A Clockwork

Photograph by Obuh Christopher Nelson

He begins his day by opening and closing his laptop. Slapping the laptop close brings a certain kind of pleasure. The pleasure of performing frustration. Of an inability to write. The kind one sees on radical poets who show their disenchantment with the world by wearing dishevelled, shaggy, ragamuffin looks.

He scans the piles of books spread on the floor. No desire to touch any of them. He makes faces at the ones scattered on his table. Some lay face down, the half read, the slightly read, the briefly consulted. He picks up his phone and calls his girlfriend. It’s not their usual call time, so she’s surprised to see his call.

“Are you alright, dear?” she asks.

Why should she ask that? Should he call her only when something is amiss?

She apologizes. He tells her he’s ending the call. She pleads. He refuses. It’s another way he feels present, relevant. He ends the call. She calls back several times. He refuses to pick up.

Half an hour later, he picks up. She apologizes again. He says nothing. They stay on the call for minutes saying nothing to each other. Finally fed up with the standoff, he asks what she’s been doing. It’s past midday in Nigeria.

“Nothing,” she replies.

Her turn to pay him back. Whenever she responds with “nothing” it means she’s angry with him. He is in no mood to apologize.

Silence. His exasperation rises to a heat wave. He tells her he has to go.

“Okay,” she says.

He ends the call.

This kind of exchange has become routine between Ayo and him. He concludes that distance is ruining his relationship with her. The phone calls have become tedious, uninspiring. He dreads them. But he feels enslaved by them because, in spite of all the dreariness, he still feels the urge to call her and stay silent on the call. Sometimes she’s chatty; other times she is taciturn like him.

He checks his emails. Nothing interesting: Boring university announcements and event publicity. He deletes them. He checks Facebook. Several messages. Someone called Olumighty is asking for information about admission to his university in Canada: Plssss SIR I want to come to your school in canada to read.

There’s so much desperation in Nigeria, he hisses. It’s terrible. On any other day, he would’ve ignored Olumighty. The badly written message and the effort to patronize him with a capitalized SIR are enough reasons not to take the message seriously. Yet he finds himself replying Olumighty: What program do you seek to study? What level: undergrad, grad?

Like others who bug him with similar requests, Olumighty has forgotten to provide details. He knows people like Olumighty: they’re not interested in any serious academic stuff; they just want to escape Nigeria.

Olumighty is back online typing a response. He checks other messages. Two others are asking him how they can escape Nigeria to come study “with” him in Canada. He ignores these ones. An unknown Facebook friend has sent “Hi.”  Another a wave. Annoying. He ignores them. A new message enters. It’s from Pirro: My brother, how u dey?

He curses Pirro. Foolish idiot.

“I will unfriend the bastard for good,” he says aloud.

He quarrelled with Pirro the previous week. After spending long minutes explaining admission for graduate study in Canada, Pirro had told him it was a stressful process. Wasn’t there another way he could come to Canada? He told Pirro to consider the Canadian permanent residency program. He spent yet more precious minutes explaining the process. But Pirro said it was also too difficult and long. Pirro had his own ideas about such an escape: Since he was in Canada, couldn’t he help find a reasonably wealthy white woman, those old lonely ones looking for young black men? Pirro had seen videos on social media of young Nigerian blokes hooking up with white American grannies. Pirro was willing and eligible to give youthful love to lonely Canadian grannies in need of happiness. Pirro had followed up the request by showering him with prayers in anticipation of his kind help. He concluded that Pirro was a moron. He told Pirro off but kept receiving messages from him.

Olumighty’s message comes in: Thanks you so much SIR fr replyng to my messg. I am appreciativ. Please SIR I am wiling to study masters in engineering. I read engineering from unilag.

He: What field of engineering and what was your CGPA?

Olumighty: Coputer engineer SIR; my gp is 2nd clss. I am looking for scholarship too, SIR. Any help you cn render.

He: I’m not sure I can help you beyond providing you with info. I think that you need to check with the university to be sure your results meet the minimum requirement. Why not contact your intended Department’s office and hear what they have to say?

Olumighty: Thanks you again so much SIR. Please, can you go and talk to them for me? I will be very gratitude. I just want to leave to study in canada.

He feels sorry for Olumighty. But it’s time to dismiss him because a message drops in from Steph.

He: I’m sorry. It doesn’t work that way. You have to contact them via email. Wishing you all the best.

Olumighty replies with more pleas for help, but he doesn’t respond.

He is responding to Steph’s “hello”: Hi Steph, good to hear from you.

Steph: same here

He: What you up to today?

Steph: Nothing much…

He: Why the ellipsis?

Steph: lol. Don’t detective me today. What are you up to yourself?

He: Nothing much. Trying to write but no inspiration. Just feeling lazy today.

Steph: Same here. lol.

He: Are you free this evening or tomorrow?

Steph: Not sure… why?

He: Was thinking we could go see Black Panther.

Steph: That’ll be cool. Can I confirm availability in the next hour?

He: Sure. Most certainly

 

He rushes to the washroom. He returns half an hour later and Steph has not replied. She’s still online. He waits. He checks his emails again. Nothing important. He clicks opens a draft chapter he’s been working on. He reads a few lines. He minimizes the window in order to check his Facebook. Nothing yet from Steph. His frustration grows. He curses her. He logs out of Facebook and slaps his laptop close.  Something tells him that just as he logged out of Facebook, Steph’s response came in. He lifts the laptop’s lid again, logs on to Facebook. No response from Steph. She’s still online. Fuck her. He checks his phone to see if Ayo has messaged. The way the call ended would have unsettled her. She would usually reach out after an hour. She would say that she was not feeling well about everything, that she wanted to make sure they were fine. Then, she would apologize for annoying him. He would scold her and tell her to be strong. He would tell her she wasn’t supposed to apologize, that he had been the nasty one. He would tease her and call her the Noble One. She would laugh and they’d be good again.

No message from Ayo. Instead, Akuenu, his sister, messaged him. She says to call her immediately. He calls Akuenu. She doesn’t sound like there’s an emergency. He calms down. She begins to agonize: Her daughter is ill and needs medication; her first son has been sent home from school for not paying school fees; she herself has been ill for quite some time but muscling it up…

He wants to yell obscenities at Akuenu and tell her off: I’m only a student! What the hell!

He remembers that he sent Akuenu money for her son’s school fees a few weeks ago. He checks himself. He asks about her husband. Akuenu must’ve guessed what’s on his mind (which is that her husband is useless) because she goes into a tirade about how worthless her husband is. He resists asking her why she chose to be a fulltime housewife to a worthless husband. Instead, he tells her he will send her what he can.

He checks Facebook. Still nothing from Steph. Fuck the bitch! He checks the balance in his Nigerian bank account. There’s 74,000 naira in it. He swallows hard as he transfers 70,000 to Akuenu. She calls and requests him to call her back. She’s afraid to exhaust her airtime calling his Canadian line. He fumes. He calls her back nonetheless. She’s excited and full of thanks. She has not expected such a sum from him. God will bless him for her and on behalf of her family. He tells her he has to go.

He goes to the washroom again. He washes his face. He dismisses the rising pain in his chest. It must be a consequence of emptying his Nigerian bank account, he thinks. He hates to feel he’s done something foolish. He tries to reason it out. At least, Akuenu is happy, he tells himself. He summons his habitual sense of self-righteous altruism. He enlists memories of gestures of selfless sacrifice to press his case: Kenny’s admission application fees, Ayo’s school fees at the University of Ibadan, Pelumi’s rent, Titi’s hospital bills. To name just a few. If he can do all of those for other people, how much more his own sister?

He returns from the washroom and checks his laptop again. No message from Steph. It’s past 12 pm. His exasperation returns. He opens a new browser, surfs porn sites. The video clips appear similar, contrived, affectless. But he doesn’t care. He clicks away on clips that present themselves to him⎯fucking my horny stepsister; fucking my stuck horny stepmother; blonde massaged and thoroughly fucked; huge black dick rams blonde from behind; tiny hole destroyed by monster dick… He draws closer a roll of paper towels, pulls out his hair cream from the drawer, and downs his boxers. He delays his climax just to retain interest in the next video after another. By the sixth clip, he can no longer hold on. The groan and cry of exasperation. As he wraps the paper towel around his palm, the thought of killing himself occupies his mind. He toys with whether it’s best to overdose on Tylenol or go for something gory. A razor cut to the artery in the left hand. It’s become a pleasurable indulgence thinking about ways to end his own life. He imagines his family crowded over his coffin weeping. His mother’s teary face breaks his heart. He knows he’s not ready to kill himself. He cannot do it. He’s too weak. He keeps telling himself, “It’s not gonna happen… it’s not gonna happen.” He heads off to the bathroom.

 

Steph’s message has arrived. He quickly dries his wet body from the bath. She will love to go see Black Panther but… her friend Kathy will like to join them… is that okay? Otherwise, they can postpone and only both of them can go watch it another time. He replies: Oh, great. It’s perfectly alright if Kathy is joining us. He adds: No worries. I’ll get tickets for 3 and confirm the time soon.

 

Steph and Kathy are excited about Black Panther. Kathy loves the Wakandan costumes and the cinematic displays. But she doesn’t like that the film is too “political.”

“What do you mean it’s too political?” he asks.

“As if they’re trying to use every opportunity to pass a political statement, you see what I mean?” Kathy says.

“What gave you that impression?”

“Everything. Like when the guy’s… what’s his name again?… when his sister calls the CIA guy a colonizer…”

“I see.”

Steph agrees with Kathy, but thinks that the political thing is all the more why she likes the film. “It’s revolutionary,” she declares.

He feels that Steph is saying that to make him feel good, as if saying anything bad about the film is a personal attack on him.

“They overdid it is all I’m saying,” notes Kathy.

Steph asks what he thinks about the film.

He isn’t expecting the question. He had not paid close attention to the film. Kathy’s roving fingers distracted him through much of it. He had sat between Steph and Kathy. Steph his interest and then the intruder Kathy’s fingers tickling his left torso.

“I don’t like the film,” he says to the women.

Disbelief sparkle on the women’s faces. “The film is colonial,” he declares.  

“How’s that?” asks Kathy.

First, he doesn’t think that the film is fair on Killmonger. Killmonger comes out as the villain of a history of American racism. The film, he lectures, places the responsibility for his villainy and sadism on his abandonment by his African kin, see? He scans the women’s faces. They’re expecting him to say more.

Did they notice, he continues, that the film’s story is ridiculous? How so? Well, the story is about this hidden, hi-tech advanced African kingdom in possession of cherished treasures. This subterranean kingdom managed to escape the world’s attention but is now deciding to announce itself and its importance to the world. He laughs. But this African kingdom can gain the world’s recognition, he mocks, only on account of sharing its hidden treasures with the rest of the world. He laughs again at the idea.

Steph says his way of interpreting the story sounds interesting to her. But she doesn’t still see how it’s colonial.

“The danger in that kind of narrative of Africa,” he points out, his interest on the subject mounting, “is that Europeans for centuries have continued to perpetuate this kind of idea about Africa. Many of them thought of the continent as a place of some hidden treasures that must be discovered and exploited for use by Europeans. That idea was at the heart of European colonization. This film reinforces this narrative and even goes the length to suggest that the continent’s only way of participating seriously in global discourse is in its willingness to share its hidden treasures. As if the continent is hiding some unknown resources and knowledge that it must share in order to be relevant. As if currently the world isn’t feeding off Africa’s over-exploited resources.”

Steph and Kathy are now alternatingly hmm-ing in response to what he says. “There’s no hidden resource anywhere. I just get tired of all the exoticization going on… I’m sorry, I guess I’m sounding too political already.”

“No, no, not at all.”

Both women try to convince him that they’re happy to hear his views and that he has made them see the film differently.

Steph calls his perspective “Deep.”

Kathy says it’s “remarkable.”

He’s not convinced. He notices that Kathy is avoiding his eyes. He thinks that maybe she feels he has aimed a dig at her when he apologised for sounding too political.

“What are you studying?” Kathy asks.

Steph replies on his behalf. “He’s researching African genocides. You need to hear him talk about that too. Super fascinating.”

“Now I see why you’re so, so smart,” Kathy says to him.

He tells the two women he can drop them off.

“What’s Kathy address? We can drop her off first and then I take you to your place,” he says to Steph.

“I can go first,” says Steph disinterestedly. “My place is just down the street anyway.”

He murmurs that it’s fine, disappointed. He begins to suspect that Steph is trying to hook him up with Kathy.

At Steph’s place, she kisses him and Kathy goodnight.

Kathy comes to sit beside him in the front. He turns on his GPS.

“What’s your address?” he asks Kathy.

She rests her hand on his.

“Are you busy tonight?” she asks. “Just bored and not ready to go home yet.”

He drives to a pub not far from his own street. They order beers. They’re not saying much. Kathy will point out to him couples who are real couples and those making out. When he asks how she knows, she’d describe some odd things in the couple’s manner or just ask whether he is fine with her walking over to ask them herself. He’d laugh and say something to hold conversation for a few minutes before the silence descends again. The music in the pub is a little louder than he prefers. They’re silent for the most of it. She asks for another set of glasses when the waiter makes a round at their table. He says he’s satisfied. She goes on to request a pint for herself anyway. Before long, she’s drunkenly asking about his research. “You say you’re researching violence in Africa?” She asks.

He nods.

“It must be very difficult for you,” she slurps filling her mouth with beer.

He says something about not wanting to discuss boring academic stuff over beer. She agrees and says that maybe they should go. He agrees.

Back in the car, he asks Kathy for her address. She says she doesn’t want to go home yet. “Perhaps we should go to your place.”

He’s quiet. He can feel his heart racing under his chest.

“You live alone? Sorry, I forgot to ask.”

“Yes, I live alone,” he says. He adds after a while, “I think you’re drunk. It’s best I take you home.”

“Stop it,” giggles Kathy. “I know what you’re afraid of… It’s Steph, isn’t it?”

He doesn’t respond.

“I know it,” she giggles.

He drives down the street. He stops in front of the apartment complex where he lives.

“We’re here,” he says.

Ayo’s call wakes him up the next morning. It’s past 10. He doesn’t remember clearly where he is or how he got there. It takes a few minutes before he soaks in the familiarity of his room. The laptop on the table, books faced down beside it. Piles of books scattered across different parts of the room. He realizes just then that he had slept with his head on the opposite end of the bed. His memory of the previous night is still fuzzy. He goes to the washroom to pour out the residues of the previous night. Ayo has called seventeen times. He frowns, irritated. Why’s she calling me like that? He calls her back.

“Darling, is everything alright?” she asks.

He is silent.

“I’ve been worried when you weren’t picking up. Are you okay?”

Then he gets angry with her…

 

Arthur Anyaduba

Arthur Anyaduba is a senior editor of Saraba Magazine. His writing interests include fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His works have appeared on Saraba and other reputable platforms.

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