Coffin for the King

Olubunmi Familoni

CHARACTERS

BABA KUYE (Undertaker)
COMRADE X
COMRADE Y
OPA

SCENE – Undertaker’s shop in the bottom of town. The room is of medium size and is dimly lit by an unseen bulb. There are coffins of all sizes stacked against the walls, piled up to the low ceiling. (There is nobody in the shop when X and Y step in. They are both dressed in black from head to toe – black berets, tight black t-shirts and jeans, and black boots; there are no insignias on either berets or shirts to identify them by, and their faces are just as plain and nondescript, as their eyes scan the room, hands behind their backs. They are about 17 and 18, trying to pass off as 30 or 40.

BABA KUYE, the old undertaker, who could be anything between 70 and 90, comes into the room noiselessly and, like a ghost, creeps up behind the boys. When he clears his throat, they startle, and turn around.)

BABA KUYE (grave voice): I’m sorry.

(X, who seems to be the older of the two boys, steps forward, assuming the position of leadership; chest stuck out. He frowns down at the old man, a look of irritation on his young face.)

X: For what?

BABA KUYE: What?

X: For what are you sorry?!

BABA KUYE: Oh! For startling you like that and–

X: Startling who? We weren’t startled. (Turns to Y, who looks sufficiently startled.) Were you startled, Comrade? (Y shakes his head unconvincingly.)

BABA KUYE: Well, then I’m sorry for assuming that big brave boys like you can be startled by a little old mouse like me… But, I am still sorry.

X (more irritated): For what?

BABA KUYE: Your loss.

Y (looking lost): Loss?

X: What loss?

BABA KUYE: Oh, I’m sorry, I mean death, death; I’m sorry about the death. Yes, yes, not all deaths are losses, sorry. Sorry about the death.

X: Which death?

BABA KUYE: The one you’re here to get a coffin for. (Drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and leans towards X.) I shouldn’t be saying this, as it is not just disrespectful to the dead but it goes against the principles of my trade, but you two seem like decent boys who would understand… One thing I would never understand is how we think we can pack death into a wooden box and decorate it with flowers and hymns to make it easier to swallow, to make the grief taste better; or we think all that beauty and singing will make the sorrow softer on our heart; I laugh. (He laughs, a dry laugh that has nothing in it.) Yes, I’m usually in the blackest of suits and wearing the grimmest of faces at those ceremonies, as my job requires, but I am laughing behind that mournful mask, laughing in the back of my throat, and deep inside my stomach. I am laughing at all the crying, and laughing at all the wailing, because it is all a show; yes! – a comedy. People just want to come to the show, show everybody their tears, and eat the jollof rice that is going to be served at the reception! The reception, that is the goal! So, for all those crocodile mourners, that death is a draw! They don’t care about it. See? That is why they say burial jollof is the sweetest. It is spiced with fake tears. (He chuckles.) A bloody draw of a death. All those fake “I’m sorry for your loss” that they whisper in the bereaved’s poor ears is all for the jollof. Sorry for your loss indeed. I mean, a young man is set to inherit a great fortune after a relative’s passing, how do you expect him to take that kind of sweet death as a loss – that kind of death is a win for him! A big win! Champions League trophy! While for some, it is just a draw, they neither lose nor win, it is just an ordinary death, they don’t care very much about it or the person it has taken. Like when my wife died… 

X (frustrated sigh): Sir, we do not care about your wife’s death.

BABA KUYE: Me too! Me too! I didn’t care a kobo! That is the point! That is what makes it a draw! See? (His voice drops again as he goes off on another soliloquy, looking reflectively into the distance, shaking his head sadly.) A bloody draw, that death; I was glad to see her go, yet sad, sad to be left all alone, I guess. But, boy, I just could never score against that woman, and even when I did, the goal would get cancelled! Ah, such misery, such, such woe!… Fate is such an unfair umpire, you know. The toss of a bloody coin that is this life…

X (frowning in confusion): What are you talking about, old man?

(Y sidles up to his comrade and whispers behind him.)

Y: I don’t think he is talking about anything. I think he is mad. I think it is one of those types of madnesses that only old people have.

(X looks down at Y, his mouth bent in contempt.)

X: What kind of madness is that?

Y (shrugs): I don’t know, old-people madness, where they talk to themselves and they’re saying nothing.

X: How do you know that that is what it is?

Y: My grandfather had it, my grandmother has it… I think the king has had it too.

X: Oh, yes, that old king is definitely mad.

BABA KUYE: Are you boys talking about me?

(The undertaker had fallen silent and seemed as if lost in a trance while the boys were talking to each other; his sudden ‘return’ into their midst startles Y.)

Y (stuttering): N-n-no, no, no sir, we were talking about the king.

BABA KUYE (beams): Ah, a great man! May he live long! I’m sorry that the person you’re here for didn’t.

X: We are here to buy a coffin for the king.

BABA KUYE (eyes wide): The king? Which king?

X: Your king.

BABA KUYE (frowns): The king of our country? (Gives a weak laugh.) You boys must be smoking those wild things that boys your age smoke these days… The king cannot die.

X: Is he God?

BABA KUYE: Almost.

X (smiles): Aside from being brazenly blasphemous, that measurement is grossly inaccurate; many would agree that your king is closer in distance to the devil than God.

(The undertaker advances upon him with a surprising spring in his step; he shakes his fist in front of the boy’s nose.)

BABA KUYE: You will take that disrespectfully treasonable nonsense back into your mouth or I will–

X (firmly): You will sell us a coffin for the king or choose one for yourself.

(The old man takes a step back, a look of shock in his eyes. When he speaks, after a moment of silence, his voice comes out shaky, and it is as if he is talking to himself.)

BABA KUYE: But the king cannot be dead… 

X: He is as good as it.

BABA KUYE (hope lights his eyes): So he is not! Not dead.

X: To be dead is better than being alive and good as dead.

BABA KUYE: You speak of death as if you have lived with it. What do you know about it? You’re just a child.

X: And you think making coffins makes you an expert on the subject of death?

BABA KUYE: I know more about death than you have ever known in all your small life. When you are my age, you wake up with death on your back every morning and carry it around perched on your shoulder all day.

X (snorts): You think death is poetry? You think you can decorate it with a bouquet of words to make it less uglier than it is? No, sir. No, you haven’t seen death. Yes, you see dead people, but that is all they are – dead people, nothing, already dead. We, we live with people whose lives are pieces of daily deaths, people who live death in its rawest form every day, dying in bits until they stop dying and are buried. That is when you know them and their death; but we live with them, every day, and smell the death on their daily breath. So, don’t tell me that you know more about death than I do because you build boxes to put death in, death that is already dead.

BABA KUYE: Oh please, fancy words don’t mean that you have full knowledge of something. It is the most ignorant people who build big-big words around their ignorance so that people won’t see how empty it is. I can see the bottom of your ignorance, my boy, it is empty. You know what they say about how further than a standing child the seated elder can see.

X: If your sight is that good, Elder, you would see what is coming.

BABA KUYE: What is coming?

X: Remain seated, old one, and you’ll see it when it comes. You’ll see it in colour, because this time it will be televised.

BABA KUYE (narrowed eyes): Are you foul boys planning a coup?

X (laughs): That is all your generation could do, coups that didn’t change anything, the oppressors only changed clothes and carried on with the business of oppression. This is not the seventies or eighties, old man, overthrowing a government is beneath us.

BABA KUYE: Oh you think you’re so special, you young ones, you think you know everything. But you’re here buying a coffin for a king who is not dead. (Scoffs.)

Y (quietly): The coffin is a symbol.

BABA KUYE: Of your stupidity?

Y: Of resistance.

BABA KUYE: Resistance. Against what? You people like big fancy words that don’t do anything. Resistance? Anyway, I don’t sell my coffins as ‘symbols’, I make them for dead people, real dead people.

(X comes close to the old man and speaks into his face, through clenched teeth.)

X: There are real dead people out there in the street, young people, shot to death by your king’s men. Dead young people, bodies in the streets; what good is coffins going to do for them? Tell me.

BABA KUYE (with disdain): Are you talking about the ones who were out there protesting against the king this morning? I would never even sell coffins for such bodies. They should be fed to the dogs! The ingrates.

Y: Ingrates?

BABA KUYE: Yes, ingrates, that is what they are! After everything the king has done for us, for this country, they want to burn it all down with the flames of their feeble, infantile fury; what juvenile nonsense! Let their bodies rot out there in the streets for all to see, and learn.

X: What has he done for you, this king? What has he done for the country? A country that eats its young. Your king has done nothing but sharpen the country’s teeth. That is all he has done.

BABA KUYE: And what are you going to do? Carry a coffin to his doorstep as a symbol. (Chuckles.) And then there will be more bodies. Then what? Then silence. Yes! Deathly silence, that is what everybody will return to, silence as of a graveyard. Everything back to being dead. Dead silent.

(The silence is a heavy one, thick in the room, as the two young men stare at the old man, and he stares back at them, just as hard and with matching malice. The silence is broken by the ring of a cellphone. It is the old man’s.)

BABA KUYE: Hello? Yes, I am in the shop. What is the matter? What is it? Why do you have to come here, why can’t you tell me over the phone? If it is about money, I have no money to give you, my friend. Bye.

(After the call, the glares and silence continue, for a short while. It is the caller that breaks it up. He is a very tall man that has to bend to come into the shop. He also bends slightly to greet the undertaker – he is a younger man. The old man dismisses the greeting with a nod.)

BABA KUYE (gruffly): Yes? Opa, what do you want? Like I told you on the phone, I have no money, as you can see, it is only coffins here… 

OPA: I didn’t come to ask for money, sir. (He gives the two boys a strange look and turns back to BABA KUYE.) Can we talk in private, sir?

BABA KUYE: Ah, it is about money then. I don’t know why people are ashamed to ask for money in front of other people. You borrow money in private but make a public show of spending it. Opa, I have told you, I do not have any money to give you, I have given you all the money I have and you have not given me any of it back as you promised. So, save yourself all the stress of private speaking and say whatever you have to say out here in the open.

OPA (hesitantly): OK, Baba, if you insist… I… I… I am just coming from the mortuary, sir… 

BABA KUYE (grinning): Ah, you have brought me business then…

OPA: No, sir, I have brought you bad news.

(The grin fades from the old man’s face slowly. But he tries to keep some of it on, bravely.)

BABA KUYE: I’ve been an undertaker for 60 years, what news can be worse than the news of death.

(There is a little pause before the tall man speaks again.)

OPA: It is your son.

BABA KUYE: What is my son?

OPA: Dead.

BABA KUYE: What is dead?

OPA: Your son.

BABA KUYE (mutters): My son.

OPA: Yes. David.

(The old man sways and takes a step back as if about to faint, his tall friend reaches for him but he doesn’t fall, he just sits down on one of the coffins on the floor, slowly.)

BABA KUYE (to himself): David. That is the only win I got from my wife. Now it is a loss. You see me? (Smiles sadly.) This is a death that is a loss. An only son. I am sorry for my loss. I am… How can an only son die? How can God allow it? An only son, like his own son. Yes, him. Died, rose. Lives. So how can mine die? What kind of cruel joke is life playing? Roll the dice again, you bastard, and give me a seven! Give me a son that does not die, you… you… Give me a son like yours.

(OPA goes over to him and tries to touch his shoulder; BABA KUYE shrugs him away.)

BABA KUYE: Don’t put your hand on me. Tell me, did you kill him?

OPA: How can you ask me such a thing?

BABA KUYE: Why can’t I?

OPA: He was like a son to me!

BABA KUYE: But he wasn’t a son to you, he was to me. My wife gave him to me, a gift. If you didn’t kill him, then who did? Let me go and kill them.

OPA: He was one of the protesters that the king’s men shot.

BABA KUYE: Which king?

OPA: Your king?

BABA KUYE: Our king? This king?

OPA: Yes.

BABA KUYE (throws hands in the air): Argh!

(He holds his head in his hands and begins to weep.)

OPA: I am sorry, Baba.

BABA KUYE: I told that boy not to go out there with those children of the devil. I told him to come here to the shop and work, because the devil would find work for idle hands, and all those children of his are idle. I was waiting for my son here in this shop, but he chose to go with the idle-handed children of the devil. Now they have sent him on the journey of elders. Those children of evil! (Looks up at X and Y with red blazing fury in his eyes.) You children of the devil! You people killed my only begotten son!

(OPA looks at the boys with that strange look again.)

OPA (to BABA KUYE): Who are they, sir?

BABA KUYE: The boys who killed my David! The boys who have killed my king!

(He springs up from his seat and lunges for X’s throat but is intercepted by OPA, who grabs him and tries to hold him still. He struggles with the tall man for a while but soon stops and sits back down on the coffin.)

X (calmly): Your king killed your son, old man. That is what the king has done for you. I hope it is good in your sight. Now you see how kind our dear king is. May he live long. May those that are dead find good coffins to keep their deaths in. Or are you going to feed your son to the dogs too?

(This time, the little old man, with the leap of a big cat, makes it to the throat of the young speaker and proceeds to squeeze the life out of him. The hands of the tall man and the suffocating boy’s comrade are not enough to pry this strange animal off its prey. Its cry is the deadly roar of a wounded lion.)

BABA KUYE: I will kill you! I will kill all of you! All of you that have killed me today! I will kill you all! And feed your bodies to dogs!

CURTAIN 

Olubunmi Familoni has written plays for stage and for radio. His debut play, Every Single Day, was selected by the British Council as part of the Lagos Theatre Festival in 2016; his play, When Big Masquerades Dance Naked, was longlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature and won the ANA Prize for Drama in 2023. He resides in Ibadan, Nigeria.

 

*Image by Hannah Wernecke on Unsplash

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