I stepped to the front of Alex Creppy house for the second time in the day. The first time was when I had resumed work in the morning. It would have been the third had I come out for lunch; but fate had pulled a trick on me. Earlier that morning, on my way to work, I had seen a woman beating up her son. She had slapped him hard, over and over again like someone trying to force a jammed cassette out of a player.
“Take it easy, madam!” I could not stand the abuse. “You don’t have to beat him that much, haba!” Then the woman told me how the boy had carelessly lost his lesson fee, slapping him with each word she spoke, against my protest. One of the boy’s eyes was already bloodshot, shedding tears that flowed to meet mucus from his nose, making his face look like a plate smeared with a mixture of lime, milk and butter. In the end, I handed her one thousand naira note when I ran out of options as to what to do to stop the beating.
My stomach rumbled all morning with acidic churn of hunger. But I shrugged off the wistful thought of breakfast with the picture of that woman’s smile in my head. I kept that memory in a corner of my heart where I could easily reach it.
The hope of eating lunch was dashed when I received an internal memorandum instead of transaction alert, apologizing that the accountant did not know that the month ended on the 28th and as such could not give necessary notices to start the payment process. The long and short of the oversight was that staff accounts would not be credited with salaries until the next working day the following week.
I put my tail between my legs and remained at my workstation to brighten my day with a dose of the Aso Rock national comedy on Sahara reporters. I patronized the water dispenser the way I read that the president patronized the intensive care.
The rest of the day seemed to play on fast forward, like the frenzied ending to a long movie. It was 5 o’clock; happy hour. I sneered back at the long and boring weekend that looked me in the face as I tried to avoid hasty commuters of McCarty Street bumping into me. Men had their ties loosened at the knot. High heels had retired into the handbags of the ladies, handing over the evening shift to flat sole slippers. Legs overtook each other successively in a race, not against each other but against time. Everybody seemed to walk the same way, like someone crossing a burning field barefooted.
Okadas honked their horns as if they could save fuel by doing so. Three-wheeled Keke Napep drew shouts of AH! from passers-by as they meandered while cars ran into the potholes in resignation. The second hand on my watch sped in a circle like a ceiling fan with two blades amputated. I was caught up in the high tempo that characterized the business district of Lagos Island at closing hours. I walked down to Tafawa Balewa Square to join the queue for the bus to Berger.
“There!” The kid knocked a can of milk to his playmate as they both made a joke of football; a sport upon which fortunes are built.
“Oya, have it back!” replied the second kid, knocking the can back with a furious swing of his leg. The can hurtled the few yards that separated these two lads, rid of its paper label that wrapped round the silvery surface and making a frustrating jingle from the emptiness that filled it. I could not tell if the can was of Peak milk or Three Crown. But I could recognize the second boy kicking it- the boy that had almost lost his life because he had lost his lesson fee in the morning.
“Hey, you. Come here,” I called out with a tone of authority.
He looked my way and then his eyes narrowed, but I could still see the bloodshot in his eyes. He gave his co-striker a look that said Just-a-minute and then walked up to me.
“Uncle,” his eyes suddenly widened. “Thank you for the other time.” He said in vernacular. I was taken aback. He remembered me.
“You are too playful,” I menaced his small face with an accusing finger. “And that is why you lose money all the time. You are playing ball on the street, eh? Have you no homework to do?”
His head sagged like a token hanging from a Christmas tree, looking down at his legs as though he was trying to confirm if they were really his. They were bare, dusty and branded with scars of wounds and infections; sticking out of his knickers like sugarcane standing in a bucket.
“Don’t you have a mouth to talk?” I did not know the reason for my annoyance but I could guess. “Did your teachers not give you assignments to do?”
He was already trembling. “I don’t go to school,” he replied in vernacular.
I found it hard to believe, but I found it harder to doubt. “But you were putting on uniform this morning, were you not?” I switched to Yoruba, stooping on the kerbside so I could be closer to him. “I thought your mother was taking you to school.” My face was almost in his.
He shook his head.
“What do you mean no?”
“That is how we do.”
“How you do?” I could not piece it all together. “What do you mean by that?”
“That is how I wear uniform every time we are looking for money.”
“You mean you lose money every day?” I was forced to ask.
“No,” he shook his head, scratching his leg with a sickening rustle. “I did not lose money. I don’t lose money.”
“Then why was she beating you?”
“-Because I could not find money.”
I was losing my patience with the way the lad tossed me to and fro with his contradictions.
“How can you find money if you did not lose any money, ehn?” There was steel in my voice. We both felt it. He looked around like a police informant at a telephone booth.
“My mother told me to wear uniform and start crying that I lost my lesson fee. I do that every morning, at different bus stops. Most times, someone would feel pity for me and give me money; a lady on most occasions.” He scratched the same leg again, more rigorously this time, as he looked around again. “This morning, we came to TBS to look for money. But nobody gave me money. She was angry with me and she started slapping me. She said nobody would give me money because I was not crying; she said I was lazy.”
My legs were numb from long minutes of stooping. They wanted to give way, but for reasons unknown to me, they did not. Maybe they thought they needed to be strong; for him. The boy’s face went dim. I could clearly see the mark of the slaps on his face. But I could barely see the tears in his eyes because of the water in mine also.
“Uncle,” he looked at me, “I was very happy when you gave her money today.”
I took his hands in mine with a rewarding heart. I loved his use of her and not us . Or do I say I respected it? He knew he was being used. It was not his way. Not the life he asked for; far less. I tightened my lips in anger, just to stop the tears from rolling down; I was angry with the sad tale of an abused future. I was angry that I will never be God someday.
Suddenly the boy snatched his hands away from mine and stepped back. His movement was like that of a worm sprinkled with salt. I looked up and there stood his mother, the same middle-aged woman, wearing the same worn T-shirt with faded Ankara. She came closer to us, her lips forming a word, and then she stopped. She recognized me.
I looked from her to the boy. She looked at him, then at me. The boy looked down at his feet. She knew he had told me everything. The three of us stood there in an apprehensive triangle of negative emotions; anger, fear, and guilt. But each one of us was drowning in one of these three.
“Woman,” I finally found my voice. It was shaky. It did not sound like my own. “This boy has no choice other than to do the things you make him do. But if he could remember me for one good I did this morning out of the many days he has and will live; then I can bet eternity that he will never forget these things that you do to him. It may not be today. It may not even be in your lifetime; but someday, like a giant bamboo, this seed will break the earth. And when it does, he will remember.”
I blinked as I said the last word. Two balls of water rolled down my face, the left one got caught in the corner of my lips. I looked at the woman as she motioned her son to come to her. His fluid movement thawed me from my frozen position. Everything melted in our imaginary triangle. The boy clung to his mother in the leg as she soothed him in the head. I felt a field of affection engulf the two as they stood like one. It was bizarre; like it had never happened before. And my soul thirsted to be a part of it.
“Thank you,” I heard her say as mother and child walked away.
Their departure reminded me of my lonely and penniless state once again. I was not hungry anymore. Home was not calling anymore. I walked to the waterside of Five creek. The gentle breeze from the lagoon hit me in the face as I leaned on the guardrail. It was therapeutic. I needed it.
I needed to heal; the world needs to heal.
© @1manCabal stays in Lagos
(AjalaYemi’s Note: I first saw this short story when it was published in facebook notes back when facebook was hot(published 2010). First time I read this, i told myself “Nigga can write!”. His other works on his facebook wall (which I intend to publish here without his permission) are also very good. Sadly, I haven’t seen anything new from him in a long while. Lagos hustle happeneth….)