Just about all my friends have left the city. Jesus Ndongo was the first to go. Then yesterday, my good buddy Bassey also left. His parents came visiting from Nigeria and he has to meet them in London. My girl friend Lupe has found a job in Valencia and will be going there soon. She wants me to accompany her but I’m not about to go running after a Spanish girl like a dunce. I’ll soon have to bid goodbye to this city, Madrid, that has been home to me for the past twelve months. But, share with me my last few days in the Spanish capital.
Today, the May Day festivities were in full swing. For the first time in several decades, the red hammer-and-sickle banner is seen in the streets of Madrid. The workers’ colourful flags, in their thousands are, shimmering in the wind, to borrow a felicitous phrase from one of Chairman Mao Zedong’s poems.
I have just come back from the Secretariat of the School of Languages where my certificate was handed to me with a well-polished smile by one of the secretaries. I thanked her and before walking out, I leaned over her table and told her she was one of the most beautiful girls I have seen in Madrid. That compliment instantly penetrated the thick layer of professional aloofness which she had shown by her mechanical smiles and answers. She looked up in great surprise thanked me profusely for my compliment, and ran down the hall-like office to a friend of hers. I could hear the two girls giggling happily and taking furtive glances at me as I walked out.
Bassey also received his certificate last week and has already left for London to meet his parents who are visiting from Nigeria. Isn’t it funny that I have never really sat down to write anything in my diary entirely dedicated to Bassey? He’s a very jovial, modest fellow, a little withdrawn and even shy. He is reading for a degree in English and Spanish at the University of Bristol in England. He intends to study translation and interpretation later.
His parents had sent him to Britain to study architecture but after a year at the London Polytechnic, he decided that architecture was not for him. He took up languages and followed an English girl-friend to Bristol, much to the chagrin of his father, a wealthy business man in Calabar, who had been nursing hopes of setting up a construction company with his only remaining son as the chief architect.
Bassey and I had somehow managed to make life in Madrid really interesting. We were almost always together. We smoked together, drank together, laughed together and often sat down together in the park by the University to watch the sun settle itself behind the Sierra for the evening while we talked about home, our home back in Africa.
We were also in complete agreement over our relationship with Jesus Ndongo. That boy was like a hidden scar on our conscience. Whenever we saw him floating about in his torn trousers and over-sized, button-less shirts, our feelings went to him. We knew that he had no tomorrow either here in Spain or back in his own land, where a political demon had run amok and murdered his dreams. That must be why Bassey and I almost instantaneously agreed to help him. We gave him clothes, when we could afford to spare any. We talked to his landlady about his overdue rents, promising to pay – we didn’t know how – but Doña Paloma, one of the most humane individuals the Good Lord ever cared to place on the surface of the earth, merely smiled and asked us not to worry. She once told us that Jesus reminded her of a Bohemian poet she had met for a brief while during the Spanish Civil war.
“What a fellow he was, Señor Basha?” she sighed with tears in her voice. “One evening”, she continued, “with the sound of bullets and bombs right at the door-steps of Madrid, with everything flying in debris, sparks of fire and bombs all over the place. Good Lord, what a sight! Yes, with that he still came below my window, at about four o’clock in the morning, with a group of poet friends and Gypsy musicians, and woke up the whole neighbourhood with the most beautiful serenade a woman has ever been honoured with. Everyone in the neighbourhood came out to listen. ¡Qué maravilla, verdad! Unfortunately”, she said, a distant look in her eyes, emotions choking her voice, “a few days later, he died in a hail of bullets just outside Madrid, before my very eyes. Now”, she continued after wrestling with a lump in her throat for a few seconds, “I see him in this African boy whose parents, I understand, also died, crippled by bullets. The oppressor doesn’t have a skin colour, my children.” Doña Paloma. A communist by conviction and a truly noble soul! What a heart of flesh beats in that chest!
Now that Bassey has left, I feel my mind wallowing in a void. I am surrounded by emptiness. I remember watching him board the plane the other day with a very heavy heart. With Conchita, Bassey’s girl friend, and Lupe shedding tears all over the place, I had to wrestle hard with a lump that was crawling up my throat. I am not a man of easy tears but I did feel like shedding some myself.
The last time I remember actually shedding tears was still because of Bassey. One evening after our usual drinks, he just sat silent at one corner, a forlorn look in his eyes. That was not like him at all. I asked what the matter was. He then told me that on that particular day some years ago one of his two brothers had been killed in the Nigerian Civil War and barely a year later another one had fallen near Owerri. Around that time each year, he has always felt terribly depressed, especially as he knows how deeply affected his parents had been by the loss of their two sons.
On that day, I remember cursing those who could lead young boys to their untimely death for a cause none of them really knew. Beyond the inflammatory rhetoric of army generals and unscrupulous politicians, who could really say what those young boys died for? They had died defending the interests of power-mongers whose own sons and daughters were in safe hiding in Europe and North America, riding long luxurious cars bought with money siphoned from the pockets of the poor for the so-called WIN-THE-WAR efforts. Oh, Bassey, why do you make me shed tears like a child?
In the final chapter of my diary, I’ll tell you how I too left Madrid for a brief stay in Paris before going back home to Cameroon.