(An excerpt from the novel August 1990)
By Saah Millimono
“I wan ten pee,” he said, handing his five-dollar bill to the small boy whose buttocks, like two black eyes, peeped out of the back of his trousers.
“Ten?” the boy said. The boy had a flat nose and a few of his teeth were rotting away.
The boys playing marbles had then all regrouped, following the game before. Now they were standing at the side from which they would all throw their marbles. It would determine who would lead the next match from the outset.
The boy put his hand into his trousers pocket, heavy and sagging, the marbles making ‘clock-clock’ sounds like a bag full of empty bottles. Then he took out a handful. A colorful pile shimmered in his palm.
A few yards away, sitting on their hunches in a semicircle, five or six men played a game of dice. Each held a handful of crumpled and soiled five-dollar notes which were as dirty and shabby as the men themselves. From somewhere across the market came the sound of loud reggae music, reminding Kollie of the loud volume with which he and the other fighters would play music in NPFL territory. He turned and looked across the market, wondering from where the music came. Then he saw an INPFL fighter. The fighter came up the dusty path, holding with one hand a music box and in the other the strap of the AK-47 rifle slung over one shoulder. He looked to be about nineteen years of age. He walked with a bouncing gait, nodding his head in time with the beat of the music, and looked as though he had turned all the suffering and carnage of the war into one long and enduring song, pure and sacred. Then a military transport truck pulled up by the roadside. At once voices could be heard yelling and screaming, followed by the sound of feet and the sight of people running about the market, and in opposite directions. Kollie turned and looked around him. Only then did he realize that the boys with whom he had been about to play had all disappeared. Even the one to whom he had given his five-dollar bill could no longer be seen. He turned to look back across the market. He caught a glimpse of men dressed in army uniforms and watched as they chased and went after the crowd.
Then suddenly he saw one of the soldiers, holding in one hand a pair of handcuffs, running towards him. There was no one else in front of the video club. Kollie turned to look behind him. A man, who could have been the proprietor of the video club and who also must have seen the approaching soldier, was in the act of shutting the entrance. Kollie took a deep breath and ran towards him.
The man cursed and tried to grab him as Kollie struck against him and almost knocked him off his feet. But Kollie shoved himself through the narrow space between the man and the door, just in time for the man to slam it shut behind him.
The room was dark except for the dim glow of light that emitted from the video screen and its moving pictures. It took Kollie almost a whole minute to adjust his eyes to the darkness. Then he saw about a hundred people or so, each with his face turned towards the video screen, sitting on low wooden benches on the floor in front of him. From the video screen came the sound of gunfire. Then a car caught fire and burst into flames.
A hand grabbed Kollie by the back of the collar. He turned. His eyes opened wide in fear, dreading to meet the soldier he had seen outside with the handcuffs. But it was a young man who had been sitting on a tall stool just behind him.
“Where yor money, or you thin people cam here to watch free show?” the young man said.
Kollie opened his mouth, but words failed him. How he had come to be in the video club or whether he was there at all, had happened so suddenly he still could not believe it.
“Leave the pekin,” said a voice. “INPFL rebels almost caught him but he was lucky.”
The young man released his hold on Kollie’s collar and burst out laughing. Standing next to him was an older man that Kollie recognized to be the man who had been about to shut the entrance when he pushed him. He was staring at Kollie and stood with arms akimbo. Kollie lowered his eyes.
From outside and just behind the video club came the drone of a portable generator, the occasional sound of cars as they drove past on the tarred road, and voices, clear or indistinct, from the market.
“Go sit down pekin,” the man said.
“Thank you,” Kollie said, and sighed.
He found one of the nearest benches and sat down, sandwiched between a small boy and a fat man with his belly dangling in front of him. The fat man had removed his shirt and now used it to fan himself. The room was hot and airless, like an oven. It smelled of sweat and unwashed bodies. On the still air Kollie caught a whiff of exhaust fumes from the generator outside. He turned to look at the walls around him. He noticed five or six holes, each no bigger than a man’s fist, punched into the upper most part of the wall on his left. So that was the window? But how could anybody expect to let in fresh air with a makeshift window like that, he wondered, and felt as though he were being strangled. Wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and feeling sweat streamed all over his body, Kollie sighed and turned to watch the movie.
But then the video screen went black, plunging the room into complete darkness. After a series of irregular spluttering and coughing, the generator had broken down and gone silent, like a corpse.
Immediately there were loud and angry voices; everybody started talking almost at once. The video club attendant jumped down from the stool and ran out of the room, the proprietor close behind him.
“That rotten generator,” somebody shouted at the top of his voice. “It waits just when you’re enjoying the movie. Then it breaks down and when they go fix it, they tell you go come back tomorrow. I swear, if I wuh na in my right mind, I will take that thin an break it now.”
Everybody burst out laughing.
“That guy who owns this video club must be playing tricks with the generator,” someone else said. “Has anyone noticed how when you have seen the first and second shows, the generator breaks down and you don’t get to watch the last show? That way the video club owner saves up fuel for tomorrow. And you can’t force him to give back your money because you have already seen two shows.”
“But I can keep my ticket and come back tomorrow to watch the last show,” said someone else.
“Yes, and that might be what he will tell you,” said the voice that had spoken first. “But most of us, like myself, wouldn’t want to come back tomorrow for just one show business. And what if the ticket gets missing or there’s no money to pay for the second and third shows?”
“I thin de thin you mor do when you cam to dis video club,” said someone else, “is keep yor ticket and pay after you fini watchin all de show.”
“If I were the owner of the video club,” said another person, “you could do that only over my dead body, because some people would watch the shows and not want to pay.”
And then, as though it were suffering from tuberculosis, the generator coughed loudly two times and starting again. The light came back on; the video screen sprung to life; the room burst into applause.
It took about an hour and a half to complete the third and final movie. Then the crowd poured out into the yard, pushing and shoving to get through the doorway. They were all sweating profusely, men as well as women and small boys. A few of the men had stripped themselves to the waist and stood with their bodies pouring with sweat. Immediately the clean, fresh air, which they could all have free of charge, seemed to hit them in the nostrils like a sledgehammer. Indeed, their faces looked bathed with relief and satisfaction. About the three movies, especially ‘Diabolo’, there was still much talk and excitement; those who had not seen the movies now stood by to listen. On the wall next to the entrance of the video club the proprietor and his attendant where putting a few movie posters, getting ready for midnight movies.
Sitting and watching that movie had made Kollie oblivious of the fact he had lost his five-dollar note. But as he came back out of the video club he thought of it again and became bitter with the anger and frustration he had felt before. Worse still, he was feeling hungry and tired. Not that he cared much about food or fatigue. If there was anything the NPFL had taught him, it was the ability to embrace hardship and to endure as calmly as possible. But whereas in NPFL territory he had a gun and a few fighters who would watch his back, here he did not know anybody. Besides, with suspected NPFL fighters being lynched or shot and killed every other day, he felt exposed and vulnerable. Perhaps it was this helplessness that made him to think of such small things like food and how tired he felt. He sighed and looked around him at the crowd gathered in front of the video club, still hoping to spy the small boy who had run off with his money. But the boy was not to be seen anywhere nor any of the others he had found playing marbles. Well, he would keep a look out for him, he decided.
Then he thought about the incident in the market, the INPFL rebel fighters he had seen brandishing their weapons, especially the one with the handcuffs, and how everybody had suddenly started running in different directions.
“Hello poppay,” he said then to a man standing just nearby.
“Hello pekin,” the man said. He looked to be about fifty years old or so. He was dressed in a blue pair of oversized trousers, an ill-fitting khaki shirt, and old slippers that almost had no soles. But he wore a pair of spectacles and three or four BIC pens in his breast pocket which rather seemed to give him a respectable air, like a minister, but one without decent clothing.
“Why people in de market wuh runnin for, and why de INPFL fighters dem wanted to catch dem?” he asked.
“They were looking to recruit people,” the man said, and spat.
“But there wuh women and small children,” Kollie said.
“They don’t care,” The man said, and shrugged his shoulders. “The men and boys they take to fight. The women they use as cooks and slaves until they’re pregnant and thrown out of the INPFL base by the rebels. They don’t have much use for old men like me. But once those rebels beat me up here as though I was a small boy, and they did not even look at my grey hair. Imagine! Me, once a University of Oxford professor!”
The man spoke bitterly and looked around some more, as though in search of an outlet to unleash his anger and disappointment. Then he sucked his teeth and spat again.
Kollie had seen and perhaps committed similar atrocities in the NPFL. It was all very well to be told that the same things were being done here by INPFL rebels. It would make being covert and conducting himself with particular care all the more important. But there was something about this man that made him wary and uneasy, especially his anger and the way he wore those pens as if to remind each and everybody of who he was and how he would stop at nothing in order to feel placated. Perhaps he ought not to even be speaking with him, thought Kollie, let alone in such an obvious place. He didn’t know him. Already people were on the lookout for suspected NPFL rebels, a circumstance which, unfortunately, happened to be his misfortune. He turned, bowed his head just low enough to see in front of him, and hurried away from the old man.