Fiction

Cutback Arrangement: A Short Story by Jumoke Verissimo

I sat in a corner in the beer parlour and sipped a bottle of beer for almost three hours. Just a bottle. The much I could afford. I observed people as they trudged into the beer parlour. There was nothing to do except sip that, one bottle of beer, which I had bought as an alternative to taking a bus home. I traded my fare for a bottle of cold beer. I sat, and waited for the sun to set before I started a long trek home. At that point, it was better than answering questions from my wife.

“I hope nothing! Why you come home so early?” I wanted to avoid her nagging interrogation, and then there was the pain of looking directly in the eyes and telling her that I will be out of job for a long time now, and even indefinitely. And that she would have to foot our daughter’s school fees and maybe even more.

I decided to stop over at the beer parlour after a little deliberation, on whether I should take a bus or simply take a stroll home after cooling my failing nerves with a bottle of cold beer. Doing this would earn me a clearer head and maybe some time to deliberate on several issues that bothered me. I would also have time to look inward, and maybe think of the nation at my feet, or on my head.

I had my retrenchment letter in my pocket and I knew exchanging my transport fare for a bottle of beer was more appealing to my sense of depression than taking a bus home. The buses were like tin boxes with wheels on them. Danger hazards. Of course, there were problems that are more pertinent so, it was not a priority on government’s list.

I had always preferred walking if I could, and most times, I could. I believe it was better than moving in those death traps, with worn out tyres and never existing car horns.In this case, the choice depended on sustaining my sanity. I knew that, that singular moment of deliberating between beer and transportation could determine if I would keep my sanity or if I would run off the bend.I felt my retrenchment letter in my pocket again. I had to be sure I was not in deep slumber.I wanted to feel the truth in my pocket.

“To imagine that one idiotic man, who is in government by virtue of sympathy, has his son stashing over 22billion dollars in his account, while I am being retrenched for serving below one dull, balloon shaped, thieving minister, who suggested down-sizing for a corporation that some dunce transformed army men has incapacitated.”

I sipped my beer, mindless of the stares I got.The director general had called me into his office. To him he was commiserating with me for my situation. He always said he liked me in a symbiotic fashion.In a corrupt corporation, silence was a virtue.He liked me for my silence.

“I don’t know why your name is part of the list, I tried to do something…you see…you can start a small business…” I interjected his seemingly comic relief. I had never gone contrary o the laws of the civil service, I had avoided corruption like a plague, amidst being in the centre of it all.I guess it was all this anger that welled up in me, and I just began to talk.

“I am being retrenched because of a thief …,” I asked.

“I beg your pardon mister that is the minister you are talking about” I was glad he acknowledged the fact that the minister was a thief!

“Minister my arse! How can you retrench every worker working diligently because you people want to have more avenues to put taxpayers’ monies in your pocket? That bastard man and you have enough money in your account to cater for the next ten generations?”

“I will send you out of my office if you insist on using such foul language!” I looked at the director general, who was in fact just a baby kilode, a marionette. All he did was sign papers of the next misappropriated funds.Then ask for some percentage from an indulgent contractor or a foreign company that was very glad to sell their specifically made sub-standard products to the government corporation.The last case had been of some 12,000 old distribution transformers painted as new, and resold to the power corporation.The minister of power had suggested down sizing as soon as the president asked about the ineffectiveness of the corporation and even with the funds spent on it.I was a victim of that greed and corruption.

I sipped my beer. I sighed and took to observing the people once more. In this situation, a bottle of cold beer was a preferred choice. It was 4pm by this time but the sun was still bright and I felt the burn in just watching, the sweaty faces of people working in the sun. Walking in the blistering sun would have increased my feeling of grieve, as the sun’s scorch reminded me of every social maladjustment that surrounded my existence. I pictured myself walking in that sun, my eyes squinted; and my sweaty threadbare shirt wet and smelly, with the sole of my shoes screaming obscenities as the melted points in the sole gave sights to my feet.No! I preferred a bottle of cold beer.

I looked around the bar, and saw the unpleasant vicissitudes of lives on the faces of people seated on the restaurant-styled arranged beer parlour. Different faces one picture. Gloom. Inassurance. Hope. Those who they had retrenched, like me, those who had domestic issues, and those who were trying to get stability in the economic tide, but just kept loosing hold. Then there were the very few local advocates, who found hears only in the beer parlour. There was one table, and two or three chairs around each. People sat in groups or dragged their chairs to convenient sections that caught their interest. There was no live band in this beer parlour, unlike some in Lagos that had you listening to the forceful din of some elements attempting to be musicians. Most times the Beer parlours did not have to pay these people to play, they would at most just organise their amplifiers, loud speakers and microphones, and started their sessions. If their attempt did not get a rebuff from the owner of the beer parlour, they got a regular playing ground. Then they would set a wooden stage by or on the road and then blare the music.Imitating a cross bone of techno-music, rock and what appeared like a tempered flavour from the traditional music, they attempted to create their own brand.I would not say it is not ingenious. It could just be a pure interference to logical reasoning.It was just like one hell of a distraction. In both ways it was, it meant every young person thought of dropping out of school to try this brand of music as it gave you an edge to break off from poverty if you were lucky. People looked forward to these elements called musicians, but I avoided them like faeces. Just the way, our government and its election avoided any candidate for a post without a trace of a military record from its past. Military records could be criteria for an assured place in any political party.

The parlour was half-filled now, and the men sorted themselves in order of preference. The sport lovers were stuck to the television connected to a satellite cable. Waiting for the world cup-qualifying match between Nigeria and Angola; watching it there in the beer parlour was their best bet of not missing the match. In their homes, they were no assurance of power. Here, they could hope for a change from national electric power source to the diesel-powered generator if the power went off.There were some like me seated alone, catching snatches of conversation, and at times listening to the music blaring not too loudly from the speaker, just sipping beer.

Some men in a in a circle of about seven morosely drunk men, shouted themselves hoarse. I pictured their lives outside the bar. They were probably one of the civil servants that the government had not paid wages to for over three months now. Their likes were well known to the bar owner, so they could ask for beers hoping to pay back when the salaries were paid. The beer parlour was one place they had the assurance of a lively companionship and credit-facility, where buying beer was concerned.

“…. Those people don’t know that people are suffering. I don’t think.”

I caught the last string of the conversation of a squared shaped man who had a half-finished bottle of beer in his hand.

“Look my friend (hic); you should just drink your troubles away. This country (hic) cannot change. If it were you (hic), you will steal more than that,” a thin wiry man retorted to the statement of the first man.I saw him clearly, because he faced the shaft of light that glowed from the fluorescent lamp hung on a wooden pole positioned by an open drainage. The man had big flagella-like lips, and a very thin frame, which harboured his beer globe-shaped stomach. I looked at my bottle of beer it was almost finished.I turned my attention to some three girls lined up by my table. One of them bent low, and I viewed her breast as it almost sprang out of the loose open necked blouse she wore.

“Oga, how now?” she said chewing a bubble gum nosily to my hearing. The others walked away just then; to them she had caught my attention.I looked as the two others walked away. One wore, a short mini skirt, which stopped just right where her bum started on a mini shirt that was tied just after her chest. It was deliberate I suspect, to make her breast tempting. It was not buttoned, just tied. The other one appeared very young indeed.She had on a fitted trouser with a very transparent cotton top on. She was not too confident her steps lacked the authoritative and assuring exquisiteness of her two companions. The one who stayed behind seeing that I was not too attentive to her alluring gestures gave a loud hiss and then walked off.I called her back and she thinking I had had a change of mind walked briskly but alluringly to me.

“You know if I be woman we for dey compete now for body market.I just lost my job. “She gave a long loud hiss and walked away to the next table, certain I was either mad or dead drunk.I did not care to see if she was angry or not.I turned my head to see her flirting with another person. A man whose trousers were way above his ankle, it was meant to be a trouser, but it ended up far up above his ankle. His shirts sleeves were not any longer one would think he borrowed the clothes from a smaller person. His face was taunt when she asked came to him initially, but as the woman rubbed her chest on him, he gave off a quick fading smile. It was like welcoming her daring act and asking for more. I smiled too, knowing that the girl’s effort had paid off, and she was going to earn some money for the night from the man’s meagre income.

I sipped my bottle of beer, as lyrics of the song streamed from the stereo into my consciousness. I listened attentively like a class lecture was going on.Even when the shout of “goal!” came from the football viewing beer consumers, I stuck my ears to the lyrics of Fela’s song blaring from the speakers.

“…election story nko

Obasanjo plan am very well

he take old politician

wey rule Nigeria before

the same old politicians

wey spoil Nigeria before

Obasanjo carry all of them

All of them dey their now…”

I nodded my head as I reflected the political games of the past few years in my head and its recent advocacy to rule out corruption. The last election had been widely acclaimed as rigged by the ruling party. PDP. Although this song was for the Obasanjo regime of the 70s, when he was still a military man, it seemed to be repeating itself now in a different stroke.Obasanjo transformed into civilian government and his corrupt entourage.

My neighbour at home discussed as we rode together on the bus in the morning while we both dragged ourselves to work knowing fully well, we were unwilling to resume work.These days most people do not work for the love of it, they work for the sake of just working, without meaning without rationality maybe just for the word.And to be retrenched without hope for tomorrow, working was just one of those things. Just work.I had had no idea that I was going to be retrenched this morning.I talked with my neighbour and as he was got to his stop, he said,

“Government should not expect people who had come into the government as a do or die affair get away without getting their campaign funfair funds back.” Then he stopped at the bus stop where he could just walk to his office, I almost sighted sadness on his face as he waved bye to me.

“I should have worn that forlorn look, in anticipation of my retrenchment.”I thought. Tomorrow’s headlines would read, “Government retrenches 2,500 workers for redundancy” when it has been the guilty one all along.

“How can he rule out corruption when he puts the same old rogues there?” I asked myself. I shook my head, and drowned the last trickle of the now warm beer left in the bottle. I thought of the increasing number of insane people on the streets, every day, they increased at an alarming rate.

I drained the content of my beer; the last trickle waltzed down my throat. I looked at the sky the sun had gone down, and I knew it was time to walk away into the street and to my home. I walked home I had spent my money on a cold bottle of beer for sanity.

I walked out of the bar. My head down cast my heart heavy as I walked into the streets again; I knew I was back to carry my troubles where I dropped it off. The problems of the ruling class, a successive case of these khaki-boys arranging and rearranging our governance for their convenience, and telling us to wait for utopia while they withdrew and saved from their Swiss bank accounts where our monies were saved.

I walked out of the beer parlour not too such if I even wanted to go home.I felt like the country itself, contorted with autocratic phases. My retrenchment letter was still in my pocket. After the beer.

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