Green Hills Literary Lantern

Redemption

 

One night in harmattan, Justice Modebe is sitting on his expansive balcony, eating dinner with his unlikely guest. He eats very little as a matter of fact; his cutlery hovers over the rice and chicken that his steward, Jacob, has made a point of preparing every Wednesday. But he doesn’t grudge others their enjoyment. He watches Rufus attack the chicken with the viciousness of a starving hyena, his eyes unwavering like acetylene flame.

“What did they say exactly is the matter with the borehole?” he asks.

“The excuse they gave is that Ejimofo, the man in charge of the borehole, treats them like animals. According to them, he pumps the water when it suits him and shuts it off, regardless of the number of people who are queuing to fetch water.” The moon, sliding out from under a cloud, rests on Rufus’ egg-smooth bald head, giving him an almost saintly appearance.

“Why didn’t they tell me about it instead of snubbing the gift? I built the water project for the use of the community and not for Ejimofo.”

Rufus stabs a chicken wing with his fork, cuts off a generous chunk of meat and guides it to his mouth before replying.

“That’s the excuse they gave. But we all know it is Ibegbu’s mischief at work. You know he recently built what he called ‘Greater Ugwuachi Water Scheme’ at Ezi Ukwa Square?”

“That is for people from his quarter of the village who live near Ezi Ukwa Square. I don’t believe anyone from this part will go as far as Ezi Ukwa Square to fetch water when they have water in their midst.”

“That was what I thought until today. You know the kind of rabble-rouser Ibegbu is. He has been in the House of Representatives for the past three years and has never done anything for the community. Now that elections are around the corner, he suddenly realizes that his people deserve a greater water scheme. Only he knows what he has told the people, but they are all trooping to Ezi Ukwa with containers as if they were paid to fetch water there.”

It is not the first time that the Justice has come up against Honourable Ibegbu. Shortly after his retirement and relocation to Ugwuachi, he had attended a village meeting where the Ofeagu land (the subject of a long-running dispute with a neighbouring community) had come up for discussion. Modebe had given what he believed to be the soundest counsel in the circumstances—the community should return to court once more. But Ibegbu had countered this suggestion by pointing out that going to court would only give Ndi Abo, the neighbouring community, more time to continue cultivating the land as court cases were notoriously long. And then he had dealt Modebe the cruellest punch he had yet to receive publicly. He had asked Modebe what he, as judge of the Federal Court of Appeal, had done with respect to the land case the first time it went to court. Modebe had not been able to answer because there was nothing he had done for the community either as judge or as anything else. Everyone in the gathering laughed at his discomfiture, and Modebe has never attended village meetings after that.

“Ibegbu is a troublemaker,” Rufus says, polishing off the plate. “He is always looking for ways to score cheap political points.”

“It is not nincompoops like Ibegbu who feel they have to take out feathers from the cap of their betters in order to gain respect that I am angry with,” Modebe says, angrier than he shows. “It is the villagers who seem not able to tell their right from their left. When I returned to the village, there was no water supply whatsoever; the villagers had to go almost six miles to Ochichi in the next community to fetch water. But I gave them water. And now they suddenly realize that my water is not good enough for them?”

“You know what our people are like,” Rufus says. “A man with a little money to dangle in their faces will always have a following here.”

Modebe lays the cutlery against the plate and Jacob, who has been hovering around in the shadows of the balcony, comes up and clears the table. He returns with a bottle of wine which he pours into two glasses and withdraws again into the shadows.

What unlikely relationships life wedges people into, Modebe muses as he watches Rufus, the retired village headmaster, reach out for his glass. It is sad to think that among the more respectable citizens of the village Rufus alone visits him regularly since he returned home. Rufus alone pays him the homage that is his due as a retired justice of the Federal Court of Appeal. Despite these gestures of friendship, Modebe still looks on the old man with contempt tinged with humour. He is amused by Rufus’s almost hysterical obsession with his appearance. He always wears his shirts tucked smartly into his trousers and sometimes sports a tie. His wrinkled face, with a scar below his right eye, is often so closely shaved that it looks as though nature finished its job on the head and finding no more hair to lick off took its razor to the face. Modebe himself favours a neat, albeit greying, beard. A beard gives a man’s face character.

“The moon rises early these days,” Rufus observes, tilting back in his chair with a grateful belch.

Modebe does not answer. Though Rufus comes almost every other day to his house, they have little to say to each other. It is as if their companionship consists in merely sitting together, two old men wracked by different preoccupations, and watching the day pass drowsily by. After a long silence during which Rufus’ head shines and dims with the moon, he rises and, thanking his host for the food and drink, departs into the night.

Modebe remains at the table long after Rufus is gone. He is looking, contemplative, into the night as though he could see those ungrateful recipients of his benevolence. But the village is submerged in darkness. His house is the only one within six kilometres radius that has electricity as the transformer the governor promised the community before the election is still being expected. Being also the only storey building in the area, it gives off, at night, the impression of a lone star in the middle of a vast, dark sky.  

“Are you there, Jacob?” he calls out softly.

A middle-aged man in a kind of blue uniform appears and stands before him in a military style.

“Go to the water borehole and call Ejimofo for me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jacob returns fifteen minutes later, alone.

“He is not there, sir,” he says. “And the place is closed.”

“What time is it?”

“A quarter past eight, sir.”

“A quarter past eight and he has closed? He is supposed to be open till nine. Well then, that explains it. Bring him here to see me first thing in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

Plodding up to his study, Modebe snaps on the light and sits at the desk. The study, like most of the rooms in the house, is large with a lot of space to spare after three rows of bookcases, fully crammed with volumes, have been fitted at one end of the room, directly opposite the desk. Those were the tools he had used in what he likes to refer to as “edifying practice,” when the law profession was truly noble and untainted by the greed and sleaze that has crept into it with the profusion of election cases. It always gnaws at his heart to see all those books, acquired through dint of hard work, gathering dust and cobwebs on the shelves because there is no one to inherit them. None of his three children is a lawyer, a thing that gives him great concern. One is a medical doctor in the UK (fair enough except that he rarely visits home). The other in Abuja was the fellow that had gone to Ibadan to study law but had come out instead with a degree in philosophy; he now runs a chain of stores in the Federal Capital. The last child, the only girl among them, is the one with the true spirit of a lawyer, but his wife had swayed her to study nursing. She now lives with her husband and two children in the United States. 

“I have been rather unlucky with my children,” he often laments. “While other judges have children already called to the inner bar, I have only health workers and a trader.”

On the desk is a big diary on which he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to write his memoir. In the one year since he embarked on the project, he has only five pages of writing to show for his effort. He attributes his sterility to the loss of his early diaries which contain the events where any meaningful memoir should begin. But he may as well tell himself the truth—he is simply loath to visit that unhappy past of his life which is laden with controversy. For by the time of his retirement he had acquired the unsavoury reputation as the most controversial judge on the Nigerian bench. Modebe, it was after all, who had sentenced three labour leaders to six months in prison for what he termed “unlawful assembly”; Modebe it was who had granted an ex parte order ousting a state governor from office; Modebe it was who had sentenced five drug traffickers to death based on a retroactive law; Modebe it was . . . The list is endless. But this last hangs over his head like an evil halo. The outrage that had followed the judgment was like none he had ever experienced before. Even though he kept a haughty nose above the cesspool that called itself the press, he could not quite maintain his equanimity after watching on TV the execution of the men by firing squad.    

That was nearly twenty-five years ago during the hectic days of the military rule (and this is what no one seems to understand—that a lot of madness played out during the military regime), but the incident still dogs his steps even to retirement. Just last week his daughter Adaugo had called him in a worried tone from the US to ask if he had really said what he was quoted in a newspaper to have said. The quote was contained in an interview—the very last one—he had granted about a month ago on his way back from the US, where he had gone for a medical check-up. The journalist had caught him at the international wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos. In the past it was never a problem for him to get away from importunate pressmen. It must be a sign of his old age that he allowed the fellow to harangue him for nearly an hour with silly and impertinent questions. Just when he thought the interview was over, the fool had asked him what his opinion, as a man who had time and again applied the death sentence, was on the current debate about its abolition. Did he not think it was morally reprehensible for a man in wig and gown to arrogate to himself the powers of God and decide the life of another?

Finally, the Justice had had enough. In a tone as crisp as dead harmattan grass, he had uttered those words that later blazed across newspaper headlines the following weeks: “I cannot tell you whether the death sentence is reprehensible or not, my young man. What I can tell you is this: the murderer, or the armed robber, or the drug trafficker we execute today will not terrorize us tomorrow. And if that makes the society safer for everyone else, what is your objection to that?”

Even he did not expect this little comment, said more in jest than anything else, to erupt into the kind of storm that followed it. It was a warning to him to avoid any discussion of his days on the judgment seat. And even though he knows his memoir is the only opportunity he has to explain some of his actions during that time, it somehow makes the subject more difficult for him to approach.

Nevertheless, he is in the study the following morning after breakfast and is actually doing some writing when Jacob knocks on the door and announces that Ejimofo is there to see him.

Ejimofo enters the study with timid steps and stands respectfully by the door, his head bowed over his angular body. 

The Justice ignores him for a while and continues with his writing.

“Ejimofo,” he says suddenly, startling the other, “did I tell you never to go to the borehole without your uniform or not?” 

“You did, sir.”

“Are you wearing your uniform now?”

“No, sir.”

“Because you don’t take me seriously, isn’t it? Have you ever seen any of my domestic servants without their uniform on?”

“I am sorry, sir.”

“I don’t see what you have to be sorry about, my young man. Life is all about choices. Either you choose to do the job and wear the uniform I gave you, or you leave it and wear whatever you please. Is that clear enough? Good. Now what is this thing I am hearing, that you shut the water and open it when it pleases you?

“It is not true, sir.”

“I sent Jacob by eight o’clock last night to call you, but you had closed and you say it is not true. What more proof do I need than this?”

“I was there from morning till night, but no one came to fetch water. When night came, I tried to put on the generator, but it did not start. So I decided to close. It only happened yesterday night, sir.”

“What is the problem with the generator then?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I think the carburettor needs servicing.”

“Very well. Tell Nduka that I said he should drive you to Awka to have the generator serviced. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Modebe glances at the man and then asks in a soft voice, “What do you think is the reason why people no longer come to fetch water at the borehole?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I think it is the new borehole that Honourable built at Ezi Ukwa Square. They say Honourable threatened not to give anyone who does not fetch from his borehole light when he brings a new transformer to the village. But I don’t know if it is true, sir.”

“If you fix the generator and still no one comes to fetch water there, close the borehole and bring me the keys. I will find you something else to do around here. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Modebe is in an overpowering rage after Ejimofo has left the room. What silliness! Granted, the water project is not purely an act of charity. He had built it as a way to buy into the hearts of the villagers after the poor attendance he witnessed at his wife’s funeral a year ago opened his eyes for the first time to how alienated he was from his people. But then what act of charity is without an element of self-interest? At least he had identified a real need of the people, unlike most charity givers, and had solved it. If they now feel that they can afford to snub the gift because a nincompoop is dangling a promise before their eyes—well to hell with them! It is no skin off his nose. 

He is still fuming as he changes into sportswear and leaves the house to take his customary morning walk round the village. It is the only exercise he does, despite his doctor’s exhortations to do more.

He walks fast, despite his weight, keeping to the edge of the narrow road to avoid the throng of traders on their way to Nkwo Ndi Abo to sell their goats and their fowls and their cassava. In the village it is not common for men his age to wear white shorts, tee-shirt and tennis shoes and walk aimlessly about the village. The first time he had done this, the villagers had watched him with a curiosity that would have been disconcerting if he had paid attention to it. But he sees no contempt now on the faces of the men who move respectfully to one side of the road to give him right of way; or remove their caps as a mark of respect before greeting him. Some of the men even older than he. Still, he can’t pretend he doesn’t notice a sort of reserve in their attitude towards him, as though he were an alien in their midst. To the villagers, it appears, he will always remain an alien no matter what he does. That much is obvious from their attitude. He will always be to them their kinsman who had attained one of the highest positions in the land but never used his power to do much for them.  

Modebe walks on, but his normal vitality is missing from his steps. The ground is soft under his foot with fine powdery dust that rises at each touch of his feet. The grass and the brushes on either side of the road are covered with the dust. The sun has ridden high in the sky. Though it is the peak of the harmattan, the day is uncharacteristically hot. Sweat runs down his face, and his shirt sticks to his flabby belly. He tells himself to turn back. But then something nudges him to walk in the direction of Ezi Ukwa Square.

The Square is a large clearing in the centre of the village where social activities take place. It also serves as a makeshift market for those living around it where one can run and buy salt or pepper. Being about five kilometres or so from his house, Modebe rarely passes through it and has not been there in the past six months. So it comes as a tremendous surprise for him to see, in the centre of the Square, a gigantic water reservoir with about ten taps at the base. Plastic containers are queued up in front of the taps. There is a minor commotion, verging on fisticuffs, as people argue furiously whose turn it is to fetch water. He stands unobserved for a while at the edge of the Square, watching this scene. Then he turns and makes for his water borehole.

He finds Ejimofo napping inside the little cubicle above which three water tanks stand. He springs to his feet as the haze of slumber lifts from his eyes. 

Modebe asks him if they have fixed the generator, and he answers yes. They have just got back from Awka. Have people been coming to fetch water? No, only five people came.

“Very well. Let them go to Ezi Ukwa then. Lock up the place and give me the key.”

He waits as Ejimofo carries the generator, which has been standing behind the tank platform, into the cubicle, locks it and hands over the key.

“Come over to my house in the evening, and I will find you something to do. I believe you can do gardening?”

“Gardening, sir?”

“Cut flowers, water them, mow the lawn. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I can, sir.”

“Good. Come in the evening, or rather tomorrow morning.”

He is feeling very dispirited and chagrined by the time he gets home. The gateman, Bala, is not there to open the gate at his first knock, and he has to hammer on the iron five times before the man cracks the gate ajar. Seeing his master, he throws it open with a rush of apologies.

“Sorry, sir! sorry, sir!” he cries.

“Where were you?”

“Sorry, sir. Na this small small boys wey jump fence for there enter make them steal fruit. Na for backyard I dey when oga return, I no come hear as oga dey knock.”

“Which small boys?”

“We no know who dem be-o! Them dey three like that and them jump fence come to . . .”

“Where are they?”

“For backyard there where Jacob surrender them.”

Modebe makes for the backyard, where his late wife had planted a little garden of guava, oranges and cashew. Modebe has no interest in the garden. He is of the opinion that they attract all sorts of birds which make his early morning sleep difficult with their noise. But since he was hardly ever at the country house until now, he had indulged his wife’s fancy. There is another thing, though, that he hates about the garden more than the birds. The village boys always scale the fence to pilfer fruits from the garden. Modebe finds this very irritating and had publicly warned that he would shoot anyone, adult or child, who broke into his compound. No one took him seriously until five years ago when he came very close indeed to carrying out the threat; luckily the boy was smart enough to duck at the last moment as the gun went off.

But it is with indifference that he rounds the side of the house and sees three scrawny boys, kneeling, facing Jacob and the driver, Nduka, who stand over them with long sticks broken from a guava tree. The oldest among the children cannot be more than twelve. Modebe wonders briefly at the courage of twelve-year-olds jumping a fence as high as his to steal fruits. They are in dirty tattered clothes, and beside them are sacks filled with broken plastic materials. No doubt these are those urchins—nuisance of the highest order—who go from one refuse dump to another scavenging for plastic and iron.

Jacob beams at him with pride and starts narrating what the boys had done, but Modebe cuts him short. He orders the boys to get to their feet.

“Sorry, sir!” “We will not do it again, sir!” “Forgive us, sir,” the boys wail as they rise to their feet.

“That’s what criminals all over the world say when they are caught,” Modebe says. “That doesn’t stop them from getting punished. And you will get punished. Your punishment is to sweep the entire compound, gather the rubbish outside the fence and burn it. Then you may go. But bear it in mind that the next time you venture here, you will not get out of it with your legs. Jacob, get them brooms and make sure they do exactly as I have said.”

“Yes, sir.”

Modebe turns and heads back to the house to take a bath. Refreshed, he is going into his study when Jacob comes up to report that two of the boys have escaped.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It was Bala’s fault. He left the gate open and two of them ran away.”

Suddenly Modebe bursts into laughter, to the utter amazement of his steward.

“Isn’t that just fine?” he says after the laughter. “Two small boys slipped through your fingers, and you are even shameless enough to argue whose fault it was. What if they were adults? They would have burnt down the house before you could stop them.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“What about the third boy?”

“He is still there sweeping, sir.”

Modebe steps out on the balcony and leans over the rail, watching the boy as he sweeps, quietly singing to himself. The boy’s apparent serenity and dedication to his task strikes Modebe as something rare in boys these days. He stands there for a while watching him. As he returns to the study, he tells Jacob to bring the boy to him when he is through.

“Why didn’t you go with your friends when they ran away?” he asks when the boy stands before him in the study.

The boy looks confused.

“You told us to sweep the compound, sir.”

“Yes, but your friends ran away, didn’t they? What I want to know is why you didn’t run with them.”

“I didn’t want to run, sir. Sweeping is not a problem for me.”

Modebe watches him for a moment and then shrugs.

“Where do you people come from?” 

“I don’t know them, sir. I met them only yesterday at Nkwo market, Ndi Abo, and they said I should join them to go hunting for plastic and aluminium, that there is a man at Awka who told them he will pay them well if they bring a bagful of plastic and aluminium.”

“And you joined them, people you claim not to know?”

“I need the money to treat myself, sir.”

“Treat yourself of what?”

The boy hesitates and then he lifts his dirty shirt to reveal a festering wound in his belly.

“What happened to you?”

“My auntie pressed a hot iron on me,” the boy says and then bursts into tears.

“Your auntie pressed a hot iron on you? What did you do to her?”

“I burnt her skirt by mistake while ironing it.”

Modebe leaves his desk, moves closer to the boy and peers at the wound. He recoils in horror, and the judge in him begins to steam in anger. It is just this kind of abuse that he cannot stand. A person who could do this to a child deserves a long term of imprisonment to learn the rules of civilized behaviour.

“What about your parents?” he asks the boy.

“I don’t know my father. My uncle took me to Onitsha to the woman three years ago after my mother died. She is not really my auntie but a friend of my uncle’s wife.”

“And she did this to you?”

“This is not the first time, sir,” the boy sobs. “There was no day that she did not beat me. I ran home initially, but my uncle took me back to her. When I ran home this time, he wanted to take me back, but I refused and ran away. It was then that I met those boys. They told me that they have been taking care of themselves from what they make selling plastic and aluminium and that if I joined them I would not lack for money.”

“Where is your uncle now?”

“He is in our town, Ndi Abo.”

Modebe stands at the window for a long moment, looking out at the garden, overrun now by those noisy birds which, like the humans, cannot resist the temptation that the ripe redolent cashew fruits offer.

“Would you want to live here?” Modebe surprises himself by asking.

“Me, sir?”

“Don’t be silly. Is there anyone else in this room? What is your name by the way?

“Chuka, sir.”

“I asked you if you would you want to live here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. I will need to take you to Ndi Abo to see your uncle and inform him that you are going to live with me. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Modebe presses a button on the desk and Jacob enters.

“This boy is going to live with us from now on. Give him one of the rooms in the boys’ quarters. I want you to take him to Ndi Abo to inform his uncle that he is going to live with me—I will give you a letter for him. On your way back, stop at the clinic and have his wound dressed. He will show you the wound.”

He sits at the desk, writes the letter, and hands it to Jacob with some money.

“Buy him some clothes on the way. I don’t want to see him back in that rag.”

Jacob takes the letter and money and leaves the room with Chuka.

Modede is relaxing on the balcony in the evening with Rufus when the two return. Chuka has changed out of the dirty clothes he wore in the morning. Over a brand new pair of jeans, he is wearing a navy blue tee-shirt with a laughing Barney on the front. His hair has also been cut, and he looks like one of those over-pampered city boys that visit the village during Christmas. Jacob explains that they had to wait for a long while at Ndi Abo because Chuka’s uncle had gone to the farm. When he told the man his mission, he couldn’t be happier to see the boy gone. Modebe shrugs and lifts the boy’s shirt to see that the wound has been dressed.

“Is that the boy you were telling me about?” Rufus asks with round-eyed wonder when the two have left for the boys’ quarters. 

“The very one,” Modebe answers with a pride he can’t suppress. “If he is of good behaviour, I intend to formally adopt him and make sure he studies up to the university level.” He glances at Rufus with a faint smile. “Well, what do you make of it?”

“It is a good thing that you are helping the poor boy,” Rufus says, looking away. “But you said he is an Ndi Abo boy! You know our community and Ndi Abo are not on the best of terms at the moment.”

“What has that to do with the boy—or with me for that matter?”

“Our people will not be pleased to hear that despite all the miserable young boys in our midst, you chose an Ndi Abo boy instead to help.”

Modebe bursts out laughing.

“At least you were frank enough to tell me your mind. But let me ask you this. I believe you have read in the Bible the parable of the wedding feast? Why do you think the host rounded up strangers from streets to fill his banquet hall after those he invited to the feast refused to turn up?” Without waiting for an answer, he continues, “It is to show us that if one does not take an opportunity he is offered, it will be given to another. The world does not stop because some people cannot appreciate generosity.”

“I understand what you mean, but I don’t think you should place all the blame entirely on the villagers. The culprit here is Ibegbu. By the way, I think I know why he has been acting the way he does.”

“Why?” Modebe asks, wondering if there is a limit to Rufus’s store of village gossip.

“Two men were discussing it today at Ezi Ukwa where I went to trim a palm for Nwezelu, the widow. They said you are grooming one of your sons to contest for the House of Representatives seat in the next election, that you built the borehole to pave the way for his campaign when the time comes.”

Modebe again erupts in laughter.

“Now isn’t that just fine? Which of my sons, if I may ask? The one that has not been to Nigeria for the past six years, or the one that does not come to the village at all? 

“You know what our people are like,” Rufus says with a shrug. “A politician like Ibegbu, who has nothing to show for his years at the House of Representatives, cannot bear the thought of challenge to his seat.”

“He will not hold the seat for much longer if all he has to sustain him in office is calumnies and blackmail. Someday the people will rise and ask him questions.”

“That is what he fails to realize. As the saying goes, you can deceive most of the people most of the time, but you cannot deceive all the people all the time.”

The Justice shrugs and says nothing more. He watches Rufus from the corner of his eyes. He knows the latter has come to ask him something—you can’t mistake that hangdog expression he puts on whenever he wants to wheedle something out of you. 

“Anyway, that was not why I came,” he finally announces as if it isn’t already written all over him. “I came to tell you that I will soon be getting married again.”

Modebe stares at him. Could the fellow actually be serious, or has he finally lost his mind? Who would marry him, a man nudging seventy who is said to have rendered his late wife childless because of his impotence?

“I know it sounds sort of strange,” Rufus concedes with a shy smile, “a man my age. But the lady in question does not seem to mind. It is Nwezelu, the widow.”  He looks away as though in shyness. “As you know, she is not that young herself—she can’t be less than forty-five. But we think we can make it.”

“This is surprising,” Modebe says. “What did her husband’s people have to say about it?”

“What can they say? She is childless and does not have any ties to the family, provided the ngo is paid. That is part of the reason I have come to you. I need your help.”

“Well, go on.”

“If I say give me such-and-such amount of money to pay the ngo, I will only end up a fool if I can’t take care of the woman after marriage. That’s why I want to set up a little shop at Ezi Ukwa. I need a loan from you.”

“What do you intend to sell?”

“Provisions, although Nwezelu thinks there is money to be made from a drinking bar. But that is not for me.”

“So how much do you need?”

“A hundred thousand naira. And I promise to pay before the end of six months.”

“You cannot make enough money to be able to pay me back in six months.” Modebe makes an exasperated gesture. “But I will give you the money. This idea of marriage, I hope you have thought about it very carefully. Women, as I am sure you know, create all sorts of problems.”

In fact, what he would have wanted to tell him is to drop the idea; he doesn’t find it funny a man of sixty-eight talking about marriage. There is something vaguely indecent in the whole idea, although he can’t say what it is. Why, it is like telling him, at this age, to remarry!

But a beatific smile mounts on Rufus’s face.

“If we consider the sting of a bee, we will never eat honey. If I go to my grave without fathering a child, I will not think myself the most unfortunate man that ever lived. But maybe God wants me to have another chance by giving me a wonderful woman like Nwezelu, and I can tell you, she is wonderful.”

“Very well then. Tomorrow I will send you with Jacob to the bank with a cheque.”

“Thank you very much,” Rufus says making a little bow, “both for this and everything you did for me in the past. You have been a kind of God to me, despite what others may say.”

Modebe gives one of his ironical smiles but says nothing.

Next day Rufus arrives before sunrise. He waits patiently in the living room downstairs, reading an old newspaper, until Modebe invites him up around ten to join him and Chuka in breakfast. The Justice insists that the frightened boy sit at the table with him and ignores the fact that he is too uneasy to do more than nibble at his food.

After the breakfast, Modebe sends Jacob to fetch his chequebook from his briefcase in the study. Jacob returns with the chequebook and a gold-capped pen. Modebe writes the cheque, tears it off, and then he freezes. He stares at the chequebook for what seems like an hour. Then he turns to look at Jacob. He sees the latter cringe and turn away. He looks at the chequebook again. The counterfoil immediately before the one he just made is torn off, and the tiny stub is wedged in the spine of the chequebook. He checks the numbers and notices that two cheques are missing from the booklet. For a long while no one speaks; the atmosphere is so charged that it can ignite a match.

Then Modebe asks Jacob in a deceptively mild tone, “Did you do this?”

“Do what, sir?”

“You know what I am asking you, Jacob. No one else has access to my bedroom and study except you.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Very well then. Stay here and don’t move an inch.”

The Justice leaves the balcony and returns ten minutes later with his cell phone in his hand.

“I just spoke with my account officer,” he says as he sits down again and fixes Jacob with a frying look. “He checked and told me that two withdrawals were made on my account in the last month by someone bearing the name Okechukwu Igweaku. Apparently you sent somebody to do the job for you, didn’t you, so that you would have an alibi?”

“I don’t understand . . .”

In a flash Modebe is on his feet and hits Jacob hard across the face, bringing him on top of the dining table. A glass falls off the table and shatters on the marbled floor. Modebe snatches up another glass and slams it violently on Jacob’s head. Rufus steps in between the two, pleading with Modebe to stop. 

“You don’t understand!” Modebe roars at the bleeding steward. “I will make you understand! Oh my God!” he says in shock, moving away from the steward; he is trembling with rage. “You do this to me after everything I did for you? You? Oh my God! I cannot believe this.”

He sinks into a chair in stupefaction. When everything else has failed, the least anyone could ask from this world is the honesty of his servant, his oldest servant for that matter—a servant he had made and seen grow before his very eyes; a servant he had taken, on his career, from Enugu to Port Harcourt, from Port Harcourt to Abuja, and from Abuja back to the village—twenty-five years in all; a servant he pays what some civil servants don’t receive; a servant he felt he could trust with his life . . .

“Oh my God!” he mutters again to himself. He looks like a man who has been robbed at the very end of the substance of his faith 

Jacob falls on his knees before him, begging for forgiveness. He explains that he had taken the money to pay his wife’s medical bills after she was delivered by Caesarean Section.

“Why didn’t you ask me for the money? Did you have to steal it?”  

Jacob says he was afraid . . .

“Afraid to ask me for money to pay your wife’s medical bills? Does it mean that in the twenty-five years you have been with me, you don’t know me well enough to know whether I will grant you a favour or not?” 

Jacob doesn't answer. Modebe watches him for a moment and then looks away. A different kind of shock comes upon him. If a servant that has been with him for twenty-five years could not trust him enough to come to him for help, what can others who know him only by the judgments he had handed down from the bench make of him? This thought pains him as much as if someone had pricked him with a pin. And his heart smoulders with anger against Jacob.

Later he watches with unmoved expression as Jacob, crying profusely, is led away in handcuffs by the police. Meanwhile he has sent Nduka with Rufus to the bank to cash the cheque. He is still sitting on the balcony in a kind of daze when Nduka returns at midday. After a while he comes to the balcony and tells Modebe that Chuka is nowhere to be found.

“How do you mean?”

“As I was passing to my room, I saw that his door was ajar, so I went in to tell him to shut the door against mosquitoes, but he is not in the room, sir.”

Modebe gets up and with Nduka trailing him goes downstairs to the small three-roomed house where the servants, apart from Jacob, have their residence. Chuka’s room is small and neat with a rather wide window that carries a strong smell of overripe fruits into the room.  

“He did not go with his clothes,” Modebe says, pointing to the stack of clothes that had been bought only yesterday neatly arranged at the head of a medium-sized mattress covered with a white sheet. Beside the clothes is also a school bag with books peeping out of it.

“Maybe he only went away and will come back, sir.”

“Call Bala for me.”

When Bala arrives, Modebe asks him if he has seen Chuka.

“I never seen am, sir.”

“Are you sure you have been at the gate since morning?”

“Yes, sir.”

Then Modebe spots a dirty stain on the white wall near the window. He draws closer to look at it. Then he leaves the room and goes behind the house. He sees the trail that Chuka left and follows it to the fence. There he sees where Chuka scaled the fence. Then he turns back.

“Collect the clothes and the bag and burn them,” he tells a bewildered Nduka. “He is not coming back here.”

He returns to the balcony. He is sitting at the dining table, trying to force his attention to his memoir when, about thirty minutes later, he sees Rufus enter his gate with the widow he spoke about. Even from this distance, Modebe can tell that the woman must have been quite a beauty in her youth. Though she must be in her middle age now, her body still retains its voluptuous contours. Rufus proudly drapes his arm around her narrow waist; on his face is a triumphant smile that makes the Justice turn away with a spurt of anger.

 

 

 

Okechukwu Otukwu is a fiction writer from Nigeria whose works have appeared in the following magazines and journals: Timber Creek Review, GHLL, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Prosopisia, Story time, Eclectica, and Sentinel Nigeria.  He has also published work in his indigenous language, Igbo. A lawyer by training, he currently lives in Asaba, Nigeria, where he is engaged in public service. His debut novel and first collection of short stories are completed and will soon be offered for publication.