Issue 105, Winter 1987
Ajegunle Joe spent the evening reading the letters from the few subscribers he had left. Without a single exception they called him a fraud and demanded back their money. When he had finished reading he was very depressed. He went to a bar and got quite drunk, but that didn’t improve anything. So he went to his favourite hotel to look for a cheap prostitute. That didn’t help either. He kept hearing the subscribers in his head. In the end he paid the woman for her time and left more depressed than he had arrived. He got home, lit two mosquito coils, and climbed into bed. He forgot to lock the door. Soon he was snoring.
He dreamt about a woman with a rugged face and indifferent eyes. All through the dream he didn’t have an erection. When he woke up it was with the certainty that someone had been in the room while he was asleep. He saw the open door and soon found that large quantities of printing paper, his tubes of printing ink, his transistor radio, his pornographic magazines, and a book he much valued called The Ten Wonders of Africa, were missing
He sat on the bed. He stared at the almanacs of long-bearded mystics on the wall. Somewhere in him was the feeling that a pain he had lived with had suddenly edged towards the unbearable. He had the taste of tangerines in his mouth. He was two weeks into the month of August.
When July passed with its thunderous downpours, and when August advanced with its dry winds and browning elephant grass, Joe felt himself at the mercy of a cyclical helplessness. Two years earlier, around the same time, Joe lost a woman he had been planning to marry. They had met one day to discuss their future together. Joe had catarrh. He made the mistake of blowing his nose in her presence, the act of which produced a long and disgusting sound. She didn’t show her disapproval, but afterwards all talk of marriage was avoided. When later on he learnt that she had become engaged to another man, Joe was shattered. He went around in a daze. He no longer walked with his former arrogant swing. He became clumsy and unsure of himself. He lost his job. One night in a bar when he tried to sound like his former arrogant self, he got involved in a fight and had two of his front teeth knocked into his mouth. Then he took to strangling his laughter.
It was after the woman left his life, after his birthday in September, that he got another job in a small printing press. He took correspondence courses in psychology and salesmanship and earned himself two diplomas. He developed an unusual interest in the occult and in mysticism. His thoughts became too deep for him and his dreams became more mysterious. He gradually experienced himself being taken over by a new personality. He took to writing down his visions and dreams: then he began publishing them as cheap pamphlets. The first pamphlet was called Mysteries of Orumaka. Quite a few people bought it and he was encouraged by the modest sales. With the help of his boss he printed pamphlets like: How to Sleep Soundly, How to Have Powerful Dreams, How to Fight Witches and Wizards, and How to Banish Poverty from Your Life. The pamphlets achieved some limited popularity but they didn’t make him any money. Sometimes when there wasn’t much work at the printing press Ajegunle Joe would take bundles of his pamphlets to sell on the molue buses. It was in the Christmas of that year that it occurred to him to set up a correspondence course on how people could improve their lives. He discussed it with his boss and they agreed to split profits. Two adverts were placed in the newspapers and soon they had subscribers. The correspondence course was named: ‘Turn Life Into Money.’
And then came the following August. Tax inspectors took a sudden interest in him. His mother fell ill and he had to go home and see her. When he got back the landlord had taken it into his head to increase the rent. It was an August of elections, political fevers and riggings. Ajegunle Joe’s dreams became so violent that he wrote and printed a treasonable tract called: The Farce Which Will Become History. Nobody bought the tract and one night the printer’s shop was raided by soldiers, who carried away all existing copies. The police got hold of Joe the next day, and he was jailed for two weeks without any charges being brought against him. Then, suddenly, he was released. He wrote to all the newspapers about his arrest, but because no one knew him, and everyone was afraid, his letters were never published. What made matters worse was that his boss suddenly opted out of their joint venture, deducted half the losses from Joe’s salary, and then gave him the sack. But what saved Joe was that the new personality had taken him over completely. He spent the rest of the year selling his pamphlets in the day and occasionally working at the docks in the night.
This August was no better. Business had been worse than usual. Printing paper was scarce. And he felt stale. Nothing moved in him that morning. He found himself at the point where his faith in his own correspondence course had reached its lowest.
He got up from the bed and opened the window. He went to the toilet and then had a shower. Back in his room he lit a stick of incense. He fetched a tumbler of water, breathed deeply, and drank, facing the east. He sat in one of his chairs. He intoned some vowel sounds and then he meditated on an empty stomach. By the time he had finished meditating and sealing his morning prayers with occultic signs, he had begun to accept the reality of his losses. He made some food and ate. He was about to start cleaning his room when he heard someone calling to him from outside.
‘Is Jungle Joe in? Jungle Joe! Your friend is here.’
His friend, Cata-cata, knocked and came into the room. They called him by that name because he used to be a hardheaded generator of confusion. He had quieted down now; he was even thinking of marriage. He used to be a boxer, but after being knocked out in the first round of an unmemorable featherweight match, he seemed to settle for the anonymity of being a ladies man. He was tall and solemn; he had a wide nose and narrow eyes. He wore a Ghanian print shirt and khaki trousers. He worked regular night shifts at the docks. In the day time he fished. He smiled broadly at Joe when he came into the room. He had two mangoes in his hand. He had a Ghanian woman with him. She was robust, and her body was slow in its thick sweaty sensuality. She had fleshy lips, a kind face, and she smiled a lot. She carried an orange and two bottles of small stout.
‘How are you Joe?’ Cata-cata said, slapping his friend on the back.
‘Not too good.’
‘Why, what’s happened?’
‘Have you met my friend?’ Cata-cata said to the Ghanian woman. She was still smiling.
‘Well, this is Ajegunle Joe, occultist and dreamer. Joe, this is my girlfriend, Sarah.’
They greeted one another. The Ghanian woman avoided meeting Joe’s eyes. They were all still standing. Cata-cata offered Joe a mango.
‘No, thank you, my friend. Things are so bad I don’t have a mouth for fruits,’ Joe said.
‘That’s a shame.’
‘Cata-cata, I’ve just been robbed.’
‘When?’ Cata-cata said, taking a seat and indicating to Sarah that she do the same. She sat on the bed.
Today. When I was asleep.’
‘You mean they robbed you when you were asleep?’
‘Yes,’ said Joe, dryly.
‘What sort of sleep is that? You must have been drinking too much.’
Cata-cata laughed in the direction of the woman.
‘I think I left the door open,’ said Joe unsmilingly.
‘What did they take?’
‘Pamphlets. Clothes. They took the transistor radio and . . .’
‘That radio?’ interrupted Cata-cata, laughing again in the direction of the woman.
They must have been desperate. . .’
And worst of all,’ said Joe, ‘they took that book that I got. The Ten Wonders of Africa’
Tm sorry to hear that,’ said Cata-cata with laughter still on his face.
Ajegunle Joe nodded. He was feeling in bad humour. He sat on a stool and kept eyeing the woman. Looks very ripe, he thought. Then he felt bitter that for two years he had been without a regular woman.
‘I can’t offer you drinks,’ Joe said suddenly.
‘What is drinks between friends, eh? Besides, we brought our own.’
The Ghanian woman crossed her legs. Then she put the bottles of stout on the table. There was a long silence. There was some embarrassment in the air. Cata-cata kept trying to catch Joe’s eyes.
‘So how is the course doing?’
‘Bad,’ said Joe, staring grimly at his friend. Cata-cata made
signs for Joe to leave the room. Joe pretended not to notice.
He continued with what he was saying.
‘One of my subscribers ran into trouble,’ he said in an even
‘She followed my instructions and got sacked. She wants her
‘What instructions?’ Cata-cata said, gesticulating furiously.
‘In the first lesson I instructed them to look fearlessly at people in the eye and to speak up forcefully. Well, her boss didn’t like it when she did.’
Cata-cata laughed again. The Ghanian woman laughed as well. She looked very youthful when she laughed and her breasts rocked. Joe remained dour.
When the general laughter had subsided Cata-cata said, with more intentionality than was needed: Joe, aren’t you going out? It’s going to rain soon, you know’
‘It’s not supposed to rain in August.’
‘But it’s going to rain, anyway,’ Cata-cata said, glaring at Joe.
‘So why should I go out if it’s going to rain soon, eh?’
He knew Cata-cata was referring to their usual arrangement.
I’ve been robbed, Joe thought, and all my friend can think about is sex.
‘Because you can go out and come back before it rains, that’s why.’
‘I see,’ said Joe.
Cata-cata, surprised at his friend’s incomprehension, looked from Joe to the woman and back again.
‘You know what I mean,’ he said, with some desperation.
‘I don’t know,’ Joe replied, sweating in pretended ignorance. ‘How can I know when I’ve been robbed, eh? And all the subscribers want their money back. I don’t know anything, my friend.’
Joe was very serious. Look at all that is happening to me, he thought, and all he wants to do is make love to this woman in my room.
‘By the way,‘Joe said aloud, ‘what is wrong with your room, eh?’
Cata-cata was alarmed. He stammered. He had a regular girlfriend; she had a key to his room; and she made it a habit to turn up at the oddest hours. There was even talk of marriage between them. He wanted the Ghanian woman quickly, on the side. He couldn’t risk the use of his own room, and Joe knew this well. ‘I have a relative staying,’ Cata-cata said, almost pleadingly. Ajegunle Joe stared at him unsympathetically. Cata-cata suddenly stood up.Joe was very serious. Look at all that is happening to me, he thought, and all he wants to do is make love to this woman in my room. ‘By the way,‘Joe said aloud, ‘what is wrong with your room, eh?’ Cata-cata was alarmed. He stammered. He had a regular girlfriend; she had a key to his room; and she made it a habit to turn up at the oddest hours. There was even talk of marriage between them. He wanted the Ghanian woman quickly, on the side. He couldn’t risk the use of his own room, and Joe knew this well.
‘I have a relative staying,’ Cata-cata said, almost pleadingly.
Ajegunle Joe stared at him unsympathetically. Cata-cata suddenly stood up. ‘I want to talk to you outside,’ he said to Joe.
They both went out.
‘You’re a bastard!’ Cata-cata said, the moment they were outside.
‘Things are hard,’ Joe said.
‘What are you trying to do? Spoil my fun, eh?’
Things are bad.’
‘So what? Aren’t we friends? Look. Relax. We’ll go fishing later.’
‘What will that do for me?’
‘You might catch a fish. You’ve never caught a fish.’
‘A fish won’t pay my rent. A fish won’t get those thieves.’
‘You are mad.’
‘All of us are mad.’
They were silent for a moment. They could see the back of the Ghanian woman through the window. She fidgeted. She played with the orange.
‘You know she likes you.’
‘Sarah. I’ve done a build up of you. I can tell she likes you. Have her afterwards. She won’t mind.’
‘How do you know?’
‘What do you mean? She is a good, fun-loving woman.’
‘I don’t want her afterwards,’ Joe said, looking at her through the window.
‘What do you want then, eh?’
‘Lend me some money.’
‘More? You owe me ten already.’
‘Give me another ten.’
‘I am not a bank.’
‘Give me ten. I’ll sell some pamphlets today. I’ll pay you back when some subscriptions come in.’
‘And when will that be?’
‘Today, tomorrow, soon.’
‘You’ve been saying that for two years now’
‘Lend me ten.’
‘Things are hard.’
‘Things are always hard for you.’
They’ll get better.’
‘When do you want it?’
Cata-cata gave Joe the ten naira. They went back in without exchanging another word.
The Ghanian woman had started peeling the orange with her fingers when they both came in. Cata-cata sat down on the bed next to her. He put his arm round her.
Joe said, ‘I’m going to check my post office box before it rains. Do you want some stamps?’
Ajegunle Joe looked at the woman as she ate the orange. With her palm she wiped the juice that flowed down the sides of her mouth.
Struck by the fleshiness of her thighs, noticing the succulence of her lips, Joe said: ‘Have you read any of my pamphlets?’
‘No,’ said the woman.
‘You should. There are many powers in this world.’
‘Leave her alone,’ Cata-cata said, caressing her neck.
‘They call me the Dream-Vendor,‘Joe said, ‘because I am at the mercy of my dreams. I am the man who runs the Cosmic Power Correspondence Course. Have you ever heard of it?’
‘Leave her alone,’ Cata-cata said. ‘She can’t read and she doesn’t have any money to subscribe. Leave the poor girl alone.’
‘Yes, I have,’ the woman said.
Both men turned towards her.
‘My younger brother is taking your course. He thinks it’s all right. Every morning he looks into the mirror and says strange things. He drinks a glass of water, breathes deeply and starts making funny noises. He is always asking me the direction of the east. He is going to university in Ghana ways smells of bad incense.’
Ajegunle Joe was surprised. He beamed. He held up his head. He was so amazed that he didn’t say anything. His throat kept moving. His mood immediately improved and he wore his battered galoshes and the greatcoat he had bought cheaply from amongst the stolen goods at the docks. He bustled around the room. He moved with a forced swing that tossed the bulk of the coat one way and another. The swagger suited him fine.
He said: ‘People need advice. People need power. To see far is the only way to win the battles of this terrible life.’
The Ghanian woman said: ‘My brother takes several other courses. About five of them. Every night he does a different thing. Sometimes he mixes up all the instructions. He is too serious. I think he is going mad.’
She had finished eating the orange. Her eyes shone bril-liantly. She stopped smiling.
Ajegunle Joe didn’t seem to have heard what she said, because he went on to deck himself out with his talismanic necklaces. He made a show of wearing his three rings. He explained their powers as he wore them. One of them was called ‘The Ring of Merlin.’ It was supposed to have been brought to Africa by Portuguese sailors. It had the magic number 7 in green; it was guaranteed to make him invisible in time of danger. Then there was ‘The Ring of Master Eckhart.’ He was a German mystic. This ring, Joe said, had been additionally treated by a Spanish divine. The third one, with its red triangle, was ‘The Ring of Aladdin.’ It had been found on the dead body of Isaac Newton.
‘For every act there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ Joe said. He winked at his friend. He bared the gap in his front teeth in a smile to the woman.
He said: ‘Nothing stays still. Do it gently, but think of my poor bed.’
He swung the back of his coat and made for the door. Soon he had the sky opening above him.
He paused just outside his room. He stood still, listening. He heard the bed creak.
He heard Cata-cata say: ‘What are you waiting for?’
Then the window was slammed shut.
Joe went up the street, towards the main road. The air was dense and unpleasant with the smell of the evaporating gutters. It was August and the bushes near uncompleted houses were thickly filmed with dust, and no trees were in bloom.
The main road was cluttered with multiple traffic jams. Drivers sweated at the steering wheels: they looked as if they were undergoing the most perverse of punishments. Joe felt a peculiar freedom walking past the vehicles in the standstill, so he began to stride. In the second lesson of his correspondence course, Joe says: ‘The way you carry yourself is the way you want people to think of you.’ When Joe cuts down the road he looks like an amiable scarecrow. He walks too stylishly. People sometimes say that too much style betrays hunger.
There was chaos at the post office. Queues stretched out from the building and down the road. Joe checked his box: there weren’t any subscriptions, but there were enquiries about his catalogue. He joined the end of the queue and it was a while before he got anywhere near the counter. He heard someone in the queue saying that the post office workers were so underpaid that they were now sabotaging the post. When he got to the counter it took some time, and some shouting, before any of the clerks paid him any attention.
The clerk said: ‘Why are you shouting as if you are in your mother’s kitchen?’
‘God punish you for saying that,’ Joe said.
An argument ensued and Joe got so worked up he felt his heart hammering unnaturally against his ribs. He quieted down. The clerk went on abusing him. Joe suffered the abuses in silence. He bought his stamps. He was counting his change when he suddenly felt a searing sensation in his crotch. He pushed his way out through the crowd; but the crowd pushed back on him. He found himself being squashed to the metal-lie frame of the door and he was overcome with panic. He started shouting, swearing, fighting his way out.
He was on his way back home when the sky came closer to the ground. Petty traders and stall-owners rushed to clear their goods. Joe continued to stride on stylishly. There was commotion everywhere. Thunder exploded overhead. The road was lit in a moment’s incandescence. The sky darkened and lightning split the air. The rain pelted down in a hurry. Gutters began to overflow and vehicles, avoiding the potholes, splashed mud all over Ajegunle Joe’s greatcoat. He was soon thoroughly drenched and he had to run all the way home with water squelching in his galoshes.
Cata-cata and the woman had gone when Joe got back. Water ran down his back, along his spine. He shivered. He found the key under the doormat. It was hot in the room. Joe undressed, dried himself, and wore fresh clothes all through the sex smells of the heated room. He couldn’t open the window; the rain would come in. So he lit a stick of incense.
Cata-cata and the Ghanian woman had left the orange peelings and the mango seeds on the centre table. The two bottles of stout were empty. The bed was very rough. Flies had come into the room. Joe became very despondent. He changed the sheets and climbed into bed. He slept through the steady drone of the falling rain. He dreamt that the rain had been falling for a long time and the great voice of thunder spoke intermittently from the sky. People were wailing and there was a beautiful music pervading the world. He felt music, though he had never heard it before.
And then a midget with a large head and red eyes came to him and said: ‘How are you?’
‘Fine,’ Joe said.
‘How long has it been raining?’ Joe asked the midget.
Joe stared at the midget. The music stopped, the rain in-creased.
The midget said: ‘Open your eyes.’
‘They are open,’ Joe said.
‘No they’re not. Open them.’
Joe opened his eyes and woke up. The rain was heavier and water had been flowing into his room from beneath the door. Joe stayed in bed. He turned over and listened to his stomach rumbling. He fell back asleep and the midget came to him again.
‘I told you your eyes were shut,’ the midget said.
‘How can you see me if they are shut?’
‘Faith,’ said Joe.
The midget laughed.
‘I like you,’ the midget said.
‘I don’t know you,’ Joe said, ‘but I like you too.’
‘You talk in riddles.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Joe.
‘I hate people who are sorry,’ the midget said.
‘But you just said you liked me.’
‘I do. That’s why I’m going to give you something. But when I come and ask for it, you must give it back.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Joe.
The midget put something in Joe’s palm and closed the fingers over it. Joe opened his hand and a blue light Hashed in his eyes, but Joe didn’t see anything.
‘You didn’t give me anything,’ Joe said.
‘Yes I did. But it’s flown away now. I didn’t ask you to look at it, did I?’
‘What was it?’ Joe asked.
Joe was quiet for a moment.
‘Why don’t you give me something else then?’
The midget gave him something and told him to put it away. Joe put it in his pocket. The midget grinned and then disappeared.
When Joe woke up it had stopped raining. He spent some of the evening looking at his finances, which were very low. Then he tried to do some more work on the fifteenth lesson of his correspondence course. He had been writing on the theme of adversity and he couldn’t find anything more to say on the subject. All he had written was: ‘Adversity is the secret way to the centre, to the base and springboard. Train your muscles before you leap. Train your head before you soar.’ The pile of manuscript lay beside him on the bed. He tried to think about adversity, but he succeeded only in thinking about women. He thought about sex, without getting hot. He soon fell back asleep.
Ajegunle Joe spent the morning sweeping the water out from his room. Centipedes and worms had come in with the water. He caught the worms, to use sometime for fishing, and put them in a bottle. In the afternoon he took large quantities of his pamphlets and went out. At the main road bus conductors shouted their destination and there was commotion as people rushed to embark. Joe was astonished to find that a bus stop had materialized at the top of his street. With the bus stop had also come Ogogoro retailers, corn-roasters, petty traders, prostitutes, pickpockets. Ajegunle Joe bought himself a tumbler of Ogogoro and drank it slowly. He surveyed the bickering crowd, unable to believe his luck. When he finished the Ogogoro he began selling his pamphlets. In three hours he made thirty naira, selling off the pamphlets he brought with him. He went home and fetched some more; but by the time he got back most of the crowd had gone.
In the evening Joe went to a bar near his place for a quiet celebratory drink. He had been drinking heavily for a while, turning words and phrases on adversity in his head, when he noticed a woman sitting alone at a corner table. She looked familiar. Her face was bruised and puffed under the eyes. She had a plaster on her forehead, bandages on her left arm, and a wound just above her left ankle. She wore a black dress and white high-heeled shoes. Every time Joe dropped his tumbler and looked in her direction he was convinced she had just looked away. This went on till Joe eventually caught her eye. It was the Ghanian woman. She stared at him totally without recognition. He ordered two small bottles of stout, picked up his drink, and went over to join her.
‘What happened to you?’
‘None of ya business.’
‘Aren’t you Sarah, Cata-cata’s woman?’
‘Don’t talk to me.’
‘Don’t you remember me?’
‘Eh, so what?’
‘What have I done to you, eh?’
‘Birds of a feather . . .’
‘. . . shit together.’
‘Hah! Sarah! What is this, eh?’
She stared stubbornly through him. He got up and opened one of the bottles of stout at the counter. When he got back she was smiling. She looked almost ghoulish with her puffed eyes, and her deranged, upturned lips.
‘So how are you?’ Joe asked.
‘Shut up and pour me some of the stout,’ she said.
‘Sarah! Take it easy.’ ‘You men are like paper.’
He poured out her drink. She finished the tumbler of stout in a single gulp. She took out a cigarette and lit it. She stared at him.
Joe couldn’t think of anything to say. After she had finished the two bottles of stout Joe went and got her three more.
‘I can’t finish three,’ she said.
Joe stared at the ring she had on her middle finger. It was a large red ring with the white face of a little tiger.
‘What sort of ring is that, eh?’
‘Protection,’ she said.’
‘What sort of protection?’
‘From stupid men like ya friend,’ she said.
‘Sarah, tell me what happened. Did you quarrel?’
She played with her ring. She drank down another bottle, wiped her mouth, and then she went to the toilet. When she came back she told him what had happened. After she and Cata-cata had finished in Joe’s room they went to the bus stop.
Cata-cata was seeing her off home when suddenly a woman stepped out from the crowd and blocked their path. The woman turned out to be Cata-cata’s regular girlfriend.
‘You should have seen her. She was just like a witch,’ Sarah said.
‘And what happened?’
‘What do you think happened? She started shouting. Cursing. Screaming. And you should have seen Cata-cata. He’s big for nothing. He was begging her. Begging her. In public. And then he began to lie about me to my own very face. He said I was just a friend. And then he said I was your new girlfriend. He denied me to my own face.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘His girlfriend scratched his face and spat in his eyes. The next thing was that both of them were fighting. In public. She picked up a stick and knocked him on the head. He slapped her. \bu should have heard her scream. Just like a witch. Quickly she ran and picked up a stone. He grabbed her and slapped her again. She dropped the stone and threw sand in his eyes. He went mad. He started hitting everywhere and he slapped me and then I too joined the fight. I joined her. Both of us jumped on him and he beat us and then a soldier came with a whip and flogged us and we ran. That friend of yours is a coward. He and his woman went home and settled their quarrel.’
Joe stared at her incredulously. He went and bought two bottles of beer for himself. He drank while staring at her. She didn’t seem to notice his gaze.
‘Cata-cata is my best friend, but I’m not like that. Big people don’t need courage. I protect my friends.’
‘Shit,’ she said.
‘I can help you,’ he said solemnly.
They fell silent.
Then Sarah said: ‘Why do you men like thin girls with big breasts, eh?’
Joe thought for a long time before he said: ‘I like girls like you.’
She stared at him from reddened eyes. She stood up.
‘Where are you going now?’
She picked up the two remaining bottles of stout.
Then she said: ‘Men are always asking stupid questions.’
They went out together.
He had hardly shut the window and locked the door when he felt her kissing his neck. He felt the full softness of her wet lips. He felt hot, but he didn’t feel right. He felt very hot, a great yearning ached in him, he began to tremble. She kissed his face over and he noticed that she had a freckled tongue. He reached down under her pants and he was blasted by the surprising texture of her pubic hair. She was richly wet. He took off her clothes and saw that she had beads round her waist. He spent a long time kissing her breasts and playing with the circlets of hair round her nipples. Her breasts quivered. He took off his magic rings and his clothes and they went to bed. She was hot and her eyes were heavy-lidded. She still had her strange ring on. She struck him as one of those fortunate women who feel deeply their own arousal and whom it takes little touches to satisfy. He didn’t like the women who were remote from their own desires, whom he would make love to from sunrise to sundown with them still seeking their elusive climaxes.
He fingered her and kissed her. He went up her, but it wasn’t right. He couldn’t understand. She was wet and willing, half-sunken in euphoria, waiting, it seemed, for a mere full penetration, but he wasn’t hard. So he tried. He tried to dissolve himself into her desire, to feel the spell-breaking reality of her nakedness. He breathed in her potent, shameless smells. And she waited. And he tried.
Then eventually he said: ‘I think something is wrong.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t want to do it?’
‘I want to do it wickedly, but . . . it’s not hard.’
She played with his private part desultorily, impatiently, wrenching it to both sides, dragging it down, talking gruffiy to it, but still nothing came of her efforts. Suddenly she got out of bed. She dressed furiously.
‘You and ya friend are completely useless,’ she said.
Ajegunle Joe started to apologize, to suggest alternatives, but she slapped him hard on the face. Before he could recover she had gone out into the August night, leaving behind her two unopened bottles of stout.
Ajegunle Joe stared at the door. He sat on the bed. Then he got dressed. He wore his red, long-billed cap. He went out and bought himself a large tumbler of Ogogoro. He spent the evening staring at the almanacs of the long-bearded mystics, without seeing them. He fell asleep with the red cap still on his head.
Joe spent the next two days in misery. He went to a petty chemist and bought an ointment for gonorrhea and tablets for ‘increased virility.’ They were expensive. They did not solve his problem. And his problem did not help the sales of his pamphlets. On the third day when he got up to do his improvised sales talk on the molue buses, his mouth was dry, his voice was thin and unconvincing, and people laughed at him. He also found, to his chagrin, that he had serious competitors. Some of them sold pamphlets foretelling the future, complete guides to palm-reading, even pamphlets that professed herbal cures for everything from leprosy to rheumatism. Humiliated, carried away by the intensity of competition, Joe began to denounce the regime, the society, policemen, soldiers. He made predictions of violent riots in the north, and tribal cannibalism in the south. It was unfortunate for him, however, that there were two policemen in mufti on the bus. But it was fortunate for him that he was only thrown off; he would otherwise most certainly have spent the rest of August in prison. Joe was not particularly bothered by the manhandling. The policemen were northerners; besides, he always believed that when people didn’t like a dream he offered, it was usually because the dream was true.
After Joe had been thrown off the molue bus he headed homewards. He was wearing his red, long-billed cap, a jacket too large at the shoulders, his three talismanic rings, a shabby pair of blue trousers, and his galoshes. He was an unhappy sight. He went past a mechanic’s workshop and an herbalist’s signboard. Next to the board there was a red-painted shed. The door of the shed opened slowly as Ajegunle Joe went past. Then a chicken with a red cloth tied to its foot came out, and then went back into the shed.
Joe should have remembered the fourteenth lesson of his own correspondence course, which says: ‘Every human being has got something to be afraid of, in the form of signs.’ But Joe didn’t remember. Without thinking, he sneaked into the shed. It was dark inside. He smelt animal blood, stale palm wine, and excellent cooking. When his eyes got used to the darkness he saw shelves on which were candles, bones, bundles of spiders’ webs, jars, bottles, snakeskins. Something brushed against his galoshes and he screamed, jumping backwards. It was a turtle. Then he saw the numerous snails on the walls. A lizard regarded him from a niche.
‘Is anybody in?’ He heard a cough. Then he noticed the other room in the shed, partitioned by an antelope screen. Someone was in the room, in the half-light, eating. Joe smelt smoked shrimps, fried plantain, bush meat, and he salivated.
‘Who is there?’ he said.
The chicken went out of the room, past the partition. A door opened. He heard water being poured into a glass.
The lights came on suddenly and then a voice said: ‘The minute I saw your red cap I knew you were mine! Come in. Sit down. My name is Aringo. I am the most underrated herbalist in this God-forsaken city.’
Joe went into the inner room.
‘So. Yes. What do you want? You have family problems? A strange illness? Is someone stealing your job from you? You have woman problems? Sit down! If you have money, I can cure anything.’
Joe sat on a stool. The herbalist stared at him expectantly. He had a bony, rugged face, and blazing eyes. He sweated gloriously. He wore a red soutane and he had beads around his neck. He had a long tongue which kept showing when he spoke.
‘Talk! Talk! What’s your problem? Have you come just to look at me? That costs money, you know,’ the herbalist said, baring his yellow teeth.
Joe was stuck for words.
The herbalist, increasing the volume of his voice, said: ‘Look, mister man, I don’t have time to stare at you. Can’t you speak, eh? Have you got mosquitoes in your brain, eh?’
Joe still couldn’t find anything to say. He stammered be-neath his breath.
‘Did someone beat you up, eh? I can give you medicine for fighting. You will be able to fight three men for seven days non-stop and you won’t even be tired. You won’t even sweat. That medicine costs ten naira, but it’s guaranteed.’
Joe’s continued silence began to exasperate the herbalist, who stood up suddenly. He strode up and down the inner room with the quick, angular movements of a cricket. That was when Joe noticed the figure of a warrior juju in a dark corner of the room. It was covered in candle wax, bits of kola nuts, native chalk, feathers of birds. It glistened with libations.
It looked very menacing, very attentive, standing there in the dark.
The herbalist said: ‘Get up. Come and see this.’
The herbalist took the cover off a clay pot. Joe got up and went over. Something large and red pumped at the bottom of the pot.
‘This is a crocodile’s heart. Come and look at this.’
He showed Joe an earthenware pot: there was a snake curled up in its transparent liquid.
‘Now. Tell me your problem and I will help you.‘It took some time before Joe managed to say, in a whisper: ‘It’s woman problem.’
‘Ah’hah! So it’s woman problem, eh?’
‘What kind of woman problem? You don’t have a woman, or is there one in particular. . .’
‘I tried to do it but I couldn’t do it,’ Joe said, hurriedly.
‘What couldn’t you do? Tell me. Don’t be afraid.’
‘It wouldn’t stand up.’
‘You mean you had a woman there, naked, and it wouldn’t stand up?’
‘Yes,’ Joe said in a whisper.
‘I didn’t hear you.’
‘You should have said so. It’s a small problem. Is that all you were whispering to me? Is that what you are ashamed of, eh?’
‘Do you think you are the first person to suffer it?’
‘The English people have a name for it. They call it impotence.’
‘So you know? I see.’
He gave Joe a severe look.
‘Take down your trousers,’ the herbalist suddenly commanded.
‘I said take down your trousers. Let me see what’s wrong with you.’
‘But . . .’
‘But what? What’s wrong with you, eh? You think you are special, eh? This month alone I have circumcised two white men. I have treated three Lebanese men for gonorrhea. Not to mention the Portuguese women. So you think you are special, eh? Okay. Go! Leave my shed! Get out and carry your impotence with you!’
Joe coyly lowered his trousers and his underpants. The herbalist inspected him.
‘Is it this tiny thing you’re ashamed of, eh?’
Joe was silent. The herbalist continued with his inspection and then said: ‘You are lucky. You don’t have gonorrhea.’
He straightened. Joe pulled up his trousers. He looked defeated.
The herbalist said: ‘How much have you got?’
Joe stammered. The herbalist did not press the point.
The herbalist eyed him disdainfully.
He said: ‘You won’t be able to afford that one. I sold that medicine to a Portuguese man last month. He came back three times for more. So. Which one do you want?’
There was another silence.
‘Will the medicine work immediately?’
Then the herbalist suddenly, sharply, said: ‘Take off those rings! Take them off!’
‘Take them off! Now! Unless you have come here to challenge me.’
Joe still didn’t understand what was happening. The herbalist bent over and pulled off his red soutane. His chest and stomach were covered in weird scarifications. He had a bulbous navel.
‘If you want my treatment, take off those rings,’ the herbalsist said, reaching for a cutlass, which he waved menacingly in the air.
Joe took off the rings and put them in his coat pocket. The herbalist still waved the cutlass as if he might use it.
He said: ‘They are useless rings. Quack rings. I have got better ones. I have got one that shows you if you are healthy and it flashes before there is danger. I have got a ring that will make any woman you want come to you. I have got another one that you wear only when you are discussing a lot of money. That one costs a lot. I have even got one of King Solomon’s rings. I won’t sell it. So. Which one do you want, eh?’
‘I’ll have the medicine of an antelope,’ Joe said eventually.
The herbalist was relieved.
‘It costs thirty naira. Not a kobo more, not a kobo less.’
Joe had only thirty-five naira on him.
‘Okay,’ he said, weakly.
His course of treatment consisted of having to wash in murky herbal water, rubbing the afflicted part with a dark, grainy ointment, and drinking a tasteless pot of soup in which had been supposedly sprinkled the grindings of an antelope’s testicles. Then a fire was built in the backyard which he had to extinguish with his urine. When he finished the course of treatment nothing happened. Joe gave it some time and then he got angry and demanded his money back; but people were knocking on the outside door.
The herbalist, having already lost interest in him, said: ‘Be patient. Go home and be patient. I’ve got other customers at the door.’
‘you are a crook. You are a thief,’ Joe shouted.
The herbalist’s face darkened, his nose flared; but he went to a niche, came back, and gave Joe his business card. ‘Go home. If by Saturday nothing happens, come and burn down my shed.’ Joe took the card and stamped out of the shed. He felt nauseous, cheated, and foolish. Joe caught a bus home. He got a seat at the back, near the window. The traffic moved slowly. The road and pavement were full of trinket sellers, hawkers of smoked fish, petty traders of bread and boiled eggs. Without being aware of it, Joe had been watching a girl who sold oranges. Now and again the girl broke out and sang: ‘Sweet orange re-o!’ She had a clear, beautiful voice.
It wasn’t long before Joe became aware that he had been staring at her. She had browned teeth. Her face was pale with dried sweat. She had on a single wrapper and a loose blouse. She caught his eye and came over to sell him some oranges. He didn’t know how to refuse, so he bought two. When the girl went back to singing of her sweet oranges Joe felt something in him. The traffic eased. Joe smiled. Beneath his coat, he felt the quiet salute of desire.
He was tremulous with desperation when he got off the bus. He went to the bar in search of Sarah. She wasn’t there. He ordered a few bottles of beer and he waited. The longer he waited the more unbearable his desire became. He suffered such an unabated hardness that he was forced to go home and change into his mud-splattered greatcoat. He went from one bar to another, hoping to find Sarah. He didn’t find her. All night he was hard and it began to hurt in its hardness. He couldn’t meditate, couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, worried that the herbalist had given him an unusually strong dose of the antelope medicine. In the morning he was still hard. It was in the evening that he began to approach normality. And by then it had become clear that the only way he could find the Ghanian woman was through his friend, Cata-cata.
He chose an unfortunate time to pay a visit. When he knocked on the door and went in, he saw his friend’s room in disarray. Clothes were scattered all over the bed. On the cupboard there was a boxing glove that had been cut up grotesquely. There were torn photographs on the table. Cata-cata sat on a chair exhaling cigarette smoke like an enraged bull. He had scratches on his neck, and a cut on his forehead.
‘What happened to you, my friend?’
‘Woman problem, as usual.’
‘What’s so funny?’
They were silent, till Joe said: ‘Did they beat you up again?’
Joe went and sat on the bed.
‘Have you seen Sarah?’
‘I want to talk to her.’
‘She’s my woman.’
‘What about the one you’ve got?’
‘None of your business.’
‘I want to talk to her.’
‘About her brother, the one taking my course.’
‘Leave her alone.’
‘Go and find your own woman, my friend.’
They were silent. Then Cata-cata put out his cigarette. He laughed.
‘You should have seen those two big women fighting. They went at one another like hungry tigers. Fought and scratched. I hate women fighting, so I reconciled them. you know what I did afterwards, eh?’
‘I brought them home. And enjoyed both of them. Together.’
‘Lie!’ said Joe.
True. I swear.’
‘How do you know it’s a lie, eh? Were you there?’
‘The Ghanian woman told me. . .
‘What . . .’
Cata-cata leapt up from the chair and rushed at Joe. He grabbed his friend by the collar of the greatcoat and shook him, wrenched him up, and threw him against the wall. Cata-cata went at him again, grabbed him round the neck, and pulled back his left fist. His eyes were deranged with jealousy. Then he suddenly relaxed. He lowered his fist. He went and sat down on the chair. He lit another cigarette. Neither of them spoke for a while. Joe stayed where he was with his back against the wall.
‘I’m sorry, my friend.’
Joe was silent.
‘Don’t be angry. Me and my woman quarrelled before you arrived.’
Joe didn’t move.
‘So you are angry with me? Can’t you forgive and forget?
Okay. I will tell you where you can find her.’
Cata-cata told him; Joe still didn’t speak. Cata-cata went out and bought three placatory bottles of beer: Joe continued with the sulky silence. It was only when Cata-cata asked Joe to forget the money he owed, that Joe said: ‘You don’t know, and I won’t tell you.’ He went to the door. ‘Let’s go fishing,’ Cata-cata said. ‘Tomorrow,’ Joe said, shutting the door behind him.
They set out early in the morning on Saturday. Joe had cleaned out his room and sprinkled Dettol on the floor and over the walls. He had also been to the post office. He found four subscriptions to his course, paid for in postal orders. They set out with their fishing rods and tackles, their box of fish hooks, their jar of earthworms and insects. Cata-cata had brought some tangerines and oranges along with the three conciliatory bottles of beer. Not one word passed between them.
They caught two buses to get to FESTAC Estate along the Badagry road. Cata-cata had taken Joe fishing there before. The last time the short pier had been full of rubbish. When they arrived it was surprising for them to find the pier clean: it had been washed by the August rain.
It was a clear and hot day. The river water was brown and there were canoes in the distance. Crabs scuttled around the pier.
Joe lay flat on his back and watched the clear sky while Cata-cata fished.
‘The fishes are asleep.’
‘Maybe,’ Joe said.
‘Did I tell you about the dream I had last night, eh?’
‘I dreamt that I caught a fish, an electric fish, a big one. I clobbered it, but it wouldn’t die. I threw a brick on its head, and do you know what happened, eh?’
‘The brick scattered into pieces. And the fish was crying. It wouldn’t stop crying. In the end I threw the fish back into the river.’
‘It’s a good thing you did,’ Joe said.
‘I think so.’
‘Do you want a beer?’
‘No, but help yourself.’
Joe took a bottle. The beer was still chilled. He opened the bottle with his teeth and drank steadily through half of it. He burped. He looked across the river. On the other shore there were palm trees and huts. An eagle flew past low along the river.
Joe said. ‘Too many competitors and not enough money.’
‘This life is a financial problem.’
‘But a man must fly.’
‘A man is not a bird.’
Joe didn’t say anything. He finished the bottle of beer.
‘Did you go and see Sarah?’ Cata-cata asked.
‘At first she didn’t want to talk to me. Then we agreed to meet tonight.’
Joe looked across the river. He saw the trees against the sky. He saw the river softly rippling, softly flowing. He felt the wind cool beneath the warmth of the day. He felt peaceful.
He was happy to see the crabs scuttling along the shore. He fell asleep and dreamt that he was paddling a canoe in a green bottle.
Then the midget with the big head and red eyes came to him and said: ‘How are you?’
‘I don’t know. But how are you?’
‘I am not feeling all that well.’
‘What’s wrong? Can I help?’ Joe asked.
‘Yes. I want you to give me back that thing I gave you. My life has been hell without it.’
‘Please let me keep it. I will give you anything else you ask for.’
If you want it, keep it.’
Joe didn’t like the way the midget said that; so he gave the midget what he asked for.
‘Thank you,’ said the midget.
‘Thank you,’ said Joe.
‘I am always happy to see you.’
‘Don’t thank me.’
‘Okay. Tell me, what was that thing you gave me?’
‘Bad luck,’ the midget said, cheerfully.
‘You are a true friend,’ said Joe.
‘So are you. Except for one thing. You’ve got your eyes always shut. Open them.’
Joe opened his eyes. Cata-cata was leaning over him.
‘You’ve been talking in your sleep.’
‘It’s a small problem.’
‘Have a tangerine.’
Joe peeled the tangerine and ate it. He felt light. He felt possessed of a secret wonder. The tangerine was cool in his mouth. He thought about prison. He thought about Sarah. He felt he had to turn off his thinking. He tried to, but he only succeeded in having an idea for his sixteenth lesson. He would call it: ‘Turning Experience into Gold’.
He said: ‘It’s my birthday soon. Things will get better after my birthday.’
‘Yes. Things might get better.’
‘And then the rainy season continues.’
‘Ponds everywhere. Mud everywhere.’
They stared at the river.
Joe said: ‘This life of mine has been one long fever. Now I feel I’m getting well.’
‘That’s good. That’s good,’ his friend said, smiling.