Jerry turned down the air-conditioning a few notches and sniffed again on his inhaler. It was that time of the year when he battled respiratory allergies. Wondering if he shouldn’t ignore the discomfiture of his visitors, and put off the damn thing, he sighed and turned again to stamping permit papers.
His office was a little squarish box with one window behind the desk. He had smuggled in a little white refrigerator. In the far corner, past the window, he had erected a small wardrobe, in which he kept a few clothes; duty might call at any moment, and the inconvenience of going home to change would hamper operations. The red carpet was worn and discoloured in the area between the door and Jerry’s desk, where foot traffic constantly weathered it. Hugging the wall to the right of every entrant is a four-locker cabinet, to which countless proposals and MOUs have been consigned – fit punishment to naïve contractors who did not know the palm-greasing route to successful projects.
On his desk were the physical paraphernalia of his administrative role in the secretariat – forms, stamps, files – but he was useful to this government beyond the processing of permit papers. He was an organizer, a deliverer of votes, a thorn in the flesh of the opposition.
Jerry had come to work for the state government by what he still considered utter good luck. It was an election year, he was fresh out of the polytechnic, and a firebrand amongst the party’s youth corps. When the party echelon heard how he had led a team of ballot box snatchers to snatch a win from an opposition stronghold, Rufus, who had been campaign manager, took him by the hand and marched to the office of the head of service, and said, “Give this man a job, today!” Since then, he had proved an astute political go-getter, earning himself admittance into the administration’s inner caucus.
Back in school, when an aspirant recruited him and two dozen other hotheads in the student union, ostensibly to provide “security” for an election campaign, he had experienced, firsthand, what politics was about. Some small pocket money was disbursed, but the whole idea had been so novel, so tantalizing, that he would have done it for nothing. As his team distributed gratification, stuffed ballot boxes, out-muscled the opponent’s thugs, and lost one or two unlucky colleagues, Jerry learnt grassroots politics.
It had been eight years since that fiery baptism into politics. Hundreds of foot-soldiers still scrounged by the sidelines. Many were personal acquaintances. By their standards, he had had a meteoric rise in the political establishment. But he never let his good fortune occupy his mind. He did not want to look back at fallen soldiers, or stragglers. He plotted and prosecuted his ambitions with a single-minded ruthlessness, which sometimes seeped out onto the performance of mundane tasks – such as the intensity with which he had interrogated his last visitor, or the gruff edge in his voice as he asked pertinent questions, or the way his nose wrinkled with irritation, or the snarl that came out when he sought clarifications.
Jerry was a man in a hurry. Today, as special assistant to the governor on special duties, he sat in a little corner office, in a pretty suit and stripy red shirt. He did not want to sit here too long, or the fates would come and whisk him off to obscurity. General elections were eight months away; he knew what he wanted for his efforts. When the coming dusts have settled, he wanted to be commissioner, no more, no less.
The table clock on his desk clocked 3:30pm. He sniffed again on his inhaler, pulled up his suitcase lying by the legs of his seat, and began to stuff in homebound items. He was done for the day. He would stop over at the Chief of Staff’s house, for a campaign planning meeting.
Edifices like Rufus’s were one reason Jerry still kept faith with politics. There was money to be made, with a little luck, and if one played the ball right. Choice cars adorned the exquisitely landscaped vicinity. Jerry negotiated his Kia between two date palms. Just ahead, an irregularly-shaped swimming pool shimmered with rich blue waters. At the far end of the pool, people lounged on divans, sipping Chapmans. Beyond that, a bar hosted a grill, and played Highlife music.
The house itself was a white, three-storied structure, imposing, and effusing an aura of wealth. From the lighting exposed by open windows, Jerry caught snippets of activity inside the building; some mellow, some vibrant. He locked his car door, took one appraisal look at himself, and strode towards the entrance porch. Party and national flags adorned the entrance door post. He showed his pass to the concierge at the door, and entered the house. A few party faithful had arrived. Some wore the party logo on their jacket lapels. Soon the place would fill up with guests, inner caucus people and hangers-on alike. Jerry walked over to Babs Subair, His Excellency’s special assistant on media relations. Babs already had two consorts waiting on him. One of the women sat on his lap, whilst he stroked her longish, synthetic hair. Babs had taken off his jacket and hung it on a nearby pole-stand.
“My name is Jerry!” Babs called out – a reference to a long-ago incident in which Jerry had found it necessary to assert his identity. Babs was the king of spin. The party relied on him to keep nosy journalists in check, and to keep the public in just the right middle ground between information and ignorance. Jerry returned the greeting, shook hands, and sat on the couch, beside Bab’s other woman. When the ladies excused themselves and returned to the bar area, Jerry drew closer and asked, “When is this meeting starting?”
“Oga Rufus is upstairs. Almost everyone is here,” Babs said. “We are waiting for His Excellency.”
Jerry rose and went upstairs. At the top of the stairs, he took a glass from a waiter in a crisp, colourful livery. Rufus sat at a table with three other party stalwarts. Jerry walked over to say hello.
“That’s me, sir. Still loyal”
Rufus was a big man, past fifty, with a huge head, jowly cheeks, and tiny eyes. His kaftan flowed all the way down to his ankles, smoothing out his abdominal contours, almost concealing the fact that he wore a trouser underneath. On his feet was a pair of expensive slippers.
“You always make our enemies feel the pinch,” Rufus said.
“I’m alive to my duties,” Jerry replied.
“There’s this senator boy, though. He’s been running his mouth and acting invincible.”
“I know,” Jerry said, pulling a seat and joining the group. “But he’s an untouchable.”
Rufus nodded slowly, and tapped his feet. Because of its largeness, a nod of Rufus’s head is a major event. The face of disgust he made further accentuated his jowls.
“He was untouchable. He no longer is.”
Rufus raised his glass to his lips, revealing grizzly, well-fed hands, and a Rolex original strapped to the wrist.
“We wanted to bring him in, you know, make him useful to us since he has such a big mouth and can foment so much trouble. Now I’m convinced that he is not only loud, but also dumb. We cannot let him participate in the elections. We must shut him up.”
Jerry’s mind took a little backward trip. There were many ways to silence a politician. Many had been silenced in the past. The amazing thing is that it is so easy – and they don’t seem to realize it.
“You will let us know whatever you need.” Rufus said.
Jerry added Senator Lukeman to a mental to-do list, and went off to mingle with the growing crowd. In the world of politics as he knew it, networking is never redundant.
The meeting lasted two hours. His Excellency was concerned about the opposition’s majority in the state assembly. Rufus blinked his tiny eyes and said he would take care of them, as he always had.
“If we don’t let them get in in the first place, there would be no need to take care of them,” His Excellency said.
His Excellency, the Governor, was a shrewd, soft-spoken man. He had managed, for three years, a cantankerous house in which his party was in the minority, without getting himself impeached. Perhaps only he knew how tough the task had been.
“It is not sustainable at all,” he said, “spending so much to immobilize a bunch of fat cats – monies that could be spent on people-oriented programmes.”
A few people exchanged glances.
“Oh yes, we do worry about the people sometimes.”
His Excellency had a permanent fold in the space between his two eyes. Even when he smiled his trademark self-effacing smile, and his gaze danced about the room, that space remained furrowed.
“Only we have to survive to do anything for the people.”
He paused, and scanned the room.
“It’s a campaign goal,” he said. He turned to the campaign director, his gold-rimmed pen pointing at the projector screen, where a map of the state was color-coded according to the senatorial district held by each political party. “We have to have redrawn that pictogram by the end of this campaign.”
His Excellency left the meeting one hour into the proceedings. Thereafter, briefings followed briefings, until they got so monotonous that Jerry’s mind returned to the grandeur of Rufus’s house. Every structure, every embellishment, every piece of furniture, was of the finest quality. He reckoned that the whole house, brick by brick, could have been built entirely with kick-back money. But a few lighthearted moments punctuated the proceedings. When Babs discussed how the party would deal with voter apathy, and spewed numbers about radio jingles, TV ads and street jamborees, someone asked, “Where’s the good old cash and grocery distribution?”
“Times are changing…” Babs started saying.
“We want to connect with people’s sense of civic duty.”
“By giving all the money to rich media establishments?”
“We have to adequately sensitize people.”
“There is no sensitization better than a bag of rice to poor people, who are the bulk of our electorate, anyway.”
“We cannot continue to corrupt these people.”
“It’s cheaper than whatever you’re doing with TVC or any of the other media houses.”
“And it qualifies as a people-oriented programme.”
The room cracked up.
At the end of the meeting, the group filed out for dinner. The women rejoined their partners, and the wining and dining and making out began. It was the final lap of the evening, at least within the perimeters of Rufus’s house. Babs was taking his consorts to a favourite hotel, to finish off what the evening had begun, and wanted Jerry to pick a woman and come along. He didn’t feel like it. Instead, he leaned on the railing in the second floor balcony, and made small talk with Samson, a buddy from school days, who was a junior member of the state ex-co, and was now running for a state senatorial seat.
“Get in there and swell our numbers,” Jerry said to Samson.
“I’ll need your vote to do that.”
“It’s not my personal vote that you need.”
“I know. I need some more face time in that district, and since I don’t have the time to do it organically, I need some publicity stunt, something to tip the scales.”
“Have you spoken to Babs?”
“Yeah…we’ve been turning over a bunch of initiatives. But you know Babs, he’s a big-spender kind of publicist.”
“I reckon I need something – a bunch of things, really – with a guerrilla flavour.”
“At least you know what kind of initiatives you need.”
“I’d be toast-bread if I don’t.”
The two men looked down at the spectacle below. Sleeping greenery. Lights. Merrymakers. Groovy music. Trees swaying to the light wind. Beyond Rufus’s compound is a panorama of his rich neighbours’ cribs: still more lights teasing sleeping beauty.
“Have you ever considered running for an elective position?” Samson asked.
“I’ve definitely thought about it, Sammy. I guess king-making suits me better at the moment.”
When Jerry got home, he let himself into the flat with a spare key, having told Debra not to wait up for him. He knew she would be upset nonetheless. He thought it kind of queer for a woman he met at a campaign rally, jumping, shouting slogans and waving a flag. She was dark, buxom, and absolutely gorgeous. And she had the whitest set of teeth he had ever seen. He was not built to resist such combinations. They were married a year later.
Debra was a good party woman, and quite popular in the women’s league, but she did not overlook his use of family time for party work. He often wondered how she could draw the lines. But he was a lucky man; he knew her hand. He knew how to defuse her wrath and get her all softy-mushy.
He opened the door of the children’s room and tiptoed inside. His boys were both asleep. He planted a kiss on their cheeks and tiptoed out again.
When he opened their bedroom door and stepped in, Debra did not stir. She lay still on the bed, in her nighties, a flimsy satiny thing. He walked over and kissed her cheeks and said “hello darling,” but she did not respond, so he pulled off his clothes and stepped into the adjacent bathroom for a hot bath. After the bath, he climbed into bed and snuggled beside her. He held her close, whispering sweet nothings. Debra murmured, “Dinner’s in the refrigerator.” Jerry ignored her words and held closer and fondled. Soon, his hands were all over her, and Debra’s satin nightdress had become an untidiness of shimmering folds exposing private regions of luscious flesh. Debra whimpered and began to writhe slowly. When he penetrated, she winced and burst into incoherent moans. He waded in deeper, and waltzed away.
Jerry spent the better part of an hour studying the news clippings. They filled the brown paper-bag. Senator Lukeman had been a constitutional lawyer before joining the state assembly. He was the opposition party’s most vocal mouthpiece, and had been the arrowhead of much of the political wrangling in the house. An analysis of the clippings confirmed his longstanding impression of the man, that he was a smooth talking, camera-loving narcissist.
Jerry picked up the second paper-bag and emptied its contents on his study desk. He gathered up the photographs, leaned back in his seat, and started flipping them; shots of Lukeman with his wife and kids; shots of Lukeman with a mistress; shots of Lukeman’s wife; shots of Lukeman’s mistresses; shots of Lukeman’s favourite adulterous rendezvous. For the brief moments that he permitted the thought, he thought the senator had good taste. Lukeman had a penchant for fair-skinned women, and seemed to like them big.
Jerry picked up his phone and dialed an acquaintance.
“Paddy, I have work for you.”
This time, Jerry and his wife Debra and their two sons, Paul and Tunde, were received in the residential wing of the building. Rufus’s wife and Debra had taken to each other, and after lunch had smuggled themselves to an inner chamber. In the sitting room, Paul and Tunde played video games with Rufus’s youngest son, the one who hadn’t yet left home.
“How are your boys doing?” Rufus asked Jerry. Both men sat in Rufus’s study, surrounded by Rufus’s little library, several award plaques, photographs on the wall. Rufus had uncorked a vintage wine that he had been saving up for some time.
“They grow so fast I can hardly keep up,” Jerry said.
Rufus chuckled, and shook his glass.
“They are a handful for Debra.”
“I can imagine.”
“Yet she wants to work.”
“Interesting. And what do you say?”
“No, of course. Who will take care of the kids? It’s tough already as it is.”
“No, my friend. Don’t sweat it. Ask her to come up with a plan.”
Jerry took a sip, smacked his lips, and set down his glass, and said, “Now that you mention it, why not?” He took a longer sip, smacked his lips again, and drew closer to Rufus.
“Oga Rufus, you know I’ve been a loyal party man. I’ve never dropped the ball. Now, a new dispensation is around the corner…”
“I know where you are going, Jerry. You want to make commissioner.”
“Except that at least three others are after the position.”
Rufus nodded agreement.
“You know the uncertainty around these things. Even when it seems cut and dried, contenders can suddenly pop out of thin air.”
“That’s correct,” Rufus said.
“All I’m saying is, put in a word for me in the right places. Sponsor me.”
Rufus let the silence linger awhile.
“As far as I know, you are the best man for the job. Don’t worry, I will talk you up. I’m on your side.”
“That’s so good to know,” Jerry said, and leaned back on his seat.
“Why else have I let you invade my privacy?” Rufus asked. “You are even drinking my vintage wine.”
Jerry threw back his head and laughed; a loud, throaty laughter, the type reserved for when he found something truly hilarious.
While he drove his family home that evening, Jerry’s mind stayed on the subject of Dawodu Tijani, the “sucker” whom he learnt is His Excellency’s favourite for the commissioner spot he coveted. Despite Rufus’s assurances, he knew, if he knew anything, that a politician’s word must be taken with a pinch of salt. It had little to do with Rufus’s sincerity. It was simply in the nature of political things.
He started and looked at Debra, who was staring at him with concern, and realized that she had been calling his name, that he had been lost in his thoughts.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing. Nothing important.”
“Please don’t tell me nothing.”
“Ok. Dawodu Tijani.”
“That’s His Excellency’s favourite for the commissioner slot.”
Debra fell silent, for so long that Jerry stopped listening, and turned his attention to the road. Paul and Tunde started squabling in the back seat.
“Daddy, he wants to take my aeroplane,” Tunde whined, and a struggle ensued.
“Will you two keep quiet!” Jerry ordered.
A couple or three thunderclaps rumbled in the sky, and the rain started pouring. It made traffic worse, and Jerry pulled into the house much later than he had anticipated. The downpour was still heavy, and electricity was gone. He whisked Debra and the boys inside, and went to the back of the house to turn on the generator. When he came in, drenched some, and switched on the sitting room TV, the English Premier League fixture had just begun.