SLICE OF LIFE
The fast, mechanical ticking was the first sound that Jonathan Carlton heard. Struggling to comprehend the superheated darkness with face torn, eyelids hanging like ribbons of wet pasta; the young diplomat’s face a cocktail of bloodied flesh and matted hair, his slashed nose its gory cherry. Trying to comprehend the smoke, the stench of gasoline, he recalled the bright lights and horn of the oncoming truck on the rain-lashed Lagos highway but nothing more. No memory of his difficulty in negotiating the BMW across the poorly-lit carriageway towards Labejo in the atrocious torrent; no recollection of the impact with the juggernaut that had sent the smart saloon careering down the wooded embankment.
He wedged his brogue into the door and pushed. It refused to budge; buckled by the rolling. The muscular Carlton shifted in his seat and kicked again; still nothing. He didn’t panic; he hadn’t when his patrol was penned down in the squalid Basra settlement over a decade ago and he wasn’t going to start now. He assaulted the door with the same ferocity as he had the Iraqi forces; the relentless attack overpowering his foe and allowing the Gulf War veteran a laboured escape from the blazing car. He limped into the malevolent Nigerian darkness, legs buckling and folding like a skittish foal.
‘He is coming … both of you, sit up!’ the woman chided.
‘Listen to me, children. Do not ask of him questions; nor of why he comes. Do you understand?’
The fifteen-year old twins, still in their school uniforms, nodded in tandem, and although curious as to the identity of the stranger their mother referred to, they were preoccupied with swapping ballpark gossip, their animated hand movement and boisterous laughter as warm and fluent as the tropical rainstorm stalking the skyline above.
Ramshackle, its wooden frame permeated by the incessant rainfall, the shack gave the dim light a dirty excuse; yet it always reminded her of old family portraits, from when he was here, when they were happy. Peter had long since departed, soon to be a year, shamed and humiliated, forcing her to become adaptable and resilient; the irony was not lost upon her. She would scream at him that she had not been weak, had not encouraged them, imploring that the white men’s drunken, sadistic brutality was not her fault. Yet word had soon spread around the tiny village; his humiliation became too much and he left that humid December morning. Etched with thinly-veiled disgust, his face offered neither hope nor contrition and as they stared at each other; Obeya knew it was over. Men were not to be trusted or relied upon - it was why she had not gone to the police last year - , she had her girls and now they would fight the world together.
Yet their need for money was desperate; her seven fingers, gnarled by the grimy machinery, kept them afloat but the refinery was moving nearer to Abuja, almost 500 miles away. A company representative, ‘devil messengers’ she called them, was due to arrive tonight and inform her of the latest developments.
The tin-roofed kitchen, Queen Elizabeth’s muted smile tolerating her broken frame; her empire poised to fall amongst the tatty chestnut food bowls, was filled by the cacophony of rain. ‘The Lord’s Dance’ she called it, yet it was anxiety and trepidation that were waltzing around Obeya’s chest. The oil vultures were never late when bearing bad news and the squat, balding, Mr Mokoi did not disappoint, arriving a minute before seven; the short man’s suitcase containing the family’s future, a more parlous state than Her Majesty holding on in the kitchen.
Within ten minutes Obeya had shooed the girls to bed, not wanting them to see her tears, her shock, as the diminutive official informed her that her twelve-year association with the American oil conglomerate was over. Yet the reason he gave seared her soul. Degrading and hurtful were the untruths from his lips, Peter would have thrown him out if he was here but he was not and she had to listen alone as Mokoi besmirched her name.
‘Mrs Asbouni, Blue Star Petroleum has received information that you engaged in solicitous behaviour of a serious sexual nature involving other company employees, whilst on company premises. Such actions will not be tolerated; therefore, the company are terminating your contract with immediate effect.’
Stony-faced and monotone, his voice faded as her eyes closed; her sobs meant nothing to him and by the time she had raised her face from the kitchen table, he had gone.
‘Lya, are you fine?’
Ameke and Asunda would call their Mother by her Yorundan tribal name, a sign of respect and love, neither of which Obeya was feeling after Mokoi’s brief visit. Now the eldest, Ameke was asking, with concern in her voice.
‘Yes, sweetness, I am just tired, that’s all, my baby. Now, go, school tomorrow,’
Obeya replied, as her daughter sought physical reassurance. She hugged Ameke tighter than usual, feeling the girl’s reluctance to part, before tapping the anxious teenager’s arm twice.
‘Go.’ Troubled by Mokoi’s words and their effect, Obeya wondered just how long she could keep their plight from the girls. The men must have made her out to be some kind of loose woman to save their necks but she had been unable to prevent them overpowering her defences; had been powerless to stop Peter leaving and now the devil messenger’s venomous visit … she knew the chattering wives thought her guilty; yet she knew two things they did not; the truth and that The Lord would see it come out.
Her thoughts were cut short by strange noises outside the hut. She moved to the door, locking it with haste. She listened, there was the noise again; there was definitely someone outside. She summoned the girls, her voice velvety like a husky, inappropriate serenade.
‘Asunda, Ameke, quickly, come, come!’
The girls rushed in, confused to see their Mother gripping the bamboo-handled Hausa dagger that Peter had gained from trading further north; pointing at the sink, finger against her lips, motioning for them to be quiet. The girls each picked up the tiny needle-pointed spears they had used to eat their cassava only a short while before and waited by the door that separated the kitchen from their bedroom.
Obeya peeked through the matting blind across the veranda; its skinny light bulb swinging wildly; the bruised heavyweight challenger was on one knee, head bowed, holding the post, waiting to be counted out under nature’s thrashing blows. She noticed that he was white, stocky and wore what looked a tie that was skewed, hanging down the back of his dirty collared shirt. He remained motionless as Obeya stared, perplexed at the stranger without shoes. Turning towards the girls, six eyes searched for answers as to what to do next.
‘You! What of you? Speak!’ Obeya tried to command an authoritative tone,
mentally chastising Peter for not being here when they needed him. The stranger looked up at the door, though did not answer and as he shuffled to face her, Obeya could see from the smeared steps that she had been wrong; he was not soiled with dirt, it was blood. She turned to her daughters and issued them strict instruction.
‘Wait here, do NOT follow!’ the siblings trusting their mother’s judgement as she
jabbed the Hausa in the direction of the table.
‘Wait there and be ready. Shut the door behind me. Be swift and strong.’
Tribal anticipation filled the tiny kitchen as Obeya opened and closed the boundary between herself and the strange visitor. Hesitant and frightened, wet hand keeping the knife pointing at him, she shouted, louder than before, over the rainstorm.
‘YOU! WHAT BRINGS YOU HERE?’
His voice frightened her, not in its tone but in its familiarity. She would never forget their foreign voices - she would later be told that they were American – , or their laughter as they violated her, beat her, leaving her crumpled and bloodied, just as the stranger was in front of her. Her empathy for him was countered by his possible alliance to them.
‘I … am John Carlton.’ The stranger clutched his ribs as he wheezed.
‘I had an accident. My car came off the highway; hence the lack of shoes.’
His aside passed her by but the weak smile did not. Obeya called the girls, who appeared in the doorway.
‘Be quick! Stay well clear!’ motioning the blade-wielding pair away from the
‘You! Inside … and stay on your knees!’ she ordered the stranger.
Carlton shuffled inside like a tourist attempting a limbo dance, before flopping intothe rickety chair. Asunda locked the door behind them and the three women surrounded him, their sharp weaponry still pointing towards the same table where Obeya had silently asked for divine assistance. Instead, a bloodied, injured foreign stranger had arrived.
Again she ordered the girls in her native tongue; Ameke took string from the cupboard and tied the stranger’s hands behind him. The stranger did not protest; he understood their fright well, the tormented faces of young unsaved Arabs stalked the mental jungle behind his eyelids each night.
Through the evening, the family tended the stranger’s wounds, finding out much information about him: former soldier John Carlton was thirty-five, a divorced father-of-two from Houston and an attaché at the American Embassy in Lagos. He had been en route to Blue Star Petroleum at the time of his accident; he spoke with candour of ‘strained relations’ between plant workers and local people, also of rumours and accusations that needed “his attention” but played down his role.
‘I’m only here to smooth things out, to make certain people understand that silence is best.’
Obeya listened, letting the handsome stranger talk. She made him take Lipton tea before slamming a heavy flour bag on the table.
‘Sleep! Morning time I will get Koomu to drive you to the hospital in his truck.’
The bound stranger had little strength to argue and lay across the table top, restless in slumber under her watchful eye.
The following morning, she addressed the unbound stranger at first light.
‘The girls have gone to fetch Koomu the Farmer.’ ‘Wash your face at the sink.’
Carlton smiled in gratitude and stretched his arms wide.
‘Mr Carlton? These “certain people” that you are travelling to quieten?’ she asked.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say quie …,’ his protestation interrupted.
‘Sir, know this. Listen well, for I speak simple truths in front of the Lord. I am the lady who was raped and beaten like a dog by those men at Blue Star. I am the lady accused of encouraging it. I am the same lady who has today been sacked for it.’
Dumbfounded, Carlton stared at the woman, noting her fierce, elegant beauty; disbelief and disgust flooding through him as she proceeded to recall with eloquence the precise events of the company’s previous Christmas party.
She whispered how the amiable foreigners had lured her into the fields behind the plant on the basis of showing her and her colleague ‘something special’. One of them had waylaid her work colleague en route, whilst the rest – she remembered three but there could have been more - had dragged Obeya into the woods before carrying out their attack.
‘Do you believe me, John Carlton, that I am truthful of tongue?’
He blew his cheeks out, staggered by what the Nigerian woman alleged.
‘Well … look, Mrs Asoundi, these are very serious accusations and whilst I don’t dispute your account, I do thi …’
Carlton froze as he witnessed the most shocking thing he had seen in his life. Facing him, Obeya Asoundi was hitching up her lacy skirts, her intimate mahogany skin, only seen before by Peter, now visible in the fuzzy light.
‘Mrs Asoun …’
‘WATCH MR CARLTON … WATCH! NOW DO YOU DOUBT? DO YOU?’ she
screamed in anger, pulling her petticoat higher and pointing at the grotesque marking cut into her inner thigh. She wiped her eyes with her knuckles. ‘W.H.O.R.E.’ He read the jagged letters one-by-one, mute in disbelief at such savage inhumanity. He felt the urge to retch. There had been reports of similar barbarity in Vietnam but to see it in the flesh was beyond words.
The kitchen fell quiet, the stranger’s hand clamped over his mouth in silent horror as she smoothed down her dignity. He couldn’t look her in the eye.
Koomu arrived as promised and before being helped to the truck, Carlton took her hand, silently noting the missing digit.
‘Obeya, your compassion saved me last night, whilst your honesty will stay with me forever. Neither will it will be forgotten. Rest assured that justice will be served and that I will put things right.’
She watched as the battered Toyota pick-up jerked its way along the rutted clearing before disappearing from sight.
Gazing across to the plains from the plush office window, defence barrister Mrs Obeya Carlton QC silently reflected how far she had travelled since that rainy night fifteen years ago; the night salvation arrived in a wet shirt.
2, 192 words