20 Jul The Last Meeting 

The Last Meeting — Memories of Peter Areh

I’d never been to Ndidi Dike’s house before Peter’s death. Strange. Her house is a 5-minute drive from my gallery. She is an artist, I respect. She says Peter’s death brought me to her house. I guess that’s true. This is our second meeting. My second visit. I’m slightly late so everyone is there already. Olisa, Oliver, Dotun, Ndidi and Ato. The first meeting was sombre. Everyone talked about Peter. Some in the present tense, others in the past. That was confusing, having to remember to talk about him in the past tense. I’ve never met about someone’s death before. That’s my father’s territory. We tried to make plans. What could we do for the family? What could we contribute? Organise.

The first meeting Mbanefo kept notes. I never noticed it, before but he’s quite officious. A bit of a school teacher. Maybe he’s just confused like the rest of us. I wonder about not seeing any of his brilliant sculptures recently.

What do you say to a grieving widow? “I’m sorry about what happened”? or “What happened?” or “God will give you strength”? “Sorry” seems so lame.” God will give you strength.” I’m not that religious. I never quite know what to say. I just try to look grave and sympathetic. I probably end up looking panic-stricken. I wanted to say to her. “This is probably the must difficult test you’ve ever had to endure. I know you lost a good man. I remember the last time I saw both of you together at the mall. You saw a hot car with a strange name plate you liked and said you were going to hunt out the guy who owned the car and ask about the plate. And he smiled and said ‘, go on then’. Then you changed your mind and I’m thinking ‘mad couple’. You seemed like great friends. How hard that is to find. How painful it must be to lose.” I didn’t say this though. I suppose I just looked panic-stricken.

Our 2nd meeting was different from the first. We had come to the conclusion that Peter was dead. We talked about what to do. What we had done so far. What was going on. The need for the art community to be there. Olisa still looked lost. Does he always have this faraway look in his eyes, I wondered? He seemed to drift in and out. I like his grey, shaggy beard. It gives him an avuncular, wise look. It’s a tricky thing with these beards though. With the wrong guy you just look mad. Or even worse, wretched. I prefer mad to wretched. Madness is not self-inflicted. In any case there is a long and honourable history of madness amongst artists. But wretched. Nobody really wants that — that state of abandonment into long-term physical and emotional suffering.

Oliver talks about what the SNA might do. I think Oliver might make a good politician. He has a nuanced way of delivering his thoughts and seems a natural-born diplomat.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Peter. I keep trying to but I can’t. It is vaguely distressing. We met in much the same way many times. He’d breeze in on his way somewhere; spend half the time on the phone while there, and breeze out. I couldn’t quite remember the particular events of the last one. We must have talked about the same things we always talked about.

I understand why death is sometimes called the grim reaper. It just hunts you out doesn’t it? Sooner or later. Death and taxes, they say, are the things you can be sure of? Well, not taxes. At least, not in Nigeria. But yes, death is just an unrelenting bastard . Maybe that’s why we have religion.

Ndidi bustles about . She is so full of energy. I remember the old Ribena commercial . The kid who wants to be a champion like Mohammed Ali when he grows up and how he was getting all the energy from Ribena. I thought she must have had a lot of Ribena growing up. She is a good organiser. A mother hen.

I like her house. It’s nice without being overly decorated. Every artist deserves the pleasure of a good space. Unfortunately not everyone gets it.

Dotun talks about other ideas. He is, I think, always ebullient in a nice sort of way. We agree to arrange the memorial brochure for the service of songs, do what we can to organise with the family. We‘ll raise some money to present to them. Maybe a lying-in-state at the museum. Someone thinks it might help to bring closure for the artist community if they can see his body before he is buried.

I don’t know if that works for me. I like not seeing his body. I like remembering him as if he might barge into my gallery someday soon. Or maybe call on the phone.

We laugh a little as we talk. At the first meeting we couldn’t laugh. Today, we can laugh a little. Life just has to go on doesn’t it? We are like a puzzle. All the parts are always complete and yet replaceable. One part of the puzzle disappears, another replaces it. The puzzle is always complete. And will be when we’re all gone.

We talk about the burial. Oliver and Dotun will attend. I won’t. I wish I could but I have to be out of town. Someone asks them to call if they get kidnapped. I tell them I might be willing to contribute to the ransom. It’s a joke, but it’s not impossible. It’s the East, after all. The new wild west. We talk about kidnapping some more. You don’t have to be really rich these days to get kidnapped. It’s a retail business in the East. It’s inevitable. We started out buying milk in cartoons and tins. Eventually, sachets appeared to make it even easier to buy. Then tiny one-drink sachets appeared. It made economic sense. If times were too tough to afford a tin, you could just get a sachet. Now, you’ve got the wholesale kidnappers grabbing the really rich at the high end, then the retail kidnappers grabbing everyone else at the other end. The kidnapper says, ”bring a hundred thousand.” Can’t get a hundred thousand?” Alright, just bring twenty thousand, but hurry up before I change my mind”.

I imagine the grim reaper furiously employing for his job in Nigeria — little reapers and reaperettes. There’s just so much going on in Nigeria he mutters to himself. So much reaping to be done. These people are crazy. He smiles contentedly. He figures, thanks to Nigeria, no more grim reaper, smiley reaper from now on.

Oliver and Dotun couldn’t attend the funeral. Something must have come up.