Still drinking, I’m afraid. More on this tomorrow.
AZZY – MY LOVE (Part 5)
The next leg of my journey, from the banks of the Niger River, to Enugu, the former capital of secessionist Biafra, was quite memorable, to say the least.
My battered old station wagon was being towed by an even more battered and ancient truck, which rattled along the bomb- scarred road, belching out thick, black smoke from an engine that sounded as though it would give up the ghost at any moment.
Progress was painfully slow – I doubt if we ever exceeded a speed of around twenty miles an hour, and for much of the time we travelled considerably slower, stopping frequently; either at road blocks or to remove obstacles that were littering the road and impeding our progress.
As we neared our destination, the physical appearance of the local populace we saw along the road became forever worse. Skeletal figures, often with large distended stomachs were either sitting forlornly by the roadside or walking slowly along in an aimless fashion, presumably in search of sustenance. It was a shocking and depressing sight – so many starving people, many of whom would undoubtedly die before help reached them.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I also started to see an increasing number of corpses – some of them on the road itself, but mostly they were in the road-side ditches, presumably having been dumped there to clear the roads for vehicular traffic.
Some of the dead were plainly the result of starvation, as I discerned that many of the bodies were in an extremely emaciated condition, with virtually just “kin and bones” holding them together, while others were evidently war victims, with gruesome injuries, missing limbs and so forth.
The ‘fog of war’ was becoming a startling reality for young Mobi, fresh from so-called civilized London.
It was dark by the time we finally rolled into war-ravaged Enugu. Many of the buildings were in a state of semi collapse; the roads were strewn with starving people, some looking more dead than alive, and an air of misery, and despair seemed to pervade the whole town.
We ground to a stop outside a small building, just off the main road, and my two drivers proceeded to disengage their tow rope from the front of my car. I got out and asked them where I was supposed to stay for the night and they pointed to the building next my car.
Upon closer inspection, I realised that the building was a small guest house and bar, but it looked empty, abandoned. I asked them if it was open and they nodded to the affirmative, so I went over to the front door and walked inside.
There was a very primitive bar inside where I saw a few Nigerian soldiers sitting, imbibing the local beer. I also observed a few extremely thin girls sitting around at dirty, ramshackle tables. I assumed the guest rooms were at the back, behind the bar.
I retraced my steps to the car to get my bag and see what my drivers were planning to do for the night. To my dismay, I was just in time to see the truck driving away. I yelled out to them. They probably didn’t hear me but if they did, took no notice and they disappeared from sight in the black Enugu night.
I was all alone in a lawless town, full of drunken, federal soldiers and a desperate, frightened, starving local population.
My lifetime motto must be “fools rush in…”.
All I could think of was having a drink, so I returned to the bar with my bag and ordered a beer, and asked them if they had a room. They did indeed but it was a sorry affair. It was a tiny, dirty, smelly, windowless room with a disgusting looking, wafer-thin mattress laid out on the concrete floor.
It was more akin to a prison cell than a hotel room, but it was all they had, so I had little choice – either sleep in the car, where I would get eaten alive by mosquitoes and maybe robbed or even killed; or take the room, which hopefully would offer me some protection from both the insects of the night, and potential criminals.
Back at the bar, I downed a few beers and ate some dreadful Nigerian food which I had great trouble in keeping down. The soldiers were wsere becoming very tipsy, and after a short while one of them came over, clapped me on the shoulders and insisted that I join them. Fearful, I had little choice but to accede to his request.
I then became the paymaster, buying a series of rounds as we all became very merry. I was probably fortunate that after a couple of hours my ‘drinking buddies’ decided it was time to return to barracks, and I was finally left alone – with the exception of a couple of girls who had fallen asleep at a nearby table.
I suddenly realised I was totally exhausted and stumbled to my ‘cell’, anticipating a trouble free sleep after my drinking bout. But it was not to be. Within minutes of lying down on the filthy, lumpy mattress, I was attacked from all sides by malaria-ridden mosquitoes. I was being bitten on every part of my exposed skin.
Although there were no obvious areas of the room exposed to the night, I assumed the room was not properly protected, and the insects had gained entrance through cracks in the walls and ceiling.
It was impossible to sleep, so I arose and returned to the bar. The two sleeping girls were still there, but the manager/bar tender had disappeared – presumably for the night. What could I do?
I wandered over to the table where the girls were sleeping and asked them if the manger was still around. One of them woke up. She was very thin, but quite pretty, and she asked me if I wanted to sleep with her. I said I was looking for the manager, but she shook her head, and then repeated her request.
It was beginning to sound like a good idea. If the mosquitoes kept me awake, at least I would have some ‘comfort’ with which to while away an otherwise unpleasant night so I took her hand and led her back to my room.
She took one look at my room, removed her hand from my grasp and disappeared back out into the corridor.
Well, that was that, I thought, even a starving, Biafran whore wasn’t prepared to sleep in such a grubby little room.
I grimly lay down again, awaiting a renewed mosquito attack, when the girl suddenly reappeared, bearing of all things – a mosquito net. She had obviously been there before and knew that we would need protection.
She expertly set up the net over the mattress, tying the net off onto rusty hooks attached to the floor and ceiling, and as soon as she finished she lay down on the mattress and beckoned me to join her. I’m not sure who was the most exhausted, but almost as soon as we embraced, we both fell soundly asleep.
“No sex please I’m British.”
I was awoken by a loud banging on the door.
“Hey Mobi! What the Goddamn hell’re yer doin’ asleep at this time a day?”
It was a loud Texan drawl, and as I became conscious, I thought I recognized it, but couldn’t quite place it.
The banging became ever louder.
“All right All right. I’m awake! Who’s there?”
“It’s Bill – Bill Wright”
Bill Wright? I pondered, who the h…? Then I remembered. Bill Wright was a huge, very rotund Texan motor mechanic who worked for my company and was based in Warri, in the Mid West.
“What the hell are you doing here? How did you get here? How did you find me?”
“Never mind all that, just get dressed and come out, We’re all waiting to take you to Port Harcourt”.
I didn’t need a second bidding, quickly gathered my things together and looked at the still sleeping girl lying on the mattress. I pulled out some money and put it her hand and kissed her on the cheek. She still didn’t wake and I left her sleeping like a baby.
Waiting outside the guest house were Bill, Daniel, a group of Nigerians in company work clothes, and parked next to my car was a large oilfield truck with a hoist on the back, and a Land Rover.
How did they all get here so early?
I looked at my watch – it was midday. I had slept all morning.
The plan was for me to travel in the Land Rover with Daniel and a driver, while Bill and his crew would hoist up the car and follow later in the truck.
As we drove off Daniel explained what had happened. A few days ago, the Nigerian army had re-opened port Harcourt airport for private planes, and my company had flown in a number of expats as well as Nigerians from the Mid -West into Port Harcourt to start work on getting the premises and equipment back up and running.
When Daniel had arrived in Port Harcourt the previous evening, he tracked down Bill and arranged for him and a crew to travel back to Enugu with him that morning.
“But how did you find me?” I asked.
“I managed to track down the truck driver who had towed you to Unugu, and he told me where you were staying. Did you have a good night’s sleep?
“In that mosquito infested hovel? You must be joking!”
“Well Bill told me you were fast asleep when we arrived, so you must have managed at least some sleep.”
I didn’t tell Daniel about my special ‘night comforter”, and remained silent. Daniel looked at me quizzically and changed the subject.
When we arrived in Port Harcourt in the late afternoon, it seemed to me that Port Harcourt was in even more of a mess than Enugu. The roads were in a very bad state of disrepair, and most of town had been abandoned by its residents as it had been the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the civil war.
The city had changed hands several times the course of the conflict. It was the very heart of the Nigerian oil industry and was a crucial prize for both sides who were equally desperate win it and to hang on to it.
Oil production in the Eastern region which accounted for more than ninety percent of Nigeria’s output, had ceased since the start of the war, and the government, along with all the committed foreign oil companies were frantically trying to get things up and running.
But at least there were no dead bodies littering the roads, and the people who were wandering around looked a little better fed than their fellow countrymen in Enugu.
We drove to the only hotel in town that was open, and checked in. It seemed that every expatriate who had managed to make it into Port Harcourt was billeted there, and certainly all my fellow company workers, about a dozen all told were staying there.
The town had no electricity or water supplies, and the hotel was powered by a series of large, external, very noisy generators, which would break down frequently, leaving us in the dark and sweating as the air conditioners and fans would consequently cease to function.
Bill arrived back with my car a couple of hours later, and all of us, minus Bill, assembled in the lounge for dinner and some refreshment.
When everyone was settled at the bar with beer, the huge figure of Bill suddenly appeared in the lounge doorway and he shouted across the bar to me.
“Hey, you Goddamn limey- Mobi, you left something behind at Enugu.”
“Did I?” I rejoined, trying to think what on earth it could be.
“No problems, we brought it along with us in the back of the truck”.
“Oh, what is it. I can’t think of anything I left there.
“Hey Dan”, Bill shouted to Daniel, who was sitting next to me, “Mobi says he didn’t leave anything behind.”
Daniel looked at me and smirked.
“What are you talking about? What did I forget? Where is it Bill?”
“Not where is it, Mobi. Where is she?”
“She? She? What are you talking about”, I asked, starting to fear the worst.
Bill and Daniel burst out laughing.
“You didn’t think you were going to hide that little jungle bunny you had in your bed last night from us did you?”
I blushed a crimson hue and was very embarrassed.
“She was in right state after you left – complained you hadn’t paid her”, Bill told me with a huge grin on his face.
“So we decided to bring her down to Port Harcourt with us so you could do the decent thing.
“But…but I did pay her….”
By this time all those assembled at the bar were having a huge laugh at poor Mobi’s expense.
Bill hadn’t finished. “And right now she’s waiting in the lobby to continue the relationship and to collect what you owe her”.
I was sweating and highly embarrassed. I never expected to see her again.
By now, the assembled group were all exhorting me to go out to the lobby and take care of my business, so I reluctantly got down from the bar stool and timorously made my way out to the lobby. I looked around, but there was no sign of her. Then I turned around, back towards the lounge, and there was Bill, Daniel and the whole gang standing by the lounge door, laughing their heads off.
They had been having me on. The girl was not there, thank God.
We all returned to the bar, became uproariously drunk, and I had very good night’s sleep to celebrate the end of my very first day in Port Harcourt and the conclusion of my momentous journey from Lagos.