Waiting for the Ferry By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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Waiting for the Ferry
By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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It is another evening. Dusk has settled on the motor park outside the ferry terminal. The cacophony has died down, the dust has settled on stalls and cars; clothes and buildings and trees, coating everything. In the distance, I can hear a hawker’s voice, clear, crisp. "Buy my bread. Buy my hot sweet bread." I know how soft, and sometimes crunchy, those breads can be when hot. I imagine the light brown loaves, wrapped in shreds of flour paper, well salted, kind to the taste buds. My Adams apple slides up and down.
The sea waves thunder as they crash on the shore, dissipating their energies, wasting, dying. I peer afar, trying to figure out where the shore begins. I can only make out an undulating greenish mass, heaving, breathing, heavy, unending. Still further afar my eyes search. The town across the sea lies as if dead. Its electric lights look dejected, as they stand isolated from each other. It is the ferry I am searching for. I am unable to make out its form. It may still be picking up passengers and goods on the other end, I think. I settle down, prepared to wait. I hope the ferry comes early. I do not have the heart to spend another night here by the motor park outside the ferry terminal. But as my wristwatch, oblivious to my deepest worries, ticks away, that prospect seems more and more likely. I am afraid. The queue of vehicles and trucks waiting to board the ferry stretches as far as the eyes can see. And I am still a long way from the middle. I do not have a bright chance.
I am seated at the same spot as last time: on the broken bench supported at either ends by slabs of stone in front of the roast meat shop. I watch the goings on inside the meat shop with disinterest: lumps of mutton hanging on ropes firmly tied to the blackened ceiling swing slightly; the meat seller and his apprentice busy at their respective tasks. The meat seller, with a dirty apron (torn everywhere except at the pockets) hanging lopsidedly from his thick neck, flowing across a rounded stomach is waiting on a prospective client, his first for the night. The client, a fellow traveller waiting for the ferry is a tall man in the habit of constantly flattening his moustache with his left hand, his right hand out of sight behind his back. My co-traveller points to a not too big chunk of meat, swaying slightly at the ends of a rope. The meat seller is happy to hang the chunk down. I prepare to listen.
"It is half kilo, probably more."
The meat seller is in a hurry. He drops the meat into a weighing pan by a battery charged fluorescent lamp. The light poor. I watch the scale’s pointer as it trembles violently, then rests somewhere. That must be the half-kilo mark, I think.
"How much?" my co-traveller repeats.
"Seventy five only."
"Seventy what? It is only fat and oil, little or no meat."
He extricates his right hand from behind his back, pokes and prods the chunk of fat on the weighing machine here and there. The meat seller is patient.
"We sell by weight," the meat seller says. "Not by body parts."
"So how much is that liver hanging over there?" my co-traveller asks.
I follow the direction of his fingers. The liver, dull red, hangs majestically from a nail point on the wall. It is a choice part.
"Livers are sold differently," the meat seller says. " How much do you want to pay for the fat and oil?"
My co-traveller walks out of the shop; his eyes jam mine. He smiles. I lower my head. I am embarrassed by his action, so vile; so wicked.
I notice the dog. Its tail is lowered. Its nose is to the ground. Its fur is frazzled. Its breast flap to the left and to the right as it trots. The breasts are heavy. Just probably littered, I think. Coming from feeding its puppies. Probably hungry and looking for something to eat, then go back to breastfeeding its young. I follow it with my eyes and locate the position of the bin. It snoops at the base. Nothing there to be picked up and guzzled. It raises itself on hind legs, looks into the bin. It then jumps down. Nothing there either, I think. Raising its head, it looks expectantly in the direction of the roast meat shop. The meat seller is busy cutting up meat for a new client. The dog is alert. Its tongue flick out a few times and lick its lips. The meat seller extracts some chunks of bones and slimy part from the portion he is cutting up. He bundles them up as to form a round lump that fits into his palm. He makes to throw the lump through the door to the bin, but he sights the dog. He then throws the lump into the roaring fire, which his apprentice has got going. The slime and bone sizzles and burns, letting off sparks and greenish and bluish flame. The dog and I watch the lump burn into ashes, a low whine reaching me from the direction of the dog. Turning, the dog ambles away, its watery eyes sad. I watch it go. I am sad too. Such thoughtlessness!
Odour of frying onions rouses me out of a disturbing reverie. It is cold now. I hug myself tight. I swallow hard as saliva rush to my mouth. The smell of roast me is overpowering. Maybe I should call for some, I think. I pat my breast pocket. Then change my mind when I remember the dog. Three clients are inside the roast meat shop, in a special alcove. How come I didn’t see them come in? I think. They are shovelling meat and onions into their mouths and minding their businesses, not talking to each other. I watch them as they chew tentatively, meditatively and then swallow. I swallow with them. They are men in their late forties, early fifties; the sort with three or more wives and a horde of children. I become them. We chew together, swallow together, pick up the next lump of meat together, savour the sweetness together, our eyes blank. We lick our fingers together, one finger after the other, smack our lips in unison. I know men like these. In an hour’s time or thereabouts, these men will be home to their wives. They will reject dinner, citing various reasons, from too much salt to excess pepper to the food being cold, bland, tasteless, fit only for beasts. They will pick up quarrels with their wives, and then beat them silly, with their children screaming off their heads as they defend their helpless mothers. What nonsense, the men would demand. They would then enumerate their glorious deeds, ticking them one after the other on their fingers: how they have slaved since morning on dug out canoes, or under the sun in market places, or in the farms planting yams or digging up cassava. How when they wish to come home to a tasty meal, all they get is cold, over-salted food fit only for slaves. How they aren’t dogs.
One after the other, the men finish their meat, crack the bones, clean the plates, wash everything down with a bottle of Coke, or Fanta. The meat seller has a gas-operated fridge, blackened by smoke, by a corner. The apprentice moves away the plastic plates quickly. One after the other, the men rise and leave, belching in my face as they pass, their breaths laden with mustard and curry and onions. Other roast meat lovers come in to take their place, paying no attention to me as the pass. I am deep in thought as I watch the newcomers wait impatiently for their dinners. The meat seller and his apprentice busy themselves cutting up meat, slicing up onions, stoking the fire, sharpening one long sharp knife against another, the metallic sound reverberating into the night.
I am at a loss exactly what I am thinking. But I go on thinking nonetheless.
There is a rattling sound beside me. It has been there all these while. But I am only just allowing it to penetrate my mind. I peer into the darkness to determine its source. I see it now. Someone is busy banging repeatedly, and on the same spot on a disused, uprooted metallic signboard advertising a contraceptive. Gentle bangs that grate on the nerves. I think, Doesn’t he get tired banging with both hands, stooping the way he is? Perhaps he is doing exactly what I am doing, passing the time, waiting for the ferry. But he won’t be boarding the ferry when it does arrive, that I am sure. I ignore the madman and his vocation and occupy myself with more useful things. It is the girl that I think of now; I don’t think of her as a prostitute.
I also think of my wife.
There are commotions all around me. I start violently. The ferry has arrived, I notice. Passengers on it are bailing out of the terminal, rushing to the waiting buses and taxis in the motor park, anxious to be taken to their final destinations. The motor park is suddenly alive. Car and motorcycle engines start up, coughing, spurting, belching poison. Nighttime hawkers, with candle lights expertly propped inside transparent containers in the middle of their trays call attention to their wares in drowsy, sleepy voices. Dust rises to the air, fills it. I smell the clay in it, the fine grit finds its way to my mouth, I spit them out. It is a futile task. The night is suddenly illuminated with tens of headlamps. Dust particles dance before me. Cats and dogs cower, dodge under immobile vehicles; prostitutes and their clients back the lights, continue their negotiation in subdued voices. Passengers, laden with loads shield their faces as they hurry to board the ferry. No one is sure how may more trips it will make before cutting off its engines. Already, it is past nine O’clock.
I look around for the girl, hoping not to see her. I think, She may be washing up. By daytime, she sells oranges. She has a makeshift stall: one wooden table and a low chair. She wears a loose blouse with an open neck. If she bends forward to hand you an orange, you can see her breasts. They are a young girl’s breasts, full and fair, robust; the nipples thick as the head of the small finger. She is not more than seventeen. The fool that I am: the first day she handed me an orange, I ended up buying over a dozen. Then she came to me in the night where I dozed in an uneasy sleep. I wanted to send her away. I had not gone with a prostitute before. How would I explain it to my wife if she were to find out? But how could I send her away? Those black nipples! Those vacant eyes!
The cars on the queue come alive. Engines purr and rev. The line begins to move slowly. I engage gears, shift to one, then two. How many meters can I travel before they halt our movement and announce that they ferry is full? I hold my breath. Then hold my brakes. The line comes to a halt. The ferry is full. I have moved less than fifty meters. I am dreading spending the night here again. I don’t want anything thing to do with that girl anymore. Last time, against my will, she led me to the beach. "The space in the car is too small for lovemaking," she said. I will not shame my wife for the third time. I must board the ferry tonight!
I have been visiting this little boarder town across the sea since two weeks back. Since I became a salesman. Across the sea is part of my territory. Competition for the product I sell is less stiff here. Competitors don’t like to come here because of the fear of spending the night across the sea, away from their families, huddled up in the front seat of their vehicles, being battered by the fierce cold all through the night, being harassed by prostitutes with their smelly armpits and vaginas made dry and acrid by over-washing with alum. Not that the girl’s armpits smell. And she is young, her vagina is always wet. I don’t mind crossing the sea. I sell over three hundred percent of my weekly target here. I sell at a price higher than the company price; the company doesn’t know. I make some nice profit; money that my wife can do with. Not to talk of the extra goodies I cart home: oranges, coconuts, paw-paw. Fruits are cheaper across the sea. My clients across the sea are happy that I can come over and service them. I cut off a lot of hassles for them. They are happy paying the extra price I put on my product. I have sworn them to secrecy.
"Make me an omelette and Nescafe," I say to the tea seller. "Make the Nescafe hot."
I hug myself closer. It is colder now that everywhere is quiet. The ferry has departed. The buses and taxis have cut their engines and lights out. Everywhere is uncannily dark. I sip my Nescafe slowly, letting it burn my mouth, enjoying the warmth it fills my inside with. Out in the distance, the lights of the town across the sea are hazy, surrounded by mists, lonely. People are talking in quiet tones around me. The roast meat shop I left behind is getting ready to shut for the night. I can see the apprentice taking things inside. The sea is as black as soot.
It is past eleven O’clock. The ferry had made two trips since. Yet I am unlucky. I am at the lip of the terminal. Should the ferry make another trip, mine will be the first vehicle to board. But it will not. "Until tomorrow," the officials had said when I cried out, "Can’t it take just one more car? My Sedan will fit into one tiny space." But nobody was listening to me.
I think, Perhaps she will not be coming tonight. She favoured me with a generous view of her breasts this afternoon when I went past her stall, engaging myself in aimless stroll. Perhaps she has left town and that was her farewell gift. Or has she suddenly taken ill? I cannot let myself think that. If she were ill… My heart races, even as I will it not to. I am confused. Only if she will come and let me know that she is not ill. Then she can go away. Truly, I don’t want anything with her anymore. I am happily married. Flattening my backrest, I prepare for sleep. I wind up my passenger side window after winding up mine. I curl into a sleeping position. I close my eyes, my mind far away, trying to focus on my wife, trying to think of nice things about her but failing miserably, my thoughts always returning to the girl. I am mad with myself. "I don’t want to set eyes on that girl anymore," I cry. "She is only a kid; a kid for heaven’s sake. " I bang my dashboard with clenched fists. Blood pumps in my head. My mouth goes dry. Shame for what I have been doing to that teenage girl kills me. She is less than half my age!
I jerk violently up as two soft raps sound on my car window. I peer into the darkness. Her teeth flashes. I am relieved that she is not ill after all. Now, she can go. I can sleep easy. Two more raps in quick succession and I wound down my glass, prepared to tell her off.
"The cold," she says. She is hugging herself. "It’s too much."
That is the time I should have told her, "Go home. Go home to your mama." But I say nothing. I smell the cheap perfume she is wearing. She has never worn perfume before. Her hair is freshly made. I smell the cheap relaxer.
"Can I come in?" she says.
I do not answer, but she is already on her way, on her way to the passenger’s door. Might as well spend some little time chatting with her, I think. The night is still young. I open the passenger’s door. She steps in, smiles at me.
"Do you like my hair?" she says.
She seeks my right hand, finds it, places it on her hair. I feel the wetness, of oil.
"I made it for you. That’s why I am late."
I am shaking. I clutch the handbrake to steady myself.
"Hope you don’t mind that I am late?" she says.
She draws closer to me.
"It is just too cold outside," she says. "Hold me. Make the cold go away. Your body is so warm."
She snuggles against my chest; her right hand finds its way into my shirt. She rubs my hair, squeezes my nipples.
"Hug me tight," she begs. "You have not said anything about my hair. Don’t you like it?"
"Let’s chat," I manage and say.
"What is there to chat about?" she says. "There is enough time to chat, after. Hug me please."
"The hair," I say. "Did you really make the hair for me?"
"It is nice?"
Thoughts of my wife on the other side of the sea suddenly fill my mind. I picture my dinner, keeping warm above the stove, waiting for me. I picture my wife, anxious, going to the door to check at every approaching footstep, thinking it is me; clutching the rosary, saying one ‘Hail Mary’ after another for my safety; for my safe return.
"Yes, it is nice," I say.
"You are not angry that I am late?" she says.
"No," I say. "Now that I know why you are late, I don’t mind."