It was in this state that I came upon him this fateful morning, six bottles of Big Stout down and he was as mild as a saint, no frazzle about him.
“Kpo o kpo okpo kpooo,” a racking cough assailed him. I took in the cigarette butts that were stubbed out on the ashtray and the unfinished pack of Benson & Hedges that sat on his lap.
“ Kpo kpo kpo kpo kpo o” the throaty grating continued.
The sight was as horrible as that of a hapless man with a noose around his neck, thrashing about for dear life. He held on to his chest as the seizure gripped him deep in the throat. I looked around helplessly for something, anything that might help with the cough. Before I could say water, he had the bottle in his mouth again. I quickly surmised there was no need for the water; the old man had Niagara by the bottle.
“Good morning sir”, I greeted him.
He downed the entire content of the bottle before responding.
“Good morning young man .You must be Joshua’s journalist cousin?” he stretched his hands toward me.
“Yes”, I said, as I cautiously shook what was left of his hand, careful not to be burnt by the glowing ember of the cigarette.
“David from Mr. Joshua Randle”.
“Oh yes, oh yes Joshua, Joshua, Joshua my brother. How is he doing in Lagos?”
“He is doing quite well. He sends his regards and says I should give you this”. I fumbled in my duffel pack for the package my uncle had sent, and presented it to him, but there was no receiving end. I could have been calling on a dead log at that moment. His glazy eyes had fallen on a group of birds clattering about.
A few passers-by gawked at us. He appeared to have fallen into a trance. His eyes followed the movement of the chicks, darting left and right. I shuffled from foot to foot. This meeting was getting crazier than I had imagined. I opened my mouth to fill him in on the purpose of my visit but he motioned me to be quiet. Bemused, I set the package back into the bag and surveyed the surrounding some more. Nothing unusual.
This would have been the time to have the hair at the back of my head stand erect and a howling wind descend upon us, but there was nothing, no strange spirit lurking about as far as I could tell. It was just the two of us and some stragglers along the road, yet the livestock that were prowling had more interest to him than me. After what seemed like an interminable length of time, the mother hen squawked and the silence was finally broken. The bird rounded up her chicks and chortled away.
“That’s some good old lesson”.
“I said that’s some good old lesson.” he repeated.
“Lesson?” I asked, lost.
“Didn’t you see that?” he said genuinely astonished.
“The mother hen just passed on a valuable lesson to the chicks – the way it left the chicks to ward off the prancing lizard on their own.”
“Soon those chicks will be left on their own, independent of their mother”, he added
I looked about me for a word.
“Okay”, I said, not quite sure how to respond to this whimsical discovery.
“It’s the truth of our solo existence ”, he exclaimed. “A general truth!”
And that was how I came to know the man they call Baba Gambe No. 69, an associate of my uncle in the military service; booze-laden and as I was soon to discover, a pariah and the butt of the town’s joke. He must have had at least a fifteen year lead over my Uncle age-wise, but they related like contemporaries, addressed themselves on first name basis and had a very solid tie that defied distance.
My uncle had told me to look him up during my visit here. It was all arranged by my uncle through the phone that I’d be staying in his house for this three-day field assignment at the Abayawo Local Government Secretariat.
As soon as the eureka moment was over, he was on to me. He wanted every bit of news about my uncle and me in one fell swoop. I had just disembarked from an overnight cross-country trip and I wanted nothing more than a place to lay my head in sweet slumber but my host would have none of it. He asked questions after questions and when my responses became a monosyllable of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’, he launched into a lengthy one of his own. I rolled my eyes to the heavens and cursed my luck for even daring to think my uncle had done me a favour by setting this up.
My bag was safely kept inside a small cozy room that was to be my bedroom. It was just next to my host’s. There was a life-size painting of an elderly woman on the wall. I noticed he had gone through lots of trouble to keep the room clean and organized, seeing that the room had not been slept in for a while. A musty smell hung in the air.
“The room’s been empty for some time. I like having a sacred spot in the house, and this is my shrine, he said in a subdued tone as if in reverence to some unseen deity looking in on us.
“Come into my room and I’ll show you more paintings”.
In his room there were more paintings, but more interestingly there was a gargantuan book shelf filled with books from different subjects. I lingered for a while here, marveled by the amount of books stacked in the room. One minute, I had Ulysses in my hand, the next it was a large volume of Shakespearean poems, and endless volume of classics and contemporary literatures tumbled through my hands. There was a copy of Harper Lee’s To kill a Mockingbird on top of the shelf. I flipped through the pages, well-worn and with cursory pennings here and there. A picture of two men in a cozy, almost inappropriate embrace fell to the ground as I flipped through the pages. I picked it up and placed it back in the middle of the book. There were so many books in this room and I felt just a tad of admiration and envy for the man who had acquired such an appetite for literature. On the wall to my left was another painting of a younger version of the woman whose life-size painting hung on the wall next-door. Below the picture was neatly stenciled
“So fades and languishes, grows dim and dies.
All that this world is proud of”.
He looked up from the picture and his face was cast in a dark shadow. He dumped the cigarette pack and some sheaves of paper on the top drawer and let out a rueful sigh. The drawer contained so many drugs; it could have easily passed for a chest of medicine.
“Oomph, it’s getting hot in here. Let’s go out and get some fresh air”, he said briskly, leaving me no chance to demur.
“Come, come sit with me. It’s been lonely without Jacob and Fola”. “Those are my tenants by the way”, he pointed at the two doors opposite the room. “They should be coming back tomorrow”.
“There wouldn’t be much to do at the Local government this morning anyway and your appointment is for two, didn’t you say?” I nodded.
“Get a chair!”
I grabbed a chair and limply followed him. As soon as we came outside he resumed his seat and lighted a cigarette. He had grabbed three more bottles of stout from his room and was now guzzling them down.
“You wouldn’t be much of a drinker, are you?” he asked.
“I don’t drink at all”, I said.
An aged woman humped from the waist up emerged from the corner of the building with a basket on her head. She paused a moment, looked from him to me and then back again.
“This early Monday morning!” She spat at us.
“Ginger ale to start the week”, Baba retorted, lifting the liquor bottle in the air in skittish humor. He spilled the content on the ruddy earth.
“This one’s for the gods, the earth that drinks the blood of the rich and has the fresh mutton of the child for dessert. Mother earth”, he tapped with his bare feet, “pull me into your supple bossom only when my time is done and my taste buds are sallow”.
The woman glanced backward. “What a shame, idlers! It is palmwine calabash that you now wear for a hat!”
“Good morning to you too, woman”, he said impishly, “care to join us?”
“God forbid”, the woman threw her hand over her head in derision.
“What business has light to do with darkness”? She darted off, mumbling curses as she went.