The Houseboy by Tosan Tarre
Kerete sat on the low wooden stool, chopping vegetables on a tray that he balanced on his laps. The knife went chop-chop; he had to be fast or when his madam came into the kitchen, she would yank his ears and give him a blow on the back.
Tried as much he could to concentrate, his mind kept replaying the phone conversation he’d had with his sister the day before.
“Brother Kerete,” Aniema’s voice had sounded frantic and teary, “doctor say if we no do the operation fast fast for Mama say she go die. Abeg, brohda send us some money.”
Kerete had never felt so helpless as he did when he talked with his sister. He wanted to blurt out the painful reality; that he had no money, that the highest amount of money he had ever received from his boss was a fifty naira note and that was to buy beans for his breakfast.
Instead, he said, “No worry, I go soon send money to una.”
He transferred the chopped Afang leaves into a colander and stood up. The pot of meat and assortments was boiling over the fire-lit stove. As he washed the leaves, Obinna’s words drifted to him like the vapour emitting from the boiling pot.
“You say if your mama no do the operation, she go die?” Obinna asked. He was Kerete’s fellow house servant, only he belonged to a different madam. White dotted rings circled his shorn head, an indication that he had ring worms.
“Yes,” Kerete was almost in tears. “As I dey here so, I no know wetin I fit do.”
Obinna blew his running nose and then cleaned it with the back of a hand so full of sores. “You don tell your madam?”
“Wetin she talk?”
“She been say she no get money,” Kerete lowered his head as the tears rolled down his eyes. “Wetin I wan do?” His shoulders shook as he burst into tears.
“Na why you come dey cry?” Obinna sounded disgusted. “Abi na wetin go solve the matter be that? Mtscheww!!!”
Kerete looked up into the hardened eyes of Obinna.
“Bring your ear come here make I tell you wetin you go do,” he said, pulling Kerete by the elbow.
Kerete stirred the soup in the pot. It was almost ready. He suddenly remembered the clothes he had hung outside to dry. He had to bring them inside now or Madam would complain that the sun had bleached her clothes and give him slaps that sent stars out of his eyes.
As he unpegged the clothes, he wondered again if he could go through with Obinna’s plan. It did seem like the only way out but that didn’t make it right. Unbidden, his mother’s words floated into his head.
“Kerete, make you no follow put hand for inside bad thing.”
He sighed. What choice did he have now? Her life was on the line. If only he had enough money like his madam. He wouldn’t have to indulge in such . . .
“Kerete!” His madam’s high-pitched voice interrupted his thoughts.
What had he done now? he wondered.
“Kerete!” The pitch was higher.
It was coming from the kitchen.
Oh no, the soup! Kerete’s heart began to beat two times faster.
Arms covered with clean laundry, he made a mad dash inside the house where he met his madam blowing out the fire. The kitchen smelled of something burnt.
“This is how you cook Afang in your village, ehn?” she said, advancing towards him.
He took two steps back to her one but she was faster. The ladle he used for turning eba occasionally landed on his shaven head. The pile of clothes fell from his hand as the impact of the blow almost made him lose balance. Two power-packed blows fell in quick succession on his cheek and shoulder.
“Bush animal!” the madam cursed. “Look at my clothes on the floor!” She made for him again but he dodged the blow and ran fast out of the kitchen and out of the house.
He ran into an uncompleted building not very far from the house. He leaned against a pile of blocks and then burst into tears. He curled up into a ball and soon fell asleep.
It was almost evening when he woke up. The sun was setting. He stood up and made to go home. But where was home? He stopped in his tracks. Only God knows what is waiting for me in that house, he thought to himself. He imagined his madam all puffed and red, her eyes blazing fire, a long broom in her hand that was meant for his head . . .
No, he shook his head. He wasn’t going back to that witch. He remembered Obinna’s idea.
“We go rob am. Then you go run back go village. Nobody go fit catch you for there.”
Yes, he would go through with this plan.
Quickening his steps, he walked out of the uncompleted building. He met Obinna washing plates in the kitchen. The latter signalled to him to wait in a dark corner of the house. Some minutes later, Obinna joined him.
“Wetin happen? You don change your mind?”
Obinna gave a sly smile and then pulled out a polythene bag that had suddenly materialised from nowhere. He dipped his hand in it and pulled out two black masks and knives. He handed a mask and a knife to Kerete.
“You sure say your master no dey house?”
Kerete nodded in the affirmative.
“You know where she been keep the money? Na just twenty minutes na im we get. No dulling.”
The boys stole away from the house, slithering across the streets, making certain that they walked in the shadows cast by buildings.
The kitchen door was open which made access very easy. They pulled the masks over their faces and held out their knives.
The light in the sitting room was on. The madam was seated on a sofa, counting piles and piles of money. Kerete’s eyes nearly popped out of the mask when he saw the naira bills.
“On ya knees!” Obinna shouted, rushing at her.
The madam’s head jerked up in surprise. Her eyes widened when she saw the two black faces standing in front of her. She quickly dropped to her knees and covered her head with her fat arms. “Please o, take all the money but don’t kill me,”
Kerete smiled to himself. Whoever thought that his madam could be s vulnerable?
He pulled out the polythene bag and began to pack the money.
“Is dia still mo’ in ya compboard?” Obinna asked the madam.
“Yes o. It’s in my room. Take it all but don’t kill me. Please o.”
Obinna signalled for Kerete to go into the room while he kept a watchful eye on her.
Kerete couldn’t believe his luck when he pulled out the drawer. Piles and piles of naira notes were stacked in it. All the money his mother needed for her surgery and more. With all these, he could buy a taxi and start a cab business once he returned to his home state.
A loud cry from the sitting room startled him. He quickly grabbed the polythene bag and rushed out of the room.
A gory sight awaited him. Madam was sprawled out on the floor, open mouthed, a pool of blood spreading under her head. Obinna’s knife was sticking out from her neck!
“Obinna!” Kerete cried. “Wetin you do?”
“She been wan call police,” Obinna replied in a shaky voice.
Kerete bent and held his madam. She was dead. He was doomed. How would he get out of this mess?
His mother’s words floated above his head. “Kerete, make you no follow put hand for inside bad thing.”
As if on cue, a loud siren wailed. Kerete looked up at Obinna. Obinna looked down at him. Fear was in their eyes . . .
Kerete suddenly jerked up. He was drenched in sweat and his heart was beating as of it would fly out. He looked about him. He was no longer in his madam’s house. Obinna was not here. It occurred to him that he had been dreaming all this while.
But what a dream!
Right there, he made up his mind to terminate the friendship between him and Obinna. He swallowed hard. He would have to find another way of getting money for his mother, one that didn’t involve robbery.
He stood up, dusted his shorts and walked out of the uncompleted building.