Journeys of a Boy Soldier (Chapter forty-two)

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(An extract from the novel “August 1990”)

By Saah Millimono

Kollie crossed Pipe Line Road and made his way through market stalls. Finally, he came to the video club and stood in the vacant lot in front of it. There was as yet no film poster on the wall, but the entrance to the video club was open. Through the semi-darkness Kollie could make out a few movie posters draped over one of the wooden benches inside. He wondered what films they would advertise today, and trembled with excitement. True, he still had his travel bag to think about and wasn’t still sure whether he should go back to NPFL territory or roam Red Light Market until he found one of his relatives. But it would do no harm to watch a movie, he thought. Besides, being in the open narrow his chances of hiding, and he felt that the video club could be only the right place to hide. Although it was often full of people, it was usually too dark inside to be able to recognize somebody. What was more, everyone would have their attention fixed on the video screen and too busy watching movies to care whether he was an NPFL child soldier or not. If he did not find his travel bag, he could sit in the video club and watch movies all day and all night long or whenever he could, he decided.

His eyes scanned the spaces in front of the video club and beyond, then under the wooden tables and stalls a little farther in front, hoping to find his travel bag discarded somewhere, but found nothing.  On the left of the video club stood a small abandoned gas station and just next to it was a patch of grass that had sprouted out of the pavement. The grass had grown as tall as a man. Kollie thought he might find his travel bag in it, and headed for the gas station.

Three men next to the video club were sitting on their haunches. Kollie recognized them to be the proprietor and his attendant, along with another man he had not seen before. The men were repairing a portable generator. A few of its parts lay on a bag spread out beside them. Kollie stole a look at the proprietor and his attendant, but they were too busy to mind, and he walked past.

In front of a house adjoining the one in which the video club was, three children, who looked malnourished, including two teenage girls, sat washing dishes and laundry while the children ate cornmeal in small bows placed on the ground in front of them. A dark-complexioned woman sitting on a stool gave a baby a bath. Kollie said “morning” and they said “morning,” and he walked on past and came to the gas station to the grass. He began to look this way and that, hoping to find his travel bag, but found nothing, save for scraps of old clothes and paper and human feces lying everywhere. Holding his nostrils with one hand and with the other waving the air in front of him in order to ward off the flies that buzzed about, he came out of the grass and walked back to the video club, where he sat on the cement block he had found next to the wall the day earlier.

From where he sat he could barely get a glimpse of the tarred road, for the makeshift stalls that stood by the roadside permitted only a partial view. It was after ten. The sun had climbed well up into the sky, shinning as hotly as if it were noon. Red Light market was full and as nosier as the day before, like a cloud, long pregnant with rain, sends raindrops so heavy it becomes impossible to hear anything else.

Kollie sat for a while. Then, feeling the urge to loiter about the market, he got up and went to the tarred road and stood among a pile of looted goods that had been placed for sale by the roadside. There were no street cars on the tarred road. Now and then an army truck or vehicle would drive past. Each time Kollie found they were carrying ECOMOG soldiers. When once he spotted up the tarred road an automobile which he thought was a private or street-car, he looked and saw it was full of INPFL rebels sitting on the hood and rooftop. Kollie wanted to run, thinking the rebels had come to conduct forced conscription, but couldn’t find his way through the assorted goods lying on the ground around him. As the car approached, he found he could barely breathe. Like a blanket, fear wrapped tightly round him and left him feeling so heavy he couldn’t move a muscle.  But the car drove past, and he heaved heavy sigh.

He turned to look behind him at the tarred road. He saw that a truck had pulled up and that people were fighting to get on board. Some clambered from the back and along the sides, some had thrown their loads in first, some were being pulled on board by others from above, the whole time laughing and smiling as if the whole thing were comical. Kollie watched, fascinated, and was beginning to wonder where the people must be traveling when he heard a man shout “Freeport! Freeport! Freeport!” His mouth fell open. So this was where the war had come to, he wondered, a state in which all the street-cars and taxis in Monrovia had been replaced by rusted and rickety trucks that served as the only means of public transport. But so long the trucks took you to where you were going Kollie felt it wasn’t that bad. And besides, back in NPFL territory he had, of course, not seen anything like this before and rebel vehicles were the gods of the road. The truck rumbled on past in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

Kollie went back to the video club. Finding that three movies were being advertised, he joined a small crowd that had gathered to look at the posters tacked to the wall. In a soft voice to himself, he read the titles: “Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow, Death Wish, Enter the Dragon.” Of the tree films he had seen just one before the war. This was “Enter the Dragon.” He remembered that at the end of the movie the “main bad man,” who had tried to outsmart Bruce Lee by having his image reflected in about a thousand mirrors, had fought with iron claws. But the wily Bruce Lee had out-foxed the antagonist and, iron claws or not, had brought him to a deserving end. It had been a colorful and interesting movie. Kollie could see it in his mind’s eye as clearly as if he were viewing it now. He wondered what the price was, and went to the video club attendant, who was sitting just inside the door and eating rice with soup.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hello,” said the attendant. Immediately the attendant recognized Kollie to be the small boy who, pursued by the conscripting INPFL rebel the day previously, had run into the video club. The attendant’s jaws were bulging as he ate, his mouth smeared with palm-oil grease, and he had swallowed and taken some time to reply. He looked not more than nineteen or twenty years of age and was tall, with sharp features, with long arms, and with a small growth of beard. He was wearing a pair of dirty jeans trousers and dark t-shirt that was as rumple as if he had slept in it.

“How much for de shows?” Kollie asked.

“One dollar for one show,” said the young man, and added, “Ehn you de pekin da wuh in de video club yesteday wen de rebels dem wuh ketchin pepo?”

Kollie nodded his head.

“You wuh lucky to run away,” said the attendant. “De rebels ketch some boys and man dem yesteday. I hear their pepo wuh cryin for dem.”

Kollie said nothing. It was, of course, nothing new. The image of NPFL rebels once grabbing and hauling him from his parents’ house came back to him in stark clarity. He looked away.

“Leh eat-o,” the attendant said.

“No mehn, I all right,” Kollie said.

“Where you eat?” the attendant said, and smiled derisively. Kollie found he was looking at his shabby clothes and with eyes that said he, Kollie, must be hungry.

“I eat somewhere,” he said, “so I not hungry.”

“Where you livin?” the attendant asked, still looking at him.

Kollie frowned and looked away again. Who did this video club attendant, dressed in clothes no cleaner than his own, thing he was? he thought. It was no business of his where he lived or not, and God knows all he had asked was the price of the movies. “I livin wif my big sista,” he said, finally.

The attendant looked surprised but said nothing.

Kollie turned and went back to join the people looking at the movie posters. It was clever the lie he had told the video club attendant. He thought about it and smiled to himself. It had come to him all of a sudden. He had been surprised at the ease and fluency with which he had said it, like something rehearsed. But it had worked, and thenceforth he would tell it to anybody who taught his appearance elicited some sort of curiosity.

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 second novel, tentatively titled “August 1990.”

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