UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
UCHECHUKWU PETER UMEZURIKE
You wake up like a slug, slow, reluctant. You feel heavy as you lumber to the toilet. You unzip your shorts. Your urine is the colour of tea. Outside, the wind sighs and zinc sheets clatter.
You sag into the armchair, thinking: She can’t turn me into a mess.
Yesterday was Christmas Day. Mirthful voices of your friends still pulse in your head. Now, Julia’s voice chafes your mind as the event plays itself again.
‘I’m losing something,’ Julia had said.
‘What are you talking about?’ you asked.
‘I’m sorry to say this, Mudi. You have to move on without me. Five years, ho? I’ve tried.’
For two nights you’ve tried to explain her abrupt departure. You end up thinking she wouldn’t have left you had you promised to marry her. You did not think about marriage anyway, because you believe she’d always be around for years.
The jangling of a bell outside your window interrupts you. The preacher wearing a stiff goatee, smelly dreadlocks, an ancient robe, a metal cross dangling, clutching his weathered Bible. And always wailing like John the Baptist.
You try to imagine the preacher as a miracle-worker. Hoisting yourself up, you realize you could do with a miracle this minute. You grab the cell phone. You dial her number. It rings, rings. Pacing back and forth, you redial, then place the phone close to your ear. If Julia picks up the phone, you’ll propose to her. At once.
For the first time in your life you feel deflated. You never knew you could miss another person so much it gnaws the heart. Recall the first time you met her, your tongue lolled out. You’ve slept with many a girl. None of them would ever replace the special way she moaned your name Mudd-di, steaming your face with soggy tomato breath whenever the two of you lay in bed. Your room would ring with her tinkling laughs no more.
You aren’t tightfisted by nature: the problem lay with Mama. Her diabetes is eating up most of your earnings. Also, your younger siblings’ school fees. Oh, how crushing it is to live with a measly salary! Can’t even recount the number of times you’ve been tempted to steal in the guest house.
Dial her number once again. Dead silence.
You sigh and flop back into the chair. I should join one of these fast-growing prosperous churches, you think. People get rich these days. Quick connections.
The jangling sound jars you again. You consider flinging the phone through the window at the preacher; instead you plunk it on the table.
And then you think: I’m forty years old, not some weepy kid! I am not going to jump off Third Mainland Bridge for any girl.
You switch on the radio –
‘…your time to shine …!’ a commanding voice booms out.
You cover your ears.
‘This is your year of prosperity. Financial EXPLOSION…’
You reach for the volume knob of the radio, but pause.
‘…say Ex-plo-sion, dear listeners!’
You pronounce the word like it is magical, slow, self-conscious, ‘Explosion.’ And strangely you feel breezy.
You punch the air with a fist. ‘AMEN!’
Moments later, a soft bone-melting music wafts in the room. You can’t help believing the lyrics hold a secret message. You listen, goose bumps breaking out on your arms:
I’m not going to let you go…
The music keeps speaking to you:
I’m not going to let you slip away…
Unconsciously, your lips begin moving:
Don’t you be afraid...
You spin on your heels, feeling energetic. Magic, you think. No, a miracle.
You decide right away to quit your job after the New Year festivities. Bye-bye, my dear university guest house! I’m no longer a greasy cook, you exclaim! You aren’t sure what kind of job you’d take on. Anyway, you feel confident that sadness is over.
Something screams outside. You run straight to the window, the harmattan dust fills your nostrils. You feel warm inside, despite the icy wind pricking your face.
You have been stranded at Ojota once. Then, the commercial drivers embarked on a protest strike against the government over the continual hike in fuel price. You’d watched as humans – dense as bees – plod homewards. That could not compare to the tide of people now overflowing the street.
Two days before, the neighborhood noticed a leaking pipeline. Petrol pooling underneath. Off Shobowale Street. Some black marketers had dug four-feet deep into the earth, tapped into the pipeline, and sped off with generous quantity. They sealed the pipeline rather carelessly.
Men and boys haul large gallons. Women and girls carry small cans – all sagging under the weight of fuel, carting home fortune. Uninhibited.
Your heart thumps, thumps. Your “year of financial explosion” could start at once, you assume. Nine years in the city has finally yielded fruits!
You find yourself…
cruising around your village in a BMW
your mother crying out hallelujah
girls flocking around you like vultures
children running after…
In a flash, you empty the water in your 50-litre-gallon. Outside, you almost bump into the dreadlocked preacher.
‘Sorry,’ you pant.
‘Son, remember,’ he says like a drunk, ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth for man is born unto trouble.’
You tear off.
Young and old nudge one another around the pipeline. Mothers with babies strapped on their backs strain harder to scoop the precious ambre liquid into metal containers. The fumes sting your eyes worse than red pepper. In your mind though, you are busy counting crisp naira notes while Julia hovers behind. Excited, fawning over you.
Your back and knees crackle as you straighten up. You remind yourself that success comes with a price. The fuel-soaked ground shimmers with rainbow patterns. You remember the story of Noah, you grin.
A black nylon bag lies at your feet; you snatch it and wrap it over the mouth of the gallon. Tighten the cap.
You lug your treasure. Squeeze your body between the bonnets of cars nosing one another. Weave your way through the swelling mass. Like a crab. So much elbowing, jostling for space. A policeman darts an envious look, but you are in a jubilant mood. Guess how much you’ll make by the time you’ve filled the remaining gallons at home.
A woman howls out in agony, and a man asks her why she is moving like a millipede. Someone taps you. You turn around and see the sweat-drenched man pointing left.
‘These Okada boys,’ the man gushes. ‘They drive like demons!’
Two boys perch astride behind a motorcyclist; they grip three gallons. They zoom towards the crowd, which parts like the Red Sea.
‘Get off the way, scavengers!’ one of them barks.
‘Maniacs,’ you curse, dropping your gallon and scurrying sideways.
And you glimpse tiny sparks flying off the rear tire of the motorbike. An eerie sensation chills your forearms. Bracing yourself, you heave the gallon onto your head. You wobble. And before you could steady yourself an explosion so powerful lifts you off your feet.
Your head slams against the boot of a car.
You swirl in darkness for a while. Something warm runs down your cheek. Eyes pop open as you smell blood. And behold –
The motorcycle seethes in a fiery orange blaze; the teenagers writhe and yell. Men, women, and children flap about, like beheaded ducks. Bump against one another. The electric lines sputter. Swift clouds of smoke billow up into the morning sky.
You try to rise, but the effort hurts. Finally, you stagger to your feet. Then collapse in a fit of coughing, arms flailing.
As the hungry flames surround you, Julia’s voice rings out, scolding:
‘Don’t move on, darling.’
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike has been published in Underground Voices, Eclectica, Word riot, and Fiction on the Web, etc. He is currently a participant of the 2008 International Writing Program, USA.
© 2004-2009 Underground Voices