Do you like playing games? You would if you grew up immersed in poverty and squalor. Too poor to have toys and books, too squalid to be daunted by the danger, dirt and odour of the dank streets I wandered as a child. I knew a lot of people, butterflies who assumed they were birds, who attained just a little altitude of learning and believed they knew enough to conquer the sky, pollinating the world with bounteous false notions of poverty and squalor that looked beautiful yet nourished very little on the subject. They were far from being birds. They neither conquered the sky nor nourished us with the albumen of their wisdom. They were in a cocoon of ignorance. But if anyone still in the dark on the true meaning of both poverty and squalor sincerely wishes to familiarize themselves with such things, I strongly refer such a person to the place simply known as Metropolis for it is an embodiment of these two deathly hallows.
Barring poverty and squalor, there truly is not much known of Metropolis, the self-acclaimed ‘center of excellence’. Not because it is shrouded beneath some veil of mystery but because Metropolis is really not much. Nobody knew where it was because nobody ever had any need to find a way in, although people constantly lived and died to find a way out. For all I know, Metropolis could have very well been misplaced in time. It was commonplace to experience bland scenery of concrete grey buildings cramped up beside each other till as far as sky met ground. There was just barely enough space between buildings for walkways and even those remained in perpetual darkness because sunlight could never filter through the concrete thicket of dense face-to-face blocks of flats. The over-used and under-maintained drainage channels had clogged up over the years so the streets were always damp with sewer. And, food was synonymous in every possible reference to bread. Meat was a luxury.
Nobody, within or without, even knew the political power in office but it was largely irrelevant because Metropolis had barely witnessed any form of development as fruition of a political power since the colonial masters withdrew themselves over five decades ago. And still, except the controlling families who lived in the Capitol across the bridge, the people of Metropolis maintained a rare form of dignity in their poverty which was more of a resignation to fate rather than an indication of consent. The men marched with their chins at attention as if in salute of the awful stench of their bodies when they went around their business in their browned and frayed clothing. It was difficult not to think that in some absurd way they believed they ruled the world. The women pranced around with their tough, dark skin glistening with locally made body oils like fishes on display at point-and-kill bars, their overly synthetic hair bouncing off their shoulders and breasts at akimbo in their loose dresses. Most of the younger children spent their days splashing up and down the damp streets and their nights listening to moonlight stories. I had vague memories of playing on grass fields as child, since then population had multiplied till the fields could not contain the number of children any longer. And so grass fields turned to barren, hardened ground and erosion over the years completed the final stage of transformation from playground to deathtrap.
The families living at the Capitol ensured the cycle of uselessness, it was difficult to rule a people who had dreams and ambition. And so with disorder as the only accepted order and no particular law against unlawfulness, Metropolis never grew bigger than their hands could grasp. Take as instance, the selling of sexual services is illegal but it is within the confines of legality to pay taxes and debts with sexual services.
In fact my birth was a receipt of such taxation issued nine months after payment. And though my mother could have afforded an abortion by yet another sexual service, she was of the sort to believe that everything happened for a reason. That was about eighteen years ago and I was brought up with the same notion; Yes, everything did happen for a reason, maybe not with everybody else but definitely with me. And I had an unusual ability, a gift if I may say, to correlate occurrences and reasons, causes and effects. I do not severely over-think or over-analyze, I know life is not always serious but then again even mere games serve a purpose. Some serve to develop muscles and end up populating the world with mindless, reprobate brutes. Some like draught helps one player pay for a night’s dose of booze and nicotine and helps rope the other player further into debt. Other games help pay our rent while some develops our minds. Chess for example, a game I was quite adept at whenever I bothered myself with its indulgence. Each movement of a piece is another twist in a plot to conquer and command an opponent.
So for the sake of it let me role play a bit. If my life were a game of chess this very moment and I were playing against the gentleman immersed in the shadows at the other end of the bar. Unlike the other men in the room, and a few of the women, he was clean shaven. My waist was parallel with his eyes when I was serving drinks at his table about an hour ago and he made no effort to raise his fixated gaze, apparently at ease with the image in his vision, but I could tell his chest would tower above my head when standing at full length. His face was molded in the form of his father’s and covered with his mother’s cream-corn skin. It was impossible not to notice his resemblance with his father, the bar owner, especially when they walked in, each by the other’s side, this morning to pick up the previous week’s profit. I knew I caught his attention then at the beginning of the day and I knew I still had it now at the closing hour. I knew it took effort not to get attracted to me and woe to the trifling that did not put in the effort. The gentleman, still staring, had probably not put in the effort or chose to let himself fall but any way he assumed himself an even match for our assumed game of chess.
He would be too ignorant for any realistic contention if he did not see how much the odds were in his favor. He was conceived in the Capitol and I was issued in the inner city of Metropolis. I could not even dream of a Cinderella story because neither pumpkins grew nor fairies existed in Metropolis. But on the bright side, neither chess nor life is a game of odds. Instead they required keen observation, thorough analysis and calculated action – none of which are oddities to me despite the odds against me.
I had watched him make his first move this morning as he kept his eyes on me from behind his father’s shoulders and when our eyes met he permitted a casual smile to escape his face. Though subtle, I recognized the enormity of his move and I replied with a blush, trying desperately not to overly commit myself into an error with my play. His eyes crawled all over my skin and even though I was used to it, I still felt quite uncomfortable. I had heard of his kind- predators from the Capitol using their wealth and clout as bait for us Metropolitans. I so desperately wanted to make an impression but my hair was in a mess and the heat from the kitchen in the inner room had created a sweaty mesh on my face. I also knew he would not ask why my apron was covered with all shapes and sizes of darkened smears and stains, so I would never have the chance to explain that I had to work way overtime into a second shift for a single shifts pay and that I had arrived home the previous night too tired to clean my things up for the next day.
But I knew too well that the only difference between the perception of disgust and that of pity in any given scenario is the perception of whether the protagonist is a culprit or a victim. And though I was actually the culprit of my own circumstance, perception would have nothing to do with reality as long as I could fool him to believe a false perception was reality.
I watched his curved lips straighten with displeasure as he moved closer to me and in the same instant a tear drop trickled down my eye, then another, and yet another till I was sobbing under my breathe. His face was arrested with concern. At this point he was, like death, standing about six feet away from me and wanting so frantically to clutch me in his grasp but not knowing how.
“Is anything the matter?” he asked as he walked up to me, making yet another subtle play. I tried to feign a quiver under the sound of his voice and then kept on sobbing quietly.
“Hello, I’m sorry,” he tried again, “is anything the matter?
I looked up slowly, trying to appear as vulnerable as I could, “I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to vex you sir. It’s just that you remind me of my husband. I mean my late husband.” He looked slightly confused. “I’m not trying to say you’re poor sir. It’s just that you’re the color of your skin and your nose, the way your nose does”. I reached out to touch his cream-corn skin but quickly regained the reins of my free spirited fantasy. “But I shouldn’t bother you sir. Nothing is the matter sir.”
For a moment I believe I recognized pity on his face, “well, I should go now. I’m sorry for upsetting you”.
“No sir. No vex sir. Stay around as long as you want. After all, your face has given me the only happiness I’ve felt in some time.” I wiped a glass mug dry and filled it up for him, looking away shyly as I handed it over. “Are you new here? You should come around a bit more.”
I could feel his gaze burn through my skin and if at all I was not sure he was looking at me then, there could be little doubt in my mind that his eyes had been on me all evening since he returned. His silence blinded me and I had trouble reading his plays if he was making any. So I busied myself wiping mugs and tumblers, trying to look distracted, because I knew he would only let his guard down and feel comfortable to stare and drool over me as he had done this morning when he felt I was distracted enough not to know what was going on around me.
Despite the odds being in his favor, he was not very proficient at this game. He watched me for minutes without breaking gaze but whenever I turned towards him he looked away instead of maintaining eye contact. Then he got up and walked towards the bar but when I smiled at him, he spat and stuttered instead of starting a conversation. He was terrible at this. Little did he know how much I was willing to let him win, how I desired him as much as he desired me. I had to sabotage my game and let him win and so as always I made my moves, each with its own purpose.
As the minute hand of the wall clock rested on the closing hour mark I went into the bathroom to wash my face and put my hair in order, combed with a center parting and plaited into a single braid over my shoulder. The gentleman, unused to the loudness and hassle of the other customers, would definitely not want to leave with the crowd so I had a few fallow minutes before stepping out to initiate a supposedly co-incidental meeting. Bidding time carefully, I walked out slowly through the backdoor and out to the alley behind the bar. I turned the corner just in time to see the gentleman step out of the bar and wrap himself in a jacket and face cap. I looked up and down the street and smiled when I did not see any car. Being the buttered-up Capitol child he was, I assumed he would have too much fear of the inner city to come to the bar with a flashy car. And his fear was well grounded, in Metropolis the hoodlums were idolized as stars and it is common knowledge that stars come out en masse at night. I was not convinced he would have the audacity to come all the way from the Capitol himself so I expected a car to be waiting for him a few alleys or streets away so I had limited time to let him win our little game. A conversation would be hard to bridle and might take forever so I decided to speak with my actions rather than words.
We exchanged glances for a second and I managed to show a smile just before he turned away, then I moved to walk ahead of him – slowly enough to exude a sense of insecurity and need for companionship but with a quick enough tempo of suave waist movements to arrest his attention and maybe stimulate a sensation or two. Soon enough, the rhythm of his footsteps quickened behind me and his shadow on the pavement aligned with mine. I turned in a manner I hoped appeared sudden and tried to look surprised.
“I’m sorry”, he said in his sleepy voice that made every syllable he uttered sound like he was calling my name, “I didn’t mean to scare you”. I blushed sheepishly.
“No sir. I didn’t know it was you. But better you than any of these other men”, I replied and he laughed.
“How far away do you live?” he asked, “maybe I could help you home?” and this time I laughed.
“No sir. I stay on the next street. I’ll be able to make it home safe. It’s just that all these things scare me easily. I’ve always been scared of the dark.”
“No palaver at all,” he continued, “I‘d still walk you at least. It’s even along my route.”
Finally, he had taken the initiative and made an attacking move. He asked for my name and then I asked for his and we got talking more on irrelevancies than it’s opposite. He withdrew from his earlier reservation and we shared jokes and teased each other. I even tried to explain to him, however to no avail, that though it was alright to make poverty jokes with a rich man because he would always find solace in the truth that he is in reality not poor, a similar joke to a poor man would just make you appear to be making mockery of his pitiful reality. I could not blame him, he was a butterfly who assumed he was a bird and was convicted that wealth was a good enough apology to anything offensive.
When we heard a crass noise and I clinched his arm in fear and refused to let go even when we both acknowledged a homeless sluggard on the other side of the road as the perpetrator. Later than sooner, we arrived at the doorstep to my block of flats and I insisted he come upstairs with me so I could in some way extend a token of appreciation and after much ado, he obliged. As usual, the power was out so we were enveloped in dark. I felt a nervous chill run down my spine as something grabbed at my hand but then I heard that sleepy voice whisper into my ear a reassurance of my gentleman’s presence. We climbed up the narrow staircase, slightly pressing against each other till we got into my flat.
I traced my way to the center table and lit a candle. The gentleman’s appeared much bigger than before in form and in his shadow cast on the wall behind us. But then I realized it was because he was still holding unto my arm and was much closer than I had ever seen him. My throat dried up in an instant and for a while we just stood there, each of our hands in the other’s, looking into each other’s eyes till I shut mine. And as soon as I did so I felt his cold lips, his kiss opened my eyes. He pulled me towards himself and whispered more reassuring words into my ear. I knew my mind could not trust him though my body wanted to and my body could not fight him though my mind wanted to. I was beginning to believe I really liked him and maybe there was this abstract possibility I would end up loving him. He was holding me like he needed me and kissing me like he wanted me. But I knew for sure that he did not love me. And when I groaned he hushed me as if he was ashamed of me even in the dark and hidden belly of Metropolis. To think I had almost forgot how it felt to be used and manipulated. As he placed his lips on other parts of my skin, my mind, fleet of thought, drifted to the cobwebbed pages of my past. All the other gentlemen, just like this one, that had come and held me and kissed me, just like this one, whispering different variations of the same reassuring words into my ears. Many of them young men from the Capitol, also like this gentleman, with promises to take me away from the misery of Metropolis and give me a taste of a better life I deserved. In due time, I realized that except the admittance of the better life I deserved all their promises eventually shed their beautiful outer cocoon of truth and sprouted as full blossomed lies. I regretted my life and cursed my existence.
And as if it could not get any worse, I began to understand how it was their fathers with their beautiful lies, exploitative manipulations and greed that caused me this cursed existence in every form – from my very birth to the Metropolitan life I was born into. I knew I had long ago conceded defeat in this very game of chess but still I smiled because I knew the only reason I had let him win the first game was so he would play and indeed loose the second game. I could still feel his lips running a victory lap down my skin. I pulled out of his arms and walked into the kitchen and moments later I returned with two crystal clear bottles. I emptied the water in the first bottle down my throat and excused myself from my guest. I think I told him I wanted to shower and change into something better. I undressed as I walked and was fully naked way before I stepped under the cold discharge of the shower. Somehow, I wished my sins of the evening could wash off as easily as the dirt and sweat on my skin. Or even as easy as the powdery desiccant I purchased from the undertaker who lived below me and had rubbed all over body when I went into the toilet at closing hour. But the accuracy of my calculations strengthened my guilt. I knew the gentleman would walk up to me. I knew I would convince him to follow me to my flat. I knew I would induce his kissing me on my lips and eventually the rest of his body. I knew the powdery desiccant would dry his lips and leave him thirsty. And I also knew, he would assume the second crystal clear bottle I returned from the kitchen with was water so he would gulp it down with reckless abandon.
So by the time I was out of the shower and walked back to the living room dripping in my towel I was not surprised to find him writhing on the floor from my special brew of potato poison he had just consumed. I stepped over the gentleman and walked out unto the balcony as the seizure of his muscles relaxed and the foam pouring from his mouth fizzled into a liquid as pale and lifeless as his body. Shadows were cast on the street by the half-moon up high, shaped into a short crescent as if the galaxy was smirking mischievously at my actions. The night air had a certain chill with it and I clutched my towel closer to my chest.
My conscience knocked on the door of my reason, but I took refuge that his death was more of suicide than murder. I was not driven by vengeance but by a dream to redeem Metropolis – create a cause from an effect. He was killed by his own lust and greed and eventually so would all his brothers and fathers. I am not too sure Heaven would justify me as easily as I have justified myself so I plead forgiveness for the sins of my past, present and future. But no pieces are spared en route a checkmate and all is fair in love and war.
Nnamdi Ehirim (@MinoEhirim) is a frequent reader and occasional writer. His lofty achievements are still buffering, watch this space.
Related country: Nigeria