A Man to Emulate
A day after the fatal Boko Haram blast at the Abuja UN Building, Jeremiah Chukwu, on being summoned, slunk into the consulting editor’s office at The Shield all but certain that his days at the newspaper were over. In all honesty, if he’d been in the editor’s shoes, he wouldn’t have spared himself.
He’d failed to score a single story in connection to the suicide attack orchestrated by the al-Qaeda subgroup. He’d also failed to follow through on a pre-arranged interview with Senator Gerald David Chukwu, the sensational newsmaker that people always mistook to be a relative of his. To cap it all, the newspaper’s consulting editor, Swangi Wanana, had called Jeremiah’s writing, ‘pathetic’. If the militaristic way Wanana had been running The Shield in the last six weeks were any indication of his management style, Jeremiah should have gotten the boot. Instead, Wanana cast a weary gaze at the ceiling as if appealing to God or some other higher power and said, “Go write a lead comment on your senator uncle.”
Jeremiah gaped at Wanana. “Senator GDC?” he said lamely. “He’s not my uncle.”
“Whatever,” Wanana snapped. He sat up straight and relit a half-finished cigar. “Just do it.”
Jeremiah nearly stopped breathing. The newspaper’s editorial column rivalled the lead comment in prestige, but the editorial never carried a by-line. Only the lead comment did. Jeremiah took a deep breath. “I won’t let you down, Sir.”
Wanana stroked his beard and exhaled smoke at Jeremiah. “It’s the Editor-in-Chief that said you should do it. I know it’s a disastrous idea. Go prove me right.”
Jeremiah hurried back to the newsroom barely able to contain his excitement. A surge of energy raced through his skinny frame as he settled self-importantly into his workspace. He loosened his tie. The assignment had come down from the Editor-in-Chief. It had to be a test for a promotion. His heart pounded and he felt a curious mixture of anxiety and elation.
In the next cubicle, the sports editor and two subeditors, obviously tired of the bomb explosion coverage, engaged the TV in a raucous conversation over an English Premier League match. Jeremiah had never seen them bother with matches between Nigerian teams. It seemed to him they had sent their souls abroad. Only the shells of their physical selves wallowed here now, unconnected to the immediate environment and unconcerned as if they would soon flutter off and rejoin their errant souls.
“Guys, make una pipe down now,” Jeremiah said to them. “Man dey try work here.”
“Na dance we dey dance here, abi?” the sports editor cracked and then laughed at his own joke. His companions joined him and the place got even rowdier.
Jeremiah tried to ignore them. Usually, he tuned out the din and focused. Today the commotion made him anxious, and the blank computer monitor glared at him.
Jeremiah looked up. Wanana had sauntered into the newsroom. He pointed his smouldering cigar at the sports editor. “I told you if I see another plagiarized article on the sports pages, you’re out. Get your lazy bones out of here.”
The newsroom went dead. “Are you deaf?” Wanana yelled.
“You can’t fire me,” the sports editor mumbled. “I’ve put in nine years here.”
“That’s the problem right there,” Wanana said, warping his face with his trademark scowl. “Security!”
The sub-editors scampered away. The now ex-sports editor shot a long cold look at Wanana before packing up his things.
Wanana sneered back before stomping over to Jeremiah’s workspace. “Well?”
Jeremiah inhaled and exhaled softly. Now that he had an assignment from the Editor-in-Chief himself, he longed to tell Wanana to go to hell. “I need two hours,” he said, coolly.
“Two hours to do what? You had a whole day to write an analysis of the Ministers’ bribery scandal and look at the watery nonsense you turned in.”
Jeremiah nearly fell out of his seat. “But that piece got me death threats.”
Wanana scoffed. “And that proves what? I get death threats every time I write an editorial. Even the one I ran on the Boko Haram bombing today has logged three already.”
“I’m just saying—”
Wanana wagged his thick finger in Jeremiah’s face. “The lead comment is not the typical drivel you’ve been wasting newsprint on. X has happened. Y is the consequence. Z is how you feel about it. Forty-five minutes. If it’s no good, you’re covering Wuse Market.”
Jeremiah’s shoulders drooped. He glared at Wanana’s retreating form. Eight hundred words in forty-five minutes. Did Wanana really expect him to put any thought into the work? The prospect of trekking about Abuja’s busiest and most crowded goods and produce market made him shudder.
He grabbed his notepad and headed for the newspaper’s small library. Just outside the library door, he saw Hauwa, a student from a nearby polytechnic serving her practical stint with the newspaper. Even in his frantic rush, Jeremiah couldn’t take his gaze off Hauwa’s voluptuous curves. He shifted his weight from one leg to another, barely hearing her say something about a story on student prostitution.
“You’re not listening,” she murmured. “You’re staring at my breasts.”
“Huh?” Jeremiah blinked, embarrassed.
“Go on, I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, later,” Jeremiah mumbled. He slipped into the library. The cramped room smelled of old newsprint and loneliness. While the dusty desktop PC booted, he replayed a video on his phone that showed Senator GDC’s latest troubles. Once again, he cringed as the infuriating senator thundered, “This is not America! I will not be ‘Clintonized’!”
The flippancy of the senator’s statement rankled Jeremiah. He told himself there had to be a fiery response to such infraction. Nevertheless, his fingers hovered over the keyboard while the blank screen before him seemed to grow wider and emptier by the minute. He began to sweat, so he got up and turned on the ceiling fan. It turned lazily to little effect. He hated to admit it, as that would mean accepting he’d become just another newsroom stereotype, but he’d always looked forward to how the anxiety imposed by an approaching deadline set the words flowing. Yet, he’d long dreaded the day when that catalyst would fail. Now a tiny alarm buzzed in his head announcing that the day had arrived.
Hesitantly, he typed ‘Why Senator GDC should be ‘Clintonized’.’ He placed, ‘By Jeremiah Chukwu, under the title. He saved the file. It seemed to take forever before the first sentence came to him.
Jeremiah sighed. It didn’t read right. He replaced ‘on the floor of the Senate’ with ‘in the Senate chambers’. ‘Centring on’ became ‘involving’. He deleted ‘ever’ and the dash, and then set his cell phone on his notepad to keep the pages from being blown away by the ceiling fan, which now responded to a sudden surge in the electricity current by whirring at full speed. He launched Winamp player, selected a playlist titled Supercool, and Fela’s ‘Shakara’ began to play as he resumed work.
Jeremiah nodded to Fela’s Afro-beat as he read the last sentence. ‘The level of a joke’ sounded pedestrian. ‘An insignificant matter’ read better. But checking the sentence again revealed the word ‘matter’ in three different places. He slapped his forehead. What clumsiness. Even his benign secondary school English teacher would have thwacked his knuckles with a ruler for something so daft. The first ‘matter’ became ‘scene’. He kept the second and changed the third to ‘scandal’.
Jeremiah wondered about emphasising the age difference. He imagined Wanana growling, “Propriety, not age!” Besides, given the fact that he himself had recently turned thirty-seven and Hauwa hadn’t yet marked her twentieth birthday, he couldn’t escape the possibility that in terms of age, he could be her biological father. He deleted the references to age. But reading it over, it didn’t seem right to omit that information. He clicked ‘undo’.
That public apology bit. Something strange about it. Jeremiah wondered if readers would relate to it. Nigerian officials never apologized for bad behaviour. He shrugged. No reason why they shouldn’t start doing so.
‘Moral bankruptcy’ jumped at Jeremiah. He worried about the word ‘moral’. It made him uneasy. And that ‘pants down’ bit. Unnecessarily mocking? Criticising others being one of the easiest things for a reporter to do, he’d seen many do it the wrong way. Yet, in thirteen newspapering years, he’d also learned that many readers liked a little raunchy reference now and then. He fidgeted a bit then decided to let the line stay. Wanana could deal with it.
Jeremiah checked the word count. Over five hundred. Great. But he’d run out of time. Reading it again, ‘ruling party’ had that clichéd ring of how the Western press reported on Africa. He replaced it with ‘party in government’.
The door swung open. Wanana filled the entryway. “Is it ready?”
Jeremiah suppressed a sigh. “I need a little more—”
“Why should something this clear-cut take so long?” Wanana snapped. “Haba! If I don’t see it in ten minutes, you’re going to Wuse.” He slammed the door behind him as he left.
To regain momentum, Jeremiah read from the top. At the first sentence, he grimaced. ‘So many things wrong with this country’. How sweeping. He could imagine a reader sending in a caustic rejoinder taking him to task for the generalisation. He changed the clause to ‘the moral decay in this country’. ‘Moral’ screamed at him again. But first he had to finish.
The monitor started to flicker. His heartbeat quickened. Had death finally come for the prehistoric computer? His phone rang. He paused Barry White’s ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love’ and took the call.
“Jeremiah Chukwu?” a squeaky voice asked.
“Hold on for Senator GDC.”
Within seconds, the Senator said, “You’re the journalist who shares my surname?” Even with the smooth American accent, the Senator sounded impatient.
“Yes, Senator, I get asked often if we’re related.”
“We should talk about that some day. Maybe we are. So what’s this about?”
“Your problem with the intern.”
“I’ve said there is no problem!”
It amazed Jeremiah how quickly the Senator’s smoothness evaporated. “Senator—”
“Distinguished Senator!” Senator GDC snapped without the Americanese.
“Very well, Distinguished Senator, the situation—”
“I’m a widower. I’m free to marry again if I choose to. The girl you’re all talking about is of age. She’s single. We had consensual sex. Where’s the problem?”
“Distinguished Senator, she’s under your charge. Don’t you—”
“If she’d been under the charge of the devil, would that make it right for you?”
Jeremiah clenched his fist. “I’m just a journalist—”
“Mr. Journalist, if I were to marry this girl and invite you to our wedding, would you query her about being under my charge?”
“Senator, don’t you see any moral problems with sleeping with someone for whom you are supposed to be responsible?”
“What do you mean, Man? I’m no longer responsible for her because we had consensual sex? Do you know how she even came to be assigned to my office?”
“Oh yes, that. Is she really from your hometown?”
“So what if she is? I can’t employ people from my hometown? Who should I employ? Only people from elsewhere? Where on Earth does that happen?”
“Isn’t that rather nepotistic?”
“Nepo-what?” The Americanese returned. “You people keep using all these silly big words from the ‘60s. What do they mean in today’s terms? Do you know how that girl’s been going to school? Do you know who pays her fees? If it weren’t for her jealousy over some other girl, would any of you have heard of her?”
“Senator, you’re saying you’ve been responsible for this girl’s education, and you’re going to marry her, right?”
“Wrong. I asked you if you knew such and such.”
“Senator, from the questions you asked, which I took as purely rhetorical, I’m inferring that you are going to marry the girl.”
“Infer all you want but you know I haven’t said that, though I know that won’t stop you from printing whatever you like, Mr. Journalist.”
Jeremiah’s lips tightened. “Seeing how it’s the same as yours, Distinguished Senator, I’m sure you can’t have forgotten my name so soon. In any case, if you’re involved with this girl to the point that marriage is a possibility, why bring in other girls to rock the boat?”
“How’s that any of your bloody business? What gives you the right to decide for me who I should be? So I had consensual sex with more than one woman, so what? Isn’t polygamy part of our norms? What if I decide to marry five women today, would you stop me? Is it illegal? What’s the matter with you people trying to be more Catholic than the Pope?”
“I apologize if you think my question is out of line—”
“Not only out of line, it’s sheer hypocrisy.” The Americanese had dropped again. “What’s this really about? Is it because I’m the proverbial older rich man sleeping with a younger beautiful woman? Did I reinvent the wheel? Isn’t that what older, rich men do? How many of you who are now acting holier-than-thou can swear before God that you’ve never had sex with a much younger woman before? You people should stop this yeye hypocrisy. This is not America! I will not be ‘Clintonized’!”
Click. Dead silence on the line. The Senator had hung up. Jeremiah banged his fist on the desktop. His notepad jumped off the table. But now his fingers had a life of their own.
Recalling how anger could be a double-edged sword for any writer, Jeremiah read the paragraph again. He deleted ‘rudely’.
Jeremiah sensed he’d forgotten something. Ah, Barry White. He clicked the Winamp ‘play’ button. White’s exceptional baritone filled the room.
That last sentence. Too clunky. Have to find a way to break it into two, Jeremiah thought. Or maybe leave it as another assignment for Wanana. He smiled as he re-read the last portion, though. “Senator, you should be ‘Clintonized’.” He decided to keep it. It even struck him as being a better title than what he had now. After effecting the change, he considered the best way to end the article. Although his own anger had yet to abate, Jeremiah knew some of the Senator’s arguments were points that he himself had made in the past. In fairness, shouldn’t he reflect the man’s defence? But should the Senator be let off the hook just like that? Jeremiah’s fingers hesitated.
Lame? Perhaps. But did it flow from the previous paragraph? Jeremiah rehashed it in his mind. Lost in thought, a voice abruptly called his name, startling him. He glanced at the doorway. Hauwa stood there smiling at him with her hand on her waist.
She entered the room and locked the door behind her. Jeremiah turned his attention back to the monitor. That soon proved to be a hopeless pretence. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed buttons opening. Hauwa’s breasts popped free. Her skirt slipped down, revealing her pleasing curves. She stepped behind him. The mild vanilla scent of her skin enveloped him. Sensual images filled his mind. His breath quickened.
Hauwa nibbled at his ear. “You still busy, Baby?”
Jeremiah inhaled heavily. “Have to finish this.”
“What’s it about?” Hauwa glanced at the title on the upper border of the window. “‘Why Senator GDC should be ‘Clintonized’’. Wow, that’s hot. Are you going to do ‘Why Reporter JC should be ‘Clintonized’’ some day?”
Hauwa’s attempt at humour didn’t inhibit Jeremiah from stirring as one of her erect nipples pressed against his neck. He held down the control key and ‘S’ and then the ‘Alt’ key and ‘F4’. He turned and faced her.
“You know we could get into trouble,” he whispered.
Hauwa undid his belt. She backed away licking her lips, fondling herself. She parted her legs, lowered her gaze. “Didn’t you say life isn’t much fun if we don’t take risks?”
“I also said you have the most beautiful breasts on this planet.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
Enya’s ‘Wild Child’ began to wail as they fell into a feverish rhythm.
Suddenly, the doorknob rattled and a hand hammered on the door.
“Jeremiah!” Wanana yelled from outside. “Are you still in there?”
Jeremiah shut his eyes. He breathed through his mouth. He soared beyond the ceiling, oblivious to the thumping of his frantic heartbeat. Somewhere, as if off in a great distance, he could still hear Wanana pounding on the door, barking his name.
Jeremiah helped Hauwa straighten up. After she’d assumed a studious pose at the other end of the room, he went to the door wondering if the room felt stuffier than usual. As he unlocked the door, he noticed the ceiling fan had slackened off again.
Wanana stomped in. “You’re turning madness into a habit. Do you want insanity leave?”
“No-no!” Jeremiah answered too quickly. “I just wanted to tie it up that’s why I took a bit of time getting to the door.”
Wanana scowled at him and glanced at Hauwa before turning to the computer monitor. “So it’s tied up now?”
Wanana scanned the first few paragraphs of the article. He sighed. “Just send it to me.”
On his way out, Wanana stopped at the door and turned. He beckoned to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah walked over smiling expectantly, confident he would get the promotion now.
Wanana squinted at him. “You’re despicable. Clear out. You don’t work here anymore.” Then he stomped away.
Stunned, Jeremiah’s head reeled. It took him a second to realise that he could probably get the Editor-in-Chief to overturn Wanana’s decision.
“What’s the matter, Baby?” Hauwa asked, still standing in the corner.
“Nothing,” Jeremiah said. “Wait for me. I need to see the Editor-in-Chief.”
He’d just made it upstairs, heading to the Editor-in-Chief’s office, when a blast rocked the building. When the debris cleared, it turned out Wanana’s car had blown up when he’d turned the ignition. Even before the Anti-bomb Squad arrived at the scene, images of the carnage were being forwarded on cell phones with the caption ‘Boko Haram blows up Abuja newspaper editor.’
At Wanana’s funeral, Jeremiah said the usual things about his late editor; a great man, worthy of emulation, pushed you hard to get the best out of you. But, of course, Jeremiah didn’t say a word about Wanana firing him just before the editor died. SLQ
|Crispin Oduobuk lives in Abuja, Nigeria. He’s been published in BBC Focus on Africa, Genevieve, some other journals and a few anthologies. Online his work has been published by 42 Opus, Gowanus, East of the Web, Eclectica, Ken*Again, Spoiled Ink and others.|