‘Sit down, Angus!’ a discord of voices thundered at the speaking man.
I felt as if someone punched me in the chest.
Mr Obiajulu the half-drunk was angrier than they, so he disobeyed. The middle-aged husband and father wore a clean, worn polyester T-shirt and grey cotton trousers. None listened to his strive to explain himself. It seemed his voice was the irritating blare of some Sinotruk sixteen-wheeler.
You could have argued I was wrong to be scared but would have been wrong. Someone like me knew what to expect, having known the man and those yelling at him for a long time; a few stories of what both have done were strong in my memory.
‘- when are we going to share the land – that’s my question -’ he rephrased humbly, straining to get them to see he was making a valid enquiry. The battered flip-flops on his feet rotated to his left in shuffles as he stared around the circle of human-occupied benches on our German-floored village square.
In the shadow of the tarpaulin canopy, he stood in sat we the Ume kinsmen. Some of us had returned either from a local or oversea location, but many of us were in diaspora, seeking greener pastures in famous and obscure places. We were having an end-of-the-year meeting, and it was the man’s turn to speak. He had been delayed for long by the chairman, but none else was raising a hand then, so he must be allowed to speak.
Were I asked why he was treated like a useless man, my reply would have been, ‘His question was right, but his purse was wrong’. Rich people would have been respected even after farting with their mouths, but both his habit of always getting drunk and his chronic poverty had made my father despicable.
‘Sit down!’ cried the chairman, a red-cap chief, ‘or you’ll be carried away from here!’
My father finally sat down, rebuked but bitter.
From the back where I sat drenched with shame, I could picture his drunk, displeased face. The picture of his light-red, watery, dull eyes while he was still speaking was still glued to my mind. One of the reasons I did not leave the meeting secretly then was the compulsory work youths like me had to do that day in the village’s meeting hall.
Christmas was a week ahead, so we had to clean, dust, wash or arrange furniture and other things in the hall. Had I left, I would have been fined; if my name were mentioned for being a defaulter, that would have made me suffer another scary visibility. One of my deepest desires then was to remain unseen.
Everyone in the village knew my mother was the breadwinner in my family. I was an only child, but my father could not earn enough to feed us three. He worked as a labourer at building sites, but the frailty of his alcohol-mauled muscles made him a bad choice to both engineers and masons.
Because he was easily angered, worked like a snail and was always quarrelling, few invited him or accepted his oral application for work. None told him the cause of the serial rejections though, because that would have been a bid for both father’s anger and incessant self-defence. Hard-working mother was a spice maker, and specialised in making the spice locals called Ogili; a seasoning made of fermented castor seeds.
After the excruciating meeting where only the rich and few others were respected, father quarrelled extendedly with executives for not answering his question. I was unwilling to try to take him home or to show I was his son.
Why did I do so? My father would have been offended because that would have been saying to him he was doing something wrong. Even my mother, a soft-spoken, wise speaker, found it hard to influence his decisions. In short, my father called me a goat when he was angry at me, and did say he was ashamed to be my father. An animal of that calibre had no sensible thing to say to an angry, wise father, so I let him quarrel till he was satisfied.
At dawn, he awoke ill, and surprisingly never recovered. His departure released me into a big world, a large class wherein his words to me were whispering ghosts, including those of folks I called my townspeople. Had news come to my ears from the future that my perspective and name were going to change, doubt would have made it useless.
Anybody you see on the road is a version of himself or herself. As each person’s mind changes, so does the person. Some changes, however, though yearning liabilities, cleave like they are in love with you.
During my last days in Elementary Three, my view of myself was first transformed for the worse by an incident that took place at the end of the term. A dirty part of the world classroom was what it took to get me clean. You could say I had a low opinion of myself before that and would be right, but this was special, memorable and mysterious; it changed both my life and image and gave me a haunting nickname.
* * * *
Our school was Ori Central school. You have to school there to understand why I could not read and write properly after schooling there for six years (I schooled there from Nursery one to Elementary three).
The number of pupils in the school was sizeable, and we were all poor. Rich people took their children to private schools that had boreholes, moderate, wire-gauzed fences and high-level teachers. We then at Ori Central would watch children from those expensive schools pass by in nice uniforms, while many of us wore exalted rags.
Now Junior was my childhood friend; we went everywhere together. We even went to the bush together to do number two, and always did it squatting and chatting. Our mothers knew about our relationship and knew we were mostly at each other’s houses.
We were the dullest people in the class in those days, and every one of our teachers always got tired of our inability to learn fast. It was easier and less painful to teach sharp or fairly-brilliant pupils.
Each of our teachers was a woman and believed that girls were more intelligent than boys. They always said that males’ muscles contained a larger part of what should make up their brains; most boys believed them, me included. Some of us even took it as a compliment that we were only good at athletics and some other things.
During our final days in Elementary three, this my friend’s attitude towards his textbooks changed. Our parents always bought us all the books we needed, but we never read them at home. All we knew was what we remembered from lessons we took at school. His mother was a seamstress, and her workshop was in their compound. She was at home most of the time.
All of a sudden, I would find Junior either reading his book or doing a household chore. His mother would send me home so that I would not distract her good boy.
He later told me one of his aunts had promised to take him to Scotland if his next result was good. I decided I was a distraction and stopped going; I was not happy that I was the ‘bad boy, though, nor that there was none to take me to Scotland. I knew his aunt would not care about me; I concluded I would be poor all my life, admiring both the educated and the rich. I had calculated how much my mother earned, and knew I would end up learning a vocation instead of going to school first.
‘Odinaka Obiajulu!’ my teacher called my name on the last day of our stay in Elementary three. ‘Eighty-fifth out of eighty-five!’
There was a sustained roar of shaming laughter among my fellow students. The position the teacher had mentioned had been my place all through Elementary three. What marvelled me was that the person I shared that position with got a result that said he was twenty-fifth out of eighty-five that day; that person was Junior my best friend!
Few made fun of him; even at Ori Central, it was evident that there was always shame for the person that failed to get what the majority thought was great.
There were three classes in Elementary three, and the sum of the students in them all was eighty-five. It was applaudable to be the twenty-fifth brightest student out of Eighty-five.
That was how I got my only nickname, Eighty-five. I could not even convince myself that I did not deserve the name! The name seemed oddly perfect. My futile strives to dissuade people from calling me that even made the name more popular. I could beat up a few people, but not everyone. Soon even the girls started calling me Eighty-five, knowing that I would do nothing. Some teachers had encouraged everyone to mock me, hoping it would make me more intelligent. Ask me how fat people feel when shamed with ‘good’ intentions, and I could give you some true answers.
Soon I had to leave the school, however, because my father’s death brought about my relocation to a township; he had died in the first term of my Elementary Three days. A female friend of my mother’s had believed like her I might die like my father if I remained in our village further. Whether it was superstition or not, I did not know.
* * * *
‘Mine should be Eighty-five,’ I said one evening.
I and some fellow teenagers were chatting on the stairs of the three-story building I lived in with my guardian.
There were five of us. One of us was Uzo, my guardian’s last son (she had only four children, and they were all boys). He was two years my junior but was the one I liked being with. Whether it was because we liked nearly the same things or got along better, I did not know, but I knew I would be bored in that house if he were not around. Even his mother knew we did nearly everything together (except using the toilet).
The woman taught Computer Science at a polytechnic and was a widow.
‘Hm, why?’ replied Chu, a boy whose father was fat, black in complexion and strict; the man answered our greetings with only single grunts.
‘It’s a big number, first of all, and I like the sound of it. Secondly, it’s the atomic number of astatine…a radioactive substance that doctors think can be used to cure cancer,’ I replied offhandedly.
I admit the look of awe in their eyes was enjoyable. If a fifteen years old could know all that, then that was one studious fifteen years old! Few teenagers of my age attempted to know the periodic table by mind, but Odinaka even knew a medical use of one of the elements they had never heard of. If only they knew why I knew what I knew and what made me do what they did not do; but they would have laughed at me like my classmates at Ori Central nine years ago.
In my early days in Onitsha (the township my guardian lived in with her children) my guardian found out how much of a dull head I was. Being a lecturer, she watched over her children’s education with a hawk’s eyes.
Unlike my teachers at Ori Central, she believed that boys were as intelligent as any girl. After the funny result I got on the Maths test she set for me (her children had laughed at me in the secret) she took me through many tutorial sessions. I stayed at home while others had gone out, reading and writing. Many times the urge to escape her grip by running back to the village swallowed my thoughts, but she controlled the doors and the keys herself. Even her boys never had more freedom than I did. I disliked her for the extended caging but started to enjoy the outcomes of those sufferings later.
After one year of homeschooling, I was registered at Ten-toes Basic Academy to continue from Elementary four where I had stopped. It was a better school than the one back home. The good lady even promised me that if I did well in school, she would pay my university tuition fees herself. She sincerely told me she was capable of paying only two university school fees at the same time. I was behind his last son in class, so I knew I might have to stay three years at home after secondary school before I could enter any higher institution because Uzo’s immediate senior brother was studying Medicine at an expensive university.
I was excited, however, and did not care. My fear after that was only based on two things: would she live long enough to do that? Would she still have enough money after my secondary school education? I never imagined she might change her mind.
By the time I was officially making Eighty-five my nickname, I was already in Junior Secondary grade three. I had studied the number Eighty-five beforehand out of curiosity. We were disallowed from using the desktop computer in the house for anything but studying good, relevant topics, so I dared not do anything else with it. I learned three things about Eighty-five while studying.
The first was that Abraham was eighty-five years old when God had a covenant with him; I also learnt that Joshua was eighty-five when he led Israel into the promised land. I had learned these first but had tried to see other things that would make me feel better about the number I had been marked with. The fact that I had gotten eighty-five three times and was nicknamed for that had seemed symbolic to me. I was glad I found positive things associated with the number, even though I knew that one of the positive things about being last in the class in those days was that you always received your report card first.
Secondary school days came and went away like a dream.
Every graduation in school made you feel like a big boy. For example, I left Elementary six with accolades and a memorable send-forth ceremony. Its worthiness of remembrance was because there was enough money in my pockets to buy myself any snack I wanted. When the students had ascended the podium to collect their report cards and school leaving certificates in those days, though, I was hiding in the school canteen. There was no desire in me to honour the sound of my name from the speakers with my presence because my position was twelfth out of thirty. My guardian later had to personally get my result from the headmistress. The graduation made me feel like a big boy only because I would become a secondary school student.
What surprise awaited me at the secondary school! Nobody there thought I was a big boy. They all thought I was in kindergarten. I felt like I was in the babies’ class. From the principal to the Junior Secondary two students looked at us as if we were still in Elementary school. We played a lot too, so they were not wrong. We got to Junior Secondary three and entered Senior Secondary one, but could not shake off being seen as babies. I agree that juniors called us seniors, but we knew we were juniors to the members of the senior secondary department. Our dreams became only to become seniors, but we always found out we were still juniors. I left Secondary school knowing that if I ever got admission into any university, I would be glad of how far I had come, but would still feel like a junior.
While Uzo waited for his most senior brother to finish his education so he could apply for admission into a higher institution, I finished Secondary school too. Mrs Okoye his mother decided we should study software-engineering languages at home while we waited. She gave us what to read, tutored us when she could, and went through our work whenever she had the chance. This was one of the reasons I hated living with a teacher at first; some of them were obsessed with loading their wards with the knowledge they deemed important. If not that we boys knew the things we could do if we learned Python, C and web designing languages, we would have moaned harder out of feeling doomed. Our moaning was watered down by excitement sometimes, so we half-enjoyed the ride. Were it possible to know without learning, we would have been pleased. We desired the knowledge after all.
Saturdays in our street were the second-best day we knew. If you had told us it was not the second-best day in the world, it would have been astonishing to us. On Saturdays, we shared a few clean-up chores between ourselves and then excused ourselves to go and play football. Mrs Okoye my guardian had to allow us to do so when we graduated from secondary school, for somehow we were officially big boys fit to leave home to study at any university of our choice. I would wear a Bolton Wanderers jersey that had the number eighty-five on its back, and Uzo would wear an Arsenal jersey that had Thierry Henry on it. If you liked Thierry Henry, you and he were likely to become acquaintances. The boy believed the man was the best football professional that ever played.
Soon Uzo entered the university; I was lonely. My mother who was in the village had asked my guardian beforehand to let me get a job since staying at home might make me lazy. Mother had convinced her friend that being an only son, I should work hard and learn to stand on my own. Therefore I found a job as a driver after learning to drive. This was where I met face-to-face with what changed me for the better; it is not the sort of story you heard without holding your heart if you are as strong of heart as I am, however.
* * * *
The company I worked for was Sunshine Taxis. You booked transport through the internet, and one of us got randomly sent to you. We were never to take anyone any distance further from where he or she said was his or her destination, no matter what happened.
One bad afternoon after getting only to carry people going to the dustiest, dirtiest parts of town, I got a notification on my phone that informed me that a lawyer was waiting for urgent transportation. I had just eaten a lunch of beans porridge and roasted plantain, so I was happy. That dish was one of my favourites.
Now half of the populace seldom asked for the services of taxis; there were public transport vehicles that conveyed bigger numbers of people at a time, and those were cheaper. Though such vehicles never took you to your doorstep, they dropped you near motorcycles and tricycles that would. Therefore we only carried the working class, the rich, and a few of the poor that decided to taste the fleeting pleasure of being carried in scented, air-conditioned taxis.
The mirages at Old Market Road were many and seemed to be the only things enjoying the December noon. Surely the world was one but was also three or four at the same time. Satisfied with the cool air in the taxi, I could only imagine what the vendors, students returning from school, and shopkeepers, were feeling. That was the same way someone who never had to work to get money into his or her bank account would feel at the sight of me horning for the proud driver of the SUV ahead to make way for my yellow-and-black Hyundai saloon.
At the rendezvous sat the lanky lawyer in front of a shop, on a backless, armless wooden bench. On the yellow wall of the upper floor of the 90s-model, one-story building was a small board on which was written Ikenna and Ikenna Chambers in white, nice-looking letters. After I had horned, he left the woman, hurrying forward with his briefcase. If not for the bad consequences of doing so, I would have reversed my vehicle and zoomed away before the bespectacled man reached the car. Was there a thing I did not want in Onitsha, it was being seen by someone from my town riding a taxi. I had not seen his face properly at first till he stood up, laughing and bidding farewell to the woman in a hurry. One had only to brace for the bad future approaching in the person of my client.
I winded down the glass and did not put on my trademark smiling face. I saw recognition on his face but was intent on treating him like a stranger. Somehow he seemed to notice my resolve and did not try to say anything to me that did not concern what I was there for. Thoughts in me said he would tell fellow rich people from my clan how he had seen late Angus’ son riding a taxi at Onitsha. All I expected to come out of his doing so was their concluding I would end up poor like my publicly-abused father.
‘I am here for Barr. Jude Ikenna,’ I said formerly.
‘I’m the one, please help me with those boxes,’ he smiled condescendingly, and slowly opened the back door.
Yes, I was ashamed. Why should my father be lesser than his proud father, and I than his son? I consoled myself with the thought that my problem was not worse than that of all in the world that was my age. If I were truthful, I would agree there were many whose families were in worse conditions than mine.
There were three heavy cartons of what I later saw were files standing at the door up the stairs. To obey the instruction in my code of conduct booklet, I assisted him to transfer them to the taxi’s boot after he had dropped his briefcase on the back seat of the car.
How people parked cars in the small street made my reversing the vehicle hard work, so I decided to take a detour to the road I entered by when I was about to leave. Having visited friends and acquaintances in that neighbourhood with Uzo my guardian’s son, I knew many shortcuts in that area of Onitsha.
Had you been in my shoes, you might have been more hostile to Barrister Jude than I had been. Seeing him and his smug smile as he boarded the taxi had recalled bad events to my memory, and one of them was the noon after which my father got sick. My clan owned a large piece of land on a gravel-topped hill called Ezu.
Since my father was an only son and was afraid my alleged dimwitted self could not get my family’s share of the land after his death, he struggled to get them to share the land while he was alive. One of the traditional fears well-wishers usually had was that people killed only sons out of greed to gain their lands. Few would believe my father was not killed for his share of the big, fertile, well-positioned land. My father had believed he should marry another woman and have more sons since my mother was unable to have more too. He failed to get the land and more sons. His goat-minded son was the one left to fill his shoes.
As I transported the lawyer, none had to tell me my father was better than me. He had not let his poverty stop him from demanding for his rights, but I knew I would never do that. Were I to rise to get my share of that land, I would work through other people by meeting them and even buying them drinks. It dawned on me that my heart simply implied that invisibility would save me from abuse.
‘Please increase the AC,’ my passenger the lawyer yawned his complaint. ‘Did your company not teach you guys to which level you should increase the AC? I’m sort of hot.’
‘Sorry sir,’ I said formerly and obliged him.
Who wanted to give his company a bad name or offend a customer over nothing?
Suddenly traffic congestion held us for about an hour at ABS junction, and we were both restless. Though my displeasure was hidden, his was leaking through his occasional mutterings.
‘Hello Babe,’ he started talking with a surprising, smooth voice. ‘No, I’m in a taxi. There’s this hold-up at ABS that I don’t know how to escape.’ I could hear the rustle of his body on the seat. ‘We are trapped. Please give me more time plea…..se?’ the lawyer said sweetly. ‘Thanks Babies. Love you.’
GRA was our destination, so it was not far from ABS junction. The place was densely-populated and relatively quiet compared to other expensive residences like Omagba Phase one or two. My job ended at the big gates of a compound that had low, metal fences. Even from my seat, I could see that the deciduous tree in the lonely-looking compound had sprayed the sand-floored premises with rustling, dry leaves. The gate was partially open, but I did not have to look through it to see a beautiful girl seated on a settee on the lower verandah of the house. She wore a gold-coloured wig and big designer goggles. Her concentration was entirely on her mobile phone’s cage before the car said we had arrived.
Climbing out after him, I walked to the boot. Something about the vicinity was peaceful, homely and comforting. You could sight trees in every house, unlike those in many parts of the city. People usually made sure their floors were either covered with concrete or interlocking stones. There was a beauty only afforded by nature that had been lost in most parts of the township; the hole left behind was worrisome heat and hard floors.
I and the lawyer took one carton each and walked over the small culvert into his premises. The remaining one in the boot awaited me, I had decided. A nice gust of wind came from behind us, throwing sand and leaves at us. It reminded me of my town. There were trees everywhere, and they provided both shade and fruits sometimes to passers-by. My instincts suddenly told me that trees could make even bland locations endurable.
What happened there next had never furnished any story I had heard, only things that half-resembled it. After setting the carton beside the pretty girl, I receded to fetch the last container. Barrister Jude had been formidably distracted by his attention-seeking female acquaintance. On my return, both had left the cosy verandah. Since my clients paid beforehand, I had no reason to wait any further. Apart from this, an unanimous decision had taken place in me: no acceptance of tips from the wig-wearer. To do otherwise would hurt my pride.
A pistol’s barrel met my face from behind the chair the girl had been on. A hushed male voice from there told me to gently walk into the gaping door of the parlour. I was afraid to look at the wielder of the weapon lest the fact that I know his identity necessitated my demise. It was then it dawned on me how abruptly life could end.
The life I lived summarised in a bad feeling inside me, and I wished I had lived better. Fear reined me like a marionette into accurate obedience.
What would some random gun-swinger in a fruitful place like GRA want with a poor taxi driver that had nothing to give him save his handset and the possibly-meagre money in his bank account? Suddenly I decided the barrister had arranged to kill me and take my land. If he said I dropped him at his house and drove away, and that he was so sad about the death of his honourable brother, who would doubt him? Lawyers were the best liars in the world, followed by actors, I believed.
A denominator stood out in my mind as I walked into the parlour to find my customer handcuffed with metal handcuffs and gagged with a big handkerchief: the pretty, once-sweet lady was complicit to the crime, and I was a witness that should be deactivated lest I became an asset to the police. Her deceived prey was shocked and, looked at them like a trapped rat.
A lady and three men made up the group. Fear told me my death was a few clicks away. The determination to die trying to live gripped me and steadied my concentration immediately, because I had no desire to be a spectator in the last moments of my life. The expediency of looking where I was going rewarded me with a sad discovery: they were all unmasked and at home.
I took note of every movement and studied my surrounding, deciding not to die like a tree. Images of tackles I could do and how to finish doing them alive formed in my mind, but the fear of being betrayed by my composure made me feel helpless. It was hard to hide the workings of one’s mind in some situations, and something told me I was readable to them like a book written in simple vocabulary.
Everyone would naturally want to act as if they had not seen the face of the gunmen, but would easily decide that those that left their faces open like that had no intention of leaving their victims alive. A suggestion in my mind said that there might have been people searching the house. That discouraged me from running upstairs at first out of fright because the meandering stair that led there was not too far out of reach. If I had run fast enough, I could have flown up it before their bullets pierced my flesh. Some part of my mind had scolded me telling me it would still be suicide to do that when no harm lay upstairs. To leave through the front door was also unthinkable; had it happened that I went outside behind their backs – which was impossible – those who might have been upstairs could have shot as if I were some escaping game. Despite all these rational thoughts, my whole brain constrained me to leave alive fast before I would have to leave dead slowly.
As soon as my back met the floor in a fall, the man that brought me in left me. Even though they kept me in their sight, their focus was on the sweaty lawyer. The lawyer wore a light, milky-white cardigan on top of a striped, white shirt that had its helm tucked into grey trousers. Strong rays from the several fluorescent bulbs in the parlour showed he was soaked with both sweat and shameless dread.
‘…where is the money?’ was the first thing I heard the man who seemed to be their leader saying.
He wore a well-groomed, sizeable volume of naturally white and black hair on his head. He wore no beard. His T-shirt was white and striped with groups of vertical red, yellow and green lines. Both it, his blue jeans, and his trainers said to me he was not some poor man.
They still left the gag on the contained lawyer to my surprise. How was he going to tell them anything? Fear also seemed to advise the cornered man against removing the hanky under any circumstance. If anger was a fire that was seen through the actions of those it was burning on, the volume of anger on those men was so high that the sight of the situation can cause one a heart attack. The lady did not look angry, she sat by as one who had played her part, neither interfering nor excusing herself.
‘Now don’t shout, tell me the truth, and we will leave here fast. Ade, open his mouth,’ their leader said, slowly turning his back and walking to a comfortable upholstery.
Ade was thin, tall, and had the look of one who was stronger than his body indicated. One only had to look at the quiet confidence on his black face and the fire of anger in his eyes to decide that the young man had done many bloody deeds that were illegal. I had heard of armed robbers, kidnappers, hired assassins and their likes but had not been in the presence of any of them. Since I knew that death was all that awaited me then, I wished I had never seen them in my life except on TV.
Gleaning from the command given to Ayo that my client could remain alive in the end while I would be shot, I felt like some animal or bird that must be killed before the cooking of a Christmas stew. When you were sure you were going to die, you became another man. If there were anything you could do to delay the inevitable, you did it the best you could.
‘In the – in the bank,’ the vibrating lawyer begged about a metre away from me.
‘Which bank?’ the big-boned leader sighed relaxedly.
‘Do you … ahmm … have the ATM card?’ the man continued.
‘Y – yes … in my wallet,’ Barrister Jude stammered.
His king captor yawned while waving to Ade to search the man for the wallet. I watched the lawyer move his body to make his left hip pocket accessible without being told; it seemed he intended to make the job easier for Ade and thereby win himself a bit of lenience.
Soon the wallet appeared. It was a brown, leather one studded with what looked like brass. Ade took it to his leader with the concentration only customs officers displayed concerning the worst contraband goods.
As their greed-dominated eyes shifted to the leather price, my instinct told me to rise. They were relaxed and felt in charge, so they were not interested in the bound lawyer or fear-roped me.
Ade and his leader were about five or six feet to my left. A push on Ade’s back would destabilize them and give me time to run through the front door, but the other guy stood at the door. There must be a way to get past him on time too, and I should not also be shot where it would be fatal even if I were to be shot. Dread would have paralysed me again, but I knew that all the foolish fears I had been a slave to in the past never saved me from the giants, mountains and caves I had feared. They had only diminished my capacity to face them. Examinations I had feared and failed were scars on me, including shameful situations I had dreaded so much that I helped them come to pass. My nickname was not entirely born of my dullness, weakening worries played a lot of parts.
Though the lawyer’s girlfriend was looking at us the hostages, I tucked my leg under me unassumingly. My life depended on leaving before they started wondering why I was still alive.
Having choreographed my actions in my mind, I sprang to my feet and fell into a ducked run. My shoulder struck Ade on the buttocks and sent him shouting and falling out of surprise. The man who brought me in raised his gun. I fell and purposely skidded to his left on my feet, and dropped into a short roll as he discharged three heart-quenching shots. Tears were in my eyes, and I had misgivings concerning the decision I was executing. From the start, I knew that if I failed, I would not fail again.
Because of the surprising nature of my attempt, none was prepared or was able to stop me effectively. I threw myself through the door, fearing that Ade and his neighbour could have recuperated. The man at the door caught my right leg, causing me to fall hard on the terrazzo. Fiery friction occurred between my head and the cement edge of the door in the process, but I paid little attention to the sharp pain. Death was near.
I yanked my leg off sharply, twisting it in the process. The man once holding it was both heavy and strong. With wild limps I made for the short wall that led into the compound on my right, feeling an itch on my head where I had collided with the wall. Something told me the tickle I was feeling on my face was possibly blood. All of that mattered less to me than staying alive.
A careless leap over the fence brought my feet into a well-tended lawn; the wrong trajectory of the action nearly got me scampering, or brushing the fair grasses with my face. Pain rippled through me from my right hip joint. There was no way I could have known whether my captors were outside already. Frenzied guns barked behind me as I was getting up. Reports of their failures came back to me both from the metal fence and the marble floor I was limping fast on. I resignedly assumed that one of them would soon hit the target. As some child would, I reduced my height as I kept running. I also was fit from playing football twice every week and going to the gym once per week, so it was not hard for me to try a few zig-zag racing. Angry words sounded behind me as I turned left and headed for the gate out of that compound.
No self-blame arose in me; I knew I had no other choice. Sighting the gate, I found it open. Nearly muttering thanks to God, I ran up to it and sped through it down the sun-lighted street. I expected my pursuers to continue chasing me, so I looked back to take a glance and found I was not being pursued. Everyone in the street was stopping to look at me. Yes, the children returning from school, parents, motorists, etc. There was nowhere to run into and clean up myself, and my instincts told me that nobody there was going to believe my story. They were likely to think I was an escaping robber and hand me to the police. Being scared of the police and their fictitious untrustworthiness, I had no intention of knowing what the long arm of the law would offer. I was glad the government were not privy to a certain situation in my heart: the smell of the sweat of police officers were synonymous with dangerous lying, cheating and opportunism to me.
Strong sounds of gunshots took over the air soon, though, and the once-organised populace and their machine means of transport reacted as herbivores did at the roar of a king feline.
I looked behind again. None of my hunters was on the road, yet the gunshots continued. Wondering what to make of that, I started feeling excruciatingly visible as people looked at me with scared eyes that forcefully showed me how one felt when suspected of the most terrible of crimes.
You rarely found public residences in the part of GRA I was in. Even if I must stop and clean myself up to look more acceptable, I had to do that in one of the private properties. Such places usually had unfriendly dogs, sadly, so I had to keep running with my throbbing leg. The sight that met me at the teeming junction I reached was both a surprise and a blessing. None had to show me the number plate of my car; in fact, I had glued a green eighty-five sticker on the back screen! Without thinking I ran towards it, rejoicing inwardly and ashamed of the bad spotlight on me.
Grateful that the driver’s-side door was not locked when I yanked at it gently, I jumped in and sighed. Using the rear mirror, I found that people were looking at my car both directly and from behind their phones. Everything they spoke to themselves whether frowning or smiling all promised to be bad to me. The key was in the ignition hole, so I started the engine and stirred away before them. If you had told me that I and my vehicle would appear on different social media, I would have said I knew.
Finally stopping two streets or so away, I observed my face with the rear mirror again. A breakage of skin had occurred on my forehead, so I grabbed my hanky from the ashtray and wiped it wincing without shame. I believed that many people would have expected me not to feel pain from such a ‘small wound’ because I was a man. I knew my mother might have been ashamed if I had winced like that in the presence of people. My head was aching, however.
I drove home. It was too early to stop working, and a notification was likely to appear on the screen of my android phone, but my face and mind were in no condition to benefit my company. What troubled me most was that those men might be tracing me. Whatever delayed them was still a mystery to me, including with whom they might have been shooting. It was clear to me I would not feel safe for a long time.
I jogged painfully up the old stairs that had only a little girl returning from school, and unlocked the door leading into the parlour hastily. The door was a red, wooden one that long use had adorned with scratches. Immediately I shut the door behind me, I called my company and told them the news; I also called my guardian. She told me to leave the house, find where to sew my forehead and meet her in her office at the polytechnic, since she would sleep there that day. During our conversation, she said what implied she would ring the police once our talk had ended.
In a few minutes, I had put on clean clothes. A car was humming lowly downstairs as I relocked the door. Hoisting the light bag containing more clothes and two shoes on my right shoulder with my right hand, I walked fearfully to one of the windows in the stairs that showed the front part of our compound and took a look. It was the SUV of a businessman that lived in our compound that made the sound. I raced down the stairs before my fears became reality while I was still in that vicinity. I even planned not to leave with the taxi.
Our street was tarred unlike several streets there. If you called it genteel, you would be right to a large level. Children and adults there always tried with all their strength to dress well and own nice things. Were one to look at the surface, such might think the people there were either equal or nearly equal in earnings The truth was that few liked to be treated like poor or lesser persons. Pride lived in all classes of people. If you saw how people that might never be able to get a car of their own there borrowed cars, you might think they had enough to buy at least one. The passport of skill in driving qualified one to borrow a car from one who would be able to lend one.
If I had to make it to the polytechnic before nightfall, then travelling by a public-transport bus that would keep stopping to drop off and pick up passengers was not the best choice. I desired to borrow my rich friend’s tired Kia Picanto. The accomplishment of that task took me another one hour, because I had to do it slowly. Another way to have done it was to go to him, greet him in passing and ask to borrow his car. My instinct had told me that might not work.
Having filled the fuel tank of the ride at a filling station at Awka Road and driven a good distance away, I started thinking about Barrister Jude. If he were a bad person, my death would be necessary.
We had grown up in the same village. Both his dad, granddad and great-granddad were rich men. Their family was famous, and several learned and wealthy people being talked about in the town had his family’s surname. His father was the head of our clan during the period my father was working hard to get our share of the communal land.
The lawyer had schooled in one of the best schools in our village; unlike so many others, he did not have to go to the forest for firewood or to the spring to fetch water. Either his family used gas cookers or kerosene stoves, but I would insist it was likely the former. You would rarely find Jude trekking in those days. He either chattered a motorcycle or tricycle. If you had never lived under the weight of the shame father had amassed for me, or anything like that, you might not understand what Barrister Jude stood for in my life. Just the sight of him reminded me of my dad, dad’s shameful place in my village, the deriding actions this has brought us, my shameful exploit of holding the eighty-fifth position in class for three terms, several bad things I had believed about myself in those days at the village, and so on.
A sort of proud smile slightly lit my face at the recall of my escape. Pride told me that many with better families and school results than I could have died at GRA that day. They would have died because they allowed fear to dictate their future for them instead of sacrificing the little they had for one last attempt.
Not even one effort at thinking was necessary for me to know I had been letting my past failures pull me as stallions pulled carts. The urge to fear what I had failed at or might fail at was still with me.
Feeling like one who had found a key to apply to every situation in my life, I decided to never be kept from doing my best by fear anymore. I faced the library of the key events in my life that told me I was a failure and leafed meditatively through each of them as I rode the supplicating vehicle at a comfortable speed.
It was fear, resignation and a low self-image that had used my failures, inabilities and lacks to make me Eighty-five. A deep sigh went out of me as if the air of many bad beliefs had found a way out. Of course, they had been looking for a way out, and this was evident in my tries to find good things associated with my nickname; a name I had no intention to change even after then. Why should I change a name that has a lot of good things to remind me about?
Mrs Okoye was glad to see me alive since she feared losing my mother’s only son. It would have been a big blow to her whether my mother had two other sons or not. Yes, my mother had been the one to say I should find a job; it was not my guardian’s fault that I was at the wrong place that day, but my guardian was caring.
The next morning, news reached us the lawyer was dead. His girlfriend’s friends had left a bullet hole on his temple as his last keepsake. A neighbour had seen them chasing me that day, I later discovered, and had defended me with her shotgun. The middle-aged, retired police officer had seen them on my trail while I was running for my dear life on her spacious compound and had shot down Ade with her first shot. She and they had a long fight, but her house had given her a better cover than they. One of them was wounded but was able to escape with the other two. Ade’s body, the disaster on the walls and windows of the kind woman’s house, and her own words were a testament to the incident. She was not harmed, fortunately, but had to relocate out of fear.
The police tried to find out where the shooters were from, but no news of success has been heard.
Two years later, I was admitted into Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka to study computer Science like my guardian. She and my mother are the most valuable women in my life. Even when no one believed in me, they did.
Junior my friend became a professor of Linguistics after schooling abroad. We did not go along being friends when he came back, having been away from each other and changed by events in our lives.
To say that my life changed for the better would be a statement of the obvious. I learned many other things along the way, and know I would learn more. There is no graduation in the school of life; and even though one could think he or she is now a big boy or girl in this world school, new lessons would always show that person how much he or she does not know.
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