I STAND CORRECTED MADAM(A Short Story)
My knee ached so badly that I thought a nerve had ruptured. I quietly got up and sat on my hotel bed. My cousin’s pastor, who had been referring to himself as my pastor too, did not notice. Sweat ran down his face as he prayed with so much vigor that it felt as if he was physically pulling the Holy Spirit down from Heaven to come and cover me and protect me from all the evils that were lurking around in my new work place. I looked at the clock and saw it was close to the time when a driver would come to pick me up. I signaled to my cousin that it was time to stop the pastor. I wanted to spend a moment alone with Hegel, Confucius, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas before Madam’s driver arrived.
It took a while but the pastor finally said the last Amen. Before he left, he dug into his bag, brought out a bottle of holy water and gave it to me. He demanded that I sprinkle it on my clothes before heading out to meet Madam for the first time. I was reluctant to accept it but my cousin winked and I obeyed. With a grin on his face the pastor packed up his Bible, his candle, a paper on which he wrote prayer talking points and other tools of his trade.
As the pastor walked out of the room after a few more handshakes, my cousin closed the door behind him.
“Now listen,” he told me. “When you get there, do not try to be a wise ass. Tell her you were sorry for all the lampooning you have done to her. Tell her they were all part of youthful exuberance. Tell her that you’re now matured. Let her know that you’re now ready for the responsibility of moving Nigeria forward.”
“Ok,” I said. He noticed a shrug.
“Don’t go there and disgrace me,” he pleaded. “I worked very hard to convince her that you were reformed even when everyone said you were ‘irreformable.’ If you must know, your appointment was a favor to me for all that I have done for her. I told her that I have a cousin wasting away in America that I would want her to help rehabilitate. Don’t disappoint me.”
I wasn’t going to take issues with my cousin and his characterization of how the whole thing happened. I needed him to get out of my room for now so that I could consult Hegel, Confucius, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas before Madam’s driver arrived.
Hardly did I open my book, How To Live This Life, when the phone rang. I picked it up. It was the front desk- Madam’s driver had arrived. I packed up my book, my resume, my NYSC discharge certificate and other important documents on the desk and placed them inside my Ecolog portfolio. I put on my shoes, entered the elevator and headed downstairs.
A well-dressed young man was waiting for me. He came to take my bag from me and I told him not to worry. “Ah, Oga,” he said, “I’m at your service.”
“I can handle it,” I said.
He walked ahead of me, opened the back seat door of a black Toyota 4Runner and I got in. He closed the door, rushed around to the other side, climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off. I had wanted to look around for the sounds and sights of Wuse zone 2 but I felt there would be time for that. In the meantime, I opened my bag, brought out my book and resumed my consultation with Hegel, Confucius, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas.
“Oga, how is America?” the driver asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I said, wondering what else he knew about me.
“Madam’s eager to meet you,” he said after a pause.
“Why is that?” I asked, almost regretting it as soon as the question left my mouth.
“Because people have been finishing her,” the driver said. “But she is a good woman. They just don’t understand her.”
How did he know that? Was he really sincere that his Madam was a good woman or was he pulling my leg? I wondered. I thought of closing my book and talking to him but I wasn’t sure who he really was. I kept quiet. I tried to read again but my mind was racing all over the place wondering about the intrigues of the life awaiting me.
We passed three security points without any hassles and pulled into the East side of the Villa. I made sure I climbed out before the driver could come around to open the door for me. A tall young woman came to the car to receive me. She was Madam’s personal assistant, I found out. She ushered me in through a series of doors and reception halls until we got to an imposing door on which Madam’s name was boldly affixed. She gently knocked on the door. A voice inside said “open” and she opened the door and let me in. Before I could turn around to say thank you, she had closed the door behind me.
Madam was looking out of the window, her back turned to me. Her red wrapper glittered in the rays of the morning sun filtering through the window. Her green lace blouse matched with the color of the office walls. Though the ceiling was high, her headgear appeared to be stretching for a touch.
“Good morning, Madam,” I said.
“Isi-okpukpu,” she said in Igbo without looking at me.
I wanted to say that I was not headstrong, but I let it pass.
“Good morning, Madam,” I repeated.
“Anu-nti,” she said, again in Igbo. I wanted to protest that I wasn’t stubborn or hard of hearing but that I felt it would be a wrong way to start.
Her spacious office smelt like a botanical garden in spring. I looked around for flowers but I found only a real dwarf palm tree and artificial flowers. The large desk at the corner of the office had a computer on top of it. Files and envelops occupied one section of the desk. A gold plated-phone occupied the center.
“If it were in the good old days,” she said as she turned around, “I would get some people to hold you down and I’ll use pliers to crush your testicles.”
No, she did not go there, I said in my mind. Well, great to know that we live in the bad new days, I reassured myself.
“Lets get to the point,” she said. “What will you bring to my team?”
“Please can I sit down first?” I asked. “My feet are tired.”
“Am I sitting down?” she asked.
“No, Ma,” I said.
“First rule: you don’t sit when I’m standing.”
“And I prefer if you call me Her Excellency.”
“Does it matter what I call you, Ma?” I asked. “Isn’t what is important the thing people at home call you at their dinner tables when NTA shows a clip of you in public?”
“I’m the one hiring you,” she said, her voice thin on patience. “You worry about what I ask you to worry about. Again, what will you bring to my team?”
“I’ll bring Hegel, Confucius, Descartes and Thomas Aquinas,” I said.
“Who are those people?”
“These are people bigger than you,” I said.
“I knew this was a mere waste of my time,” she muttered, throwing her hands in the air. “You think this is all a joke? Do you? We deal with life and death matters here each day. We deal with principalities far beyond what your silly mind can imagine. Are you ready to apply yourself or do you want to continue to kid around? If you want to keep kidding around, please leave my office.”
I pulled up a chair and sat down.
“You don’t sit when I’m standing,” she yelled, pointing a finger at me.
“Well then, you can pull up a chair and sit,” I said. “After all, this is your office.”
“You know what…” she started to say something.
“Madam,” I interrupted.
“Another rule, don’t even interrupt me,” she shouted.
“In that case you don’t need me,” I said, rising up.
“Yeah,” she said. “I get the same feeling.”
“If there is anything you need it is someone who will be seated while you are standing and someone who will interrupt you as often as is necessary,” I said.
She looked at me the way a hyena looks at an antelope. Then she drew her seat and sat down. I returned to my seat, too. I glanced at the monitor on her desk and saw that her computer was logged onto Saharareporters and the page that popped up was my column Correct Me If I’m Right. I stretched my neck to see the piece that was up: My First Day At Work.
I blinked repeatedly. I looked deep at her face for the first time and saw a restrained smile perched on it. A bag of skin was hanging underneath her eyes. Wrinkles round her neck betrayed some restlessness.
“What do you need, Madam?” I asked. “Can you separate what you need from what you want? Have you noticed that all the pains that we have comes not from the search for what we need but from what we want? Do you have mental peace? Who are you? What makes your life worthwhile? Do you seek knowledge or just wealth? When your journey here on earth is over what happens to the wealth? Are you concerned about the consequences of violating ethics? ”
“I did not bring you here to ask me questions,” she said, raw anger erasing the smile off her face.
“Why do you get so upset?” I asked. “What does that do for you?”
“If you must know, it helps me let off steam” she said.
“What else goes off with the steam? Your reputation. What’s left? Ridicule! Think about it.”
“Look here, Mr. I did not bring you here to make me think. I brought you here to change how others think of me.”
I wanted to use the fat analogy but I stopped myself. A fat person has three options to change how he or she is seen- go on diet, go under the knife or to tie his or her belly with a belt.
“The change must start with you,” I said instead. “For instance, what is your purpose in life? Do you care about being good?
“I don’t care about purpose,” she said. “Life is what it is. Why should I bother about being good?”
“Do you know that the physical laws governing things on earth are so precise? I asked. “Like the law of gravity that says that everything that goes up must come down. Does it scare you? Do you know that there is no room for chance in how things work in this world? Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe.”
“I don’t care what your friends say,” she said. I’m here. Because I’m here, there is a here. When I am no longer here, there won’t be any here anymore. I live here. I do things that people here do -things that make sense here. When we get to the other place, we do things there the way they do things there.”
“What if the things that you see now are not real?” I asked. “What if the here that you do everything to conquer is mere illusion? What if you’re not the person you think you are? Do you know that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing can change the weather? Aristotle said that, “the least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later in a thousand fold.”
“I get lost when people talk the way you talk.”
“Being lost is not a bad thing, Madam,” I said. “Whether you’re lost in your blindness or just by accident, it only means you have an opportunity to search for ways, meanings, and answers. Questions like, should I pursue the “having mode” or the “being mode”? Dr. Erich Fromm said that the “having mode” of material possession, power, aggression leads to greed, envy and violence. On the other hand, the “being mode” which emphasizes love in the pleasure of sharing and engaging in meaningful and productive life leads to containment. Do you know that the future is nearer than you think?”
“You’re giving me a headache with all these questions,” she said. “Just tell me how you can change the way people see me. How do you see your role as my spokesman?”
I looked long at the madam and realized that she just did not get it. She probably could not, just like millions of Nigerians, both the oppressed and the oppressors. As the Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita puts it, “He who thinks he kills, and he who thinks he is killed; neither of them knows the truth. For the eternal in us does not kill, nor is the eternal in us killed.”
“How do you see your role?” she repeated, her voice rising a notch.
“I see myself as an advocate, your defendant,” I said. “So I need to know the real you, the real truth.”
“Were you ever arrested by Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC for money laundering?”
“When did you stop getting paid as a civil servant in Bayelsa State?”
“When you said some of your friends were already selling your properties when they thought you would die in Germany, were these friends your fronts?
Fronts you use to hide investments?”
She kept her eyes on me as she got up from her chair and walked towards me.
“What kind of permanent secretary are you? Ceremonial or is your name really in the books as a civil servant in Bayelsa state?”
“Any other question?” She asked. At this point she stood in front of me, breathing down on my tie. I could feel the heat of the air coming out of her nostrils.
“That’s all the questions I have for now?” I said.
“You don’t want to know the color of my shimmy?” She asked. “No? No?”
Then she pounced at me, grabbed the collar of my shirt and held me at a tight hold. “What else do you want to know? My weight? Do you want to see the scar of my surgeries before you become my useless spokesman?”
Her hands were particularly hard. I squeezed two fingers between my neck and my shirt to get a little relief. She slammed her knees on my thigh. I nearly lost my balance.
“What else do you want to know, Anu ofia?” she asked. “What? Oh, I got it. I need to acknowledge my sins before you. Dear Priest, I’ve erred. I’ve followed the devices and desires of my heart. I’ve left undone things that I ought to have done. I’ve done the things which I ought not to have done. There is no health in me.”
She edged my chin down. My eye balls turned around inside their sockets. She struck my thigh again. My only free hand went to protect my groin.
“Eh?” she mocked. “Should I continue from your book of common prayer? Oh, I do not sincerely believe. I’ve truly repented, Sir. I’m truly penitent. I want the rest of my life to be pure and holy.”
With all the strength left in me I cried out, “I need to pee.” She jerked me forward and backward and released me.
“Isi-okpukpu, bone-head,” she said. “Next time you smoke whatever it is you smoke, don’t come near this Lady.”
I staggered to the door, opened it and saw that a small crowd of people had gathered outside. I asked the personal assistant who was closest to the door where I could find the bathroom. She pointed to one end of the reception. As I followed her hand, I saw an object fly off Madam’s door, slightly missing my head. It was my bag. It landed on the floor and busted open. The contents scattered all over the reception floor. At one end I saw photo journalists rushing in with their cameras flashing. With a hand on my groin and eyes on the contents of my bag scattered all over, I was at a loss as to where to go first. I followed the lenses of the photojournalists as they zeroed in on a sachet of condoms and rolls of what looked like marijuana on top of my NYSC certificate.
I did not have any condom in my bag, I swore. I did not have any drugs in my bag, I kept swearing and protesting. The photojournalists kept clicking away. At one point they started laughing out loud.
And I woke up.