n our approach the prisoners rushed the bars, yelling requests, demanding attention.
And then I heard: “Oyibu, oyibu, I’m here, my friend, I’m here!”
It was the guy, the beggar. Somewhere along the way he had lost his flip-flops and the T-shirt, but it was him. He had forced his way to the bars and was now crying out to me, smiling deliriously: “Oyibu, oyibu! How are you, oyibu? Tell them we’re friends.” I had never seen anyone so seemingly delighted to see me.
The sergeant observed our reunion through the shades, then pointed a massive finger at the inmate: “Do you know him?”
I nodded eagerly:
“Yes, that’s the guy. He did nothing wrong, he is a good and friendly person. I gave him some money because I wanted to help, it was my idea. I can vouch for him. You really have to let him go. Please. I will sign the affidavit.”
The sergeant’s face remained expressionless, separated from the immediacy of the scene by the black ovals of the sunglasses. We were standing in semidark- ness, in front of the steel bars, amidst the terrifyingly foul smell of the dozens of neglected bodies . . . and I still had not seen his eyes. He appeared slightly contemptuous (of me? of the guy in the tattered shorts?), but he probably always looked like that—a learned demeanor of someone bestowed with the power to lock and unlock prison cells. I wondered if he would relent. He did—after a long minute—and motioned me to follow him back to the office.
In the office, I took the seat across the massive desk from him. The sergeant pulled a blank piece of paper out of one of the drawers and pushed it towards me.
“Here, sign the affidavit,” he said.
I signed the blank sheet. He studied my signature pensively, then sighed: “It’s expensive.”
“What is expensive?”
“The upkeep of the prisoner is expensive. He’s been here since Monday . . . ”
“Tuesday,” I corrected him.
He froze and immediately I knew that I should not argue with someone who never takes off his sunglasses.
“You’re right, sir, since Monday. My mistake.”
“All right then: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday . . . We don’t release prisoners on the weekends so . . . Saturday, Sunday. Seven days. Meals, sanitation procedures, guard duty, cleaning . . . All very expensive.”
“How much?” I asked.
The sergeant didn’t bother to respond. I took out a wad of cash and started counting out hundred-naira notes:
“One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred . . . Enough? No? Five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred . . . ”
Through the dust-coated glass of the office window filtered in an unsteady orange glow—the sun was setting across the lagoon. Thousands of kilometers away Alex was driving his Audi on a snowy highway by the frozen Gulf of Finland, the wipers going steady, pushing the fast falling snow off the windshield. As always he was speeding, indifferent to the dangers of slippery winter roads, oblivious to the presence of a ghostly traffic policeman, jogging effortlessly through the icy air alongside the car, his felt-booted feet not touching the ground, his waiting palm outstretched, like in a Chagall painting.
Later that night (much later) Isaac and I were seated at our usual corner table at Why Not? Michel, the Lebanese proprietor, had brought out a battery of stouts and local Star lagers. I had spent the previous hour unburdening myself to Isaac, trying to assuage my guilty conscience. He listened to me politely, but my angst didn’t resonate with him. I described to him the interior of the jail and mentioned the sour stench permeating every nook and cranny of the Bar Beach police station. I talked at length about the poor sod in his threadbare shorts, whose toothless smile still haunted me. Isaac set pace to my lament by tapping his fingers on a cool bottle glass, against the soundtrack of the humming of the generators outside. “Nigerians,” he said. “Nigerians are rough. Remember, I told you? Nigerians are rough.”
I noticed the skinny Russian diplomat at a table by the stairs. He was drinking beers in the company of a morose-looking heavy man, whose nationality was betrayed by an incongruent ensemble of dark blue socks, sandals, and a tight pink T-shirt tucked into cargo shorts. The skinny meanie waved at me with a half-empty bottle of stout, then got up and stumbled over to our table:
“Want to come over and join us?” he addressed me, ignoring Isaac.
“Would love to, but I can’t, I’m here with a friend.”
“Your friend . . .” He finally looked at Isaac. “The manager at the hostel. I know. We know.”
I pretended to be surprised. “How do you know?”
The Russian appeared pleased with himself. He finished off the stout and placed the empty bottle on the table in front of me, just a notch too aggressively. But whatever.
“Enjoyed your trip to the police station?” he said.
“You know that too?”
He winked at me and pointed the index finger towards the ceiling fan: “We know.” “It was a misunderstanding . . .” I tried to explain, but he waved off the explanation.
“Who fucking cares? Do you think I care? I don’t. Want to come over for a drink? Your last chance.”
I shook my head. “I can’t. Sorry.”
“Oh, well, have it your way. We’ll see you around.”
He chuckled, then pointed his finger again at the fan: “Up there. You understand, right?” He lowered the finger until it leveled with Isaac’s face. But he was not looking at Isaac, he was looking at me: “You really should hang out with your own kind. Safer that way.”
Another chuckle. The diplomat turned around and walked unsteadily back to his watching post by the stairs, where his comatose friend waited patiently for his return. No, I definitely didn’t want to hang out with “my own kind.”
“Did you speak Chinese with him?” Isaac asked me unexpectedly.
“Chinese? Why would I speak Chinese? I don’t speak Chinese . . .”
“Well, I told you about Gloria, right?”
Yes, numerous times. Gloria was one of Isaac’s several girlfriends, and she worked the reception desk at the Chinese embassy on the island. Judging by what Isaac had communicated to me about her, Gloria was high-maintenance and status-oriented. The job at the embassy placed her at a higher end of some Lagos table of ranks and she rarely failed to remind Isaac of this fact. Even though he was far from being faithful to her, Isaac was perpetually preoccupied with mollifying Gloria. I couldn’t quite figure out their relationship, but, frankly, I could never understand other people’s relationships. It was on his regular visits to the embassy that Isaac was introduced to the Mandarin of Gloria’s Chinese coworkers and bosses and apparently concluded the language to be a lingua franca in use by other foreigners on Victoria Island. But maybe he was just making fun of me and the narrow-framed drunk Russian, who rudely pointed a finger at him.
“Are you joking? We spoke Russian.”
Isaac seemed neither impressed nor convinced: “It sounded like Chinese. The guy was rough. Russians are rough.”
“That’s how you describe everyone: Nigerians are rough, Russians are rough . . .”
“No, not everyone,” disagreed Isaac. “Ghanaians are not rough, Spanish are not rough, Cubans are not rough . . .”
And that’s how we talked deep into the night—our Friday ritual of effortless bonding. The generators hummed ceaselessly outside, where the damp air hung heavily and the loud nocturnal insects made a terrible racket, too boisterous even for Lagos. A few kilometers away a haggard middle-aged man slept on the dirty floor of his cell inside the Bar Beach police station. He didn’t need to be there; he was not a robber and I was not his prey. I had conveniently convinced myself that the sergeant would release him on Monday because I signed the affidavit, my signature instantly recognizable on a blank sheet of paper. The sergeant would perform that quick bureaucratic act, an easy act of mercy—release a prisoner. He’d unlock the metal barred door without removing his sunglasses. The grateful detainee would step out of the cell and shuffle down the airless hallway towards the exit. Free at last, he would touch the street dust with his naked feet and pause to savor the moment, absorbing the noise of the traffic, inhaling the fumes emitted by the okadas, greeting the young sun with a relieved smile. ■