Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Driving Woes

I have a new driver. Actually, I have had two new drivers so far. Big Paul, my minder during my first tours in Nigeria has been reassigned to some other manager for fear that my final departure at the end of the contract will result in him being perceived as surplus to the manning requirement.

After Paul I had Cletus. An unfortunate name that, especially for a man, for no matter how careful one enunciates the word, it sounds unnervingly close to ‘clitoris’. Or perhaps that is just me. Anyway, Clitoris, I mean Cletus, has a heavy right foot. He thinks nothing of bowling the car along at eighty to a hundred clicks weaving his way from one side of the road to the other, threading the car through traffic as predictable as a menopausal woman. Cletus does not need to see daylight. The merest glimpse of dawn’s early morning half light is sign enough of the tiniest gap into which he launches his car. Visions of someone carelessly stepping into his line of fire and being catapaulted over the bonnet, roof and boot of the car leaving the inevitable one flip-flop lying in the road invaded my consciousness every time I rode with him. He never bumped into anything, however, and his vocabulary was extensive and varied enough to leave other road users no doubt as to where they fitted into the feeding chain; as well as supplying the distraction of seemingly endless entertainment for an otherwise nervous passenger.

Now I have Mba, pronounced ‘Oompah’. He is the complete opposite, and we are talking extremes here. The other day, a seemingly healthy Cletus developed a debilitating and, frankly, quite distasteful skin condition requiring his immediate relief from all duties. In other words, there was no way on earth that I was to be confined in close proximity with a man who appeared to be involuntarily divesting himself of his outer layer faster than a decomposing reptile.

We all know people who somehow or other have ended up in professions completely unsuited to them. I, for example, should have been an artist. A trendy lefty, yoghurt knitting extremist wearing pullovers made from recycled McDonalds cartons and daubing canvases with a variety of indescribable media and getting a government grant for doing so. Instead, I am in the security business. Mba is such a man. To end up a driver, he must have had an influential uncle who, deep down, really hated him. Let’s face it, if you want to get rid of someone, a hopelessly inept relative that your sister keeps bugging you to help, arrange for him to be a pilot. And if you hate him enough, you will still be able to sleep at night and not think of the ninety or so innocent souls who crashed into oblivion with him.

Well maybe Mba’s uncle didn’t hate him that much, or didn’t have enough influence to make him a pilot, so being a driver was the next best thing. Mba is never going to run anyone over. He isn’t going to lose control of the car at high speed and leave me smeared along the Aba Expressway. No. He, his car and anyone unfortunate enough to be in it, will one day become a bonnet mascot for some over-laden articulated lorry with no brakes that Mba, oblivious to his surroundings, has pottered in front of at twenty kilometres an hour while staring at something that everyone else would recognise as the speedometer and him wondering why the numbers go so far beyond the needle. Instead of visions of cart-wheeling roadside vendors, I now have nightmares of being borne screaming on the front of some bloody great truck all the way to Onne Port to be found lying face down on the dockside with ‘OVLOV’ stamped on my back. When I say ‘found’, I am assuming, of course, that someone would actually notice a partially dismembered and obviously discarded ‘Oyibo’ in a place like Onne.

Driving with Mba in traffic is rather like being on a boat in a fast moving and turbulent river. Only this boat has its engine running in reverse so even though the current is carrying us forwards, all the flotsam and jetsam sweeps past us around the stern and close along the sides before being swept ahead on the current. I have this unsettling feeling that I am going backwards relative to my immediate surroundings. This in itself is bad enough as it goes against the grain in the competition that driving in heavy traffic inevitably becomes, and increases the frustration of not being in control that every passenger feels. Worse is the fact that our sedate progress is accompanied by an almost incessant blaring of horns from behind. I used to like driving with the window open. I would gladly sacrifice the comfort of air-conditioning in order to avoid the sensation of being forced to ingest the foul biological output of an unwashed driver. With Mba, though, every angry road warrior that finally manages to squeeze by him hurls a variety of blood curdling abuse clearly culled from Cletus’ extensive repertoire through my open window. If they can emphasise their indignant rage by clopping me on the arm with a bit of hose or electrical flex, so much the better. Mba wisely keeps his window closed. I do the same now but go one stage further. I usually close my eyes as well.

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