In the distance, the structure loomed, resting complacently against a backdrop of grey dewy sky. Chima pushed a button and glanced at his watch. More than glanced actually. Watched. He watched the sweeping hand measuring seconds, illuminated by built-in incandescence. For Chima, sweeping hands felt faster. It felt like a better measurement of time; of the fleeting seconds. It stood for something; time’s transience. 25 minutes to the hour of 6.
While walking, he glanced around taking in the coolness of the morning air. Aside the occupants of two cars with blazing headlamps that raced past him few minutes apart on his way, there was no living being about, no humans at least. The fog was quite light. Light. But still there. He paused to catch his breath. If he now found walking tiring, what will the climb be like? He hugged himself, pulling his insulating synthetic fur coat tightly about him, stifling a shiver as the chill of the January morning bit into him. He doubled his steps. He had to be fast. He could deal with a lot of things, not publicity. At least, not yet.
The area was bushy, shrouded in thick colonies of wild grass. On normal days, he wouldn’t even jog past this place in the early morning or at night. For fear of robbers. For fear of the mad men and women who populated the derelict structures that lined the abandoned street. For fear of the unknown. He wasn’t afraid today, just cold.
Chima got to the gate, medium sized, rusted, bathed in creepers and climbers. He stepped off the road. A car blazed past. Early riser. Looking left and right, he pushed the gate. It barely budged, held fast by creepers. He tried to force himself through the small space it afforded and failed. He coughed. His breath was coming in wheezes now. He cursed. Adding extra force to the push, the gate began to give.
He stood in front of the building. It was bathed in dust and dirt. Its old paint, whatever it had been was now a shade of brown. It had been a home for NITEL in its days – the country’s own telecommunication company. It was magnificent in its time. Magnificent in that plain, prim and proper way government buildings were, at least, before the physical and structural rot that pervaded everywhere. Everywhere in Wurapene. Now it lay in ruins, a tell-tale of everything else. But as he stood in front of it, he wasn’t looking at the building. He was staring at the structure behind it. Tall and imposing. A live relief of metal, rust and loftiness. It was huge, terribly huge unlike the smaller slim reliefs of red and white that dotted the city these days. He picked his way around the building, dodging shrubs and skirting around too-tall patches of grass. He looked up when he got to it. The very top hidden in a blanket of fog. Jacob’s ladder. He chuckled in spite of himself at the allusion his mind was making. Taking a deep breath, he began to mount.
Three… four… five… six… The wet coldness of the rungs chilled him to the bones. He coughed. Not once. It was a raucous string of explosive expulsions of air. The sort that accompany illness. He paused. To let it pass… to catch his breath. Fifty-two… fifty-three… Chima loved order. He liked counting things. His mind did it unconsciously, placing stuff in their order of occurrence… of preference.
He got to the first landing but didn’t bother stepping off the ladder. The landing went around the structure, probably used for maintenance purposes when that was any use. The structure was segmented and most of the segments had one; a landing. Chima stopped to breathe. He looked around and saw dawn creeping from the East. Damn! ‘I should have come out earlier’ he thought. He continued the climb. The rungs got rougher. He could smell the rust and somehow, taste it. Ouch! His teeth were clattering and he bit his tongue. The taste of copper found its way to his tongue and lay on it, like a bed, flopping about like an ailing bird. Minutes later, One seven four… one seven five… He was tired. Too tired. But the coming dawn kept pushing him on. He had chosen today for a reason. It was Sunday. No, not because of religion. It was the day he was born. The first day of the week. He loved order. Right to the point of superstition. It had to be today.
Chima was almost out of breath by the time he reached the third landing. He stepped off the ladder and unto the landing. Holding the railing, he looked down. Looking down from that height would have made a lot of people dizzy. Not Chima. He was not afraid of heights. If it did anything to him, it filled him with a thrill that made something in his chest flutter. The bushes below looked like a lush carpet for the structure to sit on. Everything below looked smaller, far away, just like his problems. Or except his problems. He carried them with him. He looked again at the ground and measured the distance. Not far enough. He returned to the ladder and continued to climb.
The structure had begun to thin out. Three steps clear of a segment, fifth or sixth now? Four rungs broke off in quick succession as he placed a foot on one terribly eaten by rust. The first step was conscious, the second and others, not. In those precious seconds, as each rung his leg found snapped, his legs flailed in a desperate need to grab something. One of many grabs actually, as his hands joined the struggle. Struggle not to fall? After dangling for a second, he found sure footing. He was tired. It was dawn already. He kept up the climb, he was almost at the top now. The top. That was where he wanted it. From there. No middle points.
He grabbed the rungs with a ruthless fierceness now, even though his steps and climbs didn’t bear the same spirit. He shivered. It was cold. Not just the rungs. All around. Cold. Chima always chided himself and made jokes about how his mind could flashback, set off by the weirdest of unconnected situations. Like now, he was thinking about the bottles of beer he had a long time ago in his undergraduate days. It was his birthday, he was with friends. Their drinks were not cold but they still enjoyed it. They did. He didn’t. He never liked the taste of beer, much less when it wasn’t exactly cold. They had put some beer in a glass for him and put in several other liquids and substances “The elixir of immortality”, they had called it. And he had downed it after a hearty “cheers” to “Long life and prosperity”. Immortality. Long life and prosperity. Wishes. He chuckled, but it came out in a wheeze. He had nodded and said “cheers” with them but when he brought the glass to his lips and tipped its content into his mouth, it had tasted as flat as a chopping board and hit him twice as hard.
One more… and he was at the very top of the mast. The entire city sprawled beneath him like a mat. He glanced around, panting, marveling and somehow, grinning. This was it. In a few minutes… It would take months if not years before he was found. Enough time. He looked in the direction of his house, searched for it and saw it. A grey roof, surrounded by trees in a sea of houses. A sea of coloured rooftops. Some coloured by fate, some by design. He glanced towards the horizon and held his breath. Nothing below or around him, not even the sunrise behind caught him the way the skyline did; the buildings, trees, tall and small, sprawling for miles in all directions as if on a sheet, in an almost endless beauteous cacophony and at the edge, a mix of buildings, hills and trees lined against the sky, losing most of their colours in a hazy shade of grayish-blue.
It wasn’t exactly a straight line, much like his life. It wasn’t straight. The buildings, some scrappers in the distance; almost an eternity away, turned jagged, what would have been an even meeting of Earth and sky. Yet it was beautiful. Was his life beautiful too? Uneven line. Lines… they defined a lot of things these days. Deadlines. Plans. Personal spaces. Feelings. Egos. Lines not to be crossed. Lives. Most of them, jagged, like this skyline. He remembered the doctor’s voice; sombre and calm as he told him how much time he had left. Cancer. A few months from the end. How many? Two? three? It was hard to say. Few months. Jagged line. A deadline. Dead. Line. He laughed at himself. He still had jokes.
The doctor had suggested chemotherapy. And Chima had thought about it. His ex-wife, still friends, had forced him to think about it. “I will sleep over it” he had said. “Do just that, make up your mind by morning, delay is dangerous.” she replied, her voice solemn over the phone, sorry for him. ‘By morning’, today. A deadline he would miss. Because he would have jumped from this place and when he hit the ground below, it would be over. Because a troubled man carries his problems with him, like Chima did. And when that man’s body hits the ground from this height, it’s not the man that shatters. It’s his problems.
Chima hated pity. He had watched too many clips of cancer patients on hospital beds hooked up to tubes, undergoing chemo and being begged to fight. For what? He wasn’t the sort to end like that, probably losing the fight as the deadly cells eat him up from within. For what? He pulled himself away from the view around him and looked at the ground below. It looked miles away. And he wondered how long he would fall. He was forty and had seen video clips of too many people die this way. The number of clips had nothing to do with his age. He had watched them all the night before. Research. He took a deep breath and wondered what would happen after he expired. If they would find him, what would happen much later… Thoughts. Cowardice. He realized he was postponing the end. But then, which needed the most courage? Taking one’s life or living it? Maybe it was the latter as it takes just seconds to jump and then while you’re in the air, you can’t change your mind anymore or you can change it but not your situation and you just go like “oh well, this is it”. But if it is so easy, why hasn’t he jumped? Chima took another deep breath and climbing off the ladder, stood at the very top of the mast. He didn’t falter, his head for heights holding him in place. In a few seconds it would be over. He glanced at his watch. More from habit than need… Almost Seven. He had wasted too much time resting in-between climbs. But he was here wasn’t he? He glanced at the skyline again, the roughness and beauty of it and closed his eyes, picturing it. He would keep them closed and let it be the last thing he sees as he leaves. Just one step and he would be done. One. But he was wasting time. Was it fear? Was he scared to die… yet scared to live? He tried to remember, why was he doing this? There. Cancer would waste his time. But this would end it in an instant. Chima loved precision. “Pointiness” and timeliness.
Yet… if he jumped, for what still? He could fight… even if he felt it was foolish. He had read statistics and saw the spree that greeted losers. Yet, he could fight. His life right now wasn’t even but could he doubt it was beautiful? Was it?
Chima opened his eyes and climbed back on the ladder to begin the slow descent down. About an hour later, he stepped off the last rail, walked the way he came and out through the gates. He met no one on the street except near the gates covered with creepers and climbers, where a lone loon, was engrossed with muttering to himself and drawing invisible lines on the grass with his fingers.
- Caleb Nmeribe #Carlflame