QUADRI DRAGS HIMSELF SLOWLY TO THE KITCHEN with pain slapping him at every movement. But he must do this. The hour has finally come. This is redemption. He is not going to be a coward. His father is a coward. He is not his father. Another paroxysm of pain shoots through his fragile body as he attempts to stand straight. He drags in air. Breathe in again. Out. With his hands firmly placed on one of the kitchen’s stools legs he supported himself up and reaches for the gas cooker’s knob. Cold. And he turns it. He collapses back on the floor, strength failing him, breathing hard. He looks around his kitchen as the air is anointed with the stench of gas, a welcomed communion. He likes it. He is not a coward. You must understand that. He has eaten a lot of nice meals here but now the kitchen looks like a distressed metaphor. Even the plates on the racks all look like premature ghosts. How quickly things change. One day you are a jolly deer meandering through the grey palace of the world, the next you are a simile for lost. Fuck life.
Crenshaw’s hotel sits majestically on the heart of the city of Ibadan. It is a famous place for opulence: a place where poverty is put to shame by endless talk-of-the-town kind of night parties by our masters of corruption and Yahoo triple plus boys trying to carve a niche for themselves on the town’s social list. Quadri works here. It wasn’t easy. But lucky enough for him he knew someone, who knew someone more important, who knew the manager and that sealed the job. He has been here for the past six months since the Academic Staff Union of Universities’ embarked on another of their now epileptic industrial strikes. They can go to hell for all he cares. He will try and earn something before the Union wakes up from her stupidity. He takes the neatly arranged bundle of bedsheets and heads to Mr. Slim’s hotel room. Quadri doesn’t know what kind of job Mr. Slim does but he knows the young man reeks of wealth. Perhaps his father is also a politician Quadri thought within himself. His own father wasn’t anything. He is a drunk that hops from one place to another begging for small change from people. Thinking about him annoys the shit out of him so he tries to banish the thoughts. He knocks on the door and Mr. Slim’s rasping voice tells him to enter. The air in the room, as usual, is fresh with the stench of weed. Mr. Slim, chubby with a smooth creased round face, puffs some more venomed smoke into the air. He is lying on the bed with no clothes on. His gold chain sparkles under the fluorescent lights. The girl on the bed beside him is also naked. She can’t be more than nineteen Quadri thought trying not to look at her nipples but the man between his legs is trying to embarrass him. He try recalling some old memory verse from the mosque but his mind is blank right now. The girl smiled at him and exposes more of her smuttiness for him. Mr. Slim looks at him and laughs.
“You like her?”
“No sir.” He is lying and she knows it.
“You want to fuck her?”
“No sir.” The man between his legs screams yes.
“You can if you want to. She is a slut. Isn’t that right, bitch?”
“Yes daddy. I’m a very bad slut” she said with lust in her voice. This girl is crazy. Too much weed maybe.
“Quadri are you a virgin?” Mr. Slim asked looking into his eyes.
He masturbates himself to sleep every night on a picture of Jennifer Lawrence so he just stares into space and say nothing. Mr. Slim senses his uncomfortable state and gets up from the bed. Cock dangling. Gold chain sparkling. “I’m sorry man. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“We are going to take our shower now. Give us a couple of seconds and you can start cleaning. Take a sit. There is food on the table and drinks too. Enjoy yourself.” With that they enter the bathroom, the girl naked and giggling behind him. Quadri drops the bedsheets on the bed and steps outside the door to wait for them to finish. Standing outside the door he thinks about how he was going to pay his mother’s hospital bills. She has been on the sick bed for the past two months. Doctors say it is appendicitis. Doctor said if she isn’t operated on soon she might die. But the operation will cost quarter of a million Naira.
Where the hell is he going to get that amount of money from? If God doesn’t intervene in his matter things will go haywire. And he doesn’t want things to get haywire. She is his last hope. Maybe he should ask Mr. Slim to borrow him some cash. The door flung open and out comes Mr. Slim and his crazy girl. They are dressed looking trim and slick like young stockbrokers.
“Please don’t touch anything in there. Just do your job and leave.” Quadri nodded. That’s the number one rule you are indoctrinated with in his line of nusiness.
“Alright. This bitch and I are going out for a beach party. Will be back later in the evening.” He dips his hand into his pocket and hands Quadri a bundle of crispy Naira notes. He walks away before Quadri had the chance to say thank you. Quadri quickly counts the money and almost shouted. N30, 000! Allah be praised. He looks around to be sure nobody saw him and slips into the room to do his job. Few minutes later he was done mopping the floor. He cleaned and arranged until everything in the room was neat and sparkling. He was about leaving when he saw it. The black leather bag was half open. He was about pulling its zipper closed when he saw the thing. He froze with fear at the black tortoise staring at him from the inside of the bag. It wasn’t the sight of the tortoise that scared him, really. It was the crispy One thousand naira note that was sticking out from the tip of its mouth. He needs to get out of the room now but something seems to transfix him on the spot. With shaky hands he takes out the tortoise and places it on the bed. He goes outside to check if anyone was coming. The corridor is empty of souls. He closed the door and stands before the tortoise, wondering what to do. Fuck. He takes the Naira note from the tip of the tortoise’s mouth. He was about putting the tortoise back into the black leather bag when he found another note protruding from its mouth. He takes it and thrust it into his pocket. Another popped out. And another. Minutes later he was filling a third large polythene bag with crispy naira notes. And the tortoise keeps spilling. If he stays here any longer they will catch him, so closing the door of his greed he strapped the bags over his shoulder and heads outside. Everyone in the hotel knows he goes to the dumpster every morning with black polythene bags. Today he headed the other direction and never came back.
He now has a rented apartment of his outside the University. His mother’s hospital bills have been settled long ago. She even now boasts of a comfortable shop at Oja’Oba market filled with beverages, assorted wines and other provisions. He had even tried giving his estranged father some cash but he rejected it. He muttered something about blood money under his breath and walked away drunk like a scumbag. Well, he has never mattered in his life.
She had asked him how he got the money and he had lied that he won the lottery. His mother danced and sang praises to Allah for showing kindness to their family.
Things were running smoothly. Money is king. Then he started feeling feverish every morning. He thought it was malaria but few days later he was coughing up blood. His mother had rushed him to the hospital but the doctor’s prognosis found nothing. He was still coughing up blood and his body was emaciating fast. His mother took him to the Alfa’s house—the most powerful one in the city of Ibadan.
“What did you do, son?” the elderly Alfa asked him staring into his bloodless eyes.
“Nothing.” Quadri said. Blood spilling from the corners of his mouth.
The Alfa smiled. “Before your mother carried you here I saw you in a vision. You should never have taken that note from the tortoise’s mouth.” He paused, trying to decipher how best to break a terminal news.
“What tortoise, Quadri?” His mother screamed.
“The medicine man who concocted the juju for the young man that owns the tortoise gave him clear instructions.”
“What instructions?” His mother asked, her voice falling apart.
“The medicine man told the owner of the tortoise that he can only take a certain amount of money per day from the tortoise or else he will die. Your son took what was meant for a month in a single day.” The Alfa looked at Quadri with lost in his eyes. There is nothing he can do to salvage this one he thought within himself — he has eaten another man’s death.
He smiled and reaches for the matchbox inside his pocket. He plays with a matchstick for a couple of seconds, savoring its strangeness. He strikes and watch as light engulfs his kitchen. He could hear the sound of his skin roasting. He is not a coward. You must understand that. He was just fucked by life.
WRITTEN BY UMUKORO ISAAC