Desperate Times – Brian Sheehan

 

Adewale Odi lived with his family in a large estate, east of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The only son of Adewale Odi senior, a powerful politician, young Ade had led a privileged life. The Odi family had spent the last decade in Europe on official government business and Ade barely remembered the Nigeria of his childhood. He was seven years old when the family left and he had not thought much about his homeland since.

In winter, when they lived in Europe, the Odi family went skiing in the Alps and in summer they holidayed in San Remo. In Montenegro, the last place the Odi family had lived, they rented a house overlooking the sea in the beautiful town of Budva. It was there that Ade felt most content. In Budva, he had many adventures, racing his dinghy with the sons and daughters of other diplomats on the Adriatic Sea. He went scuba diving and snorkeling. He played tennis. He snuck drinks to his friends at his father’s fabulous parties.

However, in the last election, new factions within the government’s ruling party came to the fore and Odi Sr.’s interests in Nigeria were threatened.

‘I have been a fool.’ Odi Sr. said to his wife, June. ‘I trusted them with my money. Soon they will tell me none of it is mine.’

‘What can we do?’ asked his wife.

‘We have no choice,’ said Odi Sr. ‘We must return.’

The family moved back to Abuja to see what they could rescue. Odi Sr. told the press that he wanted to take a more hands-on role in domestic affairs. The move, he figured, would provide him with the cover he needed to liquidate his assets – oil, property, shareholdings – and discreetly transfer his fortune to Swiss banks.

Stuck in a country they no longer understood nor cared for, and confined to the compound, the Odi family became restless. They longed for a return to Europe, to the life they knew.

‘How long more Papa?’ asked Ade.

Ode Sr. stood over the table, drinking juice as Ade’s mother straightened his tie. She brushed the toast crumbs from his mouth.

‘You look handsome Papa,’ she said. ‘I am proud of you.’

Odi Sr. smiled and signalled for the chauffeur to bring the car around.

‘How long more?’ asked Ade.

‘Not long.’ said Odi Sr. ‘A few months. Then we can leave.’

#

Young Ade had often wondered as to what lay outside the compound but he dared not look. His father’s position was tenuous and Odi Sr. had warned Ade against leaving. Ade understood his father’s concerns. The violent Nigeria he saw on the news scared him.

Ade passed his time playing tennis with his younger sisters, but at twelve and fourteen they provided no competition.  Ade was seventeen, almost a man. Sometimes his sisters played as a team but even this was too easy. He needed someone to return his powerful serve. His father played him at weekends but Odi Sr. was too fat to run around the court.

The children received their school lessons from their live-in tutor, Jobe, an elderly man who taught in the traditional way. They learned tables and scriptures off by heart. Ade had no great interest in schoolwork but he had recently picked up an interest in studying English. This was because his father’s assistant, Sarah, now taught him. 

Odi Sr. had hired Sarah as his advisor when the family lived in Montenegro. She was twenty-five, beautiful, and from the moment they saw her, Ade and his sisters fell in love. The girls asked a hundred questions.

‘How come your hair is so long? It’s down to your waist.’

‘I like it this way,’ she said. ‘It suits me.’

‘Everything would suit you. How come it’s so glossy?’

‘I wash it with special oils.’

‘Can we get some?’ asked Ade’s sisters.

‘Maybe. . . If you practice your English.’

English is the official language of Nigeria, though the Odi family, their servants and staff spoke Hausa in their day-to-day. Hausa is one of the most common languages in Nigeria but there are many languages and they can all sound different.

Sarah spoke Hausa but since she had lived with her mother in London for most of her life, she spoke English first. She had attended university in Cambridge, where she received her degree, and before she met Odi Sr., she worked as a tutor in the Department of Computer Science. Odi Sr. met her at a fundraiser. Ten minutes into conversation he offered her a lucrative employment contract. His wife, June was not impressed when he brought Sarah back to Montenegro and even less impressed when Sarah came to Abuja to live with them.

‘You could have brought Udeme. He speaks four languages and he has better manners,’ his wife told him.

‘Yes, Sarah is different to what you are accustomed to but she is a modern woman.’

‘So that’s what you call it.’

Sarah found the move to Abuja difficult because she felt under the constant scrutiny of June. At first, she continued to assist Odi Sr. in his work but as he became more nervous he stopped her from coming into the city. She begged Odi Sr. to allow her outside the compound. He refused.

‘It’s too dangerous,’ he said. ‘Besides, much of what I have to do now has to remain secret. You bring attention.’

‘I’m bored,’ said Sarah. ‘And your wife hates me. I need something useful to do or else I must leave.’

‘Please,’ said Odi Sr. ‘Help my children learn English. They have spent too much time growing up speaking Hausa. Even French comes more naturally. It saddens me that I have not taken enough care with their education.’

‘You have Jobe,’ said Sarah.

‘Jobe is a good teacher but old fashioned. Ade is seventeen and he has not been prepared for the real world. If you do me this favour, I will consider letting you get involved again in political life.’

#

Though keen to impress in his English lessons, Ade often became tongue tied. He did not speak to Sarah much outside of class and he found her far too pretty to look at and converse with at the same time. His sisters teased him. They joked to him that he wanted to wrap himself up in Sarah’s long hair.

Understanding her power over men, and the problems it caused, Sarah decided to teach Ade separately. To help Ade focus she needed to distract him, so she came up with the plan of teaching him about other subjects and, while doing so, they would speak English. The first week she brought him into the kitchen and taught him to cook. However, Ade’s mother, who had never spent much time in the kitchen before, made this difficult by observing and commenting on their every move. Sarah taught Ade to follow a recipe and he did it well but Sarah could not tolerate June’s interference so they did no more cooking. Sarah taught Ade card games but he had little interest. She taught him about the music she loved and how to dance to it. But this got awkward. So, after exhausting everything else she felt qualified to instruct him in, she taught him computers, the subject which she knew most about.

‘I taught Computer Science in Cambridge,’ she said. ‘Cambridge is a famous English school. Do you know it?’

‘No,’ said Ade. ‘I know nothing about England.’

‘I can teach you,’ said Sarah. ‘But we will also learn about computers.’

Though Ade had a phone, a video game console, and could browse the internet on his tablet, he had no real understanding of technology. He had never needed to learn and the men in the household did not seem interested. His father Odi Sr., a traditionalist, relied on others to complete the minor details. Odi Sr. was, after all, a man of the people, making deals, having his photo taken, and not some bureaucrat typing at a desk. Jobe, Ade’s teacher, was frightened of computers. Ade once tried to show Jobe a racing car video game but Jobe ran to his room. Odi Sr. laughed and said that old Jobe must have believed it was witchcraft.

Sarah taught Ade word processing, how to manage his emails and design a website. All through English. Ade appeared content to learn this and he improved his English without realising. Soon, he became better than his sisters.

Sarah and Ade watched videos in English together and they practiced accents. Ade spoke English well, though not fluently, and he could hold a conversation. His written English was not good but both he and Sarah agreed this would improve in time.  Ade wanted to visit England and practice with the people there.

‘Would I like it in London?’ he asked.

‘You’d love it.’

‘What is your favourite thing?’ asked Ade.

‘For me, London is my home, said Sarah. ‘My friends and family live there. But asides from this I like to travel to Greenwich on a fine day and sit outside in the park. I like to get an ice cream and watch the people. I think about what they are doing and where they will go.’

‘And are the people friendly like on TV? Like in Family Fortunes and Top of the Pops?’

‘Yes.’ said Sarah. ‘It’s the friendliest place.’

#

Months passed and Odi Sr. had difficulty in transferring his assets. Life in the compound was dull and Ade sulked around in a bad mood. One day, while watching the news, Ade heard his father’s name. It was a story about corruption and the TV showed a picture of Odi Sr. raising his champagne glass at a party and laughing. The next item, an economic piece on domestic poverty mentioned Odi Sr. again. The report portrayed him as a criminal, a man who had exploited his position to gain a vast personal fortune.

‘Slander,’ said Ade’s father. ‘They want to tarnish my reputation. But I’m not worried. I am bigger than that.’

‘Are we in danger? asked Ade.

‘No.’

However, Odi Sr. appeared in the newspapers and on the news again the next day. That night, Ade heard his parents arguing. Their shouting woke him up. He crept down the stairs and peeked into the kitchen. His mother stood in front of the fridge door and threw items from it at his father who hid behind a counter stool, his hands clasped together in front of him, his eyes pleading.

‘Mama, they want you to think this. Showing me on television. I knew they would. They are trying to get you to make a stupid move. Stay. Stay where you are safe.’

Ade’s mother threw a carton of orange juice. It narrowly missed Odi Sr’s head and burst against the wall.

‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘You bastard.’

‘Calm down.’

June picked up a bag of peas and threw it. The bag opened and the peas spilled out mid-air and scattered over the tiles.

‘Bastard.’

‘What did you see?’ asked Odi Sr. ‘We had a drink after a long day.’

‘I saw enough,’ said June.  You should not have brought her into our home.’

She placed her hands on the countertop and hunched over. Her shoulders shook and body shuddered. Ade heard her sobbing. Odi Sr. moved carefully towards her but as he neared she sprang at him.

‘Get away. . . Bastard.’

Ade’s father fled back behind the stool as his mother reached for the carton of eggs.

Ade snuck back up the stairs and lay in his bed staring at the ceiling. He heard banging from downstairs and it took him a long time to get to sleep. The next day when he awoke, his mother and his two young sisters had left for the city.

Ade asked his father. Odi Sr. told him not to worry that they had taken a holiday. However, Ade observed his father kicking and slamming doors around the house and he looked more anxious than usual.

Ade sought out Sarah to ask her what happened. He knocked on her door. She put one foot out into the hall. She peeked her head out the door and looked right and left.

‘Ade, what is it?’

‘My mother and sisters have left for the city. They have taken a holiday. I do not understand why we cannot go home. . . To Budva.’

Sarah gave Ade a hug.

‘Your father can explain.’

‘I’m glad you are here,’ Ade said.

‘I am not,’ said Sarah. ‘My face is on the news. I have to get out.’

It was then that Ade noticed.

‘You cut your hair.’

‘Yes, I cannot stand out.’

Ade did not see his father for the rest of the week. Sarah hid in her room. She told Ade and Odi Sr. that she felt sick and she cancelled their English lessons until further notice. Ade’s father appeared on the news regularly and one of the videos showed Odi Sr. and Sarah getting out of a black limo and walking through the doors of a city hotel.

#

Without his sisters and mother around and with Sarah in her room sick, Ade grew bored. He walked the compound thinking of the day when they all could leave and return to Europe. He sulked around on the tennis courts and returned serve to a machine. He played computer games and sat with Jobe for his school work. He practiced cooking and made chicken soup for Sarah so she would feel better but she did not eat it. She did not leave her room.

One night his father called Ade into his office and asked him to sit down.

‘A few days ago, your mother and sisters took a holiday to the city. I told them not to. Now look what has happened. People in the party, opposed to me, have taken advantage. They have kidnapped my girls and demanded I meet them.’

‘Can you call the police?’ asked Ade.

‘No,’ said Odi Sr. ‘They are corrupt. They would put false charges on me and I could go to jail.’

‘What will you do?’

‘I cannot leave my girls. I will meet my enemies and talk sense. I am a skilled diplomat after all. A man of the people.’

Ade looked at his father’s face. It felt hard for him to know what to believe.

‘Listen, we might be in trouble,’ said Odi Sr. ‘I knew the day would come. But, do not worry. They have forgotten you. Give me three days and if I do not return, go to the safe in my bedroom and enter this number. It will be in your hands.’

He handed Ade a card with a code written on it.

‘Papa -’

‘Memorise it. . . now, I have to leave.’

When Ade awoke the next morning, his father had gone. Ade went to find Jobe so he could be excused from lessons but he could not find the old man. In Jobe’s room the little tribal figures he kept on the windowsill were gone and his room was bare. Ade ran through the house searching for someone to explain but he could find nobody. He knocked on Sarah’s door.

‘I’m sick,’ she said. ‘Go away.’

‘It’s me, Ade.’

‘Go away.’

‘Everyone has gone. My father has left and not returned. The servants are gone. We are the only ones here.’

Sarah opened the door. Her eyes were bloodshot.

‘What did you say?’

‘They have my mother and sisters. Papa has gone to them. There is no one else here.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes, certain. Papa gave me the code for his safe but he said to wait before I open it.’

‘No,’ said Sarah. ‘We need to move quickly now.’

They ran to the master bedroom and Ade opened the safe. It contained a letter and a small metal box.

#

Dear Family,

If you are reading this then you are in danger.
In this box are our passports and money to make your way through every checkpoint between here and Benin. Move quickly. Do not stay in the same place. Get to Cotonou and from there take a flight to Geneva. Do not fly from Nigeria. It is vital you do not contact our friends in Europe or do not involve anyone outside the family. Everybody we know has been compromised. I have enclosed instructions for you to take to our bank.

Love, Papa

P.s. I am innocent and my enemies will twist my words and use them against me. I did my best.

#

Ade and Sarah opened the small metal box. It contained the family passports, instructions for the bank and several thousand US dollars and some Naira (the currency of Nigeria).

‘Let’s go,’ said Sarah. ‘Pack.’   

‘Wait.’ said Ade. ‘We should think things through.’

Sarah looked at him. She wondered how she had ended up in this place. Ade stood with his mouth open, waiting for her to act. So naive. So like his father.

‘What is there to think about?’ she asked.

‘I thought -’

‘Don’t be a baby. Listen to me,’ said Sarah.

‘I am no baby.’ said Ade.

‘Pack or I will leave without you.’

‘I thought we were friends.’ said Ade.

#

Sarah called a taxi company to take them to the train station. On the way, she suspected they were being followed by a black saloon. She watched it in the rear-view mirror.

‘So stupid of me.’ whispered Sarah. ‘They have the house phones tapped. And mine is out of battery. Ade, can you lend me yours? I want to ring my Mum.’

‘I am sorry.’ said Ade. ‘I do not have it. I have no numbers here I call. I’m sorry.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Sarah. ‘I’ll find a payphone soon.’

Sarah reached out and squeezed Ade’s hand.

‘I didn’t mean to upset you,’ she said. ‘I am just scared.’

She told the taxi driver to take a detour. The streets were busy in the mid-morning rush. Ladies wearing colourful dresses gathered around fruit sellers, talking loudly and walked the narrow roads paying no attention to traffic. The taxi weaved left and right through alleys and side streets but the black car stayed behind them.

‘Taxi driver,’ said Sarah. ‘To the station.’

She whispered to Ade.

‘We will leave our luggage. We can lose them in the crowd.’

The station was busy and Ade and Sarah jumped from the taxi and ran inside. Porters carried a steady stream of baggage from the trains to the taxi ranks at the entrance. The porters all wore thobes, the long shirt of Muslim men. Sarah and Ade ducked and weaved between them as they made their way to the Western line. Locomotives hissed and clattered as they came to a stop. Though the station appeared modern, having been completed only a year ago, the engines and carriages were old.

The only train on the platforms, bound north for Kaduna, was partially full. They could not afford to wait. It would have to do. They climbed on and found seats. Sarah covered her hair and shielded her face with her shawl. Even still, her slender shoulders and perfect posture distinguished her. Ade slumped in the seat alongside. They stared silently ahead.

There came a knock at the window. Sarah jumped. Ade pretended he did not hear. He could feel his heart pound and he tried to remain still and ignore it.

‘Don’t look.’ he whispered.

The knock came again. Sarah peeked over the edge of her shawl. She smiled. A lady holding a plastic tub, with cans of Coca Cola and Sprite, waved in.

‘Refreshments.’

Sarah laughed and waved the woman away.

#

At noon, they changed trains in Kaduna and boarded one headed south. Sarah hoped to make it to Lagos and find someone to drive them across the border. The southbound train would take six hours. The carriages filled up. Ade and Sarah once more found seats. A few men stood in the carriage, holding on to the baggage rack.

‘We can’t be too careful, said Sarah. ‘My face was on the news. They will soon announce the arrest of your father and that you and I are wanted for questioning.’

‘Do we have to run?’ asked Ade. ‘Papa said to give him time.’

Sarah felt too tired now to humour him.

‘You do what you want,’ she said. ‘I’m getting out of here.’

Ade folded his arms. Sarah closed her eyes and drifted into sleep. The carriage rocked on the tracks as it made its way south through open countryside.

#

When Sarah opened her eyes again, her head rested against the window. Her mouth felt dry. For a moment, she forgot herself.

A cyclist, on the dust path that ran parallel to the tracks, carried a huge bundle of cotton in a large dirty sack, strapped to the back of his bike. One hand behind him steadied the weight and his other hand grabbed the handlebars and steered. The path was bumpy and the weight and awkwardness of the bundle made it look like he would crash. Sarah watched him for a while. Then she turned to Ade.

‘How come we are moving so slow?’ she asked.

‘Maybe there is a station?’ said Ade.

She checked her watch.

‘No. There won’t be another stop until Ilorin.’

The lights flickered and the train ground to a halt.

The carriage became hot and heavy to breathe in. Some of the men forced open the doors. Several passengers climbed up onto the roof. Ade fanned himself with a sheet of cardboard and Sarah dabbed at the sweat under her shawl. Two hours passed.

Eventually, one of the train’s staff entered the carriage and told the passengers that it would not take much longer. The engineers had found the fault and had commenced repairs. Somebody cried for water and the man came back with a container full, a clear plastic drum holding 20 litres. He placed it beside the door and went to get cups. A small queue formed. Ade asked Sarah did she want some but she told him no. She watched the queue for a while and then froze. She felt panic rise in her chest. Her body turned cold in terror. She grabbed Ade and whispered as she pulled him towards her, pointing to a man in the queue.

‘He was on the first train from Abuja.’

‘You are shaking’ said Ade.  

He went to stand up but she grabbed by his shirt tails.

‘Don’t move,’ she said. ‘Just look. He was on the first train. A mean round face and a little beard. I saw him.’

‘Following us?’

‘Of course, following us. No one gets on a train to Kaduna to go to Lagos.’

Ade caught a glimpse of the man as he drank a cup of water. After he had finished one cup he refilled it and drank a second. Ade recognised him too.

‘We get off in Ilorin.’ said Sarah. ‘He won’t expect it.’

#

By the time they reached Ilorin, night had fallen. Ade and Sarah exited the train in the middle of a large group and stayed with the group until they were under the arch of the station. The station was not in a good area. There were no shops and no taxis nearby. Ade and Sarah walked quickly down the dark street, Sarah holding on to Ade’s arm.

They came to a crossroads with a petrol station and two guesthouses on opposite sides. Both guesthouses had lights in the windows and both had signs that read ‘Ilorin Station Hotel’. Ade and Sarah went into the petrol station to see if they could purchase food. They bought bananas and bread and two pieces of sweet cake. The shopkeeper’s eyes flashed when he saw Sarah’s purse with all the dollars in it. They paid and left. The shopkeeper followed them to the door and watched as they made for the nearest of the Ilorin Station Hotels.

At the front desk, Sarah asked if could she use their phone. The lady behind the counter told her it was out of service. She had to try the petrol station. Ade waited in the room. He ate a piece of sweet cake and watched from his upstairs window. A man rounded the corner onto the street. He stepped under the street light and Ade saw his mean face and little beard. Ade wanted to yell but he froze and he could not. The chewed-up cake fell from his mouth. He saw Sarah argue with the shop assistant. She argued about how much it would cost to use their phone. The man with the round face and little beard entered the shop and moved towards her. Sarah turned, saw him and screamed. He hit her. Hard. Into the face. Her head snapped back and she crashed into a row of shelves. She banged her head on the ground. She lay motionless as the shopkeeper held his hands up and stood against the wall.

#

24 hours later, in the town of Shaki, thirty miles from the border, Ade is alone. His money is almost gone but he cannot give up. He has not eaten. His picture is on the news. The missing son of disgraced politician Adewale Odi Sr., Ade Jr. is wanted for questioning.

His eyes fill with tears. He thinks of Sarah and his mother and sisters and his father who got them into this mess. He thinks of the man with the little beard.

The news item plays over and over in the lobby. Ade has checked in with a false name. His father has been charged with fifty counts of embezzlement and corruption. Worse still, they have announced in the latest news cycle that Odi Sr. faces a new charge; treason. They show a picture of the family yacht. The report mentions his mother and sisters but does not say where they are. Everyone Ade knows has been compromised.

Ade sits at the only computer in the front room of the hotel, down to his last ten dollars. He will need a thousand more to get into Benin. He logs into Sarah’s college emails. He knows her password.  Her account is locked because she has not paid her subscription. No matter. He can get the names from her contacts. He copies the list from the biggest folder, the public directory, and loads these. People in England are friendly, like on Top of the Pops and Family Fortunes. They can help. Ade resolves to do what he can. He will rescue Sarah, prove he is a man. He furiously types.

#

Hello friend

I write to seek your help in the context below. I am Adewale Odi, the only son of Adewale Odi Sr., an important Nigerian diplomat.

My father has been captured by his enemies who want to steal our family’s fortune.  My mother and sisters are captured too and your friend Sarah. I need your help to get out of the country and get to our bank in Geneva. I can promise a great reward-

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