Rudder by Bode Asiyanbi
Look to the rudder. It explains every damn thing. Every damn thing. What will steer the world on an even keel is not the stern, the bow, or the hull. Wake up, boy. Stop dreaming a big fix. Look to the fucking rudder.
Karimu Benetu woke up startled; hounded out of sleep by a relentless montage of dark dreams. Funeral processions, burning pyres, owl calls, and then dozing off right inside a dream. Death couldn’t be closer. It took Bako’s rudder rant to steer him afloat. He sat motionless on the bed, brow creased in sweat. Unsteady eyes fell on his phone. Two missed calls from Sweetness. He called back.
‘You called me?’
‘Yes. I dropped your spare key. With your gateman.’
‘Okay but—’ three toneless beeps. She had hung up.
Every delusion has an expiry date. This lasted seven years. The parting image: The silver Toyota Corolla picking her up right at his gate at exactly seven pm. Seven; the number of perfection. Warped paradox. He could still feel the hollowness in his bones. His phone rang, nudging him off nostalgia.
‘K.B, the church behind Freedom Street, meet me there, now.’
‘Should I get the—?’ The soulless beeps again. The line was dead. He glared at the phone. Crazy, conceited, impatient world.
He tossed the phone and staggered into the bathroom like a drunk. The water was so cold he ran out not knowing if he had bathed or not. He got out a checkered shirt from his suitcase but changed his mind as his eyes fell on the blue and claret of his club jersey. Relics of the past. He gets them every football season. It would’ve been perfect for those Instagram destined pre-wedding photo shoots. He was cocksure she wouldn’t wear hers again; they were probably tucked in one frigid corner of her wardrobe as a dark memento. He opted for the one he just got for her birthday. Special order from Kitbag. It had her name printed on the back. Nefertiti. Number 10.
He was halfway down the stairs struggling to get the jersey through his sizeable head when his phone rang again. It was the same caller. He ignored it and dashed down the hotel lobby.
Tristan und Isolde. Wagner. The radio DJ must be dealing with a hangover. Where did he dig that out from? Mornings were not for playing Wagner. He changed the station. A jangling call to prayer. He switched off the radio. The silence less alluring, he switched the radio back on and began searching for a sane music station.
He finally righted on U2’s California as he turned the bend of the local primary school road. The moment he opened his mouth to do a hippy sing along, a jarring explosion ripped into the breaking day.
The car took on a course of its own, spinning like a top before ending nose down in the ditch. Another car rammed into him from behind. The sleepy morning jerked into life; screeching tires, frantic horns, groaning engines and desultory screams. Karimu’s head was a swirling bag of feathers. He sat still, clawing his way out of disorientation and the dizzying atmospherics from the car radio. The moment he got a foothold on his bearings, he tried to locate the door. It had jammed. He kicked out the windscreen and bundled himself out.
The single-lane road was clogged with vehicles and confounded commuters. Karimu meandered through the warren of confusion. Vehicles attempting to turn had blocked others trying to speed away from the direction of the explosion, commuters were ditching buses and fleeing on foot. Only the ever present, always petulant Okadamen could weave their commuter motorcycles through the logjam of abandoned vehicles and unbridled panic. Karimu flagged down one of them.
The fellow nodded. He had on a badly broken crash helmet held together by cheap glue and a contraption of metal strings and pins. The government had recently placed a fine on riding motorcycles without helmets. The man was sure wearing the helmet out of fear of the fine, and not for the fear of smashing his skull on asphalt.
‘Four hundred naira.’
‘Four hundred what?’ Karimu took a good look at the man. ‘From here to there?’ he spluttered pointing at nowhere in particular.
‘Oga, have you heard of subsidy removal on petrol?’
Karimu glared at him. The man did not flinch. ‘You tell me.’ He blurted.
‘It has doubled fuel price, so I now charge double. Are you going or not? This place is dangerous.’ He revved the Honda engine which jerked forward.
Karimu looked around. The few Okadas he saw all had commuters in pillion. ‘Okay, wait, wait, let me get my stuff.’ The man stopped. Karimu felt like poking a finger into his eye.
He ran over to his abandoned car, an oxblood Kia Picanto the company had given him for the special assignment: an exclusive one-off interview with the elusive deputy governor of the Federal Capital. They had sent Bako, their best hand, naturally. The reason Bako chose him as the assignment’s photo journalist was different. They had a crate of beer bet on the outcome of the evening El Classico match, and Bako, absolutely sure he would win the bet wanted Karimu by his side. He had another reason though.
K.B the lover boy, I will sure make you drink that past away. Bottle by bottle. Karimu could only manage a wry smile. What if the past is fastened to your head? How does one drink his head away?
He retrieved his camera from the car and secured the doors before hurrying over to the Okadaman who was already tapping his fuel tank in impatience. They made their way in a trail of smoke from the grunting exhaust. Karimu dialed Bako’s number. It was switched off. He was not surprised. Everyone at their Lagos office had begged Bako to change his phone. He refused. The phone was so old the battery no longer fitted and all the keys were faded. It had the penchant for disconnecting calls at will.
‘I’m going to the church down the street where the…’
The man shook his head. ‘I can’t reach there…’
‘Dangerous Oga. Very, very dangerous. I can only carry you close to the place.’ He described how the first bomb exploded during the early morning church service and the second one only a few minutes ago, killing the policemen, journalists and Red Cross staff who had been there.
‘Who knows how many bombs are still there?’ he concluded. He stopped in front of a mountain of refuse.
‘That’s the place.’ Karimu followed the direction of his gloved hand; black smoke billowed in distance over rusty rooftops. He got off the motorcycle and paid the man.
This was not how he planned his day. Lazy in bed till ten am, amble round town for some good pictures for the man-around-town page, pick up Bako at Central Hospital, head for Government house for the interview, and after that, beer, beer, more beer, then round the day off with the El Classico football match. Now he was lost in a movie with no idea of the plot. Life. Garnished crap.
Six dour looking policemen in faded bomb disposal squad vests were moving like scared rabbits around the scarred compound of the church. The entire entrance fence had been blown out and about a dozen burnt vehicles were smouldering within the compound. A Red Cross van passed. Karimu stopped. Hot air howled inside head. Tangled bodies, severed body parts, charred remains stiffened into grotesque still life positions jutted out of the decrepit vehicle. A lean hand fell on his shoulder.
He turned. A very thin policeman peered at him with bloodshot eyes.
‘What you doing here?’
Karimu fumbled out his ID card. ‘Cable Newspaper.’ His voice didn’t seem to belong to him.
‘I am here to—’
‘We are clearing the area. We are checking for more bombs. Leave now.’
Karimu didn’t hear him. He was still staring at the receding van with its grotesque load. The policeman was still talking.
‘… join other news people there.’ He gestured to a distant scrum of journalists around two TV vans. He emphasised his point with a baton push. Karimu remembered his camera. He scratched his head to right askew thoughts. The van would’ve made a poignant centre-spread. Inside the church was his only bet for a newsworthy shot.
‘Officer let me just enter to—’
The policeman shook his head with a vehemence that nearly pulled the riot helmet off his small head. He held it back from falling with a free hand and pointed the worn baton at Karimu.
Karimu fumbled through his pockets and pushed a clump of naira notes into the policeman’s hand. One quick look, he walked away without a second glance.
Karimu ran into the church. He nearly lost his footing as he avoided an open bible with a rosary stretched on its torn pages; it was covered in drying blood. His camera went to work, clicking without thought. Handbags abandoned in flight, torn clothing soaked in blood, different shoes, mostly females, blood, blood and more blood. His camera clicked on a finger with an engagement ring on it, a bloodied necklace and broken bracelets, a full arm was twisted behind an upturned pew. His lens picked on the sprawled body of a woman, then two bodies wedged lifeless by the fallen wall and burnt debris. His shaky hands struggled to steady the camera. He felt a sudden urge to retch. He swallowed the urge.
Broken candles, a ripped clerical collar, a scorched painting of ‘The Last Supper’. He walked around the altar to take a final shot, his hand froze on the shutter release button. A decapitated body sprawled on the altar steps. He had had enough. He turned to flee, his eyes stilled his movement; beside a lunula and a broken chalice was an altar plate, and on it, face up, was a head. The afro had lost its shine, the mouth eerily opened revealed a golden tooth. Karimu stumbled down the altar and fell over an upturned pew. He scrambled to his feet, ran out of the church, past the bomb squad, past the policemen and out of the compound to an almond tree by the fence. He sank to a huge root, breathing hard through open mouth, lost eyes on the saffron sky.
Saffron? Yeah, I love it. Are you a monk? I just like it baby, it’s like a beautiful setting sun. I don’t like it, it’s a sad colour. You don’t? Okay, I will pick another colour.
She left the saffron dress.
She always wanted to please him. His quick temper and sudden bursts of anger watered the fear that he would one day leave her in a fit. Maybe if she had snapped back once, or gone ahead to pick that saffron dress, or the Michael Kors watch, or kept using the make-up he said he hated, or refused to give him head when he failed to return same favor. Maybe he would have seen the truth of his stupidity. Then yesterday.
K.B, we started dating seven years ago. Yes? I was twenty-three. Yes? I will be thirty next week. I’ve got you a gift for your birthday. No, not that, what if you leave me, I’m getting old. I will never leave you. You’ve been saying it for seven years, show it. How? How do you show a woman you will never leave her? I can’t take care of you yet, I don’t earn that much. We will manage. I don’t want you to suffer. KB, I’ve suffered with you for seven years, don’t you get it?
He gets away every time from the line of discussion with the red herring of inspired lovemaking. She came four times. The last was the longest. And it was in tears. She left late in the night after a phone call. If only he’d known the Toyota Corolla was waiting at the gate. He only saw the tail lights. Seven pm GMT. Mean awakening.
Bako thought it was funny.
‘Hey K.B get off your sissy ass and stop sulking like a kid. I’m gonna introduce you to this smashing banker. She loves intelligent guys. I can bet with my gold teeth you will forget your runaway Egyptian queen. One advice though. Keep it simple this time. It’s called settling down. The solution is never the hard way. It is simple. Simple, like the working of a rudder. You do it the hard way again, she is gone.’
Karimu dropped his head into shaky hands. Bako. Gone, violently. Like unsure love.
Time stood by in the stillness of falling leaves and the collage of sickening flashbacks, until his phone vibrated in his pocket. It was the group editor.
‘Hey KB how’s it going? I called Bako, his number was not going as usual. How are you guys…?’
‘He is here.’ Karimu’s voice crackled like burning grass.
‘Yeah, he called about the blast. I told him to go there before you guys meet the deputy governor.’
‘I saw Bako.’
There was a pause.
‘Hey K.B, you stoned again?’
‘I saw his…’ He didn’t recognise his own voice. He couldn’t bring himself to add ‘head’.
The dammed tears broke loose.
‘KB, what the hell is …?’
‘…caught in the second blast boss…’
‘What!’ then an incomprehensible silence. Karimu ended the call, chest heaving like a race-horse. A shadow came over him. He looked up, a teenage boy was staring down at him. Karimu unburdened wayward thoughts.
‘He just called me, to come here… and now he is…’ he gestured towards the church.
The boy stood in the way of the rising sun, his off white jalabiya billowing in the morning wind.
‘Leave this place.’
Karimu thought he hadn’t heard him right. He raised his head and looked up at him. He was older than he’d initially thought. Bloodshot eyes set into a face roughened by the sun. The way his wispy beard ran down his cheeks and pointed jaw indicated he had never shaved.
‘Leave this place.’ He repeated, both hands clutching at the pockets of his robe. His two front teeth were broken giving him the unsettling look of a lamia.
‘Why?’ Karimu started but the boy had turned his back and was walking away. Then he stopped and walked back to him.
‘Are you deaf?’ he barely raised his voice. Karimu struggled to his feet.
‘I can’t. I don’t even know where to go. Didn’t you hear me? My friend was…’
The boy grabbed at the hem of his robe and pulled it up in one movement. When he dropped it down, Karimu was back on the grass.
The boy thought Karimu didn’t get it. He looked down at him and in the same even voice hissed. ‘Leave here.’
‘I say go ahead. If you want me to help you explode it, just show me what to fucking press.’
In that brief silence of confusion, a distant thought lighted on Karimu’s foggy mind. He stood.
‘Let me have it. Get the hell out of here.’
‘What…’ The boy suddenly looked his age. ‘Why…?’
‘Why? I want to fucking die.’
The boy took a step back.
‘You deaf? Give it to me boy. Go. There is no fucking paradise or virgins or whatever. They are out there. If that’s what got you.’
Brown birds were starting to dance to the twirl of the tired smoke from the compound.
‘Give me the bloody thing and go meet your mother. You have one, right?’
‘Who are you?’ The words shivered out of the boy’s dry lips.
‘No one is waiting for me. Give me the damn thing!’ He grabbed one of the locks and yanked it open. ‘Show me what to fucking press.’ The boy held his hand. In the desperate struggle that ensued, the vest snapped loose by the sides.
A convoy of police vans cleared into the compound. Policemen began to jump out. The boy broke away. He flung the vest into the mountain of refuse beside the church fence and fled. Karimu closed his eyes, bracing for an explosion. All he heard was a dull thud. He made for the vest.
‘Hey, time up. Get the hell out of here.’ It was the thin policeman with the oversized helmet. Karimu stopped. The policeman saw the vest. He stopped, beckoned wildly to the others.
‘Over here. Over here.’
Karimu changed course, making after the fleeing boy.
Death ain’t your foe man, life is. Life is, with all its shades of love and its deceit of time. You never know the right shade until you lose it. Death ain’t your foe KB, its knowledge only sets you free. Simple. Simple man, simple like the fucking rudder.
The boy sipped at the orange juice like brandy. Karimu massaged his numb hands. This was the most lucid moment in his life. He had this sudden understanding of life; it was all one flat piece of bullshit.
There were just five other customers in the restaurant. An eerie graveyard silence had enveloped the area. People were hurrying off to the safety of their houses.
Karimu kept his eyes fixed on the boy. He looked up from his drink.
‘They will take care of my sick mother.’
The air conditioner beside them buzzed with the surge of the fluctuating voltage.
‘We call him Teacher.’
‘Teacher. Where, how did you meet him? What is the name of your group?’
‘My mother was very sick. I came here with my friend from village to get Okada to ride for money.’
‘I didn’t get it. It was hard. My friend took me to the place. They give us food. They teach us the Holy Book. They teach us about the government and how it made us poor. It’s simple. If I do it I die, I go to heaven and they take care of my mother.’
‘Who are “they”?’
‘We are soldiers of Justice.’
‘That is the motto of the Militant Front.’
‘The brother of the sick governor attended the morning service.’
Karimu leaned away from him. Simple. It was all pretty clear.
Fucking pawns. All of us. The one percent cannot do without the fucking pawns. Religious. Moral. Economic pawns. But we don’t know. Rudderless shit that we are. All of us.
‘My friend did the first bomb. He drove the car.’ Karimu opted not to process the words.
‘Why did you listen to me?’
‘I didn’t listen to you… I listen to God,’ he picked at his nails, ‘I pray that if it is not his will, he would show it… and you didn’t just say go, you mentioned my mother. No one here has ever cared if I die or if I live. Except my mother.’ He paused. ‘Would you have done it?’
‘I would have done anything.’
‘Because I’m in love.’
The boy slopped his drink.
It was a stupid thing to say but truth sometimes is always nothing short of stupid. The boy ran his fingers through his sandy hair. His nails were long and dirty.
Karimu’s mind danced around an old song. A world of lost, confused souls seeking direction. And there are those who have appropriated the power to provide. The meeting point? Poverty. Ignorance. Anger. And the stupidity of lost love, in his own case.
‘So what do you want to do now?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What if I give you some money to take you back to your village, and buy you a used Okada later in the month?’
‘You will do that for me?’
It will take more than a month salary to pay for a used motorbike. He asked the question to know if there was a path to redemption. Maybe a chance to do something with his fucked up life. Aside fatalism.
His phone beeped as it received a text message. One look, he deleted the message.
‘Bastards.’ They didn’t even ask if he was okay. He was not going ahead with any bloody interview. ‘Stupid, self-serving capitalist assholes.’
‘Nothing. Let’s go.’
Baby you not going anywhere, tell me you’re not. I am, I have to. Why, why, don’t do this, please. You want me to wait another seven years? Tell me when exactly is everything gonna be alright like you always say? Tell me.
Your fault dude. Bako was adamant. My fault? Yes K.B. You keep her waiting for seven years, she decides to leave and you believe ‘oh she is gonna come back like before’, then voila, you see her with this new guy who has given her a ring and realise how much you love her right, what if you didn’t see him with her or you didn’t see the ring? Bako you don’t understand. I do. One word for what you are, selfish dickhead.
The boy looked up at him.
‘Are you a policeman?’
Karimu picked up his phone and texted a reply: ‘I am in the hospital, wounded’. He switched off his phone. Killers, thieves, selfish gnats, liars. Everyone. The world is a lost cause.
‘Central Park you said?’ The boy nodded. Karimu powered the car down a deserted street. Silence and the dry harmattan dust added an unsettling slant to the already eerie ambience. What the hell was the interview meant to achieve but another spike in sales and a further dip in truth?
What do you do when a terror group takes on your fight? The deputy governor was a shifty rogue, well, like all politicians really. Tacitly condoning the reign of terror that started with the governor’s near fatal accident. The poor fellow was said to be in a coma. A claim his camp, led by his brother, denied. Six months he was still not back. Still ruling by proxy. Enter the Militant Front, a shadowy group who had taken on the role of hastening judgement on a corrupt system by a campaign of assassinations, outright murders and bombings. It gave a week’s ultimatum for the deputy to be sworn in, else they bring the Federal Capital to its knees. The ultimatum elapsed two days back and since, the state had known no peace. Any attempt to fly in a ‘vegetable governor’ would be met with brute force, they further threatened. The governor’s camp in defiance announced he would soon arrive in the country.
Bako didn’t buy it.
Even the Militant Front is a fucking pawn. Can’t you see it K.B? It is too big. Too well funded to save anything. The one percent are the wise ones. The wise ones veil their interests in a just cause. Religious. Moral. Economic. The ninety-nine percent becomes the cause to be saved. The ninety-nine percent is brain dead like the governor. Brain dead pawns.
Karimu parked the car in front of a row of closed shops and crossed the road to a bank’s ATM. He drew down his balance and went back to the car. His head was numb; seesawing images and swinging words twirled with the flow of blood from his pounding heart. He headed for Central Park. He slowed down and turned to the boy as they got near a police checkpoint.
‘Why are you not picking up your calls?’
‘It is them.’ He looked like a cornered goat. Karimu took the phone from him. The ID read ‘Unknown Caller’. He picked the call.
‘Hello.’ The line went dead at the sound of his voice.
‘You have any of them still there who are like you?’
‘Maybe two’, he said with his fingers, after a slight pause. ‘The rest will kill their mothers to go to heaven.’
‘Why are you different?’
He paused. ‘I’m not different. I just don’t want to live if I can’t help my mother’s suffering. Nothing else to live for.’
Karimu got out his ID as they got to the checkpoint. The thought of handing the phone over to the police crossed his mind. He weighed the options. It didn’t ring well. It was a terrible truth but he feared the police more than criminals.
‘Cable Newspaper, just returning from covering the bombed church.’
The policeman scrutinised him with tired eyes. He waved him on.
‘Remove the battery from that phone and give it to me.’ The boy complied. Karimu tossed it into the glove compartment. They expected the phone to have stopped connecting. And the boy, in between virgin breasts, in paradise. Pawns. Brain dead pawns. Mentally defrauded.
We are all a bunch of fraudsters you know. I didn’t become a journalist because I wanted to. I just couldn’t find a better job. I bet your story is no different. The policeman didn’t join the force because he loved pulling guns on criminals. He joined to feed his family. The politician didn’t join politics because he wants to change your life. He joined to change his. She didn’t leave you because she didn’t love you. She left because age was running past her. Why do you think men get married? Selfishness. Simple. So no one else gets this girl they’ve been with and grown to adore They stamp it with convention, so they can run around town chasing other skirts. We all act out our roles; some like you are just poor actors. A simple proposal would’ve saved you this shit. You were waiting for big things. It is always simple. Simple like the … Shut up Bako. Shut up. Just shut up! Okay K.B, I have. For good.
The motor park seemed to be the only place where there was some sort of real life in the whole town. More people were leaving than were coming in.
Karimu put money in the boy’s shaky hands.
‘Take this. You will get the motorbike by month end. Here is my number. And get yourself a new phone.’
‘If they don’t find me to…’
‘They are too busy chasing bigger things.’
‘I don’t know your name.’ The boy said. Karimu told him. ‘And yours?’
He made to turn, Karimu took a hold of his frail shoulders.
‘Wait. Why did you come to me at the church?’
‘What you were wearing.’
A brief pause.
‘I am a Barcelona fan too.’
Karimu looked down at his ex’s blue and claret jersey. He looked back up, the boy was gone.
Born in Oshogbo, Western Nigeria, Bode Asiyanbi was educated at Obafemi Awolowo University and Lancaster University where he holds a masters degree in Creative Writing.
He is a two-time winner of the BBC African Performance Playwriting Prize (2005 and 2011) and the British Council LTF Playwriting Prize (2016 and 2017). He worked with the BBC World Service Trust as a writer on its groundbreaking radio and television drama series, Story Story and Wetin Dey and his radio plays have also been variously broadcast on the BBC World Service. He was for many years, writer and editor for BBC Media Action developmental drama series, Story Story, writer and editor for Save The Children developmental documentary, and presently works with various M-Net African Magic’s comedy and drama series as a writer and story editor.
His short stories have appeared in Munyori Literary Journal, Kalahari Review, Lawino, Wobbled Words Anthology and Per Contra; a journal of arts and literature.
His stage play Shattered was performed at the 2013 British Council Lagos Theatre Festival and his short story, The Diagnosis was a winning entry for the British Council Lagos Theatre Festival 2014. His plays The Wait and One Chance! won the British Council LTF 2016 and 2017 Playwriting Prize, and his poems also featured in the anthology of contemporary African poetry, A Thousand Voices Rising.
He describes himself as ‘a wandering troubadour from a long line of village weavers and palace bards; spinning colored yarns, seeking out lost songs and singing them out from rooftops’.