By Omotayo Yusuf
He stepped away from the door and closed his eyes. He didn’t open them as he walked slowly on the mud-soaked grass. He could feel the soft sound that his feet made and he knew if he opened his eyes and looked back, he would see the dent that his measured strides made in the soil. He didn’t open his eyes still as he walked towards the gate that he had known so well. Day and night, he had practiced walking from the door to the gate dreaming of freedom. In his dreams, he had tasted the bitter-sweet feeling of liberty. In his mind, he had always envisaged his release from prison as epochal. All the inmates would shake his hand and pat his back. At the gate, he would be welcomed by his wife and children on one side and hundreds of journalists on the other side flashing their cameras and scribbling on pads to pen down the release of their comrade. He would be the talk of the country,
attending human right seminars and serving as models to young journalists. That was the dream he nursed in the confinement of his solitary room where he lay motionless at night, cushioning his head with his palms. He would watch nibble at his armpits and tickled his toes till they bled. He had learned to endure everything that happened to him. Rats were the least of his tormentors. They didn’t have whips or hard boots. They didn’t spit into his face when he was slow at work. He had endured worse punishments than the rodents could offer. He saw himself as a hero shouldering the burden of the people. He was meant to bear his pains in silence.
As he walked blindly in the morning cold pulling his legs from the ankle deep soil with each step, he felt that something was wrong. None of the inmates gave him a second glance when they saw him in the morning. They had lived together like brothers for fifteen years eating half boiled beans and stone cold bread. He had earned the same respect from the inmates just as he had as a journalist before he was incarcerated for ‘planning a coup’ with his newspaper column. The inmates had given him the name ‘Scholar’ because of his numerous stories heavily laced with journalistic jargons. With his reputation, he had thought that they would sit around him like disciples with tears in their eyes. Rather, what he saw was a general look of contempt and disappointment as if he had betrayed them by leaving at the end of his term. Not even Kojo who called him ‘Idol’ gave him a handshake. They all watched as he collected his light bundle and went out with a piece of paper that would grant him exit at the gate.
The familiar path now seemed unfamiliar as he got nearer to the gate but he got there with ease. When he finally opened his eyes, he was surrounded by soldiers who watched him closely.
“Why are you walking with your eyes closed? Do you want to disappear?” One of them asked in thick Hausa-accented English. He showed them the paper and they laughed. One soldier collected it and went into a small room. Others took the time to advise him on how to live the new life that he had just been giving. One of them squeezed money and a stick of cigarette into his pocket. They all reeked of bad breath and gin. He didn’t hate them. He saw them as emissaries who had no choice but to do the bidding of their masters. The soldier came back with a book and he was asked to sign in front of his name. The feel of the pen in between his fingers brought back memories. He felt a newness in him as adrenaline flowed through him. He had always lived his life with a pen and a pad in his hand. That was before he was seized in office one morning and bundled into a van.
He thanked the men and walked out of the open gate. He was hit by a wave of disappointment. The sun was not out yet to welcome him as he had hoped. Nobody was waiting outside to meet him. The road was deserted and he told himself that it was still too early to expect anyone. He sat on a stone by the side of the road and wound his arms around his knee. A week ago, he had begged a warder to tell his family and colleagues the day of his release. He told himself that they would be around soon. He had waited for fifteen years so a few minutes will do no harm. To him, he had reached the peak of man’s limit which placed him on the verge of death and he had returned. That was one of the things that made hima hero.
He didn’t know when he dosed off until he was startled by the cry of a bird. The sun was harsh on his face. He squinted to be able to get a clearer view of his surroundings. He saw nobody except a woman walking towards the main road with a tray of groundnut balanced on her head. He stood up, dusted his trouser and followed the road that led to the market. The same road had brought him blindfolded fifteen years ago. He sighed.
The woman turned back sharply and when she spotted him, increased her pace. The road was notorious for attacks on innocent pedestrians by escaping prisoners. When she wasn’t satisfied with her pace, she sprinted, clutching the tray to her head. If only she knew him and why he had gone to prison, he thought, she wouldn’t have run away. She would have been glad to be the first person to see the people’s defender. He shrugged and walked on.
He got to the market and stopped in his track, his mouth wide in astonishment. There were so many vehicles blaring their maniacally swerving to overtake other vehicles. Passengers ran after commercial buses and dived into them. Hawkers with babies strapped haphazardly behind them sold their goods through the window. Everybody was in a mad rush. What disturbed him most was the noise. It was as if they were all speaking in several languages and the seemed to understand themselves. Drivers cursed, horns blared, radios were tuned loud, sellers screamed and the whole world seemed to be producing a cacophonous cry. He saw a vendor screaming into a megaphone that the day’s paper contained exciting news. He walked to the vendor and told him to give him a copy of Real News. The vendor cupped his palm behind his ear and told him to speak louder. It sounded like a scream. He cleared his throat and repeated what he had said. The vendor nodded and pulled out a copy. He was about to wave the red newspaper away when he saw Real News printed boldly on it. The front page colour used to be black and white. He reminded himself that it was fifteen years since he saw the newspaper. He brought out the money the soldier had given him and paid, not bothering to collect his balance. The vendor pocketed the money and turned to the other side. He walked away and opened to page 3. That was where he used to attack the military government. He alone owned page 3 and every day, he got feedbacks from avid readers who read his sentences and devoured his ideas. Some even admitted that they bought the Real News because of its page 3. It was the page that made him the enemy of the government and sent him to fifteen years in prison.
He got to page 3 and stopped. He turned to the next page and returned back to page 1. He checked the numbering and confirmed that it was correct. His heart beat faster. To be fully convinced, he placed a finger on each page and counted it until he got to 3. He couldn’t believe what he saw. A half-nude girl was pictured on the page. She was hugging a pole tightly and her wet dress clung to her skin. Her black knuckles confirmed his suspicion that she had bleached her skin. Her heavy makeup made her look like a doll. She stared lecherously at him and he felt like ripping the paper but instead, he opened each page to the end. There were so many adverts that he wondered if he wasn’t with the wrong newspaper. The centre spread boasted of a night club that had invited the general public to a party. The pages were plenty, yet little news was there. It was as if the world had stood still and nothing was worth reporting. He checked the front page. The headline informed the reader that a certain Nigerian millionaire had just bought a certain car.
He clutched violently and walked hurriedly. The road became familiar and he quickened his pace. Soon he broke into a run. He ran swiftly past pedestrians that some were forced to look back and catch a glimpse of the haggard looking man. He collided with a motorcyclist who managed to escape being felled. The motorcyclist cursed him but he didn’t hear. He turned sharply into a street and increased his speed till he got to the gate of a tall red building. The security men scrambled to their feet, surprised. He stood panting trying to get his breath back.
‘I work here’, he managed to say at last through his cough. The men stared at each other and without speaking agreed that they were dealing with a mad man. To convince them, he held the newspaper up. It was and torn from where he clutched it. The med nodded in agreement again. One of them asked him to go away and thrust money to him through the iron bar. He suddenly remembered something and thrust his hand into his pocket. He brought out his old ID card he passed it to the men through the iron bar and waited until recognition lit up on their faces. One of them called his name and unlocked the gate quickly. He recognized two of the men and they hugged him while others watched the man whose name they had heard a thousand times but had never met until then. He asked if the editor was around and they answered in the affirmative.
As soon as he entered the newsroom, he sensed the changes. He had instinctively ducked his head but when he looked up, he saw that the door frame was higher than it used to be. A sound system was playing pop music from a corner and an air conditioner cooled the air. People walked around with laptops but he didn’t know any of them. The atmosphere was not one he was familiar with. In his days, newsmen worked with their sleeves rolled and with seats on their foreheads.It was considered a sign of hard work. They had so many pens then that it was not surprising to see a journalist who had five pens in his pocket. There was always a harp rush in the news room: deadlines to meet, news to cover and investigations to follow. Only the secretary had a telephone. The librarian then was a smart old man who knew everything from the day the first white man sailed to Nigeria to the name of the grandmother of the head of State’s wife. Everybody respected the intelligence of others and the only way not to lose the respect was to be hardworking and intelligent.
Here, he saw people who looked cut for bank jobs in their starched shirts and straight ties. The small cubicle that served as the library had been expanded to accommodate a machine that dispensed tea and coffee. On the wall, someone had scrawled with a marker the caption: Who needs a library when you can ask Google? He wondered who ‘Google’ was. There was no writing material in sight, perhaps they were arranged in the shelves, hr thought. One lady typed lazily with one hand, making sure to use her manicured nails gingerly and fed herself with meat pie with the other hand. Another lady walked past him and danced to the beat of the song. It was too much for him to bear and he walked to the door marked “Editor’ and walked in without knocking. The first thing he noticed was that instead of books on the shelves, several awards sat there. The editor sat comfortably on a leather chair and stared at him with a big smile as soon as he recognized him.
‘Welcome to our world, Chameleon’, the editor said, calling him by his nickname. He stood up to hug him but was ct short by the look on his friend’s face. ‘What kind of nonsense is happening there?’ h asked indicating the news room. ‘And what bigger nonsense is happening here?’ He pointed to the awards and the coffee machine.
‘See my friend, things have changed’ the editor said. The man slammed his fist on the table and spread the newspaper to page 3. His look demanded a response. The editor sighed.
‘Look, I advised he against it but she insisted. When she sent the pictures, we had no choice. Don’t worry though; it will be replaced by another picture tomorrow.’
He looked at the editor as if he had just wet his trouser. How could he say his page would display the picture of another nude lady the next day?’ I want my page back and I’m starting work tomorrow.’ He announced with finality and made to go. He didn’t notice the change in the editor’s face but he felt the change in his voice.
‘You have gone for a long time so it’s difficult for you to easily accept the changes you’ve noticed. You can’t take the page 3 back. It is fetching more money and publicity that your column would have. Nobody needs a government antagonist anymore. I can squeeze out somewhere for you though but it has to be straight and nothing political.’
The manlooked like someone drenched in rain. The underlying message of the editor was that he wasn’t wanted again. He blinked and said something about wanting to see his wife and children. He was too shocked to respond in a tongue lashing.
The editor cleared his throat and scratched his bald head. It was an old habit which the man knew so well. It meant the editor wanted to say something but didn’t know how to go about it.
‘What is it?’ The man asked in a voice that showed that he was beaten. The editor shrugged and responded: ‘I thought you had noticed but it looks like you haven’t. The girl in the third page is your daughter. She’s today’s page 3 girl.’
The man looked at the editor’s face for any sign of humour but found none. He slowly opened to the page and stared at it. The lady still looked the same except that a closer look at her eyes sent shiver down his spine. The eyes were as dark and large as his and the dimples that appeared with the smile were as deep as his. She had the full lips and narrow nose of her mother. He checked the name on the picture. It was her name except that it had been anglicised so that ‘y’ replaced ‘i’ and the letter ‘o’ was stretched to ‘ow’. He had forgotten that his daughter was not six years old anymore but was not twenty one. He had missed a very crucial part of her life. It was his fault, he cried. He walked out, clutching the newspaper to his chest. He was too bust stripping the government and flogging its members to consider the danger and consequence of his actions. He passed through the newsroom but no one gave him a glance. He was unknown in a place where he expected to be carried high. If he was around, his daughter would never appear half nude in a newspaper. So much for being a hero, he thought. He wondered what had become of his wife and other children. No one seemed to be expecting his return; not even his long time friend who was the editor. He passed in front of the window frame and saw his reflection. He looked bony and malnourished and his hair was yellow. He placed his head on the wall and let out an animal cry. He slip down to a kneeling position and cried.