I run over to what remains of the Camry oblivious of the glass and metal slashing my stockings and cutting into my bare feet. There is this sinking feeling in my guts. The Mac hit the Camry from the passenger side where the lady was seated so she got the worst of it. Her face is turned towards me and I can see where her head has been smashed in by the Mac’s high fenders. The man is stretched across her lap, his right hand on the buckle of her seat-belt. I reach through the jumbled mash of steering wheel, door and window to check for pulse and signs of life. Neither of them has either. Her left hand lies lifeless, almost comfortingly on his back and on the fourth finger, I catch the glitter of a ring. There is nothing I can do for them.
By now, two other cars, one on either lane, have stopped at the scene. The driver’s door of the metallic blue Volvo that has parked behind my Jeep opens and a man wearing a suit steps out. I ask him for his phone because I must have left mine in the pocket of my jacket back home. He takes it out and gives it to me but I don’t know who to call. I ask him if he has a number for any police station. He doesn’t. Road Safety Corps office? He doesn’t. By now, the driver of the car parked on the opposite lane has joined us. He doesn’t know any law enforcement numbers either.
Two more cars have parked now. I tell them how certain I am that the couple in the Camry are dead. The Volvo man says how can I be so sure. He suggests we bring them out nevertheless, that maybe I am wrong. He talks like a lawyer would in court. I look again at the wreckage; without some serious demolition tools, getting those two out of that car will take a miracle. So I propose that they do their best to disentangle the corpses from the Camry while I head back into Uyo where I will report the incident to the nearest police station or Road Safety office. More people have gathered by now and they agree to my plan. I return the Volvo man’s phone, get in my car and wheel around facing town. I do not look in my rearview mirror.
As I drive back into town, my mind is racing. Those two never saw it coming. They were just two lovers travelling together before it was all snatched from them. They are dead…never to tease again, or laugh again, or hug or kiss. No warnings, no signs. Just dead. It hits me that it could have easily been Bella and I in that car. They were young like we are, in love and most probably married like we are and talking, laughing and kissing like we do on our drives together.
Or it could have been me alone. Had I not been so caught up in watching them, I would have been the one ahead of the Camry; I would have been knocked across the intersection by that drunk driver of the Mac; I would have been lying there now in my battered jeep dead, my head smashed and bleeding, my arms lifeless by my side, all those women peeking in at my mangled body and crying ‘Abasi!’ while the men tried in vain to drag out my corpse. And I never would have seen Bella again. The thought chills me to the bones. The thought of never again seeing or touching those lovely features I know by heart, never again hearing that voice or that loud laughter again, never again hugging or kissing her. I feel the chill right down to my marrows.
I just passed the large ‘Welcome to Uyo’ signboard. I pass by a cluster of petrol stations with hawkers kicking up dust while shoving their wares in people’s faces. I pass by Zenith bank; I had always wondered why they chose that spot well away from the centre of town for one of their branch offices. I see Holy Cross hospital up ahead. I consider stopping for a split second before I continue ahead. I know exactly how they will treat me and the news I am bringing.
The police station is on the left. I pull over on my right, cross over to the other side and walk into the station. There are no gates or fences. Just a signpost that is so faded that it reads ‘Ihe Nigerion Police Foice’. The signpost is more on the floor than in the air and the green, yellow and blue customary colors of the force have all but peeled off.
The squat brick bungalow in the centre of the compound, amidst all the cashew trees suffers the same fate. I get as far as the doorpost of the bungalow before the heat slams me in the face. I can see people seated behind the wooden counter just inside the entrance but none of them is in uniform. I would ask for the officer on duty but none of them acknowledges my presence.
I turn around while swirling my handkerchief at my face to ward off the heat. There are two men seated in the shade of one of the cashew trees, playing draught. One of them is dressed in a sheer unbuttoned cotton shirt over plain brown trousers. His playmate is wearing just a singlet over pants whose color I recognize as police uniform. I assume he is the officer on duty. I approach them and a service shirt in the same faded shade of black thrown across the latter’s shoulder confirms my assumption.
They don’t look up even though I’m standing so close to the game board that I could knock it over with the slightest nudge of my knees. I wonder how they know where to slide the circular play pieces because I can’t see any patterns or markings on the board – it looks like its surface has been used to crush corn for years.
I say to their bent heads that I have come to report an accident. The ‘officer on duty’ wearing the singlet is biting his thumb, the other man just stares at the board. I repeat in a louder voice that I have come to report an accident. ‘Officer on duty’ finally looks up and still biting his thumbnail, asks me where. I say out on the highway, a few kilometers outside Uyo. He asks what I want him to do. I’m no stranger to the malfeasance replete in the system so I just stare at him, saying nothing. We stay that way for about thirty seconds then he sighs, eases his legs out from under the washed out draught board and stands slowly, his joints sounding out their annoyance at the disturbance. He crooks a short index finger at me then walks towards the station building while struggling into his uniform shirt.
Inside the building, he moves behind the counter and rummages beneath it for a while, his face partially hidden by the moth-ravaged wood of the counter. He stands and plops down a long notebook in front of me. The book is thick-covered or was, at least because the hard cover has been stained by some liquid in many places and is missing in so many others giving the book the look of a long-buried treasure map. He disappears below the counter again and comes up this time with a plastic hand fan which he starts fanning his face with. I ask him what he wants done with the book. He says I should report the accident. That shebi it was what I had come for.
I consider taking my Reynolds – whose pointed nib I am sure will destroy what is left of the book – out of my pocket and going through the motions of writing a report before walking out of that station to mind my own business. But my conscience won’t let me. So instead I paste a silly smile on my face; I apologize to Corporal Ekim – so says his name tag – for wasting his time. I then ask, in my ‘embarrassed gentleman’ voice if he would be kind enough to give me directions to the Federal Road Safety Corps office. He says it’s on the outskirts on the other side of town, close to the highway leading to Eket. But he could give me a phone number if I want. I smile my appreciation.
The corporal points to his left where I can make out what looks like a classroom board. Since the faint inscriptions on it were made with white chalk, I assume the board used to be black. I borrow a scrap of paper on which I scribble down the eleven digits scrawled beside a bold ‘FRSC’ on the board. Corporal Ekim is already at the door when I finish writing. I follow him out and say sosong’o. His only reply to my thanks is an absentminded grunt; he is already struggling out of his shirt ready to continue his game.
Back out on the roadside, I glimpse a ‘call centre’ just a few feet away. in this intense heat, the shade of the oversized yellow umbrella looks to me like heaven. I walk up and sit down. The girl in attendance looks no older than 18 but she asks me in a ‘quite grown-up’ voice what I want. I tell her I want to make a call. She says it costs twenty naira per minute. I beckon for the phone; there are three on her round plastic table and she picks up the one in the middle which has a rubber band wrapped around the middle. She gives it to me and I tap out the FRSC number on the springy keypads. I am pleasantly surprised to hear it ring.
It rings for long and just when I want to press the ‘end’ button and try again, a click sounds in my ear. I am greeted by shrieking laughter from the other end, so loud that I inadvertently snatch the phone away from my ear. The laughter draws out for almost a full minute then it stops, before the female voice eventually says, hello jare.
Whatever cracked her up before she took my call must be incredibly funny because her voice still carries traces of laughter, as if a little shove would trigger off another round. Unsure of how to proceed, I stutter a little but eventually say the words to let her know why I am calling. At the mention of accident, the voice loses every trace of laughter and mellows; for that, I’ll forgive the ‘laughter attack’. Where, she asks and I say right on the highway just before Ikot ekpene. She asks about casualties and I tell her that the only two people involved died on the spot. She sighs a long weighted sigh and prays Abasi! Then she assures me that someone will be sent to take charge of the scene. And asks if there is anything else she should know. I don’t know what more to say so I just tell her that the victims were a young male and a young female; that I suspect they were married; that the truck driver looked drunk to me and that he ran away. Her ntun carries all the venom I am sure she intends for the escapee driver. She says it is such a pity that such young people would perish like that together with their love. That it is such a waste.
She ends the call and I remain seated still clutching the phone in my hand. She called their death a waste. And she is right. Their youth, their love is all wasted now. They are never to be young and strong again, never to laugh again, never to love again. But for me, I am still alive; still young, strong and very in love yet here I am running from my love. Bella did me a huge wrong but I can admit now that I contributed to it. I know how emotionally unstable Isabella is and how much she depends on me for that strength she lacks yet I cut off all communication with her for over six months.
True, I had been working but maybe if I had only tried a little harder… And she regrets cheating on me. I know it; I saw it in her eyes – eyes that cannot lie to me. So what am I doing so far away from home? Shouldn’t I be with my wife making up for all the lost time? I have no answers to these questions so I make a decision. I get up to run across the road to my car but the call girl yells at me. I did not even realize I still had her phone in my hand. I apologize and am about to return the phone when I change my mind. It is as if the phone in my hand sparks off a very desperate urge to hear Isabella’s voice. So I signal the call girl to wait – she does with a furious pout. I dial Bella’s number.