Two Lives And A Soul #17 by Ojay Aito
I was beginning to feel a bit blue around the gills and browned off at the same time. Evening had set in, and the crowd hadn’t thinned out one bit. I was sure there were more people here now than the park had ever seen in its history. Not even when it was still a prison yard. As a few people strolled out, hundreds more came in. The park manager sure didn’t mind, as long as tickets were bought.
My self-imposed break this afternoon was ending in seven minutes, but one look at my reflection on a glass door, I was worse than I felt. So I decided to go wash my face at the convenience closest to me.
The traffic in there was at par with the stench of urine that seemed to latch to my nose lining. I instinctively covered my nose with my khaki sleeve.
I jumped over one or two puddles of urine to get to a free urinal. As I freed my bowels, I heard someone shouting “baba” behind me. I didn’t bother responding to the general call. I watched my coloured urine go down the drain, as I began to wonder how the day’s activity had taken a huge toll on me.
“Baba,” I heard the call again, this time closer to me. “Baba, abi no be you ni?” A hard and rough palm rested on my right shoulder. I looked up at the bearer of the voice, and had to quickly monitor my activity so I didn’t mess up my uniform. Why was this guy trying to ruin what was left of my sanity. Who was he sef?
I turned to fully engage him. My expression showed no recognition, and I was sure I couldn’t be patient for long.
“Baba, how far na?” The six feet tall guy said. He had a smile on his face, with his two palms rubbing against each other, like it was preparing to land a slap. “Ahh, baba don forget me sha. But me no fit forget you o.” Now he was sounding like an agbero.
I couldn’t manage to have a conversation in this place even if I was in an excellent mood. I motioned for us to leave this closet, jumping my way around the same route I came.
The tall guy was already behind me, still hailing. I was trying so hard to recall if I had seen him somewhere in this park before.
“Baba, thank you for this morning o. Thank you gan.”
“This morning?” I had a quizzical look across my forehead.
“Oga, you dey quick forget things o. This morning na. Wey you buy us paraga for gate.”
Oh really. I remembered giving one of the night guards a hundred naira note to sort out payment for their early morning gin, but I couldn’t recall seeing this guy. It was quite early, though.
“Oh, I see.” I adjusted my belt and I allowed fresh air fill my lungs to the brim. “So, how far?”
“Oga, I just wan hail you ni o. As I see you for inside toilet.” Now I was certain this guy’s first job was at one of those public bus terminals in town.
“No wahala, my brother. Nothing spoil.” I shook his hand as I was about to take my leave. No I didn’t even remember to wash my hands.
“Baba, this work today, na die o. Ishe la’go ma se ku o.” The clock works till it drops dead.
“God help us. I’m feeling sick already.” I cleared the sweat gathering on my forehead.
“Them sha go pay us for overtime.”
“Ah, that one, I no fit talk o.” We both laughed as we parted ways.
Just then, a thought came to me. I immediately stopped on my tracks and turned back. The guy I just spoke with was already some distance away. I didn’t even get his name. I barked out in a burst of hope, calling him “Baba”, just as he had called me.
He responded at the second call, although a few other passersby had turned to look my way.
Baba stopped, somehow resuming his default posture again: rubbing his two palms together. For him, two rounds of that portable sachet of gin in one day would be a divine sign of his calling to ministry.
“Baba, se ko si?” hope no problem, he said. More like he hoped for one.
I didn’t want to shake his hand again trying not to imagine too much toilet germs while I thought of more important and immediate things.
“No, I’m just wandering something. Baba.”
“Ah, Baba, wetin?” the guy was in between trotting and cantering like a horse.
“Do you guys keep records of people who come into the premises? Like a register?”
“You mean book wey people dey right name?”
“Ehn na, why you ask?”
“I’m trying to get somebody’s full name.”
“Oya come with me, make we quickly check am for our office.”
“Sharp sharp things abeg.”
I dashed towards the gate house ahead of Baba. He must be wondering why I was so interested and eager to find out someone’s full name.
Inside the gate house was as busy and noisy as a market place. I patiently allowed Baba lead me through till we stood before a desk.
As soon as he was able to get out the register, I scrutinized through the pages and discovered that this book was only a day old.
“This is a new register.” I looked up at Baba.
“Baba, the rush of people here this few days plenty o. That old one don full.”
“Na that old one I need. Where e dey? There was a frustrating plea in my voice. No, not again. I would die if I hit another road block here. I began to think of how far Mr. Sunday or the horologist would go to keep information away.
I watched Baba look towards the rest of his colleagues, not exactly deciding on whom to ask for help. I didn’t even know who was boss here. I just hoped any more information about me wouldn’t be given away. I prayed for luck, sensing that Mr. Sunday sure did have an insider here as well.
“E be like sey them don lock am up for inside cupboard o.”
I followed Baba’s stare till I was looking over my head at the cabinet on the wall. He pulled on the door handle, but it didn’t bulge. It was locked. Baba seemed to be doing all he could do to help me. I was just thankful to my star that I had decided to let go of that hundred naira note this morning.
I watched Baba make a mental postulation, then he immediately ducked under the desk in front of me and pulled out a single key. I stared up at the tiny rusty key in Baba’s fingers. At that moment, it looked like a Tennis Open trophy to me. More like a key of life.
Baba and I sighed at the same time. I made a silent gratitude prayer to God, making the sign of the cross. I remember Obi’s drama earlier this morning. This might just be my second chance at the cherry.
Baba didn’t bother to look around for approval. He unceremoniously slotted the key into the keyhole. It turned, and the door creaked its rusty hinges as it opened so sluggishly.
I braced up for what I would or wouldn’t find in this register. Baba pulled out two thick covered registers from the wall cabinet and landed them on the desk.
I stared at them one by one. On one was written ‘Visitors’ and the other had written over it ‘Personal Items.’
Baba retreated a step, giving my space to go through the log books all by myself. I kept wondering what a hug favour a hundred naira worth of gin could fetch one.
I checked first through the visitor’s log book. I started from the last page till I got to the date before I was employed. No Sally anywhere. So I began again to check for any female name who had been visiting everyday for the past two weeks up until a few days ago. None made the list.
Baba asked me if he could help. I smiled at him, not necessarily answering. I searched for anything that was off the ordinary. Look-alike signatures, similar handwritings. Nothing jumped on me from the list. I went over the book for the second time before I decided to look up at Baba.
“You didn’t find it?” Baba summoned an impeccable English statement.
“No, I didn’t.” I closed the first book silently, and pulled the next closer. I paused to ask Baba a question. “Does every visitor write their names here?”
“Yes. Every time.” He said, trying to consider how right his answer was. “Except if they are our usual people.”
“Usual people.” I echoed. “So you know your ‘usual people’?”
“Well, e also depend on who dey duty. For the past one week, na night I don dey.”
“Hmmm,” was all I said as I began to look into the ‘personal items’ log book.
Baba moved closer to me. “Baba, do you know the person you are looking for?” Baba’s voice was quite lower now. I appreciated his discretion. And again I thought how long it would take a hundred naira worth of gin to clear off the eyes. I smiled.
“No. Actually, yes. Just that…” I didn’t know what to say again.
“I dey ask because we people here recognize face well well. We dey sabi face easily.”
That may be good, but I actually needed a name and a contact. Not a face.
“Ehen, really?” I nodded my head as I began to check the list from the last day. I thought of Baba’s offer and the possibility of getting what I wanted straight from him instead of going through the herculean task of finding a name, which already seemed futile.
“Her name is Sally.” I said, and waited if it would ring a bell in Baba’s head.
“Sally.” The way Baba wrinkled his face, the name sounded more like ‘salty’ to him. “No. I no know any Sally.” He looked into the book as if I must have misspelled the name.
“The babe na one old mama pickin.” I spoke pidgin, just if it helped matters. “The old mama was here many times last week, and upper week. Do you know any old woman in particular who came everyday?”
“If na Iya Bendel you dey talk of, then most of us here know her.”
I instinctively grabbed Baba’s shoulders. “You know her?”
“Well, she used to ‘drop’ something for us.”
“Do you have her number? Where is it in the book?”
“Iya Bende doesn’t fill register o. We just allow her to go through any time.”
“Why, why would you do that?” I pressed my fingers into Baba’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Baba, I sure sey we go find her name somewhere inside this register. And she fit even still come today.”
Baba dutifully dived into the pages of the visitors register, searching for the Iya Bendel.
I just hoped we were speaking about the same person. It was draining, the amount of energy spent trying to get the watch back. All this wouldn’t have happened if my ex girlfriend didn’t bother act like the devil and come to my place that night. Where was she now? I restrained myself from cursing her. Somehow I just believed she would get her comeuppance soon enough.
In less than four minutes, Baba pulled my attention back to the book, and pointed at a line. I stared down the handwriting, tracing the information that ran alongside it. Only the city where she came from was written beside her name. The rest of the available spaces were crossed out.
I rested my body weight on the wall, eager to collapse. Yet again, I was so close and then so far from the answers I desperately needed.
Baba began to pack the log books back to the wooden box that seemed to have its replica in all the offices in this park. I wanted to stop him, if only I could take one more look. Sally must have written down her contact in one of those pages.
“One minute.” I almost barked out at Babe. “Please, let me go through the other log book completely. I may have missed out a few pages.
Baba willingly put back the ‘personal items’ log book back on the table.
“No wahala. You be my person. Although Oga Sunday send message sey make we no allow any person check logs except him give us the permission.”
I paused. “He said that?”
Baba nodded his head.
“Well,” I decided not to make a big deal of the issue. “I just wan collect the name of the mama pickin. She get one fine girl like that wey make sense gaan.”
I quickly scanned through the date of which I met Sally. There were over three hundred names of people who came into the park with conspicuous items.
I didn’t remember seeing Sally with any obvious item that day, did I?
I scanned through the names. Wishing I could simply do a computer search, I checked the items that were registered, there were over a thousand of them, mostly gadgets. One Idris Subir had come in with a gas cylinder. And for the first time I feared of a bomb explosion. Wouldn’t that have happened already if it was to be? The security guys would have obviously cleared him.
In all the names in the list, two caught my attention. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I tried to ‘regurgitate’ the way Sally had sighed when she received the bag from Mr. Sunday before she left without the silver watch. It had been a little nonchalantly scribbled. Her mood then was sad.
If she had come in search of her granny’s bag, as she said she had, it was possible that her signature early that day was also written in a carefree way. She must have been either pensive, or hopeful.
So I decided on the ones that was tagged with the names S. I. and Miss Uhu. Her granny is known as Iya Bendel. Well, that was if the supposed Iya Bendel was her granny.
I swiftly wrote down the two numbers tagged to the names, and handed the book back to Baba, who was already beginning to get restless.
I thanked him immensely, and asked for his real name before I left the gate house.
“Saliu is my name,” Baba said confidently.
“Thanks so much Baba, wa se re.” I slipped my last hundred naira note into his palm.
“Baba no wahala.” Saliu said deftly receiving the ‘thank you’ without making it obvious.
I walked away, intentionally not divulging my name. That wouldn’t stop Mr. Sunday from realizing I had come this far, anyway. All he had to do was ask for a face.
The two numbers I had got by the help of Saliu proved to be a dead end. Not a dead end like a dead end dead end, but I couldn’t get a call through either of them. Well that was a dead end of some sort, I guess. I had resorted to simply sending the two numbers the same text, with the hope that somehow they would get the message of the auction party happening today.
The entire park had been transformed to host a night party. Entry for the evening had been by invitation. Earlier during the governor’s official visit, he had promised to make it back for the auction, and to be true to his words, the state security operatives had stayed through the entire day.
I had stayed away from both Mr. Sunday and Mr. Cliff who were everywhere making sure that everything was in place.
Andrew had reshuffled our posts, and now I found myself further away from where the auction would take place.
I had since lost all hope at getting the clock back. I hadn’t received a reply from any of the numbers I sent the message to, and now I was closer to the exit door of the park.
Changed into an orange Polo shirt and a black khaki for the evening rounds, I eased up beside a bar, listening to the music and enjoying the gist from the few elite men who sat at a table, sipping their drinks. Some of them weren’t really here to bid at the auction. They just wanted to come have a nice time
For the first time since I could remember, I thought about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. No one would think of acquiring a clock for an outrageous amount if they had not fed, and been well fed for that matter.
“Hey Elijah!” I heard someone call Elijah from one of the tables scattered around the bar. I recognized the voice immediately but was yet to spot the face in the intense chrome light displaying around.
“Hey, it’s me, Felix. Come, come over.” Felix stood up to beckon on me. I smiled and went to his table. There was a guy and a lady there with him. They shared a large bowl of something that looked like a fish- it could have been a piece of cooked snake.
“Hi. Hi guys.” I said, nodding first at Felix and then at the other two. I kept my arms firmly behind me, refusing to pull away from my work mode.
“Here, my friends and former colleagues. This is Dotun, and this is Ejiro. We sort of coincidentally reunited here.”
“Oh, really. Good evening guys,” I shook hands with them. “Unfortunately, I didn’t find former colleagues here tonight. Guess that means I have to stay put here till I either find one, or they find me.”
We all laughed lightly. “It was pure coincidence, you know,” Felix was affirming from his friends.
“That simply means all of you never gave up on your dreams, despite the challenges.”
“I was very lucky. Or should I say, fortunate.” It was Dotun that laughed heartily. “I left. In fact, I ran. Felix, you remember MD Hosanna? That guy is a media vampire. Where is he now?” They all laughed again.
“Guys, I’m afraid, I wouldn’t be able to stay around for long. As you can see, I’m still on duty. But we could catch up soon, right?” I looked at Felix.
“Sure, since you work here, next week isn’t a bad time to come relax again. The music band, the food and drink, and the whole ambiance here is soothing.” Felix said.
“Thanks guys, that would be on me. The next time, I mean.” I prayed they didn’t take that serious.
“Of course, brother.”
“So you know someone who might be making heavy investments in this time pieces tonight?” Ejiro seemed to want to prolong the conversation. “I write for the Times.”
“Oh, you do?” I seemed to gravitate towards her, examining her just a little closer. She looked like she just secured a stable job after years of freelance.
“Wow. Impressive.” I dipped my head. “But to answer your question,” I lowered my head and my voice at the same time, like I wanted to divulged a secret. “I hear Jagaban is coming.”
It was like what I just shared with them was an eye-popper. “Wow. Jagaban?”
“How do you know?”
“Sorry, you can only ask one question, Ejiro.” I held up my index finger. “But I wish I could be inside myself. It’s going to be a great night.” Now I had to get back to my post.
“What if you could?” Ejiro said abruptly.
“Whaaa.. what if I could?”
“I’ll be working, and I wasn’t posted inside the hall.” I chewed on my lips.
“Here, if you can, try.” Ejiro handed me a pass. Her eyes were big-balled in a very seductive way. She must have trained herself to balance her big eyes with her perfect set of teeth. She smiled at me, waiting for my response.
“Really. I think I should be asking you who was invited for this auction.” I wasn’t looking at her. I kept staring at the pass slip that was handed over to me.
“One person I’m now certain of is Elijah the prophet.”
“Yeah, and Jagaban.” The three of them were so spot on.
“I would find a way, I promise.” I said, placing the slip over my left chest.
“You better.” Dotun’s laugh could be easily misinterpreted as a mocking gesture, but I chose to be grateful.
I walked back to my post and studied the pass that was given me. It was labelled TIMES.
The auction had gone full swing for about an hour plus, and I was yet to make my advancement to use the pass Ejiro had given me.
It was painful to realize that even though I had a pass, I couldn’t summon the courage to go into the hall where the auctioning was going on. What would I tell Ejiro and Felix and Dotun. That I didn’t belong there? Or what would I tell Sally if I ever had the chance to?
This was an opportunity for me to at least get to know who would eventually go away with that silver time piece. Not that I planned to go after whoever does.
I stood up from the stool I had half sat on all through the night. I took the back path and entered our changing room. It was empty, but smelt of sweat and cheap perfume. More than twenty security men guarding the gallery must have changed clothes here today at least once.
I opened my closet and pulled out the shirt I had worn to work more than twelve hours ago. My eyes were still red, but I felt a bit better since I last ate.
Slowly I changed from my uniform into mufti. Something inside me kept saying this might be my last day in this uniform.
I finished dressing, but kept wiping sweat off my face. I looked in the mirror and told myself I had the pass. I work for TIMES.
As I walked briskly towards the first police post at the entrance, I pressed a rehearsed smile on my face. Looking straight ahead, like a late journalist, I saw a number of camera men remained outside, but I couldn’t bear to check if Felix was among them. What if I looked around, and someone now accused me for committing lookry. O boy, anything could happen. I matched forward.
A policeman nodded at me as I registered at the entrance. He was standing exactly where I was standing in the morning. For the first time since morning, I thought of Old Rhoda, and doubted if any of us would have been left to remain inside the clock gallery.
I said my thank you to the police officer without looking into his eyes. I walked past the scanning door that had been erected there this morning.
I felt the hardness of the pass in my pant pocket as I walked down the outer terrace towards the inner gallery. Just then I saw Old Rhoda, and I swore she saw me as well, only she didn’t recognize me. Not because I wasn’t in my uniforms, but simply because I wasn’t expected to be here. I walked on.
I came before the last station of security men and smiled at them. This time I pulled out my pass slip, and it was like hot knife cutting through butter. They nodded and parted for me. For the first time I understood what Peter had felt when he was rescued from the prison yard by an angel. It was like a big bold angel cleared me through all the posts. A big bold pass.
Did I hear someone call? Yes, but maybe I wasn’t the one being called. The corridor down to the inner gallery was carpeted red, with slim ladies in pop socks like air hostesses standing beside the decorative lamps. I could see a few of them looked my way, obviously meaning I was the one whose attention was needed.
“Excuse sir.” The call was louder now. I stopped. I turned. I didn’t look up immediately.
“Yes?” I turned my neck in a questioning way. My heart skipped to the point that I would have started confessing. But I hung on by that thin thread of calmness.
“Sir, your colleague, Miss Dennis left this for you.
My colleague? “Oh. Thank you.” I received a thin black envelope and continued towards the grand door. Who in the world was my colleague? Or was it Old Rhoda. It couldn’t. And I couldn’t ask. It could also be from Ejiro, my colleague of the moment. So I just smiled at the usher lady who seemed mesmerized by the fact that I was one of those foreign journalists, who didn’t so much bother with looking smart. I could read her lips. She said, true, it’s all between the ears.
I pushed the door only lightly as I edged into the big gallery. Although I thought I knew my way so well, the entire gallery looked so different. The designer must have created a brand out of making things happen in little or no time. All my days as a watch guard here didn’t prepare me for the transformation that had taken place within the hall.
I began to look around for the few mistakes that must have been well masked here and there. Saw a few, but was truly impressed by the interior decor.
The man I expected to see on stage was certainly there for the cameras. He had a satisfied belly which was bulging even bigger before him. Mr Cliff, he must have made a fortune so far this evening. The auction was in full swing, and a few camps were already getting determined to hit the next deal. I thought of all the attendees here as people who must have at one time or the other stolen government fund. Or supplied government fund.
I stood in an inconspicuous angle so I could open the letter that was given to me by the security personnel. The envelope had one tiny white paper in it. I pulled it out. A hurriedly scribbled note that said: Time and Chance.
I read it again. And again. Like there were other words that it would mean if I stared closer.
Was this written by Ejiro the lady from Times?
I looked up, slipped the envelope back into my pocket and paid attention to what was happening in the hall.
“Going. Going. Gone.” The auctioneer’s voice was high above the room.
Laughter was heard from one side of the room where the bid had been won. I looked towards that direction, then towards the cameras just in case I could spot Felix.
This wasn’t being aired on live TV. Or was it?
I thought I was going to see lots of camera guys there in a cluster at the bottom of the podium. Only a few others were stationed at the upper galleria that was usually hardly opened. Perhaps Felix and his friends were chilling out there, laughing out loud at everything happening below them. I could hear Dotun’s laughter in my head.
I was distracted by the screeching sound made over the tiled floor. I looked over the aisle as the whole audience followed the next timepiece up for auction.
The screen overhead the podium had the presentation of the timepiece. A lady’s voice had first introduced the vintage clock before the auctioneer began his storytelling. Their voices complemented each other seductively like two lovers expressing their passions. They were professionals.
“You seem to worry that these videos would make it to the public.” A hushed feminine voice spoke into my ears.
“No, don’t turn”, she whispered. I would have turned immediately to look at the bearer of the voice had she not asked me not to. I stayed calm and waited.
“Tonight’s auction party is more of a showoff. No anonymous bidding by proxy. The media can only take red carpet interviews, but no other information can be given out.”
“Okay.” I wondered why the information was granted to me free.
“So what creation are you interested in?” the lady asked.
Creation? Why would someone use that word for a clock? It was either she was as clueless as I was about time devices, or was obsessed with them. Perhaps she worshipped them.
“I am one of those bloody journalists satiable only by the sight of the rich’s foolery.” I heard myself saying. Where was all that gibberish coming from?
“I see. So you won’t be making any real bid?”
“Who am I not to change my mind?” Hearing myself say this, I truly did not know what I was capable of anymore. This was certainly more than my sales man’s skills finding expression. Now I wished I was in one of those Roger Moore suits.
“Ahah. We’ll see about that.” She smiled, and withdrew into the background.
I turned to look at her but she was gone before I could make out her precise figure.
“Seven thousand.” I heard someone say from the crowd. I tried to pay attention, the next bidding was already in progress.
“Ten thousand.” Another countered adjacent him.
“Ten thousand! Ten thousand!!” The auctioneer echoed the words high into the air. His hands were raised high like an orchestra conductor.
“Ten Five,” a husky voice said from the front.
“Ten Thousand Five Hundred. Going.”
“Twenty one!” the first guy began slowly, then shouted the last word.
“Wow! We have forty here. Forty. Forty. Forty.” The auctioneer seemed to be a master in this game. Every word he spoke carried a different pitch and a higher degree of antecedence.
I wasn’t even sure what currency these guys were bidding with. I didn’t even bother. I was simply mesmerized by the effrontery of the bidders.
“I will make it an eighty.”
Silence permeated through the room. A small bald headed man in full-moon shaped glasses spoke up for the first time.
Someone coughed from the far back near me, and heads turned again.
“Eighty one.” Another said.
“Then I will make it One O’ Two. One hundred and two.” The little man said without showing any emotion. It seemed he detested competition. I moved a bit to my left so I could see his face clearly. He was in an all white attire. Although I couldn’t place a name on his face, he was obviously no new comer around bidders here. These were the elites of the country. The ones who probably sponsored the godfathers.
“One hundred and two thousand dollars.” It was a whisper from the auctioneer. He too couldn’t believe his ears.
“Going! Anyone. Going… One O’ Two it is then.” The auctioneer declared. “Next.”
I tried to observe the crowd. The governor was seated in the middle of the hall amongst a few of his friends. I couldn’t say if he had made any bid tonight, but he seemed to be enjoying himself.
I noticed a gentleman and a beautiful lady walk in and take the seats assigned to them by a man in black tux. Actually, it was the beautiful lady that really got my attention. She held lightly to the helm of her dress, rubbing her thumb and forefinger against the fabric. They sat not too far away from where I stood.
The pop-socks-wearing usherettes were moving carefully through the spaces between each table, serving the wishes of the guests. One approached the table where the lady sat and bent so low that…
“…The original maker of this time piece is unknown, but rumour has it that it was first owned by the great Joan of Arc. The Maid of Orleans. It was a gift from one of her suitors who she had considered getting married to. But when she was sent by King Charles VII to besiege Orleans, she was captured, then later burnt to death. She was only aged 19.” The audience was silent as the auctioneer grafted the history together.
“… Twenty five years later, 1456 to be precise, Pope Callixtus III debunked the charges and pronounced her innocent. He went ahead to declare her a martyr. She is to this day one of the nine secondary patron saints of France.”
I starred up in disbelief at the watch displayed on the screen. This was the silver chain watch that belonged to Sally’s granny. This was the watch that had those mystical words. I stomped my feet, but couldn’t move them. Rage filled my being, but I knew if I made a fuss, I was only going to be thrown out in a matter of seconds.
The question in everybody’s mind was how the watch made it here to this auction. The impression must have finally sunk into the hearts of the audience, because they slowly began to clap.
When the clap finally stopped, the auctioneer had a broad smile across his face. He was ready for the bidding. “Shall we begin.”
“Make it 150,” the little man spoke up from his seat.
My throat was as dry as the Sahara. There went Sally’s watch. There went my chance to make it to the future.
“150!” The auctioneer echoed.
“170.” The lady who sat with the gentleman close by spoke with a somewhat thirsty husky voice.
The little bald headed man turned to look at the lady. She still held on to the tip of her black dress. Could it be some form of nervousness?
I was only opportune to see this as a result of the angle I stood from her. She took a sip of her drink. She didn’t show any emotion as well.
“200.” The governor said.
Everyone applauded. I looked at the governor, and sensed it was a bold step he dared to spend that amount on a piece of watch. Whose money was that anyway? Tax payers?
“200!” The auctioneer cleared his throat.
“I will make it 300.” The bald headed man declared. It was now obvious he lacked manners. How dare he counter the bid of the governor? I scuffled lightly.
“Let’s make it 400.” The lady in black dress now had a smile on her face, although her fingers still toyed with her dress.
It was as if the house choked. A few people began to gasp for breath.
“400. She said 400.” The auctioneer was surely a great stage performer.
He looked around. Silence reigned.
“Going…” the auctioneer looked around slowly. “By the way, did I say that this opulent timepiece was later in history owned by Queen Victoria?” He looked around again. The response was immediate. If the bid by the lady in black dress made us all choke, then this new piece of information murdered us.
“Yes. It was. Yes.” The auctioneer wrapped his hands in his tunic, grateful he remembered to slot that piece of information in.
“450.” The bald head guy said.
Who is this guy? Who were these people? How come they could afford to spend this fortune on a damned timepiece, while the whole country lavished in penury?
“I will make it 600, then.” Now it was obvious this lady was crazy.
Everybody turned towards the bald headed man. We watched him scratch the scalp of his head. He was mumbling something only he could hear. It seemed now that the ball was in his court.
We all saw the resignation on the face of the little man. He heaved a sigh, and threw open his hands.
“Okay, we have a winner? 600 thousand US Dollars? 600, 600, would that be the final for this piece?” the auctioneer raised his voice for all to hear.
The whole house went silent again. Someone had spoken from where I stood. Everyone looked my way. I turned to look behind me too, only there wasn’t anything behind me safe the thick navy blue dropping.
I had said something, but wasn’t it just in my mind? Did this audience read minds now?
The auctioneer’s eyes were fixed on me. I turned my eyes away, but Mr. Cliff the horologist was also looking with a stern focus on me. Why was that? Was I not eligible to bid? Maybe he already had the names of every one bidding here, and I wasn’t on his list. He must have figured out who I was.
“Gentleman, did you say 820?” The auctioneer’s voice seem to come from a surround system.
I coughed. I coughed again. This wasn’t one of those 1000 naira bend-down-select roadside sales that I could just call any price like that. Something must have come over me but I sure didn’t forget I still lived on the breadline.
“Yes.” I stammered. I could swear something was controlling me.
“Ok, so we have an 820 here.” The auctioneer announced very slowly.
The lady in black dress and the man who sat beside her looked with stony eyes at me. How dare I challenge these people? I could even feel my lungs deflate.
“Ok, then I will make it 900.” She made a strong effort to say.
“900. My good Lord! We have a 900.”
I didn’t bother to open my mouth again. In fact I made sure my hands remained over my mouth in case the words spilled again.
“Going… Going… And…”
The auctioneer looked around one more time: at the little bald headed man; at me; then at the lady in black dress. “Gone!”
The whole house erupted in a great noise. A few people even stood up to ease the tension. Everyone felt saturated with what just happened here. If only the ground would just open up and swallow me.
I saw Mr. Cliff speaking in a forceful way to one of the ushers in tux, who immediately dashed off in another direction.
I instinctively moved towards the exit of the gallery. I knew my way around, but I had to be careful, not really able to explain why I panicked.
As I made my move, I looked to the far side one last time, and the figure I saw, froze me to the spot. I sure knew who that was, even if she was veiled. Sally. She was staring at me even as she moved fluidly over the carpet towards me. Black hair, black dress, black hose; she looked like a character from a vampire movie.
Had she been here all night? Had she gotten the text I sent to her earlier? If so, why hadn’t she bid for her granny’s watch? Not that I thought she would have that kind of money, but at least she could have stopped the process of auctioning a stolen property. She could have done something. Anything,
I wanted to scream out at her, but my throat felt tight. She was moving so fast towards me, and saying so much with her eyes at the same time. I could see her eyes focused on me even in her gothic makeup, which made her look so like she was possessed with some evil spirit.
An inner prompter signaled that I kept moving. Maybe that was what Sally was also trying to say. I struggled to put one foot ahead of the other, till they felt free enough to make a stride.
Sally was just behind. A few more people were now seen moving around. Whether they had other businesses to sort out, or not, I felt I was being trapped inside this room, and my life was at risk. I remembered the words I had overheard between Mr. Sunday and Mr. Cliff again.
I will keep an eye on him… I will take care of him…
Maybe this was it. Suddenly everyone in the room seemed to have Mr. Cliff’s face. Something told me it was my imagination, but it took Sally’s elbow jabbing into my ribs to bring me back to reality.
“Let’s go. And don’t look back,” she said, casually walking ahead of me like one of those undercover secret agents.
The command was direct, and I suddenly wondered, who this lady really was. I had to follow her. In as much as I really wanted to take one last look at the whole scene now behind me, I was afraid that I might just turn into a pillar of salt if I disobeyed the instruction.
We moved past the first exit in that same casually pace. One of the security men in dark shades was looking at Sally. I watched as his eyes traced the length of her body from head to toe, then settled on the slit in her long gown. He wanted to see more. There was no second chance for him to get another glimpse of the Sally’s face. We were past the first security check.
Down the red carpet I had earlier walked alone, we looked like a couple dissatisfied with each other’s appearances. I stared down her body, trying to wonder why she looked like a black ghost; while she must have felt I was inappropriately dressed for an occasion like this.
I didn’t even stand a chance to make it this far.
As we made the next turn towards the final exit, she tucked her right arm into mine, and stayed closer to my torso. She wasn’t even trying to say anything, it seemed the thoughts in her head were too important for her to excuse me one minute. Well, I didn’t seem to mind too much. The body contact covered for any lapse.
A few cameras clicked as we made it to the night air. The breeze outside was satisfyingly fresher than the conditioned air inside the gallery. I looked around just so I saw anyone that knew me. More cameras clicked.
Sally’s demeanor was not such that was angered by the fact that her granny’s possession was sold for a ridiculously extravagant amount. Instead, there was this sense of urgency that seemed to be controlled by something unseen, something unknown.
Just as she seemed to decide what turn to make, we heard some shouts from within the watch gallery. One look, I saw three men in black suit running towards the exit. Towards us.
My heart began racing faster than ever, getting the heebie-jeebies. What was the matter with these people? To be sure, the only crime I may have committed was making a bid. And under no law was that a reason to be chased.
Maybe it was just one of my eerie imaginations again. As I tried to make some sense out of this, Sally pulled me hard towards the left, and began to increase her pace. It seemed like she had been expecting to be pursued.
“We have to run.” Sally was already panting.
“Yeah, I can see.” I looked back again. It was obvious there was a train of armed men moving in our direction. What did I do? I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
What kind of life is this? One day I am fired, the next I’m the slowest fugitive on the planet.
Sally pulled me along like she knew her way around the park. “What’s happening?” I asked her a dumb question while trying to keep up. This babe was wearing something close to a four-inches-high pair of shoes, and was maneuvering through the park faster than a squirrel would.
“What’s happening?” she echoed between breaths. “We are playing bubble gum with the police. That’s what’s happening.
We heard the sound of whistles around the park, and I began to quake in my shoes. The gates are watched, the walls are high… There are policemen everywhere.
I will take care of him…. If anything, it made me run like a threatened animal. I kept thinking about our options, but nothing cohesive came through. I was in a quandary.
I decided to make an abrupt turn to the left, this time pulling Sally along. I was sure I knew the park better. We stopped running when we approached a different session of the park, where I had been stationed all evening. Camouflaged in the shadows, I could see a guy was already seated on my stool, luring a lady to seat on his laps as he tried to find a suitable place for his hands. The distraction from the gallery had not gotten here, but Sally and I knew it was only a matter of seconds.
My aim was for us to get to the bank building that was situated at one corner of the high fence of the park. It was only a few strides away, but we couldn’t afford to cause any distractions here.
If we were lucky, the bank gate would still be opened, and that might just be our only way of escape.
We reached the wall safely, rummaging our way through the paths overgrown with weed. Other than Sally having to let go of her shoes, we still had our heads together in one piece. We grazed our backs against the rough surface of the park wall as we moved towards our exit. I thought of how many prisoners had tried escaping from this place while it was still a prison yard centuries ago.
I heard a noise at the front of the bank, and prayed things worked out in our favour if we made it that far. I heard a wimping sound just behind me. Sally was beginning to lose her composure. What had she been thinking so far? What was possibly on her mind?
I touched the flesh over her arm to calm her, if only a little. We had made it this far. Only a few more hopes and prayers, and we would be out.
I squeezed my body through the iron slit by the fence that demarcated the bank from the park wall. This was where the bank’s waste bin was put away from sight of the public. The putrid smell of garbage filled my nostril even though I thought I held my breath. I thought Sally was slimmer but apparently, it was harder for her to pass through.
Just outside the fence of the bank, a few Mopol men ran towards the gate of the park. Sally and I had quickly turned towards the ATM to conceal our faces.
We casually walked out the bank premises some few minutes later, away from of the park’s gate. We both breathed huge sighs of relief as we walked freely in the street. As soon as we turned into a dark alley, Sally began to walk even faster, not minding she was on bare foot.
I wanted to ask her if she knew her way around these dark and dingy streets, but before I could, an engine a little distance away kicked to life. Before I could respond in fight or flight, Sally said to me, “Get in.”
I took cue, and slid into the back seat after her. The driver peeled off the side walk and into the street without turning on the car’s head lamp. The proof of the driver’s scope of the streets was seen as he navigated his way through the Obalende slum till we climbed on the Third Mainland Bridge.
Sally finally adjusted herself on the seat, and spoke for the first time since we got into the car. “You okay, Eli?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” She made another heavy sigh.
“So.” I had too many thoughts going through my head, but all I could say was, “ahh, ahh..” I couldn’t say anything coherent. I just lost my job. Again! …
I guess I was filled with too much emotion to say any right words. Sally seemed to be patient with me. It was like she wanted me to air my feelings.
I could have lost my life. We could have lost our lives. What crazy plan did you have? Why didn’t you reply my text? Did you even get it? … That damn clock of yours was worth that ridiculous amount? What if Mr. Sunday had done more than ‘keep an eye’ on me and had ‘taken care’ of me instead?… This is crazy mehn, all of this for a piece of watch that doesn’t worth a life… Maybe you think it’s worth mine. … If I had known it was worth 900 thousand US Dollarrrrrs, I wouldn’t have left it in Mr. Sunday’s office that night… No, I wouldn’t… Now we are back to square one… No future, no job, not even a watch to tell the present…
You mean that watch is worth nine hundred thousand… as in nine hundred thousand dollars…
I just stared at the road as we drove over the bridge. I couldn’t say a word. I just hated the way I felt right now.
“My granny would like to meet you, Eli.” Sally said the words as if she tried to select them carefully.
I looked at her, and couldn’t even reply with a word. I huffed.
I hoped she understood how I feel. I didn’t think I wanted to be part of this anymore. No, I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet her granny.
“This is the reason they chased us,” Sally said so calmly, pulling out something from under her dress.
I stared at it in total disbelief and incredulousness. In her palms was the silver chain time piece that had been in the gallery only a few minutes ago.
I looked Sally in the eyes. Her black painted lips formed an irresistible smile.
“Thanks for the text,” She said.