By Isaac Attah Ogezi (Nigeria)
The bank was filled to capacity as if it was payday for government workers who used to collect their salaries through the bank. It was double queue for only one counter. The other Paying-Out counter was empty which made us understand that the bank had no money. I don't need to tell you that the two Receiving counters were empty. Only a mad man will see a house on fire and run inside to pick his underwear. Every customer on the queue was praying that the money would not finish before it reached his or her turn or that there should be no order from above to stop payment until further notice. The bank people too were not happy and you could see it on their faces. After all, if everybody withdrew his or her money, and the bank closed down, where would they be? Even a small child in the kindergarten knows that unemployment has shot to sky-high proportions in our country. I was among those praying but unlike the other people, I was praying in the language the devil would never understand. I was praying in tongues! Our pastor told us that the devil cometh not but to steal, kill and destroy and the only way we can scatter his head is to pray in the Holy Ghost, the language of heaven. Parima ha, ha. Ribo soto . I began to tongue it. The devil is not my age-mate. He is a bloody liar from the bottomless pit of hell. It shall not be my portion in Jesus' name. Not with less than one year to gain my 'freedom' from my master. Maliki peremasho lehinma kela!
It all happened last Saturday when I returned home from the market very tired because that day the sales was high. It was as if everybody wanted okirika clothes that day. Not that I blame them. Not at all. Since this civilian government came into power, prices of things are beyond the reach of the poor suffering masses and the only things they can afford to buy are second-hand or even third-hand goods. I was resting in the parlour when my friend, Ekene, came in. Ekene is my real pal and when I say pal, I mean it. He is an apprentice too like myself to Chief Eddy Okechukwu, a dealer in motor spare parts. Immediately, I set eyes on my friend, I knew all was not well. For Ekene has this kind of gloomy face that I call fire-on-the-mountain face that immediately you see it, you know that 'ground no level'. He called me outside so that my master and his family would not hear us.
'You never hear de thin' whey I de hear so?' he asked forebodingly.
'Not until you tell me, Ekene,' I replied.
'Hmm,' he sighed an ominous sigh. 'People de talk say our bank wan' go bankrupt,' he finally dropped the bombshell.
'What! Ekene, what are you yarning about? You mean Sub-Sahara Bank of the East of all banks?' I asked at the same time, visibly alarmed.
'Yes, dem say de big people for headquarter carry money borrow politicians whey no fit pay dem back. Even self de Oga Patapata for de bank dey for prison now. Gofment done arrest am ...'
'Jesus Christ of Nazareth!' I heard myself exclaim. No, this cannot happen to me. The Bible says that the expectation of the righteous shall not be cut off. Not after all these years. Baba God, you say a thousand shall fall by our side and ten thousand by our right hand side and nothing shall happen to us. Even if we trample upon snakes and scorpions, nothing shall by any means hurt us. The riches of the Gentiles shall be our portion.
'Smart!' called Ekene with great fear. This jolted me back to the present from the spiritual trance I was falling into. I'm Smart to all my friends because of my smart, lawyerly way of behaving. Before I dropped out from the secondary school, I was in my third year and was dreaming of becoming a barrister. Unfortunately, that dream was cut short because my father died suddenly in a car accident when I was fifteen years old, and none of my uncles were ready to sponsor my education. That was my story how I came to be an apprentice to Mazi Ugo. Anyway, my real name is Obasi Ndubisi.
'Sorry, Ekene. I was just cogitating,' I said with a big air of condescending. Our people like big grammar, and if you know how to blow it, they would surely love and respect you. I saw it in his eyes.
'Wetin we go do now?' he asked, worried.
He deserved to be worried, so was I. Not after all these years, God. Both of us had devised a smart way of making clean money from the profits of our sales that our masters did not know. Our masters have both fixed the prices for each goods in our different shops. Anytime we sell above the fixed prices, the extra money is our profit. We don't normally reflect it in our record books other than the fixed amounts. We have been doing that for more than five years now with each of us with not less than five hundred thousand naira in our bank accounts. The thing has even become a sort of competition between us to see who will beat the other one 'hands down'. And now they said the bank we put all our monies was going to close down with our sweat, with our hard-earned monies. No, Baba God! Let this cup pass away from me.
That Saturday I couldn't sleep even one wink. I kept rolling on the bed till the daybreak. I made that problem my first prayer point in the church on Sunday. I tongued it so that the devil would not understand me. The first thing I did on Monday morning when I opened shop, was to rush to the bank. Thank God my oga was not in town. He travelled to Onitsha on Sunday morning.
'Obasi Ndubisi!' I heard the lady cashier call my name.
'I'm here, ma!' I answered at the top of my voice.
At long last it was my turn to be paid. I was so happy with myself that for the first time I looked through the counter-hole at the lady who was paying us. Wonderful! I licked my lips like a dog that has seen sumptuous food and its mouth begins to salivate. To God who made me, I have never seen a woman as beautiful as this one since my mother bore me. She covered herself so nicely with a veil like a Muslim woman but I knew she was not Muslim. The eyes were so bewitching as if she charmed me. Her skin was so yellow as if she was oyinbo girl from Pakistan or one of these Arab countries. This bank people are so wise. They know how to advertise their banks and draw customers by force. This girl should be around thirty-four years old or more but because of her great beauty, she could masquerade as a twenty-five-year-old lady if not less. She may be my senior with about seven years' gap but I must confess, I would not mind to marry her. Yes, I would be happy to take her as my lawfully wedded wife! Her nose may not be pointed but it fit the mouth pkem in a kissable manner. But her greatest asset apart from her fine face are her spellbinding eyes. I was feeling like a teenager having a wet dream, with my wetin-call ...
'Go and put today's date,' she said, pushing my passbook and the withdrawal form to me. I suddenly descended back to the earth from the paradise of my dream. She beckoned the other customers behind me to come forward. If I tell you that I was not alarmed, I will be lying from the bottomless pit of hell. I was simply flabbergasted! What if the money finished before I put today's date or the order from above to stop further payment until further notice. I quickly put the date and went back to the queue, after the last person she paid because the rest of the customers on the line knew my problem and that I was before them. She regarded my withdrawal form calmly like an implacable goddess that she is and suddenly she pushed it back to me again.
'Go and write your address at the back of the withdrawal slip,' she said and turned to attend to other customers on the queue. Already my heart was in my mouth and was it beating loudly like funeral drums.
I rushed to one side of the counter and wrote my address quickly at the back of the withdrawal form. I noticed my hands were shaking so badly. I was so tense. Immediately I finished, I joined the line after the last person she had paid. She pursed her sexy lips as she went through my withdrawal form gradually and suddenly she pushed it back to me again. To God who made me, this girl wanted something from me and I swear to God, she must have it.
'You've forgotten to sign directly beneath your address at the back of the withdrawal slip. Or is this the first time you are making a withdrawal?' she asked, dismissing me like a recalcitrant pupil in a kindergarten class.
I rushed back again to sign my signature. I don't know who told her this but she was right when she asked if it was my first time of withdrawing money from my account. True to God, this girl had provoked me in no small way. No girl ever troubled me like this and went, scot-free.
Let me see how she will reject this one again, I told myself as I joined the line again and gave her my passbook and the withdrawal form again. She paused and I could see her mischievous mind working seriously to spot a mistake. What wouldn't I do with this ferocious lioness … I quickly checked my mind from working in an evil direction. I would tame her ... No, God. Not again.
Suddenly, she pushed them back to me again.
'Go and sign your signature twice!'
That was the last straw and I went mad. I must deal with this too-know girl. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I controlled my temper and complied and was eventually paid by her. Immediately my money entered my hands, I forgot all about my trouble for the day like a pregnant woman who has given birth after nine months of endless pains and spitting. I smiled at her as if to say: 'You are beautiful, baby', and took off to look for where I would keep this big sum of money.
Before I slept that night, I replayed all my activities that day like a flashback in a film. The drama in the bank, how I was able to open another account at another bank opposite it, how I made more profits from the sales of my master's goods in the shop but the picture of this girl at the bank kept disturbing me like a ghost. It simply refused to leave me. Sleep became a problem for me this night. Everywhere I turned on the bed, I saw her picture smiling at me. Now, I don't want you to make the mistake about me to think that I am a virgin and inexperienced and all that nonsense. No, I have passed that stage of my life but the way this girl affected me this night, it was like when I was still thirteen years old and love was sharking me crazy like ogogoro or kaikai. Before I gave my life to Christ, baptized and received the gift of the Holy Ghost with evidence of speaking in tongues, I belonged to this gang of apprentices who always stormed all the brothels in town in the night. In fact, it was a prostitute who 'disvirgined' me. I can still remember that little timid boy who went inside the dark, crummy room of sin. The harlot, an old woman in her late forties, understood that I was a first-timer and was so kind and understanding and showed me where to hang my pant and trousers on a nail hit to the wall. When she saw me shivering like a fowl after a heavy rain, she patted me calmly like a mother and said: 'Take am easy, ol' boy' and began to work on me. On two or three occasions, her left hand guided me from slipping. After she had given me the works, I thanked her, paid her her money and wore my clothes. I went in as a boy but came out a full-grown man. A Samson, exposed to the secrets all great men of this world have tested, dead or living. After her, I tried many other harlots in town until Christ appeared to me like Saul on his way to Damascus and I became born-again. I told myself that any girl I wanted to sleep with again, must be the one I wanted to marry. Do I want to marry this girl at the bank? Honestly, I sdon't know yet but I know I love her so much. Before sleep overtook me that night, I made up my mind that I must see her again in the bank the next day.
The following day, before the day fully broke, I was in the market on time to open shop because of the big assignment ahead. I couldn't just wait to go and see this girl at the bank. After I opened the shop, I begged one of my neighbour apprentices, Chinedu, to look after it for me and that I would not stay long in where I was going. I took okada straight to the bank. When I entered the bank, the whole place was empty except the bank workers waiting for retrenchment and the police security. From where she was sitting behind the glass counter, our eyes 'jammed one-time.' I walked boldly to her counter, brought out my jotter from my pocket self-importantly and tore one page. I quickly wrote the following short note for her:
Hello, fair angel,
How are you? I hope fine. If so, doxology be to God. Would it please your Majesty if I spoke to you for a moment? I am impressed by your dexterity at the computer. I would be grateful if you would teach me how to operate it. Do you mind to tell me your beautiful name and your residential address of where you live for coaching lessons? Thanks a million and God bless.
I put my signature with a flourish and gave her. The sentences about 'doxology be to God,' 'Would it please your Majesty …' and so on and so forth were not my own. I learnt it by heart from books such as How to Speak to a Girl About Marriage, How to Win a Girl's Heart, Winning the Game of Love, How to Solve the Problem of the Weaker Sex and so many others by some authors from Onitsha. They claim that the books have sold millions of copies world-wide and have produced many happily married couples. Anyway, she collected my short note without looking at me. She read it calmly and scribbled a line on it and handed it back to me. Before I could read it, she vamoosed into the inner banking hall. Directly under my note, she wrote in a corner in her scrawling female handwriting: 'I am married.'
I laughed victoriously to myself as I rushed outside the bank with my trophy as if I had won her love already or a lottery, though I don't normally try that kind of nonsense called lottery. I was so happy that she was still single and available to me. I arrived at this smart conclusion by putting two and two together to arrive at four. Because no serious married woman will openly and immediately tell you that she is married. What this girl is trying to do is to test my seriousness for her. She is no longer young again and may not have time for any hot-headed, hot-blooded, hit-and-run youngster like me. Married? I laughed again as I remembered what happened to one of my friends during the days when I used to visit prostitutes along with my friends.
One of our tough friends, Mahoney alias Ladies' Spanner, told us how he nearly put himself in trouble in the name of 'chasing'. He said he saw this beautiful chick one beautiful day and toasted her. This lady said no problem and gave him her address of where she was living. One night, our friend decided to go and visit her. The address she gave him was one big flat with mighty gates and dogs. This did not scare our friend who thought maybe the lady was one lonely rich woman staying all alone. After the bell was pressed outside, the lady opened the gates with giant police dogs barking and baring their teeth dangerously at our friend. She hushed the dogs and ushered our friend in. Our friend said he saw one huge man in white singlet and short knickers in the parlour, watching television with two little children. The man welcomed him warmly and asked him to sit down in one of the big cushioned chairs. The way he narrated it, I always feel as if I was there. I can imagine the huge man tell our friend to feel at home.
'Desire, do get him something to drink,' said the man to the lady.
Our friend was all so tense. What is happening? The lady brought him cold Maltina in a tray and a glass cup and set it on a stool before our friend. She smiled at him reassuringly and asked him how was work in the market today. Our friend said, fine, no problem.
'Oh dear me!' exclaimed the woman suddenly as if she had just remembered something. 'Come to think of it, I've not even introduced our august visitor to you, dear.' A pause. 'Honey, meet my friend, Mahoney. Mahoney, meet Nick, my dearly beloved husband.'
'How do you do, Mahoney?' asked her husband with great interest in the visitor of his wife. 'It's a pleasure meeting you. My wife has been telling me so much about you ….'
Our friend said he did not hear the rest of what the husband was saying to him nor did he know how he managed to escape from the house, only God knows. It was like a nightmare he was having with inhuman voices all over the place. He wished the ground would open up and swallow him. No way. As if that was not enough, one of the little children went up to the lady and rested its head on her lap, saying: 'Mummy, I wan' go sleep!'
We laughed ourselves crazy that day. Some said good for him since he said he was too tough and nothing in skirt would ever pass him by. That is my idea of a married woman and not this fine lady at the bank. A woman who will not fling it point-blank at your face that she is married. I was so sure that this lady at the bank was not married that I made up my mind that I must find where she was living, come rain, come shine.
I saw the finger of God clearly in the whole matter like the way Daniel saw the handwriting on the wall. If not so, how would one explain my luck three days later when I stumbled over her place? It was the Lord's doing, and it was marvellous in His own eyes; His wonders to ponder. I cannot remember what took me to that compound located about one hundred and fifty metres behind my master's house with so many unplanned houses in-between. But I can remember there was one girl I used to know there. Her name was Agnes and she always greeted me with so much respect as if I was her boyfriend. On that special day, as I was passing by their house, she greeted me and I stopped to exchange some pleasantries with her. Suddenly, I saw it and my heart skipped a beat. It was the sticker of the Sub-Sahara Bank of the East on the outside wall of the building. Agnes saw my sharp reaction and asked me what the matter was. It was then that I asked her if any member of staff of the bank was living in their compound. She said yes and showed me one-bedroom apartment in the compound belonging to a lady staff of the bank. Could it be that lady at the bank or somebody else? But I didn't want Agnes to know what was going on in my mind, so I thanked her and left.
In the evening after I had closed for the day in the market, I was at Agnes' compound to see the lady staff of the bank. If she was not the one, at least she could help me know where the lady I was besotted with in the bank was living. Luckily enough, when I knocked, somebody was in and I was ushered inside the well-furnished parlour by a housegirl. On one of the cushioned chairs, a fat, jovial woman of about forty years old was resting, watching a film on the television. She would have be beautiful if not for those ugly and wicked eczema and pimples that had invaded her face like bloody rebels in a banana republic.
'Yes, what may I do for you?' she asked.
I told her my name and that I was a customer of her bank. This information attracted her attention immediately. After a long lecture on what was currently happening to the bank from her, I asked her if she knew one lady at the Paying-Out counter.
'There are two ladies at the counter in question. Which of them?'
'The yellow, slim and very beautiful one.'
'Oh, oh, oh. That should be Betty,' she said with an amused glitter in her eyes. 'What about her?'
'Uhm … I …' I stammered miserably.
'You like her, uh?' she said rather conspiratorially.
'Something like that, ma,' I answered softly.
'Love in Kazobia!' she laughed, recalling the title of one Nollywood film. After a long silence, I asked her quietly where Betty lived.
'Here of course!'
'What?' I exclaimed.
'Yes, she does live here … In this compound.'
'Here?' I couldn't hide my surprise.
'Yes. Her house is opposite mine, as you go down a little. I don't think she's at home right now but you can check her maybe later or tomorrow if possible.'
Wonder of wonders! You can imagine my biggest surprise. After several years of living in this area, I didn't know that one beautiful lady by name Betty lived here until that day. But I didn't want to check her without giving her notice. Again experience had taught me not to ever check on an unmarried lady without fixing an appointment with her. So I thanked the eczema-and-pimples-faced woman and begged her to tell Betty that I would be coming to see her tomorrow around 7 p.m. after service in the church in the evening and I took my leave.
I was so happy with myself, with my life when I got home that evening. At long last, I had found this lady's place and I didn't have to rack my brains any longer. Come tomorrow, I would know my fate with her. I would ask for her love and she would say rather shyly: 'Yes, I love you too, Smart.' And we would spend the rest of our lives together as husband and wife. We would both swear the wedding oath – for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in good health or in sickness. What God has joined together, no man should put asunder! Man, I was so happy with my achievement this evening that when I was about to sleep, I brought out my books: How to Speak to a Girl About Marriage, How to Win a Girl's Heart, Winning the Game of Love, How to Solve the Problem of the Weaker Sex, and so many others by highly intelligent Onitsha authors. I needed to prepare big for this lady if I must win her heart. A first-class girl like her deserved a first-class approach and not like any average other girl that an agbero in motor-park can approach. I read far into the night until I surrendered to the soft, caressing fingers of sleep.
Before I left for church the next day morning, I took my time to press the clothes I would be wearing later to go to Betty's place. I'm afraid to confess this because I don't want to be misunderstood by those who do not know me very well from Adam. When I woke up this morning, I was suddenly afraid. Had I wet my bed at my age? I quickly felt my pant and to my greatest surprise, discovered this sticky substance like liquid gum. Oh my God, not again. The last time I saw this was when I was twelve years old when my aunty used to undress in my presence. Anyway, that was a long story.
When I came back from church in the evening, I went and had my second bath, towelled myself very well. I put on my black trousers, white long-sleeved shirt with a waist-coat popularly called Monkey Jacket on top and rounded it up with a black bow-tie. I put on my best black shoes and I sprayed expensive perfume on myself. I must not disappoint Betty like one bush boy from Atakpa village. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was satisfied. Even a bank manager couldn't dress more corporate than this. This girl couldn't afford to say no to me. My evil mind could imagine spending several beautiful nights in her place anytime my oga travelled out of town. I had taken life too seriously for many years now that I didn't mind to be treated to a nice bout of sex by this experienced lady. Yes, I wanted to be spoiled a little by a mature and experienced lady like this girl. I wanted her to kill me with pleasure.
I left to go and see her. You can trust these PHCN people; there was total blackout this night. The night was so dark as coal-tar or the bottom of a local pot as if it was around twelve mid-night. Maybe as our Geography teacher used to say, we were experiencing longer nights and shorter days. Also, I liked the idea of going to see her when it was so dark. It gives one more privacy. Darkness can be so romantic especially if you use candlelight. She and I would be seated around a table with a burning candle and a tray of cold drinks in-between us as if we were the only human beings on earth. Who knows, she might decide to submit to me this night if I played my cards very well.
I reached her house some minutes past seven. At the long, dark corridor, some young girls including Agnes were discussing. They greeted me and I answered. I asked Agnes if Betty was around and she said yes in a secretive way I didn't understand. Why this sudden mystery? Or was she jealous to see me go to another girl? Anyway, that was her own business. I noticed there were no lights from the room of Betty's kind colleague at the bank. I went up to the side of Betty's apartment at the end of the corridor and knocked. Silence. There was no sign of life or movements. Everywhere was dark as if she was not at home. And Agnes who was her neighbour told me she was at home. What could be wrong with her? Could she have slept off around this time after a hectic day? The whole thing was so confusing. I knocked again. No answer. What should I do? I then decided to wait for her. I saw a long bench opposite the door to her apartment and I went and sat down on it, waiting. I like to see anything I begin right to the very end. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof, says the good Book. From where Agnes was with her friend, she saw that I was having problem and came up to me.
'Haven't you seen her yet?' she asked with great concern.
'No. Are you sure she is in at all?' I asked doubtfully.
'Yes. I saw her when she entered this evening. Let me see.' She went up to the door and knocked several times. It was so dark that I couldn't see the person who opened the door but the door opened a little and Agnes whispered something with the person inside. The door was shut again as Agnes came up to me.
'She says she is coming,' she said to me.
Agnes left me to go and continue her discussion with her lady friends at the general gates. And I waited.
After about forty-five minutes or more, I saw through the window of Betty's apartment a flame of light as the person inside tried to light a candle. It went off. After two more attempts, the candle was aflame. It was taken to an inner room and the parlour was plunged into total darkness again. There was some minutes of silence as I waited. Fifteen minutes or so went by, no Betty. Soon, the door opened and Betty came out in her see-through sleeping nightgown with a wrapper tied around it up to her breasts, holding tissue paper. If she saw me, she didn't show it. And I waited in silence as she went up to the girls and discussed something I couldn't hear and returned to her room, as if I was not there or she didn't see me. I told myself that I must be man enough to see to the end of this business this night. This is not the time to chicken out like a coward. So, I waited. Thirty minutes later, the door opened again and a man in caftan came out of her room. A man? No, I couldn't believe my eyes. So all this while a man was in her room? I would see something this night. I watched the man head for the gates. He walked past me opposite the door as if I was not there. Or was I invisible like a ghost? A minute later, Betty came out too and followed him. Was this a dream I was dreaming or real life? Anyway, I stood up quickly and followed them too. No, I wouldn't allow Betty and her boyfriend book me just like that. No, I must see to the end of this matter no matter what. She cannot book me like that and go away with her boyfriend. No way!
Outside the gates, as I approached Betty and the man, the man turned angrily at me and turned the torchlight he was holding full-blast on my face like a car's headlights.
'Who are you?' he barked at me, with Betty clutching at his left arm for protection. I could give anything to see her face in this darkness.
'I should be asking you that question. Who are you? Do I look like a criminal to you that you would flash your torchlight on my face or what?' I asked boldly. I noticed he was staggered a little by my confidence as if I had given him a punch on his stomach. My friends don't call me Smart for nothing, you know.
'What do you want?' he asked again, a little subdued.
'I came to see Betty, if you don't mind. You see, I'm a peace-loving citizen of this country who believes in the ideology of live and let's live. Can I see her now?'
'Now look, Mr. Man, if you love yourself, I advise you to quietly go away from here before any harm comes to you,' he warned.
'Come off it, my guy. Chill! I just want to see the baby and nothing more. This is not something that you must get hot by the collar like a stark illiterate,' I stabbed.
And that was where I had made the greatest mistake. For suddenly, Betty sprang up like a wounded lioness to the defence of her man. She was shouting at the top of her voice, struggling to come and fight me! Man, I had never seen this kind of thing since my mother gave birth to me. This created a lot of scene and in a few seconds, many people gathered to know the cause of the uproar. The girls in the compound including Agnes, passersby, neighbours from different compounds, and all-whatnots came to see what was amiss.
'Leave me. Oh, I say leave me! Let me deal with this stupid boy. He abused my husband,' screamed Betty at the top of her voice, struggling against strong hands to come and fight me. God, I had never seen this kind of thing before. It was like a terrible nightmare that I would want to wake up from it and laugh it off. But Betty was not done yet.
'He has been disturbing me. I told him that I don't love him. I'm already a married woman but he wouldn't leave me alone. Is it because I am a woman?' she asked her listeners weepingly. 'So when I couldn't face this alone, I decided to call my husband to come and witness this with me. Immediately he saw my husband, he began to rain abuses on him. Called my husband an illiterate man,' she said in a sympathetic voice of a defenceless woman being oppressed by a man. I nearly fell for her tricks, the Jezebel!
'It seems the two of you don't trust each other,' I managed to hit back at her. 'You don't have to make a fool of yourself to prove that you love that coward'.
This stung her very well and she went mad, struggling for them to leave her to come and fight with me.
'O-o-oh, leave me! I say leave me. Didn't you people hear what he said to me?' she struggled with the kind passersby who were holding her. 'It's either me or him today. He must kill me today!'
'Young man, what are you still doing here? I mean what is wrong with you yourself? Don't you see that the poor lady will not stop this until you go away?' pleaded an old man. I was touched by his advice and came to my senses. I looked around and I was surprised to see the number of people who had gathered, some with torches, some with bush lamps, and others empty-handed. If I stayed here any longer, somebody would surely recognize me and the news would get to my master. That one was 'sure-banker.' Before I left I had overheard some young men saying that the man Betty called her husband was the boyfriend who was always fucking her to nonsense in the name of going to marry her. No wonder, she always wanted to appear like a Muslim lady because the boyfriend was Muslim and wanted to convert her. I couldn't stay to hear more of these painful remarks and went away angrily.
On my way home, I pondered over this incident. How would a very beautiful lady like Betty behave the way she did? No, I said to myself. Something must be wrong with her. Her behaviour was not ordinary. Something invisible was pushing her to behave the way she was behaving. Yes, I had got it! She was simply under a very potent spell the type they call love-potion. Yes, the wicked man must have charmed her to marry her and not because of his money and not to even say he was handsome like me. Imagine such a beautiful lady behaving so foolishly if not for his charm? Love medicine very wicked men always do to proud ladies so that they will begin to follow them blindly like sheep. She might do me anything she liked but I would not care. God was using me to save her from herself. You must be ready to take all sorts of insults to save some people from themselves. After their salvation, some may come back to love you back for saving them like the one leper out of ten lepers that came back to thank our Lord Jesus. If this man married her now, he would suck her beauty through and through like an orange and throw her away after marrying three other wives, that is if he didn't give her triple divorce when her beauty must have faded away, when her breasts had become flabby like worn-out, tired slippers like many foolish, greedy, long-throat women. But I must save this one from such ugly fate, come rain, come shine. I didn't even mind to marry her just to save her from herself. And she would be the only wife I would ever marry, the one and only love of my life. One day she would be grateful to me. We would laugh it over and tell our children the drama their father had to go through to marry their mother! But how could I go about achieving this big dream? Suddenly, my thought went to Comrade Aluta. Yes, only Comrade Aluta could be able to bail me out of this gargantuan hullaballoo. I would go and meet him tomorrow evening after work. This immediately gave me so much joy that I put all the incident of this night behind my back.
Comrade Aluta had made his name in our compound before I met him. He came to our compound as a corps member on NYSC service, teaching English in one of the secondary schools in town. Within one week alone, he became the most popular young man in our compound. The first thing that strikes you about Comrade Aluta when you see him is his rough appearance like a reggae exponent. Ragamuffin. But instead of dreadlocks, his face is so unkempt with long hair and beard like John, the Baptist in the Bible, when he first came out of the wilderness. And if you want to look for his trouble, do something that will make him talk and he will finish you with grandiloquent grammar that you cannot find even in the dictionary. Some people think that he is taking 'wee-wee', marijuana, in secret and that is why he is talking the way he is doing. But what surprises us most is the number of young, young female corps members and university girls that keep trooping to his one room like a professor. When they come, they will spend several hours in his single room doing only what God knows. Needless to say, I became curious about Comrade Aluta and always looked for an opportunity to be his friend. That opportunity came one day when I saw him drawing water from the public well in the compound. I quickly rushed to assist him but he refused. After much struggling, he reluctantly gave in and I fetched the water for him and carried it to his place. He invited me to his room and I entered. His room is as disorganized as his appearance. Apart from one big mattress on the ground in one corner, everywhere is so scattered anyhow with books and sheaves of papers.
'Do sit down and get yourself acclimatized to my humble haven,' he offered, waving me to sit on the bed. I obeyed. There was silence.
'What are you called?' he asked, with his red eyes boring into me. I told him my name.
'I see. I'm afraid you came when I don't have anything to offer you,' he apologized. I said no problem. I understand.
'Have you seen any of my collections?' he asked suddenly.
'No. My collections of poetry,' he answered.
'You write?' I couldn't hide my excitement. So Comrade Aluta is a writer? No wonder.
'Yes, I'm a poet. An unpublished poet foraging in the dustbin of history,' he answered very proudly. 'In a country where everything is topsy-turvy, where the moon walks on its head like ours, the only way to maintain sanity in this season of anomie is in the world of the creative imagination. The realm of the phantasmagoria. The surreal world where the self is sublimated.' He rattled on. I didn't understand most of what he said but his words enchanted me like the mumbo-jumbo of the herbalist in our remote village in the East. He picked one piece of paper very proudly from one of the bulky sheaves of papers and asked if I had read it before. I said no.
'Look at this poem. I say look at it,' he said excitedly. 'Even Professor Wole Soyinka, a whole Nobel Laureate, cannot write this,' he boasted. I had never read anything by the writer he called but I had seen many pictures of him with the white beard and long hair like Moses in the Bible on newspapers during the late General Sani Abacha's time.
'Let me read it for you,' he offered generously. 'It's a love poem, you know,' he added. I listened quietly as he read, with his eyes shut in ecstasy. I was fascinated too by the way he recited it. Every now and then, he slapped and scratched himself because of the swarm of mosquitoes in the room. When he finished, he handed the paper to me. The poem goes as follows:
Bereft of his sight
Enigma among the gods
Take away your bow and arrows
Try them on the feeble
Your help I so much despise.
Is that your vengeance?
Speak, ye heartless child-god
Am I a teenage schoolboy first in love?
Am I a victim of your painful arrow?
Come, oh please come
Help me out of my quandary.
I finished reading the poem but I didn't understand anything, though I liked areas that talked about 'bow and arrows' and the 'teenage schoolboy first in love' as if it was myself. I told him I enjoyed the poem so much and his face broke into ripples of smile.
'Even Professor Wole So …Soyinka-a ...' he started saying but slapped himself again with pain.
'Mosquitoes?' I asked with concern.
'Yes, the bloody blood-suckers!' he cursed. 'The heartless capitalists!'
'Why not use Mossequine?' I suggested timidly a popular brand of insecticide good for mosquitoes.
'Not on your life!' he exclaimed. 'I'd rather die of cerebral malaria than indulge in such bourgeois excesses like using such expensive insecticide in a world ravaged by so much poverty, HIV/AIDS, diseases and starvation,' he said heatedly, with his nostrils flaring. I kept quite. The next day when I came back from the market in the evening, I brought him a dozen of small, small bottles of Otapiapia that cost twenty naira each and he thanked me profusely. Since then I had become his friend and each week I used the excuse of Otapiapia to gain entrance to his humble haven as he called it for more poems and general knowledge from him. I discovered that he was not mad as some few people said.
The next evening after my narrow escape from Betty and her foolish, ugly boyfriend in the night, I went straight to Comrade Aluta after I arrived home from market. He listened quietly without interruption as I narrated my story and suddenly burst into laughter when I had finished. I had never seen him laugh like this before. He laughed and laughed until tears were streaming down his red eyes.
'Oh my, how costly is the price of ignorance!' he lamented.
I kept quiet. I was hurt by his laughter but I didn't say it. Suddenly, he stopped laughing when he noticed I was not happy.
'I'm sorry, Smart, if you were hurt by my laughter. Oh my, I couldn't help laughing, you know. This incident is really funny. Come to think of it, it could make a good plot for a short story. Unfortunately, I don't write short stories. No, I cannot cheapen my talents by writing prose-fiction. Novelists and short story writers are failed poets, you know,' he concluded. 'Let me see.' He lapsed into silence, with his face creased in deep thought.
'Women are such funny and selfish animals I have ever known. Smart girl, she has obviously used you to score a cheap point in her boyfriend's heart. Played successfully to the gallery, to use a cliché,' he said. 'Take my word for it, she's right now being fussily loved by her boyfriend who foresees a likely rival in you.' Silence.
'What do you advise me to do, Comrade?' I asked, breaking the silence. 'I still love her.'
'Well, forget the foolish girl. She's not worth the trouble. She may well be anatomically developed but deep down her is the heart of an infant,' he counselled with the authority of a connoisseur who knows women in-toto.
'I want you to help me write her a letter,' I requested after a pause.
'Write you what?' he asked, shocked. I said a letter and he burst into laughter again, highly amused.
'Oh my, aren't you funny, Smart? Imagine writing a love-letter to a girl in this twenty-first century! I mean don't you have her cell phone number or something?'
'Oh-oh, that's rather unfortunate. I'd have helped you. It's not good to write letters to girls when talking can serve the same purpose. It is old-fashioned, archaic, anachronistic, outmoded and outlandish. Uhm … In any case, let me see.' He paused for a minute or so and suddenly said: 'I'll write the letter for you, Smart.'
I was overjoyed. I jumped up excitedly and grabbed his hands with my two hands, thanking him obsequiously. I told him to greet her very well for me and he nodded as he pulled out a sheet of paper and began to write swiftly. After about fifteen minutes, he was through.
'There you are, Smart. This should be able to win you that girl,' he said confidently and handed me the letter. I collected it. It goes like this:
I write to protest most vehemently the shabby treatment meted out to me by you last Sunday night. I couldn't imagine that you could do that to me especially when one comes to think of how much I love you. My love for you transcends the ephemeral lust whose ultimate destination is sexual gratification on the bed of carnality. How dare I come in-between you and any man that you truly love? Heaven forbid that I should ever stoop that low.
However, I want you to pause and take a hard, unflinching look at the man you call your husband or do I say fiancé? How preposterous to say the least! As a matter of fact, it's too difficult to conceptualize. Don't you see any other man in the entire universe that you have to condescend for a nonentity like that man? A ne'er-do-well who is not man enough for a quality lady like you. A stark illiterate man who doesn't even trust you. What's more, he doesn't share the same faith with you. Is he worth the trouble of you converting to his faith? I say an emphatic NO! Wake up, my dearest, before it is too late. Use your pretty head for once instead of using your thighs to think while the head perches as mere decoration!
A word is enough for the wise, as the saying goes. I urge you in the name of love to give this piece of advice a hard thought before you make the greatest mistake of your life by marrying that ignoramus. I feel compelled to sound you this note of warning because of the great love I bear for you, for no love has a man for a woman like the one I bear for you, my fair angel. I think of you every minute of my life. I wish you would leave your parents, siblings, friends and everything and come away with me to the end of the world where Romeo and Juliet lie, waiting for us. Sweet dreams.
When I finished reading the letter, I shook my head vigorously and told him that the lady would not like it at all especially with the way she was crazy for that man.
'Does she have to like it in the first place? Wake up, man! No man ever wins a girl's heart when he makes himself too cheap for her,' he argued. There was a pause.
'I don't like that part about her thinking with her thighs instead of her head,' I complained lamely.
'And I don't want her to like it either,' he said, stabbing the air with his hand. 'I want her to really get provoked. For girls like her are easier won when attacked than fussed all over. It's better to attack than to defend in war and love. In war and love, there's nothing like unfairness,' he concluded.
At long last, he convinced me and I copied the letter in my handwriting carefully not to make any mistakes. I thanked him profusely and left for my master's house.
I didn't stay at the shop for more than thirty minutes when I went to the market the following day before I rushed to the bank to see her with the letter. Immediately I entered the bank, I saw her at the usual Paying-Out counter but I pretended as if I didn't see her and went straight to the Information Desk where one beautiful, short black girl was sitting. Her beauty didn't come near one-quarter of Betty's own but she was not ugly. I greeted her and she answered me finely.
'Em … I brought this letter for Miss Betty David. Can you please help me give it to her?' I said, showing her the letter.
'But she's around. You can go and give it to her yourself at the third counter,' the lady replied, pointing at the third counter for me.
'I know but I … I don't want to deliver it myself,' I stammered badly. She saw the desperation in my face and mellowed down a little.
'All right, let me have it,' she said. And I quickly gave it to her before she could change her mind. I thanked her and made to go but one small mind was whispering to me to go and greet Betty at the third counter before going. I obeyed straightaway the advice of this inner voice in my heart and marched to her counter. She was there looking so quiet and pitiable with her veil as if regretting what she had done on Sunday or because the bank had some problems and she stood a chance of losing her work.
'Yes, can I help you, sir?' she asked with her sweet banker's voice. I could see that she didn't recognize me immediately.
'I just came to say hello,' I said, staring at her as if I should go and kiss her. Suddenly, she recognized me and her calm expression grimaced, hardened and changed all at the same time as if she had just seen the black devil himself with his scaring horns and tail. She quickly stood up from her seat as if stung by an ant and stormed out of the counter, making the sound kruss- kruss-kruss with her high-heeled shoes. My spirit told me immediately that she was up to one mischief if I didn't 'find my level.' So I took off instantly for my dear life.
I was outside the entrance door, marching very fast when I saw her coming behind my back with one huge man. He looked like a police inspector in mufti. Now the lady was pointing at me frantically saying something rapidly that I couldn't hear. Something like: 'That is the boy running, officer. Stop him! I say arrest him before he escapes!' I then heard the man bark at me with his tough, parade-ground voice:
'Halt, you there!'
I stopped at once like a driver who had applied his brakes rather suddenly and jerkily, breathless, and turned boldly to face him and her. I knew I had not done anything wrong, so why should I run? And again, I was a customer of the bank. As if I sensed there would be trouble, I carried my passbook with me even if the balance was too small. I waited as they walked up to me.
'Ehen, my friend, what's the matter?' asked the man, with Betty standing at his side like a troublesome wife who wants her husband to beat up a man for her. She was waiting for the officer to manhandle me, the bad girl. Even as I looked at her, I felt sexually moved as if I should go and kiss that her fine beautiful mocking mouth by force until she would bleed. When a beautiful girl is as mischievous like this girl, she can be so sweet and excitable at the thing. The type who always cry at it!
'In the first place, what will be the matter between a young beautiful lady like her and a young unmarried man like myself?' I asked the officer. I always speak my best grammar whenever in trouble than anytime. 'I just called to say hello to her because I like her and that was all. I didn't do anything to her.'
'Is that all?' asked the officer, amused and at the same time unbelieving.
'Don't listen to him, Inspector. He's lying!' she interrupted fiercely.
'Let him finish first, Miss Andrew,' growled the officer.
'Yes, that is the only crime that I have committed. That I am in love with her, officer. I don't mind if you will arrest me now because of that. That will not be too much a price for loving her.'
That was enough for the man to burst into laughter suddenly and I could not help adding my little smile. This angered Betty so much when she saw that the tables had turned in my favour. Greatly disappointed that the man she brought to arrest me was now laughing with me, she turned angrily and rushed back to the bank, walking kruss-kruss-kruss like a peacock with her tail on fire. Maybe this time to go and get the whole bank Manager.
'Young man, you may go,' said the officer in-between laughter. 'Honestly I didn't know that that was why she called me, I wouldn't have come. This girl will one day kill all of us in this bank,' and he burst into another round of laughter, greatly amused and impressed by my confidence.
I thanked him and left. In the distance, I saw another man trailing after Betty, both of them rushing outside the bank. Maybe the Manager but I didn't wait for them. They must all be funny in this bank. Imagine! I quickly hailed a passing okada man, climbed it and vamoosed.
It was getting to something like six-thirty in the evening when I returned to the shop from an errand my master sent me. It was now three days since the escapade at the bank. Comrade Aluta still insisted that I should leave this crazy girl alone. When I told him of what happened at the bank when I went to deliver the letter he wrote for me, he burst into laughter like before. He laughed and laughed with tears running down his cheeks. But how could I leave her alone when I wanted to save her from herself? Don't people say that love is one big sacrifice? There is no price that is too much for love. After all, love is blind and is as strong as death and there is nothing you can do that is too much for love. Even the Bible says that love covereth multitudes of sin.
I wanted to go in but my master was still with somebody in the inner shop and it was almost time to close for the day. Suddenly, the door of the inner shop opened and one tall man came out. He looked at me curiously as if to recall the face and went away. His face was familiar but I couldn't remember where I knew him.
'Obasi!' barked my master with anger from the inner shop.
'Yes, sir!' I answered as I ran inside. I could sense trouble in the air. What have I done now? He was sitting in his big swivel chair as I entered. He impatiently waved me to a chair opposite his own. There was thick silence as I sat down.
'Did you know the man who left here a while ago?' he asked. I said no.
'I see. He was here to report you to me,' he had begun, staring straight at me.
'Report me? What for? What have I done?' I asked, looking very shocked and innocent.
'Hm. I see. You will soon know what you did. Take a look at this,' he said and brought out some documents from the drawer and handed them to me. The suspense was too overbearing. Man, it was killing me gently as I broke out in hot sweat.
My hands were trembling badly when I collected them from him and tried to open them. Immediately I opened them, I shook miserably like a man electrocuted by an electric pole. No, God, I couldn't believe my eyes. Oh God, this cannot be true. This must be a bad dream. In my hands was the letter Comrade Aluta wrote for me to gave to Betty which I copied it carefully in my own handwriting. Chei, this lady had finished me. I was sweating like a Christmas goat. I looked up at my master who was staring unblinkingly at me.
'Her husband brought that to me,' he was saying. 'Honestly, I'm surprised at you, Obasi. Imagine not being satisfied with all the young ladies around here that you now have to go after other people's wives too, eh Obasi? Is that supposed to be another form of madness?' he shook his head piteously. 'God Almighty! What a shame! No, I'm really disappointed in you. Imagine such a young man!' He paused then he continued like a father. 'I have always warned you that this is not our village Mbantano. This is a city and the people here are hostile like their beasts. If you cannot control your penis very well, they will cut it off for you. Don't say I didn't warn you. They will kill you like a dog and throw your corpse to the vultures.' He was very worried for me and his big stomach was heaving, truly agitated. 'That is all I want to tell you. You are no longer a small child again. If you say you are going to allow yourself to die such a shameful death, that is your own headache. Very soon you will be on your own to do whatever you like with yourself. You may go. Tufia kwa!' he spat significantly on the floor. 'Carry the meat I sent you to buy to my wife at home.' He said, dismissing me like somebody with terrible body odour.
I left him very ashamed and near to tears. I took the meat I bought in a polythene bag and left the shop. I felt as if I had lost somebody so close to me like the day my father died. I staggered home like a drunkard as if every ground was full of pot-holes. Why would this girl I loved so madly do this to me, eh? Did her boyfriend also tell my master that I had a secret account in her bank? I was completely confused. Oh, my God, this girl has finished me.