Friday, May 13, 2011

UNDERGROUND

UNDERGROUND

You were new in this neighborhood. You had not come to live here really. You had come to work as a brickie in a building site belonging to a nouveau riche who was kind enough to allow you and your co-workers – three of you – stay in the boys’ quarters of his mansion. The dark of night was setting in, and you had returned from the site and decided to take a walk down the street. You would not compare where you came from with this neighborhood because the street here was neat, like that of Mecca, as your people would
 say. The beautiful houses here had well-manicured flowers in their front and also left spaces between each other. The opposite was the case where you came from. The dirty street was a picture of penury. The decrepit buildings were crammed together. You had labeled the area a refugee camp because the room occupancy ratio was high, like seven or eight or nine people in a room not as big as the kitchen of the nouveau riche. In the dry season you cried; in the rainy season you wept. In the former you would not stay in your room in the noon time. It was always hot. The night brought no relief too. The walls opened their cavity and emitted heat. You would see father, mother and their children spread-eagled on mats outside till one or two a.m. You used the toilet with your organs of sight and smell closed because the place emitted a suffocating stench that you would not go in there without covering your nose and mouth, except if you wanted to vomit. And in the latter season you waded through pools of water to get to your house because water had filled up the whole area. As dark clouds gathered in the sky, you heard the frantic voice of Mama Tutu, calling out to her children to return home. She knew it was ominous. With her children, she quickly began to pack their things–table, chairs, clothes, mattress–to one side of the room. At the grumbling of thunder, she hurried them up. She took a bucket and placed it directly to the spot where the roof was leaking. The spot could be two or three in the room. You could not stop a rainstorm from unleashing its fury on houses it had chosen to. You could only pray it did not spread the net of its fury to yours. You dared not close your eyes as the rain pelted down on the roof of your house. You suffered palpitation with every strike of lightning and thunder. You knew the havoc the twins could cause. You had cause to thank God if you still had your roof intact after the rain had stopped. But it was not unusual to see neighbors whose roofs had been blown away ruing their losses. It was not unusual to see a side of a house slid down afterward; it was not laughable to see rooms turned a swimming pool. These were typical of the place you came from, where life was inhumane and short.

You walked further down the street and a storey building, of which the ground floor occupied some shops, attracted you. There was a neon sign blinking in front which read, Welcome to Corporate Barber. You decided to see what the inside of Corporate Barber looked like. You allowed the oncoming vehicles to race past before crossing diagonally to the other side and started for the barber’s shop, walking past two ladies who were engrossed in a talk. You thought they were gossiping because you overheard one of the ladies saying, Do you even think he is serious at all? You slid the tinted glass door open and the cold air from the air conditioner welcomed you, wafting into your mouth. You swallowed it. You had seen eyes turn to you. The barber, a young man not as old as you, asked if you wanted to have your hair cut. You nodded yes and ran your hand through your hair, taking a seat. You had your hair cut about ten days ago and you never used to having it barbed until after a month, at least. You had nodded yes to save yourself from the imminent embarrassment of saying no. Or what would you say you had come to do if not barbing? Who would you say you had come to check? The TV was on. A movie was being aired on a cable channel. You began to watch the movie. You never bothered to ask the title from the two beside you. Now it was a basketball scene inside a Sports Arena. There was a frenzied crowd from the floor to ceiling. The crowd was cheering and chanting. Ecstatic. There was a girl stealing the show, exploding on the branded court. She was playing for the side in red, the home team. She dribbled down the opposition arc and threw a two pointer. Basket. The spectators went frenzy. The camera closed up on a woman who was shouting, Sally, that’s my girl! She must be her mother, you thought. The buzzer sounded. End of second quarter. The home team carried a 12 point lead into the locker room. The crowd was still raucous. A man in a blue jacket signaled to another who was sitting on the same row with Sally’s mother. You could see their mien suggested sinister intention. They both exited the arena. And no sooner had they exited when explosion rocked the whole place. The duo besides you screamed. The one on the barbing chair made to turn his head to the TV. The barber held his head. In the next scene you saw Sally standing in front of the rubbles that the arena had become, her right arm in a cast. She was weeping. You wondered how she managed to escape.

There was a door directly facing the sliding door. You had thought it was the door to the toilet. You realized how wrong you were when a girl– in her twenties–came out the door. If the room was a toilet, the girl would not have stayed in there that long. The girl’s looks was stunning, even a blind man would see it. You instantly developed a tug of attraction for her. She sat on a chair beside the barbing chair, her back to you. But you could see her eyes in the mirror as she was combing her hair. The barber announced it was your turn. And as you sat on the barbing chair, he asked for your clipper. It was strange to your ears: a barber asking a customer for his personal clipper. He told you that his customers did come along with their clippers. You glanced back and saw the other man holding his bag of clipper. Where you came from it was not like this. Bature would use the same clipper, the one you had known with him for long, on all heads. He would only clean the blade with petrol after each cut to save you from contracting HIV. Bature’s small shop was a wooden shop sitting precariously on a gutter. Though the shop looked better off than its neighbors that are mostly kiosks of petty trade, it had suffered attack from rainstorms too. Bature would use any available plank to repair the damaged parts. There had been graffiti of a barber barbing the hair of a man on the front wall of the shop before it was damaged. A rainstorm had brought it down overnight. You had all gathered at the wreckage in the morning to sympathize with Bature because news had spread round that rainstorm had brought his shop down like the Berlin wall. Bature would only mumble a reply like a bereaved when consoled. Of course he was bereaved because in your neighborhood there were two types of bereavement: bereavement of a loved one and that of means of livelihood. There was no job the people in your area could not do. You were an electrician on Monday; on Tuesday you were a bricklayer; on Wednesday you became a mechanic or something else, depending on what was available to relief your aching pocket. Poverty had forced you to become all things. You had all turned carpenters on the day to help Bature repair his shop. Even those who did come early in the morning to a Mallam’s kiosk nearby to drink paraga had joined you. When you finished putting the shop back on its feet, the graffiti was no more. A part of the drawings was now the window on the right side of the shop. A large portion had become the floor of the shop.

You had felt embarrassed by your lack of a clipper. Maybe if the girl was not here, you would not have. You knew she was paying attention, though she did as if she was unmindful of you. You were proved right when she told you to come back with your clipper the next day. You left the shop and began your walk back to your abode. Your noveau riche had warned you not to stay beyond ten p.m. outside. You had not walked quite a distance when a hand waved to you from a car that sped past you. It was the girl’s. She was the one driving. She had another person on the offside seat. But you could not make out the sex of the person. You thought the girl would tell him or her that you came to Corporate Barbers without a clipper and both would laugh derisively, making a mockery of you.

You had bought a new clipper when you returned to the shop the evening of the following Saturday. It was the first time you would have a personal clipper. Before, you had seen no reason to own one despite the noise about HIV and the danger of contracting this dreaded disease by sharing unsterilized instrument with others. You had thought you were secured with petrol. Whenever you went to Bature barber, you would tell him to rinse the teeth of his clipper in the petrol thoroughly before using it on your head.

You would warn him not to cut your flesh. You bought this clipper not because you really loved to. It pained you to spend your money on something that was not that necessary. You could have used the money to have a swell time. You knew it was enough to buy a bottle of your favorite beer for six days. That had become the opportunity cost of salvaging your pride at Corporate Barbers. When you got there that Saturday evening, you met the barber cutting the hair of–a Korean or Japanese? You were not sure; moreover, you cared less to know if he was from Seoul or Pyongyang or Tokyo.

His face had told you he was from Asia. He could be a Bank Ki Moon or a Jong Tae-Se or a Junichi Inamoto. The TV was on. It was a terrestrial channel this time. A soccer match between your country and her perennial West Africa rival was being shown. It was not a live match. It had been played some months back. It was the first semi-final of the 24th Orange African Cup of Nations hosted by a country known for its oil and guerrillas. Your country had played a crucial role in the independence of the tournament host. Your country and the United States foreign relations had gone awry in the 70s over the tournament host because Lagos took side with the MPLA faction as against the FNLA/UNITA alliance supported by Washington. That was when the economy of your country was still strong, when your country was still a lodestar in the firmament of nations. The match was not one you loved to watch again because your team lost by a lone goal. The result had made you sad, and you had afterwards joined the legion of soccer fans calling for the head of the national coach. You had roared he was not technically sound to tinker the team. You had howled his knowledge of the game was as obsolete as the house in your area. But how much of the game did you really know? You picked up a glossy fashion and lifestyle magazine and began to flip through.

You saw an unusual hair cut on a page and showed it to the barber and asked if he could create the style. He chuckled and asked if you were ready to part with extra money. Just then it dawned on you to check the price list. Your brow flew upward in surprise when you read the price for adult cut. It was thrice that of Bature’s. You were to pay for the coolness of the air conditioner you had been enjoying, so you thought. It was a chicken feed to the customers here. Now you were in a dire strait, but you did not want your ego deflated again. You did not want the folks here to look down on you. You were ready to protect your pride, ready to sacrifice all the money on you. All the while you had been expecting the girl you saw the last time to show up. About four people had gone in and out of the door. She was not among. You did not set your eyes on her till you left the shop. You were disappointed.

You were not doing your work well at the site because your thoughts was on the girl. Your co-workers asked if anything was wrong with you, but you only muttered something incoherent to yourself. They left you alone when they realized you were not ready to open up. Then you sighted her pull up her car, get off the car and come over to you. You hugged her, and she told you how much she had missed you. You were wondering how she knew your site when you realized that you were only being drenched by your fantasy rain again. The rain had a way of soaking you whenever your heart was in chaos. In your ghetto house it had soaked you with wealth as avalanche as that of Bill Gate on a number of occasions. You had closed your eyes and found yourself in a mansion classier than that of the nouveau riche. You had seen yourself chauffeur-driven from place to place and traveling to exotic places all over the world in your private jet. Sadly, there could be a knock on the door, or some children barging into your room to hide from themselves. You had opened your eyes to still find yourself in the world you thought you had left.

You ran your hand through your hair every time. You were eager to see it grow quickly. You wanted a reason to go to Corporate Barber again, a pretext to see the one that had filled your heart as water filled the earth. You knew it was not you again. You knew another James, once disembodied, had usurped the body of the real James. The former James would not go to Bature’s shop to have his hair cut until after a month he last did. He could even leave his hair bushy for some time more and told his friends that he wanted to make his hair old school. But the now James was different. He was eager to see clipper passed through his hair again.

You found yourself at the barber’s shop the following Saturday and sat comfortably with your clipper in your hand, waiting for your turn. You were not interested in the TV this time, the programme being aired, cable or terrestrial channel, because you were not here for it. You had come because of the girl. You thought if you did not see her in the end, your coming would amount to nothing. It would amount to a waste of money and time. Your anxiety heightened when another girl came out the door. Something was now pushing you to inquire about her. But again you thought that would amount to absurdity because you did not know her name. The barber had begun to cut your hair when the one you wanted came out. Your heart beat rapidly. Again, she sat on the chair next to you, combing her hair. When you glanced at her she smiled and remarked you had finally bought a clipper, and the barber told her that you bought it the previous week. You told her that you did not see her when you came here last week. You got to know that her name was Emilie when the barber mentioned it, telling you she had gone before you got here last week.

You were amazed by how Emilie had warmed to you quickly. It was as though you had known each other for long. You had begun to go to Corporate Barbers frequently because of her, and moved round the town together in her car. At this time you cared less about your fiancée anymore. You were erasing her name from your memory with each passing day. After all, you had quarreled four days before you left your ghetto for this place. She had insulted you without coming back to apologize because you did not give her the money she had demanded. And here you were with another girl who, instead of spending money on her, was the one spending her money on you, without sparring a dime. You thought by the time you solidified your relationship with Emilie, no amount of plea would make you reconsider your over-demanding ghetto girl.

On a Saturday evening you were in an upscale restaurant at Victoria Island. Two days before, you had gone to a newly-opened shopping mall where you bought some clothes in one of the boutiques. She had paid for those clothes. You were in the restaurant with a set of the clothes you had bought on: a kagol cap, white polo shirt and blue jeans pant. She wore a cream top over off white harem pant with a brown belt around her waist. Her gold chandelier earrings dangled like a pendulum as she moved her head, the hair of which she wore in braids. You were seated at a table (the tables were draped with purple covers) in a corner in the fairly crowded restaurant. There were hum of voices and laughter all about. She ordered shrimp puffs and cheese snacks (what she called finger foods) with a cocktail of fruit juice as an appetizer. The appetizer was strange to your tongue, because it was the first time you would eat it. Even going to a restaurant like this was alien to you because you had only known going to buka to devour fufu or gaari, with egusi soup, plucking a big morsel and sending it down your throat. Shortly afterwards, she ordered for the main menu–fried rice and salad with grilled chicken and a burgundy wine, which you also drank for the first time. While you sipped your third glass of wine, she leaned forward and put her elbows on the table, her brown wooden bangles dropping down her hands. She regarded you warmly. You held her hands, looking into her eyes. You thought everything about her make up–brow liner, powder, mascara, and lip gloss–was perfect. She said she wanted you to stop working as a brickie, that the job did not befit your status. You told her you would not hesitate to drop the job if you found a better one. You had learned bricklaying when you could not secure a white-collar job after you graduated from a polytechnic. She told you she had talked to a man who was ready to help you get a better job, a highly lucrative one.

You were fizzing with excitement as you both headed for Corporate Barbers two days later. You wanted to take a seat in the shop when she told you to follow her in. And for the first time you went through the curious door. She led you down a hallway and turned to the right before descending a staircase to an underground. You would never think there was another world here. It reminded you of how the former Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein hid in an underground for many months before he was captured by the U.S. forces. You found yourself in a large room. There was a mini bar (stocked with a range of drinks) to the right and game area to the left. Three young men were playing snooker. She introduced you to them. The first was of average height; the second was taller but slender. The third, wearing a pair of glasses, bent over the snooker board and pointed his cue to a white ball, squinting his eyes behind his glasses. He hit the white ball against a red ball. There was commotion on the table as balls clashed with one another.

Three red balls entered the pocket which was further away. He grunted excitedly, jabbing his fist in the air. He made another attempt, but the red balls would only dance round the table without entering any of the two pockets. The second man had taken his turn when Emilie told you to lounge on a chair at the bar and started towards another room. As you sat down, you took in the room well–the paintings on the walls, the stuffed animals, the upholstery, the bar, and games–and thought this place looked familiar. You were still trying to draw out the familiarity when Emilie emerged with a hip-hop star. Then the familiarity struck your mind. The award-winning artiste had used this place in one of his music videos. He had sat on the same chair you were sitting on, surrounded by a bevy of luscious girls. You glanced at the trio at the snooker board and recalled that two of them were in the video as well. You were pleased to meet the star that you had only been seeing on TV. You thought you had got something to boast of when you returned home, to further make your co-laborers envious of you.

She led you into an office and there you met a man they called Big Boss. He was the one you had actually come to see, the one to help you get the lucrative job Emilie had told you about. He was a tall man with a well-built frame and speck of premature grey beards. He was seated at his desk when you entered. He welcomed you and told you to go and sit on the couch. His voice was raspy. As you sat down you looked round the exquisite office and wondered the kind of job they did in this hidden place. You saw Big Boss gather up some papers on the desk, thump through them a moment and then shove them in a drawer. He came around the desk, holding a cigar and lighter. You gave Emilie a glance and she returned it with a reassuring look. When he came over to you he shook your hand again and lit the end of his cigar. He puffed his cigar and said Emilie had told him everything about you. He gave a smile that you thought was mischievous and asked what you would like to drink. Beer? Hennessy? Whiskey? You mentioned Hennessy because there had been much noise over it. All your hip hop artiste, including the one that had just left, now chanted it in their songs as though it was their gateway to fame and fortune. You had seen them sip it as water in their videos, and now you thought was your opportunity to drink it. Big Boss ordered for Hennessy on his cell phone, inhaled his cigar again and asked if you knew the name of the cigar. When you said no he told you it was a cordiba cigar from Havana and further asked you where Havana was. He was impressed when you answered ‘Cuba’ and said very shortly you would go there.

He flicked ash off the cigar onto the ashtray on the coffee table. You did not really understand what he just said or maybe you did not listen to him enough because you were actually looking towards the door, expecting someone to come in with the Hennessy. Another girl came in with the Hennessy and three glasses. She fixed a bronze-colored attachment. There was a crucifix pendant hanging on her neck, and her lips were so red (with the over-use of her gloss) as though the Jesus had been shedding blood on them. She set the wine on the coffee table and started for the door immediately. Big Boss eyes followed her out the door. He turned to you again. He picked up the wine and unscrewed the cork. The bottle hissed. He poured the wine into each glass. You took a tentative sip and watched him down his at one go. He poured another into his glass and told you he was ready to offer you a job. She met your glance with a smile. When he announced that your job was to travel to Europe and North America to deliver their goods to their customers, you went on your knees, expressing your deep appreciation. Why would you not go on your knees when you had thought you could never go to the white man’s land?

Now he had said you would be going there regularly. You thought you could not have got a lucrative job better than that. You thought your new lease of life had started. You thought you were now saying bye to ghetto life. He took a sip of his wine and regarded you over the rim of the glass and told you to sit down and take your wine. Though your joy would not allow your wine to appeal to you again, you still managed to sip a little. She sipped hers too and asked if you were ready to take the offer. You eyed her with a little contempt and wondered, Why did you come here in the first place? He added you did not even ask them the products you would be taking abroad. When you inquired, he replied the goods were white substance. White substance? You repeated. She glared at you and asked if you had never heard about it. You still did not understand and were trying to figure it out when he called out, Cocaine! Your glance moved from him to her and then to the trompe l’oeil on the wall opposite you. She came closer to you and took your left hand in both of hers, saying you could do it. He returned to his desk with his cigar between his lips and his glass in his hand. There was something menacing in his movement. When you bore your mind about the fear of being caught by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, they both assured you that you would never be caught, that they did their homework very well before setting out. She added that she had delivered the goods successfully on eight or nine occasions. That if she could, you could as well. With a steely determination in your face, you told them you were ready, ready to do anything that would bring fortunes your way, notwithstanding the risk involved. They both applauded your decision and determination and remarked that the next thing was to apply for your International Passport the next day. As she drove you back home, you thought a good name was better than gold and silver. You would rather die a brickie than living on mega bucks earned from peddling cocaine. You knew you would not do the job, but you had lied in order to deliver yourself from their hold. You would not join people soiling the image of your country. She said bye to you when you got off her car at your usual stop, hoping to see you the next day. But she would never see you again because you left for your ghetto early the next day.


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Brief Bio: Olusola Akinwale is a Nigerian writer and an award-winning essayist. His short stories have appeared in Author-me and Saraba Magazine. He currently lives in Lagos where he is working on a collection of short stories.

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