Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan – a story of love, family and just desserts
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Enjoy a glass of wine and this extended excerpt from The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan.
About the book
Rabato Sabato aka Soni Dike is a Lagos big boy; a criminal turned grandee, with a beautiful wife, a sea-side mansion and a questionable fortune. Then one day he disappears and his car is found in a ditch, music blaring from the speakers.
Soni’s older brother, Abel Dike, a teacher, arrives in Lagos to look for his missing brother.
Abel is rapidly sucked into the unforgiving Lagos maelstrom where he has to navigate encounters with a motley cast of common criminals, deal with policemen all intent on getting a piece of the pie, and contend with his growing attraction to his brother’s wife.
The Carnivorous City is a story about love, family and just desserts, but it is above all a tale about Lagos and the people who make the city by the lagoon what it is.
Read the excerpt:
Soni is Missing
Soni is missing.
Three simple words that seemed as if a lifetime had been compressed into them, a lethal payload of pain and fear waiting to detonate and decimate. Those words shocked and calmed in equal measure, like a letter bearing bad news delivered long after its contents have been made known.
That was the sum of the text message Abel received that morning and the one message he now had to forget. But there was a problem: to forget, you had to learn not to remember.
It was a Friday and he was sleeping in because the school where he taught English literature had gone on vacation a week before. With three free months ahead of him, Abel had decided to enjoy his sleep until he tired of it.
That was why his alarm did not go off at 5am as usual, and that was why, when his phone began to vibrate, he flung it across the room. The text came in at 5.43am, but he only read it at 6.05am, after he stepped on the handset as he exited the bathroom.
He sat on the chair by his reading table, naked save for his boxers, and looked at the message again.
Soni is missing.
It was short and direct; no frills.
His hands were shaking. He looked at his fingers as if he was seeing them for the first time: they were long and slender, the fingernails well-trimmed like a girl’s. Calista, his ex-girlfriend, used to tease him.
They had been even slimmer and more girl-like when he was a sickly teenager. Things had changed after secondary school. He was still sickly but not as ill as he used to be. Then, because he began to lift weights and pump iron, his body had filled out. He would never be fat, but no one would now describe him as skinny or sickly.
Soni is missing.
The message had been sent for maximum impact and as he read it over and over again, he began to slowly admit to himself that, at some deep unconscious level, he had been expecting this message or a variant of it for years now.
Soni was his younger brother and someone who, in the peculiar speak of Lagos, had ‘made it’. He was a bonafide ‘Lagos Big Boy’: a member of that amazing tribe of men who inhabited a social stratum of Lagos accessed mostly through shady deals or white-collar crime. They were the toast of musicians and the jet set but, like cheap goods in the Indian and Lebanese shops that dotted Lagos, they were always close to expiring.
On the run.
These were words and phrases that usually preceded comments about those who had ‘made it’ in cities like Lagos.
No one could accuse Abel of being a Lagos Big Boy or mistake him for someone who had made it. As a teacher in a remote state capital, he subsisted on the basics. His needs were minimal. All the clothes he owned would fit into a small box. The only things he spent money on were the novels he ordered monthly from Jazzhole, through an old friend in Lagos.
On evenings when Abel did not wish to be buried in a novel or at the gym, he would go to Madam Caro’s bar for a stout or two and shoot the breeze with the motley crew that gathered there: contractors, civil servants and their cohorts, politicians on the make. The topics were always the same: politics, money, football and sex.
Abel looked at the text message again. Even though it was not signed he knew who had sent it. There was no mistake about it. The message had come from Ada, Soni’s wife and the mother of his three-year-old son. They had history between them, Ada and Abel.
He remembered when Soni had called to tell him about his plans to get married. Abel asked him who she was, where she was from and where they met. After Soni replied to say they had met in a nightclub, Abel wrote his younger brother a long letter that ended with, ‘9 inches, you do not marry a woman you met in a nightclub.’
And Soni, maybe in a fit of passion, had shown her the letter or maybe – not to judge him too harshly – had left it lying carelessly someplace like he did most things; clothes, money, memories. Ada had read those last lines and never forgot or forgave.
He called the number.
‘Ada, it’s me, Abel. I just got your message.’
‘What message?’ Her voice was flat.
‘What message? Didn’t you send me a text message?’
‘No. I did not.’
‘OK. Well, I got a message from this number to say Soni is missing. Is he?’
‘Yes. He is missing.’ Abel thought he heard a sniffle.
‘And you didn’t think to tell me?’
‘I don’t have your number,’ she said, as if it was the perfect answer.
‘You don’t have my number?’ Abel bit down on his lower lip to stop from screaming. He took a deep breath. ‘How long has my brother been missing?’
‘Sixteen days,’ she said and burst into tears. ‘I know you will blame me. I know you have never liked me.’
She was crying now and Abel hoped his phone credit would not run out of time.
‘I wanted to call but I didn’t know what to say. We are broke. We can’t eat. I can’t buy my son’s cereal. The bank says I can’t get money from his account because I am not his next of kin.’
‘Who is his next of kin?’ he asked, wondering why she would have kept the news from him for over two weeks.
‘You are. All the money Soni has now belongs to you. Without you, we can’t even buy toothpicks.’ She burst into tears again.
That was when his credit ran out.
Soni had been born Sunderland Onyema Dike but over time he came to be known by an odd assortment of noms de guerre befitting the person he was becoming and would become.
At university he was known as ‘9 inches’ because he told the girls he slept with that he was nine inches long and soon took to leaving an inscription on the wall above the bed of any girl he bedded: ‘9 inches was here’. And he bedded many girls.It was a boast and a declaration all at once, aimed at deflating the next visitor.
After school, when he relocated to Lagos to ‘chase his fortune’, as he said, Soni came to be known first as Alhaji Tanko, then Sabato Jnr and finally Sabato Rabato.
Everyone said Soni had seen money. They said he had hit it big in Lagos. Having never made it in Lagos or anywhere else Abel did not have a firm understanding of what making it meant. He had caught glimpses of it during Soni’s wedding to Ada. He gleaned it from the house Soni lived in previously, the gifts he scattered around the family, the magnificent house he built for their mum in the village, the brand new Toyota Camry he sent Abel on his thirty-fifth birthday, and the brand new cars he sent to their mum, their sister and a gaggle of uncles and aunties.
And he got a sense of it when he stepped into Soni’s house in Lekki Phase 1, two days after he received Ada’s text message.
Soni had built and moved into the house two years earlier. Abel had been invited to the house warming but could not make it because it fell during the second semester exams. He did not want to think about Soni’s house, with its eight bedrooms and three living rooms, the fleet of seven cars, the wall-mounted flat-screen televisions and split-unit air conditioners in every space.
He focused his thoughts on Soni’s son’s room, which, in its sheer luxury, brought to the fore the shabbiness of his own digs and, in fact, his whole existence.
Wealth, luxury and opulence were not things he was familiar with. They had grown up the children of two teachers. He still had his memories from childhood, from when his father was a vice principal. They lived in the house on top of the knoll, where he would sit and watch his friends fit into the hollow of 32-inch rim tyres. They would scream and yell as the tyres raced downhill to the sand deposits where they were building new quarters. He was too sickly to join in.
Sometimes, the pusher would do something wrong and the tyres would miss the mounds of sand, go banging straight into the wall and the passenger would fall out bloodied.
Because Abel could not exert himself, he found refuge in the many books on his father’s shelves. Books were easy. They did not require much effort. He could sit and read all day long then wake up and take a walk. You didn’t get bruises, black eyes or missing teeth from reading books, and if your imagination was as fertile as his, you could travel great distances without leaving your doorstep.
Abel loved Mine Boy and An African Night’s Entertainment. He loved Ben Okri and Ayi Kwei Armah. He liked Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. As he grew older, his tastes became more American and then Indian writers began to appeal to him too.
Their family had lived on the school compound of St Patrick’s College, where his father taught. For many years, it was a happy home with music and laughter. His father favoured jazz and blues, always playing records by artistes like Isaac Hayes, Hot Chocolate, Spiro Gyra and Earl Klugh.
His mother’s taste was more sentimental. He still remembered her playing loud music on Saturday mornings as she and his sister did the chores, while his father was out playing tennis and Abel and Soni watched cartoons. She played Boney M. and ABBA if she was happy and Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry if she was sad. The songs were the barometer of his mother’s mood.
Abel still lived and worked in Asaba, a small town made slightly bigger by its newfound status as a state capital, especially with the annexation of Okpanam.
Okpanam was the home town of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, Nigeria’s first putschist, while Asaba was infamous as a theatre of war, where federal troops, led by Murtala Mohammed, allegedly called for a meeting of all adult men and gunned them down in cold blood.
Growing up, Abel did not know all this, but he remembered seeing fellow students at St Patrick’s College dig up bones and skulls as they made ridges and hedges for agricultural science practicals.
Asaba was small then, its pretensions to town-hood circumscribed by the presence of only one road that deserved the name, Nnebisi Road, which ran like an angry artery through the length of the town.
It was a sleepy place, with the only bustle evident at the Ogbeogonogo Market, and sometimes at Cable Point on your exit towards Onitsha Head Bridge, which led from Delta Igboland into the real Igbo hinterland.
This was where he grew up, where he had his first kiss and first shag and where, if Soni hadn’t gone missing, he believed he would have expired.
Asaba held good memories but it was also a place of sadness, where his idyllic life changed on his twelfth birthday; the day he and his father came back home earlier than planned because someone had collapsed and died at the tennis court. They had found his mother in bed with the neighbour’s kid brother; the one who had been sleeping with Abel’s aunt.
Abel recalled his father shooing him away, willing him to go blind, to not see the sweaty entwined bodies lying on the matrimonial bed. Thankfully, his brother and sister were away at an aunt’s for the weekend.
Abel remembered the boy, not much older than him, running off naked with his clothes under his armpits and his father falling to his knees, his tennis racquet in his hands. Abel stood there and watched, astonished at how naked and sexual his mother looked and ashamed at the stirring he felt.
He had seen her naked many times before, but that morning she looked different. Sweaty. Open. Those were the words that came to mind, and as he watched his father weep, he knew that his tears were not for what he had seen but on account of whom he had seen it with. Abel was an unwelcome spectator at his father’s spectacle of shame and neither of them ever forgot it.
His father found solace in drink and the outdoors while his mother sought refuge in the church. But there was no comfort for Abel. He could not unsee what he had seen and he would never be able to talk about it. It was a secret he would bear to his grave, one that not only opened a wide gulf between him and his mother, but also told him clearly that he would never, ever get married.
From an early age, Abel knew what he wanted to be: a vice principal. Not a principal; just a vice principal like his father had been when the thought first occurred to the young Abel.
His father was the man he wanted to be: a teacher living a simple, idyllic life defined by certainties and the most basic rules. Wake. Warm the car. Go to work. Observe siesta. Drink a beer or two in the evening as you read a magazine or book. Play tennis on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.
His father had loved coffee and cigarettes. Abel remembered him smoking as they tried on clothes in the shops at Easter and Christmas.
Abel had resolved, right from when he was about nine or ten, that the only person he wanted to be like when he grew up was his father. But even though he had practised all his life for that wish, it did not come easily to him because by the time he was old enough to become his father, things had changed. Teaching had lost his allure and instead of respectability, it cloaked those who came to it in the garb of poverty and penury. He had embraced, with something close to physical ache, the realisation that, with the way things were going, he would never be able to afford a car or any of the trappings of respectability his father and his friends had enjoyed. That was before Soni sent him a brand new car on his thirty-fifth birthday.
He rued the fact that most of the things he had wished for all his life would not come easily to him. But Soni was the one to whom everything came easily: women, popularity, money and, it now seemed, an untimely end.
Abel arrived in Lagos on a Sunday afternoon lugging a tired old briefcase he had inherited from his father. It was an old Echolac with a combination lock. He had packed two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts as well as three boxer shorts and vests. He had his toothbrush, a hairbrush, a half-used bar of soap, Vaseline, toothpaste and an old towel. There was a pair of ageing black shoes that Soni had sent him for his wedding, wrapped in a black cellophane bag. He had also packed three books: the collected poems of TS Eliot, Christopher Okigbo’s definitive collection of poems, Labyrinths, and the novel A Mercy by Toni Morrison.
Ada was at the park to pick him up. He saw her through the window before the bus came to a halt. She was as pretty as he remembered her, in a long, flowing white gown with floral designs on the chest.
She gave him a perfunctory hug as he stepped out of the bus and offered to take his briefcase.
‘How was your trip?’ she asked, leading the way to a black BMW X5.
Abel dumped his briefcase in the back and settled into the passenger seat. Up close, he could see that a child and the passing of time had had no effect on her. Ada still looked beautiful. More beautiful, it seemed, than she had been when he last saw her at the wedding in her lovely cream, off-the-shoulder wedding gown that showed off her flawless skin and ample bosom.
She was tall and dark, with those same pouty lips that Soni had admired. ‘When I saw her that night,’ he’d said, ‘the first thing I noticed were her lips, and it was as if they were saying to me “kiss me, kiss me”. So I walked up to her and said, “You have the best lips I have ever seen; would you let me kiss them?” She was with her friends and you know how girls can be. She just laughed and said in Igbo, “onye ala”. I spoke back in Igbo, saying that yes she was right. Her beauty and perfect lips were driving me nuts. You trust your brother, we were kissing before we left that club and two weeks later she moved in with me.’
Abel could still see the twinkle in Soni’s eyes as he told him how he and Ada met, that weekend when he came home to Asaba to inform him and their mother that he was getting married.
‘What does she do?’ Abel had asked. They were having drinks in Soni’s suite at the Grand Hotel Asaba. With their father dead, Abel was the head of the family and Soni had come to inform him and ask for his blessing. But it was all a mere formality; Abel’s opinion did not matter, though he was happy Soni was taking the trouble to seek his blessing. More so, considering the fact that they had fallen out after the unfortunate letter in which he’d railed against marrying a girl he met in the club.
‘She just finished NYSC. She studied linguistics and, hold on, I know this one will interest you: she made a 2.1.’ Soni smiled broadly.
‘Anyone can get a 2.1,’ Abel said, a tad bit too flippantly. He forced a nervous laugh. ‘I don’t mean it that way. You know I am always speaking out my thoughts.’
‘No wahala, bros. I understand. You are my brother and I need you to be happy for me. Ada is a smart, pretty and sweet girl. Try and forget where I met her.’
Abel reached across the table and patted his brother’s hand.
‘I am happy for you, and if she makes you happy, then go for it.’
Three weeks later, a large parcel arrived from Lagos. Inside was an Italian-made, navy-blue, single-button suit, a spanking white shirt, a gold cravat, a Cesare Paciotti black leather belt, and a pair of black leather shoes by the same designer. There was even a pair of black socks and a white handkerchief with one hundred thousand naira, cash, which Soni had sent to enable Abel to fly to Lagos. Soni did not want his best man to miss the wedding under any pretext.
‘How is your son?’ Abel asked Ada as they made the turn from Adekunle onto Third Mainland Bridge.
‘Fine. His name is Zeal.’
‘Zeal. Soni gave his son an English name?’ Soni had rebelled against his name, Sunderland, changing it to Soni the moment he could.
‘Zeal is not an English name. It is short for Zealinjo. Flee from evil.’
‘Oh, sorry about that,’ Abel said recalling at that moment that Soni had actually sent him a text with all the names and had even asked him to propose one. ‘Do you think he knows what is going on? The fact that his father is missing?’
‘Not really. You know your brother used to travel a lot. But I’m sure he can feel that this trip is different. I don’t think Zeal is too young to realise that this trip has lasted a bit too long.’
‘Thank God for innocence,’ Abel said. ‘What are the police saying?’
‘They say they are investigating.’ Abel thought she heard her voice break. ‘I haven’t given them any money in the past few days and I think they are slacking.’
‘What did they do when they were not slacking?’ he asked, without meaning to. ‘Don’t mind me. I tend to voice my thoughts.’
‘You also tend to write them out,’ she said, looking at him.
‘Ada, you look more beautiful when you are angry.’ He laughed and tried to change the topic, but she kept staring at him with a face that mirrored her rage. ‘We have had this conversation before,’ he said finally.
‘Yes, and we were interrupted when Soni walked in. You think every girl you meet in a club is a prostitute?’
‘I never said that.’
‘But you implied it. My parents are both lecturers, like you. PhD holders. My two siblings are medical doctors. You don’t know me,’ she said with feeling.
‘I agree and I am sorry. That letter was meant for my brother.’
His eyes went from her face to the road. It was a Sunday afternoon and traffic was light. Still, he didn’t want her taking her eyes off the road for too long.
She sighed as she turned off the bridge. They drove in silence for the rest of the trip from Dolphin Estate into Osborne, past Kingsway Road, on to Falomo, down to Ozumba Mbadiwe and the new toll plaza, all the way to the magnificent mansion Soni had erected just off Admiralty Way in Lekki Phase 1.
‘You should stay in his room. My nanny is in your room.’
‘Yes, your room. Soni made it especially for you but I brought her up when your brother went missing. I needed company here in the family wing,’ she said pushing a door open.
The room was large and done up in white and black. It had a masculine feel; a man cave. Abel could see Soni in every detail, right down to the cursive above the headboard: 9 inches is here!The marauding dick had finally found a home.
‘You are sure you are OK with this?’ Abel asked turning to look at her.
‘Well, there is a connecting door to my room. I am OK so long as you keep it locked. If you keep the key in the lock, I can’t open it from my end. So it’s OK.’
‘Thank you.’ He sat on the bed.
‘You are welcome. His clothes are in the closet. You guys wear the same size. You may need them because you will be meeting important people.’
‘And my clothes won’t be good enough,’ Abel said before he realised what he was saying.
‘I don’t mean it that way, but Soni is always giving away his clothes. I would prefer they went to family.’
‘I’m family?’ Abel began before he caught himself mid-sentence. ‘Cool.’
She opened her mouth as if to speak, thought better of it, and made for the door. But then she stopped mid-stride, her hand on the doorknob, and began to speak, her back turned to him.
‘We need money to eat and pay drivers, house helps and other domestic staff, as well as staff in the office. They haven’t been paid for the last month. I will call Santos. He will take you around. He used to follow Soni around. He knows everyone and has been helping draw up names and leads for the police. He will come in tomorrow morning. I will give you all the cheque books and account numbers. But first you have to see the lawyer to help you sort out issues at the probate registry.’
‘OK.’ Abel suddenly felt overwhelmed by it all. Two days earlier he was just a lecturer eking out a precarious existence in a hovel in Asaba. Now he was in a mansion in Lagos, wondering what had shifted in the foundation of things.
‘Bring Zeal,’ he said. ‘Let me play with my son.’
‘My son,’ she said and walked out.