Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

Chivalry — Ekweremadu Franklin Uchenna

After dictating his statement to the young Police officer who took it down, George was directed to sit down on the wooden bench behind the counter. He was so nervous he feared that everybody could hear his heartbeat. It was his first time to a police station. But with all the horrible stories he had heard about police stations, he was surprised that no police had clubbed him with the baton. Or maybe the time for that had not yet come. He had the urge to walk up to the officers at the counter to declare his innocence once more; to explain to them that he had been on sick leave that weekend during which someone manned the store. To swear in the name of God, if it would help make them believe him. It wouldn’t take him anything to jump over the counter and out to the front yard. He was sure he had enough strength to sprint through the yard to the gate about fifty yards away. But he couldn’t be sure that one of the police officers around the veranda wouldn’t mistakenly shoot him in the head when aiming at his leg? Moreover, who would still believe that he was innocent? His mother would say that sinners ran when no one was after them.

The Officer in Charge was a stocky woman with a droopy lower lip. She had bulgy eyes and a stern look that made it difficult if not impossible to hold her stare for five seconds. After a minute or two of humming an unknown song, she swung in her squeaking stool to cast George another long impassive gaze before ordering one of the constables at the counter to thrown him into the cell. The fellow struggled to his feet, took some time to tuck his shirt inside his trousers and re-adjust his faded black beret before marching to George.

“Jump up!” he barked. “Empty your pockets! Everything!”

George’s hands rummaged through his pockets, throwing up a bunch of keys, a pack of Orbits Chewing Gum, his wallet, and a Nokia 5030 express music. When he had surrendered even his belt, the constable led the way through a narrow passage to the iron door which he unlocked and pushed George into. As the officer fastened the lock, George stood there by the door peering deep into the darkness and using his right hand to cover his mouth and nose because of the stench that came at him like a swarm of bees. Even with the beam of light that poured in through the 1×1 feet window high up at the opposite wall and crisscrossed with thick rod, nothing was perceptible. Although the silence in the cell felt so intense that it hummed in his ears, he knew there were people in the room but couldn’t say how many they might be. As he made to move forward, he stepped on something and backed away.

“Hey,” the unseen creature grunted. “Watch out.”

“Sorry,” George cried out, and added a loud SIR immediately, as his sixth sense suggested. He had heard that in prisons and police cells, there were rules on ground which could earn a defaulter a sound beating.

Even after his vision had improved such that he could trace silhouettes all around, it was still difficult to say how many detainees were in the cell because sometimes the silhouettes seemed amorphous and blended easily with the background. But he guessed there were nothing less than fifteen inmates sprawling about the floor both along the walls at the middle of the cell. The only corner of the room that had ample space was the left corner where an aluminum barrel stood around which a dozen flies buzzed.

When George thought that his continual standing by the door was beginning to make him appear funny, he went over and lowered himself by the right hand side of the whistler who made the sound of accordion by widening his lips and breathing through grit teeth, grimacing as if he was in pains. After rounding off an old Ghanaian highlife, the guy whistled a few church hymns, most of which George remembered from childhood.

“You’re good,” the impressed George beamed at his new acquaintance who just smiled. “My dad was good,” George added. “He could do rolls of Rs.” And then he started to whistle a vibrato but stopped and switched to Yanni’s With An Orchid.

George’s new friend introduced himself as One-Man-Show, explaining that like the biblical Samson, he preferred going it alone. He was a car lifter. Before then, a burglar. And before then, a pickpocket, a craft he claimed to be the world greatest. Even a careless observer would notice that the rest of his fingers folded in while the forefingers and the middle fingers stood out, giving his hands the look of scissors. That way, he explained, he was able to dig into pockets and purses with the same lightning swiftness that a bear crouching by a brook would grab a fish. Usually, he picked a car and moved it down south across the River Niger, where he had contacts who took over from there. And for any car that came up from down south, he had a contact at Pantaker Market that dismantled it and sold it in pieces. The last score he took out was a Nissan Jeep, which he didn’t know had a GPS tracking system and an auto lock device.

To distract himself from the pangs of gloom and anxiety, George started whistling Must I Go an Empty Handed. As he rounded off the first stanza and entered the chorus, One-Man-Show came in from his own angle. The fusion of George’s treble and One-Man-Show’s alto made a beautiful tune that George was sure an angel would intervene in their case, as it had done in that of Paul and Silas. When they did Abide with Me, George whistled in a bass that sounded like the trombone. And for Rock of Ages, One-Man-Show used a soprano. Just as they neared the end of the second leg, George broke the song and informed One-Man Show that he was hard pressed and needed to ease himself.

“You can go over there and do it,” One-Man-Show mumbled, nodding at the aluminum barrel at the left end.

“What if I want to shit?” George whispered.

“You do it there, whatever it is you want to do.”

“You mean to tell me that’s where you all have been emptying… emptying…your system?” the incredulous George asked.

“How did you suppose this lovely smell came about?”

George lay back on his elbows and imagined what sight would welcome him once he lifted the lid of the pot. He pictured lumps of faeces floating like icebergs on a sea of yellow urine after the pasty shit had settled down to carpet the floor like corals. That moment, he felt the pressure on his bowel dissipate.

As the sun began to set, mosquitoes turned bolder in their assault, making to even fly into one’s nostrils or mouth if one didn’t cover them on time. George had gotten used to the air that he could even breathe through the mouth. He reached into his pants and slid out his girl’s portrait and held it up close to his face. Knowing that he would be stripped of all possessions at the counter before being thrown into cell, he had slipped out Samantha’s photo from his wallet and had hidden it inside his pants shortly before they left the company where he worked as the Storekeeper. He stroked her cheeks with his right thumb as if to wipe off the freckles that dotted them and then he gazed on at her until he thought that she winked at him, making him to smile back at her. Immediately One-Man-Show requested to see the photo, the other inmates all drew closer, causing the picture to move from hand to hand. By the time it completed the circle and returned to One-Man-Show, he gazed at it with lusty eyes and sucked his lower lip in a way that forced George to recall the portrait.

Darkness was pouring in once more, reducing visibility to barely three feet. But before then, the inmates had been served small loaves of bread and sachet water. George was dismayed to learn from the others, some of whom had stayed over a week, that they always spent the light in total darkness. One-Man-Show pulled himself up and shuffled to the aluminum pot. The instant he uncovered the pot, the other detainees looked away and even held their breath for as long as they could. Holding the pot cover with one hand and his penis on the other hand, One-Man-Show stirred the flow of the urine first in a curly swirl, then in horizontal and vertical zigzags, seeming fascinated by the ripply patterns and amused by the trickling sound. At the end, he gave his member a wild wring before returning it inside the dirty maroon jeans trouser and then shuffling over to stretch out beside George who was trying to fall asleep. One-Man-Show had become restless for some time now. He had crawled about the floor and had rolled over until he reached the other end of the cell. He had crouched on his elbows and had pressed his groin hard on the cold floor. Now he moved away from the wall to the middle of the cell and pillowed his head with his right hand, whizzing as his left hand kept busy inside his trousers.

The mosquito took off before George’s open palm slammed his forehead. He cursed through grit teeth, looking around in the darkness, wondering where he was. From the position of his bed, the door should be at the north-east; the low table, at the north-west, and the stove, at the north-north-east. But while he was still trying to make sense of the darkness, the buzz of a million mosquitoes and the cold cement floor transported him back to the present, an awareness that drew from him a long moan. He searched his pockets for Samantha’s portrait but couldn’t find it. Then he groped over his chest and belly with his left hand. After that, he groped the floor around him. In his frantic search for it, he crawled on all fours towards the left until he knocked someone’s thigh.

“Who is that?” Squanzie barked, springing up immediately to ensure that his trousers’ zip was still fastened.

“Sorry,” George whispered. “Did you see my girl’s portrait?”

“What?” The latter snarled.

“That portrait. The one I showed around in the evening. I can’t find it. But I had it just now. I was wondering if you saw it.”

“No,” Squanzie hissed and lay back to sleep. George crawled back to his post to resume his search. He thought it wouldn’t do any harm to check both his breast pockets and also the trousers’ pockets again, even though he had already done that a dozen times. He wondered if he should as One-Man-Show. Judging by the steady clicking and shrill moaning that ensued from his position, George could guess the dude was still awake.

“One-Man!” George whispered and the squishing sound seized but the guy did not respond until after the third call. “That picture I showed you around earlier today. Have you seen it?”

“What picture?” One-Man-Show blurted in a shaky voice.

“The portrait,” George repeated, exasperated. “My girl’s portrait.”

“No,” One-Man-Show stammered. “I don’t know.” Shortly, the squishing sound returned.

George tried to run a retrace. He remembered lying on his back to continue his gaze at Samantha’s portrait in the last dusts of light. And then… and then, he remembered waking up from that weird dream, and realizing that the portrait was missing. And it seemed that with the disappearance of Samantha’s portrait, he had also suffered amnesia so that no matter how he tried, he couldn’t conjure her face in his mind. If only he could visualize her, he believed, the agony wouldn’t be this sharp.

*                *

       The sound of an unmuffled scooter blaring across the road outside forced George to flick open his eyes and sit up. Feeling damp like a blanket left out in the fog, he undid the first three buttons of his shirt and peeped down at his sodden chest and belly, from where steam rose. He undid the rest of the buttons, and then he took off the shirt altogether. With it, he mopped his chest and face and his armpits which smelt like the pit of hell. Thin strips of brown matter fell off when he rubbed any part of his forearm with his finger. His mother would say it was dirt, but his Biology textbook would think it could be dead cells. He tried to blow air through grit teeth but it seemed airtight. He scraped the surface of his tongue with his upper teeth and spat out the milky sediment. He cupped his right hand over his mouth and breathed into it, grimacing as odour hit him. What wouldn’t he give for a toothbrush! A knot moved in his bowel down to the rectum, but as it made to fall out just then, he tightened his auxiliary lips. He took a moment to appraise his position. Since the air was almost static, it would be difficult for anyone to say from what direction it had come. So, he tilted his left hip, lifted the other part of his buttocks, and let the gas out in a silent hiss. No matter how he swallowed the few drops of saliva his tongue could work up, his throat still felt like a dry wall. He yearned for a cup of water, which he had always had first thing every morning since after he read that the practice was therapeutic and medicinal. It helped flush out toxins, the material had added.

George couldn’t resist the itch from the bumps that had appeared several places around his arms and feet. One-Man-Show blamed him for choosing to sleep by the wall from which holes and cracks lice and bedbugs crawled out by midnight. Squanzie who had stayed five days, didn’t care about the world once he shut his eyes for sleep. And he seemed to enjoy scratching his body, which was now overcome by scabies.

“You could burst a balloon on his face and he wouldn’t stir,” One-Man-Show had whispered to George.

Immediately, George resumed the search for Samantha’s portrait. First, he moved to the left, begging the people to move for him to scan the bare floor with a focus that wouldn’t have missed an ant. “Where could I have dropped it!” he moaned for the hundredth time. He held his shirt by the helm and shook it frantically, keeping his eyes on the ground to see if anything would drop. He also stood up and shook his trousers.

“Is it not only a photo?” Squanzie snarled.

“The photo I showed around yesterday evening,” George whistled.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Squanzie growled. “Do you want to die because of it?”

“Maybe it is talismanic,” One other inmate creaked. “To make him disappear.”

Once a soft knock came at the cell door from the outside, One-Man-Show jumped up and shuffled to it. Squanzie explained to George that the two oldest detainees took alternate days to sweep the courtyard of the station. He himself had swept the previous morning, so it was One-Man-Show’s turn this morning.

“Even though rifle-bearing officers sit by the gate”, Squanzie explained, “they still cuff your legs.”

“But is it the law?” George whinnied. “Is it the duty of detainees to sweep the station?”

“Is it right for you to be locked up in an overcrowded cell?” Yankee, the hairy dwarf asked him. “Or to be kept in the same room with a pot of disease? Whether right or not”, he shrugged, “I would be glad to be let out of this hole for five minutes. If for nothing, you get to breathe some fresh air.

“One-Man-Show will make for it,” Squanzie whispered shortly after.

“Serious?” George gasped and the former crossed his lips with a finger, glancing at the door, as if he feared that a police officer might be standing there.

“That’s what he told me,” Squanzie whispered. “Yesterday morning.”

As the excited inmates all crowded around him, he wore that mischievous smile of those that had access to privileged information.

“But how?” George wondered. “How does he hope to do it? The walls are quite high.”

“He says he’s grown so restless he would run mad anytime soon, if he doesn’t discharge stuff.”

“I said it before”, the dwarf nodded. “The guy is insane. But how does he plan to get out?”

“He’s quite tall,” Squanzie shrugged. “There’s a part of the fence that would not be difficult for him to climb. I’m sure that’s the point he intends to explore. If he succeeds in scaling that wall, he will land in a backstreet which he can meander through. That’s his plan.”

“But you should have tried to dissuade him,” the hairy dwarf whispered. “You know there’s no way he can succeed.”

“Who says it’s impossible?” One quiet man sprawling at the corner growled. “Maybe for you. But guys as tall as One-Man-Show can jump over anything.”

“Don’t be silly,” the dwarf hissed, flaring his nostrils. “Didn’t you hear that he would be cuffed by the ankles?”

“Who knows,” George thought aloud, “maybe he has made it already.” This news seemed to have detached him from time and place. Time seemed to have stalled until every second looked longer than a minute. His heart beat as if he was in a stadium, where a player was about to take a penalty kick in the ninetieth minute.

“Who knows,” Squanzie shrugged.

The sudden uproar at the courtyard rattled the detainees, some of who jumped to their feet and rushed towards the door. But at the sound of gunshots, they scampered back away from the door to the other end of the cell, breaking for the first time the dividing wall between them and the pot of death.

“I hope they’ve not shot him!” George gasped, shaking like a dry leaf.

Squanzie tiptoed to the door and peered through the door outline, hardly seeing anything other than the milk coloured wall opposite.

“I hope they’ve not shot him,” George gasped again.

“I’m not sure,” Squanzie hissed. “At most they would shoot him on the leg. To make him drop off the wall, that is.”

It didn’t take long for One-Man-Show’s yells to reassure them he was still alive, as cowhide lashed his back and tough palms slapped his face and polished boots kicked him about. As the noise drew closer to the passage toward the cell, the inmates scampered about like a band of confused rats inside a barrel, not knowing whether to sit or stand. Seconds after the keyhole clicked, the door flung open and One-Man-Show was thrown in. His ankles were still cuffed and there was no sign that he had been shot on the leg. Perhaps it had only been shot into the air to scare him. He just lay where he had dropped, groaning and wringing. While the policeman was still fastening the door, another officer approached him and asked for the door to be reopened. One-Man-Show sat up to face the door, bracing himself for more beating. The officer stood at the door and flung something at One-Man-Show, which landed close to his left foot, facing up.

“Dropped from your pocket,” the officer hummed, covering his mouth and nose with one hand. “Is she the one you’re escaping to? You would do to her what you did to the other helpless minor, eh? You have not yet faced the child abuse charge leveled against you, and you want to go commit another assault, eh? Animal.” He hurried away and his colleague shut the door.

One-Man-Show had stopped groaning. He just sat still with his head bowed, looking from Samantha’s portrait to his bleeding little toe. He scratched his head and slowly looked around the cell, at disappointed faces which had suddenly lost pity for him. With the speed of light, George appeared beside the portrait. He gazed long at it before he stooped slowly and picked it up. He stroked her smiling face with his thumb. But it was no longer a lucid smile, for the face was now distorted, stained with that same grey matter that spotted One-Man-Show’s trousers from the left thigh down to the knee. George felt his chest and biceps swelling. He could feel the rhythmic flow of blood in his veins and arteries. He could feel the tingle creeping to his heart. His hands were trembling, just like his lower lip. He took his time to tear up the portrait into a thousand pieces, for it was no longer desirable, having been smeared with One-Man-Show’s semen. At the same time that he poured the shred on One-Man-Show, he gave free rein to his fury, kicking the pickpocket all over, screaming “Animal! Animal!” All the other inmates put together could not drag him away from One-Man-Show, who just sat there using his arms to block his face from George’s kicks until two baton-wielding police officers stormed in.

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