World Exclusive: Extract and Cover reveal of Wole Soyinka’s forthcoming novel- Chronicles of the happiest people on Earth.
Let this cup pass….
It had been a long siege, aided by many of whom the hostage himself had scant or no knowledge but, finally, yes indeed, it was sweet victory to be savoured by the long embattled spouse, Mrs Jaiyesola Badetona. This was the icing on the cake of victory that had already been celebrated in multiple events, all framed devotionally – even down to the sumptuous feasting and souvenirs, grateful offerings by a spouse for a most unexpected upturn in the career of her life partner. That hitherto intransigent spouse, scion of a royal house, had eventually succumbed to her entreaties – and not even grudgingly. On the appointed day, he would observe every schooled detail of his ransom, and with precision. He consented to visit the Apostle, Papa Davina for a spiritual consultation.
Prince Badetona’s elevation, on his own estimation, had been no less than seismic. Thus he had not hesitated to slaughter the fatted cow – he did pride himself after all as a traditionalist, nothing to do with being a scion of a royal house – so, sacrifice was expected, and he was not averse to spreading the fat among friends, colleagues and well-wishers. In any case, he could not fail to have been infected by years of association with the Master Party Soul of his close circle – Duyole Pitan-Payne, engineer and acknowledged leader of their eccentric Gong of Four – but that blithe spirit was in a class all of his own. The prince even conceded a Thanksgiving service – it rid the home of a lingering tension between husband and wife. That feeling of domestic persecution however was product of a series of mishaps, strange happenings over and beyond the elastic limits of coincidence, and of such persistence that even he began to lose confidence and permit chinks in his cynic’s carapace. To make matters worse, such untoward incidents had followed the good news almost like a structured cause-and-effect, commencing so close to his career elevation that he did begin to wonder if there was not indeed a maleficent linkage. Good luck attracting bad, either through some quirky law of Nature’s balance, call it karma, ying-yang or whatever, or simply – as promptly concluded by his wife and extended family – enemy action!
Have you sought divine intercession? At the beginning, he lived up to his name – The Scoffer. He preferred to knuckle down to preparations for the assignment at hand and his new status in life. Money he was prepared to spend for celebrations but balked at the idea of submitting himself to divine busybodies in his earthly failures, successes, both, or absence of any. After all, he had succeeded in keeping divinities at arms’ length throughout a humdrum career – in his view, more accurately described as – lack of spectacular recognition. He preferred it that way. It enabled him to indulge in his favourite hobby, which was simply – problem solving, especial of the statistical kind. He had been, and still remained a reticent mathematical genius. That had its compensations, its material perks. An internal auditor but – with unaudited earnings. He saw no reason to complain or jubilate. It was all – strictly business and, Badetona was genuinely possessed of a retiring temperament. Left to him, he would even have discarded his princely title but, that was now part of his existence, and it also had its advantages.
Jaiyesola however saw it differently. The position lacked public recognition. A prince without a throne – it would not be the turn of his royal line for another century. And then, despite the streak of genius that he had exhibited all the way from schooldays and into public service, in her own parlance – nothing to show for it. She looked at his close circle of associates, some of them members of the prestigious Motor Boat Club of Ikoyi, or the Lagos Island Indigenes Club, Freemasons and Rosicrucians, and felt that Badetona was short-changed in social entitlements. The title of Internal Auditor sounded in her ears like a life sentence in solitary confinement on a diet of garri and water. So she took her case to God, albeit without her husband’s knowledge. Who was to tell her that it was not a wife’s duty to boost her spouse to greater heights?
Then commenced a series of omens. Prayers answered, and in such generous helping, Badetona began to encounter a flurry of mishaps that moved, in her view, beyond mere coincidence. First, his customised computer crashed. That was unprecedented. Next, he stubbed his toe against a protruding table leg – the left toe! – it was one of those ultra- modernistic designs that catered more to sensation than sense. Was it a coincidence that she had terrible dreams that same night? It did not take too long afterwards before the newly appointed Chief Executive Director locked himself out of doors, having left his key wallet in the office. Jaiyeola had also traveled for her Christian pilgrimage, undertaken two weeks after her return from accompanying her Moslem friend to Saudi Arabia for the lesser Hajj – both were followers of the ministry of Papa Davina’s Ekumenika. His phone battery also chose that night to run down – ah yes, the long-distance call from Jaiye in Hebron, with a protracted argument on why she should not fill her suitcase with holy water from River Jordan where her spiritual journey had next directed her feet.
The Scoffer slept that night on the back seat of his SUV, locked in the garage. He had returned late from yet another party in his honour, and his mildly groggy condition – he was a moderate drinker – wasted no time in sending him off to sleep. Opening the garage door for some fresh air the following morning, he heard a scrabbling in the top jamb of the door. Before he could look up to investigate, a scaly creature dropped, landed on the balding middle patch of his head, its thin claws instantly trapped in the surrounding tufts of foliage. Bade’s first thought was – snake! Next, scorpion. He leapt out under imminent heart failure, uncertain how to deal with what he could not see, collided with the housemaid who was just reporting for duty. She took to her heels screaming for help against the intruder before she realised who it was. The mystery squatter seized on the confusion to escape, thus finally identified for what it was – a lizard. The maid would later narrate ‘the scariest moment of my life’ to Mrs Badetona on her return from pilgrimage. Confronted with her report, Bade roared with delight and added it to her list of portents. His last contribution, a mere week earlier, was the black cat he had found sitting on his car bonnet as he stepped out of the supermarket. He relished the rapidly changing registers on her face, especially when he went into details over the one-sided confrontation. The cat refused to budge even after he had started his car and begun to inch forward – my dear, that cat, I swear, kept staring at me through the windscreen as if to complain she had been looking forward to the ride. I had to stop and engage the security guard to help shove it off, so I could drive off.
Were all these little more than an occult build-up towards the piece de resistance that was yet to come? That momentous day considerately awaited his wife’s return from pilgrimage, so that news reached her within minutes of the occurrence. In Badetona’s own words – this one shook me to my binary heels! While Jaiyeola rubbed her hands heavenwards on receiving the news, giving further thanks that she had indeed made that year’s pilgrimage a dual purpose voyage of devotion – Thanksgiving and Protection – the prince found himself compelled to admit that something appeared to have gone loose since his elevation. All the euphoria of advancement evaporated with the horror that unfolded at the bus stop along Ikorodu Road, just before the Maryland overpass. And he had been caught within that event only because he, recently moved from a humdrum desk to head a brand new glamorous parastatal, Chief Executive Director on the rare Level 17 etc. etc. – known nation-wide as the Super Permanent Secretary scale – had chosen to queue at that bus stop like any common worker, awaiting a ride to his housing estate. He could have phoned a taxi company or flagged down one of the ubiquitous keke napep, the Indian import tricycle taxi. He opted instead for the commuter. Badetona, one of the most ‘live and let live’, self-adjusting humans one could hope to encounter in a field of reversals, felt tickled by the notion of himself, a prince and super-sec, doing a little slumming, mixing with local, yet distanced commuters whom he normally viewed through the tinted windows of his air-conditioned, albeit battered SUV. Never in his life could he have envisaged the consequence of that crackpot decision as he stood in line. For once, the hardened Scoffer was forced to revise his calculations on the law of probabilities.
Badetona followed a pragmatic mode of existence that left him very much attached to his ancient, creaky but still serviceable SUV. A mere two days after his wife’s return from Saudi – he lost that argument, her excess luggage bulged with outsize sachets of certified holy water from the River Jordan, plus other objects of veneration from the tourist arc of holy sites – his long-suffering vehicle broke down along Ikorodu Road just before the turn-off for Gbagada heading for Oworonsoki. It took the form of a multilayered, cracked china rattle that he had never heard before, as if a box of domestic discards was being sorted for a jumble sale. He sighed, irritated that this should happen on a day when he happened to be at the wheel himself, having granted his driver a three day leave of absence to travel out to a village for the prelude ceremonies to a betrothal. His driver was taking a brand new wife.
Bade manhandled the car into the slip road – fortunately traffic was light. The loafing area boys emerged from nowhere, as usual, to lend a hand. His mind turned, by long habit, to predicting how his wife would read this new interruption in routine and he smiled at the cleverness of a response that was already under formulation – well now, you’ve just returned from Jerusalem with a full bag of good luck pouches, talismans and reliquaries. You received predictions and prescriptions from the Senegalese marabout who scalped you and and your Moslem friend in Saudi for nearly half your shopping budget. How come there was no prediction of the impending crack-up of my vehicle engine. Definitely first round to him! And he was prepared for her retort – why should it take a marabout to repeat what I’ve been shouting all these years? Abandon that junk heap and get something befitting your position! That was the moment he would deliver his coup de grace. Before she could enjoy the vindicated smirk of a long enduring wife, he would slam his hand on his thigh and silence her with his welcome surprise: ‘Quite right dear – let’s go. I was only awaiting your return to help me choose our new car. Ready? Too bad the new status vehicle decided not to wait. Worse, what followed totally wiped out any carefully rehearsed banter, witty repartees and silly teases, all ingredients to a married life that did not lack for genuine bonding and affection. Bade truthfully regarded himself a lucky husband.
It did not take long for an itinerant mechanic to appear – this tribe seemed to know just when disaster struck – or perhaps they operated a roving network, an urbanised bush telegraph. As always, they beat the state’s tow truck to the involuntary traffic obstruction. A quick inspection, and the expert confirmed what he had already sensed – the engine was ‘knocked’, the affliction terminal. The private enterprise locally constructed tow truck was already in place, even before the professional verdict was delivered. Bade emptied the car of his brief-case and other contents, surrendered the car keys, crossed the road to the sleek bus stop, one of a series of implants whose sprouting had begun visibly to lift the body tone and morale of daily commuters. He took his place at the end of the queue, silently relishing his brief, voluntary demotion in social status.
His sigh exuded relief that this was the last week in his old office. He was in a relaxed, all-accommodative frame of mind when an event played out right in front of him, one that knocked out all mental rehearsals for a domestic playful interlude from the compulsive operations of his statistical mind. As he settled into position at the tail-end of that long queue, a man came up with a flattish object under his armpit, muttered an ‘Excuse me’ but also simultaneously shoved him aside. He whipped off the brown paper wrapping, and out flashed a machete. Badetona heard him utter a violent curse in some unfamiliar language, he heard a swish, and with that single stroke, lopped off the man’s head. The head fell against the reinforced plastic rain-guard that curved half-way from the roof of the bus shelter. It bounced off the ground, while the trunk sprayed him, as it fell, in a red, thick, viscous fluid, just like an errant lawn sprinkler. Ignoring the pandemonium that ensued, the assailant fastidiously wiped the machete on the clothing of the prostrate trunk, calmly restored it to its improvised paper scabbard. A car drew up, again as if on a signal, the rear door flew open. In what some transfixed witnesses experienced as a coordinated slow and accelerated motion all at the same time – the vehicle swallowed the killer and zoomed off weaving sleekly through the Ikorodu road traffic, heading east towards the town of that name.
A few moments for the prince to absorb what he had just witnessed and then, without further thought, he shook off his paralysis like the other commuters, took irrationally to his heels, stopping only when he had rounded the first corner and felt safe from the immediate rampage of indiscriminate head cropping which, all involuntary witnesses felt certain, would logically follow. Such a blatant flash of lunacy did not seem destined to be a one-off act. Even those who had no idea what had happened did not wait to be enlightened – the screams carried their own unambiguous message – run! They galvanised even the slow-witted into one concerted response – follow the trail of panic wherever it led, with a few variations to throw off the contaminating scent of blood. Badetona launched his limbs full stretch, heading for nowhere, everywhere, simply as far as his reasonably athletic legs could take him – he was an irregular weekend jogger, and never was the statesponsored jog-for-your-life campaign, and in accelerated tempo, more patriotically vindicated. He stopped only at the entry of the new supermarket just after Charley Boy’s domain, stopped to look back for only the second time that morning. Still unsure of what he should do, he ran inside, vaulted the exit turnstile and disappeared into a room whose half open door was marked: STAFF ONLY.
He inhaled, exhaled, and inhaled to some inner dictated rhythm. Safely ensconced in the safety of his home that evening, the event shared in all blood-soaked detail through a still shaky voice, wife and neighbours in attendance, the conclusion was inevitable, based on the unanswerable question: Why you? Ask yourself, why you? Of all the millions of people in Lagos, why you? Why did you have to be the one standing behind that victim, a total stranger! Normally you would be with your driver – how come you happen to be driving yourself today of all days? Why did you decide to take a bus when you could afford a taxi? What brought you there, at that very moment of his decapitation – you think it simply happened to happen? It was plain reading. The untoward had become too frequent of recent. All voices counseled a visit to the healing ministries – any one would do – but the clamour was near uniformly for – Apostle Davina. When Jaiyeola summoned the maid to recount to sympathising visitors – for the tenth time at least – the lizard episode, all alternative or oppositional theories crumbled, the sequential logic was unanswerable. The garage lizard! It had landed on his princely head. A head had been cut off in front of him. Whose head did he think was primed to follow? No, no, no, did he have to be so literal? No one was suggesting it was a sign that he would also lose his head but, definitely, someone was after his, Bade’s head, in some form or the other. That was the message. If he failed to see that, to understand the generous warnings of Providence, it was pride, false pride, and what do they say goeth before a fall? Pride. And who was the proud one? Answer: the stiff-necked Scoffer.
If there had been an invasion of clan and long forgotten family branches after his promotion, news of his ‘narrow escape’ unleashed even more powerful waves of prayer counter-attacks. The palace sent a delegation, headed by a babalawo. Long forgotten relations who had recently surfaced to share in the bounty of service elevation returned in force, and they came with a supplementary canticle: it happened because you failed to see the divine intervention in your life! Worse still, how do you know there isn’t an even more glorious future ahead, one that however requires you to do this or that to consolidate your present preferment? There are deadlines in these matters. You miss the deadline and everything is reversed – it’s downward from then on. Only a few among the blessed few can pierce through the mystic veil and reveal all this to you. If Badetona’s nerves had been shattered by the event itself, instigating nightmares that terrified his wife, then moved to infect her to a degree that even she began to have them in her own right, the swarms of intercessors soon completed the rout. Could there possibly be something in what they preached? Reconsiderations of allied experiences that he once instinctively waved off as comic incidents, began to nibble at the edges of cause-and-effect, or worse – chain reaction.
And there was something else that even the wife did not know – the chickens were coming home to roost. Behind the calm, reassuring façade, Badetona was a much troubled man. Vague hints of storms ahead had accumulated lately, and these were not psychic storms. His pragmatic mind continued to string the seemingly mismatched pieces together – it all seemed extravagant, but he had begun to consider a grim possibility: the beheading – the time, the place, his presence, the victim – that none of these was an accident.
It mattered little from whichever direction it came, the prince admitted, he needed help. The saying among his people came to mind: that the man is first to see the snake but the woman who kills it – who cares, as long as the snake is killed! So, who was this man anyway? What powers did he exert to hold so many in thrall? No disaster, no exceptional event, no routine happening but he had ‘predicted’ it in his end-of-year prophesy – an annual ritual that laid out all divinely premeditated events destined for fulfillment during the year ahead. Whatever was not fulfilled had some rational explanation – including fulfillment itself, but not quite in the literal way the uninitiated could understand. Outside pressure could be shut out, ignored. When complemented by the silent protest and muffled sighs of a spouse across the breakfast, lunch or dinner table, it became a burden. Each long-suffering sigh spoke daggers of rebuke – there were malignant, diabolical forces at work, it was evident time for spiritual delivery. I know you have nothing against psychiatrists – so, why don’t you look at it as that kind of therapy? Every day, millions of your peers wake up across the world, look at their calendar to see when next they are due for a turn on the couch – even when they feel absolutely on top of the world. So, take the plunge. Treat the visit as merely marking a watershed in your career – anything wrong with that? It all fitted in neatly, a statistical punctuation mark on the wobbly spreadsheet. Finally, the beleaguered man decided that he needed badly to be delivered from delivery. If that was guaranteed by a call on the devil in his lordly lair, maybe it was time he donned the cloak of veneration. He threw up his hands in surrender – all right dear, I shall go. The man intrigues me.