of speech, ‘Remember you promised to tell me everything that bugs you.’
K was too weak to argue, too agitated for any pretense to normalcy, so he told her that he was wanted by the police, but it was a wrong number.
‘Oh my God!’
‘It’s a wrong number,’ K said again.
Peace shook the head and the bridge she was carrying. ‘It isn’t, the police are dangerous.’
‘But I didn’t do anything wrong.’
‘K! You don’t understand these things, do you? I have an uncle who got three years jail term for–‘
‘Getting called by a wrong number.’
‘No, for resisting arrest.’
K’s temper climbed a dangerous cliff. ‘For crying out loud, I am not being arrested. It is just an invitation.’
‘You are not being arrested you are wanted by the police.’
K regretted having told her about the police call. To give himself time to calm his nerves, tame his tongue, K walked slowly to the armchair and sat down. When he finally opened his mouth, the calmness in his voice surprised him. ‘So your uncle is in jail because he answered a phone call.’
‘No, he is in jail because he resisted arrest.’
K swallowed a stupid lump on his throat. ‘So, what’s his offense?’
‘We don’t know yet. He will be tried after his three years jail term.’
K studied his good neighbour’s anxious face with something in the cusp of pity and resentment. ‘Can’t you see that your story is crazy?’
‘K, don’t be rude. We can’t understand these things.’
‘So what will you have me do?’
‘Call your lawyer.’
‘I don’t have a lawyer.’
Peace brought out her phone from her skirt pocket and began to punch. K studied her. Even at her age, she possessed a pair of fresh breasts, and what her blouse did to them dried K’s mouth, almost.
‘My cousin is a lawyer, he will help you.’
‘I–I don’t have–I can’t afford his fees… for now.’
Peace eyed him with admonition. ‘We are friends, K!’
So they called Lawyer Ossai. But he sounded crazier than Peace. ‘You are in big trouble Mr K. Proceed immediately to the police headquarters, proceed!’
‘They told me to come by four!’
‘Don’t argue,’ Peace said.
‘Mr K,’ Ossai’s voice came out quiet but firm. ‘You don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation. I am on my way to church but I will interrupt that to go to the police headquarters. I will be there in under thirty minutes.’ And the call ended.
K handed over the phone without seeing Peace who was saying, ‘You should be grateful to Ossai for his understanding and kindness….’
K dropped his head on the seat and shut his eyes. Please Dear God, wake me up from this comic nightmare. Please God, please please… He opened his eyes. He didn’t wake up.
Ossai was a small, fair, thirtyish man and balding. He led K to an office door marked Inspector Bako. He knocked. ‘Shoot in.’ They shot in.
Inspector Bako was a tall, thin man with a disagreeable jaw and suspicious eyes. He shook hands with Ossai. ‘Your client is almost late.’
K looked at the wall clock. 11.57. ‘I was asked to come by four.’
The inspector looked at K with cold distaste, as though K was covered with faeces. ‘When did you get the call?’
‘Which is two hours ago!’
‘I received a call two hours ago telling me to come here after six hours!’ His attorney tried to hush him but K shouted his fill. The inspector shook his head.
‘Your client is most unreasonable.’
‘I am sorry,’ K’s lawyer apologised.
‘He’s your responsibility.’
‘I am sorry,’ the lawyer repeated.
The police officer fumed for a full minute in which his nose boiled. ‘Well, well,’ he finally said, ‘you are to bring your client to court tomorrow. The case has been delayed too much already. The prosecuting counsel is not entertaining further delays.’
What the hell was he talking about? K wondered. What stupid case had been delayed too much?
‘…I will bring him to court tomorrow,’ K’s advocate was saying.
‘I am entrusting him to you,’ the officer said, ‘if not that I regard you highly I would have kept your client in the cell till tomorrow.’
‘Thank you. I will bring him to court tomorrow.’ The men shook hands again.
‘What stupid offence did I commit? Can’t someone please tell me what my damn crime is!…’
Ossai, in spite of his minute frame, carried K out of the office.
K was drinking alcohol for the first time in six years. It was well past midnight. He lifted a glass with shaky hand, but instead of his mouth, he emptied the brewed on his head, stupid. It was a stupid, crazy world upside down, inside out, clearly captured by his alcoholic binocular, plastic clear, but he never stopped paring, probing. A wrong number… Now an appearance in court tomorrow… hic… Prison lurking in the corner of the madness. He reached for his bottle, knocked it down and watched as frothy liquid drenched his rug.
He was suddenly back six years, same room. ‘I am leaving for the UK next week to continue my studies,’ Jumoke said in his face.
‘It’s a lie,’ K knew she was joking. She laughed, reached for her hand bag and asked him to see her to the gate. ‘What was that joke about the UK?’ he asked at the gate.
K’s heart stopped beating. ‘Who’s next week?’ He didn’t recognise his voice.
Jumoke smiled revealing the beautiful gap between her teeth that he so adored. But her eyes didn’t smile, they were shifty, absent. ‘I am leaving next week.’
‘And you are just telling me! What about our wedding plans? The cards are ready. What are we going to tell our parents–my parents?’ There were many questions, thousands. Jumoke just shrugged. ‘The admission just came out.’ K was a diploma holder whose friends had always congratulated him for hooking a graduate. Now the fish was leaving his hook.
But K had his doubts. How could she have pursued admission abroad, and visa plus carried the financial load involved without his knowledge? She must be joking, an expensive joke. She wasn’t. Six days later she flew away. Not to the UK, to Malaysia. Not to study, to her new husband. K hit the bottle.
Tonight, like that night six years back, K was trying to transfer from this life, this insanity, to a saner clime, any clime, transported on the rail of liquor. But he couldn’t drown his vision of the weird afternoon. They ceaselessly tortured him. Do you realise you are talking to an officer of the law?… Why won’t you report to the police, Mr Upright Citizen?… The police are dangerous,… I have an uncle who got three years jail term… You don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation… Your client is most unreasonable… The case has been delayed too long… I will bring him to court tomorrow….
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. He stretched out on the rug, was soon transported to and consumed in stupidland.
# . #
K and his lawyer entered a parked full court. Half of the court was a gang of hungry-looking lawyers dressed in suits straight from the bottle, the other half were tired, sorrowful people who had the pained expression of terminal patients waiting to see Doctor. The magistrate sat on the bench like a tyrant in a primitive civilization. He reminded K of Herod.
‘You are late to my court,’ Herod bellowed.
‘I am sorry my lord.’ Ossai led K to the accused box.
‘I hate being kept waiting in my court.’
K, his head boiling with evaporating vengeance of beer, cleared his throat. ‘How can I be late to a court that didn’t stipulate time for me.’
The court laughed loudly and almost cheerful as though K had cracked a terrible joke. K was stunned. Were they really here, really here, in body and mind? He doubted.
‘Are you stupid?’ the magistrate asked him.
‘What kind of question is that?’ K shot back. And the urchins packed in the court dissolved into an orgy of guffaw, falling on one another, one or two hitting their head on the floor. It appeared to K they were laughing for the first time since God created them, or since God picked them up from the rubbish heap.
‘We cannot continue with this case,’ Herod said. ‘The accused is hereby reprimanded in prison till such a time as this court deems it fit to re-hear the case.’
And the audience jumped to their feet, clapping. K couldn’t believe his eyes, his ears, his mind. What was he doing in this hut-house? His tongue failed to move. A sheriff came and handcuffed K.
‘Hey wait,’ K found his voice. ‘Excuse me, excuse me…’ K tried to stand his ground, the officer pushed him, he crashed on his buttocks. This time around, the laughter in the courtroom fell the roof. Then the officer stooped and lifted K up. As he carried K out, K thought he heard his lawyer laughing.
Three days after, K came out of his cell to see his lawyer in the visiting room. K was sickly, skinny and sorry for himself and the abused singlet over boxers he wore. Three days in prison had added thirty years to his age. He sat down and spread weedy hands on the desk. ‘I need to get out of here.’
‘You made a mistake in court,’ his lawyer said. K grunted. ‘Why did you challenge his lordship?’
‘Get me out of here,’ K managed.
‘It’s hard but not impossible. It will cost you a little.’
‘I had a meeting with the court clerk this morning and he told me that for 100 thousand he would get you a stupidity hearing in court next week.’
‘What is stupidity hearing?’
‘We’ll go to court and you will plead guilty of being stupid. The magistrate will release you on bail in accordance with the Stupid Act of 1999 as amended in 2013.’
K’s entire life savings was 112 thousand naira. Now he was asked to empty it, more or less, and impersonate stupidity. But what was the use of laying claim to sanity and languishing in jail? It was a crazy world, he could as well play along. Not that he would survive a couple of days of prison life.
‘If one 100 thousand naira will end the case, why not?’ he said.
Lawyer Ossai grimaced. ‘It won’t end the case; will get you out of here and you will attend your trial from home.’
K was silent. Even being stupid wasn’t enough. But it would go a long way, it was important; stupid, important.
‘Peace has my key. Get my cheque book from her.’
His lawyer slapped him on the back and left. A prison warden appeared, K rose to his feet. As the warden led him away, K wept.
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