Under the clear night sky, our neighbours struck up a vigil for Bunie in the open street. The bonfire they made from old car tires sparkled. The flames licked the air. While they danced around it, the fire lit the faces of the little boys Bunie had given free haircuts to on Saturdays and the folks for whom he had subsidized the cost of liquor at all the bars on our street on Sundays. They used to come to him, broken and worn-out, with problems of school fees, rents and missed lunches. Bunie’s hands sank readily into his pockets, willing to weather a situation with his last dime.
Their voices gathered like crickets, piercing the night, “Bunie ya enu! Lift him up higher!”
Apart from Tee and me, there were Eric and Ike, the two other friends from Bunie’s business coterie. Ray, Bunie’s next in command, was not yet home. Nene, Bunie’s girlfriend, paced the living room, trapping us in the grim of her reticence. We sat in the obligatory discomfort of a house newly hit by death, surfing on grating memories of Bunie’s passing. Our girlfriends, Gift, Teni, and Uche, bustled in the kitchen, filling the void with an inexhaustible variety of scents. We resorted to the bottles, gulping the Blue Label and Hennessy until the pain fizzled to a lifeless bump. The joints we fired up sewed everything too tightly, leaving only a gash, big enough for sighs.
“So, Bunie is, like, dead? The king of barbers don sink, just like that?” Eric quizzed nobody.
If Bunie could be beaten fragile by the cosmos, sprawling unidentified on some mortuary floor, how far away was death from all of us?
“We go need to stop to dey barb for now,” Tee said.
Our absence at the salon would serve to honour Bunie’s time with us. I knew many other reasons why the shop needed to stay closed. We could not afford to stand up to the world without risking the roads closing in on us. Bunie’s absence had left us too open.
As the songs from the wake rode swiftly into our flat, setting the rhythm of the night, I thought of Bunie’s bareness. His lanky form always splashed into the open like a seed blown by the wind, even while the stress of being alive drained all of us. He was not the kind for whom breaking was made. In the middle of unhooking capes from customers’ necks at Kings’ Street Barbing Salon and brushing them free of hair clumps, he often boasted about how he wanted to die. He did not wish it to happen in the silent folds of the night with a gun pointed to his chest or something like that. Na fuckers dey die lowkey, he said. How do you live fully in the day and exit at night without the sun as a witness? He often said we would find him cold in a five-star hotel, and he would have on him a gold watch by Piaget and Testoni shoes. Na the Police go inform you, he never failed to add, his smirk intact. He was always mocking the institution set up to nail him. To nail people like us.
Without planning to, we formed a circle on the floor of the living room, an imperfect band created by four young men. Tee sat facing the low glass table. Eric and Ike lolled on the floor, legs bunched up, arms thrown over their heads. A space wide enough to contain another person lingered between Ike and me. It felt as if we were waiting for a crease to be smoothed, for Bunie to ooze from the toilet or from the sky or from anywhere else to take up the reserved space, tightening our ring.
We speculated assassination, though one of the popular stories said it was a case of mistaken identity. Tee suggested we should press charges or hire an investigator. Port Harcourt was a small city. The culprits would not be lurking so far away. They’d still be sleeping and eating. Still setting out to navigate the city at dawn. I knew, we all knew, that asking questions would clash against the things we already had in motion and could throw us in a beam of light we were not prepared for. This new need to stay hidden out of necessity chafed against my loyalty to Bunie; fear overlaid the aching desire to prove myself to him.
I was in the middle of twenty, after a tumultuous year-long relationship with my father, when Bunie found me. I had absconded my father’s house in the morning, and by evening I was offered a seat at Bunie’s table. I’d met him at the Kings’ Street barbing salon at Ada-George. It was the boastful ambience of the salon, a small-roofed building, unwilling to touch walls with any of the nearby property, that drew me in. The glass door slid open before I reached it. The liquid brown of his eyes, an unmoving sea, rested on me as he interviewed me for the position that never existed until I walked in.
“I like your name, Cheta. You sabi barb?” he asked, running his eyes over me.
“Okay. But you look sharp. You go fit learn things fast nau?”
“You fit dey assist me for now.”
Ray had disapproved of his decision. I knew it from the cold stares, which reminded me to watch my back. Heated arguments reached me as whispers.
“This business no be one-man-business. All of us dey here! You cannot just carry that boy and impose on everybody. You no tell anybody anything, just carry the boy show!”
“Ray, you no just want anybody close. If I give you chance, you go pursue me comot sef!”
“Me, Ray? I go pursue you?”
“I know you nau! Your heart too far from me! No be today!”
“That boy will not work here o!”
“Ray, that boy is one of us now! Do you understand?”
Bunie always wanted to be in the clear, often reminding people of their place, not condescendingly, but just for the records. Because humans easily forget. When he needed you alert, he asked, do you understand? That much-needed surety lined most of his speech.
Do you understand? Are you listening? You dey flow with me abi? His voice, a creaking train, nipping at the quiet. There were times I saw Bunie jab a fist into Ray’s chest: a reminder of who was the boss.
King’s Street Barbing shop originally belonged to King, Bunie’s older brother. King was his only family, Bunie had told me. They lost their parents before they knew how to say their names. An artist’s depiction of the older brother hung on a part of the salon’s blue walls. They shared a full hairline, button nose, and elf ears that looked like butterflies fluttering from reach. They worked as partners until something bigger summoned King. Bunie told stories of how King swallowed pills that could burn him, transporting them in his intestines for over fourteen flight hours, whizzing through countries like a rocket.
When time ceded the barbing salon business to Bunie, he opted not to change the name. Bunie would later tell me that the ‘big job’ had nailed King somewhere, and he was working hard to send money across and soften things for his brother.
Bunie was mostly occupied with side jobs. He worked at the salon when he had the time. I enjoyed watching his deft hands, swiftly picking his way through the tools: electric trimmer, comb, and straight razor. He could work a haircut to perfection with his eyes closed.
His easy grace charmed me, and he seemed to know that I adored him that much, because he began to keep me so close and scolded me only when doors slid shut, putting the others beyond earshot. Some nights, when the apartment was silent, save for the snoring of our friends, Bunie and I would spread a mat on the balcony, open towards the dark, and gaze at the sky and the silent city. He was always restless for something more.
Each of us carried the world’s terror, and until we came to one another, time was ticking against us. Ray, who was barely twenty-three had two children with different women. He claimed they haunted him in his sleep, stumps of children he’d never met: black, yellow, finicky. Tee fiddled with a story inside of him. They came alive in his eyes when he heard the blare of a siren. Sometimes, he pressed his nose into Bunie’s shoulder, whimpering. They said I had the tamest story: smashing my father’s windscreen, hitting him, and absconding. They joked about it for long until I started peeking into memories of my childhood, seeking filthy acts: something that must have stained my insides and leaked to the exterior. Bunie had slept in police cells around the city. He could tell the similarities and differences. You cannot bet on a good meal at Ozuoba, but many charity groups visit Trans-Amadi. You fit even get tissue and juice sometimes. No go Mile One o! Them go just kill you before a judge gats to hear your story.
The three of them, Bunie, Ray and Tee, worked on projects they each kept from me at first. Bunie and Ray stayed away for days and returned, rank with the smell of bodies. It stayed on them for days, displaced later by soap and lotion scents. Sometimes, Ray remained nervous for days, biting off the entire nail of his right middle finger.
“Guy, you kill person?” Tee would ask Ray, laughing. “Calm down, abeg.”
I later caught the scraps of what everything meant, from Bunie, from the boys’ gossips when he was away. When King left the business, their contacts continued to call Bunie with specifics of what was to be done. They offered him forty per cent remuneration for every success.
One night Bunie, who often commended how stayed on the surface while sleeping, alert to sound, walked into the veranda and I woke up. There was a taxi waiting outside the compound, he said.
We combed through quiet streets, and I tried not to let my fears show. I realized later it was Ray and Tee who occupied the back seat during that ride. I’d been too afraid to look behind.
The ritual was short. I heard Eric and Ike’s voices asking me to undress, asking me to chant something in a strange language. Muzoooka! Lasokadabalaku! As each stroke of the wires tore into my flesh, I felt my heart close up slowly and then unleash in a warm promise of euphoria. A door opened, and I suffered to approach it. Something had changed. I was lifted out of a whirlpool of my blood. I saw Bunie and Tee’s worried faces as they formed the dark blur that hovered over me. Ray’s shadow on the wall beside me had its finger in its mouth.
A week after the initiation, I rode to my first job with Bunie. The driver he worked with donned a black body suit, a cloth mask shielding up to his nose. I did not use a gun yet, but I hid a club inside my pants, in case. Ugly brown bruises from the initiation still crisscrossed my arms and back, hoarding unshed blood. A lone bulb lit the shop that stood at a corner of the deserted Okocha Street. One of the last customers was leaving. I hung at the entrance and watched as Bunie spoke to the cashier, pointing the man’s startled eyes to the drawers underneath his desk. I imagined the man’s shock. One buyer remained: a woman who started screaming suddenly. Her shouts peeved me because it seemed to push more light into the dim shop. The salesman heaved himself up, perhaps reaching for something different from the bag he was instructed to cram with proceeds. I became alarmed and moved closer to the entrance, beyond my job description. Our driver had reversed the car. A door was thrown open for us.
Bunie started walking towards the screaming woman.
Do you understand? Are you listening? Stop fucking shouting.
His exuberance was subtle as if he were carrying out a haircut. Though he had an unpredictability about him, I could bet he would not hurt the woman. From what I’d gathered, Bunie would not under any circumstance pull the trigger unless the job required it. If people’s shouts or resistance got in the way, he did not shoot to kill. He merely acknowledged the trouble with bullets parcelled out here and there―the arm, the thigh, the foot―aiming far away from vital organs.
The woman was on the floor, surrounded by shopping bags. She did not stop yelling. Her voice droned alongside the only gunshot of the operation. Then her cries fell back to low grunts. Bunie scrambled out with a sack and nudged me into the car, pebbles of fire in his eyes. The vehicle sped through tarred narrow streets, unseen life scampering away from the startling charge of the car. We stumbled into a deserted, major road and a near-midnight sky, worn out from day-long travelling. The bullet had brushed the woman’s calf, a humane chastisement for disobedience. I considered her lucky for were it Ray, she would have been gone. Ray grew too edgy often and fired at people who were unconnected to the assignment, drawing needless attention. It was for this reason that Bunie permanently retracted him from accompanying us to jobs.
Only Bunie’s teeth-gritting and the night’s gale passed between us during our ride home.
How could it be that Bunie was now dead, and all I could do for him was sit in circle, and drink from a stupid bottle? He was the only person I met who understood my skepticisms. With him my life began freshly over―there were skills to master, income goals to meet without having to waste four college years. Though my heart dithered in the face of jobs―in moments far removed from his hand taking mine, or his arms sucking me into an embrace―I felt detained by the promises of enormous wealth.
I accompanied him to “pick-ups” too, a name we coded for kidnappings. The rides with these luckless individuals punched me in the gut. I came undone at the pleas of some blindfolded man or woman, drowning in the fear-streaked scents sliding out of their bodies like spittle off a wall. I listened as they reeled pathetic life stories: young wives at home, old parents that might crumble, a baby still suckling breasts, a toddler waiting for Papa to get home. Their voices shredded the silence, hollowed, disappeared.
Once, during one of our operations, the hostage started speaking to us,
“I left school at your age. Went into some illegal business, which took my left ear.” He turned his left cheek and the whole lobe of his ear was nonexistent. “You look a lot like my last son,” he said to Bunie. “He likes being rough too. I would have liked for you to meet him if he wasn’t gone. We buried him last year.”
Bunie did not ask him to shut up. He grated his teeth against his discomfort and exchanged texts with the next contact. He never picked children. He always declined such jobs.
The information had felt incorrect at first, like a finger indicating a wrong house. Bunie still had a wide share of road left. It didn’t appear like it was narrowing soon. Ray hadn’t been home since he broke the news to Tee. An unnamed person had called Ray; he said to Tee when he called.
Tee could not smother his disbelief. “Na lie! Na lie!”
Eric found an old video of Bunie on his phone and passed it to us. In the video, Bunie wore a white cardigan riddled with gaping holes. He skated in and out of the camera, whizzing back and forth like a tennis ball. There was laughter in the background. He made a face at the camera and then wavered like a dream.
I’d taken up such a large space beside Bunie―his assistant, the boy he stared at with a lot of fondness. I’d sucked up all the warmth, it appeared, knocking the space thin for the others. Ray wasn’t speaking to Bunie as much as he used to. Nene’s eyes accused me. As much as I tried to shrink away, Bunie’s hands always found and confined me to his corner.
One starry night as he lay beside me, his elbow blotting out half of the moon, he mentioned that Nene was carrying their child. The information passed quickly. I thought a word or two was expected of me, so I said, “You guys will keep it, abi?” He chuckled and then sneered at my proposal.
“Fucked up manchi like me. Wetin I fit teach any child?”
I wanted to tell him that he was capable of loving his child just as he’d loved me, and Nene, and the guys, and everyone who’d experienced his kindness. But his face was glistening, and I was afraid, just as I feared a cop’s cuffs, to see him cry.
I stood from the circle and walked into the room we all shared, not sure what I was going there for. Bunie’s clothes hung neatly in line, mostly black and white. I saw his photo album, which contained his slow progression from childhood to the twenty-five-year-old I loved. He was an unbearably beautiful child. In one of the pictures, he was dressed in milk-coloured trousers and suspenders stretching across his striped, brown shirt. He was mostly pushing out a wide smile in the pictures, eyes squinted under the sun’s brilliance, filled with too much of the sugary sweetness children carried. In some of the pictures, he was either alone or with Nene. In others, the people he shared them with, people like Ray, had been scissored out.
Bunie had merely gone for a phone repair at Ogbunabali. It was strange that he wanted to go alone, but I’d retreated when he said he wouldn’t be needing company. He put his sleek hands around Nene’s neck and kissed her. He smiled at me as if in the whole room I was the one worthy and deserving. He then slid the glass door closed. He always wore his rucksack for casual outings. I agonized over my last memory of him, unsure if he had worn it and if it could have shielded him.
I imagined him alighting at Garrison bus stop and strolling into Aguma Street when a panicked crowd bowled him over. We heard it was a local cult clashing against another. A flash of firearms. Car windows shattered. The pavement littered with ragged remnants of people’s belongings. Six casualties. Five of them had gunshot wounds on their hands and thighs, the places Bunie would have targeted if he were the shooter. They still pulsed with life. One was dead and warm. Bunie.
Another version of the story, the most plausible one, said Bunie was targeted. He must have been springing along the pedestrian walk, certain, walking into the bull’s eye. Who would want Bunie dead? Will they come for us too? I wondered if someone outside our circle knew he was going to Ogbunabali. Had he spoken to someone on his way?
I couldn’t tell if any of his wishes were granted when it happened, if the sun at least witnessed.
Though it seemed like nothing slid or drifted from its place, I was aware of the powdery air, and the chants from the wake rising towards the sky, the cheer of a world erupting without Bunie. I returned to the room where we cowered, corroded by angst, unable to join the ongoing wake for a man who lived for us. At every rustle of the wind outside the door, I looked up in knotted anticipation, wildly hoping to see him waltz in with blood-stained clothes and make a beeline for the bathroom. I did not know what we were supposed to do. Bunie who always knew what to do was in the weakest inconceivable form. None of us spoke about the shame of not seeking his corpse out.
There was a knock at the door and my hopes rose, and then crashed at the sight of Ray. He looked restive. Tee stood and hugged him amidst drawn-out sobs. He patted Tee’s heaving back and I glimpsed the undersized gloves he wore.
Nene started crying afresh. She howled and thumped the wall. I wondered if their child still lived inside her, if that would at least fetch some comfort. There were things I still wanted to say to Bunie. I never quite thanked him for gluing the shards I was into the man I had become. My eyes began to fill.
Ray’s gloves fell off and my heart stopped. I could not peel my eyes off his right middle finger, which was bloodied from chewing. His eyes darkened when he saw me. He pushed Tee away and almost stumbled while reaching to force the gloves back on.
Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming on Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, Cinnabar Moth, Dappled Things, The /tƐmz/ Review, in The Best of World SF and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.
Image: (c) Sean Robertson/Unsplash