I know a place where he often went. It was on the seashore. Just in front of the ocean where I worked as a boatman. He would sit there for hours watching the birds of the heavens as they swooped and rose in the beautiful blue and white background. He would also watch, below the sky, another azure body: one comprising of water. Crystal waves dancing and surfing and expressing the freedom they felt over the restrained aqua body. He would watch us boatmen as we rowed wooden canoes far into the distance before sinking beneath the hissing waves with baskets in search of silt, fish or both.
Whenever we returned from a trip, I would find him seated on the bare floor with his fingers dug into the brittle white sand and feeling the wind in even the most hidden parts of him. He liked to sit between the huts which sheltered a white garmented flock of individuals all brandishing sharp crucifixes and loud clanging bells and gongs to supplement the indecipherable clamor of scores of voices. Sometimes he would walk a few yards upfront to the spot where true oyibos came out to holiday. He would sit silently amongst them burning stick after stick of Benson and Hedges and sipping from remnant cans of water; only water he drank. Then he would retreat rapidly to the noisy huts as if his sole reason for the position shift was to check the vocal disparity in both worlds.
He was a handsome fellow, or at least, had once been; blonde hair always cropped close to the scalp left you wondering whether its color was naturally endowed or had metamorphosed as a result of ages of exposure to sunlight; a brown toothed but nonetheless attractive smile displayed beneath dried and cracked lips told snippets of an exuberant and maybe philandering youth; he had a tan which could be well described in some areas as sunburn and the firm trunk which peeped out from the undone buttons of the beach shirt which he always donned atop khaki combat shorts still turned the heads of many of the local and visiting female folk in the vicinity.
In the evenings, when the young agberos assembled from the day’s endeavors in the parks and bus garages, he would stroll over to their rendezvous point and sit amongst them sharing drags of marijuana, offering his Benson and Hedges to whoever was interested and allowing them to throw banters around and about him. And when the ashewos came by and danced to loud music apparently wasted on alcohol and drugs, he would walk over and watch them with that dreamy smile plastered on his face. Then as they dispersed, he would select one with whom he was going to spend the next three or four hours in the privacy of a rented tent.
He never passed the night there. Late as it ever was, as we tied out the canoes for a night trip, one could still see his near skeletal frame wander away from the shores, burning cigarette going from hand to mouth and back as he traced his way in return to wherever he had come from. No one knew where he lived; no one ever followed him home; no one ever asked. He always left as silently as he had come and stayed.
I came in close contact with him only once. He sat between the noisy huts that day and after an hour or so of again watching him in wonder; I garnered up the guts and walked up to him. As I sank into the sand beside him, he turned to me and smiled.
‘Hello’ I nodded
He returned the nod
I motioned ‘let’s go front. Quiet there’
He shrugged and rose
I smiled to myself as we left the clangings and wailings.
Ahead, we sat close to the oncoming waves. He brought out his pack of cigarettes, took one for himself and offered me. I accepted. We lit up and smoked silently. I had some biscuits which we also shared. At such proximity, I took the chance to study him properly. There were scars on his arms and feet; bluish scars over visible veins. On his inner arms, there were pin holes.
And so we sat and smoked silently; the boatman and the junkie, ebony and ivory. His was an enjoyable company; nothing said, everything observed. I understood now what a companionable silence meant. The ocean which had always served as my workplace, my office, was offering another purpose; relaxation. And though I had seen the sunset a countless number of times, for once I was able to understand and appreciate its beauty. At some point, I told him quite off-handedly that I didn’t mind dying in a place as beautiful as the ocean and to that, he turned to me as though giving it some thought then shrugged and returned his stare to a shipping trawler small as an ant in the horizon.
Finally, evening came and work beckoned. I had to leave for a night trip. I knew too that my friend –for now I could call him that, my friend, having spent time with him- had to leave as the agberos had already begun to filter in noisy trickles. I stood and slapped sand off my aching butt. I extended my right had to him ‘Musa’
He took it in a handshake and dragged himself up nodding contentedly.
‘Bye-bye’ I waved
He turned away and walked over to the assembling marijuana smokers.
Later that night, as I plunged the bamboo stick deep into the riverbed and pushed the wooden canoe deeper into the dark ocean, I thought about the man I had spent my entire day with. I wondered if that was what civilization was interpreted to mean; saying nothing at all, smiling through it all and offering it all. Maybe, maybe not. But whatever the case, I was sure to have enjoyed the day’s eventual turn out; being more preferable than preceding ones during which I really did nothing other than sleep under raffia shelters or play gamble cards or argue with other boatmen. I looked forward to the next sunrise. Another day with ‘this’ civilization.
Sometime later, in the wee hours of the morning as we rowed back towards the shore, our night’s job accomplished, an object struck the hull of the canoe with a dull thud. Using our rechargeable lanterns as visual aid, we ventured to find out what it was. It was a body and I realized sadly that I knew who it belonged to even before I asked Saliu, my colleague, to assist me in pulling it out of the water. My silent friend lay on the heap of silt as we headed for the shore. A tattoo on his back, one which I believe none of us had ever seen, read ‘MICHEL and RAQUEL’ I guessed he was Michel.
If only the waves of the Atlantic could convey news as it flowed, then certainly, it would have conveyed Michel’s fate through the Mediterranean down to Beirut where Raquel Hwari sat in an empty living room with her two young sons burning another candle for the safe return of the man of the house who had gone off secretly after being diagnosed of terminal virus.