After a hard day, Bayo had settled down on a bench between two wooden houses with peeling paint and sloping tin roofs in the slums of Lagos Island, to enjoy his sumptuous meal of ekuru and a couple of fish. Normally, he would only have had one fish, but after two grueling months of pushing carts like a stallion, loading concrete blocks like a beast of burden and like a slave, eating only once a day, he had treated himself to an extra fish for hitting his target. Bayo had barely finished washing his hands with the pure water he had kept when two street urchins crept up on him. While one of them pinned him to the ground, the other frisked him, removed the money he had fastidiously kept in three separate pockets and gave him two hard blows to the stomach before they ran off. The seventeen year-old Bayo, unable to comprehend the disaster that had just befallen him, touched his empty pockets, sat back on the bench and rocked back and forth like a drunken monk. A push, some kicks to his jaw and all of his life savings were gone. He wept, staring at his swollen hands and bleeding knees. Blood trickled down his nose. Market women and errand boys cast masked glances towards him and shook their heads in helpless pity from a distance; no one would go near for the fear of being victims too. Days of toil under the hostile sun, sleepless nights and frenzied dreams due to sore joints and fever raced through his mind in flashes, his frail frame trembled in misery.
Later that evening, Bayo leaned on the only table in the dimly lit room and listened to six boys discuss their fail-proof plan. Mobile phones, jewelry and money were to be demanded — their targets, the rich ones in exotic cars. Time dragged for Bayo as the choking fumes of marijuana made his nostrils itch and the boys spoke in low voices while they cleaned and polished their guns.
‘If tonight good, you fit get fifty bale.’ Bossman, the leader of the gang said pointing a tobacco- stained finger at Bayo.
‘Fifteen thousand do me sir,’ replied Bayo, and the boys burst into laughter.
‘Dat’s wat all una first say,’ said a boy known as Snuff. He played with the edges of a dirty Band Aid on his left cheek. He had been cut with a knife during an intense argument over the English premiership match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC.
‘Kò sí ọ̀fẹ́ leko,’ Oluomo said. ‘Nothing dey free for Lagos.’ Oluomo worked with Bayo at the building site. (Bayo had been an apprentice at a goldsmith shop but had to quit and took up menial jobs at the site to earn some money.) Two months earlier, Oluomo had asked Bayo to join the gang, but at the time, Bayo had replied, “I go use my hand, work, get money.’
Bossman checked the time, threw a half-smoked cigarette to the floor, crushed it with his dusty boots and with a voice that made Bayo tremble, he announced it was time to leave. Faces taut, closed and unsmiling, the boys hid their shiny weapons in baggy trousers and filed out, Bayo trailed behind.
The Lekki-Ajah expressway was, as usual, heaving with traffic and the furious activity of street hawkers. The clouds had made their shapes against the evening sky and the blare of indiscriminate hooting like millions of wounded owls filled the air. It was rush hour and everyone was eager to get home, patience was a discarded virtue. Okada riders spat thoughts (as they formed in their heads) while they squeezed through every available space between cars and pedestrians, and pedestrians tried to avoid being crushed between the reckless okadas and slow moving vehicles. In faded blue jeans and t-shirt, Bayo held no gun, his job was to cause a distraction at the end of the road while the others raided the cars. With his hands in his pockets, occasionally digging a fingernail into a thumb, he stood by the roadside and waited for his prompt. In spite of the cool evening, sticky sweat dripped from his chin to his neck; he had never felt so uneasy – pinching from the iru his mother used to sell in front of their house was the closest he’d ever come to theft. His eyes went from one car to the other as he analyzed the viable ones and settled on a woman in a Honda CRV who had a piece of jewelry on her neck, he did a mental calculation of its cost. She must have felt the intensity of his gaze because she turned and smiled at him flashing deep dimples, her eyes beaming as though she approved of him. The sweat had extended to his palm, Bayo smiled back while his hands momentarily waved at the stranger, her dimples deepened as she waved back. Then the shrill sound of a whistle, like a dirge in the middle of a beautiful wedding ceremony – it was the signal for the start of operation. Bayo moved towards the Honda. The woman unaware of what was about to happen, still looking at him, still with the shine in her eyes, and, suddenly his resolve broke; how could he rob the one with the smile that warmed his heart? He turned and fled.
Bayo’s mother lay on a mat in the single room they shared. The lantern burned low. She was shivering and had covered herself with a blanket, which worsened the fever. Bayo removed the blanket and made it into a pillow, and gently placed it under her head as a cushion. She coughed. He gave her a cloth into which she spat, then he sponged her face and neck with a wet towel.
In a scarcely audible voice, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear, she said, ‘shebi we go go to doctor tomorrow?’
‘Mama, them bad boys thief all the money today,’ sadness trailed his voice, ‘but you go go next month.’
‘Next month go soon come.’ He nodded in acknowledgment and she continued, ‘when I don well, I go sell my iru again so you go go back to learn your goldsmith.’
Bayo smiled and nodded again. Then he went to shut the wooden window and dropped the tattered drapes to keep out noise – deserted kids, played outside in dirty pants on the streets, their mothers either gossiping in the neighborhood or outside selling their wares. Their fathers were busy getting drunk somewhere. Bayo’s mother mumbled something that he took for a prayer, and he nodded once again, sticking his fingers into the holes in the curtain. Pictures of a busy road and a kind face and a warm smile played though his mind. He nodded again, even though no one spoke, and a lone tear mixed with his determination to work twice as hard in days to come.
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