Midlife crisis struck him early. At just thirty, his life was falling apart. He usually felt this way after socialising with his former classmates. Today was no different, especially after that wedding. When the speeches started, echoing the success of the couple, the pit in his stomach felt deeper. He needed to get out of there. He needed fresher air to breathe. He needed isolation to think. He needed to walk down memory lane in search of that defining point, when everything unraveled.
He hadn’t meant to do it literally but he found himself on the same street they used to play on after school because he had to wait for his mum to finish work and they always got free sandwiches from her café. He saw where he was bullied into taking his first fist fight because of a broken toy. The hedge had been replaced with a wall but still embodied the sense of an ‘all-seeing-eye’ he had felt back then. He saw where he first asked out a girl he liked… and subsequently got rejected. The hurt felt like yesterday though it was coming to more than 15 years now.
It was the street of his childhood. He knew it better than anyone else.
Late night strolls have never been advisable. There was no reason she took this walk especially with her subconscious telling her to stay home. To stay safe. But she had to go. She had to prove to herself that she wasn’t being held back by the trauma. So she went down the same road like last time except this time armed with pepper spray, a pocket knife and a bat. She wasn’t going to be anyone’s victim.
She turned the corner and saw the place where the gang had been sitting, smoking amongst themselves and laughing at their lewd jokes. She passed the spot where they had called at her and when she refused to answer, went into grim detail with what they would do to her when they got her. This is where she broke off into a run because they all got up to chase after her. And just like that night, she broke off into a run. Even though there was no one chasing her now.
It was the street of her nightmares. She knew it better than was necessary.
She ran straight into the man she found standing by the pavement with no purpose, probably like that gang. Blinded by fear she had forgotten to hold her bat firmly. He barely flinched when she rounded up on him, engrossed in something clearly only he could see. She followed his line of vision and saw it too. Or she hoped they were looking at the same thing.
The light lit around the wall like it was a door. She couldn’t remember it ever being there before.
‘This has never been here before,’ he voiced her thought, a little awestruck. He said it with the authority of someone who must consider themselves an expert on the matter. She wanted to agree with him but she was well out of the habit of talking to strangers.
‘Do you want to go and see what it’s about?’ he asked with his eyes still transfixed on the sight. And without waiting for her response he crossed the road to find out about the light beyond the wall.
He didn’t want to pressure her because there was something about her posture that was extremely guarded and of course there was that bat hanging loosely in her hands. But he really would appreciate the company to tackle whatever was beyond those walls.
She couldn’t name what propelled her to join him on the other side just before he pushed open the wall/door but there she was. Just in time for him to open and reveal a dark staircase. The light must have been from the wooden torches on both sides of the entrance.
She watched him walk in first and followed after, tightening her grip on the bat and itching to pull out the knife. But the man walked with a confidence, a reckless abandon that had her thinking perhaps she was safe.
He turned on the torch on his phone.
‘What do you think we’ll find?’ he asked. When she didn’t respond, he wondered if she were deaf or mute. But he continued to fill in the silence. Nothing to chase away fear like calm rational words. ‘We could find treasure. I could use some treasure in my life about now. Maybe a royal burial ground and we could go down in the books as explorers for something. Or this could lead to an old abandoned house and we could revive it. Or it could be a superhero’s secret lair and we could become sidekicks. So many possibilities here.’
Because of his talking, they almost missed the cigarette butt on the ground and the pool of blood not far from it. She tapped him and pointed to the ground. He flashed the light and fear raced across his face. She squatted and touched it, all warm. This was recent. She told him her findings, ‘There’s someone in here with us. We need to be more silent now till we find them. I suggest turning off your torch, holding hands and using this bat as a guiding stick till we have no more reason to suspect anything.’
Bold little thing, wasn’t she? And she clearly wasn’t deaf or mute. How did she know those things and who put her in charge? Was she part of the police? He didn’t realise he had asked that last bit loud till she responded, ‘Am not. But I’m clearly smarter than you.’ And with that she grabbed his phone, switched off the torch and led the way.
The stairs continued to wind downwards. And he might have stumbled once or twice but she was as sure-footed as a donkey. Alone with his thoughts, all he could think about were his failures and why nothing was going his way. Alone with her thoughts, all she could think about was the anger she had and how there was no outlet for it. Made her firmer in her decision not to be the victim, couldn’t let this strange man, mature-now-exceedingly-immature-the-next-minute; see how much this frightened her. Walking in the dark, with the knowledge that there was an unknown person somewhere.
They heard the chants before they saw any light. Both hearts were racing wildly now but neither wanted to break first and suggest returning to where they came from. They continued, both noticing that their hand grips got tighter but neither acknowledging it. Then they heard a smack, the sound of metal slicing through something to meet wood. They yelped.
Frozen where they were, a beam of light drew closer. ‘Who goes there?’ and they were lost as to whether they should answer or run. The voice was soft and concerned though but when the man came into view, he has huge. A big burly man smoking a cigarette with dreadlocks hanging all the way to his back. His eyes were kind but that went out the window when they looked at his machete and bleeding arm.
The huge man must have seen their stares for he answered politely, ‘Oh this was an accident. I’m going to bandage it up. Are you here for the meeting?’
Meeting? Cult meeting? Gang meeting? Rebel meeting? What sort of sensible meeting happens at this time in an undisclosed location that you just happen upon by chance? What answer were they expected to give? If they said no, would he whack them to death? If they said yes, could he tell they were lying and still whack them to death?
She answered for them, ‘Yes we are.’ She thought sitting in the meeting would help add information to their speculations. He resented that she answered and he might have sulked a little. If he had done the answering he wouldn’t have sunk them deeper into this establishment. Maybe it still wasn’t too late to say the truth and get out of here.
‘You seem new here though. They call me Bigzie, I’m the gatekeeper. Here,’ he said as he handed them masks, ‘put these on. While here, your identity is your religion. You protect it till comfortable to share about it. Come on, they have just started.’ And with that Bigzie left.
They put on their full face masks. He was starting to think how exciting it would be to be part of a cult even if it was just for a day. She didn’t give much thought to any of it. This night was turning out differently from how she had envisioned it but she had no complaints.
They took seats at the back of the room. It was dimly lit, with just enough light for everyone to see what was going on. There were no posters on the walls and the floor was carpeted. Everyone had their masks on, all except Bigzie. The room looked like it held about fifty people and when they got in there seemed to be a debate going on.
‘Order, order’ someone with a hammer screamed while repeatedly hitting the hammer on the ground. She thought this was a group of uncouth people. He thought this was a tribe of his people.
A very tall man stood up immediately order was restored. ‘We need to have a demonstration, right by the parliament and all the way to the University. Those politicians have lied to us for so long!!’
Another stood, feminine this time telling from the high-pitched voice. ‘Yes. They keep mistreating us because we are poor. Last election year, which is close to five years back now, they promised to do something about the garbage disposal but the situation keeps getting worse. I can barely see my home from the road. And I have walked along their streets, very clean and proper with garbage trucks going to pick the rubbish. They bring all their rubbish and damp it on us…I second the demonstration.’ Then the person sat down.
Our protagonists gave each other knowing looks; this was definitely Justified Anger against Politicians Anonymous. Perhaps that also explained the masks.
Before they could recover from that, another stood up. A very short man, he had to stand on his chair to see and be seen, ‘And we were promised a better scenery. They said they’d plant flowers and make everything look better. We live like animals because they take the money but are not true to their words. We know there is a climate crisis going on, but they are more interested in lining their pockets with more money. In fact I have it on good grounds that they ordered the deforestation of the forest up north.’ This received boos from the congregation. ‘I say no change, no votes.’
‘Aye,’ he found himself shouting with the rest of the people.
The hammer holder took up the tirade, ‘And when we approached them with the proposals they said they had people to do those jobs. Where are those people because I don’t think they work as hard as we do!! They had the audacity to say they didn’t have enough funds for environmental development. Enough funds?!!’ and the congregation sneered with him, our male lead included, ‘You don’t hear them call for funds when they need to make their international trips in private jets. You don’t hear them call for funds when they demand every meal of theirs should be a festival. For how long will we be pushed to the sidelines?’
A bespectacled man stood up, unkempt hair all over the place and a very shabby outfit. ‘You will not believe the diseases related to poor waste disposal. There has been an increase in diarrhea cases. I know. I work at the hospital. Our children are dying and they are ordering more cars for their own private driving. Whoever is to approach them next, I have the numbers here. Perhaps this will help them wake up.’ This was received with thoughtful nods except for the man and woman at the back. The woman stood up next.
‘Enough with this… we are not victims even if we want to believe we are,’ she felt as though everything she had endured was fueling her to give this speech, ‘just because they have money and means doesn’t exactly leave us helpless. We clearly have the time. Rather than sit here, we could use the nights of this meeting to take to the streets and clean them up ourselves. We clearly have our masks and can get away with it. They don’t live in the dumps, we do. They don’t see the garbage, we do. We can’t sit by doing nothing, eating excuses from ourselves and the leaders, waiting for the powerful to remember us. Power belongs to the people and we have it.’
The loud ‘ayes’ demanded a break in her speech, ‘and their children are certainly not dying from diarrhea and other related diseases. Chances are, their children may very well not be in this country. So we need to take to the streets. The time for talk is over. We should have a vote on the street we need to start on and tackle it head fast. If you want something done, you do it yourself. And the deforestation!!! We can claim back a piece of land for ourselves and plant trees and flowers.’ She saw them nod but doubted how well they would see this project through when he stood up to speak.
‘And I know the perfect place where you can get these trees and flowers for all your environment beautification needs. It’s a shop called “Bloomy Days” right opposite the University. It has all varieties of plants you would desire. And they could also get you the tools you need and fetilizers and pesticides. Truly, I think this could work.’ He finished off pleased with seizing the moment. There was no point in saying that was his shop, identity was sacred here. But things were going to start getting better if all these people came to his shop. Their communication was met with hoots and claps.
Bigzie passed little strips of paper around. ‘Write how you best want to be reached on these papers with an alias and we’ll contact all of you and start our city cleaning project.’ He handed her a strip and said, ‘It’s one of the best ideas I have heard during my time as gatekeeper.’ And then looked at him and said, ‘Do you think it will task the management of Bloomy Days so much if we made orders for all these people here?’ Their smiles that shone through the masks were response enough to his comments.
Our protagonists returned to the wall the very next night. There was a high that came from shouting and reasoning with angry people and they wanted to keep it going.
‘Didn’t think I would see you,’ he said as he tried to push the wall. She still didn’t answer him and she still had her bat. He pushed and pushed but nothing happened.
‘Do you think we imagined yesterday?’ he asked her. She shrugged. They started to walk away in the same direction. ‘Maybe it opens on a particular night in the week? Maybe we should wait and see if Bigzie contacts us?’ What do you think?’
‘I think you are starting to get a little smarter.’
‘Would inviting you to coffee continue my smart streak? I know the perfect place.’