By Tade Thompson
The day I decide to return to work the taps are dry. The tank is empty because the landlord hasn’t turned the pump on, and none of us tenants has the key. I should wake him up, but this has led to shouting matches in the past, so I take two plastic buckets and go to the well without telling Shakira. She’ll only protest. She is awake when I return carrying both buckets, trying not to spill water on the lino. I see her micro-frown, and I grin to counter it.
I have been off work for two weeks with the worst bout of malaria of my life. I force myself to return even though my mouth is bitter and the blood tests still say I have haemolytic anaemia. In the mirror my eyes have that yellow tinge.
Shakira has been unemployed since June. She does not think I am ready for work, but she does not try to stop me. My mother thinks Shakira should stay home and have babies. I secretly agree, but my wife has her own mind, and the best I can do is hope she starts feeling maternal at some point.
I am weak, but I still take the bus from Idi Oro to Lagos Island.
In hindsight perhaps I should have stayed home.
This is the late 1980s. Billy Eko has just been arrested with eight million dollars worth of heroin at Kennedy Airport in New York. Decree Two has effectively muzzled the press since ‘84. There is no legitimate money to be made anywhere. I have a job with Equity Plc, though. A good one. It pays well and on time. We are fed lunch on the job and we have fuel for our cars. Those who have cars, I mean.
My job title is Special Assistant, which is deliberately vague. What I do is mostly administrative. Filing, posting letters, moving memos around.
When I arrive my co-workers are welcoming. I notice new War Against Indiscipline and Corruption posters on the wall.
”Bakare, pele, o!”
“K”ara o le, egbon.”
“Bros! Welcome back!”
They all smile. I am back. All is well.
I see something new, or perhaps I see something old for the first time. It’s in the antechamber before the department secretary’s office, hiding on the floor in the left corner on approach, right corner on departure. It’s a grate, six-by-six inches, visible because of a cut section of carpet. Through the crossbars I see another set of bars about an inch lower than the first. It’s incongruous. We’re in an office building, on the tenth floor. It looks like a drain, but water never collects here. I look inside and see only blackness beyond the second inner grate.
I kneel and put my ear to it, but all I can hear is the hum of regular office machinery, all ambient. If any sounds come from the grate I will not be able to hear them at this time. This close to the floor I smell dust, despite the apparent cleanliness.
“What are you doing?”
A woman stands behind me, holding a stack of files, eyebrows raised. Without saying anything, I rise and walk in a direction opposite to the one I expect her to take.
The day passes with management talking down to me and me talking down to the people I supervise. I make phone calls, sign documents, send faxes. Through all of this I think of the grate. What currents run through it? Is it an access point for servicing the electrical system? Why have I never noticed it? I don’t know why I am so curious about it, why I cannot let it go.
For the next week I get used to the grate. On occasion, when walking by on an errand for management, I even salute the grate. One day, after a meeting, I notice a new grate just beside the coffee-machine in the break room on the third floor. I know this was never there before because I come here much more often than the department secretary’s office. It’s the same size and shape as the previous one. Even more striking is the age the grate shows. The metal margins show old, layered grime and weathering that suggests the passage of time, a veteran of cleaning, chemical treatment, and spilled coffee. It belongs.
I leave, wondering if perhaps my powers of observation are not as acute as I’d like to believe, and that maybe these grates have always been there.
I tell Shakira and wonder what she thinks.
“Have you listened to yourself?” asks Shakira “You are talking to me about air vents. Vents, Lanre. I’m trying to get a job and you think I want to hear about architectural features?”
After this I don’t mention it to her again.
No one you meet will ever be able to tell you who the managing director of Equity, PLC is.
All the fellow employees I have ever met have their own managers. Inter-employee fraternizing is not encouraged, and this has resulted in a firm shrouded in ignorance or, if you’re the romantic type, mystery.
The fact is I don’t know what I do for a living. The documents handed to me by my direct managers are in a language that I don’t understand or even recognize, the instructions, moron-proof simple. Shred these. Make photocopies. Take these to room 344. I have no clue what these documents mean. We all have non-disclosure agreements.
Every day strangers file through our doors, though they all have appointments. They are led to the managing director’s office and they leave with envelopes or packages, always happy. We employees speculate that it might be drugs or money, but we do not know. We whisper theories to each other.
On one day the managers ask me to stay in my office for exactly three hours and seven minutes. Not three hours; not three hours and fifteen minutes. After this, they tell me to leave for home, even though it is midday and I haven’t done any actual work. I imagine a smell of ozone in the corridors as I leave, but I do not look back. I take the opportunity to do some shopping at Mushin before surprising Shakira.
It’s puzzling, but as employees we come back day after day because our needs are met. Even though the lunch buffet is lavish, Equity allows us to pack one meal only, for supper. It might be a large helping, but only for one. The story is told of one who took meals for himself and a little more for a friend. He was fired the next morning. Some say he was liquidated and that, so as not to waste the firm’s investment in him, his ashes were scattered into the air-conditioning so that other employees might breathe him in and merge with his carbon. I do not vouch for the veracity of this story.
We are secure. As long as we work for the firm no street gangs harass us, we are not in debt, and the spectre of unemployment is something we only read about in the newspapers.
I love Equity,PLC and I truly want to please the managing director, whoever he may be.
There are more grates now. Since the one near the secretary’s office I count forty throughout the building. I sketch a map of the building, with floor plans showing the grate locations. Some of them appear overnight, while others seem to mock me by popping up within minutes of my passing an area.
What are they?
I ask a colleague, but I get a blank, hostile stare.
Today, when returning from the staff cafeteria, I see someone speaking into a grate but this is from the corner of my eye, and when I take a direct look I see the man adjusting his necktie. This particular grate is located on a wall about five feet up, the first of its kind, all others being on the floor. He walks away before I can ask him. I follow him, but he disappears around a corner. I take the former position of the man and look. Nothing unusual, except the six week old grate.
“Talk to me,” I say. “Is anyone there?”
Silence. Silence and a sense of foreboding so strong I look about furtively.
I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake, unable to get the thought of these square spaces out of my head.
On the way to work, standing in the molue on Agege Motor Road, trying to ignore the man preaching the Gospel, I remember the induction training as a new employee.
After three hours of presentations on embezzlement, a woman walked to the front of the conference room and told us the story of the day all the animals went to visit heaven. Monkey told the other animals that it was customary to take a new name when visiting heaven. While the others took names like “Peju” and “Kudi,” Monkey called himself “Allofyou”. At heaven the host angel welcomed them and took them to a feast of unimaginable size, spread out with foods known and unknown. “Who is this food for?” the monkey asked.
“All of you,” said the angel.
The animals looked to Monkey who smiled, and ate till his belly was round.
They went to the next room, where they found all manner of gifts waiting for them. There were material gifts and talents and special powers, dominion over learning, music, humans, the royal and the humble, the quick and the dead.
“Who are these gifts for?” asked the animals.
“All of you,” said the angel.
Monkey gathered all the tangible and intangible gifts and the animals move on, containing their resentment because it was heaven.
In the next chamber there was a cage.
“Who is this for?” asked Monkey, apprehensive this time.
“Heaven is not a place to be visited by the living,” said the angel. “You can never leave. All of you must stay in this cage.”
On hearing this Monkey fled. He leapt down from heaven, through the clouds, all the way to Earth. The legend said the angel threw down the cage and it landed around Monkey, trapping him on Earth with all the choice gifts.
The woman stopped there and walked out of the conference room, leaving all of us confused. We thought it might have been some light entertainment, because the next talk involved fire safety.
I shine a pen torch into one of the grates.
There is something in the inner grating, something alive. I can see it move if I stay still long enough. It is furry. At first I think it’s a rat, and I sigh, thinking these have been elaborate pest traps all along. I am relieved. Then it shifts, and I see a gigantic black eye that looks straight back at me.
I fall back and drop the torch. I scramble backwards, before I pick myself up and run to my desk, struggling to control the shaking.
My work slips. I cannot concentrate and consequently make mistakes, behaviour guaranteed to attract attention. I must give off the smell of the dying because my co-workers avoid me. When Mama Nuru, the woman who brings roasted corn, boli, nuts and puff-puff to the office asks me what I want, I can’t even give her a sensible answer.
Finally, I rush out of the building and do not stop until I hail the taxi that drives me all the way back to my flat at Idi-Oro, where I lock myself in. I cannot answer Shakira’s questions about the matter. I just tremble and shiver for hours, then I fall asleep.
The next morning Shakira wakes me.
“There are people here to help you,” she says.
“Help with what?” I ask.
Three men in suits, right there in my room, standing in front of our bed. They have Equity ID badges.
“Hello, Mr Bakare. We are from Medical.”
“What do you want?”
“We heard you had malaria.” One opens a satchel. The other two move towards either side of my bed. Shakira is silently weeping in a corner.
“What are you doing? Stay away.”
“Relax. This is a new injection. It will clear that malaria right up.”
“And you will stop seeing those troublesome cages.”
“Just hold still.”
A prick, some pain, then I sleep again.
I wake up after 48 hours feeling fantastic. Physically fantastic. Like Power Mike and Ben Lionheart combined. There is a note taped to my door asking me to come back to work when I feel better.
When I’m ready Equity sends a car for me. I answer my manager’s questions about what I saw and when I saw whatever it was and why I was spooked. I say I must have been confused because of the malaria. She is happy to hear that.
After that, things settle down. I am still paid well and on time. Life looks up, and Shakira gets a job with an oil company. She even gets along with my mother for a while.
I work there for years and show no signs of fright.
But I am frightened.
I am frightened because I still see the grates. Whatever drug they injected only worked for a few days. Each day I struggle not to react when I see the furry thing writhe behind one of them. I am too frightened of the eye to take a closer look. I know that if they know what I see, management will take more permanent measures.
I can’t escape and I can’t resign, so each day I go to work in the Monkey House. Or perhaps I am the caged one, the monkey in the cage. After all, how can I tell if I am outside looking into the cage, or inside looking out?