Murphy's Law By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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I am huddled up in a seat by the only open window of an overcrowded public transport bus. I am sure I am stinking. The bus is filled with fishmongers and market women. The women have been spitting non-stop since the bus took off. I now understand why that seat by the only open window was left unoccupied. I had rushed to it, thanking my stars, hoping to get fresh air to help decongest my chest. Now all I get is spittle coloured yellow and black with cola nut, bitter-cola and tobacco dripping down my body. I dare not complain. It is the worst offence to pick up a quarrel with a band of market women. I pretend I am happy sitting by the window, acting as a collecting bowl for spittle. One fishmonger notices my happiness and smiles at me. I smile back, trying hard not to cough. She then sends one long, yellow spittle past my head. The wind returns it. Everything settles on my left cheek. I am careful not to look offended, or wipe the spittle away hastily.
Fuel scarcity hit town over the weekend. Rumours had been rife that there would be no fuel for upwards of one month. Everybody who owned a generator or a vehicle was scampering about looking for jerry cans with which to hoard fuel. Already, long queues had surfaced at the filling stations. Station owners were swearing over their mother’s graves that they didn’t have a drop in their tanks. Nobody believed them. I had to find fuel by all means if I hoped to maintain the few customers who patronized my cinema during the period the fuel scarcity would last. I told my wife, “I am going to search for fuel.”
“Can you manage those four jerry cans you are carrying all alone?” she asked.
“One month. Did you not hear people say one month?”
“What if the satellite people finally come?”
She meant Eddy. Eddy was ‘the satellite people’. Eddy worked alone, pocketed and ate all the money he was paid alone; money meant for at least three technicians. He was ‘the satellite people’.
“They know what to do,” I said.
Eddy not coming when he said he was going to; my not making any dime over the weekend in my cinema, my satellite dish having developed problems suddenly; fuel scarcity out of the blues. I guess it all comes down to Murphy’s Law: things going wrong in multiples when they want to go wrong. Even as I sit by this bus window, these women raining spittle on me, my chest is congested with this bad cough that I have been having. I am running temperature. Malaria.
Everything started going to the devil over the weekend.
I had had this bad cough. It started as ordinary flu. I wanted to take it easy. Just lie in and relax for once. So on Saturday, I lay in bed. Brooding. I was thinking about everything: my cough, my drink shop, my cinema, my life, J, Mr. G, Sis. V, the huge debt on my head…
My children ran about in the sitting room, playing. I could hear them talking:
“It is after ten and Daddy is still asleep…”
“That means he won’t be going to the shop today…”
“Shhhhhh. Daddy is not feeling too well,” my wife whispered. “You three must let daddy rest. Reduce your noise.”
My children giggled. They were excited to have me home. It was a luxury for them. Normally, I was off to work before they woke; back only when they were fast asleep. Weekends were no exception. I felt guilty; smiled despondently.
Somebody was knocking at the front door. My kids rushed to investigate. Their mother had told them times without number to desist from that act.
My wife is never able to complete this statement. The contemplation that an assassin may suddenly open fire on her kids as they jostle for a place at the front door chokes away the remaining part of her warning. Several nights she has woken up screaming on account of this.
“Daddy, it’s Uncle Charlie,” my kids shouted in unison.
Charlie was my assistant. He must have tired of waiting for me at the cinema. Not seeing me, he had come to get the keys. Apart from the regular movies, we also show football by satellite TV. We cover the major leagues: the English Premiership, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and the Portuguese Superliga. Saturday was early kick-off. We had to have the doors of the cinema open by eleven, and be ready to receive our clients. It was a do or die battle between archrivals, Manchester United and Arsenal at midday. I was happy that the cinema would make some good money. Nearly all the big teams were playing: Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter, Chelsea, Bayern. Charlie collected the keys and left.
Actually, my flu and cough, now malaria is due to physical exhaustion. The cinema is only about a month old. I have spent nearly every passing minute of every passing day of the last thirty days trying to put everything in it in order. In that period, my drink shop has suffered, both from neglect and fiscal drainage. I robbed Peter to pay Paul. Fear made me do that. Afraid that the drink shop may one day be unable to sustain my family and I, especially as it was our only source of income, I had panicked. I set up the cinema to act as a buffer. My thinking was that since football was the in-thing now, if the cinema began operations, what with the weekly English, Spanish, Italian, German league matches, as well as the bi-weekly UEFA Champions league matches, it would be able to support the drink shop. And put more bread on my family’s table.
Since I began operations however, the cinema has done nothing but lose money. To my dismay, the so-called football enthusiasts are just a handful of people. Except when there is a big match. Like today when even non-football lovers come to watch stars like Thiery Henry, Wayne Rooney, Robinho and Ronaldinho, all of whom they have read so much about in the papers. But it is not everyday that Manchester plays Arsenal, or Real Madrid plays Barcelona.
The cause of my illness may not really be physical exhaustion. Actually, it is not. I borrowed the money with which I set up my drink shop. And I have since robbed the drink shop to set up the cinema. There is not a single bottle of Coca-cola in the drink shop now. There is rent to pay. The children have to go to school. Drugs have to be bought. Electricity and water bills must be paid.
And the cinema is losing money!
Whatever money I am able to scrape up from water (natural water in pouches is the only item I sell now in my drink shop), I sink into the cinema. Everyday I buy fuel to light the generator. Sometimes D500.00; sometimes D300.00. In return I get only twenty or ten people coming to watch football, each paying D5. And my generator, one of this new generation magic, is no respecter of fuel. Try out the arithmetic: 5 times 10 or 5 times 20 against D500 or D300! It is a wonder that I have not developed hypertension. And I have to pay a ten percent interest on my borrowed capital every month. J was breathing down my neck. I could feel his breath, warm and stinky.
I was still thinking about J and how I would manage his monthly ten percent (the first is due on Tuesday) when another knock sounded on my front door. I heard my children’s padding feet as, ignoring their mother’s injunction, they ran to the door.
“Daddy, is Uncle Charlie again,” they cried.
I glanced at the bedside clock. It said quarter past twelve. I nearly choked. What in God’s name was Charlie doing here when he was supposed to be showing the Manchester United versus Arsenal match? Clad only in my sleeping wrapper, I made it to the sitting room.
“There is no signal from the satellite,” Charlie said when I questioned him.
“How? What happened?” I cried.
Charlie stared at me. His eyes, which blinked several times, said it all: He didn’t understand why I was shouting. And he didn’t understand what happened either. But he hazarded a guess.
“Maybe it is the rain of last night,” he said. “Perhaps the thunder and lightening has blown the LNB.”
I rejected the prophesy in Jesus’ name.
“Where are the customers?” I said.
“They have all left for another cinema,” he said.
“Okay, go back to the cinema,” I said. “I will be there in a moment.”
I should have known better than count my chicks before they were hatched. I walked dejectedly to my bedroom and began to get dressed. And I was ill and coughing and was supposed to be lying in. My children’s joyous laughter carried through to me from their bedroom. They didn’t know yet that I was about to go out. They must not know, else there would be lots of tears. I tiptoed through the back door.
Three O’clock met me at the cinema. Since getting there, I had fiddled with everything fiddleable: the dual view decoder, the three 36 inch colour televisions, the DVD, everything. I even borrowed a ladder to climb the roof and turn the satellite dish here and there like I saw the technicians do. I had some spanners and other stuffs for screwing and unscrewing things. I unscrewed and screwed back the LNB. I searched the TVs from the Avs through channels 1to 59. Nothing bothered to appear on the screen.
“No signal is coming,” I announced to Charlie at last.
He stared at me, as if to say, ‘Did you think I was monkeying?’
I undid my cellular phone’s strap, brought out the phone and began to punch in my technician’s number. The phone fell from my hand, struck the floor with a thud. The glass shattered.
“How comes?” I said to Charlie. “Was my hand shaking?”
Charlie stared at me and said nothing.
“Baaaaa, never mind, Charlie,” I said.
I went to a tele-centre. After several attempts, my technician’s phone began to ring. It was his wife who picked up the phone.
“Tell Eddy to come quickly,” I shouted into the phone. “No signal is coming from my dish. I need to make some money. This is weekend-”
“Thank God you know this is weekend,” the woman said coolly. “Please sir, can’t you even allow my husband his weekend rest. He is hardly at home all day during the week…”
“I am sorry, Madam,” I said. “Please ask him to come on Monday then.”
“Is that Mr. Lucas?”
The woman had heard about me. I literally had to wrestle her husband down before he could bring himself to do my installations. Over thirty promises of, ‘Expect me in one hour’s time’, from him failed until I could wait no more and blew my top. Eddy began to respect me then. I have always hated technicians, be they of radio, wristwatch, electricity, whatever. I band them together with carpenters, plumbers, tailors and mechanics. Just turn your back and they will abandon your work and face somebody else’s.
“Yes, this is Mr. Lucas,” I said. “Tell him I will be waiting for him at the cinema at 9 O’clock sharp on Monday. And tell him, this time, he must not disappoint me. I have already lost everything I am supposed to make for the weekend. ”
“He will be there.”
Eddy still had not arrived by the time I left home around ten-thirty. I can bet my balls he has not even arrived now. To take my mind away from the spitting woman and Eddy and the noise racket about me, I think of Mr. G. Mr. G expects me to pay him D20, 000.00 before the end of this week. Where will I get that kind of money? Actually, it is his money and he deserves to get it.
Before going to J to borrow such a huge capital, I had gone to Mr. G. He was very understanding when I showed him the document designating me as a distributor for the Coca-cola company.
“I will pay your money in less than three months, I swear,” I had told him when I went for that 20K.
“You see, I don’t normally borrow people money,” Mr. G said. “I find it difficult getting my money back.”
“That won’t be the case with me, sir,” I said. “I promise. You know me, don’t you?”
“I know you are a gentleman.”
“Please help me sir, else I will lose the distributorship.”
“I am not promising anything, but let me think about it and see what I can do.”
What Mr. G can do was a cheque of D20, 000.00.
It is over eight months now. Mr. G’s 20K has gone down the drain. The other day, I asked my wife as we both sat miserably, pondering our financial quagmire:
“Darling, what did we do with Mr. G’s money, and Sis. V’s money?”
Sis. V was a colleague friend at my work place before I quit and went into drink business. She lent me 15K, payable in two months. Eight months have since passed too. Sis V keeps asking for her money. I keep spinning yarns.
“I don’t know what we did with Mr. G and Sis. V’s money, honey,” my wife replied. She was about to burst into tears. I drew her close, steadied her trembling.
I then touched her. Softly.
“You should be thinking of how to settle the people you owe money instead of thinking about irrelevant things,” she said, and pushed me away.
“Did you say irrelevant things?” I said, touching her again. “You don’t know what you are talking about. Look, this is the most relevant thing I know of.”
We ended up shelving our financial problems for the moment. We then made sweet, sweet love. Right on the floor of our sitting room. Our kids had gone to bed. I peeled my knees badly from kneeling behind Sophia. That wasn’t the first time. There is no hope in hell it would be the last.
But it is not Mr. G, neither Sis. V that bothers me most. It is J. A former teacher turned moneylender. Only God knows where he got this idea to be lending people money; folks who were desperate like me, making them write an undertaking to pay the money back over a specified period of time with a whopping 10% monthly interest. And because you were desperate, you signed his piece of paper. And when the month ended and you couldn’t pay his 10%, J came up with this compound interest formula and you sat with him and both of you did the arithmetic. Before you know what was happening, J is ripping you off real bad. Like he is ripping me off now.
If the truth were told, J didn’t want to borrow me this 120K that is giving me sleepless nights at first. It was my mouth that sweet-talked him into it. You should have seen my mouth marshalling out payment patterns. How it will meet this deadline and beat that deadline; how it must ensure that J was a happy man; that J’s 120K was safe and sound, sleeping easy. Actually, I have put modalities in place for paying off J’s money, capital and interest and all. Pastor is the key.
Pastor is another moneylender, but not strictly in that name. He lends money by taking your money ostensibly to save it for you (for one month at a time), then giving it to you (with a lot of misgiving), when you suddenly need it and charging you 25% interest. It doesn’t matter if you are taking your money for one hour and returning it the next. And Pastor is supposed to be a man of God.
It was Sophia who discovered Pastor. She had started using him as her savings account long before broaching the idea to me.
“He is to be trusted,” she told me when I frowned at the idea of entrusting my money with an individual, be he a man of God or not. “A lot of people use him. In these days of quick business, people want access to their money at odd times. Just go to Pastor, even at midnight. He will give you what amount you want out of your deposit.”
At the end of every month, the good Pastor cleans one day’s savings for his troubles. So, if you were saving D250.00 for example, Pastor gets to keep D250.00 only.
For the past month, I have been saving something everyday with Pastor. Tomorrow Tuesday will make it one month. I will collect everything except Pastor’s one day. All in all, I will collect nearly fifteen grand. That will take care of J for this month. I will survive J yet.
I am now in Brikama. Brikama is a provincial town, two hours from where I live. It was rumoured that there was fuel in Brikama. I came all this way in order to avoid the long queues, which I saw in several filling stations along the way. But there is not a drop of fuel anywhere in Brikama.
“Before coming all this way, you should have tried those filling stations you saw,” one petrol attendant tells me. “At least, there, you are sure that there is fuel. All you needed to do was queue.”
I ride back in another over-crowded bus. This time, I meticulously avoid the windows. I disembark in one filling station where there is a ‘Mother of all Fight’ to get on the queue. It takes me donkey years to get one of my jerry cans half-filled. I take the others back empty.
The confusion in my cinema when I arrive is not something you can imagine. Cables, adaptors, black cello-tapes, pieces of red and yellow from electric wires, spanners and screwdrivers of various sizes litter every inch of space. Eddy is at work. He came about fifteen minutes before I arrived. That makes it quarter to seven PM.
“Chief, I heard you went for fuel,” he says, while continuing his troubleshooting. “Poor you.”
I am not placated.
“How did you people get in,” I ask my wife.
“I had to force the door open,” she says, “since you knew the technician was coming and went away with the keys.”
I take a deep breath and stare at my bunch of keys in my hand.
“But I have asked those welders across the road to come and fix the spoilt lock,” my wife continues. “I gave them money and they have already bought the replacement. As soon as the DStv man is through fixing the satellite, I will ask them to come over and weld the door.”
I watch Eddy at his task.
He pulls this plug out, smells it, wets it with spittle, tastes it, brings it close to his ears, shakes it, replaces it, moves to the next plug.
“This here is what the thunder blew, the 2-way Low Noise Block Down converter splitter,” Eddy announces suddenly, thrusting something that looks like a plug into my face. The thing looks pretty undamaged to me.
“So fix it,” I say, unimpressed.
“It can’t be fixed,” he says. “As each decoder comes with only one 2-way LNB splitter, you will either get another new decoder-”
“What?” I scream. “Another decoder?”
I tell Eddy what he already knew:
“The dual view decoder I am presently using cost me 18K.”
“Just listen, chief,” Eddy says. “Another alternative is to have a twin-feed LNB fixed. That will take care of this problem. I can fix that in a few minutes.”
“Go on then, fix it,” I say, breathless.
“It will cost you some small money though.”
Eddy leaves with 5K stashed away in one deep pocket of his technician’s overalls. I had milked my drink shop yet again. But it is okay. I have my satellites working in perfect order again. I am hopeful. Minutes after Eddy leave, the welder comes in logging his welding machine. I detest the noise from his welding machine, which will soon shatter the night’s peace. To stop myself from thinking of this sharp, metallic noise, I decide to re-test my satellite as he welds. Sparks fly about.
The power the welding machine draws from my stabilizer is in excess. My stabilizer is instantly blown. I hold my head. The welder shrugs.
“Sorry boss,” he says. “You should have explained about all power coming through your stabilizer.”
“But as a welder,” I explode, “shouldn’t you have known better than not to find out first?”
“You should have explained about the wiring to me, boss,” he maintains.
I am collecting 15K from Pastor tomorrow. If I paid J his 10%, I still had enough to buy a brand new stabilizer. I will survive. I cheer up.
Tuesday morning, I am in glorious spirits. It is not easy putting aside D500.00 daily. I had to make do with only one meal a day; stop Sophia from making her hair twice every week; slash the children’s school lunch money by three. I had to scrape and scrape and scrape. Gorilla-like, I pound myself on the chest in self-congratulations.
I arrive at Pastor’s place at ten on the dot. Pastor had said ten sharp. Pastor is not married and lives alone in a rented flat. I keep knocking until a face from next door peeps out from the parlour room window. The face is swollen. It is either the owner didn’t sleep much that night or had been crying.
“You are looking for who?”
It is a woman’s voice. The tightness of her voice confirmed my earlier suspicion that she had been crying.
“Pastor,” I say.
Already, my heart is palpitating.
“It is as if he didn’t tell anyone.”
I stare at the woman who is half concealed by her window blind.
“So many people have come here this morning looking for him,” the woman continues.
“He no longer lives here, is that it?” I say. “You want to tell me that he has packed into another apartment somewhere near.”
“Ahhh, no,” the woman says.
“What then,” I say.
Gentle wind lifts the woman’s window blind.
“He has travelled,” the woman says. “He didn’t even tell me he was going abroad. After all these three years.”
I burst out laughing. I laugh and laugh and laugh until tears come to my eyes. The woman’s face softens, and she smiles in bemusement. Her teeth are strong and neatly arranged. She is beautiful.
“You seem to be taking it in good faith,” she says after waiting for me to wipe my eyes and recover my breath. “Come to think of it, what else is there to do?”
And she sighs deeply.
“Ah, what a practical joke,” I say, wiping more tears which have quickly rushed to my eyes. “This is the stuff that bad dreams are made of.”
But it is no practical joke. Neither a bad dream. My banker, and my wife’s banker and the banker of the lots of people in these days of quick business when people who want access to their money at any time can have it has indeed gone overseas.
Later, I learn the finer details from other devastated depositors. The good Pastor had been building up a respectable bank account with our money. It so impressed the Belgian Visa office that they gave him a five-year multiple entry visa, especially since he could provide proofs that he had ties that would always bring him back to Africa. The most important of those proofs was a marriage certificate. The other name on that certificate apart from Pastor’s name was Vivian O’Bright. That is the name of the lady from next door, the one with the strong and neatly arranged teeth; the one who is quick to tell anyone who cares to listen, ‘He didn’t even tell me he was going abroad. After all these three years.’
I feel sorry for her.
What this all means is that I will have to default in paying J’s 10% this month. It pains me to the marrow. And he warned me strictly against defaulting.
“You won’t like my face if you defaulted,” he had said while handing me the black polyethylene bag containing the money.
He is a nice fellow, even kind, that J. I will make him a brilliant proposal: let him see this 15K that Pastor zapped off with as a sub-loan. Monthly, apart from the 10% on his 120K, I will pay another 10% on his 15K. In concrete terms, we will be talking of a total debt repayment schedule of thirteen thousand, five hundred dalasis every month from a total income of between three and five thousand dalasis only every month, a feat that can be performed only through miracles. But then, I believe in miracles.
By lending me that 120K, J gave me a much-needed lifeline. This I really appreciate, even though I will have to pay more than double this amount by the payment pattern he so cleverly devised which I was quick to append my signature to. But still, it is far much better. Before saying, ‘NO’, a real bank would have demanded this collateral and that collateral; this landed property and that landed property. I don’t possess any of these. I only possessed J’s confidence. That was all he needed to part with his hard earned money: my sincerity, my gentlemanliness, my good name, finer than the finest gold; sweeter than the sweetest perfume. If this is not being your brother’s keeper, nothing is.
I will pay every dime of J’s hard earned money, principal and interest, I promise myself and my God. And Mr. G’s 20K. And Sis. V’s 15K too. I will survive. Assuming I don’t first die from my malaria. It has gotten worse all of a sudden. Everything seems to be going wrong for me at the same time.
Damn Murphy’s law!