The Bar Beach Show
Olabajo Dada • Fiction
Every other Sunday, the army hosted a sold-out show at the Bar Beach. They ran flashy advertisements in the Daily Times a couple of days prior to the event, promising “a show like never before” while occasionally announcing a hike in the gate fee because of the surge in gas prices, or to offset the cost of new swings and slides they installed on the beach for “energetic Nigerian tots.” On the day of the show, while children played soccer and flew kites around lovers moseying along the shoreline, who patronized hawkers peddling snacks, and swimmers rose and fell with the waves, soldiers set up barrels right next to a bamboo stage where invited musical guests entertained the crowd just before the show’s most popular attraction. Then, with much ceremony and to deafening cheers and jeers, the soldiers paraded newly condemned criminals and tied them up to the barrels. And while they wailed and pleaded and ceaselessly declared their innocence, the soldiers yanked out their assault rifles and mowed down the convicts like inanimate paper targets. Their bodies, which were thrown far out into the water according to a new decree, sometimes returned to the beach after a day or two, always naked and often missing several succulent appendages.
Every other Sunday, more often than on other days, these images flickered with little weight through Akanji’s mind as he hauled planks of wood from the sawmill to his workshop, which doubled as his wife’s kitchen. And even though Aina was now in a wheelchair, she wouldn’t let him cook or even clean the dishes. She seldom complained as the loads of wood he brought in turned into wall high stacks of coffins, or when he let sombre strangers in to haul the coffins away; she dusted off wood shavings from her pots and stove and endured the ear-splitting rap of his hammer well into many late nights.
She did complain that she didn’t like cooking with the dead, though. And she would have complained even louder if she knew he kept the money from his sales in the house.
He tiptoed down the ramp he had set up for her at the kitchen entrance and gingerly opened the bedroom door.
“You dey go Bar Beach now?” she asked when he stepped in, patting his bald head as he bent over to slip in her flip flops. He didn’t expect her to be awake yet.
“Careful o! You sure say time never reach to stop?”
He chuckled. It wasn’t time to stop. Not for him. “E remain small, dear. No dey fear.” He brushed her hair and tied it in a bun. “Make I dey go now.”
No half-eaten carcasses washed ashore that sparkly Sunday morning, however. The ocean rocked sprightly as if on a seesaw, lapping at the beach and occasionally flaunting its waves at the breeze. And even though the tides had retreated four hours prior, the narrow stingy road overlooking the Bar Beach was still wet and its potholes were still puddles. But one watching from above wouldn’t have noticed this if not for the parting of the horde on the road whenever traffic came through. You could see a little space open up before each car or bus or motorcycle and then close up behind it. The show began at noon—not a minute later—and the entrance gate was shut once the clock struck 12. The soldiers weren’t much for condoning bloody civilians’ lackadaisical attitudes to punctuality. After 12, they would only allow anyone in who could pay double the gate fee and complete 700 frog jumps under the scorching sun. But until the gates were opened, everyone had to stand outside.
The beach was barricaded with a barbed wire fence that stretched farther than anyone would bother to walk or even drive to get around. Soldiers patrolled it anyway, so the labour wouldn’t exactly be worth broken bones or busted joints or bullet perforated torsos. As the gates opened after they had sweltered under the sun for hours, the thousand-strong crowd thinned into two lines. Spectators with their gate fees shuffled in on the left, while traders who had stalls on the beach and hawkers with business permits entered on the right. “Exact change only,” the soldiers warned as the spectators showed their naira notes and dropped them into an open barrel at the entrance. “We no dey carry change. We’re not petty traders!”
Many of the people had skipped church early to get a good spot in front of the beachhead. Others who didn’t go to church had been there since daybreak, chatting with the sentries about that day’s performers. People trooped in and ran towards the ocean, stopping just shy of a huge arc cordoned off with a thin row of bamboo stakes. They chose their spots and settled in with their mats and soccer balls and coolers full of drinks and gongs and drums. There was a row of stalls not far from the entrance, where spectators bought more drinks and food. You could buy pepper soup with fresh catfish from Mama Ufot, but you had to go to Calistus next door for beer, schnapps or gin—the soldiers had a Zero Tolerance Policy on Business Monopoly.
Humming along to Ras Kimono’s “Natty Get Jail,” which came from a ghetto blaster in a record store five stalls away, Calistus arranged bottles of drinks on a rack in his stall and wiped down the benches—sleazy planks that were balanced on 50-litre kegs filled with wet sand. He poured two shots and handed them to his first customers.
“Money don add o!” He told them sternly.
“How much?” one of the men asked.
They balked. “No, lailai!” the man retorted. “Na three naira.”
A truck rolled onto the beach as Calistus regarded the men with a sneer. There were three barrels on its bed. He abandoned them and stepped out of the stall. Two hefty soldiers offloaded the truck while a stocky officer stood by supervising, arms akimbo. Calistus waved at him until he got the soldier’s attention. When the soldier beckoned to him, he stepped back into the stall and stared at the two men, who still hadn’t touched their drinks.
“First time for here?”
“Una come from where?”
“I see,” he said. “Welcome. But let me tell you; drink for here is five naira. If you like, I can call Major Okoro to explain to you properly.” He pointed in the direction of the soldier.
Their eyes widened, and the one who had been quiet broke into a grin. “Ah! No need, bros. We understand well well.”
After serving more shots to more customers, Calistus walked up to Okoro.
“Akanji never come?” he asked.
Calistus shook his head “E remain small. He go soon reach.”
They watched the delirious crowd that had collected in front of the record store. Not too far from them, a guy who brought his girlfriend on a date was getting kicked on the ground by another soldier.
“You no dey hear word?” the soldier howled. “We say no camera for beach!”
The guy tried kneeling up but the soldier’s boot bashed his head back into the wet, gravelly sand. Then he seized the expensive-looking camera and smashed it against a rock several times until its lenses broke into multiple pieces and the film slithered onto the beach like a baby snake. Two 8-year-olds in Speedos laughed at the guy and raced each other along the shoreline, kicking up the seawater at an elderly man in a white robe who was on his knees and had his hands to the sky. He ignored them and kept praying, even though he had a glistening sabre in his right hand. His head jerked in all cardinal points and sometimes swivelled on his neck.
“Only three today?” Calistus pointed at the barrels.
“Yes o! Colonel Thompson suspended fast-tracking trials indefinitely.”
“Public defender salary don increase. More overtime for them, more cake for him.”
Calistus clenched his teeth. “Bastard!"
“Why are you complaining? You never spend money na. At this rate I’ll need three or four more shows to complete the second floor and paint the house. And we are not talking swimming pool yet.” He hissed and pulled three photographs from his pocket, handing them to Calistus.
“Find them and send them to my office.”
Calistus watched his brother stomp away, followed by his bodyguards. He walked back to his stall and served his customers more drinks, and then stepped outside again and gazed over the beach with the photos in his hands. The crowd danced on as one song followed the next. The sun rose further in the sky, and so did the excitement, as the beach continued to swell with people.
At the other end of the city, under a billboard that advertised the Bar Beach Show on one side and featured the picture of a beaming General Buhari on the other, brandishing a whip and begging LET’S MAKE NIGERIA A BETTER PLACE, Akanji fanned himself with the stack of papers where he drew his casket designs, cursing under his breath at the long line in front of him. There was a motorcycle park across the street, where two soldiers sat on the arched back of an elderly man who had ignored the overhead bridge and had run across the road. Tears and sweat trickled down his face onto the floor, and he absently mumbled pleas to them. But the soldiers laughed and gleefully cheered on two shirtless teenagers who were sparring bare-knuckled on the sidewalk, refereed by a pot-bellied man in a wifebeater. A sign on the canopy behind them welcomed you to JAWANDO FITNESS CENTER. The road teemed with hawkers manoeuvring their wares around army jeeps, overcrowded rickshaws, four-wheeled metal contraptions and their thick exhaust fumes.
Whoever came up with such a stupid idea as standing in a queue just to get on a bus? Didn’t these moron soldiers understand this was a waste of people’s time? Surely there were more profitable things to do on a Sunday morning than squander precious time replicating a Lagos traffic jam in the name of the War Against Indiscipline. Not too long ago, if your destination was important, you wrestled your way into whatever bus came along. But now soldiers force you to stand behind saucy teenagers and talkative market women just because they got there before you. He kept his left hand firmly in his pocket so he wouldn’t be tempted to look at his watch. He couldn’t be out too long because of his wife.
Truth be told, the money he needed was ready, but he couldn’t tell her that. He could make some more so they could afford a truck for him to make cement deliveries from the factory and quit carpentry. Maybe even a little more than that so he could lay the foundation for a small house. All she had to do was endure several more weeks—well, maybe months—in the chair. They’d come far. He might as well stretch it out. So, there was no returning home empty-handed today.
A bus arrived and left, and the queue shortened. Akanji’s gaze returned to the motorcycle park. Those machines were faster means of getting around within Lagos, but very few people ever dared to take them across the lagoon to the island end of the city. The daredevil riders always belted along the shaky Third Mainland Bridge as if they were in a James Bond movie. And it wasn’t uncommon for fishermen who prowled the lagoon to pull out floating bodies and shoes from time to time.
“Bros,” someone tapped his shoulder from behind. “Bros, what is the time, abeg?”
Akanji hissed at the albino and reluctantly pulled his hand out of his pocket, showing him the watch before inadvertently glancing at it himself. His head ached. He felt blood and money draining out of him as the crimson second hand spun slowly and menacingly on his wrist. He wiped his brow with the paper and waved timidly at a soldier monitoring the queue. The soldier caught his gaze and pointed at Akanji with his rifle.
Akanji trembled at the sight of the nozzle. “Shon sir! Make I come?”
The soldier beckoned. Akanji walked up.
“Officer, abeg, people dey wait me for Bar Beach. I have to be there before 12 noon.”
The soldier took off his sunglasses. “Look at all these people,” he pointed at the queue. “Where you think say them dey go? Even me, do you think I won’t rather be there than keeping you donkeys in line on the streets of Lagos?”
Akanji sighed. “I know sir, but I have customers waiting.”
“And they will be there when you reach. You dey fear to do frog jump?”
Akanji wished he could tell the soldier that that wasn’t the point. He could get there anytime he wished and still be allowed in without hassle. Heck, he wasn’t even interested in seeing the show. But his customers weren’t the throng who went to make merry at the show. They hardly wanted to be identified at all, and he often wondered how they were strong enough to even attend in the first place. He should have just told this idiot that Major Okoro was expecting him. But saying that now would prompt more questions. He turned and looked thoughtfully at the motorcycle park. Then he turned back at the soldier and smiled.
“How much, sir?”
“Ehn? How much for what?”
“For your trouble. If I fit sharply follow the next bus.”
The barrels had been set up inside the arc by the time Akanji got to the beach. Further up the sand, a band was setting up their instruments on a stage. He hadn’t seen this group before. They were women; all five of them clad in leggings and spaghetti tops.
“Just three today?” he asked Calistus as he knocked back a shot and gestured at the barrels.
“Ehen now! Who am I to ask questions?”
Akanji nodded and stared at the dancing crowd. He missed dancing with Aina. He missed the way she locked her arms around his neck and bounced her breasts in his face; how she remained spirited even after two miscarriages. She made him swear not to give up trying for a child with her, so when she got sick, he initially thought she was pregnant again. Then they realized she wasn’t.
He shook the thought out of his head. At least he still had her. All would be well after the operation. No one could say the same about his customers.
“What happened to your head?” Calistus asked.
“Leave story, abeg. Where is Major?”
“You find their family?”
“Two of them.”
“Where are they?”
Major Okoro’s office was a small wooden shed built under a coconut tree a good distance from the entrance to the beach. There was one table and one chair—anyone who had business with him had to stand through it. His official designation under the new Buhari regime was ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE BAR BEACH SHOW. And he never shied from the publicity. He made verbose speeches before the show began every Sunday, espousing the regime’s commitment to “law and order and public comportment,” and its equal commitment to the arts by making a “creative spectacle” of the punishment of public enemies.
Akanji stood beside him and watched as he negotiated with two sobbing women. The taller one had swollen eyes and didn’t utter a word throughout. She just cried continuously and blew her nose into her headscarf. These are wives, he thought. Mothers never come. What would Aina would do if he were arrested for theft and executed at the beach? Executed convicts, after all, were considered property of the state. He doubted she would wheel herself into the ocean like she threatened when he’d first told her of his business plan with Okoro. But he’d promised her: once he made enough money to pay for her surgery, they were done.
“Look,” Okoro told them. “I can’t release your husbands to you at that price.”
“Oga please!” the plump woman wailed. “That is all we have.”
He hissed. “Save your money, then. We’ll just toss those good-for-nothing scoundrels into the ocean for the fishes. I hear they pluck out the eyes first.”
The women went on their knees. “Major, please! Their spirits won’t rest if they don’t get a proper burial.”
“Really? Did they give us any rest when they went around robbing and killing innocent people?”
This was the part of the job that Akanji hated. Did Okoro ever care about how these people would be able to afford their loved ones’ funerals after he’d milked them dry to release their bodies and forced them to buy a coffin? Okoro glanced his way and nodded, and Akanji handed him the papers.
“Look,” he said to the women. “I can’t change that price because I’ve factored in the price for the coffin. And that’s even at a 20 percent discount. But I will throw in a favour.”
The women dabbed their faces and looked up at him.
“I’ll tell my soldiers not to shoot them in the head or face. That way you can have an open casket for the wake. Then they can have a proper burial and rest in peace, and nobody feels cheated, not so?” He handed the papers to them. “Pick out any design you like and Akanji will make it for you. Don’t forget to give him your husbands’ measurements. He knows his work very well, so recommend him to your friends.”
“Wetin do your head?” Okoro asked after the women left.
Akanji touched his swollen forehead. “I saw the butt of a rifle.”
Okoro cackled. “Why, did you try to bribe your way ahead of the line?”
“Ehen now! Time was going. What was I supposed to do?”
“But they let you get on the next bus, abi?”
“See! We’re not inconsiderate like you bloody civilians.”
“The idiot pulled me by ear and dragged me all the way up the line. And he still took my money. But I’d have been saved all that humiliation if you would let me use your name.”
“Because everyone knows you.”
“Exactly!” Okoro picked up his beret and straightened up. “Come on, let’s go out. It’s almost 12.”
Ten soldiers with Uzis flanked them on either side as they treaded the sand towards the arc where the barrels were set up. Moments like this made Akanji wish he had joined the Army instead of learning the carpentry trade after he dropped out of school. He knew he would have made it far. Maybe not as far as becoming a major, but far. But it was at that time that he met Aina, and she made it clear she didn’t want a soldier for a husband. He wished he could rub it in her face that a soldier was helping him make enough money to save her life now that she was ill and wheeling herself around. She probably knew he thought so. She often knew what he was thinking. Okoro took one last drag at his cigarette and threw it in the sand.
“Look,” he said to Akanji. “You know you can’t use my name whenever you have a small problem. You know you’re not supposed to call attention to me. Or yourself.”
Akanji kept quiet.
“If you flash my name around, people will get curious. When they get curious, they will ask questions. And if people ask questions, they will find out things they are not supposed to find out. And that’s because those who shouldn’t talk will open their mouths, which is what caused the problem in the first place. You dey hear me so?”
“Akanji!” They stopped walking.
Okoro looked up at him and held his gaze. “How many times did I call your name?”
“Three. Three times, sir.”
“Do you love your wife?”
“And you want to see her get well?”
“And you want to live long with her?”
“Then please continue to keep your mouth shut. This,” he pointed in the direction of his office, “is serious business. Do you understand?”
“We’re making good money, Akanji. Don’t ruin it.” He sighed. “How Aina body, sef?”
The crowd that had gathered around the stage went berserk when the Black Maria holding the three convicts rolled through the gate, but they knew enough not to run towards it. The three men watched from Calistus’ stall. People high-fived one another and jumped in excitement. One little boy ran around with his hands spread out and the Nigerian flag tagged to his back like a cape, with the words “Indiscipline na Cancer” stencilled in Kandahar ink across the middle. Major Okoro laughed. Akanji, who had been fidgeting in his seat, got up.
“Um...I think I’ll be going now, Major.”
“Why now? The show hasn’t even begun.”
“Em, yes. But...you know...Aina...”
“Okay, no problem.” Okoro fumbled in his back pocket and handed Akanji a 10 naira note. “Take am use for transport. See you soon?”
“Soon, yes soon. Thank you, Major. They should be ready by Friday.”
They watched him hustle away and out through the exit gate. Calistus poured them two more shots of schnapps before he spoke.
“How long before his wife dies?”
“Not very long.”
“But he’s still saving for the operation?”
“Because the doctor told him it’s operable, as I suggested.”
“It’s cancer. And e don reach far for her body. He’s still working for us because he doesn’t know.”
“Which he won’t be motivated to do anymore once she dies.”
“And you think I haven’t considered that?”
Calistus smirked and shrugged.
“You’re right,” Okoro said. “I don’t think we should delay any further. Find us another carpenter and I’ll take care of him after he finishes this job.” He stood up and patted his brother’s shoulder. “Now let’s go and wipe that blemish off our society,” he said, gesturing at the Black Maria.
Akanji held on to the seat as the motorcycle barrelled down the Third Mainland Bridge at breakneck speed. He had given up begging the rider to slow down. He tried to blot out the images of those barrels, or the thought of getting tied to one of them with bullets pelting him like angry hornets. Aina was going to be well soon. She was right about him risking his life to save her, but all he needed was two more jobs. And then he was done. She would have her operation, he would buy the truck (forget the house—no need to be greedy) and they would go away. Far away. Farther than wherever it was in the middle of the ocean that the convicts were offered to the fishes before the waves returned their leftovers to the beach.