“Girls at War”
The first time their paths crossed nothing happened. That was in the first heady days of warlike preparation when thousands of young men (and sometimes women too) were daily turned away from enlistment centres because far too many of them were coming forward burning with readiness to bear arms in defence of the exciting new nation.
The second time they met was at a check-point at Awka. Then the war had started and was slowly moving southwards from the distant northern sector. He was driving from Onitsha to Enugu and was in a hurry. Although intellectually he approved of thorough searches at road-blocks, emotionally he was always offended whenever he had to submit to them. He would probably not admit it but the feeling people got was that if you were put through a search then you could not really be one of the big people. Generally he got away without a search by pronouncing in his deep, authoritative voice: ‘Reginald Nwankwo, Ministry of Justice.’ That almost always did it. But sometimes either through ignorance or sheer cussedness the crowd at the odd check-point would refuse to be impressed. As happened now at Awka. Two constables carrying heavy Mark 4 rifles were watching distantly from the roadside leaving the actual searching to local vigilantes.
‘I am in a hurry,’ he said to the girl who now came up to his car. ‘My name is Reginald Nwankwo, Ministry of Justice.’
‘Good afternoon, sir. I want to see your boot.’
‘Oh Christ! What do you think is in the boot?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
He got out of the car in suppressed rage, stalked to the back, opened the boot and holding the lid up with his left hand he motioned with the right as if to say: After you!
‘Are you satisfied?’ he demanded.
‘Yes, sir. Can I see your pigeon-hole?’
‘Sorry to delay you, sir. But you people gave us this job to do.’
‘Never mind. You are damn right. It’s just that I happen to be in a hurry. But never mind. That’s the glove-box. Nothing there as you can see.’
‘All right sir, close it.’ Then she opened the rear door and bent down to inspect under the seats. It was then he took the first real look at her, starting from behind. She was a beautiful girl in a breasty blue jersey, khaki jeans and canvas shoes with the new-style hair-plait which gave a girl a defiant look and which they called—for reasons of their own—‘air force base’; and she looked vaguely familiar.
‘I am all right, sir,’ she said at last meaning she was through with her task. ‘You don’t recognize me?’
‘No. Should I?’
‘You gave me a lift to Enugu that time I left my school to go and join the militia.’
‘Ah, yes, you were the girl. I told you, didn’t I, to go back to school because girls were not required in the militia. What happened?’
‘They told me to go back to my school or join the Red Cross.’
‘You see I was right. So, what are you doing now?’
‘Just patching up with Civil Defence.’
‘Well, good luck to you. Believe me you are a great girl.’
That was the day he finally believed there might be something in this talk about revolution. He had seen plenty of girls and women marching and demonstrating before now. But somehow he had never been able to give it much thought. He didn’t doubt that the girls and the women took themselves seriously, they obviously did. But so did the little kids who marched up and down the streets at the time drilling with sticks and wearing their mothers’ soup bowls for steel helmets. The prime joke of the time among his friends was the contingent of girls from a local secondary school marching behind a banner: WE ARE IMPREGNABLE!
But after that encounter at the Awka check-point he simply could not sneer at the girls again, nor at the talk of revolution, for he had seen it in action in that young woman whose devotion had simply and without self-righteousness convicted him of gross levity. What were her words? We are doing the work you asked us to do. She wasn’t going to make an exception even for one who once did her a favour. He was sure she would have searched her own father just as rigorously.
When their paths crossed a third time, at least eighteen months later, things had got very bad. Death and starvation having long chased out the headiness of the early days, now left in some places blank resignation, in others a rock-like, even suicidal, defiance. But surprisingly enough there were many at this time who had no other desire than to corner whatever good things were still going and to enjoy themselves to the limit. For such people a strange normalcy had returned to the world. All those nervous check-points disappeared. Girls became girls once more and boys boys. It was a tight, blockaded and desperate world but none the less a world—with some goodness and some badness and plenty of heroism which, however, happened most times far, far below the eye-level of the people in this story—in out-of-the-way refugee camps, in the damp tatters, in the hungry and bare-handed courage of the first line of fire.
Reginald Nwankwo lived in Owerri then. But that day he had gone to Nkwerri in search of relief. He had got from Caritas in Owerri a few heads of stock-fish, some tinned meat, and the dreadful American stuff called Formula Two which he felt certain was some kind of animal feed. But he always had a vague suspicion that not being a Catholic put one at a disadvantage with Caritas. So he went now to see an old friend who ran the WCC depot at Nkwerri to get other items like rice, beans and that excellent cereal commonly called Gabon gari.
He left Owerri at six in the morning so as to catch his friend at the depot where he was known never to linger beyond 8.30 for fear of air-raids. Nwankwo was very fortunate that day. The depot had received on the previous day large supplies of new stock as a result of an unusual number of plane landings a few nights earlier. As his driver loaded tins and bags and cartons into his car the starved crowds that perpetually hung around relief centres made crude, ungracious remarks like ‘War Can Continue!’ meaning the WCC! Somebody else shouted ‘Irevolu!’ and his friends replied ‘shum!’
Nwankwo was deeply embarrassed not by the jeers of this scarecrow crowd of rags and floating ribs but by the independent accusation of their wasted bodies and sunken eyes. Indeed he would probably have felt much worse had they said nothing, simply looked on in silence, as his boot was loaded with milk, and powdered egg and oats and tinned meat and stock-fish. By nature such singular good fortune in the midst of a general desolation was certain to embarrass him. But what could a man do? He had a wife and four children living in the remote village of Ogbu and completely dependent on what relief he could find and send them. He couldn’t abandon them to kwashiokor. The best he could do—and did do as a matter of fact—was to make sure that whenever he got sizeable supplies like now he made over some of it to his driver, Johnson, with a wife and six, or was it seven?, children and a salary of ten pounds a month when gari in the market was climbing to one pound per cigarette cup. In such a situation one could do nothing at all for crowds; at best one could try to be of some use to one’s immediate neighbours. That was all.
On his way back to Owerri a very attractive girl by the roadside waved for a lift. He ordered the driver to stop. Scores of pedestrians, dusty and exhausted, some military, some civil, swooped down on the car from all directions.
‘No, no, no,’ said Nwankwo firmly. ‘It’s the young woman I stopped for. I have a bad tyre and can only take one person. Sorry.’
‘My son, please,’ cried one old woman in despair, gripping the door-handle.
‘Old woman, you want to be killed?’ shouted the driver as he pulled away, shaking her off. Nwankwo had already opened a book and sunk his eyes there. For at least a mile after that he did not even look at the girl until she finding, perhaps, the silence too heavy said: ‘You’ve saved me today. Thank you.’
‘Not at all. Where are you going?’
‘To Owerri. You don’t recognize me?’
‘Oh yes, of course. What a fool I am… You are…’
‘That’s right, the militia girl. You’ve changed, Gladys. You were always beautiful of course, but now you are a beauty queen. What do you do these days?’
‘I am in the Fuel Directorate.’
It was wonderful, he thought, but even more it was tragic. She wore a high-tinted wig and a very expensive skirt and low-cut blouse. Her shoes, obviously from Gabon, must have cost a fortune. In short, thought Nwankwo, she had to be in the keep of some well-placed gentleman, one of those piling up money out of the war.
‘I broke my rule today to give you a lift. I never give lifts these days.’
‘How many people can you carry? It is better not to try at all. Look at that old woman.’
‘I thought you would carry her.’
He said nothing to that and after another spell of silence Gladys thought maybe he was offended and so added: ‘Thank you for breaking your rule for me.’ She was scanning his face, turned slightly away. He smiled, turned, and tapped her on the lap.
‘What are you going to Owerri to do?’
‘I am going to visit my girl friend.’
‘Girl friend? You sure?’
‘Why not?… If you drop me at her house you can see her. Only I pray God she hasn’t gone on weekend today; it will be serious.’
‘Because if she is not at home I will sleep on the road today.’
‘I pray to God that she is not at home.’
‘Because if she is not at home I will offer you bed and breakfast… What is that?’ he asked the driver who had brought the car to an abrupt stop. There was no need for an answer. The small crowd ahead was looking upwards. The three scrambled out of the car and stumbled for the bush, necks twisted in a backward search of the sky. But the alarm was false. The sky was silent and clear except for two high-flying vultures. A humorist in the crowd called them Fighter and Bomber and everyone laughed in relief. The three climbed into their car again and continued their journey.
‘It is much too early for raids,’ he said to Gladys, who had both her palms on her breast as though to still a thumping heart. ‘They rarely come before ten o’clock.’
But she remained tongue-tied from her recent fright. Nwankwo saw an opportunity there and took it at once.
‘Where does your friend live?’
‘250 Douglas Road.’
‘Ah! that’s the very centre of town—a terrible place. No bunkers, nothing. I won’t advise you to go there before 6 p.m.; it’s not safe. If you don’t mind I will take you to my place where there is a good bunker and then as soon as it is safe, around six, I shall drive you to your friend. How’s that?’
‘It’s all right,’ she said lifelessly. ‘I am so frightened of this thing. That’s why I refused to work in Owerri. I don’t even know who asked me to come out today.’
‘You’ll be all right. We are used to it.’
‘But your family is not there with you?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Nobody has his family there. We like to say it is because of air-raids but I can assure you there is more to it. Owerri is a real swinging town and we live the life of gay bachelors.’
‘That is what I have heard.’
‘You will not just hear it; you will see it today. I shall take you to a real swinging party. A friend of mine, a Lieutenant-Colonel, is having a birthday party. He’s hired the Sound Smashers to play. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.’
He was immediately and thoroughly ashamed of himself. He hated the parties and frivolities to which his friends clung like drowning men. And to talk so approvingly of them because he wanted to take a girl home! And this particular girl too, who had once had such beautiful faith in the struggle and was betrayed (no doubt about it) by some man like him out for a good time. He shook his head sadly.
‘What is it?’ asked Gladys.
‘Nothing. Just my thoughts.’
They made the rest of the journey to Owerri practically in silence.
She made herself at home very quickly as if she was a regular girl friend of his. She changed into a house dress and put away her auburn wig.
‘That is a lovely hair-do. Why do you hide it with a wig?’
‘Thank you,’ she said leaving his question unanswered for a while. Then she said: ‘Men are funny.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘You are now a beauty queen,’ she mimicked.
‘Oh, that! I mean every word of it.’ He pulled her to him and kissed her. She neither refused nor yielded fully, which he liked for a start. Too many girls were simply too easy those days. War sickness, some called it.
He drove off a little later to look in at the office and she busied herself in the kitchen helping his boy with lunch. It must have been literally a look-in, for he was back within half an hour, rubbing his hands and saying he could not stay away too long from his beauty queen.
As they sat down to lunch she said: ‘You have nothing in your fridge.’
‘Like what?’ he asked, half-offended.
‘Like meat,’ she replied undaunted.
‘Do you still eat meat?’ he challenged.
‘Who am I? But other big men like you eat.’
‘I don’t know which big men you have in mind. But they are not like me. I don’t make money trading with the enemy or selling relief or…’
‘Augusta’s boy friend doesn’t do that. He just gets foreign exchange.’
‘How does he get it? He swindles the government—that’s how he gets foreign exchange, whoever he is. Who is Augusta, by the way?’
‘My girl friend.’
‘She gave me three dollars last time which I changed to forty-five pounds. The man gave her fifty dollars.’
‘Well, my dear girl, I don’t traffic in foreign exchange and I don’t have meat in my fridge. We are fighting a war and I happen to know that some young boys at the front drink gari and water once in three days.’
‘It is true,’ she said simply. ‘Monkey de work, baboon de chop.’
‘It is not even that; it is worse,’ he said, his voice beginning to shake. ‘People are dying every day. As we talk now somebody is dying.’
‘It is true,’ she said again.
‘Plane!’ screamed his boy from the kitchen.
‘My mother!’ screamed Gladys. As they scuttled towards the bunker of palm stems and red earth, covering their heads with their hands and stooping slightly in their flight, the entire sky was exploding with the clamour of jets and the huge noise of homemade anti-aircraft rockets.
Inside the bunker she clung to him even after the plane had gone and the guns, late to start and also to end, had all died down again.
‘It was only passing,’ he told her, his voice a little shaky. ‘It didn’t drop anything. From its direction I should say it was going to the war front. Perhaps our people are pressing them. That’s what they always do. Whenever our boys press them, they send an SOS to the Russians and Egyptians to bring the planes.’ He drew a long breath.
She said nothing, just clung to him. They could hear his boy telling the servant from the next house that there were two of them and one dived like this and the other dived like that.
‘I see dem well well,’ said the other with equal excitement. ‘If no to say de ting de kill porson e for sweet for eye. To God.’
‘Imagine!’ said Gladys, finding her voice at last. She had a way, he thought, of conveying with a few words or even a single word whole layers of meaning. Now it was at once her astonishment as well as reproof, tinged perhaps with grudging admiration for people who could be so light-hearted about these bringers of death.
‘Don’t be so scared,’ he said. She moved closer and he began to kiss her and squeeze her breasts. She yielded more and more and then fully. The bunker was dark and unswept and might harbour crawling things. He thought of bringing a mat from the main house but reluctantly decided against it. Another plane might pass and send a neighbour or simply a chance passer-by crashing into them. That would be only slightly better than a certain gentleman in another air-raid who was seen in broad daylight fleeing his bedroom for his bunker stark-naked pursued by a woman in a similar state!
Just as Gladys had feared, her friend was not in town. It would seem her powerful boy friend had wangled for her a flight to Libreville to shop. So her neighbours thought anyway.
‘Great!’ said Nwankwo as they drove away. ‘She will come back on an arms plane loaded with shoes, wigs, pants, bras, cosmetics and what have you, which she will then sell and make thousands of pounds. You girls are really at war, aren’t you?’
She said nothing and he thought he had got through at last to her. Then suddenly she said, ‘That is what you men want us to do.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘here is one man who doesn’t want you to do that. Do you remember that girl in khaki jeans who searched me without mercy at the check-point?’
She began to laugh.
‘That is the girl I want you to become again. Do you remember her? No wig. I don’t even think she had any earrings…’
‘Ah, na lie-o. I had earrings.’
‘All right. But you know what I mean.’
‘That time done pass. Now everybody want survival. They call it number six. You put your number six; I put my number six. Everything all right.’
The Lieutenant-Colonel’s party turned into something quite unexpected. But before it did things had been going well enough. There was goat-meat, some chicken and rice and plenty of home-made spirits. There was one fiery brand nicknamed ‘tracer’ which indeed sent a flame down your gullet. The funny thing was looking at it in the bottle it had the innocent appearance of an orange drink. But the thing that caused the greatest stir was the bread—one little roll for each person! It was the size of a golf-ball and about the same consistency too! But it was real bread. The band was good too and there were many girls. And to improve matters even further two white Red Cross people soon arrived with a bottle of Courvoisier and a bottle of Scotch! The party gave them a standing ovation and then scrambled to get a drop. It soon turned out from his general behaviour, however, that one of the white men had probably drunk too much already. And the reason it would seem was that a pilot he knew well had been killed in a crash at the airport last night, flying in relief in awful weather.
Few people at the party had heard of the crash by then. So there was an immediate damping of the air. Some dancing couples went back to their seats and the band stopped.
Then for some strange reason the drunken Red Cross man just exploded.
‘Why should a man, a decent man, throw away his life. For nothing! Charley didn’t need to die. Not for this stinking place. Yes, everything stinks here. Even these girls who come here all dolled up and smiling, what are they worth? Don’t I know? A head of stockfish, that’s all, or one American dollar and they are ready to tumble into bed.’
In the threatening silence following the explosion one of the young officers walked up to him and gave him three thundering slaps—right! left! right!—pulled him up from his seat and (there were things like tears in his eyes) shoved him outside. His friend, who had tried in vain to shut him up, followed him out and the silenced party heard them drive off. The officer who did the job returned dusting his palms.
‘Fucking beast!’ said he with an impressive coolness. And all the girls showed with their eyes that they rated him a man and a hero.
‘Do you know him?’ Gladys asked Nwankwo.
He didn’t answer her. Instead he spoke generally to the party: ‘The fellow was clearly drunk,’ he said.
‘I don’t care,’ said the officer. ‘It is when a man is drunk that he speaks what is on his mind.’
‘So you beat him for what was on his mind,’ said the host, ‘that is the spirit, Joe.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Joe, saluting.
‘His name is Joe,’ Gladys and the girl on her left said in unison, turning to each other.
At the same time Nwankwo and a friend on the other side of him were saying quietly, very quietly, that although the man had been rude and offensive what he had said about the girls was unfortunately the bitter truth, only he was the wrong man to say it.
When the dancing resumed Captain Joe came to Gladys for a dance. She sprang to her feet even before the word was out of his mouth. Then she remembered immediately and turned round to take permission from Nwankwo. At the same time the Captain also turned to him and said, ‘Excuse me.’
‘Go ahead,’ said Nwankwo, looking somewhere between the two.
It was a long dance and he followed them with his eyes without appearing to do so.
Occasionally a relief plane passed overhead and somebody immediately switched off the lights saying it might be the Intruder. But it was only an excuse to dance in the dark and make the girls giggle, for the sound of the Intruder was well known.
Gladys came back feeling very self-conscious and asked Nwankwo to dance with her. But he wouldn’t. ‘Don’t bother about me,’ he said, ‘I am enjoying myself perfectly sitting here and watching those of you who dance.’
‘Then let’s go,’ she said, ‘if you won’t dance.’
‘But I never dance, believe me. So please enjoy yourself.’
She danced next with the Lieutenant-Colonel and again with Captain Joe, and then Nwankwo agreed to take her home.
‘I am sorry I didn’t dance,’ he said as they drove away. ‘But I swore never to dance as long as this war lasts.’
She said nothing.
‘When I think of somebody like that pilot who got killed last night. And he had no hand whatever in the quarrel. All his concern was to bring us food…’
‘I hope that his friend is not like him,’ said Gladys.
‘The man was just upset by his friend’s death. But what I am saying is that with people like that getting killed and our own boys suffering and dying at the war fronts I don’t see why we should sit around throwing parties and dancing.’
‘You took me there,’ said she in final revolt. ‘They are your friends. I don’t know them before.’
‘Look, my dear, I am not blaming you. I am merely telling you why I personally refuse to dance. Anyway, let’s change the subject… Do you still say you want to go back tomorrow? My driver can take you early enough on Monday morning for you to go to work. No? All right, just as you wish. You are the boss.’
She gave him a shock by the readiness with which she followed him to bed and by her language.
‘You want to shell?’ she asked. And without waiting for an answer said, ‘Go ahead but don’t pour in troops!’
He didn’t want to pour in troops either and so it was all right. But she wanted visual assurance and so he showed her.
One of the ingenious economies taught by the war was that a rubber condom could be used over and over again. All you had to do was wash it out, dry it and shake a lot of talcum powder over it to prevent its sticking; and it was as good as new. It had to be the real British thing, though, not some of the cheap stuff they brought in from Lisbon which was about as strong as a dry cocoyam leaf in the harmattan.
He had his pleasure but wrote the girl off. He might just as well have slept with a prostitute, he thought. It was clear as daylight to him now that she was kept by some army officer. What a terrible transformation in the short period of less than two years!
Wasn’t it a miracle that she still had memories of the other life, that she even remembered her name? If the affair of the drunken Red Cross man should happen again now, he said to himself, he would stand up beside the fellow and tell the party that here was a man of truth. What a terrible fate to befall a whole generation! The mothers of tomorrow!
By morning he was feeling a little better and more generous in his judgements. Gladys, he thought, was just a mirror reflecting a society that had gone completely rotten and maggotty at the centre. The mirror itself was intact; a lot of smudge but no more. All that was needed was a clean duster. ‘I have a duty to her,’ he told himself, ‘the little girl that once revealed to me our situation. Now she is in danger, under some terrible influence.’
He wanted to get to the bottom of this deadly influence. It was clearly not just her good-time girl friend, Augusta, or whatever her name was. There must be some man at the centre of it, perhaps one of these heartless attack-traders who traffic in foreign currencies and make their hundreds of thousands by sending young men to hazard their lives bartering looted goods for cigarettes behind enemy lines, or one of those contractors who receive piles of money daily for food they never deliver to the army. Or perhaps some vulgar and cowardly army officer full of filthy barrack talk and fictitious stories of heroism. He decided he had to find out. Last night he had thought of sending his driver alone to take her home. But no, he must go and see for himself where she lived. Something was bound to reveal itself there. Something on which he could anchor his saving operation. As he prepared for the trip his feeling towards her softened with every passing minute. He assembled for her half of the food he had received at the relief centre the day before. Difficult as things were, he thought, a girl who had something to eat would be spared, not all, but some of the temptation. He would arrange with his friend at the WCC to deliver something to her every fortnight.
Tears came to Gladys’s eyes when she saw the gifts. Nwankwo didn’t have too much cash on him but he got together twenty pounds and handed it over to her.
‘I don’t have foreign exchange, and I know this won’t go far at all, but…’
She just came and threw herself at him, sobbing. He kissed her lips and eyes and mumbled something about victims of circumstance, which went over her head. In deference to him, he thought with exultation, she had put away her high-tinted wig in her bag.
‘I want you to promise me something,’ he said.
‘Never use that expression about shelling again.’
She smiled with tears in her eyes. ‘You don’t like it? That’s what all the girls call it.’
‘Well, you are different from all the girls. Will you promise?’
Naturally their departure had become a little delayed. And when they got into the car it refused to start. After poking around the engine the driver decided that the battery was flat. Nwankwo was aghast.
He had that very week paid thirty-four pounds to change two of the cells and the mechanic who performed it had promised him six months’ service. A new battery, which was then running at two hundred and fifty pounds was simply out of the question. The driver must have been careless with something, he thought.
‘It must be because of last night,’ said the driver.
‘What happened last night?’ asked Nwankwo sharply, wondering what insolence was on the way. But none was intended.
‘Because we use the head light.’
‘Am I supposed not to use my light then? Go and get some people and try pushing it.’ He got out again with Gladys and returned to the house while the driver went over to neighbouring houses to seek the help of other servants.
After at least half an hour of pushing it up and down the street, and a lot of noisy advice from the pushers, the car finally spluttered to life shooting out enormous clouds of black smoke from the exhaust.
It was eight-thirty by his watch when they set out. A few miles away a disabled soldier waved for a lift.
‘Stop!’ screamed Nwankwo. The driver jammed his foot on the brakes and then turned his head towards his master in bewilderment.
‘Don’t you see the soldier waving? Reverse and pick him up!’
‘Sorry, sir,’ said the driver. ‘I don’t know Master wan to pick him.’
‘If you don’t know you should ask. Reverse back.’
The soldier, a mere boy, in filthy khaki drenched in sweat lacked his right leg from the knee down. He seemed not only grateful that a car should stop for him but greatly surprised. He first handed in his crude wooden crutches which the driver arranged between the two front seats, then painfully he levered himself in.
‘Thank sir,’ he said turning his neck to look at the back and completely out of breath.
‘I am very grateful. Madame, thank you.’
‘The pleasure is ours,’ said Nwankwo. ‘Where did you get your wound?’
‘At Azumini, sir. On tenth of January.’
‘Never mind. Everything will be all right. We are proud of you boys and will make sure you receive your due reward when it is all over.’
‘I pray God, sir.’
They drove on in silence for the next half-hour or so. Then as the car sped down a slope towards a bridge somebody screamed—perhaps the driver, perhaps the soldier—‘They have come!’ The screech of the brakes merged into the scream and the shattering of the sky overhead. The doors flew open even before the car had come to a stop and they were fleeing blindly to the bush. Gladys was a little ahead of Nwankwo when they heard through the drowning tumult the soldier’s voice crying: ‘Please come and open for me!’ Vaguely he saw Gladys stop; he pushed past her shouting to her at the same time to come on. Then a high whistle descended like a spear through the chaos and exploded in a vast noise and motion that smashed up everything. A tree he had embraced flung him away through the bush. Then another terrible whistle starting high up and ending again in a monumental crash of the world; and then another, and Nwankwo heard no more.
He woke up to human noises and weeping and the smell and smoke of a charred world.
He dragged himself up and staggered towards the source of the sounds.
From afar he saw his driver running towards him in tears and blood. He saw the remains of his car smoking and the entangled remains of the girl and the soldier. And he let out a piercing cry and fell down again.