Sleep was the last thing that came to me as I sat legs folded on my bed. My mind was far away in that little staff office which had in it a wooden box hung on the wall. In that box laid my ticket to the future. If I hadn’t experienced the time travel a few days ago, I was as certain as a fire would cause smoke, that this idea would only have been termed incredulous.
My hands still trembled. A few hours ago, Mr. Sunday, as I now called him, had ordered me to put the strange bag with its contents into the box. I had thought of the possibility of making a run with the bag, but I guess it was the withholding power of common sense that proved to be supreme. I had followed Mr. Sunday’s instruction like a blood thirsty zombie, and handed the key of the box to him, after which he had shut the steel doors and left me standing in front of the office, unsuspectingly dangling the keys in my face as he said his good nights.
My thoughts now shuffled between the cruel invention of getting hold of the key to the box, and facing the consequences of losing yet another job if I was caught in the act.
I calmed my adrenaline rush with the ingenious idea that perhaps tomorrow, the owner of the mysterious bag would come back and then, I could take my chance with what plays out. One thing I was certain about: I was going to get that clock. And something inside told me that I was going to do whatever it took. It scared me to realize what I just thought out loud. The last thing I remembered before I drifted off to Sleep Land was the question: what could I possibly be capable of?
I was woken up from an obviously dreadful dream. What made it all the more so was the fact that I only remembered a bit of it. It was the part I opened the door of my room for Chioma to come in. She had on her face the make-up of a deranged old woman asking for her handbag.
I bolted from my bed to check my door. It was locked alright but I didn’t see what was wrong to be double sure. Chioma was by no means welcomed here anymore. Not by accident, not by coincidence. I shook off my mind the thought of the predicament she put me through.
My mind resumed from where it stopped the night before. I needed to figure out how to get a hold of the silver chain wristwatch. I needed a new strategy and relied on the subconscious part of my mind to help me. I wasn’t hoping for that off the hook Eureka moment, I was only praying that it wouldn’t be a matter of doing whatever it took for me to have the time piece.
I was the earliest to resume work this morning, and I was glad about it. If the owner of the strange bag came in early, she would meet me. From the content of the bag, she would be an elderly woman not concerned with the flamboyant things of life. Two wooden combs: the last time I saw one of such was when I was five and used to follow my mum to her oni diri hair maker. If this woman was old, she must be very very old to still be in possession of such tools. A mischievous smile shadowed the side of my face. Could it be possible that the oldy was totally bald now, and that her hair tools were just a reminder of her sweet sixteen days?
It was about an hour later before the gallery was opened for the day. I had spent a few minutes making acquaintances with a few early birds with the intention of knowing the shift rotation for the night guards within the perimeter. There wasn’t really any helpful information, apart from the young cleaner lady who tried to impress me with her pitiful aberration of the English language. Her name was Shade, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the lady Dekunle Gold sang about in his debut single.
“Later for evening, I will selling drinks on the other side of the hmmm, the other side where them dey do faaji.” She pointed to the other side of the park where the pubs were located. I nodded my head with a sarcastic smile pasted on my lips. You could never know, Shade could be a life line of some sort.
So here I was again, my second day as a ‘watch guard’ with Old Rhoda breathing down my face as she narrated to me her role in the drama that had taken place while she was in the horrendous morning traffic enroute work.
I half listened to her not just because I sensed a bit of exaggeration, but mostly because I had to be aware of anyone who looked like they were in need of help. More like a old lady on her way to Damascus.
I had asked Andrew my team head why Mr. Sunday seemed to be running late, and he had told me he didn’t come to work every day, and today might just be that day.
At that instant, nervous streams of sweat began to pour from the crown of my head till it was evident that I was either sick of some kind of fever or sick of two variations of the same kind of fever. I tried to cool off fast enough.
“Why, what’s the problem? Did he give you a query yesterday?” Andrew, who had a chipped upper lip spoke without the intention of smiling, but unfortunately I barely stopped myself from laughing because I could see his exposed teeth.
I had other ideas for a response but I chose to let him into something more formal. “No, just before he left last night, he asked if we knew of your whereabout.” I looked up at his comical face with great sense of control.
“He did? And what did you tell me?”
I figured he was looking for any trace of insubordination from my part, so I eased up a little and explained that Mr. Sunday just wanted to hand over the office keys to him.
“Keys bawo? Wetin concern me with keys? I resemble Store Manager?” Andrew must have had a bad moment once upon a time with Mr. Sunday in relation to the keys. It was funny how he switched language to emphasize his distaste. I just blinked my eyes a few more times than was necessary.
“See ehn, next time if he ask you for me, just tell am sey I dey interior interior interior. You understand? As in inside inside.” Andrew made a gesticulation with his fingers pointing at the wall. I looked at the direction and decided that there must be other rooms beyond this wall. He saw my puzzled face, and helped to dislodge my wondering mind. “Just tell am sey I no dey nearby. Kachicum?”
I nodded my head, and slowly walked away, not bothering to tell him about the found strange bag. One thing I had learned: the store manager kept the keys. Or at least most of the time.
People began to flood the clock gallery again at about the same time as the day before. Now, I was more familiar with facial signals from my colleagues, and could even venture more into the crowd to assist people where my help was needed. Unlike the day before when I was eaves dropping on conversations from young elite ladies, today I was in search for the old ladies, and more narrowly, anyone of them who looked like she needed help. I’m the man who was custom made to help the oldies. I’ve got empathy as old as the Oba of Benin’s sceptre.
Soon I had repositioned myself at the entrance of the gallery, now looking at Old Rhoda at the other end. From here, she looked like an overweight police woman who had been forced into compulsory retirement, and was resentful and disgruntled at the same time with the Nigeria Police. The muscle she flexed each time was an indication that she was precociously dismissed from her place of passion.
After a few hours without seeing any old lady in particular who seemed to need help, or who had asked for help from any of my colleagues, I began to reorganize my strategies. This might turn out to be a case of the mountain going to Mohammed if the prophet refused to come to the mountain. I just had a deep inexplicable feeling that the owner of the strange bag would be back today to come look for her bag. And that she was here already.
As I excused myself from the outer gallery, I shook my pinna which had since begun to resonate from the ticking of over one hundred clocks. Outside in the fresh air, I stretched my neck and scanned the pews and slabs scattered around this side of the park. My feet seemed heavier from the thick rubber soles I walked in. That was the least of my problems now. I needed to find the owner of the bag. Maybe that would give me a case to go look for Mr Sunday, or the store manager as I had learnt from Andrew.
Just as I pondered these thoughts, I looked up to discover someone walking towards me. My mind immediately began to run through my spec to see if she matched the possible owner of the strange bag. This woman who walked towards me didn’t look as old as someone who would be using idi agbon shea butter, or matting her hair with rubber thread; but she could be worked into someone who used a Nokia 3310. I moved towards her, eager to offer my help. I had hopefully judged her even before she opened her mouth to make her request.
“My dear brother, how are you?” the under sixty year old lady spoke with a concocted Yoruba accent. I had to be a little more patient. I paused before responding.
“Good day, ma.” I realized for the first time how hot the weather was. This was supposed to be the August Break period, not the Dry Season.
“Please my brother, God bless you mightily.” The woman unfolded the envelope under her armpit. I heard the few words of the woman, and immediately began to backpedal. No na, haba. Not here. Not today. It was already late to reinvent my move, I had fallen into her trap, and so I had to bear the over familiar irritating lines of the professional Lagos beggar.
“Ok, ma,” Was my cold response. I waited for her to dazzle me with some ingenious head script.
“How are you? You must enjoy your work.”
I looked at her with freshly brewed anger. This must be evil sent by Kobo Olanta from the pit of hell.
She didn’t seem to notice the meanness that grew over my face. She proceeded with her agenda. “The time I first saw you, you look like my son. And I’m sure if you are older than him, it wouldn’t be more than a day or two.”
I wanted to tell her that her clairvoyance was manufactured in Ijebu-Ishara. I just calmed down enough to indulge her for another second.
“My son, just bless me. I am stranded in Lagos. My husband’s ATM card which I use once in a while happened to have been stuck in the machine across this place. I need exactly N1800 to get back to Oyo where I came from. I followed a friend to Lagos yesterday for… ” her words trailed off when she realized my body language wasn’t in congruent with her request.
At first my defense was high, but as I began to consider her story, I thought there was a big chance it could be true. I probably would have given her money, but the extra money I had from my transport fare wasn’t even up to fifty naira.
“Madam, where is the ATM located?” I found myself asking the unforeseen question. She seemed startled by it.
“Where?” I asked again, my facial expression looking almost comical.
“It’s on the other place.” She was pointing everywhere all of a sudden, and she felt trapped.
“Please, I don’t have any money to give you, but one thing I can do for you is to follow you to the ATM, and we will break it down. Do you mind?” I waited for her reply with bulging eyes.
She just began walking away without saying any more words. I watched her walk briskly towards the corner, moving her heavy bosom around to find herself a more better understanding benefactor. I wanted to at least thank her for wasting my time, but I realized my absence inside the gallery would have been noticed.
I doubled on my mark and headed for the gallery. As I came before the first arcade, I made a sharp turning and clammed on my heels to stop my pace. I took a deep breath, and began walking into the outer gallery in slower, almost dramatic motion.
Just then a lady crossed into my path, and I moved to let her through. Instead of moving along, she stood before me like she knew me. I wanted to say a lot of things at that moment. Things like how beautiful she looked; how lovely her eyes were, and how pretty her lips were, but I had a job keep, and had to get back to my post. I smiled to show courtesy, and expected her to walk on, instead she made a mocking face at me. “The old lady over there in uniform is ranting. You must be the reason, right?” I looked at her closely, hearing her words more than once.
“Sorry, did you say an old woman was looking for me?” I couldn’t wait to run in the direction she was pointing.
“Yes, the big old lady in uniform.” Now this young pretty lady was eventually walking away. I had also began to run down the hall when her words finally sunk down.
OMG! She meant old Rhoda!
I wasn’t sure if I was to feel angered or frustrated with the back to back incident from the professional beggar I encountered outside and the young lady that just made my heart skip with her few words.
When I finally stood beside old Rhoda, she was seething like she was possessed by a serpentine spirit, apparently angered that I had not only repeated what I did the day before, but had even taken it a notch higher. I sensed I shouldn’t talk to her right away. I just stood beside her and stared down at the more than a handful of people who were present in the inner gallery.
After a few minutes, she looked my way and first pointed her index finger at me. “See ehn, what’s that your name again?” she reminded me of one of my Orobo friends back in the day.
I wondered a little where she was going with the question. It was like I forgot my name. I paused just a little bit more. “Ehm, my name is Eli,” I waited for her response.
“See, whether na Elijah or Elisha, if you know sey you no like your work, ngwanu no be by force to work. I no fit come dey do two person work. I go report you to oga o.”
I just clamped my palms together in apology. It seemed she was holding herself from ranting, and I was grateful that she considered not doing it. I felt the urge was strong, but for the first time, I saw someone who thought about her actions before she did something crazy. This was the closest to love I had experienced in a long while.
“Andrew been ask me now sey where you go. I com dey lie, ehn. As I old reach I dey lie to person wey no reach my first born. Nonsense.”
“Aunty Rhoda abeg no vex. Walai if I comot here again today, call me bastard.”
“Ehen, okay.” The way she said it, it was like Jesus saying to Peter, you will betray me.
I stood with my hands behind me, resuming my work.
“Only me, for this whole parameter. You go give me half your salary?”
“No ma.” I was blunt, and that made her laugh. I was happy she saw the humour.
“One geh just comot here now, she dey ask of Oga Sunday, and I been wan carry am go oga office, but na only me dey here.”
“Ehen?” I looked straight at her. “Wetin she talk sey she want.”
“I no understand am o, and ND to just get my time today. She talk sey she never resume duty, sey na evening she dey do.”
“Ehen, is that so?”
“The geh been talk sey she lost something yesterday. Whether na hand bag or Ghana-must-go, I no understand.”
“Wetin you talk? Handbag?” I was already holding on to Old Rhoda’s fat arm.
“Abeg, where she follow go?” I was about to buckle up again.
“If I hear? Where you think sey you dey go?”
“Abeg, how she be like. Na young lady ba?”
“No, na Odede. If you move I go report you to Mr. Sunday.”
“Aunty, I carry God beg you.”
“No, na Satan you for carry.”
I jumped down little elevation, and dashed down the hall.
“Na red top she wear!” Old Rhoda screamed after me.
“Noooo, na right she follow!”
I stopped at the command, and turned right instead of left.
All night and day, I had thought the owner of the bag was an old lady, but from the new info I got from Old Rhoda, it looked like the owner was the lady I had passed only a few minutes ago at the outer gallery. The young and beautiful lady.