When Kay told his parents the topic of his final-year project, a hush descended over the room, magnifying the chatter from the television before which the family had gathered to await their favourite sitcom.
His father was seated on his armchair, set aside from the others by the brown freckled antelope hide that was draped over it, and upon which nobody, not even their mother, dared to sit. It commanded the best view of the television without any strain on the neck, and of the aquarium that bubbled with gold and angel fishes beside it. Kay’s mother sat in another armchair beside her husband’s, knitting a pink shawl for the current occupant of her distended tummy. Kay was on the three-seater with his sister while his younger brother was curled up on the rug, his eyes glued to a comic book.
Kay’s father reached for the remote control and turned off the television.
‘Ada, Obinna,’ he called to Kay’s siblings, ‘excuse us. You can see the programme on the TV upstairs.’
Ada cast a glance at her elder brother that said: You’ve come with your trouble again, and rose from the settee. Obinna unravelled himself from the rug and followed with a sulk on his face.
‘Now, Kayobanna, what was it you said?’
The glint in his father’s eye made Kay’s tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. He waggled it free, swallowed and began:
‘I-I said I would be writing on … on human sexuality for my final-year project.’
‘That wasn’t exactly what you said.’
‘Erm … yes. But it’s still the same … in a broad, generic … you know, conceptual sort of way.’
Kay’s father remained silent. Only his eyes, which had narrowed further, showed he was smarting. Any attempt to pin Kay down to exactly what he had said earlier would get him veering off into a hair-splitting analysis of words and concepts – the kind of analysis that often got Kay’s father stammering at the end of an argument and wishing Kay were still a boy so he could give him a good hiding. He took a deep breath and bellowed:
‘Of all the subjects in the world, you pick an anathema, a taboo, and say that’s what you want to write on. What happened to writing about … about …’
He stalled as he tried to recall something from Philosophy Made Simple, a book he had bought and read secretly, driven by his son’s quibbling.
‘Yes, what happened to writing about Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes?’ He pronounced it Des-car-tes, as spelt, instead of Decart. And Kay would have chuckled had he not been too tensed up.
‘What happened to writing about the mind-body problem, the concepts of good and evil, of freewill and destiny?’ his father continued.
‘Dad, I want to work on something new, something challenging, in the realm of practical ethics.’
‘Oh. I forgot you’re Socrates. And there’s nothing new and challenging enough for you in the works of those lesser philosophers.’
‘Dad, please understand. I really want to research this subject.’
Kay’s father suddenly began to laugh. It was the kind of laugh one would hear in a psychiatric ward. Kay had never heard him laugh that way before.
‘Gay Kay,’ his father said, calling Kay by his long-forgotten childhood pet name. He shook his head again as if wondering how the name had returned in some morbid form to haunt them in the present day. ‘I’m sure your interest in this subject is purely academic,’ he said, and laughed again.
‘Of course dad, it is.’
‘I bet it is. Otherwise I would kill you myself and report your suicide to the police. Anyway, this is a matter between you and your lecturers. You will only get into trouble with me if at the end of the day you do not come home with good grades as a result of your crazy ideas.’ He reached for the remote control and switched on the television, becoming the usual pragmatist that never belaboured an issue once the point was made.
Before Kay could exhale and say thanks, his mother began in a strident voice:
‘Papa Kay how can you allow him? No, he should choose another topic – there are many others to choose from.’ She noticed that her husband was not listening and faced Kay, ‘My son, please try and find another topic – please. You can always research your topic in private, on your own, if you’re so bent on it. See, Mama Chuka told me the other day that her son was busy with his final-year project, something to do with the African origins of civilisation. Now tell me, Kay, what will I tell my friends if they ask what my son is working on for his project? I can’t even mention that word.’
Kay’s mother went on and on until his ears became weary from the monotony of her arguments. He felt she was dressing the same words in different attires and having them catwalk before him, in the hope that he would fall for them. But his keen eye readily saw through the colourful dresses, down to the dirty underwear. Nevertheless, he assured his mother that he would take her words to heart and her appeals ended.
Three weeks before, Kay had been thinking of writing on some other topic for his final-year project, something to do with truth and the principle of verification. But that changed after his holiday in the U. K.
Kay left the toilet and walked back to his table in a daze.
‘Hey Kay, what’s wrong?’ Andy asked, setting down his pint of beer.
Kay slumped into his seat. ‘Kissing. Two men. I saw two men kissing and . . . and . . . you know . . .’
Andy cackled. ‘Is that why you look like you’ve seen a ghost? They’re born that way, you know, wired that way from the factory . . .’
‘Shhh! Keep your voice down,’ Kay whispered, and cast a glance around the pub.
‘What the hell for? It’s something natural, like being left-handed.’
Kay opened his mouth but his brain drew a blank.
‘What’s the matter, the cat got your tongue?’
Kay shut his mouth and began to nibble on his lip. He remembered that he had had to nibble on his lip too during his first days in London, after he expressed shock at the advertisements of men seeking men in the newspapers. Pictures of semi-nude hunks who smiled invitingly often accompanied such advertisements. He looked around to see if anyone in the pub had been listening in on their conversation. A heavily built man, three tables to their left, was staring at them while nodding to the beats of George Michael’s Careless Whisper playing in the background. His head was clean-shaven and golden rings hung from his earlobes, eyebrow, lower lip and chin.
The man looked away, muttered to his companion and raised his beer to his lips.
Kay cast a glance towards the toilets. He swallowed down the rest of his beer and wiped the foam off his lips. ‘Andy, I think we go now.’
‘What? Are you kidding me? It’s only 10:30. This is supposed to be your last night. We’ve just started.’
‘I’m sorry Andy, but you know the last few days have been hectic. I’ll need a good night’s sleep before my flight tomorrow.’
‘Well, it’s your call. If you say so. Just give me a few minutes to finish my beer.’
‘Sure,’ Kay said. He glanced up at the television mounted on the wall. Something about a husband who had assisted the suicide of his terminally ill wife was being shown. It reminded him of his course mate who had chosen to write on euthanasia for her final-year project. She had formulated the title as: ‘Euthanasia: Mercy Killing or Killing Mercy?’ Kay had told her he could make no meaning out of it and she had retorted that he was thick in the head.
Andy downed the last drop of beer in his glass. ‘Sure you still wanna leave?’ he asked.
Kay nodded. He took another look towards the toilets as they rose from their seats.
Early the next morning, Kay was aboard his flight to Nigeria. The events of the previous night were still fresh in his mind. Like a ruminant that had found a cosy corner, he sat and chewed over his experiences of the past few weeks: the explicit newspaper adverts, the men locked in passionate embrace in the toilet, the various explanations he had heard. He began to nibble on his lips again.
Prior to his visit to the U. K., Kay had encountered such behaviour just once in his life. But then he was only twelve, and had not really grasped what it was all about. It was during his first year in boarding school, a strict mission school for boys, where the day was started with prayers in the chapel and ended the same way at night. One such morning, after the usual prayers and hymn singing, the principal, looking angelic in his white cassock, had called up two senior boys. One of them was very popular among the students. His name was Edward but he readily answered when students called him Headward because of the large block he carried on his shoulders.
The principal had announced their expulsion from school, and said they had allowed themselves to be driven by the devil and his cohorts, Belial and Beelzebub, to commit a foul and immoral act. Then he launched into a long sermon about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Kay’s brows had furrowed while the principal spoke. He tried to pick his way to the students’ offence through the labyrinth of the reverend’s words. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible still mystified him; he could not understand why two whole cities had to be razed to the ground because some men had demanded to ‘know’ the strange men visiting their town. His only clue to the offence was the principal’s use of the term, ‘immoral act’. He had been in the school long enough to know that the expression ‘immoral act’ equalled ‘sexual offence’. But he could not make out the particulars. Could they have smuggled girls into the dormitories? Or were they caught touching themselves? It was only when a student beside him wrinkled his face and said: ‘Urghhh! It would be smeared all over with faeces,’ that finally he understood. His father had quickly changed him to another school on learning of the event.
A flight attendant came by and asked Kay if he was alright. She looked pretty, pert and professional in her uniform. Kay answered in the affirmative, returning her smile. She walked on and he reached for the in-flight magazine. On the news page was a story about the recent coup in Guinea-Bissau. In bold letters the writer wondered if Africa would ever grow beyond military incursion into politics. Kay nodded. He would keep the magazine for Uzo, his course mate and friend, who was writing on diarchy as a way out of military interventions in Africa. ‘It’s the kind of arrangement we need in this continent,’ Uzo had argued just before they went on vacation. ‘Power sharing: a military president working with a civilian prime minister, and not the white-man’s model of democracy. The great Zik of Africa who advocated it couldn’t have been wrong.’ And when Kay remarked that his argument seemed to have a touch of argumentum ad verecundiam, he had countered: ‘I’m sure you would not have accused me of appealing to authority if I had quoted Einstein while talking about quantum physics.’ They had spent the next hour arguing, trying to sift through and distinguish between the various shades of verecundiam – which were necessarily fallacious, and which not.
Kay dozed off with the magazine on his lap. By the time he awoke, his project was on his mind. He felt as if he had been thinking about it in his sleep. An epiphany nudged at his consciousness; a faint stirring, the budding of an idea, to write on something new. By the time the plane touched down at Murtala Mohammed International Airport Lagos, the epiphany had enveloped and interpenetrated his being.
Kay returned to campus with a spring in his step. He met with his friends and course mates in their departmental library. Surrounded by bound copies of the projects of their predecessors, and the dusty, musty volumes of books – from Plato’s Republic to St. Augustine’s Confessions, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature – they discussed their own projects.
Uzo was all set to begin with his work. He had gathered enough materials, even discovered new authorities to use in backing his argument. Names such as Robin Hattfield and Arthur Nwankwo were inscribed in blue ink on a page of his jotter under the heading: Proponents of Diarchy. His subject choice was no surprise to anyone. He had always excelled in social and political philosophy, and was the radical secretary general of the Students Union.
Desola, on the other hand, was now having second thoughts about her project title.
‘Someone told me my original title sounded like something lifted off a softsell magazine or a roadside tract. I am now thinking of simply titling it: “Euthanasia and the Value of Life”. You think it’s OK?’ But before anyone could answer she clapped her hands and went on, ‘Or maybe I should write on abortion instead. Something like…’ she paused and brought her slanted eyes together in a squint. ‘Yes, “Abortion: The Debate between Life and Choice”. I just want to write on one of the current ethical issues.’
She kept smiling at Kay in a way that got Uzo’s eyes narrowing. Her leg would occasionally brush against Kay’s under the table and when their gazes met, she would smile again.
‘I think writing on abortion would suit you better,’ Uzo said. ‘No doubt you will have plenty of experience to draw on.’
‘Maybe. But if insufficient, would you mind my interviewing your sisters?’ Uzo turned red in the face.
‘That’s OK you two,’ Kay cut in before Uzo could reply. ‘Pick your bones when you’re alone. Let’s face what we’re here for.’ They had parted ways as lovers last semester after Uzo accused her of having an affair. She had not denied it but calmly explained that he too had done the same, that the underlying philosophy of their relationship was that of a confederation: weak centre, loose federating units; and that she was more than prepared for them to operate a unitary system once he was ready.
‘Euthanasia seems better,’ Bayo, another course mate, suggested. ‘It is less sensitive.’
‘Great. You’ve just decided it for me. I’ll write on abortion then. “Philosophical Perspectives on the Abortion Debate”,’ she pronounced with a flourish.
‘Good for you,’ said Bayo. Me, I’ll be writing on space and time: “A Critical Examination of the Concepts of Space and Time”.’
‘Space and time?’ Kay was taken aback. He could not imagine why anyone would want to write on such an abstraction. Metaphysics was one branch of philosophy he was not keen on. Its endless quibbling about appearance and reality, form and substance, often irritated him. Is this the real world? Are you real or just a shadow of the real you in the real world of ideas? How are you sure you are really in this classroom and not lying in your bed dreaming? Once, their metaphysics lecturer had walked round and round the class repeating the question: ‘What is reality?’ Kay had felt like walking up to him, saying, ‘This is!’ and socking him in the mouth.
‘What is there to write about space and time?’ he asked. ‘Of course we all know that there is space and there is time.’
‘Are you sure?’ Bayo asked.
‘Oh, don’t start,’ Kay said. ‘Next, you’ll be telling me I’m having this discussion in my dream.’
‘OK, you, what are you writing on?’ Bayo leaned forward, intending to inflict the maximum damage on whatever Kay would say.
Kay inhaled, filling his lungs with the mouldy book smell of the library, ‘Homosexuality.’
Bayo was speechless. So was Uzo. Desola’s smile froze on her face, and her leg that had been resting against Kay’s under the table lifted off.
Bayo regained his voice: ‘What kind of a topic is that? Kay, why did you pick such a subject? Are you sure you yourself are not . . . ?’
Uzo shook his head. ‘Kay, I think you’re going too far this time. You know what some people may begin to think about you. And not just about you, about your male friends too.’
Kay launched into an explanation, telling them about his experiences in the U. K. and why he wanted to write on the subject. His hands drew many arcs in the air as he spoke, and he hardly paused to take a breath. As he rounded off his speech, he felt the warmth of Desola’s leg again.
Uzo shook his head. But this time there was something of wonder in the motion.
‘I must say you’ve got me all excited. I can’t wait to see your conclusions. But it won’t be easy. Where will you find materials to start you off?’
‘Yes, we should allow him to get going right away in search of materials.’ Bayo now stared at Kay with squinted, watery eyes, like those of a person gargling with warm salt water. ‘We shall be meeting our supervisors tomorrow, so he has only today left. He should get going.’
Kay left the library, trying not to brood over the tone he believed he heard in Bayo’s voice. He made his way to the campus gate and took a bus to the British Council library in a quiet part of Ibadan town. He had already scoured the university library earlier that morning with little success – just encyclopaedia write-ups.
It was a little past noon and the traffic was light. The sun heated up the bare pan of the poorly panel-beaten bus so that it burnt his naked arm whenever the bus shuddered into a pothole and he was thrown against it. By the time he reached his destination, his arm felt raw and his inner vest had soaked through to his blue shirt, creating a wet patch that looked like the map of Africa on his chest.
Kay greeted the library attendant. Her sparkling teeth contrasted well with the ebony complexion of her face when she smiled. But when Kay asked if they had any books on the subject of his research, her face wrinkled up as if he had unfolded a soiled nappy.
‘Books on what?’ She gasped.
‘Sexuality. I mean, human sexuality.’ Kay exhaled slowly while the lady took her time to digest what he had said.
Without speaking, she pointed towards a shelf in the library that was stuffed with biology and anatomy textbooks, and kept looking at Kay afterwards with something he felt was midway between suspicion and revulsion. The look remained with him as he left for the United States Information Service library. There, rather than ask the attendant for guidance, he walked the expanse of the hall browsing and searching till he found a few materials. He made copies and hastened back to campus, looking forward to the solace of his room.
Kay lived in a tiny box room. The width could not take his outstretched hands. On the door, a departmental sticker proclaimed: A PHILOSOPHER LIVES HERE. The door could only open a fraction before it knocked against the two-and-a-half foot spring bed that occupied two-thirds of the room’s width. Jammed beside the bed, below a small window, was a little desk with a chair tucked under it. Opposite it was a hip-high cupboard. And suspended above the bed, nailed to the wall, was a hanging rack for his clothes. A wallpaper of rainbow-coloured flowers adorned the walls. Yet, on a campus short of student accommodation, where as many as eight students sometimes occupied rooms originally designed for two, Kay’s room had the status of a Mayfair or Beverly Hills flat. He had paid a whooping six thousand naira for it, and always accused Uzo of envy whenever he referred to it as a toilet anteroom, because its door was adjacent to that of the smelly common toilet.
Kay placed the materials from the library on his desk and sat down. He had to prepare to present his topic to his supervisor the following morning. The list on their departmental notice board showed he had been assigned to Dr. Adenike, the only woman in the department, as his supervisor. He bemoaned his luck. He would have found it easier, felt freer, discussing the subject with a man.
He set to work, tracing the debate on the topic to earlier times, showing that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham had taken opposing sides on the issue. From the present day, he had the arguments of Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Guelph University Canada, in the secular humanists’ Free Inquiry magazine before him. The categorical smugness with which the professor had stated his position on the matter incited in Kay the lust to punch holes in his arguments. He had just started to hum to himself when a knock sounded on the door.
Desola flew into his arms when he opened the door. ‘You’re a bad, bad boy,’ she said through rosy pouted lips. ‘You sneaked back onto campus without letting me know.’
Alarm bells rang somewhere in the background in Kay’s head. He returned her hug with stiff arms. The tight spaghetti top she wore over a dark mini skirt, felt damp against his arms. Her hair tickled his nose and filled his lungs with the fruity scent of relaxer and the alluring fragrance of her deodorant, which had held on courageously against the sweaty March heat. ‘Naughty, naughty boy,’ she repeated, still holding onto him.
Kay extricated himself. ‘Welcome to my abode,’ he said, and ushered her into the room. He reached to position the chair for her. But she sat on the spring bed, kicked off her shoes and began bouncing up and down.
The bells increased in decibel, warning Kay from joining her on the bed. It was still too early to get involved with her. It would not sit well with his friend, Uzo.
‘Strong bed,’ Desola said, and bounced with more gusto.
The spring squeaked like a hundred mice. It reminded Kay of the last visit of Gina, his girlfriend who had graduated last session. Like many other campus relationships, they had operated a confederation.
‘Nice place you have here, nothing like some privacy. You know, I do not usually visit guys who live alone unaccompanied. But in your case,’ she shrugged, ‘you may well be a eunuch, a monk.’
Kay shifted on his seat.
‘Even your room looks like a Hare Krishna grotto,’ she added, looking over the gaudy wallpaper.
Kay’s lips stretched wider, in what he thought was the kind of allforgiving smile a pious old priest would give a suggestive member of his congregation. It made him feel like a fox smiling benignly at a chicken. Or was she trying to use him to get at her ex – to get Uzo jealous? He became angry at the thought.
He took a deep breath and rose from his seat, ‘You know, I’ve had nothing since breakfast. Come, join me, let me buy you lunch. We can talk while we eat.’
Desola stared up at Kay. Disbelief had formed wrinkles around her eyes. She hesitated for a few seconds, smiled, then began to slip her feet back into her shoes.
‘Did you succeed in getting some materials for your project?’ she asked as she got up from the bed.
‘I managed to gather a few, nothing heavy-duty though, just some journals.’
‘So you’re now ready for your supervisor?’
‘Well, yes. In fact, I was working on it before you came.’
‘You and your strange topic. You know, I’m sure your supervisor will think you are … queer.’
Kay turned and looked at her. Her eyes said: I sure am beginning to think you are queer!
He smiled. ‘Then I’ll tell her she’s committing the ad hominem fallacy,’ he said, and shut the door behind them.
The next morning Kay met his supervisor. She was sitting behind a wide desk in a room that looked more like a second-hand book shop than an office. When she asked for his research topic, he quietly placed a sheet of paper before her.
The woman lowered her gaze to the paper and Kay saw her eyes widen. A muscle began to twitch in her face, beneath her left eye. When she raised her head, Kay was relieved that she did not give him the soiled nappy look. ‘W-why this subject?’ she asked.
Kay launched into his arguments, placing his few materials, Kant, Bentham and Ruse, before her to show that opposing views had existed on the subject over history.
The woman ran a hand over her bobbed hair, flattening the grey strands that were sticking out from the thick black mass. She seemed to be contemplating the prospect of spending the coming months following Kay on his journey through this underworld. Finally she shrugged, ‘Well, OK.’ Kay exhaled. ‘Oh, thank you very much Madam,’ he gushed. He hesitated and twiddled his fingers, then added, ‘I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the subject with me; I might be able to learn a thing or two for my work.’
‘My thoughts on the subject are irrelevant. My job is to supervise you, to assess your arguments and check that your conclusions are valid. And, if I might add,’ she leaned forward, towards Kay, placing her elbows on the table, ‘for the first time in my twenty-five years as an academe, I’m truly curious to see what my student’s conclusions will be.’
Kay rose from his seat. He felt lighter than air. He was all smiles as he said, ‘I’d better get to work then. Thanks again, Madam.’
As he got to the door, the woman called out to him.
‘Wait,’ she said.
Kay turned around. She was rummaging through a pile of books on the shelf behind her. She pulled out a volume from the bottom of the pile and began to beat the dust off it. Kay looked on as tiny brown particles settled on the sleeves of her white linen blouse. She placed the book on the table before Kay:
‘This may help in your research.’
Kay lifted the volume with both hands. The title read: Philosophy and Sex.