He could recall years before, when he was working down south, there had been this exhausted and exhausting expressway, the Togo-Badagry A1. As you curve out of the greater Lagos conurbation you eventually hit the track, a cheerless concrete, four lane highway which if you stayed on long enough took you clear out of Nigeria and would allow you to proceed along the coast road, looking out at the Bite of Benin, to Togo, Ghana and beyond. He remembered one occasion when he got so far as the Benin border, but it was not a good time to travel. He was young, mid 30s, and Nigeria was plagued by bad politicians, bad policies and bad law enforcement. Not a helpful combination if you are a young professional man from upstate, travelling alone.
Strange times in country and stranger times in his life. He was, although he did not realise it at the time, in the first stages of becoming self-isolated. His profession and his home location combined to provide all the necessary and sufficient conditions for greater and greater loneliness. Hitch this to a growing contempt for the stupidity and perfidy of people in general and you have a young man on his way to self-indulged solitary confinement.
That night he learned something about himself and about the trajectory of his life and he made a conscious decision which would change many things in the years to come.
But that all follows from the night-time incident on the A1.
He remembered it well. He had been tired, very tired. Tired, hot and angry as his driver accelerated. Even in the early evening the temperature was in the high 30s and humidity combined to make concentration vanishingly illusive. It had been the usual tortuous and interrupted drive from Ikoi and Victoria Island in greater Lagos where his work had taken him. The day had passed in recriminations and emergency planning. Desperately trying to engineer his various projects back on course. Largely he had failed but the worst thing was, when he had finished in town, he would have to recount his failure back to his colleagues at the compound. His tolerance of the Lagos metropolitan area, sub-tropical climate and insouciant clients was on an arc to fury. His anger would mount to rage in a matter of hours unless something happened to interrupt the flight path.
They were pelting down the A1 in what would pass for twilight in other places. In the dim light of evening the road provided a depressing view of shanty town torpor, mangrove, palm, fuel stations specialising in mountains of old tyres and then more shanty. Telegraph poles of varying heights and verticality, carrying a totally unlikely spaghetti of power and telephone cables meandered in a useless way, keeping rhythmic time to the tak, tak, tak of the car tyres on the white concrete road surface.
He had a driver because he was not safe to drive. He was a northerner and an occasional visitor to Lagos. Office and family knew he could not drive in the unique situation of Lagos. The decision was taken out of his hands and, by and large he approved of this. Even so, he was travelling later than he should and this worried him. At that time, like at most times, Nigeria had a curfew on the roads, and he should really have been at his destination in Badagry some hours ago. Delayed by the meetings he had endured, he had left his departure from Ikoi later than his driver had advised and the man was clearly nervous as he gunned the SUV. Seeking to make up for delay with speed. Another bad combination.
The deceptively rapid tropical alteration between evening and night took place and now they could no longer see the road-side-verge and the myriad forms of human industry it insulated, headlights on main beam, no matter what if anything was approaching, the diesel engine roared on. Only ten miles more to Badagry.
It was at this point that they came to the road block.
In Nigeria at that time there were a number of different kinds of road block. There were police road blocks, official curfew checks. There were army road blocks, put up for who knows what reason but normally justified as ‘anti-terrorist/ illicit trafficking’. Then there were the police/ army/ other bloke road blocks put up by entrepreneurs of any stripe, in order to gather tax-free income from passing drivers out after curfew. This looked like the latter type.
Along the dark expressway the improbably inadequate headlights of the car illumined broken and twisted bollards reducing the lanes from two to one and, finally they slowed to a crawl and stopped in front of a far from official looking black and white striped pole, hastily slung across the road at an angle. As the car decelerated to a halt, he noted a figure in military khaki lurching from the shadows, something about the man’s listing shuffle was unsettling.
He was sitting up-front, next to the driver and the military man was approaching the passenger window. He rolled it down. The officer was drunk. His breath relayed the count of bootleg spirits, and the unsteady way he removed his side gun from its holster emphasised the shakes produced from drinking palm-hooch. Lowering his head to the open window, the soldier looked in, blinking. Gun pointing in the vague direction of the front seats, he said; “Money”.
The bi-focal nature of human sight means that we gain a three-dimensional view on the world, our eyes calibrating between them distance and depth. The barrel of a gun makes excellent use of this evolved biological capacity. The darkness of the core of the barrel was shown in black stark relief. A void more than a black hole. A point of eternity set in the length of the barrel, the projection of gun metal close to the face, so close the oily smell could be tasted at the back of the throat. The human eye is also unequivocal about the nature of what it sees, having an impulsive mind of its own, taking the consciousness back down the shaking barrel to the heavy finger, curled like a snake around the yielding, oh so yielding trigger. The black void at the end of the gun barrel, the shaking hand and the squeezing finger around the yielding trigger, all came to the consciousness in a single wave of knowledge. “Today I will die. On this expressway for the price of a gallon of fuel I will die.”
The knowledge was distant, the words appearing to another man in another place, in a different place where a gun was not centimetres from his face.
For years afterwards he could not say why or how what followed took place. No plan, heroics or misplaced sense of civic decency guided him, he just sat in the car, looked back at the soldier and said; “No”. He thinks, he then said, “Sorry”, but he could not be sure about that.
The soldier paused. Continued to look into the car. Time seemed to pause, shudder and then stop. Nothing happened. And then more nothing happened. The dark of evening remained dark, the insects of the night tuned up and the temperature remained too hot for comfort. Then, in a slow pantomime of propriety taken from the army cadet’s rule book, the officer withdrew the metal nemesis, took a step back, holstered his gun, stood upright and waved to the guards on the makeshift barrier to raise it and let the car pass. His driver shifted the SUV into gear and, in earie quiet, the car advanced, gathering speed, then driving furiously away, determined not to stop again until the safety of the village lights of Badagry were reached. Driver and passenger began to breathe again.
When he got back to the building he shared with his colleagues, met with them and rested with a cold beer. He did not recount the final part of his day. He did not spin a yarn about local troops gone to the bad, embellishing his bravery and ramping up the drama. He did not do that. The event was part of him but not part of his day. He had been to the edge of his world and had come back. This was not part of the story, this was now an irreplaceable part of himself. He answered questions about his exceptionally long and difficult day. He recounted the main points emerging from the meetings, suggested some solutions to pressing issues and, most importantly, saw his colleagues differently. He had not really thought about it before, but they were his. They were, commendable and admirable. Their attention to his story, their smiles and sympathies were amplified. It was so good to see them. To talk to them. To answer their questions. Normal things were a therapy to him. He had gone from rage to terror to glad-to-be-alive in the space of seconds and he now realised that these people were not just to be tolerated and placated. They, more than he, owned this situation. For now, at least, life belonged to all of them.