One gentle February campaign night in 1999, when the long overdue harmattan still ravaged through the city and all the wells were famished and the mucus on the nose of the children were flakes and their skins were shriveled and white as foreigners and the clatter of teeth were louder than a thousand and one chirping crickets and the streets were lonely and bare, a tentatively godless albino walked into a bar to drown the loss of his lover.
It appeared he came from another drinking establishment because his steps doubled like his eyesight and he tilted thisandthat way as he approached the bar’s entrance. His name was Hakeem.
Hakeem and his lover had been together for so long, known each other so intimately, they had become one person. When the inevitability of their separation came, it was impossible to avoid permanent damage. They each left with different parts of their now uniformed existence. She took all the (good) memories away in their framed photographs leaving Hakeem with partial amnesia – sometimes she came to his mind with sparkling lucidity and other times, hard as he tried, he could barely recollect what she looked like. They both agreed too that she could take all the dreams they had together and leave him with the nightmares. But it was the years and time they shared they couldn’t split evenly. She already had the framed mementos that were their past and she inevitably left with the future, or in more romantic words, what could have been. Hakeem remained trapped, alone and confused in that temporal limbo; a present he could neither link to a future nor solidify with a past.
Soon it spread to other aspects of his life; sometimes he was unable to remember how he found himself in a place or what he came there to do. It was in this state he visited a bar to help suppress his grief and, forgetting he was already drunk and hearing whispers of another more infamous bar, he proceeded to Small London.
Small London, as the bar was ambitiously named was home to damaged characters; rapists, drug peddlers, corrupt souls, djinns, crying gnomes, and heartbroken lovers. It was a place where everyone with a fouled heart could gather with almost no prosecution. It used to be the main branch to a bigger, more prosperous bar called London until it demanded independence. As London got more successful with the world, and Small London became its own dictator, it became largely forgotten because it was in the slums and nobody of real value visited this slum of the world except for tawdry philanthropy. But Small London doggedly thrived and quickly became the prominent bar in the slum. It is said that you never leave Small London intact, you could lose your money, your dignity, or your life. But you only lose your life if you are albino and can be used for ritual.
The moonlight flooded in with Hakeem, mixing with the bar’s dim lighting and casting a new colourless hue. The cold harmattan wind gusted into the bar but it drew not one pair of eyes to the new visitor. For example, the Assassin – who everyone knew always laughed whenever he ejaculated – still had his penis stroked under the table in one corner by the pretty prostitute in his laps and didn’t look up; the pack of gamblers in another corner carried on with their gambling unperturbed; two men still fought in the middle of the bar with the small crowd surrounding them cheering the short muscular fighter for the win; the raucous underage boys pretending to be men, drinking and smoking, still called for more bottles even though the ones before them remained half-empty; and in the quietest corner of the bar sat one old man with more bottles before him than everyone combined.
It was to this old man’s table that Hakeem went. Perhaps the sheer number of bottles before the old man made Hakeem think he too must have some affliction he needed alcohol to cure, a sorrow so great it couldn’t be buried anywhere on land but must be drowned in the sea of alcohol, or it could be because the old man’s seat was closest to the entrance.
There is always a simple answer the universe gives to everything. It was fate – one of those supernatural elements of existence Hakeem was suspicious of – that brought him to the old man’s table. How else do we explain that the old man whose grey hair was unkempt and torn in places, whose ears reminded Hakeem of the soft curve of a question mark, whose clothes were tattered, whose hands were wrinkled as a brain and who could barely stand; had the money to buy all the beer before him – it numbered hundreds! And how else could he have: found himself directly beside the entrance on the day Hakeem chose to visit?
As Hakeem sat on uninvited at the old man’s table, Old man made a joke; “The past, the present and the future walked into a bar… it was tense.”
…Then that usual pause that follows a joke, determining whether the listener will laugh or say ehn? Idontgetit! Explainit!
Hakeem got the joke but found it unfunny. But out of courtesy – because in a drunken state, every man doubles either his respect or rudeness; and curiously, Hakeem who spat in the face of his lover when she said ‘the blind fool that says there is no God merely hasn’t found a subjective definition’, who cut all ties with his mother till she died because he felt she ruined his childhood; out of courtesy alone- Hakeem submitted a peal of hearty laughter.
The people who visited the bar respected the old man. It was them who contributed the numerous drinks to his table in deference. They considered him wise mostly because he never spoke to anyone and silence they say, is a profound form of wisdom. But as fate was the chief custodian of this night’s affair, the Old Man spoke (again) to Hakeem: ‘This is not a safe place for someone wearing your skin.’
It was as if by speaking of the potentiality of an attack on his person, the Old man made his albinism obvious. Knives unsheathed, bottles broke, the djinns in the green walls of the bar howled, the gnomes with their shredded mats wailed but Hakeem did not turn to respect the ruckus, for the feeling of being watched is nothing new to an albino. His mother had always told him he was only worthy enough for a ritual. The blood of albinos is believed to be the last special alchemy ingredient to make gold. Some say if their hair is burnt and applied as an eyeliner, it would grant the ability to see into the future. And our people say they can be used for money ritual too. The presence of one in a place like Small London to the customers, could only be nothing but ‘fateful’.
The old man rose to his feet and turned his face thisandthat way, glaring across the bar. A moment’s pause as if he was preparing to speak. Then sirens blared and a tear gas canister broke into the bar. A military raid was no new thing to Small London and the occupants had begun to disperse the moment they heard the sirens.
Jabs and shoves fell upon Hakeem until a strong grip came upon him. He felt it was the Assassin taking him away or any other person in the bar who wanted his blood. He was dragged across the floor amidst gunshots and military orders until he was tossed out through the back. When the smoke cleared from his eyes, he found the old man relieving him of his valuables.
The backdoor swung open pouring angry soldiers out. The Old man tried to make an exit but he was quickly gunned down. As always, Hakeem felt eyes on him and he turned from the Old man to find guns trained on him. It was the second shot that caught him in the hip as he ran into the bush behind Small London. Another shot rang as the soldiers pursued him deeper inside the bush.
He soon outran (in spite of his bleeding hip) the soldiers and found a tree to rest underneath. Here he tied up his wound to reduce the bleeding. When he looked back the way he came, he couldn’t find the clearing anymore. He walked around the path frightened and tried to beat a way through the bush but it refused to yield and when he got tired, he sat by the tree.
Hakeem walked for hours in the bush, accompanied only by the susurrus of the wind. Usually, his gait was straight as an exclamation mark but events of the night had curved his shoulders into brackets and his fingers were curled into long tired commas. His eyes drooped into a permanent squint and his voice had become hoarse from calling for help. His mouth was dry and the loss of blood had begun to make him dizzy. He saw a man in the field clearing a spot and he asked him for directions. The man only pointed down the uncleared path Hakeem was on. The man refused to respond to his other questions. Hakeem saw too, his mother sitting on a mound, still as the surface of the water, smiling with the cautiousness of an adult with missing teeth. Then he suddenly found his lover beside him. She said nothing but kept at his side. He found many dead trees with mounds identical to the one he found his mother seated on but he didn’t take rest because he was afraid she would suddenly appear beside him and he didn’t want her and his lover to meet in such ghostly silence. He walked for miles, still losing blood and his whole body continued to punctuate into such new fatigue that made him feel old.
The sun was up before he found a way out of the bush. His eyes had shut and become so even they could pass for slits. The harmattan wind made his breath shallow and all the blood on his hip had curdled. The roads were already busy; schoolchildren ran back and forth like daredevils, calculating the speed of the oncoming vehicles and sauntering across just in time not to get hit. The vehicles looked sleeker and faster than he was used to. There were campaign posters everywhere but the candidates were new and unknown to him. The year on the posters was 2019. It only muddled it up more and he cursed his lover again for his memory woes.
Hakeem hurried to Small London and found two young lovers by its window, giggling and smiling. They ran off when they saw him approaching. Small London had become covered with so many campaign posters he could barely see its name at the top. The wall had been repainted green, and the door between the walls was painted white.
He entered the bar with a smart pain to the hip, a parch in his throat and a sudden apprehension of his heart. Nothing about the affairs of the people in the bar changed except a few things. The paint on the interior walls had become silenced by age. Now, it was a man stroking the penis of the Assassin. The same set of people, djinns, gnomes, were around the makeshift boxing ring but in the soft morning light, he noticed the fighters were of different tribes. The calendars on the wall read visibly, 2019.
The old man was not in his chair, or anywhere in the bar. The chair opposite the old man’s seat was no longer there. Hakeem decided to wait because he had no memory of where to go. He would have asked those in the bar for the Old man but they all looked so menacing.
So Hakeem sat and soon he took the attribute of his mother in the bush and wore a silence so thick he was said by some to be voiceless. He spoke only to ask for a bottle of beer. He sat still for so long sometimes they thought he was dying or dead and moved to harvest his eyelids or his body parts then he’d move to ward them off. It was in this waiting that he found a definition for his temporal crisis. Cocooned in Small London, the concept of time no longer bothered him.
Years went by and he remained seated, his hair turned grey to match his wrinkled face. The world outside Small London progressed and even some of the other bars became modernised. Only a few changes came upon the establishment; a new coat of paint on the cracks, a neon light bearing the bar’s name at the front; new brands of beer but nothing changed inside the bar. No new customer visited for years and years. Hakeem, the people in the bar and their ways became pathetic anachronisms conjuring new amusements every day and night to soothe their stagnancy.
A man walks into the bar and never came out. It went this way with Hakeem remaining the punchline of a cliched bar joke until one harmattan night during elections when the door swung open and a gust of wind came in with a young man.
Olamide Àdìó Olanrewaju is a student at the University of Ibadan. His works have been published on Kalaharireviews, africanwriter, afasreview and elsewhere. He made the longlist for babishainiwe in 2018. He is a strong advocate for the supremacy of fried plantain.