Rough draft of a short story that was later revised, updated, refreshed and published in StoryTime
It was still dark enough for the neon lights to reflect off the paved road, throwing crooked shadows off the potholes that are scattered like puckered pox scares on the coal-black tarmac. Across the road, to the left of an abused public toilet, a huddled figure lay prone, seemingly dead to a sleeping world.
Looking from afar, the weak light fails to hide the deep callous on feet that had apparently taken a tough beating. Large, mutant-like mosquitoes can be clearly seen on the exposed soft areas of the feet, which strangely, is a little further up the foot than normal. At this point, the mosquitoes spotted distended tummies and swaggered with the delirium of the high that comes from ingesting too much human fluid.
The figure appears to be immune to the bites of the giant vampires, for apart from the occasional gentle heave of chest, he lay perfectly still.
An attentive watcher, coming closer, would notice the way patched lips seem to move in silent mime to whatever song is playing in his dream world. The sleeping figure, haggled by a thousand internal demons, turned involuntary in dreamy stirrings that revealed an impossibly deep wound on his shin. It is fetid and crawling with hundreds of maggots and a zillion other microbes.
It had probably gotten to that stage beyond pain for, at that moment it lay partially on the jagged face of a broken pavement stone, a darkish red liquid run off it to form a small spreading puddle beside the stone.
A few feet away, a sprawling mountain of refuse looms, spreading its peculiar fragrance overall the scene.
Beyond this, lies the bridge. Large and gray, a solid testimony to man’s engineering genius. From afar, it appears nondescript, without identity, a lonely sentinel, with only the earth base and dirty canal water for comfort. But closer, she takes on a distinct identity, calling attention to her animate family, silently attesting to her right to be called mother by those who take solace and shelter under her concrete wings. The so-called homeless who have found a home where none but the earth can rightfully claim to own.
Beneath her they lay, in individual singles, in communal clusters or in the larger feudal clutch of the gang-bred, street men and kids. Rank determining the proximity to the middle, made-men laying claim to the center around the street monarch while outcasts and recruits fan the outer rim.
There are those who are yet to be accepted into the clutch. These ones either find security in company of others like themselves. They, like the drifters, people who are here today and most probably gone tomorrow, chose the more trusty companionship of the self, deeming it wiser to snore alone, doing nothing to upset the tribe.
Among these drifters, a new face appeared a few days back. But, unlike them, he had stayed put, though out of everyone’s way. Unlike them too, he appears to draw attention where others are over looked. Alaye was the name he gave the street monarch who uncharacteristically took a curious second look at him during his nightly round of his monarchy. Apparently bemused by the street name he had asked again, “yu sure sey yu bi Alaye so?”
Alaye who did not miss the underlying treat of menace and challenge in his voice had replied in kind, allowing faint submissiveness to color his voice a little.
“Yes ke! Baba, I bi alaya now! I don tey fo area onli sey we neva jam.?”
“Ok now, we go see,” was the non-committal response from the street monarch who continued to look him in the eye. “Shey, from wia you show from respet dey abi? Bicos for hia wi no de take yab o.”
He did not wait for Alaye’s reply before stalking of, his longish legs scraping the hard-parked earth as the muscles rippled in his bare upper torso. Behind him followed his court, a collection of the nations reject, all affecting various degrees of hopefully mean grimaces to match their leaders mood and possibly ensure the quaking of on-looking hearts.
The monarch, who goes by the street moniker Area Baba to reflect his ownership of the bridgehead and the whole of the street down to 25th bus stop, used to be more accommodating. But that was up until his lieutenant Jada, who now runs the areas beyond 25th bus stop, tried to overthrow him in a bloody palace coup that was fought with their weapon of choice, broken bear bottles and iron rods. The fight lasted the most of two weeks and in the end, he was made to part with the choicer part of his inland real estate, which meant loss of revenue from street begging and pick pocketing.
Now he only manages to scrape out a hard going for himself and his boys from pimping for the prostitutes at 2nd avenue and ‘harassment’ money from drivers who use the illegal bus stop at the foot of ‘his bridge’.
Now he looks at this new drifter and sees the same intelligent glint that he saw in Jada’s eye the first time they met. He knows from experience that smart people may mean a whole lot of success. But, if they are as ambitious as Jada, then trouble is what they bring with them.
He prays this one moves on soon. But in the mean time, he will put Kekere on his trail. Because even if he isn’t made he may strike out on his own and would, like Jada, soon have enough boys to challenge his authority. Turning to his new lieutenant Stone, he whispered.
“You sure sey we get space for this one?”
Alaye knew the street monarch’s interest portends trouble. He has being on the street long enough to know the code that is the difference between life and death. The faster you decode another’s code the surer you are of knowing where you stand with him. He had moved the big refrigerator carton that is his mobile tent and bed a little further away from the clutch of the gang-bred. Trying his very best to distance himself from any conflict that might arise.
He positioned the carton in a way that the peephole he had opened in it was facing in the general direction of the bridge base where the street monarch’s chambers lie, instinct warning him that trouble would probably come from that direction not from outwards as usual.
He has kept a low profile from that first day and up till the moment was yet to attract any undue attention to his person from the monarch who still looks at him suspiciously whenever their paths cross, a meeting Alaye avoids as much as he can.
Tonight like other nights before it, Alaye is sleeping deep, though not too deep as to loose grip of his environment and situation. All around him, other street urchins are also in different levels of sleep.
Their young bodies having gotten attuned to the weather and mosquito bites, they sleep unhindered, much like the destitute by the highway that apparently has entered a world that is far from that of human beings, the world of the weather beaten mental chase.
As the night sky took on a faint hue of light that gradually turns the deep black of night gray, Alaye stirred as his biological clock ticked the unset of dawn. He sat up in his coffin like carton and looked towards the gang-bred chambers. His heart gladdening at the sight of the sleeping figures there.
“Hopefully,” he thought, “I would have finished my morning bath and be far away before they awake”
Alaye has every reason to be weary for today is one day that he hopes that avoid trouble, at least, until he knows his stand.
Yesterday, a woman who bought pure water from him at the bridgehead hold up promised to give him a job in her supermarket. On the condition, that he makes it to her shop before 7.am.
Since her shop is on the other side of the city, he will have to rush if he is to retain any hope of getting the job. So, an entanglement with Area Baba will only slow him down or even curtail his going altogether.
His path towards the broken water mains that served as source for drinking water and bathroom for the street boys and indigent residents as well was light by the glare from craggy molues wobbling towards the day’s job.
Unlike other days, he took his time bathing, trying his utmost best to rid the grit and sweaty odor that clung to him. Though he is one of the few street boys that still see an everyday bath as a necessity, the hard life of the street still leaves him as dirty as the others at the days end.
When he had assured himself that he is as neat as he can ever get in the circumstance he walk back to his carton. Foraging inside he pulled out his only decent dress-reserved for days like this-and shrugged into them. Having no option in the footwear department he made do with his threadbare bathroom slippers.
Five minutes later found him trudging down mile two at a pace that is not too brisk but not slow either. He has hope of reaching Ikeja by 6:30 and get to the woman’s shop with a few minutes to spare. Even if he could afford the fare from mile 2 to Ikeja, the thought of taking a bus did not occur to him.
Like others in his situation, he has come to an understanding his fate and sees any money that can be saved as worth saving, so he treks to his destination. Another reason he treks is the hope of meeting someone or something that will alleviate his suffering. It is this hope that keeps him and his kind alive that drives suicide from their minds and keeps them sane even when the world around them has gone totally insane.
Alhaja, the woman that promised Alaye a job runs a big supermarket in Ikeja with branches in most of the markets that cluster Lagos. She fancies herself a philanthropist who looks after the dregs of the society. She absorbs youths like Alaye without any family to turn to.
Why she picks out the strong and young can be left to anyone’s imagination. In Ikeja shop, several young men and women work as sells persons or loaders. She clothes and feed them while providing them shelter from the element and the bitter world. Some of her employees, former street boys and girls, have being known to climb the social ladder while in her employ. But, it is a minimal number that do so.
When Alaye Ikeja he discovered that the difficulty he had earlier envisioned of locating the shop was premature for at first inquiry he was directed to a row of well stocked shops that as early as then was in full swing. He watched with open mouth as an army of youth battled to set up for the day’s business.
It was hard going for him following the progress of the workers who bustled like a thousand worker bees. Some unloading from crates while other arranged them in whatever order caught their supervisors fancy.
It was this supervisor, a girl of about Alaye’s age, who directed him to the Alhaja’s office to wait her coming.
Alaye discovered that he is not as special as he thought, as other kids were seating on a long bench in the corridor outside the office, various degree of fear and expectation mingling in the young faces.
A plumpish girl on the far end made space for him. He thanked her as he joined the wait.
They did not have to wait. For, at 7.30 am on the dot, Alhaja turned up. It was her voice that Alaye heard first. It was raise in apparent anger at whatever wrongs the workers outside perpetuated. Alaye caught his breath and the girl beside him stiffened, apparently he wasn’t the only one that felt the gall in her voice.
The next moment the small corridor was swallowed up by a heavy musk based perfume that had that Arab fragrance that is as overpowering as they were made to be.
She looked each child up and done as she responds to their individual greetings which she appeared to live off. She expected the postulations of both the males and females and scolded a girl that did not squat as deeply as was expected of her.
But unlike the tone they had heard her use outside, she was rather mild about it, scolding with a motherly voice that was both stern and kind admonishing for forgetting a deep cultural norm that a little girl overlooked.
Later, they were all interviewed by her, in twos, to ascertain their level of intelligence and placement.
Somehow, by some trick of randomization, Alaye and the plump girl were the last go in. initially, as the others came out of the office, Alaye had thought of asking them how it went. But, they being strangers it was rather difficult and no one met his eye no matter how heard he tried to catch theirs.
Now it was his turn to face the lioness in her den.
Alaye did not lie to himself for he knew that his future is close at hand. As they stepped into the office the deep fragrance hit him again, only harder this time, it was all he could do to stop from choking from the nausea that rose from his belly. It took all his will to cross the lush carpeting to the front of the large vacant table that where Alhaja sat.
She was intent on a paper she was scribbling on, though not enough to not notice them and stop them from coming too close to her table. Apparently, the perfume served a dual purpose; it keeps her foul odors in as well as keeps that of others out from her ringed nose. She wrote on seemingly ignorant of them while they looked at each other and fidgeted.
From the much they could see of her face, unobstructed by the shawl she wore arab style over her gele, she is obviously in her mid forties. Her figure, though a little on the fat side, retained the basic curves that are accentuated by an extra large backside and bustline. Unlike most fat women, nature spared her extra folds across her tummy.
Her face, though not closely beautiful is still handsome enough to be called pretty. In all, she makes for one striking figure that her average frame seems to carry very well.
Her office, though well furnished, appears to be a sort of showpiece, for the space that would have been spacious was choked by equipments and other stuffs that aren’t really needed. Like the extra TV behind her desk and the electric typewriter.
Two hours later Alaye and Zainab, the plum girl, were on their way to Alhaja’s wholesale shop in Oshodi. He is to work as a loader with the supply truck while she is to work in the shop proper, as a sales girl.
The shop was not as big as those in Ikeja were but it was still big enough to require a staff of eight excluding Alaye and Zainab.
They received just as about the same sort of greetings that they got in Ikeja. The workers did not pay them much heed as they went about their duties, only one stopped long enough to direct them to the manager who turned out to be a middle-aged woman equally as fat as the Alhaja.
They were not giving much room to settle as they were rushed off to work.
Alaye did not much like hate his work as a loader, he had had cause to do jobs of such nature in the past, it is just that the unpredictability of it vexes him to hell.
One minute he would be getting set to eat his lunch, the next he will be rushing off to load up a truck for a customer.
Like most people taken off the street Alaye wasn’t bothered any by the sleeping arrangement. Some of the workers have their own accommodation in town but Alaye, Zainab ant two other girls had to sleep in the shop. While the girls slept in the packing store, Alaye made do with the cold shop floor, once again bedding down on a large carton.
Time passed like a swallow’s flight. He got closer to plump Zainab of the dreamy eyes and the other workers stopped seeing him like a stranger. They did not see much of the Alhaja and the few meetings were brief. Strangely, she appeared to remember his name, a thing he thought peculiar until he leant that she knows the name of all her employees, a sharp memory that served her very well in her day-to-day dealings.
Alaye was too grateful for his change of fortune that it did not occur to him to ask for his salary at the end of that month or the ones after. Every day he collects the stipend of one hundred and fifty naira that served as his feeding money. One a good day, he gets as much as five hundred naira as tips from happy costumers. With all these, he was as comfortable as one can be in the circumstance.
To him demanding for the three thousand naira that was due him sounded like betrayal of trust.
It was Zainab that raised the issue of unpaid salary some months later. Apparently, she had spoken to the other girls and from their narration, it appeared like the norm, they too didn’t get paid up until one year after they started work and even then only a few months worth.
Alaye preached caution, opting to wait till they must have worked for one year before complaining. He said this to pacify her for he wasn’t sure he had the guts to face Alhaja even then.
Zainab was later moved to Alhaja’s private residence as a housemaid while Alaye stayed on in the Oshodi store only he now had to follow the trucks that supply pure water as a loader.
The issue of unpaid salary was not treated as Alaye’s earnings from tips increased. But he did not forget and hoped he will get paid at the end of the one year. True, he was picked from the street but he has his plans and hopes to see them to fruition.
Trouble started when it one year passed and extra months added up. After much dilly dallying Alaye summoned courage and went to Ikeja to speak to Alhaja. Like the previous times he had being to see her he was made to wait for a long time.
When he finally saw her, she was on her way out and would have passed him on the corridor where he sat waiting if he had not hailed her.
At first, she looked at him strangely as if trying to place him but after a while, she smiled slowly.
“You are from the Oshodi shop right? I hope no problem?”
“Yes ma,” Alaye replied, “there is no problem ma.”
“Ok. How may I help you?”
“eem, ma… its about my salary… I have not been paid since I started work and it over a year now.”
“I know,” She said turning towards the door apparently dismissing him.
“But ma I was told that you pay after the first year and it is four months after.” He said following her outside.
She turned sharply, her eyes blazing. “who told you that?