(An extract from the novel “August 1990”)
By Saah Millimono
Trying to see if he could recognize the figure of the person lying beside him on the floor, Kollie looked into the darkness but could make out nothing, save for the fact that the person lay with his back turned toward him. But he was sure it was a man. Only a man could get drunk and fall asleep in such a place, he thought. Was it the proprietor of the cassette booth? Not possible because he would likely have his own home and use the booth to do business only. Was it a thief? Not possible because a thief would not be asleep when he ought to have stolen something and left immediately. So who was it? Perhaps it was a vagrant, thought Kollie. He wondered why the man had been drinking when he ought to have been finding food like all homeless people did. Well, if he did not get up soon enough and the proprietor came and met him in the morning, it was his own affair. As for being afraid of him, no, he was not afraid. The man was drunk and slept like a corpse and could not possibly do him any harm. Of course he had been too long enough in the NPFL to be afraid of anybody. He remembered the man who had held him and accused him of stealing and how he had fought and bitten him, and smiled to himself in the darkness. Though he had feared unwanted attention, he had felt that there should be no room for bullying. So he had fought the man with all the strength of his body. And even though he had been surprised at his own reaction, he was thankful that it had eased something from his shoulders.
It was the foolishness of his thinking that he could hide in the market and that somebody who knew he had once been an NPFL child soldier would not be able to recognize him. Of course he had not yet found somebody who would be able to identify him. But Red Light market was far too frequented, too large, and too obvious to make a hiding place. There were always people coming and going, strangers as well as those who came often. Surely among all those people would be someone who would recognize him. He wished he could go some other place, for he had been to his parents’ house and, finding it with no roof, doors or windows, had made him despair, leaving him with no other choice but to hide in the market. But, because Red Light market was frequented by everyone and not one person alone, he felt that someday he would meet one of his relatives or perhaps his mother or sister even, when they came looking for food to buy.
He did not know how long he must have lain awake thinking or whether he slept at all. But he noticed suddenly that it was morning from the gray light that streamed in through a crack under the door of the booth. He jumped up and went to the door, almost tripping over the figure of the man asleep on the floor, and pulled the latch. He opened the door, and cold air surged into the booth. He looked outside. There were a few pedestrians. But already the sky, darkened the night before, had lightened. Closing the door softly behind him, he stepped out of the booth into the damp morning air.
As he walked along the tarred road, his t-shirt torn from behind and barely able to protect him from the cold morning air, he trembled and thought about the clothes he had brought in the travel bag and how he had lose it when he ran from the conscripting INPFL rebel. When he had come out of the video club, hoping he would find the travel bag where he had left it next to the wall, he had looked but found nothing. Of course the bag had not contained much, save for three pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, and a pair of sweater. But just to think that it had gone missing made him want to cry. He wondered who could have stolen the travel bag, because it was so old that anybody could have discarded it as a piece of thrash. Probably it was yet one more of those yanna boys or urchins, after the other boy had run away with his five-dollar bill. But he would go back to the video club and see if he could find them and perhaps look for the travel bag.
He reached the market and sat on a stall, his feet dangling a little above the ground, and folded his arms to still the trembling in his body. A few more pedestrians and traders returning to the market had begun to appear on the tarred road.
The sun rose and appeared over the rooftops of a few houses Kollie could see in the distance. Gradually the air became warm, like a hot cup of tea left too long to be drunk. The smell of garbage a little away from the market floated on the damp morning air. Pedestrians and traders walked past, some with assorted goods and loads in wheelbarrows, some with fresh edible leaves in tubs and baskets on their heads, their footsteps falling again into a steady rhythm along the tarred road.
Kollie got down from the market stall. He yawned and stretched his arms high above his head to loosen the tautness in his muscles. He could not sit here all day. It was a little after seven in the morning and soon the market would be full of traders and people going one way and another. Besides, his t-shirt was torn on his back and he longed to find his travel bag. He ought therefore to return to the video club and see if he could meet the yanna boys, though it was yet too early for them to be out and about. It crossed his mind that he ought to find something to eat as well. He reached into his pocket and felt for the five-dollar bill which the INPFL rebel had given him the day before. But he had bought and eaten cold-bowl the night earlier and felt he was not hungry. He removed his hand from his pocket and pushed the thought of food out of his head. He felt that what he needed more was to meet the yanna boys, find out if they had stolen his travel bag, and whether they could return it. It would serve no purpose to go barebacked about the market except if he wanted to attract unwanted attention which, in fact, he did not. Because even though it was impossible to hide in as crowded, as large, and as varied a market as Red Light, he felt that to go about with his t-shirt torn on his back would lead people to take notice of him. Eventually, somebody would recognize him to be a child soldier who had deserted the NPFL.
He turned and started for the other side of the market. Then he saw a man appeared next to the cassette booth, and stopped. It crossed his mind that it was the proprietor, but he could not be sure. Then he thought about the man he had met the night before and wondered if he were still in the booth.
He watched as the man opened the door of the cassette booth, expecting to hear him cry out at the sight of the other man, who must still be asleep. However, the man did not appear surprised.
Instead, he stood looking into the booth for a moment, then he shook his head and shouted at the top of his voice,
“Patrick! I say Patrick! Get up you lazy dog Patrick! It’s almost nine in the morning, and you sleeping. Get up lazy dog Patrick!”
Obviously it was the proprietor. But was “Patrick” the name of the other man in the booth, and was the proprietor acquainted with him? Kollie wondered.
A few minutes went by. Then the other man came out of the cassette booth, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He yawned and stretched his arms high above his head and looked at the proprietor of the booth in front of him and smiled. It was then Kollie saw who it was, and could not believe his eyes.
It was the reggae dancer he had met the day before.
The reggae dancer was dressed as he had been the day previously, in a pair of long jeans trousers, a sweater, and a pair of expensive-looking boots that did not seem to suit him, his clothes soiled, his reggae hair-do sticking out one way and another, his face swollen from sleep.
“You should learn to get up early, Patrick,” the proprietor said rhythmically, as if he had said this so many times before it tired him. “If you don’t get up soon, I will stop you from sleeping in my booth.”
“Sorry sah,” the reggae dancer said. “I jes feelin tire.”
“Always you tire because you drink too much,” the proprietor said and burst out laughing. Then he turned and went into the cassette both, and the reggae followed him.
But soon the reggae dancer came back outside, carrying a yard-broom in his hand, and began to sweep in front of the booth, nodding his head and humming a tone to himself. Kollie stood and watched him for a while. Then he turned and went into the market.
A few traders were arranging assorted goods on stalls and tables. Wheelbarrow men weaved in and among the market stalls, carrying big wooden boxes. The day hawkers had not yet arrived to advertise their wares and shout at the top of their lungs; except for the creaking of wheelbarrows, the sound of footsteps, and the low voices of a few traders, the market was nearly as silent as if somebody had died.
As Kollie meandered through the market stalls, he watched the faces of the traders. He wondered if one of them would know he was hiding and in fear for his life because he was a child soldier who had deserted the NPFL in order to find his relatives, who had either been displaced or killed during the height of the civil war. Though he could not tell what the thoughts of the traders were by just looking at their faces, he felt it made them only too unpredictable and that he ought to be on his guard. From what he had seen during the lynching and burning to death of the two suspected NPFL rebels, he knew that nine out of every ten of these people, if he were found to be an NPFL rebel, would jump at the slightest opportunity to beat him to death. He felt it would be a day of reckoning when finally they caught him, a day in which he would have to account for those crimes which, as an NPFL child soldier, he committed during the civil war. As he looked at the faces of the traders, he felt suddenly toward them more fear and hate than he had felt toward anything or anyone before. Did these traders not know that he had been only fourteen years of age when the NPFL took him from his parents’ house and that the killings he must have done was only because he wanted to live himself? Surely the NPFL would have killed him if they found that they had given him a gun but that he did not want to kill. And how could he when he was only a boy and had been forced to take orders, like many other boys had done? No, these traders would not know. He felt that they would hardly care, because all they were driven by was the hatred they felt toward those who had done the killings and not the root causes, though there was always a cause and effect. And because there was then no law and order but the realization that nobody would be to blame for mob justice, he felt it would lead a crowd of market people to become even more fanatical. A trader arranging goods on a table turned to give Kollie a casual glance. The boy shot him a hostile look, then lowered his head and continued to the other side of the market until he came on to Pipeline Road.
To be cont’d.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2017
About the author
Saah Millimono is the author of “Broken Dreams,” which was awarded the Short Fiction Prize for the Seabreeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. In 2013 his first novel, “Boy, Interrupted,” was awarded Second Prize for the Kwani Manuscript Project, a one-off writing prize for African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. He reads English and Mass Communication at the African Methodist Episcopal University in Monrovia, and is at work on his second novel, tentatively titled “August 1990.”