ACROSS THE FOREST OF GHOSTS (CONTINUED)

Morning came and he arose with a fresh idea upon his head. He walked boldly to his neighbour’s door and knocked lightly. It was on the third knock that a drowsy voice asked “who is that?”
“Don’t be scared to come have a look. It isn’t a creditor” he teased
Okolo opened the door an inch and regarded Ekwueme closely. He appeared wide awake and didn’t look any drowsy as he sounded behind the closed door.
“Good morning” Ekwueme greeted, at a loss for what to say. The suspicious look he was receiving from Okolo made him very uneasy, yet he kept his cool for he had spent the long night scheming this move. He had to see it through for he had no backup plan should this one fail.
“Look, I don’t have any money if that is what you are coming for” Okolo said at long last
“And who said I’m coming to borrow from you?” Ekwueme teased. On an ordinary day, the statement would have made him flare into indignant rage, but he smiled instead, soaking it up instead as a misplaced joke, “I have a business proposition for you instead” Ekwueme added.
Okolo eased the door wider and stepped aside for Ekwueme to enter into his small sitting room cramped with ageing furniture and smelt of stale sweat and children’s urine. To a visitor, the atmosphere about the room was choking but since the residents of the house had done nothing about improving the air about their abode, they must have become too used to it. Ekwueme sat on a settee careful to ease his buttocks upon a spot that appeared very dry and most free of any offending body fluids, Okolo sat silently opposite him never keeping off his eyes from him and offering neither pleasantaries nor kola as is customary amongst Ibos. Ekwueme noticed all these but waved it all away; he was needy of this man’s assistance, a wretch never counted offences nor took them to heart.
“The proposition I was talking about will give us good money” he continued. The wary look on Okolo’s face never altered. It was as though the man’s face was cast in stone.”
“Think of daily returns of four thousand naira whether rain or shine”. It was as though Ekwueme had hit the spot, for the man’s eyes suddenly came alive.
“How do you intend going about it?” He asked finally, trying to hide his interest
“I will need you car since I noticed you haven’t being putting it to use for some time now”
“My car?” he asked a bit astonished
“The hike in petrol price had done a lot of damage to the private transport business. Before the unions get themselves together, we could make some good money out of the rising need for transportation” Ekwueme cut in. Okolo remained mute for some time mulling over the proposal before him.
“my car is not in good shape” he finally broke the silence. Ekwueme’s countenance failed. He had banked so much on this card, it had to play out fine one way or another and he had to make it happen as he intended.
“what is the problem with it?” he asked, bolstering up his courage to sound more up-to-the-task
“Bad tyre”
“What if I fix the tire?” he asked expectantly. Deep down, he knew he lacked the means to repair a tyre for if he had the money or any money on him, he would have first solved the problem of his growling stomach that had felt no weight of food all through the previous day. first get the car, then think about putting it in order, he reasoned.
“My papers are expired” Okolo said flatly. Ekwueme knew how common it was for many Nigerians to drive around town without a driver’s license and expired papers, but he was no child, he sensed Okolo’s reluctance to lend him his car.
“If you give me the car, I will give you returns of eight thousand five hundred naira everyday plus I will take responsibility for any maintenance costs” Ekwueme announced boldly. He didn’t miss the momentary change in Okolo’s countenance. He had placed the juicy carrot before the donkey and the animal was sure to go after it
“Okay, I will give you the car” Okolo said, “but I will need some collateral” he added taking on an expressionless countenance.
“nna,kee nke bu ife a, what’s the meaning of this?” a vexed Ekwueme demanded, “have you not known me for so long to demand such conditions for this business we are to do together?”
“I’m just taking precautions, you of all people should understand” he reasoned, “you might abscond with my car, come to think of it, your family is not here. You might as well, renege on your side of the bargain giving me reasonable excuses instead. Of course I can’t kill you if you do give me excuses, I can only invite the police, they would ask me to pay some money for the petrol spent in coming to arrest you, and when they do arrest you, they would lock you up and after three days at the most I would be compelled by the Ibo community to bail you out with still my money only for you to become my mortal enemy. These are my reasons and there is not going to be any bargaining over it”.
Ekwueme kept silent, digesting the man’s argument.
“I don’t have any money to give as collateral else I would have gone to a taxi rental. I don’t have any tangible thing I could give as collateral either, except there is some valuable about me which you see that I don’t.” Ekwueme said, alternately slapping the back of one palm onto the other open one in the characteristic helpless fashion of Nigerians.
Okolo paused, contemplating, “I will have all the electronic gadgets in your house, your colour TV, VCR player, CD player, fridge and your wife’s sewing machine”
“that won’t be a problem” Ekwueme replied hastily. Of what good were a starving man’s belongings to him, he reasoned. A man is got to eat, be it as it may.
Later that evening, Ekwueme brought the electronic devices to Okolo’s house and the latter handed over to him the key of his vehicle, and then came another issue. On closer examination, the left side hind tyre had been so patched at more places than one that the vulcanizer by the roadside had advised a new one or the more preferred second-handed ones shipped in from all corners of the civilized globe, but Ekwueme had no money.
“Do you have any one I can manage for some time?” Ekwueme asked the vulcanizer
“Yes. The owner had left it for some time now. When he comes for it, I could convince him that it is beyond repair” the wry-looking, dirty coverall- sporting vulcanizer said “that is if you are willing to buy”
“how much do you intend selling it?”
“mmmmmmm……” the vulcanizer thought, rolling his eyes in his head before saying, “two thousand naira”
Fair enough, Ekwueme reasoned. He knew he didn’t have the money still.
“I will buy it” Ekwueme said, “but I will pay you after tomorrow if you fix it up for me.”
“I have changed my mind. I’m no more selling it” the vulcanizer retorted visibly irritated.
“Don’t act like this now” Ekwueme implored, “is it because I’m to owe you for just a day and some hours? We have known each other for so long for you to act this way to me now”
“Do you realize you are asking me to sell off another man’s property? Can’t you see it is a criminal offense? What if the owner in fury calls the police on me? You think I won’t bail myself with more than two thousand naira and at the same time lose a valuable customer? What about the damage to my reputation?”
“Okay, here is the deal, I will give you a collateral, my generator. If I don’t pay up an hour more than the stipulated time, the generator becomes yours and I still remain your debtor”
The vulcanizer paused, turning the matter over
“And also my electric iron and cooker” Ekwueme threw in the extra bone before the man changed his mind.
“Okay” the man consented
Next morning, Ekwueme, hungry as he was,-for he had only had for dinner a watery corn pap and two balls of akara for dinner the previous night which he had convinced the woman to sell to him on credit- rode around town picking and dropping off commuters on the junctions of Port-Harcourt city. At 1pm, he pulled over by the side of the Aba-Port-Harcourt expressway, turned off the engine but left the key in the ignition. He counted his money, twenty five thousand naira! Wow!Enough cash to clear all the debts and some extra for his keeping. His family will be joining him soon and the year will prove to be good. He felt very lucky. Stashing the money carefully under his seat, and putting some loose change in his trouser pockets he straightened up, ready to drive to any good restaurant to have a hearty lunch, the first good meal since the past three days. It was then he noticed some men in the dreaded blue and yellow uniform closing in fast on him. They had his car surrounded in less than a minute and he knew that the vultures had swooped down on the carcass of his fortune.
The government of the state, in a bid to restore sanity amongst road users had commissioned a special paramilitary force, TIMARIV charged with the powers to impound the vehicles of offending motorists especially those who violated traffic laws and parked at undesignated junctions. In bailing their cars, the defaulters were required to pay fines that measured up to the degree of the offense. Where the money realized were to be channeled to was one of the many public issues irrelevant to the concerns of the man that constantly hears the footsteps of poverty and want at the threshold of his house. In a short time, the TIMARIV men had learned the trick of luring unwary road users into committing minor traffic offences at busy parts of the cities-for in many Nigerian cities, drivers aren’t road-sign savvy as there aren’t any road signs or street lights- so their vehicles would be impounded. At the TIMARIV station, the burly officer behind the desk will charge a fee at his discretion- a street-savvy Nigerian will know that the fee is subject to negotiation and will indulge the officer in a haggling exercise that will test his skill in negotiating out of a corner where he has no leverage. But the more experienced knew better to negotiate with the men before ever they took his vehicle to their station, for then it would be cheaper on his side and the men won’t have to remit the money to the channel for which it was meant.
In pulling by the side of the road, Ekwueme had committed an offense and like a cockroach in the congregation of chickens, he had been surrounded. This was the devil come to take his bread from his hand, he reasoned as his heart beat with a ferocity that threatened to crack his chest cavity. An officer that appeared to be the most superior stationed himself before his car, his feet shoved into black shiny boots were spread apart as he motioned for Ekwueme to step out of his car. While he contemplated on his next move, the door on the front passenger side flew open and an officer dove in beside him, trying to reach for his key at the ignition switch. There was no way on God’s blessed earth that these sons of Belial will strip him of even nature’s gift of the will to survive, Ekwueme reasoned, and in a split second he did something irreversible like plunging one’s self in the fore of a surging mob. He grabbed the officer’s arm and sank his teeth into the exposed flesh where the short-sleeved shirt didn’t cover. He bit hard and long until he tasted the metallic taste of blood. The officer cried out in an incoherent tongue that sounded like his local dialect and his fellow officers rushed to his aid, their top priority noew being to rescue their colleague. Through the wound-down glass of his side of the window, an officer hammered Ekwueme on the back with clenched fist hoping he will let go, but Ekwueme transferred his every pain and agony into sinking his now bloody incisors deeper into his victim’s flesh, and the man cried out louder in agony.
His mates, seeing that their efforts were yielding undesired fruits, resorted to begging Ekwueme. Ekwueme finally let go of the officer, threw his door open and dashed out of the car. The men stood guard in a formation, poised to grab him. He couldn’t afford for them to grab him, for he had committed a mortal offense, assaulting an officer and inflicting upon him a grievous injury. He had to get out of this irreversible situation, he thought. He tore his shirt, flung it to the ground and kicked off his trousers. The officers pulled back in astonishment they couldn’t go near a stark naked man, more so, a mad one. Nigerians never like associating with insane people even when they had a lot of them amongst them. They just ignored their existence while they, the insane minded their own world often laughing at the actions of those who thought themselves sane. You could see them walking naked or in dirty rags, muttering to themselves, minding their own world while staying away from their fellow Nigerians of the sane world.
Ekwueme, seeing their reluctance in coming close to him, played the last hand of his card; he danced about, his penis beating about his thighs, but they only stood aghast, looking to their superior officer for new orders. Like a mordacious dog, be bared his teeth, savage looking with blood stains and what appeared to be a loose piece of flesh in between his canine and incisor. He charged towards them, screaming as he did. The senior officer didn’t give the order, but they all took to their heels away from the raving mad man. The whimpering one also was nowhere to be found. A small crowd had gathered across the busy express way, observing the drama, exchanging comments , gesticulating, but never interfering. That is the way with city dwellers, too many people and yet no communal spirit; everybody minded their businesses, associated with you when it was most convenient but kept their distance at the slightest hint of inconvenience.
Ekwueme picked up his trousers, hastily wriggled into them, dove into his car and sped away bare-torso before his act lost its influence. He sped away from the scene from the act and from the characters, too much drama for one day.
He had had to wrestle the ghosts that stood between him and living on the one side and starvation on the other.

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