Mr. Ajayi stood in the compound’s open space in front of the dusty workshop, staring at the work before him. As he did so, he began to feel a growing anger and disappointment.
All he had asked for a simple table. Not one with fanciful mouldings or expensive wood; just a basic structure that was capable of supporting the files and books that he would be using in his accountancy practice. But he had wanted it to be well made, with attention to detail, and from his previous experiences, he knew that he was going to have to search very hard to find an artisan whose work would satisfy him.
So when his wife told him about the carpenter that her friend’s brother had used when he moved into his new flat after getting married, he was interested.
“Her brother was praising the man; he said that he did a wonderful job! And he’s like you – very particular.” Mrs. Ajayi smiled archly as she uttered the last word.
Mr. Ajayi smiled back. “There’s nothing wrong in being particuIar if it means that you like a job well done. But are you sure this carpenter is good? I don’t want to be disappointed.”
She shrugged. “Me, I’m just the messenger, but I can get my friend’s brother to give you the man’s number so that you can talk.”
Mr. Ajayi had got in touch with the carpenter, Jamiu, who seemed to know his job, and more to the point, seemed to know what Mr. Ajayi required of him. So in two weeks, when Jamiu called him to let him know that the work was finished, Mr. Ajayi had not been anticipating what he saw before him now in the workshop – a structure which, in his view, was just the barest approximation of a finished office table.
“Jamiu, you are not serious! Are you seriously thinking that I will accept this shoddy piece of work?”
“Ah ah… wetin, now? E no too bad,” replied Jamiu, gesticulating with a mixture of cajoling and pleading. “Manage am, oga.”
E no too bad? Mr. Ajayi wondered whether he and Jamiu were looking at the same table. Just a casual glance showed that it was unstable; it was a windy day that day, and the stiff breezes blowing through the space in front of the workshop caused it to rock visibly. The table top was uneven and had dents scarring its surface. There were clear gaps in the planks of wood that had been joined to make the top. He feared what he might find out if he were to look really closely.
And on top of that, he had the nerve to utter ‘manage am’ – the phrase of champions of sub-standard, second-rate, pedestrian work everywhere. It was though recently, it had begun to reverberate around him like an irritating echo everywhere he went. Like when he pointed out to his tailor that the suit that he had sown was too tight around the shoulders. Or when he asked a recent client what he meant by paying him only three quarters of the fee that they had agreed on for some tax preparation work he had just completed. Maybe they had made it the national motto when he wasn’t paying attention.
“ See am. See as e strong,” Jamiu added enthusiatically, and as if to demonstrate, he slapped his palm hard on the table. In response, a crack opened up on one of the legs.
Mr. Ajayi shook his head in further disbelief. “Is this your strong table?” he asked scornfully, pointing at the crack.
The carpenter peered at the crack, and nodded his head in reassurance. “No problem, oga. Na small crack. Di table go still stand. See,” but a shout from Mr. Ajayi warned him off as he moved to subject the table to some more stress testing.
“Just leave it alone. I don’t want to have to pay for more of your bad work.”
Mr. Ajayi’s raised voice had brought the other carpenters in neighbouring workshops out to see what the problem was. As they trooped into Jamiu’s workshop, he started to recount the story and bemoan the fussiness of his customer, and they murmured along in symapthy.
One of the carpenters, a swarthy, muscular man who was wearing dusty overalls, spoke up. “Oga, it’s not like that, now. The important thing is that the table should stand. The crack you are pointing out is very small; it won’t develop into anything big.”
“Abi o, Justin,” chimed in another carpenter, a sinewy, tall fellow. “Who dey notice dat kin’ ting? Plenty people wey we dey make table for, dem no get problem wit’ am. Your wahala too much, jo.”
Mr. Ajayi rounded on his latest interlocutor. “So… because they don’t complain, you think they don’t have a problem with this kind of work? Do you think that people will be saying things like…”, and here, his voice took on a mimicking tone, “’Ah, oga carpenter, thank you very much for this nice crack you added to my table. It is very beautiful o! When I have my next party, I will show everyone how fine it is.’ Do you seriously think so?” he added, ending on a note of high fury.
The carpenter named Justin responded. “Oga, look – we can make a table for you without any crack in it. It will be good, very good. But the thing is, it will cost twenty thousand naira to make a table like that…”
“Twenty thousand naira!” Mr. Ajayi interjected. “How can you charge so much for an ordinary table? Or will this your table cook and serve the food that people eat on it?”
Justin regarded him evenly. “Oga, I am telling you – it will cost nothing less than twenty thousand naira. The wood, glue and nails will have to be special. We will have to use special equipment. And we will have to take special time to do it. All these special things we will have to use are not cheap.” He paused, to the choruses of agreement from his colleagues. “Yes, twenty thousand naira. Take it or leave it.”
“But when I agreed with Jamiu here that he would do my table for seven thousand naira, he did not say that he would make it like this. Or did you?” Mr. Ajayi asked, turning to the hapless carpenter.
“I talk say I go do am well. Na so I do am… e good, so…” he trailed off lamely, looking again to his colleagues for support.
Responding to Jamiu’s silent entreaty, a third carpenter added a placating voice. “Oga. Abeg, no vex. Eh, maybe di table no be as you want am. But, just take am like dat. Manage am,” he finished, with a smile.
Mr. Ajayi sighed. That phrase again. He supposed that he would have to mark this whole episode down in the “Hard Lessons to be Learned” column in his life ledger and move on; the next time his wife recommended a worker, he would demand to see at least five samples of the person’s work with his own eyes.
“OK. But I won’t pay you seven thousand o. For this, I can only pay six thousand naira.”
The speed to which Jamiu agreed to this new price made Mr. Ajayi wonder whether the work had been even more sub-standard than it looked; or maybe he had reflected on Mr. Ajayi’s earlier outbursts, and felt it might not be wise to push the issue. But Mr. Ajayi himself was in no mood to overthink the issue, so he counted out twelve five-hundred naira notes and handed them out to Jamiu.
Jamiu took one look at the notes and recoiled in horror.
“Ah, oga! Which one be dis? Ah, no-o, rara o, mi o le gba owo yi o!”
Mr. Ajayi was stunned. “Why? What is wrong with it?”
In response, the carpenter called some of his colleagues and pointed to two of the notes.
“See dis mark! Dis money don spoil. Na bad luck money; I no fit take am.”
At this remark, the group broke out into a hubbub of disagreement. Some said that Jamiu should not be stupid, that money was money and if he didn’t want it, he should give it to them. Others said that he was right, that nobody would accept such money that had been defaced like that. One or two others agreed with this comment, going further to add that these particular marks were demonic in nature and bad luck would surely attend anyone who accepted them; in fact, that was why Mr. Ajayi was trying to palm them off on to Jamiu. Through all this, Mr. Ajayi stood bemused.
The group finally quieted when Justin, the carpenter who had intervened earlier, raised his voice. “Jamiu, it is true that his money is not to your liking. But you also agree that your table is also not to his liking. So just as he is managing your table, you too should manage his money,” he concluded with a big grin.
At this, some of the carpenters burst into laughter, and they urged Jamiu to accept the money. But Jamiu, backed by the other carpenters, remained resolute in his refusal. According to him, this was a different case; whereas the table could be managed, this money was simply bad news to someone like him who was dependent on the goodwill of customers.
After a while, Mr. Ajayi tired of waiting for them to resolve their dispute. “So you yourself understand that not everything can be managed, eh? Anyway, let me find you something. Look at this first, and let me know if money like this is OK for you.” He reached into his wallet, selected a note and, after a cursory check, handed it over.
Jamiu gingerly took the note and lifted it high up to the sun, squinting in search for any more unlucky markings that might be hidden in its design. Just as he had decided that it was good enough and was about to hand it back to Mr. Ajayi, Fate took a hand; one of the gusts of wind that had been blowing through the compound seized the note and sent it whirling into the air.
A cry of dismay and sympathy went up, along of shouts of “Catch am!” Meanwhile, the note continued to playfully evade capture, soaring higher and higher until it was caught fast between the rafters of the workshop’s roof. But it was obvious from the way the note was fluttering agitatedly in the breeze that they wouldn’t be stuck for very long, so someone cried out, “Oya, bring sometin’ make we stand on top.”
Later on that day, Mr. Ajayi would manage to discover a shred of sympathy for Jamiu hiding somewhere in his heart. After all, the man didn’t really deserve to get next to nothing at all for all the hard work he had put in. And having a deep cut in his head was really adding pepper and salt to the wound of unfairness. But when he saw Jamiu leap on to the table to get to his fugitive money; when he saw the table, after a moment of indecision, disintegrate under the weight and send the unlucky carpenter crashing to the ground, the only feeling he felt then was the deep, rich, satisfying feeling of being in the right. He took one last look at the scene, with the injured Jamiu being consoled by his colleages, and the pieces of the broken table that he would never use, lying in the dust. Then he shook his head in disgust and strode out of the compound.