I don’t know how long I stood there, just staring at the magazine – without seeing it. I recall an old-school, upbeat tune playing madly, repeatedly in my mind – a disco craze by Bongos Ikwue or or ‘Rat race’ by The Matadors playing at 120 BPM – as usually happened when I was under some kind of distress. Exams I was ill-prepared for, the moment just before I caught the cane as a kid, disappointing news…
And there was this depressing thought lurking in the background, that Toks had done a damn good job, possibly better than I would have attempted.
I shoved the magazine back at my friend, and walked to my wardrobe.
“What are we going to do now, bro?” Caleb asked.
“Find that thief and get my pay” I rasped outrightly, and at the same instance, I thought: Well really, what do I plan to do?
I slipped hastily into three-quarter shorts and a blue tee-shirt, kicked my feet into a pair of leather slippers. “Let’s go.”
Caleb had brought his car around but the distance to Toks’ end could be covered conveniently on foot so he left it parked at my hostel block.
After enquiries at his hostel, we were directed to Mariam plaza, which was popular for its pool table and bar, notorious for crazy babes and the sleazy characters that perpetually hung out there. Once, someone was shot dead there over a game of pool, I now recall but it was a detail I didn’t remember at that moment or maybe I would have somehow contained my wrath long enough to meet Toks someplace else.
We found him at the pool table with a handful of his cronies and some girlfriends, most sipping from Heineken beer cans or smoking stuff rolled in white paper. My first whiff of the weed smoke introduced tendrils of uncertainty into my belly. I really thought, still think, that individuals who have the courage for smoking weed – throw in tattoos and braids too – possessed enough guts for things more nefarious, unpleasant. Like hurting other people or robbing them of their goods.
I walked up to him as he leaned over the pool table, sizing up a shot, one eye squinting hard against the weed smoke from the stub in his mouth. He was pretending he didn’t see me, but I’d spotted the glimmer of recognition in his other fully operational eye, and a flash of what would be guilt if I could assume heartless bastards had the miracle of a conscience. But then the latter might have been a mere trick of the light.
“Toks” My voice was barely an audible croak. I cleared my throat and spoke up again: “Toks!”
He turned in my direction, so did like a dozen other pairs of hostile, inquisitive eyes and suddenly I knew I was way out of my depth here. No argument or fight was in your favor if your opponent was surrounded by his thuggish buddies and delicious looking chics you couldn’t bear to embarrass yourself before. Especially not with your one support lurking – no, hiding – behind you like a cowardly shadow.
“You didn’t tell me you were putting out that magazine.” I tried.
“Tell you?” His face crumpled in a mock baffled, quizzical expression. “So you can give me permission to do business?”
He laughingly uttered the last part of the statement, rolling his eyes at his buddies and they roared with laughter. He turned back to his game.
“You stole my idea, Toks.”
“Run along, boy.” He didn’t bother to turn this time. “You’re way over your head.”
“You heard him.” Someone chimed in.
Rage doubled in layers over my nervousness and suddenly my feet took me to the pool table; I saw my hands happen on the table amongst the balls, scattering red, blue, green, cue every which way. I scowled at him. “Why?!”
I was working up a high on what seemed like a good idea – initiating more aggression, like snatching away and snapping in two the cue stick in his grip – when cold fluid splashed against the back of my head. The smell of beer hit me a second later. I whirled at my attacker.
“Are you mad?!” A chic with slanted eyes and a face heavily coated in make-up – eye liner, mascara, blush and all – glared at me. It took me a moment to realize this Japanese Geisha of a chic was his girlfriend, Chika. “How dare you challenge him like he’s your mate?”
I opened my mouth for a retort like ‘stupidity in mascara’ or so’, (my memory doesn’t budge on that one) when a stinging slap to the back of the head sent me reeling. I saw blackness, and before my vision could clear I felt a vice-like grip scrunch the front of my shirt in a tight ball.
“You no dey fear, abi?” A gravelly, deep voice borne on beer and weed breath flushed in my face.
I turned blindly and – wham!! – a palm thwacked hard at the back of my head again.
When I eventually opened my eyes, I was staring up at the faded blue evening sky, and then I was conscious of the sharp edges that was uneven ground pressing into my back, neck, head excruciatingly. I remember thinking of how I’d gotten a first-hand experience of getting knocked to the ground with a slap without knowing it when a shoe prodded my shin painfully. I shifted my gaze to see Toks peering down at me with a mixture of amusement, mockery and vaguely, pity. It was a look with which you might favor a puppy that tried to bite like a big dog would, and got spanked.
“Next time you mess up my game” his voice brimmed with playful menace. “One of my girls will flog you with a bright pink girlie belt.”
This drew more general laughter.
“I’ll help strip his short knicker and pour alcohol on his yansh.” Someone intoned and the laughter was louder.
I picked myself off the ground, dusting my clothes distractedly. My mind was a whirl of sodden thoughts, my heart bursting with feelings of red-hot humiliation, and rage – impotent rage in this case as I couldn’t do anything now without his buddies coming to his rescue. I stood trembling slightly with anger, pointed an unsteady finger at his turned back. “Toks, we’re not done!”
My voice didn’t waver, I was surprised and when I’d spoken those words, the rest of my fears – perhaps now the dreaded worst had happened – vanished suddenly. I realized then that at some point Caleb had evaporated from the scene. I made a mental note to mercilessly tongue-lash him – in front of Debbie.
Toks turned with an impatient expression on his face. I saw the same look mirrored in the face of his friends.
It came to me then – no, to be fair – in a flash of inspiration when I hit the ground, that the matchstick is an incredibly fragile stick which the frailest of babies could snap in pieces, and when lit a puny huff of breath – or well-aimed fart – could distinguish. It is so impotent till its flame catches on something and then it can set a giant forest on fire. One puny matchstick lit.
I may be weak but that is till my flame is lit.
The words bubbled hotly on my lips, about to spew, when one of his friends suddenly reared towards me menacingly.
This wasn’t the time to light that matchstick; this was the time to save the matchstick.
There is no shame in fleeing battle courageously; it is called a brave retreat if it serves to better equip the fighter with more fire for another day of battle.
I turned and ran.