OCT 30, 2022
Across the shimmering sand, the multiple tracks telegraphed the culmination of numerous voyages by the ocean's decapods. The glassy beautiful surf greedily clawed back the struggling crustaceans as they attempted to escape up the fine virgin beach. It heaved the rich blend of weeds and fertile sand from the horizon of its boundless fathoms only to try and drag it back. As the heavy thumping noises approached them, the crabs expeditiously burrowed, as they tried to escape from the imminent danger that they perceived. They were triumphant as the peril rumbled passed them. They poked their feathery antennae up, and began their routine filtration of material, feeding on the remains of the oceans they had only just escaped. Beyond them, the man laboured to breathe, betrayed by the congestion of his lungs from the long months of smoking. His four-legged companion yipped excitedly at his feet as they finally stretched their legs on this morning sprint. There did not seem to be any destination or purpose, but she happily trotted alongside her master. Their unspoken bond was united as they recognised the beach was their oasis of paradise.
As he relished that spectral dawn, he accepted his physical deterioration was not a crucial calamity. He rode daily to and from work, and this had preserved some of his stamina. Within his depths, he knew his pace lay dormant. The kerfuffle that dominated his mind was extraordinary. He had joined the fraternity of wrongdoing. It was not a spec his timeline would have brushed but now, it was done. That aside, he had a new family, a gang that possessed him. Banou and Mzee Tembo might have performed supporting roles when it came to his act, but, he belonged with them now, and their presence was just as critical as his. He swallowed it all, bitter as it was. Galvanised by this rationale, he dug his bare feet deeper into the pale sand and quickened his pace. Neve recognised his urgency and upped her canter.
Mapacha for the first time possessed money, more money than he had expected to accumulate in one lifetime. He had numerous decisions to make on what he would get for himself. Since the St. Michel incident, the feel of that soft mattress from the suite in the Lotus Grand Hotel was deeply engraved in his soul. He had never imagined there was anything softer than Abril's tender bosom. Beyond his current circumstances, he never had material desires, but that mattress had changed everything. His appetite for that softness was unsated, and he desired to experience it underneath his body at night. Therefore, he knew he would have to enter one of those big shops to purchase one, but before that, he would need a bed to hold the mattress and neither would fit in his small shack. Thus, he would require a bigger shack. However, a shack had become a weak prospect given that he also longed for an internal lavatory and shower, after he realised that a latrine and a bucket shower would no longer suffice. Neve's tongue dangled out of her mouth, as she panted in the heat, heedless of his dilemmas. What about Abril? If she came to learn he had money, she would relentlessly crusade for marriage and babies, something he was unkeen on. Up to that point, he remained unsure as to why she loved him.
"Ola Abril!" he greeted her.
She waved at him. Her mind had already escaped as she watched him undress. She ached for his sweaty body. The butterflies fluttered down to the depths of her thick clammy thighs that she locked shut to control herself.
Her breath was already unsteady as she summoned the courage to talk to him. "You haven't left yet?"
"Not yet," he responded. He grabbed a sheaf of newspapers, put on his sandals and went out to do his business. A few minutes later, she heard him under the bucket shower and then he returned and towelled himself. Abril was overwhelmed as she watched his naked body.
"You are downright cruel to me," she complained.
He remained silent as he slid his red briefs on, then a blue pair of denim city sweepers and finally a white t-shirt. Abril rose from the bed and wrapped her damp bare body with her khanga. She walked past him with a small spring and went to the main room. As Mapacha run the jerry comb through his afro, he could hear Abril as she clanged the paraffin stove and then decanted water into the enamelled kettle. The blue flame bobbed and slowly heated the water. In the bedroom, Mapacha dabbed and massaged the rich coconut oil into his scalp.
"Tea is ready," he heard Abril call to him.
He entered the main room and picked up the yellow enamel mug that she had laid on the table. He sat on the stool as she perched herself on the water jerrican and they quietly sipped the tea. She focused her thoughts on the conversation she wanted to have with him.
"Mapacha, we need to talk."
He recognised her tone and deferred.
"OK, Abril. What do you want?"
She felt affronted.
"I don't always want something from you. You treat me so badly Mapacha."
"Abril. . ."
He cautiously considered his words as he sipped on the tea. She ached as she clung to her mug.
"Abril, you need to understand something. The things you want, I am not quite sure I can give them to you."
"Mapacha, all I want is to be with you, but you have to talk to me. I don't want anything else. I don't want money or a massive fancy house, just for you to be with me."
"Hmmm. . ."
Abril wondered if she made sense to him. She searched his eyes, hoped for a glimmer and prayed his reserve would melt, and he would meet her halfway. He was blank. She might as well have spoken to a clay brick. As he swished the last of his tea, he glared at her and then softened his gaze. He stood up and put the mug on the small rickety table.
"I have to go to work."
It was hopeless. Her tragedy continued.
"Bye," she whispered.
He pushed the bike up the path and rode it down the dusty road. A short while later, he was on the main road dodging the potholes, pedestrians and cars. His mind remained jumbled by his numerous predicaments.
"Ola Mapacha." he greeted him, as his browline glasses remained pointed at the print.
Their mutual yet ominous silence that they both preferred echoed round the shop. Mapacha poured himself a cup and made his way to the roomy workshop, and their routine commenced. The clanging of tools emanated from the workshop as Mapacha assembled a new bicycle. Half an hour later, he wheeled it out for Mzee Tembo's approval. He barely glanced at it as he cleared it, his eyes cemented on the paper as the melodic voice of S. E. Rogie's 'Waitin Make You Do Me So' sputtered out of the transistor backed by the strumming of a guitar. The next couple of hours elapsed as Mapacha rolled out the brand-new polished units that Mzee Tembo gave a once over. As the clock struck twelve, Mzee Tembo called Mapacha.
Mzee Tembo picked up a bulky brown envelope, locked the door and as the sun crested, they hiked down the dusty road towards Nsia's. In the distance, they spotted Banou as she trudged down the hill. They hastened their pace and caught up with her.
"Hey Banou," Mapacha greeted her.
"Hi, Mapacha. Mzee Tembo," she replied.
They were surprised she was still dressed down. She wore a simple pair of faded jeans with a pale blue t-shirt and flat sneakers. Her ensemble made her disappear from her loud former self. Banou's restored reserve still held, save for her afro that glistened in the sun.
"You had early morning errands to run?" asked Mzee Tembo.
"No. I moved from Nsia's. I found a small room on the other side. Living in the bar was unhealthy for me."
They were awed by her willpower. She had reformed from her beloved high life where drunken antics and seeking attention were the order of the day, to casually dressed and sober. Mzee Tembo regretted that he might have misjudged Banou, that her former self was a mask.
"OK," was all he could muster.
"I'll meet you guys upstairs," Banou said as they got to the entrance of the bar. "Let me get some drinks."
The dry breeze swept round the building as they stepped up to the terrace. Mapacha gazed at the vastness of the Atlantic, from the exact spot Banou had sat a few days earlier, smoking as she contemplated miserably. Despite being incomparably beautiful, he felt the island had shrunk before him. From below, they heard Banou's muffled footsteps as she carried a white tray with three tropical drinks. Their symbolism made them all smile.
"I explained to Nsia that she could offer this in the bar, as some sort of cocktail. She has taken to adding vodka to them, and people seem to like them."
They eyed her suspiciously.
"Don't worry, these are clean."
Mzee Tembo chuckled as he picked up his glass. Banou sat down on the seat opposite Mapacha. From her small purse, she withdrew a matchbox and a fresh pack of Gitanes. She tagged on the purple seal that wrapped itself round the blue pack, stripped the translucent plastic wrap, opened it and pulled out a stark white cigarette. Without giving it much thought she laid it on her lips, struck a match and deeply inhaled before she let the deeply aromatic bluish smoke whisper from her nostrils. The breeze dissipated the smoke as she intensely focused on the cigarette pack admiring the silhouette of the famed Spanish gypsy woman that played the tambourine.
"So, Mzee Tembo, you still think we should do this?" she asked.
"Yes. I think it's doable. You see, the minister should not be receiving and stowing the diamonds himself so, he can't report them missing. He has to have a foreign supplier from somewhere else, so, I am guessing two corrupt peas have blossomed in that pod."
Mzee Tembo had assured himself this was fair justification for his accelerated slide into crime. Experience had enlightened him that there would be very little concern and legal consequence if they purloined already misappropriated goods, and from a corrupt minister, that would barely make the news. If anything, the repercussions were bound to be greater for the minister. As the rationalisation performed its theatrics in Mzee Tembo's mind, his eyes flared wildly, surprising Mapacha who occupied a front-row seat in this transformation. Who wouldn't be tempted? The target was far too intriguing. Despite his private reservation, Mapacha too was driven to the same amoral decision. Why not?
"Mapacha? Do you think this is for us?"
At that moment, the upheaval in his head abruptly quietened down.
"Definitely. If we can go over and find the guy and his house, I don't see why we couldn't do this. Most of the work has already been done anyway."
Banou took it all in with difficulty. Mapacha and Mzee Tembo's eyes seared through hers as she struggled to say no. "OK. Fine." She was in.
Mzee Tembo assumed control of the meeting.
"So, this is my idea. I shall get us transport to Cote d'Ivoire and a guide to show us where we are going. We will require 'ground support' and there is this guy who did some 'work' for us in the army," he said with a confident smirk on his face.
'Work' was their military's covert definition of the smuggling of the most insidious contraband.
Banou's dismay stained her face.
"Old man, now we are including more people in this adventure? How do we know we can trust him? Maybe we go over there, and he rips us off or betrays us to the police and we are jailed in a foreign country," she countered.
"No, don't worry, this guy is not like that. He does things the right way. If you trust me with this story, then you can trust him."
Her eyes glowered as she weighed the level of trust she was willing to part with. Mapacha outwardly remained unconcerned as he silently listened. He was amused as he watched Banou and Mzee Tembo vacillate in an unceasing deliberation. Bored by them, he got lost in the beverage. Though he would not openly admit it, Nsia had perfected the tropical drink. He could not put his finger on what she had added, but it tasted delicious and was peculiarly refreshing.
"The St. Michel ones were a fraud," he reasoned with himself.
As the flavours blended in his mouth, he lacked the foresight to see his seclusion end as Banou tagged him into the exchange.
"Mapacha, what do you think?"
Their determined eyes focused on him. He instinctively brushed his palms on the sides of the coarse denim as he assembled his response.
"Well Banou, if the boss brings in a guy, then we need to trust him. Until now, even before we started this, he has not let me down. I am equally concerned about the job but if the boss makes the plan right, I don't see the big deal."
Though Mapacha did not particularly like mendacity, he knew in this instance it was necessary. The terrific threat that this job represented bothered him too. Sure, Mzee Tembo freely brandished his influence on the island with pride but abroad, it would be largely guesswork. He disdained the idea that he would have to rely on a third party for evasion. However, he was damned. The bitter lemons life had flung his way had left him leery. If he got a slither of a chance to elevate himself, he had very little say in the need to trust something or someone. That moment had arrived. However, his perception did little to abate Banou's doubts. If anything, it made them worse.
"Eh, you two are really something else, you know that," Banou retorted, as she oscillated an accusing finger at the both of them.
However, Banou's fictitious act was all class. She feigned hesitation, despite knowing she had waded beyond the rubicon. Her resolve to lower her ballistic profile may have endured, but the allure of easy money with free travel was a different tale. She had not hustled in a week and had kept dry. Knowing that her pleasure would now be of her own volition rung home the bell she needed and her incentive to remain was stamped.
"So we meet here after work, OK?" Mzee Tembo asked. "I will bring him then we can take it from there."
"OK," Banou replied.
"Now, to other matters, has Umaru paid up for the stuff?" Mzee Tembo asked as he settled more comfortably into the frayed seat.
That question engrossed Mapacha. Mzee Tembo was no longer playing the part. He was living it.
The puritanical embellishment could not disguise stolen jewellery and drugs.
"He is bringing the last of the money at the end of the week. Nsia brokered it, and so far he has kept his word," Banou answered.
"Good. Good." Mzee Tembo said, rubbing his palms in anticipation. The villain in him was evolving.
The breeze and comradery enthused them into small talk regarding their prospects. Banou, due to a sudden need for validation, happily illuminated her life. The moistened trade winds chilled them. They eventually ambled down the stairs, with Banou bearing the tray of glasses. She stood by the entrance to the bar and followed Mapacha and Mzee Tembo's walk up the hill. She cast back to the moment she met them a few days ago beaten, skint and a pariah and here she was, the lane to success wide open with numerous potholes of danger and with individuals she dare say called friends. A surge of surliness enveloped her suddenly. They had stuck her with the bill.