I saw him from afar. Eyes trained on me like a hawk, nostrils flaring like the ears of an elephant. I saw the uniform-custard shirt and burgundy trousers. His were faded, a far cry from what it may once have been. He strode confidently towards me, his eyes never leaving my face.
“I'll call you back”, I murmured as I let my BB slide down onto the floor of the car. I left my left hand where it was; over my left ear and hastily rearranged the muscles of my face to assume a bored, disinterested look.
The man closed in. “Madam Lawbreaker!”, he called, slamming his hand on the bonnet of the car.
“Pardon me”, I answered, cocking my head.
He then ordered me to park.
“Listen Oga, I am running late to pick my son from daycare. Would you kindly get out of my way?”
By now two identically dressed men had joined him. One of them was short and swarthy. His beret hung atop his head, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the National Theatre Building. If it was possible, it made him look even rounder. The other was tall and thin. His uniform looked like it would still have been his size if he grew three dress sizes larger. His eyes were even more hawk-like. A look of pure hostility emanated from them.
“You can’t answer your phone while driving and expect us to leave you alone”, the tall thin one stated stone-faced.
Horns had begun blaring and the cars behind me were swerving to either side of me. “Madam, park over there”, they barked, pointing to the sandy pavement on the right.
“Why should I park? My hand was over my ear because the noise from the traffic is too much”, I said with a shrill whine.
They smirked in response. Although the regulator of the air -conditioner was set at high, beads of perspiration had gathered on my forehead, sweat had pooled in my armpits drenching my white linen shirt. I slowly pulled over to the side of the road, wound down the window but remained seated in the car.
“The fine for answering your phone while driving is twenty thousand naira”, the tall one said, and in an almost whisper, he continued, “but you can give us ten thousand, so you won’t have to go to the office”.
Mind racing , I sat there wondering if I was going to have to part with the ten thousand naira I had tucked away in the pigeon hole of my car. I kept the money there so I wouldn't be tempted to pinch it. It had a definite purpose. It was for my BIS subscription and airtime allowance for the next month. I looked longingly at the pigeon hole and it looked back at me. Visions of pigeons in custard and burgundy flying away with the money flashed through my mind. The first man started as if he was going to go round the car and get in through the passenger door. This time, the pigeons in my mind pecked at my nose with their beaks as if to say ,“This is how you are going to pay - through your nose!”. I dredged up stories I had heard of people who had been accosted by this kind of men, and as soon as they made the faux pas of letting them through the passenger door, their lives never remained the same. Their pockets were almost certainly less full after the encounter.
I made a resolution to be different. I was going to show these wolves that a woman's telephone funds mean a lot to her. It is almost as sacrosanct as her cosmetics fund. In that split second, I envisioned my BB sobbing everyday of the next month, because it had been reduced to a shell, a caricature, a lower level device, same as many of the other phones of the world. Its glory taken away from it, as it'll now only be good for incoming calls and texts. Outgoing calls weren’t even guaranteed as my recharge card allowance was also in jeopardy! Because, of what use was a BB without internet service? It would be like a Lincoln without the navigating system, a peacock without its wings. I risked a glance at my watch. I was getting late. I was keeping a restless child waiting. The man was close to the door already and as he put his hand on the door handle, the cold hands of fear closed in on my throat. I could hardly breathe. I estimated the distance between me and the car in front. I remembered my high school physics. Had I attended the class? Oh yes, I had! The drone of the aged, pockmarked male teacher floated by. Speed is distance divided by time, he had droned. How many seconds will it take to put a distance of at least a hundred metres between me and these hawks? How far gone and at what speed will I move before they recover and trail in hot pursuit of me? The decision seemed life and death. The distant sobs of my BB echoed.
As I pressed my foot on the accelerator, my tires splayed grains of sand on the lady groundnut seller on the side of the road. I silently uttered a plea for forgiveness.
“Please ma, if I have to come back and buy all your groundnut, I will, I promise”.
It looked to me to be no more than a thousand naira, that was … uhm … the entire assets of the business! The door handle was slowly making a ninety degree clockwise rotation and with each unit of angle, my blood pressure rose in direct proportion. I scanned the oncoming traffic with the corner of my eye and with my hand clutching the steering wheel so tightly - my fingerprints are still there till this day, I accelerated sharply and almost sent the two men on my left out of their skins. The tall thin man in a remarkable display of presence of mind immediately shoved his more bulky colleague out of the way. My 2003 Toyota Corolla sped away amidst shrieks and screams from bystanders and the smell of burning rubber. Darting in and out of traffic like a worm fleeing salt, totally immune to the curses of my fellow road users, I heard the men yelling, “Hey, stop there, stop that woman!”. Stop?, I thought. Even if an angel appeared in front of meat this rate, I may have driven right through him. I looked in my rear view mirror. Eyes squinting, I saw what looked to me like three blobs of custard and burgundy bobbing atop machine horses. I quickly realised it was the men. The hairs at the back of my neck rose. I floored the accelerator. As they gained in on me, the tall thin one jumped off the bike, eyes blazing, face contorted into a mask of icy rage, he put his hand in through my window and reached out to try and take out my keys. As his bony fingers touched the keys, I awoke!
Drenched in a pool of sweat, heart racing as if it was being chased about by the lungs, I sat up from the couch. Alas ,it was but a dream! A dream? Groggily, I reached out and felt for my BB beside me. I picked it up and held it close to my chest. Someone was knocking.
“Who is it?”, I croaked. Gingerly stumbling to the door and peering through the door hole, I saw the faces of men. I opened the door slowly. They were three.
“We are security men from the estate, we have come to collect ten thousand naira for your security levy”, they stammered. The colours of their uniforms were custard and burgundy!