Ayodele Arigbabu


The time warp occurred at exactly 12 noon. It was perfect timing. A labour strike in protest against fuel price increase had just been called off. Lagos was trying to find its feet. Three different convoys with ‘about to wed’ covering the number plates of their lead cars sped past me while I awaited my bus. I wondered why people were so desperate to get married on that particular Saturday; like the world was ending the next day and nobody wanted to be caught single. If I had honoured another invitation, the one I left behind on my desk, I would have been at a friend’s wedding myself, rather than standing pointlessly at Obalende waiting for a bus that would never come. For some of us, there are better ways to spend a Saturday than sweating out at nuptials in your best outfit.

          Obalende stank. Even Ben Okri had to call it a cesspit. A dark cauldron of a canal ran under the tangled web of bridges and relentlessly emitted a witch’s brew of foul smells. My compatriots seemed to share none of my sensibilities though. Bank workers, students, area boys, lawyers, cops and robbers…they all milled around in their out-of-uniform Saturday attires, sloshing through the black mire (an impressive amalgam of mud, urine, diesel, corn cobs, ice-cream wrappers, engine oil, and snot); dodging hawkers, motorcycles and street thugs. They danced to Obalende’s pulse without giving a thought to the absurd twists and beats of its rhythm.

          Obalende! Oh, Obalende! I luxuriated in its lewd poetry just long enough to gather my wits and plot my journey. The effects of the fuel strike were yet to clear and continuing the wait for a bus might just end up surpassing Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ in sheer drama. With the bizarre set and cast provided by Obalende, such great drama was always to be expected. However, I had a book launch to attend. I made for the taxi stand where for a little extra fare; I could share a ride with a few others to Ikoyi. Little did I know that ‘the greatest drama ever’, even at sleazy Obalende, awaited me yet.

          It was an old Datsun. Note the two words ‘old’ and ‘Datsun’. In 2004, when an automobile is qualified as such, it has been effectively classified as a relic. Even the way it stood parked at the head of the taxi queue spoke of certain panache, of unabashed self-awareness. I chuckled, but then had to stop myself from gagging when I saw the driver. A plump little fellow in a cream jacket with large pointed lapels like those seen on Soul Train music stars of the 80s; he had on a severe brown beret, pressed down in a brave attempt to ram his bushy hair into place. Add to that bushy eyebrows and moustache and you’ve almost got the full picture. But the greatest sight of all was the purple bow-tie he sported. My jaw fairly dropped to the ground at my first sighting of this quaint apparition. He was in the middle of an argument with a kola nut chewing elderly man who was resolutely seated in the front seat. There was only one other passenger in the back seat, another old timer. As I moved closer, a fourth passenger wearing head phones and holding a walk-man in his left hand, approached the vehicle and then, at that self-same instant, an anomaly took place. Four phones beeped together in fairly quick succession. At that instant, we all froze and looked at one another quizzically…myself, the old fellow in the front seat, the one in the back seat and the young chap with the head phones who had just joined me at the door; all of us save the retro-driver who looked on with some sort of bemusement as we proceeded to grapple with our clothing to fish out our different mobile phones. The two old timers in the Datsun shrugged in unison as they stared blankly into their phones’ screens.

          “Na so-so flash-flash….na so-so unknown number” grunted the young chap with the head phones as he returned his phone to his pocket. The time was 12 noon. My own phone had also recorded a missed call from an ‘unknown number’. International calls usually read as ‘unknown numbers’. I did not know what to make of it, but as I looked up, I knew something monumental was in the offing. For exactly three seconds, the whole environment took on a monochrome tinge. Faded brown, like the ancient photos of Lagos in the 50’s I once saw at an exhibition… an old black and white print turned brown. I cannot be sure if the others felt it, but it had all the elements of a time warp as a Hollywood sci-fi movie might have depicted it. We exchanged glances and then the driver broke the trance.
          “Ikoyi? Are you going? Fifty Naira!”
I scrambled quickly into the back seat, followed by my mate with the head phones.
The driver still continued calling for passengers.
          “Ikoyi! Ikoyi!”
          The old man in the front seat grunted, “Where you wan put am?”, irritably, as he chewed on his kola nut. The driver was unfazed.
          “Listen to me old man; I told you, I always carry two passengers in the front seat. If you don’t like it, you can vex and go and buy your own car. This is my taxi. I will use it as I please.”
          Their old argument was resumed. The driver would not shift ground. At a point, he told the old man point blank to stop spraying him all over with spit. Not even the old man’s threat of spraying him with a curse instead (spiced with the potency of the kola nuts he had been chewing, I presume!) in response to the insult seemed to work. Soon the other old man at the back joined in to register his own absolute disapproval of the retro driver’s utter disregard for old age. The retrodriver looked from one old timer to the other. Like most trouble makers, all he needed was a decent opportunity to back down without seeming to lose face; he started his engine and hissed at them both dramatically.
          “Na una old people dey spoil Nigeria.” Naturally, another argument sprang forth.
          “What do you mean? Is it old people like us that engage in 419 and armed robbery? Look at you, typical young Nigerian, you want to get rich quick so bad you are ready to beat up somebody your father’s age; yet you say its old people that are ruining the country.”
          “Is it not your generation that destroyed my own generation and made us like that? You people destroyed our inheritance with your avarice…till today who rules Nigeria? It’s still you folks, and after so many decades, what do you have to show…No, you will never admit your own failings, rather when the next credit card scam artist is uncovered in New York or when the next girl is deported from Italy’s brothels…you scream blue murder…our youth lack morals! Hey who taught them all they know and who failed to teach them all that they don’t know? Who I ask you?”
          The driver looked back over his shoulder as he said this, his eyes bulging out of their sockets with the intensity of his passion. I nodded my head vigorously lest he felt I had any intentions of countering his views. Privately, I wondered if he considered me to be in that same ‘wronged’ generation of his, definitely the young gun with the head phones beside me would have agreed with me that our driver could easily fall into the same generation as the two men he was arguing with. The young guy was not interested in any of that, his head bobbed continuously like a metronome to whatever beat was pumping into his ears while his eyes fed on the goings on outside the taxi. Perhaps even his was a different generation from mine. The old men were not finished though. The one by my side addressed me with the air of one dishing out really good advice.
          “This is what happens when people refuse to take home training. You can imagine his type dropping out of school without his parents’ knowledge…not till they catch him at the motor park smoking hemp…” Our driver literally exploded.
          “What? I Peter Nwokedi? A hemp-smoking school drop-out?
You are quite far from the mark sir, even if I have to say that myself.”

          The Datsun has moved not more than three feet from its original position. The discourse is engaging to say the least. He looks over his shoulder, grabbing the head rest of his seat with one hand in his enthusiasm as he continues. I struggle to keep a straight face as he directs his speech at me though by all indications, it’s intended for the old man beside me. “I Peter Nwokedi, with my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from University of Nigeria and a Masters in Systems Engineering from the University of Lagos and a PhD in view from Oklahoma University? You do not know what good fortune you have met in boarding my taxi. I assure you, before your eyes is Nigeria’s next Nobel laureate.”
          The two geriatrics exchange incredulous looks and chuckle knowingly. Our driver does not take this condescension lightly; he looks from one to the other.
          “You do not believe me ehn? Ah….But I do not blame you. I do not throw my pearls before swine.”
          He put the Datsun in gear but only manages to move it another inch before the chuckling of the old men gets to him again. He stops jerkily and engages the arm brake, rummaging furiously in the glove box.
          “What is wrong with you people? What do you know? I have published eight books,…eight! Here, see…my ‘Redox Analysis Theory’…this book got Gabriel Oyimbo thinking…a whole Gabriel Oyimbo, but simpletons like you can’t know him. He has been nominated over and over again for the Nobel prize in physics…and yes, he is a Nigerian. He sent me a mail after reading my book. His words: ‘Your deeply insightful treatise scares me; its implications are profoundly disturbing’. Ah, imagine that! The man who resolved the Grand Unification Theory finds my work profound, a bit too heavy for his guts! I assure you my RAT will change the way the world works. Already I have scheduled a meeting with the president for next week to advise him on how best to…”
          “Oh, make we dey go now! We go sleep for here?”
          That was from the fellow with the head phones, he takes them off just long enough to register his displeasure. He scowls deeply at Peter Nwokedi, who drops the book in my lap in a hurry and progresses to move the car out of the park. As we ease into the slow-moving line of buses with their conductors wailing loudly for passengers, I give the book a cursory look over, intrigued by the idea of the quaint driver actually publishing a book. Peter Nwokedi soon resumes his tirade.
          “If you go to page 156, you will see how I was able to tap into the
Yoruba world view to borrow from time tested methods that have worked for astrophysics, medieval medicine and paranormal analysis….Do you know that the Ifa corpus operates on a far more sophisticated base than the modern computer? You see…now, if you just go to page 184, you will see where I have been able to link all that with the way modern science and technology can be harnessed afresh to recreate the world….”
          “Ah-ahn…Mr. Professor, if you are so good, why are you not in the
University? Why are you driving a kabu-kabu at Obalende?”
          That from his old adversary in the front seat, the chuckling resumes between the two old men, they are enjoying themselves immensely. I look up from trying desperately to get through the contorted language in Peter Nwokedi’s ‘Redox Analysis Theory”. I know he will direct his response to this new slight at me, for I have been appropriated as being of his ‘generation’ and thus of enough intelligence to engage his attention.
          “I do not need a University position to progress my research, besides I am out on field work…you see as a progression from my work with RAT, I have gone on to implement a live project for all ‘ doubting Thomases’. No long waiting period for me while an evil horde of academic dumb heads paws over my books and publications for authenticity. That is why my meeting with the president is so important…you see, I have developed a Miniature Plasma Drive….”
          “Plasma drive?”
          That got me. I finally gathered sufficient courage to express my doubts. Before I could catch myself, I was taking him up on his extraordinary tale.
          “But yes, the MPD takes the best of nano-technology and takes some aspects of RAT that can be applied to fluid mechanics and thermo dynamics…then; I Peter Nwokedi single-handedly developed an AntiGravitational Field Box which I have been able to synchronize with the
          “Where did you do all these?…I mean, can I see…”
          “But yes! I have converted my living room into a workshop, and my kitchen serves as an advanced systems laboratory. In fact, my greatest accomplishment is right here! I can give you a demonstration right away.”
          “I don’t quite get it.”
          Peter Nwokedi looked back at me and gave what could have qualified as a cute smile. We had pulled out of the danfo bus-induced go slow and were picking up speed as we approached one of the arteries of the bridge network. Peter Nwokedi’s teeth gleamed eerily as he shifted gears and took the bridge at a speed that felt strange for the aged Datsun.

I actually had an irrational fear that this odd apparition of a taxi driver might be nothing but an alien sent to collect a small sample of humans, old and young Nigerians, and he was heading back for a rendezvous with the mother ship. What with the odd way in which the phones beeped just as I approached the taxi at the park, like a signal of some kind — his words were so outrageous, only an outrageous explanation could fit. As if he read my mind, Peter Nwokedi looked back again and said reassuringly.
          “Don’t worry, it’s the first time I will test it with everything coupled together like this, but my calculations are impeccable and my preliminary tests have all been perfect. My plan was to do this at night, but as these old men remain in doubt as to my capabilities, I have been pushed to hasten the plan.”
          The old men were less concerned, the fellow with the head phones had resumed nodding his head; he proved to have little to say as long as we were moving. As a repartee, the old adversary up front threw in an admonition.
          “Just watch the road and reduce your speed, if you kill yourself now, who will win that prize?”
          At 150kph, my fears were confirmed. Tearing up the incline of the bridge with its old engine screaming for mercy, the Datsun shuddered violently like an old man trying to shake off an evil premonition. Peter Nwokedi was unperturbed; he remained crouched defiantly over the steering wheel, pressing his foot further on the throttle. I remember the old man in front scream, a piece of kola nut falling out of his mouth as the Datsun flew off the bridge. My companion to the left stiffened suddenly. The fellow with the head phones had his eyes popping out. Peter Nwokedi was unperturbed still. He turned back and gave me a huge grin as he punched a peculiar sequence on a console of buttons I never knew existed on the dash board.
          “I told you…I’m the greatest!”
          The Datsun gave one last shudder and then settled to a smooth rhythm for a moment. Peter Nwokedi punched one last button and there was an amazing thrust of power from the engine as we shot off sky wards all of a sudden. Somehow, I knew a plasma drive had been activated. I took one last glance earthwards as the windows began to take on a grey tint to counter the solar glare. I saw the mad sprawl of Obalende, locked in its tangled web of bridges for what I knew would be the last time. I heard Peter Nwokedi faintly over the building pressure in my eardrums even though I knew he must have been screaming.
          “Hang on tight!”
          And we his privileged passengers? We were as silent as ancient Egyptian mummies, trapped with their stories in unyielding funeral chambers, as Peter Nwokedi’s ungainly shuttle hurtled towards the sun…pathetic relics to another lost world.

© Ayodele Arigbabu, first published in A Fistful of Tales (Lagos, Nigeria: Dada Books, 2009).

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