Son, this city has a mouth and it has teeth. It munches on people and chews them…
The bar was not full, but it was loud enough to make anyone think we were making profits. It was patronized by the usual every-evening drinkers – an engineering lecturer from the Poly Technic, a certain man who owned a hardware store in Limbe, and another who we did not know what he really did for he was very talkative. I pretended to be listening to their arguments behind the counter but my mind was somewhere else. This is why the face that came on the TV screen caught me by surprise. It was a picture of Trevor alongside that of the news anchor. I could not hear what was being said by the news anchor but the churning of my stomach told me that something was not right. I had known Trevor for a long time and I knew that something was wrong. I quickly walked out of the bar’s counter through the back door to find relief in the only latrine we had there.
Trevor had been my childhood friend but he was now a big boy in town. We did not really chat anymore but we talked time and again when he passed by the bar in his sports cars and lavish attires. He told me that he did not want to have anything to do with me because I had lost a golden opportunity when it was once offered on the table.
“You see my friend, life favours the bold. I don’t know why you are still working as a barman when you had all the chances to improve yourself,” he told me.
“But Trevor, sometimes….”
“You will tell me when you are ready to be a man,” he cut me short.
I was not going to tell him anything because I was never going to be ready. I felt that life had shown me enough misery to stop believing in dreams. Dreams and fortunes exist in another world and they are pains that sting the hearts of the ambitious. One has to know and accept their station in life and that is where happiness lies – in acceptance.
I mostly heard about Trevor’s adventures from his sister, Tamala. This is a girl I have been fond of all my life. Tamala was the first girl to make me realise that girls are different from boys. Girls can be warm, tender, and moist. Girls have the capacity to hold a certain power over you and leave you brainless like a child. My first experience with a girl was with Tamala and I will never forget those days.
Tamala and Trevor were the only family I had known for a long time. I remember it was my mother who took me to Blantyre when I was just seven years old. We had starved under the dust and droughts of Chiradzulu. There were days when all we could look at was the angry sun scorching the earth mercilessly with no hope of a meal or something like that. My father had hidden himself in his drink and he feigned insanity – running away from responsibility. At first, my mother insulted him within the house. Then she insulted him in the earshot of neighbours. When that was not enough, she went as far as insulting him in the market place and threatened that she would be offering her nakedness to other real men if he did not change. He did not change. Then my mother’s anger marinated into grief which later became a chasm of silence. One fine summer morning, she packed our bags and we trod to the city.
Limbe was not very different from what we experienced where we lived. But for the screaming noise of second-hand cars, the smell of screeching tires, the disgust on the faces of Indian traders, and the grim-faced vendors who threw indecent insults at innocent women, everything was the same. The sun still burned with vigour, there was no food on the mat, and for three days, mother had not found a place to sleep or any of the plentiful jobs that she was talking about on our way to Blantyre. On the fourth day of our city experience, mother left me on the veranda of the shop we regarded as home and told me that she was coming back. Days became nights and suns humbled themselves into moons but my mother did not come back. It was on one of those days that I met Trevor and Tamala.
They found me on the veranda looking lost. When I saw them, I tried to pretend I was a big city boy with something to do. But I guess they read into my façade.
“You! What are you doing here?” it was Trevor asking. He was not very different from me in age but he was definitely different in experience. He projected his voice with a certain command that you only detect in ruffians. He looked at me with fire in his eyes as if the sun was burning inside him. I trembled within and the tremors of that fear shook my body. He had me where he wanted me exactly to be – in a spot of vulnerability.
When he saw that I had no answer to his question, Trevor charged towards me like a lion after its prey. It was Tamala who came to my rescue. Something told her that I was not a big city boy. I was just a boy from the village amazed at how the lights of the city blinked all night long and disturbed by the sleepless people who roamed the city all night long. She walked briskly and came between me and Trevor.
“Don’t mind him. We will take you home,” she declared. There was something in her eyes that was radiant like compassion.
“What are you talking about? We don’t even know this moron…” Trevor charged, but the moment Tamala turned to face him, he suddenly fell silent as if he had no mouth.
Tamala led the way and I followed them. We walked down amidst vacated grocery stores made from cardboards that were the treasure of Limbe Market. In the daytime, these ramshackle structures hosted businesses that fed the city. We kept walking down until I smelled the strong stench of Mudi River – a river notorious for its fumes that could kill a rat. Above that river was a road that went all the way up to finer neighbourhoods, but from that night to many years to come, our neighbourhood was under the bridge on that road. We literally lived in the river – or on its banks, if you like.
My first days were hard for I kept thinking about my mother. I kept dreaming she had come back from wherever she went and she was distressed – searching the streets for me with tears in her eyes. Sometimes I woke up with sweat on my forehead and tears in my eyes. Everybody under the bridge knew my story but they kept quiet. Everybody under that bridge had their own story. It was Ganda – the guy who owned that space under the bridge – who made me a man. For days, Ganda read into my misery and studied my despair. One evening he called me aside and spoke like the man he was.
“Son, this city has a mouth and it has teeth. It munches on people and chews them. Some people are chewed and spat out. They become unrecognizable but they still roam the city. They are no longer their former selves. Others it chews and swallows. You will never see them again. Your mother can be out there roaming the streets or she may have been swallowed, who knows?” he paused.
I did not really get what he was trying to say but I knew it was something intelligent. I just looked at him and waited for him to finish.
“Just make sure you survive.”
He left me there hanging. The next morning, I joined the other boys from under the bridge in their multiple masquerades. Sometimes I would be a deaf boy begging from shop to shop. At other times I would have Down syndrome and made incomprehensible sounds as I begged. At times I would be blind while Tamala and Trevor became lame with crooked hands or legs, waiting for alms outside mosques. In this city masquerade, we survived. Where we live, survival is everything.
When we became teenagers, things changed. Tamala no longer allowed me to experience her body. She told me that her body was not for free and that I would have to pay something for other men paid fortunes to touch her. Trevor became hooked on smoking weed and he was always angry and paranoid. He knew that Tamala was doing something and he did not like it. She had left the bridge and she was renting a place behind Baba Happy Centre, a bar in the middle of the city. Unwillingly, each one of us started leaving the bridge for we were growing old. New boys were coming in and we had to find something bigger and better to do. I found a job as a barman at Baba Happy Centre and negotiated that I move in with Tamala. Trevor moved in too.
Although we lived together, it was Tamala who provided for us. She had the big money and she would not give us the food without insults. She kept telling us that we needed something better to do. She said she could introduce us to people who knew people. We listened. One day she told us that we had to meet one of her clients – a Nigerian immigrant who was a big man in town. We went to his place. He was a very tall and dark man who had a look that said “I want to laugh” on his face. He wasn’t a friendly guy. He explained the nature of his business to us and gave us time to think about it. I was not going to think. I was already out.
The Nigerian made Trevor a big guy. His business must really have been profitable for within months, Trevor had become big with money. He had been travelling all over the world seeing places that we only hear of on TV. He would travel to Ghana this week, China the next, Dubai, Thailand, Brazil, name the places. I envied him but I could never join him – it was against my conscience.
The news on TV was about what had transpired on one of his business trips to Brazil. They say the plane that he was to board on his way back to Malawi had delayed due to bad weather conditions. As he waited for the plane, he became uncomfortable and suddenly ill at the airport. Security was alerted of a black man of medium height having convulsions and almost in a state of delirium. They quickly sought an ambulance and rushed him to the nearest hospital where things got worse. He was grunting and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. The cocaine that he had inserted in his stomach in condoms through his anus had burst and the poison later killed him. When I saw his face on TV, I knew it was not good news. We rarely have good news where we live.
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