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Down, Not Out

The harmattan is  harsh. I’m wearing a pair of socks over another pair of socks, and a thermal coat over two t-shirts. The air is dry, seeming to clutch and squeeze whatever it touches. My nose is only just healing from its grip and I’m learning not to move my mouth too much when I speak so as not to split my flaking lips. This reality is lost to me, however, as my fingers hit away at my computer’s keypad. It takes an uneven chorus of the birthday song to draw me from the words on my screen back to my table in the study.

I had been paying attention to the clock but didn’t realize when the long arm arrived at twelve. This is partly due to the silence of my phone. It sits quietly across the table; no ding, no vibration, no screen coming alive. Other years, it would be buzzing from many hours before the dot of twelve. People made time at crossover services just to step aside and wish me a happy birthday. My special day was a big deal. Well, the day is still the first day of January, perhaps it’s something about the celebrant that has changed. 

“How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now (baby) (uncle Ibrahim)? How old are you now?”

As my love, Adunni and her sister, Aisha round up the third stanza of the birthday song in their uncoordinated but joy-ridden rendition, I soak in all the love and adoration their voices, big smiles, and song-sways are exuding, standing up to clasp them into a tight embrace. This means so much to me, but I’m reminded of how clear it is that so much has indeed changed about me.

I’m no longer ‘Skillz’, the successful media and entertainment consultant; former channel manager of a TV station and general manager of a foremost record label. My social media handles no longer have the glitz, and generally, social relevance is no longer my strongpoint. I traded it all in when I decided to walk away from a decade-old career to pursue writing; worst still, when I waved bye-bye to single life, pitching my tent with Adunni and withdrawing to a low profile.  

“Your phone hasn’t rung?” Adunni asked, leading me to our room.

I shook my head. 

“You’re starting all over again, baby. You’re at the bottom now. Your talent will shine through and all that seems lost will come back,” She says all these in a hushed tone so as not to wake our baby. Then she takes my other hand and starts to pray for me.

Well, there are no regrets, but it sometimes stings when I think about how fast things can change, and how everything moves on without you like you were never there. Leaving means I left a source of livelihood behind. Writing has always come naturally to me, but so far, it’s not showing any signs of yielding desired fruits. This family right here and the indescribable love that binds it is all that has kept me. 

Though a cloud of gloom looms over my subconscious, I know there’s still so much to be excited about. Yes, it’s been ten months since I’ve been submitting my work; ten months since I’ve been dealing with rejections, but one of my stories is finally getting published this January. Adunni is heavy with our second child. We finally left the chaos of Lagos and the torment of landlords for the peace and serenity of Ilorin, in a big compound that is all ours.

There’s a faint knock on the door, interrupting my thoughts and Adunni’s prayers. She pauses, then asks, “what is it, Aisha?”

“Uncle Ibrahim’s phone is vibrating.”

Adunni’s eyes find mine. I see a glint of excitement in them.

“Who is it?” I ask.

“It’s your mum.”

Like a burning candle lighting up a dead one, my eyes take some glint off Adunni’s and my face breaks into a smile.

The TV is tuned to CNN, the interface bright and beautiful, but the on-screen text bearing bad news after bad news. Two days ago, on New Year’s Day, it was news of Jakarta floods. The day after, a plane crash in Sudan killed eighteen people. Earlier today, the news broke of the USA striking and killing an Iranian general. As the story is developing, I’m scrolling through Twitter trend-table to see ‘World War III’ trending at number 1 worldwide.

“I hope Trump does not plunge the world into war this year o. His appetite is becoming too big for his own good,” I say to Adunni who is just walking into the room.

She settles on the sofa, stretches out her legs, rubs her baby bump, then says, “if you’re paying any attention to this virus in China, you’ll see that you’re focusing on the wrong war. If this virus should make it out of there ehn, it will show humanity pepper.”

A light wind rolls waste paper and biscuit foils along the tarred ground as I pace up and down a deserted corridor. It’s May and I’m a block away from the maternity ward at the Ilorin General Hospital, where Adunni is surely screaming her head off, nudged on by the doctor and his midwives. There’s so much that’s scary about that. The uncertainties of childbirth are there , but the biggest causes of worry are all Coronavirus-related.

The virus did make it out of China and in fact seeped across the world like wildfire on a fuel-doused field. Airport checks could not stop it. It incubated in the lungs of travelers where even the carrier was oblivious to its presence. By March when borders began to fall shut like dominoes across all countries, the virus already assumed the dictator role, filling up the morgues beyond capacity, forcing everyone to stay at home, and pretty much grinding everything, everywhere to a halt.

A window across the corridor stares my reflection back at me. The hair around my head and face have grown out of control, much like a lion’s mane, sprouting from all sides of the face mask I have around my chin. Sweat seeps from my pores, wetting the mask at the edges. I lean forward for a closer look, seeing different emotions struggle for space in my reddened, tired eyes. I am as excited as I am anxious. The love of my life is doing the delivery thing alone, pushing a child into the world in the thick of a pandemic!

“Mr. Ibrahim!” 

It must be by the third call before I break from my trance. I run towards the direction of the voice and ask its owner, “how’s she?”

“She just delivered a baby boy. Congratulations!”

“Baby, can you find out how many people this thing has killed in Nigeria? I need the figure for this piece I’m working on,” I tell Adunni. She’s with me in the study, sitting on a rocking chair placed directly before the standing fan. Her face is glued to her phone while our son clutches and sucks on her breast. 

I already peeled my clothes down to singlets and briefs. The heat is menacing and I’m getting nothing from the fan, so I pull away the singlet too. 

She chuckles and says, “sorry,” before her face straightens into a frown. “The statistics from yesterday says eight hundred plus.”

I breathe a heavy sigh.

“Do you see how they’re just numbers; statistics?” she says, her voice cocooned in sadness. “These are real people, but their names don’t even matter anymore.”

This is so true it shifts a wave of guilt through my body. My mind floats back to the first day of the year when my phone not ringing had me feeling down. Even then, I was much more than mere statistics. I was a person at a transition point in his life, living, breathing, blessed with the luxury of having problems, and the privilege of starting afresh. 

My family has grown bigger with the gift of yet another child; a beautiful boy. Following my drought of 2019, publications have poured in every other month since the turn of January, dispersing my words far and wide. I have built new relationships that are more meaningful. My reality is different and I’m a lot happier. All these are much more than the dead can wish for. I realize that even though it is human to feel down, I should learn to be more grateful as long as I’m breathing, because being down and being out are really not the same thing.

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