Sam and the Wallet By Uche Peter Umez
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Sam and the Wallet
By Uche Peter Umez
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
SAM IS TROUBLED
Sam finally lies on his back after hours of tossing and turning on the battered mattress. He gazes up at the ceiling, which is grey and coated with dust, and lets out a breath that speaks of a cloudy heart. Then, careful not to disturb his friend who is also lying on the mattress, Sam feels with his sweating palm for the wallet that is hidden beneath his side of the mattress. He only wants to make sure it is still there. He doesn’t think he should feel like a criminal. But his heart keeps bobbing, making him to see himself as someone who is about to be flogged for a crime.
Just this morning Sam was sweeping the floor of the bus when his broom swept out a wallet that was under a seat. Someone must have left it behind, mistakenly. He thought for a while, glancing around. When he was sure no one would see him, he snatched it up and looked through its contents. His eyes almost sprang out of his head. His fingers trembled. He could hardly breathe as he noted that the wallet contained forty or more five hundred naira notes and some business cards. More money than he has ever seen in his whole life; more than all the money he would make if he worked as a bus conductor for two years! He also found out that the wallet belonged to Jasper Obi, Esquire. He was wondering what Esquire meant, when he heard his boss shouting his name in a street trader’s voice. He jumped up like a frightened rat, and quickly pushed the wallet deep into his pocket.
Sam scratches his palm and breathes out again. The old newspapers and the rusty zinc sheets, used as ‘curtains’ for their broken windows, give crusty sounds as they flap in the breeze. He turns his head towards the windows. He considers listening to the sounds, but then closes his eyes. In his head, he only sees the cracks in the walls, cobwebs which hang here and there, black and green moulds spreading on the building that makes him think of eczema on a skin.
Sam and Chuks live on the first floor of an uncompleted two-storey building that stands on MCC Road like an old church. The owner of this building was the chairman of a state board. He had been putting up three or four buildings in other parts of the city before the state government got interested in the affairs of this board, and pulled him in for misuse of funds. Nobody knows the whereabouts of the chairman. The rumour mill is agog with different stories: he might have fled to Europe, or security men from government house have taken him away, or stroke has finished him off. Anyway, the man’s picture still appears as "WANTED" on television. A large red X has been drawn on this building by the capital development authority, yet the two friends live here free of rent. Once in a while people would come around to seek out any available space. There are other squatters, too. A young musician who plays a guitar every night also lives in the building.
Sam opens his eyes, still feeling restless. He thinks he will lose the wallet by the time he wakes in the morning. His friend makes a snoring sound. Sam holds his breath.
"You’re not sleeping?" Chuks says.
"I’m trying to…" Sam says, breathing out.
"Can’t sleep with your eyes open."
"Is that so?"
"That’s what I know."
Sam scratches his palm again. He wants to talk about the wallet but hardly trusts his friend. Chuks is fond of boasting that he can easily slip his hand into someone else’s pocket, and will not get noticed. He believes he is talented. He once said that if you weren’t caught in Lagos, then you would never get caught anywhere. Even in America.
Chuks was born in Lagos and lived with his parents. Some Christmases ago, his parents had lost their lives in an accident, involving a luxury bus and a minibus along the Onitsha expressway. The son was forced to relocate to the East, so his relatives would bring him up. But, he prefers to live on his own.
At times Sam warns him: One day you will get caught and cry like yellow peppers were in your eyes!
Chuks would laugh and say: Me? Never! I’m the Saint Templar!
Sam is twelve, tall and slim. He has thick, red lips and scratches his palms whenever he feels nervous. Chuks is hairy and stocky, with veins on his hands. He doesn’t know his age but calls himself an adult. He always picks his nose; maybe because he has so much hair in his nose. Or maybe it is just a habit.
A candle sits in a small bottle in a corner of the room, burning fast. Sam gazes at it, wondering if it is proper to hide the wallet from his friend. Chuks keeps his spoils in an old custard can: a gold watch, sunglasses, ring, pendant, a lighter, and other precious items. He had promised to give Sam the watch as a gift when he retires.
Chuks raises his head. Sam turns his back to him, feeling like a rat cornered by a cat. He hears a yawn as his friend stretches out on the mattress.
"You should stop thinking."
"I found something," Sam says.
"What did you find?" Chuks asks.
"I found a wallet."
Chuks leaps to his feet. "What’s inside it? Let me see. Where’s it?"
As Sam brings it out Chuks prises it off his hand and empties the wallet on to the floor.
"Dear father, you have not been hiding this!"
"Thought we were friends."
"I only found it this mo-morning," Sam stammers.
"Twenty three thousand naira?" Chuks cries out, when he has finished counting the notes. His eyes almost stick out. Then he puts the wallet to his nose, and takes a long sniff at it. "This is, um, expensive." He sweeps the contents back into the wallet with his hand.
"Original leather, I can tell. I know, don’t ask how. You were thinking about this?"
Sam rubs his lips. Chuks flicks the wallet back and forth, throws it up, then catches it with both hands.
"You couldn’t sleep. Should have suspected," he says, a grin dancing around his lips. "Think I would steal it if you’d told me?"
Sam’s mouth turns dry as he sits up, wrapping his arms around himself. Chuks tosses the wallet to him and, trying to stop another yawn, throws the back of his hand over his mouth. Sam is not quick enough to catch the wallet, which drops to the floor.
The two friends are silent for a moment.
"You don’t feel…? I mean, you wouldn’t feel bad stealing the wallet?" Sam asks.
Chuks stares at him.
"Why don’t you stop picking people?"
Chuks breaks into a laugh. "Told you before that I’ll retire when I’m due," he says. "By the way, I only pick strangers. Are you happy now?"
"Your boss pays you well. My boss is a cheat."
"If it makes you feel any good." Chuks appears like someone who is bored with the conversation. "I’ve always wanted to be a car mechanic. Can’t seem to save enough to pay my apprentice fee. Now listen, nna, picking is just a pastime. I make the best of it. Not really pleased with myself hanging on the bus. Any idiot could do that – picking a person’s pocket takes spirit, skills, damn it!" He becomes excited at once. "Have to be clever, yes – if you’re unlucky, you get whipped – and you’ll cry under burning tyres – as they do in Lagos – by the time the police arrive – you are roasted black! Tell me, what are you going to do with the money?"
Sam picks up the wallet from the floor and pushes it back under the mattress.
"I shall look for the owner, and return it tomorrow morning –" he mentions.
"Return it indeed! Are you stupid? Some passenger decided to be kind, and all you can say is, ‘shall look for the owner’." Chuks springs to his feet, quick as an antelope.
Sam looks away as if the words are darts. Without thinking, he allows his hands to grip the mattress. Chuks is standing before him, stone-faced: the expression of a man who wants to beat up a badly behaved child.
"Think you’re the next Good Samaritan, eh?" Chuks spits out.
Sam lowers his head, expecting a slap from his friend. Chuks breathes heavily, his shoulders moving up and down.
"You’ve always wanted to go and see your mother?" Chuks says, becoming calm.
"Yes," Sam answers, his hands loosening from the mattress.
"Remember you said if you had enough money you’d leave Owerri."
Sam directs his gaze to the candle: its glow a bright orange over faint blue.
"Don’t be a great fool. It is like you’ve just won a jackpot." Chuks sits down and places a hand on his shoulder. "Look at it this way – an angel took pity on you, left behind this treasure. You didn’t rob anybody."
He lies on his back, resting his head on his palms.
After a while, Sam lies down too, sideways, curling up his legs.
The candle is thinning; its flame flickers, flickers. Some drops of wax have set around the rim and along the length of the bottle.
Sam imagines that the wallet is becoming more disturbing than the dreams that have been tormenting him since he ran away from his uncle’s home. Since he began staying with Chuks; the dreams about a little boy who falls into a river and cries for help. And no one hears.
Reggae music starts mingling with the voices outside.
Sam wonders why the young musician loves playing at night, if he is troubled, too.
"You’re still thinking?" Chuks asks.
"Maybe I should hand it to my boss," Sam says.
"It is like giving someone you don’t trust your wristwatch to keep."
"Then I shall give it to the park officials."
"Did you say park officials?"
"I don’t know who else to give."
"Take out the money, throw the wallet away," Chuks advises. "Use the money well, or try and find out which bus is going to your village, Egbema. Your mother will be glad by the time you give her the rest of the money. Pour her blessings on you. Don’t have to tell her how you came across it. Dear father, it’s your luck! Nobody ever parts with that kind of amount – not in these hard times, brother."
Sam scratches his ear. "The police can always get in touch with the owner, don’t you think?" he says.
"Tell you what I think. I’d rather die than return a missing item to any black-uniformed officer. Bad enough they bother you for twenty naira. Since you don’t know what to do with it you could let me have it. I’ll drop it at the motherless babies’ home."
Even though Sam doesn’t like the suggestion, he expects Chuks to come for the wallet. But his friend just lies still on the mattress.
The flame is now a tiny blue spark, like the tip of a pencil. And soon the room becomes dark.
Chuks has begun snoring. Before Sam shuts his eyes once again, he touches the wallet, then turns on his side.
AT THE MOTOR PARK
The sun looks like a great ball of fire in the slate blue sky. Its long rays brightly cut through the clouds, settling upon the earth. Sam feels as if someone is beaming a flashlight directly on his face. He grumbles in his sleep, turning his head this way and that. Feeling prickly, he drags his body off the mattress. He looks around and then throws his arms out. He rubs his eyes, then stretches his body.
A yawn breaks out of his lips. He blinks his eyes and calls out: "Chuks, where are you?"
He suddenly turns alarmed as he thinks his friend has left with the wallet. He grabs a side of the mattress, and lifts it halfway.
He sighes. He reaches for the wallet and slips it into his pocket.
* * *
Moments later, Sam heads for the motor park. Up in the sky, the sun still shines very brightly, as if it aims to roast the earth. The clouds float like balloons. Sam recalls how his mother used to talk about the Rapture, Bible stories, and he loved listening. He finds the book of Revelation very interesting. Like a magic story, but full of dark, fearful things. He hopes his mother is well and still selling her firewood. He wishes he can make her happy when he goes home finally.
He tries to remember her face, but slips into a little puddle. He pulls his foot out, hissing. One of the slippers is stained with soft mud. He looks around for something to wipe his foot with, finds nothing. He shakes his leg and walks on.
Sam last saw his mother when he was seven and she had coaxed him into living with her late husband’s brother in Owerri. The other time he had seen her was in a dream. Both of them had gone to fetch firewood in the bush. They had gathered some firewood, which she tied in two uneven bundles. She lifted the smaller bundle and balanced it on his head. She picked up the other one and laid it on her own head. They started walking home. But midway she pointed a road, told him that she would meet him at home, while she took another road. She never arrived home.
By the time Sam enters the motor park, vehicles and people cram the entire space. People rub elbows as they pass one another. Potholes scar the once-smooth tarred road: potholes that look like ugly wounds. Traders sell goods in makeshift shops of zinc-roof and wood-walls. Some sit on stools, some on benches. Sam’s boss is speaking with a fellow driver, both of them leaning against a bus.
"Good morning, sir," Sam greets.
His boss spins round. "Morning your head!" he sounds angry. "Stay at home if you can’t wake early. How many times do I have to tell you this?"
"It won’t happen… again, sir."
"Shit, it won’t. Next time I’ll knock your chicken brains out."
The other driver laughs wildly, like a jackal. "This boy is a real bushman, too shy for a conductor. I’ve told you before, get someone else," he says.
"He has to learn," Sam’s boss says.
Sam goes into the driver’s seat, leans over and opens the glove compartment. He takes out a sachet of Omo. He pulls out a dirty rag stuck under the handbrake. He goes round the bus, raises the boot, and brings out a small bucket. He drops it, then reaches for a gallon. Uncapped, he pours some water into the bucket, keeps the gallon back. He dips the rag into the bucket and stirs the water.
"What are you doing?" his boss asks.
Sam is about tearing the sachet open. "I want to wash the windscreen, the sides –"
A frown wrinkles the face of his boss. He looks at Sam for a while; his hand shoots out and boxes Sam’s ear.
"Ewu (goat). Do you know what time it is? Look at your coconut head. Start looking for passengers!"
Sam’s ear hurts like salt on a wound. He wants to rub it, but bears the pain as he keeps the detergent back.
"Poly junction! Campus gate! Sisters of the Needy…!" he starts calling out.
People trickle into the bus. Soon others break into a rush, almost fighting over the remaining seats. At first the bus is full, then moments later a few people step out. Sam’s boss climbs into his seat and starts his engine. Chafing sounds come up as though the exhaust pipe is blocked with sand and grease. Fumes rise, swirl into the bus, and blacken the air. Passengers begin to cough, spit out of the windows. Some beat the fumes with their hands, with folders and magazine.
"What kind of motor is this?"
"This smoke can knock out a dozen people, driver."
"God help us in this type of bus that looks like a coffin on wheels."
Sam lowers his head, grinning secretly. He enjoys it when commuters make fun of his boss. He doesn’t smile too openly for fear that a knock would crack his head, though. Sometimes he imagines the bus would fall apart if a lorry brushes it. It is old, a crooked mesh of metals. Its seats are always shrieking when someone sits on them. The interior looks like a cave, cold and frightening.
Pasted on the top of the windscreen the sticker should have read: Careful lest a metal pierce your buttocks; instead of "God is in Control."
Really frightening, this bus: it makes Sam feel that it will someday turn against its fare, crushing everyone to death.
The fumes lessen, the sounds cease. The engine slows to a hum.
His boss looks over the passengers. "Be quick," he says.
"Please your money," Sam says.
"Why ask? It is fifty naira," someone snaps.
"When was the fare hiked?"
"What kind of nonsense is this? Even if all the other drivers are collecting such shocking amount, shouldn’t you feel bad, driver? – Look at the carcass you call bus. Look. Would you pay, if it were you?"
"It’s too much. We can’t pay. Reduce your price. The seats are even pinching my yansh (buttocks)."
His boss bangs on his horn. "I don’t have time to waste! Give him your money. And let’s move."
"Don’t shout on us. We are not your servants, mister!"
"Don’t mind him – he is heartless. Shylock."
One man begins to talk quickly, "I’ve said it numerous times, and will say it again. This country should be privatized since everything is being sold to thieves. Then we would know we’re no longer citizens. If someone steals N10 he will be burnt to ashes. If another person carries off millions he is given a national award. What kind of society are we living in, my brethren?" he pauses, then goes on, "Imagine hosting jamborees here and there for foreigners and none of our refineries is working? Weeks ago, I visited Gabon – can you believe it? – that thumb of a country is enjoying constant fuel supply. Christ, what kind of country is this? Yet, we tell the world we are the giant of Africa."
All kinds of sounds break out. Then a young lady clucks very loudly. The other passengers turn to her. She shrugs. The entire bus becomes noiseless.
"Do not blame them," she speaks in a voice that reminds Sam of the sounds of a carpenter sandpapering wood. "Those in government are trying. Blame will not solve our problems. We’ve to pray for them, our rulers. Prayer is what the country needs. Prayer can break the curse. It’s just evil forces at work; servants of Satan…"
"Pray for dogs?" the man cuts her short. He seems quite put out. "Revolution is what we need. Dogs are playing with our nation and you talk of prayer? Ha! Thank Rawlings for Ghana. Thank Castro for Cuba, even the disliked Ghaddafi. I pity Herbert Macaulay. He wouldn’t have sent the British packing. No leaders, not even a Mandela’s look-alike. Here, all we are blessed with is just a bandit of dollar-chasing rulers busy building mansions in Europe."
His boss turns off his engine. He sits back, tapping the steering wheel. He looks every bit insulted. "When you’re ready, lecturers, we can leave. You people can protest, why didn’t you go to Abuja to stampede the man up there?" he goes into a rant. "I’m the one who hiked fuel price. Who kept the refineries grounded. The one importing and hoarding the fuel – so, my father is the special adviser? Nonsensical nonsense!"
Grumbling, each of them shoves the fare into Sam’s hand so hard he thinks his fingers would fall off. His face has a sore look as he counts all the money, then hides it in his hip pocket. He grips the railing inside the bus, just behind the front passenger’s seat.
"Please move a little," he says and leaps in.
The girl glares at him. "You knew you were going to share my seat, why collect seventy naira?" she asks. Then she wriggles in her seat, creating just a little space for him.
"I’m sorry," Sam says, inching closer, trying not to stare at her heavily-powdered round face. She says nothing, just begins to fan her face with a handkerchief. He shuts the door as his boss moves the bus carefully out of the narrow space, squeezed in by two other buses.
"Madam, move inside," a youngster, wearing a red face cap, says.
"Move to where? I should squeeze myself? Am I a bag of potatoes?" the fat woman asks.
"Move in a little, that’s what I said. This is not your personal vehicle."
"Watch your stinking mouth, boy."
A man tilts his head back and forces out a crazy laugh from his throat. Sam glances at him, thinking the man has a nose that seems too big for his small face. The girl looks at Sam closely, and he turns his face to the window. She seems a brilliant student and pretty, he thinks.
His mind turns to the wallet. He wonders what his friend would have used the money for, if he had seen it. Chuks would surely spend it on snacks, drinks, and try to use whatever that is left to bait the little girls who sell bananas in the motor park.
Sam thinks about having the girl beside him as a friend. Maybe he could take her out to a restaurant, since he still has the wallet. Anyway, he starts thinking about school. Once, he tried asking his friend if he, too, would like to go back to school if given the chance.
Why? Old men don’t go to school. Besides, I want to be a mechanic, Chuks had said.
After his father died of tetanus, Sam’s mother could no longer pay for his tuition fees, so he quitted school in primary four.
He still remembers how he used to wash his uniforms, dry it in the sun, and sit in the class listening to the teacher. The only thing he never liked about his school was the uphill trek. He had complained once and his father had promised him a bicycle.
What if I use the money to enrol for a lesson…Sam is asking himself, when a shout of panic goes off in the bus.
"Biko were nwanyo! Be careful!"
Sam glances at the terrified woman. He pokes his head out of the window and pulls it in right away.
His boss says with a huff, "Hens and cocks in my bus," glances into his side mirror. He then swings the bus onto the main road. An incoming lorry swiftly hoots past, spraying thick black smoke into the bus.
Passengers scream and sway and hold one another.
"Mad driver," the fat woman says, snapping her fingers.
* * *
Later that day, after the last trip, Sam’s boss parks the bus in front of his house. He doesn’t bother at all if some crooks might loosen the tyres and make away with them. He often brags before his friends that he knows all the thieves in town, so if his bus is tampered with, he would know who to hold responsible. Sam’s boss closes around four p.m. every last Saturday of the month. This is because of the meeting he holds for his kinsmen in his own house.
He ought to pay Sam eight hundred naira as salary. But he gives him one hundred naira only for the six days covered.
"Thank you, sir," Sam says, feeling cheated. But he acts as though he is pleased and walks away. He drops his hands into his pocket and remembers he still has the wallet. Without delay, he flags down a motorcycle.
Take me to the motor park, he tells the cyclist.
CHUKS REFUSES TO SPEAK TO SAM
The park manager is not in when Sam arrives. He sights another park official, Pa Bosco, who always has a chewing stick in his mouth, but now he is without one. He loves drinking local gin, and hangs around Nwanyi Sunday’s, a popular drinking shed. Hardship has made his face look like a tortoise shell, Chuks once said.
Sam walks up to him, unsure if to hand the wallet to him. He thinks for a while, then decides to open up.
"I have something I’d like to show you," Sam says.
"What is it?" Pa Bosco asks.
Sam says he would prefer they talk inside his office, because he doesn’t want the other men sitting on the veranda to hear.
"I don’t have time to waste, so it had better be good." Pa Bosco wags a finger.
In his office, he takes out a chewing stick from a drawer and starts polishing his teeth.
"What is it?" Pa Bosco spits on the ground.
Sam speaks out.
"You did well to bring it here." Pa Bosco puts the chewing stick into his pocket. He asks for the wallet, which Sam gives him.
"Good boy." Pa Bosco rubs Sam’s hair, then pats him on the shoulder.
Sam wants to know if the owner has come to look for it, or if he has already met the manager. Pa Bosco muses for a few seconds. Then he mentions that the owner would be contacted, anyhow.
"We’ve handled cases like this before. It will be settled. Understand?"
Sam stares at him, suddenly wanting to take the wallet back, as doubts creep into his mind. But then he nods his head. Pa Bosco dips a hand into Sam’s pocket, as he makes to leave. Sam glances up at him.
"Go get for yourself some sweets and biscuits," Pa Bosco says, showing his brown teeth in a too-wide smile.
Sam shows surprise. He wonders why Pa Bosco is being kind, unlike when he runs errands for him, and pa Bosco would only say "thank you."
Sam tells him "Thanks," in Igbo and walks away.
* * * * *
Back in their room, that evening, Chuks has been expecting him as a nagging wife awaits her mate, pacing around. He wants to know what his friend did with the wallet.
Sam turns his head up, as if something else has caught his attention.
"You did not give it out, I hope?" Chuks says, still moving around the room.
Sam takes off his clothes, then sits on the mattress.
Chuks sits down beside him. "Who did you give it to?"
Sam stares at him.
Chuks asks him again.
"Pa Bosco," Sam says.
"Pa who? You gave that –?!"
Chuks looks like a man hit by a car. He flings his hands over his head, then drops them to the sides of his face.
Sam wonders why his friend is reacting hard, since he hasn’t seen him act this way before. Chuks curls his fists and seems to want to shake them at Sam.
Sam looks at him, suddenly fearful, because he does not want to go into a fight with Chuks. He is sorry if his friend feels bad about his action, but keeping the wallet is too tempting for him.
Chuks hits his heels on the floor, then gets hold of himself. But his breathing comes out heavy and loud, Sam notices.
"I live with a sheep, baa-baa," Chuks begins to sing, to spite him.
Sam feels like jumping at him, punching him hard in the stomach. He only closes his eyes. Surprisingly, images of a sheep fill his head.
Shame creeps up on him. Sam casts himself to his feet, out of the room.
"Baa-baa, sheep, baa-baa, sheep…" the words run after him.
Sam sits down on the balcony and begins to heap blame on himself. He is a sheep, sheep, sheep. Though, he thought it was safer to leave the wallet with an older person because his friend could easily have spent it. A voice scolds him for not keeping the money as part of his savings. Now he would have used it to buy whatever he wanted. But his conscience would pester him like a demon.
The same voice still tells him off that he is surely a fool not to have done as his friend advised: Go home and hand the money to his mother. Make her proud that her son has just returned from the city. But she would reject it and quote the Bible. Better to be poor and honest than to be rich and insincere.
Sam lifts himself up to the balcony, his hands curl over the rail.
Clouds look like bushy beard with faint spots around the edges, while the stars form a net of twinkling beads, around the moon with the shape of a bow in the night sky, which stretches and stretches, making Sam to think of the Urashi, the quiet, green river in his village, which runs through many villages. He is about thinking of canoes and fishermen, when an image of the drowning boy flashes and he shuts it out.
"Maybe I should run away," he says.
Then he begins to wonder if his uncle has been looking for him, if his uncle has gone to the village to see his mother, and how his mother would take the news. She might be thinking that her son had been snatched or even killed.
One Saturday afternoon his uncle and his wife went for a wedding. Before they could return, Sam had packed his clothes in a plastic bag, lifted the carpet in his room and took out the two hundred and seventy naira he had saved. He wasn’t going to bear the ill-treatment anymore, so he disappeared. Most times his uncle pretended not to know what was happening.
Sometimes, though, he would glance over his newspapers and say, "Dear, don’t be so harsh on him."
"He is lucky I don’t put a hot knife on his ear," his wife would reply, "so I wouldn’t have to shout for him to hear." Then she would pinch his ear.
Once in a while, she slapped him so hard he imagined he was turning and turning. Other times, she called him an evil child.
"You this amusu what can I do to make you hear, eh? Every time you act deaf!" she would sound so upset.
He hated being called an evil child. That hurt him more than those stinging slaps. Sam always hid under the staircase and cried till his eyes were sore, wishing his mother would come and take him away.
Music suddenly floats into the air from a guitar. His eyes lights up like a bulb.
"The card!" he says, remembering he had taken out one of the business cards from the wallet.
* * * * *
The following day, being Sunday, falls upon Sam like a wet towel placed over his cold shoulders. Chuks refuses to talk to him, acting as if he is hard of hearing. Sam has been pleading with him for hours, saying he could still reclaim the wallet.
"I’m sorry," Sam says. But his friend backs away from him.
Still, Sam begs him not to get upset.
"I will get the wallet back from Pa Bosco."
"This world is not my home," Chuks begins to whistle. He stands up from the mattress, brings out his spoils in the custard can, and sits back.
Sam manages to fight off the feeling of unhappiness but is unable to completely drive out the sense of betrayal that laughs at him, like a bad spirit. He knows he has let his best friend down, no doubt. For the past ten days both of them had been living almost as brothers. Chuks has been of great help to him.
Both friends had met at a restaurant and shared a table, without speaking to each other.
That was the day Sam ran away, but couldn’t get a bus going to his village because of fuel shortage. And the fare was as high as five hundred naira. And he had only two hundred and seventy naira. He had stayed behind in the park till nightfall.
Hunger had chased him to the restaurant the following morning because he slept, without eating anything. While he was eating Chuks came around again and walked up to him.
"You are here already, nna," Chuks said, surprised.
Sam nodded. He was eating rice and stew.
Chuks glanced around, then pulled a chair from another table, and placed it at Sam’s table. He did not notice the plastic bag close to Sam’s feet.
"Let’s be friends."
Sam gazes at him, then at his food.
"What do you say?" Chuks leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand.
"I slept in an old kiosk," Sam said.
Chuks took him in thereafter, and later introduced his new friend to a driver who was from the same local council area as himself.
"This wallet is a curse," Sam says, glancing at his friend.
Chuks looks away, picks his nose, and wipes his fingers on the mattress. Sam draws near, wanting to sit next to him as he is admiring his spoils. But Chuks rises from the mattress. Sam creases his face in disappointment. Chuks pulls out a wrapper, which flaps loudly as he shakes it several times.
"Sorry please," Sam’s voice is low.
"I don’t bloody care!" Chuks yells out, throwing the wrapper across the floor. The door slams shut as he marches out of the room.
Sam feels as if he had been punched in the stomach, as he stands there not knowing what to do. Then he drops on to the mattress, and lies face down.
Outside, thunder claps. Lightening moves worm-like across the sky and rain starts to drum everywhere.
SAM MEETS THE LAWYER
Monday morning. The air has a touch of coldness to it as Sam breathes in. Water has collected in potholes, brown and muddy. After the first set of passengers is unloaded, his boss returns to the motor park, for another trip. Sam considers the business card in his hand. He gets up and moves towards his boss, who is chattering with other drivers. Standing behind him, he thinks of how to excuse him.
The drivers are arguing about the possibility of an Igbo president in 2007, the fate of the Igbo should the country split, and the activities of MASSOB.
They are always arguing, Sam thinks. He tries to work out why there is so much growing concern about Biafra, as if it were Judgement Day approaching. He remembers Chuks said that the Igbo have no king and thus, would never be able to rule themselves. Look at the way they carry on their politics. He then cited Things Fall Apart. Sam has never read that book, so he kept quiet.
The drivers pause as if alarmed. One man points, and Sam’s boss turns. "What is it?" he sounds impatient.
"I wa-want to eat," Sam says, picturing hundreds of eyes searching his mind.
His boss presses a N50 note into his palm.
"Thank you, sir," Sam says.
"Spend the whole day eating," his boss says.
Sam shakes his head. As he walks away, he hears: "Where did you pick that boy?"
"Out of the gutter," his boss says. And they all laugh like drunkards.
* * * * *
Sam looks for where to make a call. He sights some boys and girls at a GSM parasol. It takes a long while before it reaches his turn. He calls out the number to the female operator who dials it.
She listens, then says, "It’s ringing," and hands the cell phone to him.
"Hello… Mr.…?" he speaks.
"Who is this?" a man’s voice.
"It is…me, the conductor." Sam feels sweat moistening his palms.
Sam thinks he has hung up, or the line has cut off. He wants to look at the screen, when the voice comes back.
"How did you get my number?"
Sam shuts his mouth.
"Hello, hello. How did you get my number?"
Sam mumbles out something about a wallet.
"Oh, I have been looking for it! Where did you get it?" the voice says.
The phone feels like slime, and Sam thinks of throwing it away.
"I did not steal it, sir," he says.
"How can I reach you?" the voice asks.
"I…I am in the park."
"What colour is your shirt?"
Sam tells him. He asks for his name. Sam thinks of running as fast as a whirlwind but at last says, "Sam." The voice tells him to wait at the entrance gate of the park.
As Sam pays the operator, he begins to sense trouble, big trouble. He has taken a wrong road, and he cannot return. Lost like his mother.
When he gets back, his boss welcomes him with a knock so heavy on the head Sam breaks wind. The pain seems to pass through his skull as he opens his mouth to apologise. He thinks of cursing his boss since he could not see any reason for his annoyance.
Two buses are in the queue before theirs, so it is not yet their turn to board passengers.
* * * * *
Sam sits on the edge of a seat inside the bus, hoping the man doesn’t show up. He imagines that he would be taken for a pickpocket. Students and traders push one another as they struggle to get on a moving bus.
He starts and looks around. A man stands before him, chubby-faced, fair like a European, with the height of a basketball player.
"You didn’t wait at the gate?" the man says.
Sam thinks of running off, but the man is so close that if he tries, he will be cornered.
"I’m Mr. Obi, a lawyer." The man sticks out a hand. Feeling like a dwarf, Sam shakes it, hesitantly.
"You’ve got my wallet?"
"Eh, no, I gave it out."
"What? Young man, what do you mean?" A frown appears on the lawyer’s face.
"Nothing, sir…I’m sorry. I was scared I’d lose it."
"Whom did you give?"
He puts a hand on Sam’s elbow. "All right. Take me to him."
Sam’s boss is throwing groundnuts into his mouth where he is seated on a bench shared by two other drivers.
"Is that him?" the lawyer asks.
"No, that’s my boss," Sam whispers, glancing aside.
The lawyer observes him. "Don’t worry I’ll handle it."
Before Sam can say, "Please, no," the lawyer has taken about five strides, and is standing next to his boss. Sam stares at his feet, wishing the bus would cave in.
He jerks his shoulders as the lawyer taps him.
"Let’s pick up my wallet," the lawyer says.
* * * * *
The two of them walk into the office. A clerk is sitting behind a desk punching away on a calculator.
"Good afternoon, sir," Sam says.
"Good day," the lawyer says.
The clerk does not look up.
"Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for Pa Bosco."
The clerk punches hard on a key. Then he directs an unfriendly look at them, as one might give an uninvited guest. Sam feels the urge to scratch his palm, though he does not.
"Is he lost?" the clerk asks, parting his lips that are rough like the skin of yams.
"He is with" – Sam glances at the lawyer – "his wallet."
The clerk drops his pen. "What wallet?"
Sam tries to explain, but the lawyer introduces himself with an air of influence. The clerk sits upright; his face breaks into a sunny smile. His hand shoots up to point at a bench.
"Have a seat. Please have a seat, barrister."
"Thanks. Just tell us where we can find–"
"Hope no problem?" The clerk lifts an eyebrow.
"None," the lawyer says. The clerk tells them where to find Pa Bosco.
At Nwanyi Sunday’s, Pa Bosco is gulping a Star beer. This shed has no roof or door, just open air, sort of, with old wooden benches and a table where drinks of all brands are laid out.
"What is it, boy?" he asks as Sam greets him.
"I’m here for my wallet," the lawyer cuts in.
Pa Bosco moves his head sideways. "What wallet are you talking about, Maazi?"
"A small brown leather wallet."
"I don’t remember seeing one."
Sam’s eyes grow wide. "It’s the same one I gave you on Saturday," he says.
"Me? Boy, you’re mistaken," Pa Bosco shouts. "What rubbish are you talking about?" and turns to the lawyer, softening his voice. "Where did you lose it, Maazi? Perhaps, we can trace it."
"The boy said he gave it to you. Can I have it back?"
Pa Bosco drops his beer on the ground. "I see you two are up to something." He rises from the bench and taps Sam on the head.
The lawyer tells him to keep his hand still.
"Or what?" Pa Bosco raises his voice, eyeing him. Then he tries to twist Sam’s ear. The lawyer brushes his hand away.
The two men begin to speak heatedly, arguing. People gather around. The lawyer says that he didn’t know that old men could steal. Pa Bosco squeals at him, calling him a hungry charge-and-bail officer, who is only trying to bully a poor old man, but could do no more than a dead ezi (pig).
"Pa Bosco. It is okay," one of the drinkers says.
"What’s the matter?" another drinker asks.
The lawyer explains.
"Are you sure you gave the wallet to him?" they ask Sam. "Are you really sure?"
"Is that the man?"
"Yes, that’s him." Sam raises a finger.
Pa Bosco scowls.
"This is a simple issue…" a man remarks.
"It will get complicated," the lawyer says, "by the time I put him where he belongs!" and walks away.
Pa Bosco thumps Sam hard on the back.
"You want to kill him?" a hefty man speaks up.
"What’s your business?" Pa Bosco asks.
"You lizard, I’m no gentleman like that lawyer. I’ll beat you up quick and neat if you lay your hand again on that little boy. Dare me." The hefty man pushes his chest out, his lips twist in a wicked grin.
Sam’s nose begins to run. "God punish you!" he says under his breath, as Pa Bosco walks away. Sam wipes his nose on his palm. As he turns round, he bumps into his friend who is standing right behind him.
"See what you’ve brought upon yourself," Chuks says, grinning.
TWO POLICEMEN ARREST SAM
The next day Pa Bosco is put in a cell. Sam finds out that a strange boy, who looks not unlike a rascal, is sitting in the bus. He is wearing torn jeans and tee-shirt and rubbing a large ring on his finger with the hem of his shirt. His boss comes out the moment he sees Sam like he has been waiting at length for him to turn up.
"Where have you been?" he asks.
"I…" Sam hesitates.
"Hey! You think I don’t know?" He holds Sam on the chin.
"I was –"
"What do you know? I’m responsible for you! You don’t think so?" he asks, poking Sam on the chest with a finger. "You should have handed the wallet to me!"
That last sentence rings sharply in Sam’s ears. He thinks of telling his boss that Chuks had discouraged him.
"You didn’t think I’d handle it well?" His boss pushes his face close to Sam’s head. "I’m talking to you. Ha, okay, go back to the dust bin where you belong."
Sam runs after him as he moves away.
"Please sir, please sir," he cries, tears streaming out of his eyes. His boss turns round and hits his hand away as Sam tries to hold his wrist.
"I’m through with you. Get another bus!" His spittle lands on Sam’s face.
"Please, sir," Sam pleads on, sniffing and blowing his nose.
Grinning, the rascal starts calling the different routes the bus would ply.
Through tearful eyes, Sam watches as students and non-students fill the bus.
* * * * *
Very early the following day two policemen come for Sam. One is tall, the other is short. Chuks is dressing up when someone pounds on the door. As Sam gets up from the mattress and opens it he is almost crushed behind the door. The two officers walk across the floor. They look around, their eyes shining like headlights. They see the pile of clothes in a corner of the room. The tall man overturns it with his boots. The short man, holding a baton, kicks the mattress.
"Where did you keep it?" he asks.
The two friends glance at each other. Chuks looks confused, while Sam is frightened as he notices a pistol tucked in the belt of the tall man.
"Who is Sam?"
"Has he done any wrong, sir?"
"Who are you?"
Like a hawk, the short policeman regards Sam.
"Come with us," he says.
Sam wishes he could turn to the size of a rabbit and flee the room. Sweat breaks out on his face and rolls down his chest. He almost wets his trousers staring at the police officer closing in on him. He immediately sees that same boy throwing his arms about in the river, drowning.
"Where’s the business card you told me about?" Chuks asks.
More images fill his head: Sam now sees himself in a court; the gavel has just sentenced him to life imprisonment. He is going to die behind bars.
"Tell me where it is, Sam!"
Sam shakes, sweat pouring out of his body. The tall policeman grabs his shoulder, and pushes him to the door.
"What is the matter with you?" Chuks slaps him on the back.
Sam turns his head, looks at him long. Then his voice comes out in a whisper, "The trousers…"
* * * * *
At the police station, Sam stands behind the counter, trembling. There are chairs and benches here and there. Posters hang carelessly on the dirty walls. A foul odour, like the stench of dead rat, floats in the air. The whole room gives off some dampness.
The tall policeman questions him. Grey hairs dot his head.
"You have to put it in writing," he says after listening to Sam. He brings out a biro, which he places next to a hardcover book.
Sam reaches for the stationery.
"Hold it there!" the short policeman snarls, pointing the baton at him. "That book costs money, that biro costs money."
For the first time Sam becomes aware of how red and puffy his eyes are, the folds of flesh on his chin. His large belly sags over his belt, like a beach ball.
Sam does not really know what to say. The policeman is busy explaining in harsh words that the stationery materials are not free: they are not Father Christmas; they charge only fifty naira!
Another policeman gives a loud deep laugh that seems to pull him out of his chair, carrying him towards Sam.
"Where did you keep all that money you stole?" He plunges his hands into Sam’s pockets.
"I didn’t, sir," Sam says.
"Ah. You took out the money then?" his voice sounds like water rushing through a pipe.
"N-no…" Sam feels somewhat trapped. He pictures the policeman, standing so close to him, as a hippopotamus.
After a while the man sits on his heels, tugs at Sam’s zipper, then pulls the trousers down.
"You have a fine pair of boxers," he observes, a wide grin slants the corners of his eyes and lips.
Sam wants to place his legs together, tuck his hands between them. But he thinks that something worse might be done to him.
"Take off your shirt."
Sam slowly undresses.
"Let’s have your story." He motions him to write down his own statement. They tell him he’s a "partner in crime" and might be freed after investigation. Normal procedure, they say.
The short policeman leads him down the narrow corridor to a cell. With a sense of terror, Sam recalls the proverbial sheep being led to the slaughterhouse.
Some inmates yell and boo them; some even stretch their hands through the iron bars.
As soon as he enters the cell, an odour of decay hits his nostrils. Sam is reminded of the heap of dirt sitting high on Douglas Road, rotting, with fat green flies dancing around it. Here, like rams in a lorry, men are packed together in a room the size of a 14-seat bus. And only a small window that a baby cannot even slip through is on the wall.
The cell door closes with a clang.
Sam sees himself as a child forced into a tiny strongbox. He wants to bang on the door, scream loud enough, pull down the entire building, or run through the wall. But something is pressing the strength out of him.
"Who goes there? Identify!" a voice shouts.
Sam falls silent, trembling from head to toe as he notices the cold eyes around him.
"Am I speaking to myself? Who goes there?"
"S-Sam..." he says, then swallows.
"Something is wrong with your head. Screwed up, is it?" The shadow of an inmate falls over Sam as footsteps pound against the concrete floor. A solid slap spins Sam’s head to the right. "In this republic, you add YES SIR to every answer. Is it clear?" the inmate says.
Sounds sing in Sam’s head. "Yes, sir!" His teeth rattle as he moves his lips.
Sam rubs his cheek, imagining a tooth has come loose. Someone throws a pair of tattered underpants into his face.
"Remove your shorts!" another loud voice.
Sam strips off.
"Momma’s pet, let’s see what makes you think you’re man enough."
"Boy, oh boy, what did you steal?"
Sam begins to feel choked, thinking catarrh has blocked his nostrils.
They order him to wear the tattered shorts.
Sam pulls it up.
They tell him to bring his boxers to them, which he did. Then, they give him a piece of cardboard.
"Fan Presido," one of the inmates orders.
Presido is a man with the neck of a bull and build of a boxer. His hairless head shines like a cutlass. He is sitting in a corner, just under the window, while two other ugly-looking men sit by his sides.
Feeling stiff, Sam begins fanning him.
* * * * *
Chuks visits him four or five hours later. He stands at the cell and speaks through the iron bars. In a corner Sam sits with his knees up, his arms wrapped around them, listening.
"Can’t get through to the lawyer."
Sam decides against speaking back.
Chuks peers in. "You heard me? His phone kept saying ‘not available at the moment’. He could have been in the court."
"Nna, are you okay?"
Sam coughs again, quietly.
"Have you eaten?" Chuks asks.
Sam raises his head and gives him a long look.
"Don’t worry. Call the lawyer later on. He’ll get you out," Chuks says.
That night Sam dares not sleep for fear that he would never wake up, he would be harmed, his manhood flattened. A thought whispers to him to bear his fate: like Job. He wishes he hadn’t picked up the wallet. Yet, he wishes he had spent the money by boarding a bus to his village. Nobody would have suspected him.
Mosquitoes keep making noises about his ears. They try to sit on his face, his neck. But Sam hits them away.
Maybe I should have used the money to buy a new wrapper for my mother, Sam tells himself. Some dresses for my brothers and sister. I can then hand the remaining sum to my mother. If she asked me how I got the money, I’ll tell her it is my savings.
Sam lets out a sound of pain as a mosquito pricks him sharply like a needle. He looks at his arm, then scratches it. He notes that except for him, all the other inmates are asleep.
He feels helpless to the thoughts keeping him restless and awake. He also feels sweaty, and his underpants are wet. But he feels roasted in this room like a furnace, very hot, airless. He didn’t touch the beans served a few hours ago, which looked like yellow sponge. It made him feel he was eating someone else’s vomit. The fist-sized bread tasted sugarless on his tongue. Even before he could eat it, one of the inmates pulled it out of his hand.
Sam stays half-awake.
SAM FINDS HAPPINESS
The lawyer aids his release on the second day. The sun hurts his eyes, as Sam staggers out of the prison. He places the back of his hand over his face. The lawyer leads the two friends to a Nissan car parked outside the building, across the road. He gets in the car. He unlocks the back doors, and signals them in. Chuks sits in front while Sam drops himself in the back seat.
They drive off.
All through the ride, nobody speaks. Sam tries to hold off an itchy feeling, like black ants crawling all over his body. He remembers how the milky sap of dumb-cane plants had touched him while he was cutting the bushes in his uncle’s compound. His stomach is a rock, even though he thinks it should feel soft since he hasn’t eaten well. He is yet to pass waste for a day and half. He just couldn’t use the stinking slop-bucket in that cell.
Sam begins to scratch his head till a kind of burning pain weakens his arm.
The lawyer drops them off at the uncompleted house.
"Get enough rest. I shall check on you later." He brings out a N500 note from his breast pocket. Sam looks at the black dirt coating his fingernails. "Come on, take it," the lawyer insists as he notices Sam’s reluctance.
"Thank you." Sam finally clutches the note.
The lawyer pats him on the back. "Try and get some drugs."
"Yes, sir," Sam says.
The lawyer calls Chuks aside. "Let me know if there’s anything I could do." Then he slides into his car, and rides off.
* * * * *
In the afternoon, Sam lies on the mattress feeling there are no bones in his body. He is also thinking that he is going to die very soon. Maybe, like the strange boy in his dreams. Chuks sits on a stool, trying to cheer him up, with stories of what happened in the motor park while he was in the cell.
"Pa Bosco has confessed. Old tortoise. His wife is running around like a mad woman trying to raise money for his bail. Thought he’d never own up. Now, he swears he is going to pay every kobo he took from the wallet."
His inmates would have finished him off, if the warden hadn’t showed up. Yes, they would have turned him into "tomato soup" for making an innocent boy suffer. I hope they keep him there forever, so he can smell his dirty armpits.
"Imagine cheating a child," Chuks bites the words one by one, his nostrils flaring.
Then he goes on to describe the way Pa Bosco looks presently: face was swollen, like porridge, like eba. A boxer’s face, he calls it.
"It is a mistake not keeping the wallet, you see?"
Sam only looks at him, too weak to speak.
* * *
That night Sam falls ill, coughing again and again. Like a child with fish bone in his throat. Chuks lays a hand on his forehead and jumps back.
"Dear father! You’ve got fever!" he shouts, as if his friend might have been dying that instant. "What do I do now?"
‘You see what the wallet has caused you? Told you to keep it, didn’t I?"
Chuks looks around. He pulls out a black nylon bag and takes out some peeled oranges.
"You have to eat something, nna," he says and offers him an orange.
Sam glances at it, his eyelids heavy. Sinking his teeth into the orange, he makes a face and lets the fruit drop out of his hand.
"You don’t like it? Has it gone bad?"
"My teeth…" Sam groans again.
Chuks glances around the room again. He places his hands on his hips. After a while, he reaches for a small bottle, containing roots and herbs in a green fluid. He turns the cap and pours some into a cup for Sam.
Sam shakes his head, thinking it is bitter-leaf juice. Chuks rests a hand behind his head, raises it a bit, and then puts the cup to his lip. Unwillingly, Sam takes a sip. Closing his eyes, his tongue darts in and out, enjoying the sweet taste.
"It stops malaria. It drives off cold, so sip some more, " Chuks says.
Sam opens his eyes, licks his lips, then sips again.
"One more…" Sam whispers, gripping the cup with both hands.
"It contains alcohol. You’ll get drunk."
Sam empties even the dregs, feeling his head spinning little by little. His hand trembles as Chuks takes the cup from him.
"Lie still. Let me get some tablets at the drug store."
Sam grins at him, seeing a double image of his friend. And then, his vision darkens.
* * * * *
His face feels hot. Sam opens his eyes. Sunlight spreads across the room. Chuks has placed a wrapper over him while he was sleeping. For a second, he believes he is in the cell and shuts his eyes.
"I was beginning to think you wouldn’t wake again," a familiar voice says.
Sam opens his eyes. On the stool sits the lawyer watching him.
"I heard you are sick," he says.
Sam nods, then coughs.
Sam nods again and casts his eyes around.
"Chuks has gone to fetch water."
Sam still feels a little faint. He rubs his temple and pulls his legs up. The wrapper eases off his body.
The lawyer holds the wallet up. "Thanks."
Sam turns away as if he has been shown a snake. He doesn’t want to be reminded about the wallet any more. The lawyer wants to smile, but then he sees Sam’s reaction.
"You’ve got it at last," Sam sounds bitter.
"Yes. And thanks again."
An air of awkwardness moves round the two of them – the kind a mother goes through when she tries to explain sex to her little daughter; the kind a father suffers when he tries to tell a son that he is only his stepfather.
"Chuks said something about your mother…"
Sam sits up.
"You plan visiting her?"
Without looking at him, Sam says, "Yes."
"So you are from Egbema?"
"I know a couple of friends there."
Sam glances at his fingernails.
"You don’t intend to return?" the lawyer asks.
"I don’t know, yet," Sam mutters.
"I don’t know how to put this…"
Sam raises his head.
"Will you like to stay with us?"
Sam stares at him.
"I mean, with my wife and me?"
Sam opens his mouth a bit wide.
"We can drive to your village. I will speak with your mother. I will seek her consent, if it is okay with you."
Something makes Sam to start thinking about the dream, which has haunted him for some time. But now, a stranger is helping the boy out of the water, and a woman dances around with joy.
"I’ve spoken with Chuks. He said he’d prefer to be a car mechanic," the lawyer goes on, when Sam still says nothing. "My wife is so keen to see you. She’d have come along, but she is nursing our newborn. She finds it incredible that you didn’t keep the money. You don’t have to decide now," he shrugs a shoulder, "Okay?"
Sam bats his eyelids once, twice. He does not know it is useless to blink back the tears welling up in his eyes. He wants to jump out of the mattress, on to the lawyer and hug him tight. He also wants to throw himself on the floor as Yoruba kids do before an elder – but he is still weak. And happiness overawes him altogether.
UCHE PETER UMEZ