Civitella Ranieri

Civitella Ranieri
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Monday, February 3, 2014

'Strangers' by Toni Kan (CRF 2012)

Nobody saw them arrive.

But believe me when I say that everyone knew when they left; none of us on that street will forget even if we lived to be hundred.

They were two of them, young boys on the cusps of manhood. Nineteen, twenty, twenty one. Who knew and who really cared. They were strangers, not one of us, so, at first, nobody poked their nose into their business.

All we knew is that we woke up one morning and they were there; a tall, thin one and a fat round one. Sam and Silas they said their names were.

They just appeared, as if out of nowhere and occupied that house, the uncompleted one, right next to the shoe maker’s.

No one had lived there for years since the family went to court after their father died. They cleaned out one room, and occupied it. No one asked questions. In many ways, it seemed as if we welcomed warmth in that house, as if the flicker of the candle they lit at night sent a warm glow right down the street. Gloom must have made us sentimental.

They didn’t go to work like we did. In the mornings they would walk down the street, washing cars that had been parked outside their compounds. Grateful owners dropped naira notes in appreciation and sometimes if they saw a woman walking home laden with shopping, they would run after her and offer a hand in exchange for a tip, a fruit, a loaf of bread, something earned.

Three months ago, when the lawyer moved into your former flat, they helped wash it down. They helped paint it and they helped him reconnect loose wires. Those two, Sam and Silas, there was nothing they couldn’t do.

Where did they come from, you ask again? No one knew. I tell you, we woke up one morning and they were there; a tall thin one and a fat round one. Sam and Silas they said their names were.

They didn’t seem to ever leave that street in the 8 months they were with us. I saw them every morning, when I stepped out on the balcony for my morning smoke, washing a car or sitting out on the steps that led into the house they occupied and sunning themselves like well-fed lizards.

- Good morning bros, they would call and I would wave.

Sometimes, the thin one, the more friendly and loquacious one would put two fingers to his lips and send out imaginary smoke rings. It was his way of bumming a cigarette off me.

If I was in a good mood or had a full pack, I would signal to him and he would come over and receive two sticks for himself and his friend. Most times I just ignored him and he would smile and hail me.

- The Big Bros!

They washed my car too. At first, on days when I came back too late and too drunk to manoeuvre  into my spot in the compound but in time they took to coming into the compounds to wash the cars especially for those of us who didn’t have drivers or security men to do it for us.

Did any one mind? No. We did not mind. Why should we. They were happy to get a hundred naira, two hundred naira, and we were happy to give it; one tenth of what we would pay at the car wash.

And they could wash cars, those boys.

- We dey mix Omo with kerosene.

 Sam the thin, tall one told me when I commended them one morning.

-Na the combinate dey make am shine, he explained.

The combinate, I muttered under my breath as I fished out a two hundred naira note.

- The Big Bros, he hailed as he picked up his bucket, his plump friend waddling out behind him.

The fat one was always silent and always reading.

What did he read? I don’t know. I never bothered to check but he always had a book or something; some tattered paperback or heavy tome, filched out of some dump or bought second hand apparently.

They were strangers and strangers have strange ways. That was what everyone thought and said. But did it stop us from sending them on errands? No. Neither did it stop us from watching them dig and shovel out dirt from our gutters on the last Saturday of every month when the whole street turned out for the monthly environmental sanitation exercise.

We would all stand or sit, reading newspapers and talking politics, Baba Mercy's voice echoing, while the two boys, dug and shovelled, raking out muck and grime.

And when they were done, we would say well done, well done and scurry off into our compounds.

They were hard workers those boys. Nothing was too tough or too menial.

Last month, just before what happened happened, they even joined the masons when Baba Mercy decided to complete roofing and plastering the house he abandoned after his daughter died.

I watched them work, hefting bags of cement onto strong shoulders and then  running up the scaffold with pans laden with concrete  as if it was cotton fluff. There was something about them, the rippling muscles under taut skin for Sam and the folds of flesh that wobbled on Silas, that spoke of purpose and youth and something indiscernible.

Many of us wanted our brothers who lived with us to be like them. We wanted our siblings to work, to have purpose, to be engaged instead of sitting all day at home watching cable Tv, playing computer games and chasing after the girls like dogs.

Did any girls visit them? Of course! People talked, said they were munching through the house girls on the streets like soft bread. Especially that Sam. He had a mouth on him. It was easy for him to charm the pants and ragged wrappers off the house helps. I used to see him at work. He was a maestro, reminded me all the time of you back then in school, when you were king, before you found Christ or was it the other way round?

I should leave Christ alone. Is that how you are going to save my soul? Ok, I have left him alone.

Sam had a quick retort for everything and he laughed like he owned the street. The laughter is what I remember the most because it was silent later that day. His laughter was loud, happy, care-free like a rumble of thunder rolling through the heavens.

You remember what you told me back then at Jos, in school; that to get a babe you must abandon shame. That was Sam. The way he went at the girls, you could see that this was a man in whose vocabulary the word shame did not exist.

Soon, some of the street girls began to get curious. We heard things too. There were warnings. The boys who lived on the street, who did not want to see these strangers dip their fingers into their pots sent out warnings. They accosted Sam and Silas in their den at night. Warnings were issued. Slaps were exchanged.  Threats were made.

Sam and Silas withdrew. They still washed cars, they still helped women laden with shopping, they still raked out grime from our gutters but now they did it in slow motion. They had been told who they were, what they were, strangers! They didn’t belong. They were there because we allowed them.  They would do well to stand on one foot, play the cock on new territory, to not get too familiar.

But it did not last. Two days, three days , one week, they were back to their jolly selves. Sam’s laughter cleaved the air, waking up the somnolent afternoons. They re-joined the street boys where they played football at the corner. They bummed cigarettes off those of us who smoked. They danced on the streets, winked at the girls and lived. They were boys after all and that was what boys did. Boys think they are invincible, that they are above it all. They think they can stare death in the face and laugh it to scorn.

We accepted them again, but still like we had before, as strangers, still with suspicion in our eyes, always with unspoken questions; where did they come from, what did they want.

The balance of things seemed restored and we saw them and yet did not see them. They were Sam and Silas, the thin one and the fat one and then something happened.

I was away for a few days. Where did I go? Awka, Audit duty. A branch was sending in funny reports.

- Go to Awka and look at their books. Something is not quite right over there, my boss said and so I went. 

There was not much going on but foolishness. A young boy, newly Chartered, First Class from Ife, saddled with a job too big for him. He was fumbling, making mistakes.

He was a good boy. I liked him. We shared drinks on quiet lonely evenings at the bar of the hotel where I stayed. He smoked too, so we bonded over Dorchester cigarettes and tepid beer. He was eager to please and buy drinks as provincials often are when they see someone from the Head Office. I did not think it was because he wanted to sway me. He had done nothing wrong, nothing criminal, really, just made mistakes that misrepresented things.

I paid for the drinks instead. I bought him drinks night after night because I was sorry. I pitied him. His job was toast. Once I sent in my report, they would fire him.  That’s how banks work. We need to get it right, all the time, or people lose money and if people lose money, we lose money and if we lose money, we lose everything.

So, we spent those nights drinking beer and smoking and talking about Lagos and comparing girls in Awka to Lagos girls with their over-eager ways.

- You must open an account here before you go. I get customers plenty, he said with a wink, as he implored me to pick a girl, any girl that caught my eye from the bevy he presented.

Did they fire him after I sent in my report? Yes. He is gone now.
And no, we did  not keep in touch.

So, I came back and there was no Sam and there was no Silas.

The street seemed strangely quiet like someone had stolen the soul out of it, ripped it out like some cheap carpet.

- Where are those boys, I asked my neighbour's wife the next morning.

- Which boys? She asked and there was something in her tone, a glint in her eyes that looked like shame or was it guilt?

- Sam and Silas, the boys that live in that house, I said, pointing even though I did not need to. Everyone knew who they were and where they lived and once you said those boys, everyone knew who you were referring to.

- They left, she said and hurried off.

It was strange, I thought. They had settled in. Why would they leave now without farewell to the Big Bros?

And so I forgot about them like you would a stranger who bumps into you at the Mall. The briefest of encounters, it does not register for long.

But then they returned.

Yes, they did and now, I wish they hadn’t. I wish they had read the auguries, seen the bile curdling to rage, smelled the scent of blood hovering over the afternoon air.

They were quieter now, withdrawn, tentative. They washed few cars now, did not beg for cigarettes and they lazed more, not just like well-fed lizards but lazy ones.

-Where did you people go? I asked the morning I saw them washing my car.

Sam did not speak, instead he scrubbed harder, the soap suds foaming white as he went at my tyre as if the tyre posed some mortal danger.

- Where did you people go? I repeated, convinced now that something had gone wrong while I was away.

- Cell, the fat one said.

- Cell?

- Dem lock us up, he said his voice low, eyes lowered.

- Who lock una up?

- Baba Mercy, Sam said now, standing straight, his face contorted in rage and shame and what I suppose was fear too.

- Nothing wey we do. Somebody steal tyre. Dem say na we. Dem search our room. Nothing. If we steal tyre where we go hide am? How we go sell am. We no dey comot for dis street. I tell dem, check Baba Mercy house, dat ‘im son, Clement, na ‘im dey do dat kind thing. Baba mercy vex. Clement vex. Dem say we be thief. Dem beat us. Dem call police. Dem carry us go police. Six days, The Big Bros. Six days, we dey for cell. And nothing wey we do dem. We come back, our Tv don go. Dem piss for our room. Shit for our bed. Wetin we do?

He was crying now, the brush slipping from his hand.

I watched him struggle to pick it up. The bravado was gone, the youthful invincibility shorn off. This broken person before me was a boy and he was confused. The real world had confronted him with its harsh realities and he was muddled. They thought they had built a home but it was a shack really, some flimsy, ramshackle thing. It was no more than Terra lacking firma.

I said sorry. I gave them my card. I said if anything like that happens again, you call me.

- That is my number. I am a lawyer.

You ask whether that’s all I did? Yes, that’s all I did. What more could I do. Go to Baba Mercy and ask him why? Question a landlord because of two strangers? We live here and they are squatters. We stick with our own. Would I believe a Stranger’s story over yours?

But I wish now that I had done more, maybe asked them to leave, scared them off instead of showing empathy because if I had, what happened would never have happened.

You ask me what happened? But you know, you read it in the papers. Oh, you want to know what really, really happened? 

Ok, it was a Saturday. I was home. I hadn’t been feeling well so I hadn’t gone out to smoke. So, I didn’t see them that morning.

I woke. I made tea laced it with ginger and lime and just lay there in the dark, curtains drawn, listening to BBC.

It was the screaming that woke me up, the cries.

I pulled on my shirt and went to the balcony.

Sam and Silas were already bleeding, shirts torn, eyes swollen.

I raced downstairs.

- Wetin happen?  Wetin happen? I cried, pushing at the crowd. They were thirsty for blood, that crowd; a baying mob with bared teeth.

They had them on the floor now. They were kneeing in the dirt. Silas was quiet. Eyes cast down, lips moving like he was mumbling something. A prayer, maybe, or words from something he had read somewhere.

- What happened? I asked, staring from angry face to angry face, now that I was within the perimeter of blood.

- Dem say two pikin dey miss. Dem say we steal dem. Silas said as a kick sent him into the puddle spattering me with dirty water.

Clement had a stick as he towered over them. He lashed out at one and then the other, drawing blood, their screams echoing. 

I looked up, men and women stood up there, on their balconies watching the orgy of blood. They all said nothing, did nothing, complicit in their silence. What were the boys after all but Strangers? What were they doing here if not to steal and kidnap children?

- Clement wait, I said staying his blow.

His eyes were red. This was not about the missing children. This was about the accusation. This was a young man marking his turf with blood.

- Broda Sylvester leave my stick, he snarled.

But I held on. Staring into his eyes, searching for that boy, the one I gave my shirts too. The one I gave my shoes to. The one that said he wanted to marry my younger sister. He wasn’t there. This was a monster.  A man made mad by his grudge. He would not be appeased, except by blood.

- Clement, hold on. I said.

There was a flicker, as if of recognition then the veil descended again. He tugged at the stick, ripped a bloody gash through my palm and began to lash out at the two boys, drawing blood and screams as if my intervention had intensified his rage, incensed him beyond reason.

I held my bleeding palm, as I looked from one to the other. Faces blurred into each other.

- Where una hide the children? Angry voices asked but no one waited for an answer. The boys were guilty by virtue of who they were. Strangers.

- Make una bring tyre. Somebody bring tyre.

I pushed through the crowd. I needed my phone. I needed to call the police. I raced into my compound. The gate to the staircase that led upstairs was locked. Someone had banged it shut. I tugged at it, leaving a bloody smear on the door handle. It didn’t give.

I was bleeding, the redness congealing on the hairs at the back of my hand.

I knocked on my neighbours’ doors. Their doors were locked. No one answered.

I raced out of the compound again to the shoemaker. Surely he would help. They sat with him all day. They were neighbours.

I found him, hunched over and sobbing, a broken old man.

- Give me your phone. Give me your phone.

I dialled 199.

- Good morning. What’s your emergency.

- Please get me the police.  Please. They are killing two boys on my street.

- What’s your street? She asked and I told her.

- Please hurry. They are going to burn them alive.

The crowd was huge now, so huge and so alive that I couldn’t reach the centre. Someone had found a tyre, it seemed. Someone had brought petrol. They had been doused in it and Sam was begging, his voice raised, plaintive, fighting for their lives. Silas was silent as usual and even though I could not see, I could imagine his lips moving wordlessly as someone struck the match.

People staggered back as a collective cry went up all over the street. Men tripped over men as they scattered. And now I had them in my view. The fire was hungry. Licking at them, blinding them, mixing flesh and textile in an ugly alchemy.

Then, suddenly, I saw Sam turn then run straight at Clement. Taking him by surprise, he knocked Clement down, fell on top of him and enfolded him in a fiery embrace. Clement had no chance.

By the time the police arrived, there were three charred bodies and a quiet street. Their blood thirst sated, my neighbours had skulked indoors.

I was the only one outside when the police arrived. I gave them names. I pointed to houses. I knocked on doors. I watched men taken away, neighbours I have lived with for six years. Eyes glared at me but I did not care.

Upstairs, I held my throbbing arm with the caked blood and wept for those two. I knew I was done with that street. I knew the street was done with me too, so after I cleaned my gash, I began to pack.

 And I was still packing when I heard the screaming.

Someone had found the missing kids; unconscious but safe in the back of a broken down bus where they had gone in to play.

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