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African Writing Archives


Ike Okonta


Ike Okonta

Okonta is a writer, scholar and journalist. In 2005, he earned a D.Phil from the University of Oxford where he has also taught. He was shortlisted by the Caine Prize Judges for his story, Tindi in the Land of the Dead. He has published many books and articles. His latest book is When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination (Africa World Press, Trenton, 2008)


 A Way You Will Never Be

She knew the moment he came in that something bad had happened. She waited until he had unslung his bag and dropped it on the sofa then she slipped into his arms. She felt them go round her. Warm, strong and protective as usual. For a moment the thumping stopped and her heart returned to its normal beat. Then she felt his arms drop away and her heart began to thump again.

She waited. He did not say anything. He sat down, the chair creaking as he did so. Music drifted in through the doorway - heavy drums, deep and pulsating, grating raucous voice. From far, far away she thought: Can’t Jobas play his stereo a little less loudly? Then her mind returned to the silence. It was growing bigger, filling up all the spaces in the room. It was suffocating her. It had the feel and texture of a big balloon. She pierced it.

'You are tired.’

He nodded.

'You had a hard day in the office.’

‘Yes, very tiring.’ Then he seemed to break out of his stupor. He tried a smile. His voice became gay, even. 'Is there any of that gin left from yesterday?’

Lora masked the alarm rising in her chest with a smile. 'But you haven’t eaten yet. I have just finished cooking- don’t you want to eat?’

'What is it? My favourite?’

Her laughter was real this time. 'Must we have beans and dodo for supper all the time?’

'Why not? Is there a decree against that?’

'Anyway this is something I know you will like. Do you want to have your bath first?’

'No. Suddenly I can’t wait to taste the food.’ He looked at her and for no apparent reason they burst into laughter together.

She bent down and began to clear the centre table of its odds and ends to make room for the food tray. He looked at the fine hair on the nape of her neck and a warm glow filled his insides. His hand impulsively reached out and caressed her neck. She half-straightened up and kissed him on the lips but wriggled free when his arms encircled her and made to draw her closer still. 'I am hungry even if you are not,’ she laughed.

The pounded yam was fresh and warm from the kitchen and steam was still rising from the bitterleaf soup. A delicious aroma rose from the soup and filled the room. The silence came back as they began to eat. This time they were both acutely conscious of it. Gradually it wedged itself between them like a concrete wall, and feeling utterly helpless, each concentrated on the food.

The silence burgeoned into a monster, threatening to suck the entire room and they with it into its carvenous maw. Desperate, Lora began to hum a flat meaningless tune, Lorag with the lump of food in her hand.

'You are not eating,’ he said.

'Nor are you. Aren’t you hungry? Or don’t you like my food?’

'You know that is not it.’

'Then what is wrong? My husband comes home wearing a long face and yet expects me not to ask any question.’ She had risen to her feet. The peculiar tone he knew so well had crept into her voice.

He said gently, 'Sit down, Lora. Let us not quarrel now.’ He pushed the table away from him and drew her to the chair beside him. He put his arms around her. He pressed her closer; he felt the warmth of her bosom seep into him.

'I lost my job this afternoon.’

He felt her stiffen in his arms. But she did not say anything. Her face was turned away from him. Then he felt her shoulders quivering gently and he knew she had begun to cry. He let her cry, his arms still holding her close.

Lora cried for a long time. Then the tremors subsided and her shoulders stopped shaking. She turned her face to him. The tears were still in her eyes and on her cheeks and he bent down and brushed them away with his lips.

'I’m sorry,’ he said, and she began to cry again.

But this time she fought the tears and after a short while she wiped them away herself and forced a smile.

'I’m sorry,’ he said again.

'How did it happen?’

'The editor called me into his office and said he wouldn’t be needing my services any longer.’

'But he just couldn’t do that! What happened?’

He shrugged. 'He said certain people in the Governor’s office don’t like what I write.’

Her arms tightened around him. 'My poor darling.’

He forced a smile he did not at all feel. 'I’ll pick up something soon. New magazines and newspapers are springing up all over the place.’ But even as he said it he avoided her eyes. Both of them knew it would not be easy.

Lora stood up and began to clear the table. She put back the flower vase and the magazines and took the tray to the backyard to wash up. When she came back he was drinking the last of the gin. The stereo was playing a light Calypso tune.

He began to bob his head along with the music. He offered her a drink from his glass. She shook her head, and tried to fit into the mood with a smile. But the smile did not come and in her desperation she fled into the bedroom. When she returned a little while later he was no longer there. The music was still playing but now there was something sad and mournful about it.


He stood in front of the house for a moment watching Saka the tailor give his dog his evening meal. He fumbled in his trouser pocket for a cigarette. It was crumpled and he straightened it out as best as he could and lit it. He sucked hard at the cigarette, watching its red tip glow in the half-gloom, watching the colourfully dressed young men and women hurrying past him on their way to the red lights of Cole street.

He stepped across the gutter into the street. It was a cold night. He drew hard on the cigarette and felt the smoke burn a warm acrid path through his insides.

People justled past him. He did not see them. He did not see the grey colourless tenements crouching in the gloom on both sides of him either. Naked children, clutching plastic plates were gathered around Mama Igode’s steaming pot. The aroma of cooking beans hung thick in the air. Mama Igode was screaming obscenities at her little daughter who was defecating into the gutter.

He walked on. Dandy Livingstone’s record shop was silent. The shop was shut but the red and purple neons were blinking on and off. He wondered where Dandy Livingstone had gone. And the young men who usually gathered there listening to Michael Jackson records and dreaming about America.

He was about to turn into Papa’s Tavern when he saw something suddenly move in the garbage dump on the corner beside the record shop. He thought it was a dog. Then the object moved again and he saw it was a man. There was something furtive about his movements. He stopped and watched. The man was poking among the debris with a short stick. Then he dropped the stick and began to tug at something, as though it was held down by a heavy object. It gave suddenly and the man staggered backwards. He heard him curse softly as he regained his balance and began to pull off bits from the object, putting them in a plastic bag that was slung round his neck.

Curious, he went nearer. The man, intent on his task, did not notice him. Then his shoe bumped into an empty tin can, sending it clattering into the gutter. The man swivelled round and then froze. For a moment neither spoke. He made to move even nearer and the man screamed and fled into the night, his plastic bag flapping dementedly as he ran.

He walked to the garbage dump and the stench hit him. Then he saw the carcase, now the mangled remains of rotting flesh. Poor dog. He fled from the stench.

He stopped at the malam’s in front of Papa’s Tavern and bought two cigarettes. A tall, dark-complexioned girl was conversing with the man. She stopped speaking and stared at him. He put one cigarette in his shirt pocket and lit the other. The girl was still looking at him. Her lips were a garish pink and she smelt of bubble gum and cheap perfume. The man gave him his change and he walked away, feeling her eyes boring into his back. He wondered what Lora was doing now. He did not think she was still crying. Perhaps she was writing in her diary again. He wondered what it was she always wrote about. He knew he was in it. Oba and Jaja and J.I too. But he had never read the diary. She had made him promise.

Thinking of Lora, he turned back and began to walk home. He liked their street in the evenings. It was the only one in Little Bassa whose street lights still functioned. And they were not too bright like the ones in Yala street before the bulldozers came and pulled down all the shops and houses. Here the street lights were soft and mellow and did not reveal too much of the grey crumbling tenements and the muck in the gutters.

The parlour was in darkness. He put on the lamp on his writing desk and began to read the magazine he had brought from the office. But he could not concentrate on what he was reading. His mind kept wandering. He put the magazine back on the pile and looked at his watch. He went into the bedroom. It was dark but he could make out Lora’s slim figure at the far end of the bed. He knew she was not asleep. He undressed in the dark and climbed in beside her.

For a while none of them spoke. Friday evening noises drifted in from the street. Two dogs barking at each other. Bob Marley singing about prophets and murdered dreams and a drunken voice accompanying him in a high falsetto. A sudden explosion of laughter.

He felt rather than saw Lora turn over. He reached out and drew her to him. The fragrance of her hair filled his nostrils. Her face was a little damp with sweat.

'You are sweating. Do you want me to put on the fan?’

'No. It will soon get cool.'

The silence began to grow between them again. He thought he heard a rat move in the chop box. Then he felt her lips on his cheek. He drew her closer. They remained like that for a while, listening to the drunken man singing the Bob Marley song in his ridiculous voice. He thought the man sounded sad, even elegiac.

She said, 'It was that article, wasn’t it?’

'Yes. The Military Governor didn’t like it.’

'I’m glad you wrote it, though. You are my hero.’

'I just had to write it. I wouldn’t have been able to write anything else ever again.’

'I understand.’

'I will get another job. It won’t be like before.’

'Yes. I’m not afraid. Do you still love me?’

'You know I do.’

'Very much? Like the very beginning?’

'Yes, like the very beginning.’

'That is all that really matters. Our love. It is a very beautiful thing, isn’t it?’

'Yes, the very best.’

'I’m not afraid. We will manage somehow until you get another job. We have our love. Nobody can touch that. Not even the Military Governor. Kiss me again.’

He kissed her.

She sighed softly and rolled over to her side of the bed.


'Goodnight, Darling.’

After a while her breathing became regular. He looked at her. Her face was relaxed in sleep. There was a smile on her lips. He turned over. A mosquito whined past his ear. He heard footsteps in the corridor, then a low giggle. A door banged. He looked at the ceiling. He could not sleep. The drunken man was singing another Bob Marley song, the one about three little birds singing on his door step. The man’s voice was gay and light-hearted now. He listened to him sing for a while, and then for no apparent reason he joined in too, whistling the tune softly under his breath.

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