The thought of rotting in jail made my heart kick sickeningly hard, almost taking my breath. The tensely sourpuss expression on my face made my bulgy eyes become narrow and my fleshy cheeks, hollow; tried as much as I could, there was no hiding the fact that something was grossly wrong with me. “My brother, are you okay? Do not let the worries of this world take a toll on you, you are still young oh.” A calm soothing voice from the woman sitting beside me in the passenger lounge had asked; her eyes firmly fixed at my chest. I do not have a chiseled chest, so apparently she was staring at my rapid chest movement. I smiled faintly as I clenched my teeth, “I am fine Ma’am. Thanks for asking,” I responded with an almost inaudible voice. She grinned and shrugged, sipping through the chill bottle of coca-cola placed by her side.
Within seconds, the thought of possibly dying by a firing squad made my heart even thud the more. But then again, the manic thought pattern was interrupted by the buzz on my phone-a Nokia 3310. “K-K, what’s up? Where are you?” the tiny voice of Eke asked in a high tone, though she was barely audible. The background noise had masked the sound of her voice. I walked into the toilet holding my travelling bag tightly, “I can hardly hear you, call me back,” I screamed and cut off the line. I never wanted to tell anyone about this journey, but the thought of the acute pain my sudden disappearance would cause my sisters and dad became intolerable. I sent her a text, which read thus:
‘My life has taken a new twist n I wud b away 4 over 1 mont. Do not boda 2 call me bcos my fone wud b off. I luv u all. Tell dad 2 relax, I wud b bak.’
I am one of the many persons who prefer text messaging to calls because not only was I a sucker for acronyms and abbreviations, it was much easier for me to lie through a text message; not that I was lying in this instance.
I put off my phone immediately, involuntarily brandishing a forlorn look as I rubbed the back of my neck to ease the ache; the ache that I suddenly developed a day ago.
I had just two days to leave town and go into hiding. In Nigeria, most of the cases are swept under the carpet after a few months of inconclusive investigation without reaching any logical conclusion. So I can still come back to Nigeria after a few years of hiding and be a free man, I said to myself.
It was the fifteenth day of July 2000 and I had boarded a Marco polo bus that is to leave Calabar by six P.M. to arrive Kano hopefully by two P.M. the next day. Our bus had taken off at exactly six twenty five P.M. and in about four hours; we were heading towards Gboko, Benue state. I could feel the rush. Yawning and stretching my hands, I tried hard to shake off the sleep from my eyes. The night before was more than hectic and getting a sleep during the day was not feasible-I practically spent the whole day looking for money.
I had quite a large sum on me (from my own estimation that is). You see, I could not afford to lose a dime out of the money, the journey ahead was a long one and besides, I was going to start a life in a strange land; I needed all the money I could get. My mind went blank each time I tried to figure out what to expect in the course of this journey. Four hundred and forty thousand naira ($2800) was stacked up in my pockets. I wore a custom-made trouser with pockets that could contain a pair of trainers; am not exaggerating now- just saying it as it is. It had a zip affixed, which I locked with two small padlocks; just so you know that was my mobile vault.
In my quest to get money to make up my personal savings, my father was the first person I called yesterday. ‘‘Okon, your landlord must be very stupid, does he think I harvest money somewhere in a farm. He must be joking; you still have four more months left on your current rent that must elapse. Besides, your sister Eke would be resuming for school this week. I have no such monies to throw around.” My father sounded geeky on phone, his baritone voice thundering in my eardrums.
“Dad, the landlord is not the one cajoling me to pay up, his son who is my very close friend reliably told me that his father is to increase the house rent by 30 percent from next month. The best option I have is to pay up before the increment,” I interjected convincingly. My father is a very frugal man and never wants to be short-changed, so he succumbed. That strategy fetched me just a one hundred thousand naira ($600). My dad was not willing to part with more than that. He promised to pay up the remaining fifty thousand naira ($300) in a fortnight-the fortnight that would never be anyway.
I looked like the good kid on the surface-calm, collected, quiet and brilliant. Did I say brilliant? Definitely, that was a mistake. For someone who repeated a class in high school and had to take entry exams into the university thrice, I would be telling myself a big lie if I called myself, brilliant. Without wincing words, I was academically challenged. I had to work extra hard to gain the trust and admiration of my father; he never believed I had any dirt in my closet.
I was eventually able to garner four hundred and forty thousand naira ($2800) as I told you and the money was safely stacked in my pockets or so I thought. You also might want to ask why I did not just put it in my bag. Well, if you have ever travelled through any of the night buses in Nigeria your best bet is to keep your money closely knit to your body, more like tattooing the money to your skin if you will.
The more I tried to shake off the sleep, the more I realized I could not cheat nature. The weather had become more temperate and it brought with it a cool breeze that caressed my face. Within seconds, it had started drizzling, dotting the windscreen as the driver reduced his speed. Finally, nature took its course and I tilted my head towards the left as I dozed off. The Mallam (man from Hausa tribe) behind me supposedly realized so, and he decided to play a fast one on me.
Getting a hand into any of my front pockets was like trying to break a metal safe. I guess the Mallam realized this well enough and so decided to reach for my back pocket instead. I had just three thousand, two hundred and fifty naira ($22) in the wallet I put in my back pocket. I put that in my back pocket for easy access to buy stuff on the road, I actually forgot to fasten the button. The vehicle was filled to overflowing and I had no proper seat; I sat in an attachment that left my back pocket at the mercy of the Mallam who had reached out his hand slowly for my money.
My prayers before takeoff came in handy; (yes! even the guilty still say prayers and remember God is a lover of all.) I awoke, not because I felt a creeping hand, but because I saw what was going on in the physical in my dreams-do not call me paranoid. Screaming aloud, “where is my money?” I reached for the Mallam’s hand straight up as I directed my flashlight on his face. He blinked rapidly and his lower lip quivered as he said, “Oga, leaf me. Money I dey for ground, e fall from your Focket.” I cared less for his disjointed English and accent as I directed my flashlight to the base of the bus and found my wallet with my money intact. I let loose of his shirt as he subdued into a dull muted acceptance of the crime. He was dead scared to put up any defense because he felt I was a military man. The camouflage cap I wore gave him false hints-I wear those when I want to put up a false front. Luckily, for me, a real military man has never accosted me.
I gave him a hostile glare as I let my temper come down. We got into Kano the next night some minutes past nine. Our vehicle had developed some engine problem in Nassarawa state that took the mechanic over three hours to fix.
My journey was to continue to Kastina the next day and I needed somewhere to lay my head. Before I could finish musing about where to lay my head, I heard a freaky voice from behind, “fine boy, make I show you where to sleep, my house just dey for the other side. I no expensive, I go give you well well.’’ Apparently, it was a tradition for cheap harlots to hang around the car park to lure vulnerable, stranded and maybe sexually hungry men to pass a night at their chalet for just a few bucks, five hundred naira ($3) to be precise. I did notice she had an accent that was typically the Ibibios’, which is actually my native home. I sought to make further enquiry as I greeted her with my native dialect, “aba dei?’’ (How are you)? She responded with excitement, chuckling “didion ke” (am fine). “How did you know I am from Akwa Ibom”? She asked sharply in more decent English.
“Well, I could tell, you know our girls are very pretty.” I flattered her. Truth is, even with the little shade of light, I could see her disjointed dentition and her discolored skin that must have been caused by years of cheap bleaching. “Oh! Ha, ha ha ha, thank you, everybody tells me the same thing.” She blushed as she flung her surprisingly sleek hair back and forth. “So are you coming, it is getting too late.” She quickly tipped in, not wanting to pass the night without a company.
The chalet was just a stone throw and her room, which looked too neat to be true, had two beds, a centre table and was nicely perfumed. Although the lights were at low levels, I could see that a ‘couple’ were already having their groove on and paid little or no attention to our presence. The radio that was on somewhat masked the moans coming from the pair. Before we could settle down for anything I asked her in my native dialect why she was into this trade because she sounds educated. “If you say I sound educated you are not wrong because I have a diploma in Business Administration, but the other part I cannot answer.” She said as she smiled faintly, heaving her body occasionally in sensuality.