I struck the last chord with a deliberate flourish.
“You play so well,” someone gushed, amidst several “wows” and a spattering of applause.
“How did it all start? How did you learn to play so well?” someone else inquired.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. Now where do I start?”
“Start from the beginning,” came the chorus.
So I obliged them. It was a little over a decade ago, when men were boys. We woke up to an unusually mild morning. The sun had overslept and a disconcerting grey shrouded the sky. Would it rain? On the street, pieces of debris fluttered in the gentle breeze. You could smell the heady mixture of mist and dust. Too dark and too cool for the time of day, the broody weather had dampened this morning, imbued it with a latent laziness, a laziness pregnant with unknown expectations.
It was a Saturday, and most people would stay indoors this morning. Even neighbourhood traders and the odd few who leave town for work on Saturdays would hold their peace today – until the jury is back from beyond the dark clouds. Down the road that ran in front of our house, little shacky stalls dot the street, all of them held shut by iron bars strapped across weathered wooden boards. Time had slowed to a crawl. Pigeons rummaged on dirt in the middle of the unpaved, undulating road. Cocks crowed, and humans began to emerge from the houses.
Soon the men would be seated on wooden benches in front of the yards, debating electricity bills and other communal concerns. My own father would not be amongst them – he did not come home last night. The women would resume morning rituals, rituals that co-opted their children, rituals to do with food, domestic chores, sanitation. Eventually, some of the children would be able to get out and play in the street, kicking ragged balls of cloth and rubber, or playing ten-ten or any of the popular childhood games that almost always had something to do with little feet stamping on brown earth. The weather might muffle the energy of a bustling commune, but may not destroy it.
Someone knocked at the door. It was Uncle Iyke. He wore a red t-shirt, combat-styled trousers, and a pair of those white sporty shoes he liked so much. A curious smile lined the sides of his mouth, and his slightly outstretched hands held an oddly shaped something, the cardboard package all red and yellow and glossy.
Uncle Iyke, he was different from all the other young men who lived in the yard. He was what some call aspirational. You will not catch him in native attire. He loved rap music and would mumble along as the music boomed from his stereo. And those steps – not anything I could identify as dance, but rather a slow, mechanical movement of the feet from the knees, and a puffing up of the shoulders that gave a kind of swagger to the arms. It was through Uncle Iyke that I first learned about video games. I played the games a few times in his cozy little room of pleasant fragrances.
The gift was for me – a guitar. It was not a real guitar. It was actually a toy, but I did not – could not – know it. My mother, who had followed me to the door, launched into prayers for the young man.
“My God will bless you. My God will prosper you, bless you a hundred fold…”
While she was still at it, I proceeded to unwrap the package as I was beside myself with excitement. When my father walked into the house that morning, his young son was ardently extracting cacophonies from a plastic guitar. It sounded bad even to me, but that was a small thing. Somehow, I will make it sound better. Of course, it did not matter that I had no teacher.
Word had come round that a house on the outskirts of town, beside the large petroleum depot, was on fire. Some swore the fire raged inside the depot itself. It caused a lot of panic and most people wanted to see for themselves. The thought of a major conflagration inside the depot invoked morbid imaginations – inevitably large count of dead people, hundreds of fuel tankers on fire, burning oil pipeline running under people’s homes…
So, the streets that were empty moments ago became thronged with busy-bodies trading bits and pieces of gossip on their way to and from the scene of trouble. But the exit of everyone afforded me the quietude to tinker with my new acquisition. I tightened a knot here, loosened another there, and strummed away. And silently, almost imperceptibly, the clouds lifted. The sun was roused from sleep, and as unlikely as it had seemed, the sunny atmosphere of a Saturday morning returned.
That evening, and many evenings to come, I took out my guitar, sat on the terrace outside our house, and played. For a long time, it still didn’t sound very good, but it was supposed to, and my heart was in it, so I shrugged and encouraged myself. Patience boy, patience.
You see, Uncle Iyke was a kind man. He had noticed – and had sought to acknowledge – the green ramblings that passed for music in my mind (and maybe in his). But he should not have given me a toy. He should have introduced me to the real deal. At ten, becoming a virtuoso on the guitar would not have been the worst thing for my fledgling musical career. But would he know? We reach for authentic and get counterfeit. But it turned out a counterfeit prelude to the real thing, a kind of rite of passage.