What if I deposit my money into your account…?
Chidi picked his teeth with a sharp wooden stick. On the dining table before him were the empty plates of garri and okro soup. The stock fish from the soup was stuck in between his molars and he was sweating profusely. Above him, the fan slowed to a stop, the power had just gone out. Chidi wiped his face with his other hand and rubbed it on his checkered boxers.
It’ll only be for two months, I’ll pay you one million naira…
Chidi shook his head and laughed. Just then, his wife, Oby, waddled into the dining area from the kitchen with a lantern. Sweat ran down her round face, arms and full breasts, and her black spaghetti-strapped blouse clung to her back. She clutched several folds of her yellow and red ankara wrapper with one hand.
“Nkem,” she called him affectionately. “Who are you laughing with?”
She pulled out the chair beside him and sat in it. “So you’re laughing all by yourself?”
He looked lovingly at her. “Pregnancy always looks good on you.”
Her firm lips stretched, revealing a set of well-set white teeth. “Thank you.”
“A customer wants to…”
Just then, his phone vibrated on the table, startling Oby, whose elbow was by it.
“Sorry Nkem,” he said and swiped it. “Hello Gbenga… I dey… What? When did this happen? He didn’t tell me anything… just calm down, I’m sure there’s a reason…” he sighed. “Gbenga, do you plan on beating the hospital staff? Ehn ehn! Calm down, I will call him now.” He stabbed at his phone and shook his head.
“What is it Nkem?”
“Ben was discharged and he didn’t let anyone of us know. He just left the hospital.”
“Why would he do that?”
“That’s what I want to find out.”
I want security. What do you have to offer me? Just ask yourself that!
Ben lay on his lumpy mattress staring at the old celling of his room. He had been discharged earlier that morning, and he’d decided to spend the day at home for some uninterrupted soul search. A lot had happened at the hospital, he had discovered what his friends and his fiancée really thought about him. He had also been given the greatest opportunity he had experienced in the thirteen years he had been working as an artist. Ben knew that he had reached a turning point, and he was wary of making the tough decisions that could change his life as he knew it.
The shrill sound of his phone jolted him from his contemplations. It was Chidi, they had found out that he was no longer at the hospital.
“Ben, how now? Gbenga just told me that you’ve been discharged. We didn’t know that you were going to be discharged.”
“He was surprised to get there and find out that you’d been discharged. Didn’t you say that you would be discharged tomorrow?”
“Can’t I leave the hospital whenever I want to? Do I need your permission?”
“Ah ah? Ben…”
He hung up and threw the phone sideways. He knew that he had overreacted but he didn’t mind, he wanted to lash out at someone.
The next day was a Saturday and Gbenga loved to sleep in, so when his wife slapped his arm and yelled at him. He woke up angrily.
“You sleep too deeply! So if the house is on fire, you’ll sleep until the flames start to lick your feet?”
He shot up and threw his legs on the floor. “The house is on fire?”
“No, your friend Chidi is calling.” She said, throwing his phone into his laps and walking away from him, her long silk nightgown sashaying around her thick body. Gbenga looked at her with a mixture of fury and desire and picked up his phone. Chidi relayed his conversation with Gbenga with him and wanted them to go and visit Ben.
“I don’t know what’s going on with him but what if he’s truly suicidal? He acted so out of character last night.”
Gbenga didn’t think that their friend was suicidal but he wanted an opportunity to give him a piece of his mind, so he said, “Okay, I’ll wait for you at Maryland.”
Ben walked towards his house with a black plastic bag containing a loaf of bread. He had five hundred naira left from the thousand that Harrison had loaned him, the last time he had been at the hospital to see him. The more he thought about his situation, the more he resolved to take Bella’s offer. He needed money desperately and he also wanted a change in his life. Why then did he feel misgivings about it?
Just as he approached the gate, he saw Gbenga’s sleek dark green 2013 Toyota Camry pulled up beside the fence of the compound. The doors opened and out came his friends.
“Ben,” Chidi said, closing the door.
“Chidi,” he replied unenthusiastically, opening the gate and stepping in.
Gbenga shot Chidi a look but the latter held up his hand and cautioned him with his eyes. The two friends followed Ben into his flat. Gbenga held up his nose at the stale odor of the place and the dusty curtains. Chidi sat on the bare carpet with his knees raised and pointed to the space beside him. Gbenga joined him reluctantly as they waited for Ben to emerge from the kitchen.
“Just calm down,” Chidi said firmly to the man seated beside him and then loudly to the one inside the kitchen. “You cooked beans abi? Serve our own o!”
Gbenga shook his head disapprovingly and sighed.
Ben joined them shortly with a stainless steel plate in his hands. The oily beans had been cooked into a thick porridge, and Gbenga could see large chunks of half-cooked onions like white ornaments in the red meal. In his other hand was the bread. He tore the transparent plastic bag around it, pulled out a portion, scooped some of the beans onto it and jammed it into his mouth. His friends watched his mouth work energetically, he chewed aggressively as a stream of palm oil ran down one corner of his mouth. He wiped it frantically. His wounds were still bandaged, the white strips of cloth around his head and right arm slightly brown at the edges.
“How are you feeling?” Chidi asked in the tense silence.
“Fine,” Ben replied with a shrug, his mouth full.
“So why didn’t you let us know when you would be discharged? We thought they wanted to observe you for some more time…”
“It costs five thousand every day to sleep in that bed.”
“But we told you not to worry about the bill.”
“I didn’t want you guys worrying about bailing me out anymore,” he said sarcastically.
“But the most important thing was to make sure that you developed no …”
“I’m fine, thanks for your concern.”
Gbenga was irritated by Ben’s behaviour. He looked around what was supposed to be the sitting room. It was bare except for the old brown carpet they sat on, the muted yellow curtains that hung on the white walls, and the canvasses that lined one side of the room. There was a painting of three women haggling over a basket of tomatoes, one of a yellow and blue bird perched on the window sill of a grey house, and another one of his mother, wearing a white blouse on a bright red wrapper, her matching headtie hung awkwardly on her angular head.
From the sun rays that flooded the room through the window, he could see large brown circles on the curtain, where years of rain had left their mark. He looked sideways into the small kitchen and saw the thick film of dust that lay on the countertop and the sink. In the sink was a pile of soiled blackened pots and rectangular, oily, transparent plastic plates. There was an old checkered shirt on the floor that served as a rag. In between the countertop and the sink was the darkened stove on the floor. Grains of rice, used match sticks, broomsticks and empty matchboxes littered the area around it. The wall behind it was brown with grime.
Gbenga pulled his eyes away from the kitchen and faced Ben.
“I really don’t know how you ended up like this.”
The other men stared at him.
“I don’t know when you’re going to realize that you’re getting older. How long are you going to continue living like this?”
Ben held on to the piece of bread in his hand. “Have I complained to you?”
“Why should you, when we always clean up your mess? Two years ago, I had to pay for the abortion for that teenage girl you got pregnant, a year ago I had to pay up the money you owed the mechanic for your beat-up car, and now I’ve just paid for your hospital bills. Not to talk of all the times I’ve loaned you money that you will never pay back! I can’t keep solving your problems, in case you haven’t noticed, I have problems of my own.”
Ben dropped the bread in his hand on the beans. “So you have come to insult me early in the day? You have come to let me know that you are the only person in the world who has money isn’t it?”
Chidi didn’t like the direction the conversation was going. “Ben…”
He raised one hand, as if to shut him up. “You heard him running his mouth just now, why didn’t you say anything?”
“Guys…” Chidi changed his tactic.
“Chidi let him talk, let him tell us what his plan for his life is. Let him tell us how he’s going to sell all the dusty paintings in his gallery and how he’s going to move to a better place, or when he’s going to marry Faith. Let him tell us when he’s going to step up and be a man.”
Ben shot to his feet. “You’re talking about who a man is? At least I can get a woman pregnant. Yeah, I may not have money but I am a fertile man, not a weakling, hiding behind piles of money.”
Gbenga stood to his feet slowly and looked him straight in the eye. “You will be sorry for what you just said. I swear it.”
He picked up his keys from the floor and walked out of the room.
“Yeah, go away with your rotten money.”
“Ben…” Chidi said, rising up. “You overreacted! What did he say to warrant that kind of insult?”
“What did he say? You better leave before I give you too a piece of my mind. We all have to make our own way somehow and if we must do it alone, away from people who don’t appreciate us, then so be it.”
Chidi huffed and walked out too.