What was it all about? I wondered. What was life, its meaning, its reason; why were we born only to die again; most in their bloom, cut down by the ruthless dagger of fate like the fruits of a poisoned race?
Why Sarah? With all of her budding dreams, with all of her grace, beauty and age.
Such were the questions that plagued my mind as I unlocked the front door to my apartment. I stepped into the darkness and groped for the light switch. Amber had intimated me by mail while I was in Sudan, of her need to go to Pretoria to oversee a one-month seminar organised by her father’s company. I was home alone.
Light, bright and harsh poured into the living room. It hurt my eyes so I turned it off almost immediately. I groped my way through the darkness, down the corridor leading to my room. Twice I hit my head against the wall. It hurt, but it was nothing compared to the misery that gnawed at my innards. I threw my gun far away from me. It landed on one end of the room with a dull clatter.
On my bed at last, I closed my eyes. The images came again, as forceful as ever. Iquab Bin Fadi’s evil face loomed; I watched him lick his lips as he pulled the trigger. The gunshot was loud, reverberating within the confines of my head. Sarah’s deathly thrall was unbearable, forcing me under my duvet as the scene replayed. I had failed her, just like I had failed almost everyone foolish enough to have trusted me with their lives.
For two whole days, I pined away. I slept most of the time, ignoring the hunger pangs that burned until they became dull aches. My Boss called on the morning of the third day, four days after my lucky escape from Khartoum.
“Hello,” My voice was barely above a whisper.
“Ohmston,” his metallic drawl was heavy with grief.
“Good morning sir,”
“Good morning. How have you been?”
“Fine. I’ve been fine,” I replied.
The silence between us swelled. I could hear his laboured breath, even visualise his swarthy face. I could see him chewing his lower lip in frustration as he contemplated the awkward moment. Then he broke the ice after seemingly endless seconds.
“I was able to contact the Sudanese Government using some of my black channels in Juba. An elite unit of the Sudanese army, alongside Commander Wiraj Dim Deng whom you knew simply as the Commander, attacked Iquab’s camp. Though the place had been abandoned upon the army’s arrival, they were able to secure Sarah’s body. Two of my trusted aides whom I had sent to recover her remains, are currently en-route Nigeria as we speak. They’ll be here anytime between 4 and 6pm.” He paused. “Will you come around, Ohmston?”
I nodded. “I’ll be there.”
I cut the line and turned off my phone. Amber’s persistent calls were becoming an irritant; I was in no mood for her theatrics. I got up, peeled off my three-day old clothes, forcing myself into the bathtub for a quick shower. Dressed up in a dark jacket, black cashmere pants and Polo sneakers, I sat at my desk, took pen and paper from a drawer and scribbled furiously. I sat there for hours, watching the hand of the clock till it chimed four ‘o clock.
Twenty minutes later, I was in my boss’ office. Today, he was swathed in a black cape that buttoned up to his neck. A black Panama hat sat on the back of his head. His eyes glowed, but not with their usual lustre, and I noticed too, his feeble attempts to make small talk. Together, we rode the elevator in silence, down to the parking lot.
“St. Lukes,” he said to me, climbing into his chauffeured Mercedes. I got into my car and headed for the hospital.
Dr Andrew walked us to the Morgue. Sarah’s body had only arrived thirty minutes earlier, he said. Today, his lips looked thinner and his eyes, pale.
I hesitated at the door, steeling myself against the heady smell of death that lingered here. The Boss plodded in. The lab attendant, an obese man with fat cheeks and a clump of beards, pointed to his right. He was in the process of embalming a corpse and didn’t seem too happy to have his haven disturbed.
I fisted my hands, slouching my shoulders as I stepped into the cold room.
Sarah lay on a moulded white slab, covered to her neck with transparent plastic. One look at her had me clutching my stomach; my heart plummeted, my knees went weak and I had to grip the slab to keep me from falling. I had seen death in the cruellest of forms anyone could have thought possible. I had lost friends, brothers and not once had I felt the way I did that day and many days to come. I had grown so fond of Sarah, finding in her another chance to redeem a past I hated to remember, a past which haunted me still, though I would quickly shove the memory into the gourd of juvenile delinquency, whenever guilt came calling. Within the short while we worked as a team, I had learned in more ways from Sarah than I had in my thirty six years. Sarah was a jewel and it doubled the hurt that I was denied the opportunity to tell her these words.
Something within me snapped the moment I beheld her face; it was serene against the white light of the morgue, her features sharp and surreal.
Dr Andrew pulled back the covering to expose multiple bullet wounds to her chest. He spoke some medical gibberish I paid no attention to, explaining unnecessarily the bullets point of entry and my partner’s painless death.
Her skin was pale, her lips whitish. Her face was angelic but sad; she wore the dying look of someone who didn’t know why she had to pay the price for a war she knew little about. I stroked her hair, which was bristle and broke with my touch. Then came the tears, and like a man, I struggled feebly to fight them off.
A heavy arm landed on my shoulders, pulling me away.
“God knows best. You must be a man Ohmston, be strong.” The Boss implored.
It was odd, hearing my Boss talk to me about being strong. How could I be strong when all I was, was weak, feeble, and powerless; powerless against the free radicals of the tyrannous world I unconsciously sought to protect. Sarah was gone. A few weeks ago it could have been Ronke. My best friend died in my arms, years ago, in the violent streets of Kano. And as I stood there, with the Boss’ arm around my shoulders, I wondered what a human life was worth. I didn’t have the time to avail myself of the poignancy of my thoughts as in ran an old woman whom I didn’t need a marabout to tell me was Sarah’s mother. The resemblance was striking and her manic energy as she screamed and flailed beside her daughter’s body was reminiscent of Sarah’s forceful nature. Her brother strolled in. He gave me a disdainful look, not having forgiven me for luring her sister into La Cathédrale thereby costing him his cosy job.
While Dr Andrew busied himself with calming the bereaved, my Boss herded me out to fading sunshine. The fresh air was a relief from the biting cold of the morgue.
He stood, hands in his pockets, his face, expressionless. His cape billowed behind him as a light breeze rustled its tail.
“You can take the rest of the month off. This has been a horrible experience for you. Go home Ohmston, and come back to work when you are ready.” He said.
I smiled. The mere effort it took to stretch my lips, hurt like mad.
“I’m not coming back,” I replied, my eyes trailing the darkening skies.
“C’mon Ohmston. Don’t let this kill the man you are. You crave the thrill of action, and I can swear you love your job with a passion. I see it in your eyes whenever you get a new assignment; I see it in your every effort to achieve results. All you need is some time off.” He clasped a pudgy hand over my shoulders. “For people like you, there is no out, only short-lasting breaks and then you find yourself thrown back one way or the other, into the maze.”
My face hardened. Who was this man who lulled behind the comfort and safety of his million-naira desk to tell me who I was? He knew nothing about the countless wars I fought every day, the men I battled to stay alive, all, so I could make him richer than he already was. All he cared about were results.
I was done!
“You don’t know me.” I said shaking off his fingers from my shoulder. “I am through with this life and I ain’t coming back.” I shoved my resignation letter into his hands and left him gaping after me as I got into my car and zoomed off into the night.
Back in my house, days grew into weeks, weeks into a month and still I couldn’t shake off the web of gloom that had settled over me. Several times I heard Ronke’s persistent knocks.
“Ohmston, I know you are in there. Please open up and let me help.” She would plead till her voice was sore.
She would then walk round the house, calling to me, but like everyone else who came knocking, I ignored her. My curtains were drawn, so there was no way she could ascertain if I was in. Even when Amber got back and tried her key, she couldn’t get in for I had locked the door from within. I could not bear to let her see me this way. I had grown into a shadow, a hideous being relishing the darkness now abounding. I shied away from sunlight like a plague. My phone, I had permanently switched off, turning it on just once to tell Amber I was fine and that I needed some time alone. I barely ate, feeding off junk and anything my hand could reach when I no longer could carry my limbs. The food lost its taste, wine its sweetness. I stuck to Vodka only because of the wholesome, but transient, relief it gave me, lifting me from the spheres of ambivalence and grief to those of heavenly cares whose fulfilments were in the bloated cloud I sat upon. Sobriety came with anguish and a mountain of questions to which I had no answers.
My delusion of the totality of death culminated in my drunken challenge of everything I had hitherto believed; was there a God and if there was, was man just a puppet in His hands?
Then sometimes I wondered why I felt this way towards Sarah’s death. Did I fall in love with her, without knowing? Or was it the realization of how insignificant I was in creation that bothered me so?
My guilt grew, feeding off my misery.
Two whole months I battled reason. I battled sorrow.
Passing by the bathroom mirror one day, I was shocked to see what I had become. My eyes were sunken, hunted, my cheeks and neck, hollow. My beards had grown into a forest, matted in untidy clumps. For the first time in sixty five days, my looks bothered me so much that I lifted a blade.
Amber came knocking a day after and surprisingly, I threw open the door. She gasped at the stench that emanated from the house. Leaving all else, she immediately saw to keeping it clean again, starting by throwing open the curtains and windows. The light hurt my eyes. I shrank, hiding in a small corner farthest from the scorching rays. Tears clouded her eyes as she saw the man I had become. Amber began cleaning, turning around one too many times to look at me. Not a thousand beautifully scripted phrases could suffice in explaining the unspoken words that passed through those eyes, only the tears that streamed down her cheeks.
The quiet in the room was daunting. Amber moved to the wall switch and turned on the television set, returning to her chores.
The loud, excited voice that boomed from the screen hurt my ears. I stared morosely at the bright pictures that flashed by.
A young reporter’s face swallowed the screen. “There are no survivors.” She said sadly. “Over 30 people have been confirmed dead at the crash site; a two-storey structure housing over twenty families which was razed down by the accidental plane.” The reporter looked vaguely familiar. She spoke slowly into the mic, pointing to the flaming remains of what must have been a cockpit.
A throng of reporters and observers too, crowded the scene, looking helplessly at the burning wreckage.
Jesse, a friend of mine from Daily Times took the spotlight. “Radona Air had since released the manifest of flight J0306. It is rumoured that Rtd General Dimka Ibrahim, Secretary to the UN and Philanthropist unequalled was among the 163 passengers in the flight headed to Lagos from Abuja on the late hours of Sunday, 3rd.”
I sat up.
The cameras zoomed in on a smartly dressed middle-aged man. He held his microphone a little too tightly, speaking rather too quickly. “Foul play has been suspected from unverified sources as an undisclosed flight attendant spoke with NewsLine early this morning, revealing shocking details about the said plane. The Inspector General of Police alongside the Director-General of the NCAA have promised . . . ”
I stood up
General Dimka Ibrahim.
No! It wasn’t possible.
I looked around frantically. Amber had stopped cleaning and her hands were over her mouth as she gaped at the screen.
“Baby . . . phone. I need a phone. Now!”
She ran to her bag and picked up hers. She brought it to me. I snatched it and dialled a number I had burned into memory years ago.
My hands shook, sweat beads formed on my brow as I waited for the line to connect.
To be continued