When Mensah closed from work that Friday, little did he know that he had only two hours left to live. As he locked the warehouse where he had spent the last five years, from 7 am to 5 pm, each day, labelling bottles of bleaching cream, he noticed that the clouds had gathered towards the sea, and the wind was cold to the bone. Then it occurred to him to hurry to the taxi rank before the unending monsoon rains set in. He didn’t want to be stuck in the traffic while sheets of rain fell from the sky. He closed the door gently after him and put the key in his old wrinkled bag which he always carried with dignity. He had always learned in life to walk with his head held high no matter the circumstances. He who has not beaten himself already cannot be beaten by another. That had been his mantra since the time he was released from the borstal, and he had to work to pay his way through college. Those were the hard times, yet he survived.
As he stepped on the tarmac and made his way down the slope to the taxi rank to pick a trotro to Circle Roundabout, he wondered about the survival instincts of man. Nature has put so many hurdles in man’s path, yet he has survived. Epidemics, natural disasters have all threatened to wipe him off from the face of the earth. Man to man has also been unjust. The wars and thuggish leaders have played their parts yet man has survived.
“Man will always survive.” He said.
But, where does despair end and hope begin? He wondered.
He looked to his right and saw the Presbyterian Church with its imposing spire. Some kids were playing with careless abandon in the courtyard. Their charged shouts of “hey, aie” came to him forcefully. Just then, his mind went into the past, into his childhood. It was one fraught with tension and devoid of happiness. He remembered how his father, after his drinking sessions, would come home to a fist fight with his mum and his mother, a tigerish woman would stand her ground, and pound for pound, beat his father into submission. It was during these moments of shame that his father would take all his humiliation and rage on to Mensah. He would whip him like there was no tomorrow. With his heart-rending cries, he would run to the neighbours who would intervene and pick him, an only child to their homes for the night. Isn’t right that a child would see this. They’d say. He still bore the welts of his father’s belts on his back and on his buttocks. He couldn’t comprehend the sins he’d committed in his past life to have such parents as these lot. Maybe he was an Amalekite who oppressed the children of the Almighty. For did Yahweh, the Lord of vengeance, not say somewhere in the Bible that he would have it with those who touched his anointed?
From the loud speakers on the streets, Amakye Dede’s melancholic voice sang Sufre Wo Nyame.
Sufre Wo Nyame se omoa wo.
Se ye Nyame paa aa dabi ebeye yie.
Amakye Dede sang on, and how apt the words were to Mensah. He had called on God, day and night to rescue him from those parents, yet the more he prayed, the more he was afflicted. How often had he not knelt as a mere boy, before the altar alone, and prayed silently, fearfully? And sometimes during the long harmattan nights, when the air was dry and biting, and the church was yet full, and the men prayed to God for renewed vigor to avenge themselves on ladies along Circle Road, and the women also prayed frothing at the mouth to God to smite their husbands with terrible misfortunes to keep them at home always, he alone had also poured his heart out to the Lord like Hannah in a drunken posture; yet not drunk. Oh God if you would do this one thing for me, and I would give my body as a living sacrifice to you. It was the fear that always led him to the Lord – the fear of his father’s belt and the fear of going hungry through the night. And the Lord didn’t hearken to him, for was it not written that, the fearful were always outside the gate, damned to the bottomless pit? This God cared nothing for him. That was when he left the church.
A taxi driver honked at him. This took him away from his thoughts. And he realized that, he had no monopoly over the road.
“Get your sorry ass off the road before you get cut down. If your time has come, go to the cliff”. The driver yelled angrily.
And he stopped to make way. A siren, from an ambulance, pierced the air as it sped towards the hospital up the road. A death wagon. He thought of his death too. How would it be? A happy one or a sad one? What would they say about him? Would there be tears and wreaths? There should be no tears shed, no wreaths laid. For there’s no one to shed a tear or lay a wreath. How sad to have no one in one’s life. And his parents too, where are they now? If the stories told by the preachers are to be believed, then definitely, both parents would be languishing in the lake of fire, being roasted, being turned upside down with the devil’s pitchfork. If indeed there is a hell or heaven, then one cannot have both, then one must go either way. And if he is to join his parents, so be it.
Mensah looked about the street where the kiosks stood with their windows aloof, where gutters ran with all the snot and vomit towards the sea, where men stood at the corners closing deals, where people ran helter-skelter towards home before the rains set in.
Then he miss-stepped, and he seemed to falter, to collapse, and he remembered the time he was sick, and his class teacher sent him home for there was no paracetamol in the school. He got home to find the door unlocked, which was unusual. He rushed in to see a silhouette image of a man on top of his mother behind the curtain which separated his sleeping place on the floor from the bed which his parents shared. He stood still like one who has taken a bullet to his back. The man grunted as his mum moaned in rhythm. He moved outside quickly and wandered the streets for a while with the headache gone. Later, he returned to find his mother whistling Amazing Grace as she washed dishes in the backyard with the man gone. That evening, as his father in a drunken fit, fought it off with his mother, Mensah thought how unjust man to man is.
Ahead of him from the church to his immediate right was Don’t Mind Your Wife Chop Bar, a popular eating place along that stretch of the road synonymous with filth. Filth clung triumphantly to the walls, the tables and chairs. Filth reigned majestically with its courtiers, the flies, who buzzed untiringly along the edges of the plates and cups, on cooking pots and pans, beneath the sink, along the cracks in the walls where they laid multitudes of eggs. One had to ward off the flies with the left hand all the time before one could take food to the mouth.
Filth reigned supreme with its horsemen, the rats, who could be heard chasing one another on the ceiling. Filth was everywhere. It was this place men and women, drawn from all the four corners of Ghana towards the evasive luster of Accra, convocated after a hard day’s labor of pushing and shoving, lifting and dropping that which was not theirs, sweating and blooding it out that which other few men clad in three-piece suits and ties, riding in chauffeur-driven cars would enjoy at the end of the day. There was not much difference between whence these men had come from and the great city, Accra; the only difference may be that Accra talked much, yet produced little; what it gave you on pay day with the right hand, it quickly took with the left.
The food served was always cheap, and this drew many customers.
The clouds have scattered. The rain would not be. He thought. He decided to eat since he would get home late. Besides, there was no one waiting for him. His room was the sepulcher which retained the stench of only the occupant. Ever since that incident with his mother and the stranger, he’s never had any strong bond with women. In his entire life, he has known only a smattering of ladies, here and there with no strings attached.
There was a handful of customers as he parted the rustling raffia curtains of the eating place. To his left was the bar. He sauntered towards the counter and ordered Kasapreko Gin. He took it quickly, grimaced and passed his hand on his chest to assuage the burning sensations. He sat down. A waitress approached him.
“Not now,” he said, “give me some time.”
The talk of the men seated around a table to his left was full of laughter laden with lust and curses. They had been drinking. Mensa looked up. They were laboring men from the construction sites with mud on their faces and in their eyes. It was payday, and wads of cedi notes burned holes in their pockets, and they were itching to give all away. They would end up in the casinos and the whore houses along Circle Interchange. Saturday would greet them with splitting headaches and empty pockets. They would then scrape and scratch for whatever they could find to feed for the rest of the week until another payday. It was during these lean days that they remembered long-ago debts friends owed. The ways of men.
An old man in front of him ate to a powerful munching silence. Mensah looked up. He might be of the same age as his father were he to be alive.
Then Mensa put his head into his palms and thought of the day his father died. It was a Tuesday. Mensah had finished his Mathematics homework. How he hated maths, yet his maths teacher was extremely skilled with the cane. He had a way of lashing foolishness out of one in seven places that, afterwards, one couldn’t forget the arithmetic table.
That Tuesday, he couldn’t sleep after his homework. His mother had shouted at him to lock the door since the rains were setting in. He spread his mat on the floor, slumped onto it and closed his eyes. The rains began to beat on the corrugated sheets. Still his father hadn’t returned. Mensah thought him as drinking off the cold in one of the beer halls littered along the road. He thought it funny how beer halls now outnumbered churches in their section of the town. The rains beat down furiously on the roofs. He felt a drop on his hand. He got up to see that part of his mat drenched. There was a leakage somewhere on the roofs. He spread the mat to the far corner of the room. Then he fell asleep without his father knocking on the door.
Early the next morning, there was uproar in the neighbourhood as a crowd had gathered around the ditch.
“Bring the pole. This way. No. Take it further. Are you a son of a woman? Can’t you see him. It’s a man.
Push harder. There he comes.”
It was his father who had fallen into the ditch as he made his way home through the rain. Mensah wasn’t sad. Just disappointed that, he wasn’t there to give voice to the hatred he’d nursed all these years for his father, to spit on him on his death-bed. How he would have relished it. But, he would do just that. He would spit on his grave. Then they dressed his father’s lifeless body, put it in that plain box, and the women began to weep.
Outside, the sky was downcast, and before long, the floodgates of heaven opened. The rain came down with gusto. It lashed incessantly on the roof and against the windows. There was weeping everywhere; weeping from the heavens, weeping from the women in the house. Mensah gave a sneeze or two, for he caught his mother watching him above the tears in the house.
His chance to exact revenge came, during the burial, when his father was yet cold in the silent ground.
Mensah lingered awhile in the cemetery, raised his fists to the air and said, “There you are. Powerless and nothing. They saw me crying, but nothing in it from my heart. You are nothing. Nothing. You can’t touch me again.”
And he spat a mouthful of spittle on the fresh soil which covered the grave.
“Are you ready to order now?” Asked the waitress again.
“Yes. Give me banku with abenkwan and tilapia. Make everything ten cedis.”
The waitress left him to bring his order.
He had serious calculations to make. He brought out a sheet of paper and a pencil from his bag. He started scribbling away. His salary was 700 cedis. He owed his landlord 200 for rent and utilities. He would have to give 250 to Manu, his colleague, to offset the loan he took. Then he would be left with 250 cedis. Man, he couldn’t eat three times a day till the end of the month, and today being the 1st, he had a long month ahead of him. He would have to eat yor ke garri for breakfast, then eat banku in the evenings till the month ends. For lunch, he could do with Kofi Broke man. Man will survive, bar any sickness, any mishap,” he said silently.
“Here you are,” the waitress said as she placed his order before him.
He took a sip of soup.
After his father’s funeral, his mum ran a tumbledown beer pallor of bamboo sticks and thatched roofing adjacent to their one-roomed apartment. It was here the laboring men, the lowest of the low, congregated every evening to eat bush meat, to drink akpeteshie, to dance all night long to Daddy Lumba’s songs with the women. These men, in their stupor, often said they preferred his mother’s soothing voice at her altar to the harsh preaching tunes of the priests in the churches along the street all day.
His mother was the talk of town. She was a Socialist who spread her thighs equally amongst men only at a token, mind. Compared to the exorbitant prices elsewhere, she was Rahab reincarnated. How most women have had it in for her on the streets. She had a stinging tongue on her, that woman. She was that shameless. This always cut Mensah to the quick.
Then came one late afternoon, when he returned from the streets to see his mother seated behind the table in the room, sipping brukutu. The last stabs of the dying sun pierced through the window and wrinkled her face. Mensah stood silently, watching. For the first time, he saw how dirty the room was with that strong stench. He wanted to retch. Then he looked at his mother again, with the dark vein running downward from the forehead to the right eye, the thinnish mouth with the venomous tongue lying behind ready to strike, the strong, bony hands with the veins standing out in relief.
Now she looked up from her drinking and saw him.
“What are you doing, watching me like that, boy?” She croaked.
He stood watching, with his tongue glued to his mouth.
“I know your problem. You think you are better than me. But, let me tell you. No one is better than me. See how women cringe at my passing, see how the men bow down and worship me with their gifts. Boy, I’m the queen.” She paused, took a long sip and croaked still. “And let me tell you boy, no one has got bags of gold for you. Life will try to beat you down. When you have to weep, weep behind the curtain. Never let the world see your tears. Never beg for mercy from any man. Choose death over failure. Do what you have to do to survive. Nobody loves you. You are on your own.”
Mensah’s anger turned to hatred. He made as to hit her, but he seemed to remember something, and he changed his mind and stopped midway. These words from her, although spewed from a heart bitter still and a heart filled with hatred still, seemed to him a prophecy being told now, yet with repercussions for tomorrow.
That night, while she slept after a hard day at the office, Mensah walked up to her and looked at her silently. She slept so peacefully. He, as if possessed, pressed the pillow on her head and smothered her.
He was taken to the borstal home. It was there he saw hope against hope, compete with failure to take dominion of that which was the soul of man, and in the end, failure won. It was there that vices were perfected which in turn metamorphosed into heinous crimes in society. It was there that youths grew angry and angrier still, and later became heartless criminals. It was there that the warden and the inmate, cut from the same cloth, each ever smiling, yet with raised daggers stealthily behind their backs to stab or be stabbed, for that was the law of the jungle. He was 15 years then. He kept his head around and often spent time in the library, reading, reading all those books. After four years, he was released on account of good behaviour.
See how he has turned his life around, putting himself into college. There’s hope yet.
After his meal, he picked his bag and left for the street again. He felt happy inside. Just ahead of him, a conductor was shouting Circle! Circle! Going. He ran towards the trotro. He would pick it to Sankara Circle, then get down in front of the Netherlands House. He would walk the few meters towards the next bus stop. From there another trotro would take him past Jubilee House, past 37 Military House, past Airport Residential where the price of a flat could buy a man and his family. If he were lucky, the traffic light might show red, and he would turn to his right on his seat and admire Rover Place with its shiny glasses behind which stood Jaguars, Range Rovers, Daimlers and Bentleys. Then he would be a politician with a suitcase full of cedis, and he would enter and point to a Bentley. There, that’s the one I want. And he would drive into the sun, into Kempinsky. And he would order a lunch of lobsters and drink Sauvignon Blanc on ice. And his flat would be in East Legon with a garden full of rose and bougainvillea flowers. And he would run hot water in his electric bathtub, and afterwards he would jump onto his water bed, and rub his hands on his bulging stomach, belch and fart, and sleep the sleep of kings. But alas, he was no politician. He didn’t own a suitcase full of cedis. There was no table reserved in the dining halls of Kempinsky. His apartment in East Legon only existed in his head. That was why he’d be sat on the bug-infested trotro seat haggling with the conductor over a change of 50 pesewas. And the traffic light would show green, and the driver would speed towards Madina, towards the slums. Then he would get down finally behind the mosque, and walk past the public latrine with its dump site, past the public bathhouse, and finally enter the house of zinc roofing sheets, and slump on his lean mattress on the concrete floor. He wouldn’t belch, or fart, or run his bony fingers over his flat tummy. Instead, he’d snore and weep in between sleep until the next morning.
Darkness descended. About him, everywhere, people were still running in the streets, in a hurry towards nowhere. It was a continuous, confused rabble of feet and sound all struggling for dominance. A total pandemonium.
Wait. What was that speeding towards him? The only thing he heard was the screeching of tires, and the wild cries of the peddlers, and a dull pain in his chest and head. The ground seemed to swirl furiously, and something moved in his body which was not him. Mensah was naught; a powerful malignant hand seemed to strike him down. There was blood everywhere; blood which ran to join the filth of the gutters.
“Awurade! Obiba oo!” The peddlers cried wildly still.
Then there was total darkness. Then that was all.
The taxi driver had his hands on his head.
All those who gathered around his mangled body as they waited for the Police were with one accord. Mensah was at fault. Rushing like that, and not looking where he was going.
Man to man is so unjust.
Image: BedexpStock Pixabay remixed