If it were not for the story he told me that day, I would have remembered him for his eyes. Each gasp of speech and great gulping for breath set them aquiver like sun-glint green apples on the surface of twin cisterns—two yellow-tainted, claret-crazed chamber pots telling the tale of quinine’s lost war against malaria. There was a tincture in the eye and in the vision, a down payment on restitution for fortunes robbed from the white man’s grave—that is what the British called this part of the Guinea coast in the last century, when to be appointed Her Majesty’s Governor to the Protectorate of Nigeria was a kind of death sentence. That sentence was so reliably executed by the climate, pestilence, and mental strain that it was necessary to begin the recruitment of a successor immediately after the launching of the Governor elect’s ship. Even now time passes here like quicksand. Nigeria’s commanding strides into the 1980’s only dredge up the mud of 1890’s, and everything goes slip and scatter.
I needed no external justification to distrust Wilson, to dislike the man, but that tincture steadied my thoughts on the defects of his character and the anemia of English culture—that dry-rotted sail of Colonialism which would always prevent him from truly understanding the matter that he was to confide in me, and leave him lying awash in spoiled facts and sour fantasies generated from within, like a pregnant sea turtle beached by wild dogs before depositing her eggs.
I must admit that until that day I had developed a very fixed idea of him as a capitalist tool and a bore. He was a typical member of what used to be the old British colonial guard that had reverse metamorphosed—like a moth into a caterpillar—from a triumphant conquering mantis into a not-quite-alien-army of bean counters, managers, and technical experts. His youthful cheerfulness and natural courage had soured over his twenty-one years in the tropics into a certain sleepy quality in his face, and in the way his arms rested limply on his thick thighs as he sat forward with his neck thrust over the breakfast papers on the table. It seemed to reflect a now constitutional need to reserve signs of vigor for exceptional moments of excitement over the course of the harmattan season. Only his head needed to be fully awake to convey his ideas, while his body was allowed to slumber. His speech contrasted with his physical posture in being clear, well defined, and-at the same time wasteful of energy, never getting directly to the point. Some anonymous student evaluations had made the same observation about my lectures, which in comparison were as concise and pointed as a popular finger gesture, which one might surmise Wilson suspected had been surreptitiously flashed toward him. Due to his constant expression of disdain and consternation, the service staff had called Stinky Fisheye behind his back.
He was half finished with his English breakfast, which of course was cooked with local substitutions, so the hashed potatoes, which he wisely had barely touched, sat in a pool of viscous red palm oil that looked like raw petroleum cut with cherry Kool aide. My dinner had been the few beers that the security guard managed to pinch for me in the dead of the night from the closed bar, so I was famished, and took that as reason enough to tarry long enough at breakfast to execute my plan for Wilson. I ordered a meal that the cook had probably seen his mother or an older sister prepare from a distance while a child, undoubtedly the closest thing he had in regard to training for his present duties. My hunger tempted me to order more than I could possibly finish before the arrival of my driver and my plan justified the indulgence. I would ask the driver to wait, and offer to buy his breakfast, which he could refuse at the risk of excommunication from the guild of college functionaries, whose code strictly forbade passing up any possible perk offered, connived, or coerced from an outlander. I was soon delivered a plate filled with pounded yam—stiff enough to build a fortress—an intimidating pile of off-white starch and fiber, surrounded by a moat of fish sauce, rich with palm oil that was equally as unappetizing as that which rounded Wilson’s hash and fried plantains. The cook added a complementary Scotched egg, which he had previously insisted was misnamed and was in fact an indigenous Nigerian dish that people had been making from time immemorial, and certainly long before the arrival of the Onyacha, the peeled oranges, and the white men.
Immanuel, our waiter never had a morning off, and whenever I bothered with breakfast before my driver arrived, he greeted me with the same mockingly reverent smile above his black, dog-eared bow-tie, which distracted somewhat from others noticing the corrugated dinginess that his white serving jacket had attained since the innkeeper had last ordered him to launder it. Immanuel’s slackness was to me a kind of almost daily momentum mori that took the edge off any buoyant hopes I might have entertained of a cool breeze to comfort my workday. It brought to mind the slouchy stance I would assume during the afternoon lectures in that classroom, which in the wet season was a purgatory of perpetual Turkish steam bath, and in the current dry season was an everlasting Finnish sauna. When Immanuel completed a deep respectful nod, as always, his sticklike trigger finger slipped just perceptibly from around the curved handle of the oversized foe-crystal water pitcher for which it was the only support. He precariously hooked the pitcher by the single appendage for no apparent reason, except for what old church folk used to call temptation of the devil, since he had to have complete confidence that if the threatened catastrophe ever occurred and the pitcher shattered, he would forfeit a least a month’s salary to pay for a replacement. I admired this solitary cavalier flair in a man who otherwise had all the characteristics of warm rubber.
Immanuel was incapable of recognizing differences among foreigners it seemed, and never picked up on the grimaces and hastily ejaculated alternatives that radiated from the Englishman and me when he would attempt to set my place at the Englishman’s table. It was the Englishman’s table because he was always the first man in the dining room and always appropriated what was clearly the best table in the dining room—the one in the only corner, far from the windows and door. Perhaps the Englishman (and he was called this, even when there were two or three of his countrymen boarding in the place) was either an exceptionally early riser, or fully nocturnal in his activities, or one of those rare birds that simply never sleeps. Whatever the origin of this preemptory advantage, it was so predictable that it was possible for me to convey my wishes to the Immanuel in a manner that was both unequivocal and telegraphic. I looked the man in the eye and uttered in what must have seemed to him a conspiratorial whisper the unambiguous command, “The Englishman’s table.” Immanuel’s reaction precipitated my shoes receiving their first dry-season baptism when the pitcher dipped, this time more than a modicum, resulting mercifully in only a spill of tepid tap water and not a burst of noise and a bouquet of glass shards.
I hadn’t slept myself, so it was easy to recognize the fatigue of insomnia on the Englishman’s face. His lassitude relieved me, perhaps because it led me to anticipate that that he would respond to my story with boredom, or lazy sarcasm aimed to make me the butt of a joke. His dismissiveness of my experience and the alarm it had caused me would put me at ease—something like his calmly instructing me that the black mamba I saw lying in wait among the shadows under my bed was simply my own sock.
After the usual perfunctory greetings it was clear that neither of us wanted to divert the tension between us by exchanging bits of hastily digested radio or newspaper trivia, as was often our tact. Actually, we dueled like children fighting with spitballs. “Well, what is it?” Wilson said to me. “You are looking at me as though I had taken your wallet and you intend to stare me into a confession.”
I replied, “It’s not the sort of thing I would bother you with, normally. My driver will come shortly, and I just wanted think something through that wouldn’t come off well with my colleagues at the school. Something that happened last night and kept me up all night, something about the local culture that you might find intriguing.”
“Something happened to you?” It was clear from his tone that he suspected that I was disowning responsibility for something.
“Well, something I got myself into, really. On the night road.”
“Is it worth telling, man, or are you going to poke about in generalities until the driver goes honking out front?” He had taken to refer to me as “man,” a construction I had observed was not habitual with him, and at first I thought he was mimicking some idea of the African American use of man as an all-purpose pronoun and interjection. I later concluded it was his way of avoiding using my name for the same reason I avoided using his. He was unduly irritated by my indirection, and the look on his face gave the impression that he suspected my motives for talking to him at all were questionable, maybe malignant.
I continued, “Are you familiar with American literature, folklore maybe? Have you ever heard of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow?”
“Rip Van Winkle? No, not that one. Ichabod Crain, the Headless Horseman? Is that the right one? Yes, well, man, Ichabod Crain disappeared, didn’t he? He’s gone. You’re here.”
I started off telling my story as though I was dictating it into a tape recorder just to get the story out. This enabled me to ignore, for the most part, whom I was telling it to and to not think much about why I was telling it (although I never ceased to map the changing geography of his face). I told him that the previous night I had arrived from University of Enugu, and after some mix ups at the airport, I had been given a lift to the hotel by a strange fellow, whom I had found disturbing to the point of my not getting a decent night’s sleep. He was strange enough to bring to mind the Sleepy Hollow story. I threw in a few details of the man’s appearance, thinking that the Englishman would be as unresponsive as ever to anything personal coming from me, and would put me at ease and let me assure myself I had gotten carried away with the contagion of local color and exoticism, and events blown out of proportion by the very real possibility of danger from bandits and car-jackers on the night roads.
I was sure that he had long ago written me off as a desultory, upstart Kaffir that had to be tolerated at meals and over drinks as long as I didn’t insist on having anything I said being given serious consideration. Americans always seemed to annoy him, but black Americans he tolerated with a kind of vaguely genteel annoyance. Perhaps he felt this to a matter of colonial noblesse oblige, and another practical compromise required to stay afloat in independent Africa. He certainly wasn’t my cup of tea, either. I found his politics too predictably reactionary, his person too imbued with bourgeois zeal for petty virtues, and his taste for companionship boorish in that the people he gravitated toward always reflected his own opinions, virtues, and class-standing. The exception was the obviously one, when he was paying his dues, that is to say, when it was advantageous for him to be seen with Africans, who were always dolts who had pretentions to becoming big men through international business.
Nonetheless, by reason of the accidental correspondence of our schedules and the smallness of town society, we often found ourselves thrown together. The first occasion, at the mandatory monthly country club bingo party, the two of us were a distracting amusement to a giggling ingénue, who found it wonderful that two persons so dissimilar in background, manner, age, and opinion should not only be domiciled in the same obscure hotel, but that we should also bear the same name. Neither of us ever found it amusing.
It was reasonable then for me to expect my story to be only half-attended to, or even ignored. At some level, I expected—even wanted—the brush off. Never had I been so off in my estimation of a person’s reaction. After the mention of the first detail of my previous night’s experience, the Englishman took on an animation greater than I had seen in him before. It was as if I had conversationally mentioned that I had been bitten by a Gabon viper the night before, or that without either of us noticing, a banana spider was now crawling from his collar onto his throat.