When All Is Lost
By Dipita Kwa
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Being the family chauffeur and Dikongue’s bodyguard for nine years has given me enough sense to know when the family wound was scratched. From the angry voices coming from the house, I was convinced that Muto was in trouble again as all the Dikongue’s offspring were all the time. At sixteen, I thought Muto was already too much. At times I considered working for men like Dikongue who has children whose morality has been trimmed very thin by their parent’s wealth, as the hottest hell for an ambitious young person.
The knock on the car window startled me.
“Are you sleeping?” Madame Tiki asked, holding an umbrella over her husband. “No Madame, I was thinking.”
Although it was just drizzling, the breeze and the dark sky announced the coming of a storm.
“Nice thing for a young man to do early in the morning,” she said rather sadly and returned to the house after Dikongue and Muto had got into the car.
“What direction, Sir?” I asked.
“To her school first,” Dikongue mumbled tiredly although it was only eight o’clock.
As I swerved the brand-new Toyota Prado onto the main road, I stole a glance through the rear-view mirror and saw my boss’s face – it was the face of a man struggling to suppress the fear of another shock. It seemed family distress had come to stay from when Dikongue’s eldest son was jailed in the United States for shooting and killing a man he suspected of going out with his girlfriend. As though this wasn’t enough, the Head of State recently introduced Operation Cast Net intended to investigate and arrest cases of fraud within the civil service. This has got every guilty rich civil-servant and managers of state-owned corporations watching their tracks to evade being caught.
* * *
Students stood on their desks and strained their necks to watch and hoot as we drove into the college campus. I couldn’t hear what they shouted but the excitement in the air told the tale of Muto’s celebrity.
“Thank you Mr. Dikongue for coming,” the principle said as we entered his office. I took my post beside the door and folded my arms across my chest like the proper bodyguard while my boss took the seat he was offered.
“I know you are a very busy person, Mr Dikongue,” the principal said, “So I won’t take much of your precious time. For some time now, we have been investigating your daughter’s apparent examination malpractices. We understand that she seduced – sorry for using the word – her teachers to earn marks she did not deserve. I won’t get into the details here. On Monday the sixth, she was caught in the examination room exchanging examination scripts with another student who, as we had been informed earlier, she often pays a huge sum of money to write exams for her. She stabbed the invigilator’s hand with a pen and brought total chaos in the school as she threw stones at anyone who attempted to come near her. In her hysteria she blurted out names of teachers she had been sleeping with from when she was in form two. You can imagine that she has been on it for two solid years! As for those teachers, they will be properly handled!”
It had become a family routine, I thought. If Dikongue was not paying medical bills for a girl who had been beaten by his son in a night club, he was getting his insurers to pay for a car his son had crashed, or phoning around to have one of his children bailed from the police after having been arrested for using drugs. Neighbors called his children Roving Ambassadors of Crime because they were always involved in atrocities both at home and abroad.
I gripped my chest tighter and watched my boss who appeared to be several miles away from the room. He seemed to be sitting on a high cliff and watching the relics of his potential happiness shattering into tiny fragments of despair, ready to be washed away by the torrents of frustration into the sea of hopelessness below. Muto was his last hope, the last of eight heartbreaking children.
He shook his head slowly.
“Oh, God, why?” he cried, buried his face between his knees and rested his hands on his head.
“Well, Mr. Dikongue, we have decided to give back your daughter,” the principal announced calmly, adjusting his spectacles over the tip of his nose as he stamped and signed two sheets of papers. “It will be a rotten sore to the reputation of this school to keep her,” he added as he pushed the papers towards Dikongue.
“Muto Confidence Dikongue is from today advised to withdraw from this institution.”
Dikongue raised his head. “Thank you, Mr. Principal,” he muttered, collected the papers and staggered out of the office while I ran ahead to open the car door for him.
“What about…” I began asking about Muto but revised my thoughts quickly.
“My God, Muto too has become a public urinal like the others. At what age?” he hissed as we drove out of the school gate. “My confidence! My only hope. I feel so empty, so frightened to realise that all my effort in this life are wasted. Even this last one, the one I thought I would groom into my friend, my collaborator, my love, to become a confident and successful woman, has eroded my last pillar of happiness and self-esteem. How it aches! It is as though my family is cursed!”
Then he began to sob. I drove off the main road to an empty street plagued with potholes and stopped the car. The rain was now falling hard outside. One could see people on motorbikes drooping their heads and squinting from the assaulting downpour while struggling to find their way around the numerous potholes.
From the rear-view mirror, I watched the Finance Controller of the National Fund for Urban Development crying and blowing his nose in his immaculate white shirt. I didn’t try to console him – I couldn’t.
“You see, Eyobo,” he said with a hint of a smile after a long while. “You are a young and ambitious man but I must tell you something: in this life there is a price for everything. Before getting into politics and becoming what I regrettably am today, I was a young contractor. In 1974 I was called to do some work in a boarding college in Buea. It was there that I met Tiki, a seventeen-year-old Lower Sixth student. With the assistance of her dormitory captain and one of the college security men who was my friend, we were able to see each other at least twice a week. When our secret business finally became public – when Tiki became pregnant, carrying that gangster who is now in jail – her parents were mad with rage. Her mother said all the terrible things she could think of in this life. She called me a crooked and wretched adventurer and vowed never to step her feet through my door. And she kept her word till this day.
“When the principal broke the news a while ago, I saw Tiki in my mind’s eye climbing over the high school fence unafraid of the pieces of broken bottles sticking out at the top. I saw her hiding behind the catechist’s house to change from her school uniform into a silver mini-gown. I saw her smuggling herself into my room with a black shawl worn over her head to avoid being recognised by anyone who might be watching. And it dawned on me that it was a similar game that our children were playing on us, each in their different ways…”
I soon lost interest in what he was saying. There was a woman on a motor-taxi right ahead of us, pointing at the car and talking seriously to the rider. The motorbike stopped and the woman alighted, paid and trudged across to the car. She carried her wrapper above her knees to keep it from soaking in the puddles.
“It’s your mother-in-law!” I announced and opened the door on other side. She hesitated for a while before hopping in.
There was a long silence in the car during which my boss cleaned his eyes and tried to look normal.
“I knew from the start how your end will look like,” the woman said in our dialect “I had sworn never to partake in your filthy money but here I am sitting in your one-hundred-million car. It is because of the heart of a mother and because I have no power to stop your fall that I am running under this rain looking for you. If you have any sense left in your rusty mind then leave this car and run away. Your manager and three other people in your office have just been arrested and taken to Yaoundé. The fishers-of-thieves have cast their net around your house waiting for you. I just came to warn you.” She began to get out of the car and then stopped. “Do you remember what I told you over seven years ago when you people ate the money intended for the rehabilitation of this same road?”
I saw Dikongue swallow nervously and stare out of the window with half-closed eyes.
“Once you make money the master, your life is lost. Dikongue, your life is lost. It’s unfortunate but I must say that I wish the authorities will have the courage and willpower to carry this process to an end – to fish out all the national thieves like you and put them over a hot fire that would drain away all what they have stolen from the common man. It is very sad to see how some of you will end your lives after wasting all your years of youth amassing all this wealth with the hope of leading a happy life. Just have a look at yourself, Honourable Contractor and Finance Director. How happy are you today, my son?” with this question she opened the door and got out, folded her wrapper again between her thighs and hailed another motor-bike to her tattered plank house at the end of this street.
“Whenever I think of my in-laws I feel a chilling sense of insecurity and lack of fulfillment.” Dikongue said as we watched her go.
“Sir, what have you ever done to try to gain her friendship?” I asked.
“Young man, there is nothing I can do to change that woman’s mind. From when I manipulated Tiki into giving me her school fees to buy some tools for a project, this woman had detested me. She called me a poor adventurer. Because of her attitude and the love I had for my wife, I vowed to become a millionaire – by all cost – thinking that by becoming rich I will automatically win their admiration and respect. But I was wrong. Today the name has changed to a social leech. Now that I think of it, I see that you are all right. I am rich but at the expense of the wellbeing of the community I was meant to serve. But you see, Eyobo, it is like the devil’s gala; once you get in there and claim that your feet are too delicate to dance to the tune of that ancient band, you either lose those feet or dance yourself to death. I refused losing my feet, so here I am!”
While he said these words I thought of how firmly I have been caught in the spell of that dance of the devil. I remembered all those days when I had to chauffeur Muto and her boyfriends to and from Strikers, a cheap brothel in Bonaberi. I couldn’t report her to her father for fear of losing my job and equally losing the fat tips she gave me for the service. I too in my own way have subjected myself to a perpetual bond of slavery. What would happen to my job, my life, and my family if Muto decided to sell me out?
“What should we do now?” I asked. “She said the police are looking for you.”
“It is all over, Eyobo. I won’t fight back. There is nothing left to fight for. I can’t live in hiding. Maybe I will find some peace wherever they will take me to. Drive me to my house. I have nothing more to lose.”