REMEMBERING HELL

The thought of searching for a new job sapped him of energy, and filled his breathing space with steel. He remembered the hell before he got this lost job. The office doors he had knocked on, the patronising looks of saucy secretaries, the curt dismissals of half-educated managers, the false sincerity of relations (‘I will call you as soon as I hear anything’… ‘If only you studied accountancy!’); the mocking concern of the neighbours—‘You never get work?’ ‘I am still looking around’, bastard!

Now, he would be lonely as failure has no neighbourhood. People would pity him, and attempt minute conversations but he would be alone in his joblessness, bored with life, dissatisfied; then he would bow with frustration, then helplessness, then self-loathing; at this stage he would contemplate suicide more than once. He wouldn’t kill himself, not physically. But he would die, become invisible, shut out on his grave of failure. Like a corpse, he would drag his carcass to the construction site where a thousand youths were assembled, craws sharpened, ready to kill for one of the twelve slots to carry blocks; he would work if, luckily, the foreman was an ex-classmate.

‘Never again,’ he said aloud. He was walking on a busy street. ‘I will never allow that,’ he said even louder. Let them think I am mad, fools!

For the second or third time in his life he wished for the quick gratification of alcohol, he wished he could just stuff his troubles in the oceanic storehouse of drunkenness and forget it for hours, for a night, for now. But he couldn’t even if he wished. He didn’t have the money and he didn’t have the courage to sideline his woes for a minute—what if he returned to his senses and his woes had wrecked him?

He turned and began to walk back the way he came. He would go back to the newsroom and ponder in solitude for a moment or two, think reasons into his being. He wouldn’t go home now, the dreariness and bleak atmosphere in the house would maim him. No, he would go to his working place and be. He would sleep there if he had to.

James was angry to see Celine in the newsroom. She sat at her desk, a beautiful image,  sweating over a piece of paper she was writing on.

‘What are you doing here?’ He couldn’t hide his anger.

‘Sorry, I will soon leave your father’s house for you.’ She didn’t look up.

He turned to go.

‘James.’

The ice-cold of the call stopped him. He turned. ‘What is it?’

‘What is on your mind?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You know what I mean, James, you have something eating away your heart. Share it. A problem half-shared is a problem solved.’

He nearly smiled at her corruption of the ageless idiom. He unleashed his own cliché. ‘You won’t understand.’

‘Try me.’ She urged. ‘Does it have to do with your meeting with the editor?’

He looked at her. This girl was no fool. Of course not many of his colleagues believed him when he said the editor had only called to congratulate him over the impressive sale of the last edition. But not dull Celine, Celine shouldn’t have a clue!

‘Talk to me, boy.’

He didn’t mind the boy. He sat down and unburdened his heart in her ears. Talking to her was the guise to recounting the whole mess to himself, making sure, erecting bricks of reality in a fantastic yarn. He told her everything, nearly everything, how he suffered before he got this job, the pressures at home, the uncertainty, the absence of employment electrons inside of him to run the search for jobs. ‘Heck, I am thirty-two and should be talking about raising a family,’ he concluded.

She didn’t say anything for a long moment, and he sat, hunched on his desk, depressed, chewing himself and hating the vulnerability that he had opened himself to; one doesn’t tell one’s colleague everything or nearly everything; one…

She placed an affectionate hand on his shoulder. ‘I think I have something for you.’

He looked up, suspicious. ‘What?’

‘Let’s go talk in my place.’

He began saying no, indeed he did say no but didn’t say it out. The firm plea in her eyes stopped him, and the innocence in her face demanded obedience from him. But there was something dubious about her innocence, something worrying, like a warning…

‘Come.’

He stood up and followed her out.

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LITTLE LITTLE BEGINNINGS

The place Ayo took the boys to eat was a zinc restaurant. The restaurant (if one must call it that) was airless and hot, had two benches that sat four persons each at a time, a shelf faced each bench, held by tired nails, covered by torn carpets served as table. The floor was black earth in the middle of cemented floor, and one could see giant ants farrowing about.

‘How did you find this place?’ Chuks sneered at Ayo as they squeezed on the bench. The bench was actually made to sit three men, he discovered, or four skinny boys.

‘This place has been since the time of Noah,’ Peter said.

Ayo called the seller. She dropped her wailing child on the mat outside and hurried in, tying and retying her wrapper which served as skirt under whitewashed oversized Chelsea jersey.

‘Rice and stew,’ Ayo told her.

‘How many plates?’ she asked.

‘There are four of us here!’ Chuks was amazed.

Ben tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the two occupants behind them who were eating from one plate.

‘Fish or meat?’ the woman asked.

‘Anything,’ Ben said.

‘Fish,’ Ayo said. The woman left. ‘Their meat is tough.’

‘If you put the meat in your mouth you will chew it for two weeks,’ Peter said. ‘You will get tired and throw it away.’

Ben laughed.

‘Why did Ayo bring us here?’ Chuks couldn’t remove the disgust in his voice.

‘He is a moron,’ Ben said.

‘What did you say?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Be careful,’ Ayo warned.

‘Yes sir.’

The baby was crying. ‘Can’t someone make the baby stop crying?’

‘That is not a problem,’ Peter said, ‘look at the smoke.’

The kitchen area of the eating-shop was a firewood affair on the other side of the zinc. From there, the smoke came hovering into the restaurant (you are still calling it a restaurant?) like a lazy vulture.

‘We are in for it?’ Chuks muttered.

The woman entered with a tray steaming with three plates of white rice spread with liberal dark red stew with a token of fried fish on top of each like a black crown. As there were three plates, everyone got a plate except Ben who sat the farthest from the door.

‘Bring one more plate.’

‘Bring water.’

‘Make that child stop yelling.’

‘Stop the damned smoke!’

‘Take it easy, Chuks.’

‘Sharrap!’

‘You sound as if you eat in Hilton every day.’

‘Ayo… go to hell.’

As if to scold them for challenging it a cloud of smoke invaded the room. Chuks shut his eyes, clenching his teeth.

Someone stifled a laugh.

Chuks opened one eye. The room was white with smoke.

Ben was coughing.

‘Ayo,’ Chuks said.

‘Yeah.’

‘Thunder fire thee.’

‘Hmmmm.’

Chuks fetched a spoonful and dished it into his mouth. Pepper cut his tongue.

‘Arrhhh!’ 

‘What’s the matter?’ Ayo asked.

‘What crime did I commit by knowing you?’ Chuks wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

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Peter was eating profusely and crying. Ben sat on his corner, hands folded across angry chest. Outside the woman was breastfeeding her baby.

‘Woman,’ Ben called. ‘Get me my food now. I offend you? Do you know me before? Which kind wahala be this?’

The woman dropped the baby on the mat and hurried away as it released a tight yelp.

‘Water,’ Chuks called. ‘And for God sake, stop this tear gas!’

Peter laughed through his tears.

Chuks’ teeth cracked on a little stone. He grabbed his cheek. ‘Hmmm.’

‘What’s the matter?’ Ayo asked then his teeth bit into a rock. He squeezed his face with mild disapproval. Peter who saw it all laughed. ‘The pains of poverty,’ he said.

‘I am not poor,’ Ayo corrected, ‘I am just not where I am destined to be.’

‘If you continue to come here, you will never get there,’ Chuks said.

‘Don’t despise the days of little beginning,’ Ayo said.

‘You have been earning less than the minimum wage for two years now and you still talk about little beginnings,’ Peter said.

‘Someone didn’t earn anything for a decade,’ Ayo said.

Three sets of teeth laughed and Chuks knew that the joke was on him. He ate on silently. ‘Forget it,’ Ayo patted his back.

Peter crashed his teeth on a stone.

‘What’s the matter, biscuit bone?’ Ayo winked.

Peter shook his head. ‘Zuma Rock.’

The woman entered with a tray, carrying Ben’s food, a jug of water and four plastic cups. She handed Ben his food.

‘Don’t you have pure water?’ Chuks said.

‘No, but I can buy for you if you give me money.’

‘What about the boy who helps you here?’ Ayo said.

‘He is not well.’

Chuks glanced at the whimpering baby outside. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He returned to his food and saw a fly rinsing its hands on it. He dropped his spoon and rose to his feet.

‘You done?’ Ayo said.

Ben drew Chuks plate towards himself.

‘Hey, eat your fish at least,’ Ayo called. Chuks went out without a word.

‘You won’t eat that food alone,’ Peter told Ben.

‘Try me.’

Outside, Chuks brought out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

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