By Cuba Ukoh
One boyman is afflicted with sympathy in my platoon. There is nothing more irritating than a compassionate robber. A few days ago, for the third time! I had to snatch his gun and pull the trigger.
“Didn’t you see she recognized us?” I jacked the bastard when we returned to base. “You will rot in Kirikiri one day because of pity! Listen, boyman, you’re not better than me o! Shey you dey hear me?” The foolish giant nodded, and then I told him, I said, “You be barawo, I be barawo. We are going to hell already, so next time I give you an order and you fumble, I might just help you reach hell first.”
“Yasah,” he mumbled, shivering … the toothless bulldog.
I shook my head. “Boyman,”
“I mean it.”
My Oga thinks I’m a fool. Okotie and I are the new boymen in the platoon. Okotie is still a teenager but he guzzles shots like cold water and takes shots at any glint of opportunity. Fatal blood the mass of the Red Sea I imagine is on Okotie’s head. He claims he’s nineteen. I have reason to believe he’s seventeen, but that is another story.
I swear I’m good at my job. I bear the symptoms of success: I’m loyal, always punctual; I work hard, even put in extra hours. I’m also great with leads. Oh boy, I’m great with leads. My only problem is my conscience; I still have one, and I’m easily troubled by it. But know that I am no virgin, I have nearly killed before; struck a man into the spirit world for almost a week! It was a mistake though. The drunk had provoked me, and well, my fist is all bone and thunder. I remembered why the stranger’s face was so familiar weeks after the death-blow that went down at Akipu’s bar. We had sat close to each other in a Young Shall Grow bus almost a year before. He was that sort that went on and on about politics. I remember it was the trip to my grandmother’s funeral. What are the chances?
It embarrasses me that I have this problem–my, conscience issue. I’m old enough to be Okotie’s father; if he is the age I suspect. Yet between him and me, he’s become the exemplary boyman in the eyes of our platoon. If he gets promoted to real-guy soon and another boyman is recruited to join me, I would forever be the official clown of our platoon.
I’m tall, hefty; my body has worked against me all my life. The cement weights I lift at Fela’s backyard have turned my bulk into fine waves of robust muscles. The smell of sweat pursues me with ease. It doesn’t take much to win a resounding first impression. When I huff or heave against a grimace, I promise you will shiver. But this selling point has now put me in hot soup, because for my stature and poise I am automatically expected to be Okotie’s mentor. But … I have a conscience problem.
When a baga is acting stubborn to show money, we blast their ceiling. That, I don’t mind; ceilings can’t bleed. One shot, two shots, and they shiver to their safes, underneath their beds, cupboards, or wherever they have hidden the pepper. One man hid his stash in his kitchen oven, thirty-five thousand naira! We took some bread and sardines with us as we left.
But it isn’t really like we play with guns. Just like police, we shoot to protect ourselves, I mean sometimes, we are even attacked by these people. We also shoot if the baga recognizes us, any of us. Of course this doesn’t happen every night.
I can swear on my grandmother’s coffin that on our previous round I believed I was ready for blood. My line of mercy was thin; Oga had already threatened me on three different occasions. I just never imagined we would end up there. I’m an armed robber, not a soothsayer. How could I have explained the situation to Oga.
Anyway, I had a serious conversation with a green bottle of courage last night, chastising and chest pounding in dizzy circles around my room. I have to shoot without hesitation next time. I have to. Not because I’m intimidated by the bloody teenager, or even Oga’s threats. Truth is, I simply have not gathered enough honour to afford me one more visit with failure. My pride is stronger than this conscience of mine … I only feel sorry for the stranger who will pay the price.
I’m tired of wearing black. Each day I’m more convinced I should have chosen to mourn in white. Changing in the middle would be confusing to my husband’s people. But this black is tormenting me. I can feel it, poisoning my aura, feeding the endless nightmares that began after Thomas died. I wake up tortured by the memories of bitter dreams that will haunt me all day long. In these dreams he’s still alive and life is going on as it used to, he even goes to the shop … I cook dinner… but then I wake to find I did not bring him to the world of breath with me.
I’m thankful this week insomnia found me, but it has come with its own problems. Once I hear an odd sound at night, I jump out of bed. All I can think is that the thieves have broken into my compound again, or that my husband’s spirit is hovering about the house like the ghosts in those 90s Nollywood movies; white nightgown and powdered face, but my own ghost is anything but funny. Usually, my cat is responsible for the racket. Other times, I can’t account for these strange noises.
Hoping for peace of mind, I gave her away this morning. I have missed the simple pleasure of slumber without the torment of nightmares so genuine I wake up feeling I have just returned from a voyage overseas … over-dreams. I hope parting with Bell will help. Bell is the cat, a gift from my ex-boyfriend. He used to tease me because when I sniff, I wince my nose like a kitten. So one day he surprised me with Bell.
Before my gift I had thought last of pets as a child. But love did stupid things to you, stupid things that were good for your heart. And Bell came with all the warmth of my childhood in Kano. My husband despised her though he did not suspect me of anything short of loyalty, even though it was obvious I was unhappy. It was obvious. He hated the poor thing. When Bell would curl around his leg along her stroll minding her own business, he would snap, “I don’t know why you brought this hairy thing into my house!”
I was always tempted to reply, “It’s called fur.”
One noon after Bell defiled his newspaper with two lump droppings, I decided to try and return my gift.
“Return it to where?”
“I don’t know Tolu. I don’t want trouble. My husband is getting enraged by her. Ah, it’s as if he knows.”
“Do you know I am a jealous man?” Tolu ripped off my wrapper and flung me into his arms. I laughed for days.
Now something from that incident has risen with new meaning. And I remember this because I had said it in a playful spirit to watch him laugh. “Take your cat back to where you bought it, take it oh!”
To this he kissed my forehead and replied, “Ramatu, I don’t remember where I stole it from.”
Tolu has caused suspicion to riddle everything I do now. It is a mix of guilt over our affair and rage at his betrayal. I can’t help but magnify everybody’s words to numerous meanings now. I’m not to blame. How else am I to feel, when I had awoken, three in the morning, to find my lover in my new house, with a gang of hounds, guns and money sacks ablaze.
The room was lit a dull blue by the blank TV screen. Even in the black facemask, at once I knew who I was staring at. I knew his body, this man I made love to at Moonshine hotel Apata, every weekend, shivering with a gun in his hand pointed at my husband’s head? In my guiltiest of moments, I had never imagined it was this way they would meet if they ever did.
I closed my eyes, praying our new neighbours had alerted the neighbourhood vigilante. They were faster than police.
“Please sir, have mercy sir! I have given you all the money.” My husband started weeping. “Check anywhere sir, check everywhere sir! Everywhere!” He flung his arms around the room.
A smallish member of their gang was still scampering around our bedroom, filling up their sacks with our days old unpacked fixtures. The room went pitch-dark. Then a flashlight came on. I watched the criminal hobble our television set into a Ghana-must-go bag.
I heard a strong whisper, “Oga, the man we sold that microwave last month, it’s him. He keeps looking at me.” Another torchlight danced around the room, then settled on my husband’s face.
“You sure?” Their Oga said his first words.
“Yes, that shop, the one at Bukuru road.”
Their Oga collected the torchlight and moved closer. He bobbed his head, left, then right, haunting familiarity. My husband’s fate weaved as he shivered, helpless. I perceived urine. Even in the moment I felt ashamed for him.
“You,” their Oga whispered, “you are the electrician shop man?”
“Me? No! I don’t have any shop at Bukuru!”
Oh Thomas, his shop was the first one on Bukuru lane. He had the habit of sitting in front with his friends to play draughts and sip palmwine.
“Please Oga! Before God and Man who made me I shall not reveal this to any third party sir, Please! Before God and man who made me!”
The smallish jackal giggled each time my husband said, before God, and man who made me.
“Boyman,” their Oga muttered switching off his torchlight. At once the room became a darker shade of dim. “Faya.”
My head shot to Tolu. He was staring at me for the first time.
“Boyman, you are wasting my time here.” Their leader muttered.
I was still searching his eyes when the blast went off. Tolu whimpered this womanly sound. My scream ran away forgetting its shadow–a gasp. As instructed, I lay down and laced my fingers over my head. The room was quiet later.
I have two boyfriends; one for rainy season, one for harmattan. My rainy season guy is Chidex. I spend up to six months at Port-Harcourt working with him every year. He sells imported seafood for my madam’s husband. Madam’s husband has plenty money oh, and he’ll soon settle Chidex with a small shop of his own. Harmattan is for me and Shay, Madam’s nephew. He’s a small boy but he knows how to shop for a big girl. But the main guy I want to marry is Tolu. Tolu is kind, gentle and so handsome. I know all the houses his gang has robbed in Madam’s area. I know he didn’t finish school. I even know the time he first became a thief. I know him up and down, but I still love him. Love has covered my eyes with Tolu.
Anytime he comes to buy food at Madam’s shop, I serve him extra meat. “My man of all seasons,” I wink. I’m not shy.
When he’s about to leave I tell him, “You never have to pay a dime baby.” I wink again. I heard that in a movie. He always pays still. You see why I love Tolu?
I was seated in Madam’s restaurant last Friday evening when he rushed in. I jumped and covered the money I was counting. I started laughing once I saw his big head.
“My man of all seasons! The hunger is strong today?” But I looked at the worry on his face and stopped laughing. “Tolu?” I said wringing my hands, “Wetin happen?” Ah-ah, he started crying, right then! It’s not a manly thing but because it was Tolu I overlooked it.
“Who die?” I did not expect to hear someone was truly dead.
I calmed him down, wiped his beautiful eyes with a kitchen towel and locked the doors. Then we sat on the floor and he told me everything. To be honest, I was irritated by what he had done and I never really thought he was capable. But for Tolu to do it, I just believe it was somehow deserved.
“Are you sure?” His deep voice rumbled when I had finished advising him.
I nodded without hesitation. “There’s no problem, ah, what are friends for?” I smiled. A good woman supports her man.
My journey to Port-Harcourt was in three days but because of his emergency I gave Madam a long excuse and travelled that night with him. The funny thing about fate is that some days before, I had told him to come on Friday or even Saturday and say goodbye, because I would be gone by Monday morning and he knows he wouldn’t see my face for a longtime. He just chuckled with a toothpick dangling in his fine small mouth.
My heart sunk because I knew he didn’t care to come. He doesn’t have time for me. His girlfriend has possessed his mind like he has possessed mine. They have eaten in Madam’s restaurant together, right under my nose. I knew she was a married woman; I used to see her at Madam’s church with her husband. I notified Tolu never to bring his lover bitch to my work place again or I would report to her husband when I see him in church.
“This is not a place for adultery! You can take her to a cheap hotel if you like!”
“I’m sorry,” he smiled, then he hugged me, for the first time ever. After that day, I always used the girl’s husband to blackmail Tolu into little big things, like hugs. But I stopped after her husband died last month. They announced it at Madam’s church–he had died fighting armed robbers, defending the stupid wife.
Tolu has been depressed since the man’s death because his woman has refused to show him face. I’m happy the relationship is finally over. I started dishing him extra food after that so he doesn’t grow lean from heartbreak, “Consolation prize,” I say and rub his huge shoulders after serving him. He always replies with one weak little smile. I love Tolu.
I’m still a simple man. My grandmother’s home town is the kind of place I will like to settle down. I can no longer trace the village stream by myself. Trees, tarred roads and one small bank have rearranged the childhood map in my head. If I could locate it, I would have gone to wash my hands and feet before reaching my grandmother’s grave … to show some level of cleansing, so she can forgive my sins. But the sort of migraine and exhaustion that has eaten me up is not small. Eunice must have discovered my absence by now. I keep reminding myself to send her an apology text once I charge my phone. I settle at a provision stall close to home to buy pure-water. I request for the most expensive brand, Grandma deserves the best.
“Divine waterfall,” the sales boy smiles handing me a plump sachet.
I also request a sliced bar of duck soap to give my feet and hands a thorough wash. If I can’t find the stream, at least I should put all effort in the easier way out. I sit on the curb and scrub my sole and hands clean. I notice a fast food restaurant has been built across the road. When I am done, I decide I can do better. I return to the stall and purchase a XXL singlet and a pair of boxers.
The boy asks with a restrained smile, “Sir, shall I add toothpaste?”
“Yes, yes-yes, and a comb.” It’s not until I collect the comb I realize he had been teasing.
I go behind the stall and brush my teeth with my index finger because he’s out of toothbrushes. I strip my trouser there too and change into the boxers. The Chinese model on the singlet pack looks petite compared to me. I hear tender rips as I pull the white cotton down my torso. I dash the sales boy my change and instruct him to throw away my former clothes. A brand new man walks into my family compound soon. I haven’t told anyone I’ll be coming. I know they are probably at the viewing centre, I overheard the boy at the stall say it was ManU versus Chelsea today.
The white tiling cresting Mama’s grave is still neat as the first day it was laid over cement. I am relieved to have cleansed myself before coming. The sight is peaceful and this reminds me of my Ramatu. She is the only thing in my life I am proud of even though in true fashion of my living, I stole her too. I wish she had met my grandmother, or come to my village to see the type of family man I could be. I wish she had waited for me to exist in her life before deciding to get married. I wish hard I deserve her. I doubt she could ever forgive me but I hope she would come to believe all I have confessed.
I am thirty-one but already old with regrets. I regret everything from that drunk man I nearly killed and every crime I have ever met before that. I even now remember a Mallam I once stole a pack of cream-crackers from as a child, and I have not recalled this incident with this much guilt since I was maybe, eleven? Depression weighs on me as though I have exchanged my karma with the weight of Okotie’s.
But even in my regret I’m still feverish with anger. It happened the morning of our first round for April, at base–the old warehouse we gather for final discussions. I had come there right after leaving Ramatu. She had just sworn never to have anything to do with me again. “My house is haunted with spirits because of you Tolu!” She wailed cursing herself before me. She said she butchered Bell, like I killed her husband. I embraced her but she wrestled out my arms with a ferocity that terrified me.
“Ramatu! You know my Oga fired the gun. You saw it your–”
“So? You are all the same!” She spat on my foot–decent girl, she spat the sound alone–and beat her chest weeping. “Tolu if you ever touch me again I will buy rat poison and drink it. Then my blood would be on your head as well!” I knew I had to leave then. Ramatu is also honest.
I carried my anger with me, preserving it for midnight rounds, and any baga, any bloody baga to provoke me. I expected to be the only one at base since I was hours early but I met Okotie, sipping ogogoro from a water bottle and dismantling parts of Ramatu’s television. No one had agreed to buy the bulky thing–the problem with old models. I walked past him. He didn’t greet, but childish matters do not bother me. The gentle clanking noise of screws and spanners against the cement floor was what I found annoying.
“Who asked you to do that?”
He didn’t even answer.
“Okotie!” I shouldn’t have been making echoes in a hideout but I was getting irritated with this boy.
His reply came unfazed, “Better to sell off the parts. One month has passed; no one will buy this thing like this when LG plasma’s are everywhere.”
“My question was who asked you to do that.”
“Must anyone ask before I use common sense?” Humour sizzled somewhere on his face and I felt the thing sting.
“Who are you talking to like that Okotie?” I tried to sound as impassive as he was but he had leverage over me. He had been sipping ogogoro; I had been deserted by Ramatu. “Okotie, I’m talking to you.”
“Oga calm down, I did electrician training when I was small, I know what I’m doing guy.”
“You’re still a bloody small boy! What do you think you know about life because you play with guns and steal old televisions?”
He stood up too, then strolled past me. “Compose yourself, boyman.” I knew he was mock-smiling even as he had his back to me.
“You have no respect, I don’t blame you! Your days are numbered in this platoon, bastard!”
“Are you sure?” He turned to flash me his bad dentition. “I doubt,” he winked then turned back and climbed a stool.
He was reaching for the spanner shelf when I snatched out my gun. I remember hearing the sound of the spanners falling. I realized myself in the process but anger is a selfish thing. “You think you’re better than everyone!” I caught my voice in an ugly roar. “You wicked pellet waster!” I stammered, “wicked child!”
I ran out to the road through the front door we never used. I took an okada across town, hoping to meet Eunice before the restaurant closed. I could trust her. She’s good with advice and nothing ever seems to shock her.
“Come with me to Port-Harcourt, let’s go Tolu, you will hide there till things calm down. I know a place we can stay. We don’t even have to leave Port-Harcourt unless you want us to.” She embraced me. “Don’t cry Tolu, I’m telling you it was a mistake.”
“He’s just a child. I should not have done it!” I started weeping until she shook me with a violence that both calmed and surprised me.
“We will go to Port-Harcourt with night bus. Nothing will happen, no shaking.” She leaned closer and cupped my jaw with her small palm. Her smile flashed, militant. For a moment, I wondered if like me, she had killed before.