Love is an Animal Thing
For Chibuzo Anuonye, for buying a TV set that year.
Whoever football did not make mad would be sane for the rest of his life.
A strange frenzy grabbed the neck of the atmosphere while the game lasted. And my heart was a car hurtling along a typical Aba road full of potholes that threaten to become rivers. Football had conspired with fate to give me the direst ninety minutes of my life. The sold-out crowd of over eighty-six thousand people gathered at Sanford stadium, Atlanta, Georgia, watching Nigeria and Argentina, observing the right and wrong moves of the players, the skilful and terrible dribbling, everything happening on the pitch. I too, in the mini-oven that was our room, was watching, choked with fear. But then, how would I overlook the thrill of the last second, the orgasm of victory?
The sports commentator’s praise for the Eagles was the conclusion of brilliance. It was already etched in my memory before his lips detonated and let out the cry, “Ooo mai gaad! The world has not witnessed anything like this before. The Eagles came prepared to win this trophy and that they have done in an admirable way. Their magnificent team spirit was their selling point. Did you notice the energy that runs in their veins? That was almost incredible. What an outstanding performance.” His charming voice ricocheted in the big stadium that had suddenly become small as people brushed against each other, some pensive, mourning; others in great jubilation. But as his lips moved and his face kept changing with each word that came along, what I heard was, “Great is not what you become, but what you already are.”
Four days ago, I suspected something that nudged me back to reality. Agnes was nearing the close of her gestation period and yet, I had not notified my grandmother in my last letter to her. The Olympics football matches had carried me away.
“The sunken area around her hips and the heaviness of her breath are enough signs,” I had said to my mother the day I found out Agnes was pregnant.
“Wow! Are they as clear as the picture of the New World in the eyes in Columbus?”
“Sure!” I nodded without thinking. “But truer than the image of Africa in the mind of Europe.”
“You’re such an awful thing,” she said. “Too much reading is not good for the mind.”
“That’s your handiwork”.
“Carry your wahala and go,” she said, leaving for school.
That day, on realizing Agnes’ condition, I was both glad and sad. I was happy she would soon be a mother, yet it worried me that it took me so long to find out. “Adorable Agnes,” I called her later that day. “You look quite restless. Is everything well with you?” I caressed her plump body and she shook her head, drawing her lips backward. That was her way of assuring me she was fine. We never talked much whenever we were together, we would only mount a confident look on each other, taking pleasure in the things that held us together. Before Agnes came into my life, I disliked her kind, but she arrived with a shade of novelty and everything changed.
“Love is an animal thing,” I told my mother, the day she complained of the insults she had been receiving from other tenants, especially Kaja, because of Agnes.
“I warned your father not to bring this thing along, but he wouldn’t listen,” she yelled, anger smouldering on her face.
“You shouldn’t let Kaja ruin our harmony,” I said. “Agnes has brought us joy and we can’t thank her enough for that.”
“You’re saying shit.”
As Agnes could not speak for herself, I became a self-appointed minstrel telling the world what a great buddy she had been to us. My family was at the threshold of collapse before Agnes’ sudden arrival. There were frequent fights. And as for verbal abuse, we were never in lack of it. My mother was a lovely soul and my father a quiet man, yet they wrestled like The Undertaker and Edge in no other match than Hell in a Cell. I was Stone Cold, the unbiased referee, and it wasn’t easy for me. We fought. We wounded. We fainted. But somehow, we managed to live.
“Tobe,” my father called me the night after his last fight with my mother. “When I was a bachelor,” he began saying, “I resolved never beat the woman I would marry, but your mother has sworn to ridicule my good intentions.” His attempt to conceal his agitation failed, for I could hear the thumping of his chest as he stood beside the fridge, red like the spots on my mother’s white floral gown after that fight.
Everywhere was silent in our house except for the tickling of our Victorian clock hanging with the aid of a rusted nail on a washed blue wall. The clock, it seemed, had no regard for the graveness of the moment. Even my parent’s room known for the unending blaring of a small but mighty radio was silent. That radio was a member of our family, far older than my parent’s marriage. My father bought it in September of 1965 during a visit to Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. He treasured it more than anything else in our house, and never was he tired of telling all who cared to listen that it was made by his friend, Egbuchunam, a young innovative man, whose throat was slashed during the war. “Egbuchunam was not killed by the federal troops. No. He was murdered by his own brothers, the Biafran soldiers. Why?” he would ask his listeners, who, dazed, always had no answers for him. “He was not slain because he was a rebel. He was slaughtered because he was an intellectual, because he believed in liberating his soul through learning, because he was Egbuchunam.” Some of his listeners had often wondered aloud whether the late man’s fate had any connection with his name, for Egbuchunam if translated loosely means do not kill me. My father would search for answers, but, not finding any, would ask in a voice deepened by sadness, “This is how Biafra would come?”
As my father emptied himself before me, it gladdened my heart that he was not one of those men my History teacher was referring to three years ago in class, when she said, “There is an embarrassing number of pitiable men who still believe that self-containment is the measure of manhood and in their delusion have willfully chosen to be igneous and soulless.” She had blasted men that day as though her husband had angered her before leaving the house.
“Your happiness is the only possession you own alone,” I said to my father shortly after he became still. “Please don’t risk it.”
“If the decision you took many years ago makes you whole, then only you can make it stand.”
“That’s my point. I try. But your mother…”
“Was she there when you made the decision?”
“No. But…” There was silence.
“Own your choices, Father. Let it work. I love you already.”
“I need a girl child,” he said. That was unexpected and sharp. It left me wondering whether a fleeing spirit had just dropped the words, but the accompanying words washed away my doubt. “You know I come from a family where male children are almost worshipped. My mother has nine, my brothers and I, but I’m the only one doing well. Not as if I’m rich.”
I had always known my father had a special liking for girls, and from the way he used to talk about our neighbour’s talented daughters, I knew he wished he had one. But had that anything to do with the quarrels in our home?
“Okay,” I just said.
“Your aunt Lucia has four daughters and two sons. All her girls are putting smiles on her face,” he further said.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry about this,” he apologized, his face swollen with misery.
“I think you need rest,” I suggested, moving nearer to him.
“Maybe,” he said, holding my right hand.
Agnes arrived later. My grandmother had gifted her to my father during a visit to the village. She had taken time to tell my father how much she valued Agnes’ mother and how certain she was that Agnes would be like her mother. Agnes was a sickly kid when she came along, and in taking care of her, my father’s attention was shifted from the retinue of faults he always found in my mother, especially her supposed lack of intimacy with him, and directed towards the poor thing. My mother even invited her school’s Agricultural Science teacher, who was a veterinary doctor, to help out, and regularly she talked with my father for hours into the night about some new suggestion of the doctor’s, about the vaccine that worked faster and the one that was cheaper, about everything that would make Agnes well. With time I realized that fights died out in our family, that people no longer thronged into our rooms to separate my parents holding each other at dangerous points, that morning prayers were now said together, that the new ceramic teacups had lasted longer than a week, that my father had stopped murmuring about this and that, that he now talked about what Agnes would eat and how to make sure she didn’t jump into Kaja’s farm, that my mother had started calling my father obim again. I was also pleased that our neighbours, those who used to laugh at us each time we washed and rinsed our dirty lives outside, were now deafened by our croaky laughter.
I didn’t know I could cry like my father till the day Kaja hit Agnes with a heavy stick. I looked at him, the supposed father of my girlfriend, and didn’t know what to think of him. As Agnes cried, following me about limping, the rage residing in my stomach yelled to be unbound.
“Will you stop that already?” I howled at him. “Can’t you see she ran to me? Must you also humiliate her before me?”
“It destroyed my farm,” Kaja reported, his face patched like Jubilee road, the one that led to the General Hospital, which lay doomed like its patients, awaiting an eventual collapse. “It ate my yams. It ate everything,” he lamented.
“That’s why she’s Agnes.” I was not going to listen to anything he had to say. How could I when he had already abused Agnes? “Would you rather she behaves like you?”
Kaja spat on the ground. “Children of the end time,” he said, pointing at me. “You have no respect for elderly people.”
When he was out of sight, I hurled, “Go away, biko,” I looked around to be careful nobody was listening to me. “Look at you, Federal Minister of Morality and Respect Affairs.”
Agnes, with a glowing black and orange-dotted fur, was hornless, and thus looked like a dog. Her pale irises contrasted sharply with her horizontal slit-shaped pupils and her short tail pointed upward. She reached puberty in her sixth month. Her eclectic choice of food was out of this world. When Agnes was a kid, she was frisky and inquisitive. In one of her many exploits, she saved me from the fatal peril of a second heartbreak.
“I love you pass my mother,” Ify, Kaja’s daughter, would often whisper to me.
“I love you pass my father,” I would reply.
“You’re always in my heart, my prince charming.”
“You’re also in my heart.”
“How I love you like my own soul.”
“Thank you again.”
“I’m real. I’m yours.”
“I love you.”
But all that was wash-wash love. Agnes came back one day with an envelope in between her lips and when I pursued her, she spat it out and ran away. She had chewed my last card, the last naira note I had, three days ago, so I was just making sure she wasn’t going to ruin me once more. But when I opened the envelope the bomb exploded. Ify had been sending Nduka the same letters she always sent to me. Everything was the same. Only the names were different.
Agnes fell in love with Kelly, a stud nearby. He was not the only male that noticed she was in heat, but he was the one she desired. I would watch with great awe as she shooed others away, surrendering herself entirely to Kelly. Perhaps it was the coquettish manner with which Kelly displayed his curling lips or the sexy smell produced by the sebaceous scent gland at the base of his horns that evoked the attraction. Whenever Agnes wagged her tail, bleating repeatedly, I would know she needed Kelly. And what business of mine was it? I would wear my cloth and jejely go to the compound where he lived and lure him home. He had to come and finish what he started.
“Johannes Bonfrere is a fortunate man,” my mother never got tired of saying. But today her eyeballs were full to bursting when she said, “He earns more than the president himself. That’s outrageous!”
“I think we’re lucky he accepted our offer,” I countered. “He’s a highly demanded coach and he’s not doing badly.”
“You don’t mean it, do you?”
“Everybody knows that.”
“I beg to be excluded from your everybody.”
“It’s surprising you think otherwise.”
“If Bonfrere is as wonderful as you say, then why didn’t Dutch make him her national team’s coach?”
“Fate,” I said. “Fate is working out a miracle for us.”
“Nigeria is wasting her money. The huge sum we spend on Bonfrere can produce ten Bonfreres in Nigeria.”
I spoke no further. My mother was not a woman to give up freely on what she believed. I wasn’t surprised about her opinions. What could be more astonishing than the thought of a citizen supporting another nation against hers? My mother was a diehard fan of England. When I managed to question her about her decision she just said, “England is the team.”
“I know,” I said to her. “But since you’re a Nigerian, don’t you think it is unpatriotic not to stand with your nation?”
“I’m a citizen of the world and I’m free to choose where to belong.”
“Isn’t charity supposed to begin at home?”
“If you must know, this is the spirit of commonwealth.”
“What has commonwealth got to do with this?”
“Everything,” she replied, snapping her fingers knowingly. “Commonwealth is not a talking thing, it’s a doing thing. I mean a human thing.”
Taken aback, I asked, “Wait a minute, which commonwealth are you talking about?”
“The one you know.”
“Do you mean the big umbrella crafted by our once-upon-a-time mother to keep us, her runaway children, under her authority?”
“It is a family of nations bound by something beneath the skin.”
“I know you’re a Government teacher, but this is no classroom.”
She giggled and then muttered, “I thought you had sense.”
My father, a secondary school teacher of English Literature, didn’t like football. The few times he watched some matches were because my mother enticed him. But he loved music and poetry. For him, poetry was a way of discovering god and telling him that we are. And where else would you find god if not in music? The poet, he would always insist, is not he who carries the burden of the world and places it on his art, not caring whether the soul of his art wants to be left alone, desires to be free; but he who knows he’s merely an observer of life and dreamer of dreams. As for music, Osita Osadebe’s voice held the magic for him. He listened to the man’s songs every night before retiring to bed, but in the morning it was Michael Jackson. How much he loved that man and his eccentricities. His favourite track was We’re the World. Whenever I was broke and had nothing else to think about – and I was always broke, for being broke completed my Nigerianness – I would go and listen to my father’s endless talks about Africa and the redemption of the Black Soul through music and literature.
And so I inherited a perfect mix of my parents’ likings. I loved anything from Whitney Houston: I Will Always Love You was the voice of God speaking life into the parched places of my soul. I knew Whitney Houston would get tired of this earth someday, drown and leave us here alone, but I was not afraid, for in releasing that track Greatest Love of All, she answered the divine calling unto immortality. Kanu Nwankwo, Taribo West, and Jay Jay Okocha made me wake up at midnight to think of football and how it united the world.
Agnes’ bleating drew my attention now. The first half of the final match was just over and Agnes was in labour. My father ran to the scene, followed by my mother. I was already watching her, helping the little I could.
My father, obviously confused, asked, “Why is it taking so long?”
“Everything will be fine,” my mother responded.
“Agnes, you can make it,” I cried. “We’re all here for you.”
“She would be fine,” she reassured me, returning to the room for the second half.
The second half was far gone and Agnes was still in labour. I was now sobbing. How could this happen to me? She was writhing in pains and Nigeria was struggling. The world was watching, watching Nigeria and Argentina, watching Agnes and me. When I went inside to see how the match was going and to listen to my mother say, I told you that Bonfrere is no match for Daniel Passarella. Nigeria is good but Argentina has football flowing in her veins, I heard my father’s voice.
“Yes!” he screamed. “Agnes has done it.”
I darted outside immediately, but before I could run halfway, I heard a noise from our neighbour’s room packed with many viewers. I turned and rushed back into our room.
“Where are you going again?” my father asked, as I slammed the door.
“I’m coming. Tell Agnes I’m coming,” I screamed from inside.
Tension was building up. Africa, the whole of Africa was praying for Nigeria. Nigeria became Africa and Africa became Nigeria. A minute before the end of regulation time, Nigeria had a free kick outside the left corner of the Argentine penalty area. Wilson Oruma hit the ball and the Argentina’s defense executed an offside trap, pressing forward to catch Nigeria offside. Unexpectedly, swiftly, Oruma kicked. Peter Trinidad’s flag pointed downward. Amunike volleyed the ball out of mid-air into the bottom right corner of the Argentine net.
For many weeks after the match, our neighbourhood relished with vitality the excitement that overtook the streets in the end: naked boys and girls trotting in and out of their houses, chanting songs of triumph, young adults hitting the walls of their homes as though the walls had a hand in the win, grabbing the pillars as if they would lift the buildings, Papas and Mamas throwing beers around, gyrating to the crescendo of success. That’s Nigerians for you. That’s how we roll.
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, born in Aba and educated at Imo State University, has been published in print and online magazines. He currently teaches English Literature.