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KILLING TIME


By J. Enuenwemba Obi


Saturday, December 7, 2013.

 

            The boy shoots both men. He can’t be more than twelve years old. His pudgy little fingers keep pumping bullets even as their brains spatter across the wall behind them. Calm blue eyes scan the screen ceaselessly as he shreds what is left of their torsos into a reddish mush. He lifts his wrist to wipe his nose. He does not stop shooting. 

            “Dylan, stay right there luv.” This comes from a woman two spaces in front of me -- obviously, his mother. She has a pleasant smile on her face. Indeed, she looks like one of those people who walk around with a hint of a grin permanently fixed just below their eyes. There is something Welsh about the way she pronounces those last two words. I think of my friend, Brice  from my Cardiff days. We all called him “The Movement” – his favorite phrase about his favorite cause. I wonder if he and his group will ever get what they are looking for. I doubt it. The boy at the video stand sneezes. Putting aside his tousled hair and freckles for a moment, the resemblance with his mother is freakish. Same cheekbones, same nose, same lip curl. God can be a copy artist.

            “Alright mum.”  He replies with a slight nod backwards in her direction. On the evidence of that short response, I can declare that he even sounds like her.

            I look at the clock above the Customer Service desk. 4.15 p.m. At this precise moment, my phone vibrates in my trouser pocket. Its urgent shiver feels a tad obscene against my thigh. It must be my appointment reminder. There is no way in the world that I can make it to Charing Cross in thirty minutes. I should have known better. One just doesn’t zip in and out of a warehouse store. I think of the woman who may already be waiting for me. She is the punctual type. It is a pity. I might just have to blow this one off. At the counter, all of the assistants seem to have stalled. Then again, maybe it’s the customers who bring complicated problems. Some people are simply like that. It would be just my luck to stand behind them in life’s lines. I pull out the phone and notice two new messages. I tap the screen and the first one opens. Someone at the office wants to schedule a meeting with me. I move on to the next one. Someone else wants to cancel an appointment. People...

            I hear what sounds like a muted crash. It is the boy, Dylan, again. This time he is playing another game on the display-sample video system. Covering the massive screen in front of him is what looks like an upturned space craft. For the moment, not much is happening. It reminds me of the line I’m standing in. Presently, a young boy of about the same age walks up to him and, wordlessly, picks up the companion console at the base of the unit. He and Dylan are wearing different colors of the same horseman-logo shirt. A woman with whom he had been standing is talking on the phone a few feet away from our queue.

 Now this is interesting. From her clothes, she seems to be Nigerian – one of my people. Her blazing orange damask gown, visible beneath her unbuttoned trench coat, stands out against autumnal London’s   earth tones. Her braids – obviously a weave – are a striking bronze and reach down to her shoulder blades. Talk about rocking one’s colors. What was it that my American friend said about them not being able to wear white after some holiday? The U.S. is definitely not the kind of place for this woman. I laugh inwardly.  Americans can be funny… I look down at the woman’s feet. Her copper colored shoes and matching handbag glint in the store’s subdued lighting. She reminds me of something, but I cannot quite remember what it is. This bothers me. Lately, I have been forgetting a lot. At my age, my illiterate father knew every nook and cranny of the vast river that our village survived on. As he mended his fishing nets, he would tell us story after story from our bottomless lore. Here I am, forty two and up to my neck in degrees, having the devil’s own time with PINs and passwords. It makes no sense. Perhaps I’ll see a doctor. Yes, that’s it, there’s probably a name for what I have. If there’s a name, there will more than likely be a prescription. 

My Nigerian sister is now gesticulating vigorously. With the exception of her thumbs, she seems to have a ring on every finger. Each one looks like it is made of a serious metal or stone. They complement her clothes perfectly. It is almost a shame that she covers most of what she has on with the coat. It is a stylish coat, but it is still a coat. I suppose it is better than those hideous jumpers some of our women wear over their traditional clothes. She looks like a visitor. They always feel cold in London. Our line moves up a few paces, I start to hear her more clearly or perhaps she is simply changing her pitch. She does seem to be talking to a number of people.

            “Ah! Uncle! What you did is not good o! You came to Nigeria and couldn’t even come to Enugu to see us! Anh anh! Is it good like that? Did we do you something?”

            How about that? She’s not only speaking my language, she’s speaking my dialect. She has to be from Onitsha. We could have mutual friends – that is if we’re not even related! I think about approaching her after her call to introduce myself. I quickly lose the thought. My days of walking up to unknown Nigerians in London are over. That’s a story for another day. Her voice is loud – as loud as the color of the case around her Blackberry. I notice a security guard cast a querying glance in her direction. He looks West Indian. Then again, he could be Somali or Ethiopian or  Eritrean. Haitian perhaps? Maybe Mauritian. Might even be South African or Tuvaluan. And why am I even thinking about this? Unlike the guard, an Indian-looking woman in front of me is more direct. She stares icily at the Nigerian and adjusts her sari with a hint of irritation. She has a patronizing look on her face. The woman on the phone is oblivious to it all.

            “Ha! Uncle, I beg don’t make me laugh. We are struggling o! Don’t worry, we will talk about that when I come to your place.” She pauses and bends over in laughter. Her braids swish forward like so many golden vines. “Yes o! In camera… Ooooh Uncle, I am the one telling you! That is a special topic!” Smiling now, she pauses to carefully adjust her right eyelash. It is quite long. I imagine it is fake. As she listens on the phone, she sneaks a quick peak at her son. “It is true uncle. It is true…” her voice drops a shade “… yes… let me greet her…” There is a slight pause during which she rearranges her hair behind her head. Women do that a lot. I wonder how much time that sole gesture adds up to over the course of a life. “Ha Auntie, I salute o! … Yes o! We don come again. Who no know go know!” Her head is bobbing as she speaks. She is in  pidgin mode now and her tone is back up. “Hmmm, story!. I go yarn you! In fact na just dis yesterday we land from Naija[1]. Na me and Nnamdi come. E dey here wit’ me for store now. As we drop from plane, na Thamesmead we face  …” Pause. “No o, na only ten days we go spend dis time. Nnamdi dem dey school now … Enh na jus’ small Christmas shopping we come do, shey you get, as per Oga madam[2].” Again, she breaks into loud laughter,            While she is speaking, an elderly man walks up to her empty shopping trolley and, obviously thinking it is unattended to, attempts to take it. She is quick to respond.

            “That’s mine, thank you.” She says holding her phone against her bosom.

            “Oh dear, forgive me.” The man’s tone is apologetic. “ I thought…”

            “Not at all. It happens” She cuts in with a sweet smile. She then recovers the trolley and puts her handbag on the small seat reserved for toddlers.

            It is an unremarkable exchange except for her language. In the space of seconds, she has switched from pidgin to clipped RP, and now – as she gets back to her call – pidgin again. Had my back been turned, I would have thought someone else had spoken.

            As her voice becomes inaudible and the queue remains glacial, I pull my phone out again, look at it for no reason in particular and put it back in my pocket. I turn my attention once more to the boys. A new game is up on the screen and their avatars are locked in combat. Their elbows are barely six inches apart as they work their devices. They neither speak to, nor look at, each other. Dylan’s man is a hulking cyborg with bayonets for fingers. He is leading a pack of muscle-bound beings armed with what appear to be deadly laser guns. At the moment, they are waging battle against the young Nigerian’s characters who look more like humans, albeit marginally so. Their leader is a chiseled, blond haired, square jawed man with biceps the size of small buses. He shoots rays out of his eyes, but other than that, he does not have any weapons. His gang includes a buxom green woman who can fly, a character in an iron suit holding an axe, and a tall, pale slim translucent man who freezes anything he touches. There are others on the screen but I can’t quite make out who they are. The whole scene is lit up by beams, bullets, and explosions. Bodies and sundry objects are flying in every direction. Even with the sound turned down, I can hear the thuds and crashes.

            The two boys keep pumping the controllers.

I am fascinated by the battle. The scene looks so real. The colors and detail are frightfully vivid. I find myself twitching and flinching at some of the direct hits on the screen. Nigeria-boy’s men are freezing and bludgeoning and vaporizing their enemies. Dark splotches of body fluids are everywhere. Dylan’s lead-man picks up a snowmobile-type vehicle and hurls it at Biceps who swats it away like a Frisbee. The man with the axe is like a whirly-gig as he lops off  head after head of his squat opponents. Their bodies convulse around before they fall. The laser guns seem to have no effect on him. The woman is darting all over the place delivering deadly jabs at the overwhelmed goons around the cyborg. Her breasts and buttocks look like huge calabashes. I look around to see if anyone else is watching the fight. Not a one.

            “Dylan.”

            The boy doesn’t hear his mother. His impassive but keen eyes are trained on the mayhem in front of him. The only signs of emotion are his tightly drawn lips and jerky left foot. His fingers are tapping and toggling. He reminds me of my sisters plaiting their hair back in the day.

            “Dylan!”

            “Mum?”

            “Time to go.” Her voice is stern now.

            “Yes mum.” He half turns his body but his fingers are still quite alive.

            “Nnamdi, oya![3]” It is the other boy’s mother this time. She has finished her call and is giving her son full attention. I notice how healthy her skin looks. Skin like that could only come from a lifetime of eating fresh fish pepper soup and ukpaka salad. Ah… ukpaka! As I remember the mix of shredded oil bean seeds, achi[4], garden eggs, and greens glistening beneath their palm oil dressing, juices spring like tiny geysers from hidden corners in my mouth. I am liking something about this woman. Maybe I should introduce myself after all. Again, I drop the idea.

            Nnamdi promptly sets the device down and walks towards his mother. Neither child acknowledges the other. Now I remember what she reminds me of: the Flamboyant tree -- the tree of my delicious youth in Warri. Its regal spread and sharp greens and crimsons always touched something in me in those days. That is what she looks like, a lush flamboyant tree.

            All alone now, Dylan puts down his game controller. The screen fades to black and a “game over” announcement appears in flickering letters. It is replaced by a logo that floats randomly over its flat surface. It all looks so anticlimactic. His mother is going through some receipts. His little brow is furrowed as he quietly rejoins the waiting woman. While she checks her paperwork, he retrieves a small game from his pocket and proceeds to press its buttons. He does not look up. I reach for my phone again. As ever, the message alert is blinking steadily. I note the time and put it back.

            After a few more seconds, both mothers and their sons walk away in different directions. The store is busy with shoppers but its sounds are muffled. A number of people are pushing trolleys with goods in giant-size cartons. I see one young couple steering a box proclaiming 480 teabags. They must have a large household -- or perhaps they just can’t get enough of that brand. I guess membership in this store – in this community -- does have its benefits. Gentle voices and chimes float out of recessed speakers high above us. They are, for the most part, soothing female voices. “Produce, pick up on line two. Price check requested at sporting goods.” The sounds are seductive – almost as seductive as my faceless mind the gap darling of The Underground. The huge television screen is dead now. Its smooth dark face bears witness to nothing. I notice that our line has gotten longer. The people seem patient and unruffled. Most are looking around without making eye contact. It is a delicate art. Quite a few are occupied with hand-held devices.

            “Sir, may I help you?” It is my turn at the counter. As I stride to the beaming young woman behind the desk, I am trying to remember what brought me here…

J. Enuenwemba Obi is a writer. He currently lives and works in Richmond, VA, USA.



[1] Nickname for Nigeria

[2] Just came for a spot of Christmas shopping, you understand right? As would be expected of a Big Man’s wife. (Jocular in intent)

[3] OK, it’s time!

 

[4] Legume derived condiment used as a thickener

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