“You interested or just looking?” said the lissome-framed woman with attractive angular features and a name-tag affixed to her breast pocket that identified her as Valerie, the minder of the art gallery.
“Interested,” rumbled the deep baritone of the man she’d just walked up to.
The timbre of his voice startled the woman mildly. The man bore none of the physical attributes that she associated with a pitch that sonorous; he was neither tall nor broad-shouldered. But he was handsome, and in the simple dark suit and tie he was clad in, he projected a sophistication and polish that rivaled the ostentatious display from the other wealthy art revelers in the room.
He had his profile to her, his attention riveted on the canvas positioned against the wall before him. Valerie turned to the painting. There as sand, vast acres of it, depicted in gradations of black and white, holding locked in place at the bottom a broken plumbing pipe. Valerie had thought this was one of the sad ones, when the painting had come in as part of the exhibition. The sad ones very rarely got sold. The Nigerian art market was not as deep and as introspective as its counterparts overseas.
But clearly, here was a man who had felt beckoned by this piece of painting.
Firming her purpose as a saleswoman, she began in a conversational tone, “You know, when people ask me why we charge so much at these exhibitions, some of them want to make it seem like the charge is about ensuring the exclusivity of the event.” She paused and then added tongue-in-cheek, “Which is true.”
Her quick gaze at the man’s profile caught the wry smile that stretched his mouth at her wit.
“Some other people,” she continued, “want to make it about the art. Like the bigger the artist, or the greater the skill, or the more vivid the art, then the higher the cost. I tell them no, it’s not about those. All that matters is” – again she turned to that handsome profile – “how does it make you feel?”
This time, he turned to face her, and she was hit by the full force of the intensity in his eyes. His voice rumbled, “It makes me feel an incredible amount of sadness.”
For a few seconds, as she stood staring at what seemed like twin pools of churning tides, the usually glib Valerie was at a loss for words.
Then the storms moved away from her and returned to the painting, before he added, “It makes me remember.”
Valerie found her voice then. “Oh, so a man with a story then…” She finished with a little laugh. She was suddenly intrigued by this man.
His wry smile returned. “Everyone has a story.”
“Daddy! I want my own gun!” the little boy wails.
The wiry man hunched over an easel looks up from a particularly tricky swirl he’d been about to execute with his pencil around Mrs. Oyebanjo’s eyelashes. “Junior –” he begins wearily.
“Daddy, please! Dapo has a gun now! His mummy bought it for him for Christmas!”
“Junior, I told you, we can’t afford such toys for Christmas –”
“But, daddy, please…!” the nine-year-old stretches the word with a widening of his mouth, revealing his incomplete dentition. “Dapo say let us play police and thief –”
“Use your fingers and do gun for police and thief na,” his father says with an indulgent chuckle.
“I can’t!” Junior protests, recoiling in horror. “Dapo will laugh at me. Please now, daddy, please, please!”
His father sighs. He glances around the sparsely-furnished one-room apartment he shares with his son. Times have been hard fiscally for him ever since he lost his job at The Graffiti, the art and photo studio where he used to work five months ago. He is currently striving to get another job, while making ends meet by shamelessly poaching The Graffiti’s clients. Soon, his former employer will find out, and then, there’d probably be police coming to convey the manager’s wishes to him. Until then, he doesn’t care. He plans to do whatever he must to ensure that his son grows well.
Some sacrifices had had to be made though, some compromises brought about. He can’t give Junior a gun, but he won’t send him back out there to be laughed at for having nothing to play with.
As he scrambles mentally for a solution, his eyes fall on a small pile of rubbish that had been left in a corner by the door adjoining the room to the kitchenette. The plumber had been in earlier; the man had been so peeved that he didn’t pay him his entire fee upfront that, in a show of bad temper, he hadn’t bothered to clear out the debris from his work.
The father gets up and lumbers to the pile. He bends to sift through the rubbish with his fingers, lifting out a small piece of plumbing the artisan must have displaced from the kitchen sink. The pipe is lead coloured and T-shaped, with a film of dust all over it. He blows at the dust and wipes the pipe against his shorts.
Aware that his son is watching him avidly, he moves to rummage through some knickknackery on the singular table in the room. He finds a cellotape, and is soon peeling rolls of the tape off to mask one end of the T’s branches. His gingers move deftly as he folds up a small piece of paper repeatedly until he has a thin slat, which he folds into an L, before taping it in place against the underside of one of the pipe’s joints.
“Daddy, what is that?” Junior asks.
“It’s the thing that covers where the trigger stays.”
“What is a trigger?”
“Something that this gun won’t have,” his father says with a chuckle.
Junior gasps, his eyes widening. “That is a gun?”
His father brandishes his workmanship. “Of course. Your father made you your own machine gun, while Dapo’s mother, I’m sure, bought him a mere pistol. Who is cooler in the two of us?”
“You are, daddy!” the little boy squeals before launching himself into his father’s arms for a quick hug. Then he snatches the makeshift firearm from him and is already making the hissing sound of gunfire as he patters out of the room.
His father moves to the lone window and draws aside the threadbare curtain to peek outside. He spots his son engaging with the sturdy, dark boy who lives upstairs with his parents; the two children are waving their toys at each other, hissing and screaming hysterically as they dart about the small compound.
“Junior, be careful!” he hollers from the window. “Don’t go out to the main road o!”
His son doesn’t acknowledge him, but he feels no ire at that. He stares lingeringly at the boys, before returning to his easel.
Ten minutes later, his pencil drops from his suddenly-nerveless fingers.
A child had screamed.
“Junior…” he croaks.
There follows another scream and another, cries of sheer terror crashing through the afternoon with startling clarity.
“Junior…” He makes to get up, trips over his stool and crashes backward to the ground. A microsecond later, he is back up and sprinting out of the room.
“Daddy, help! Daddy – no, no!”
“Junior, I’m coming!” His cry is wretched as he speeds down the gloomy hallway flanked by the rooms in the ground floor of the building. A few doors are opening and neighbours stepping out as he makes a mad dash for the outside.
The first thing he sees is his son’s toy. The pipe lies discarded on the ground a few metres away from the plastic firearm he’d seen Dapo wielding.
“Daddy! Help, please!”
His head jerks up to see his son struggling frantically to break free from the embrace of a man clad in black and masked with a balaclava, who is trying to shove him into a grey Mercedes. Dapo’s face has just disappeared into the car, and the driver is revving the engine.
“NO!” The father screams the one word with an emotion that conveys starkly the definition of his entire existence. “NO! Not my son! Please! Bring back my son!”
He rushes toward the car. Junior is pushed out of his sight into the car, and his kidnapper folds himself in as well and slams the door.
“NO! Bring back my son! You devils! Bring back my son!”
The car jumps forward. He sprints after it, still shrieking. The windows are tinted, so he can see nothing else of his son. The car swerves around a corner, corkscrewing plumes of dust into the air. He keeps running after it, running and screaming for the life they are taking from him.
“Oh my God…” Valerie whispers in shock. Her hand had flown to her mouth and her wide eyes stared at the man before her in mounting comprehension. “Wait, so you mean you are –”
“Junior…” The word was said with a rasp, but with enough volume to draw the attention of the two.
Valerie whirled around, and her eyes snapped with recognition when they settled on the thin, frail-looking man whose hair had turned pepper-and-salt even though he was just fifty.
“Uh, excuse me, Mr. Adindu,” she began crisply, “but you know the artists are not –”
“Junior…” the elderly man rasped again, his focus not at all on her.
Valerie did a double take and turned slowly to her companion. The man stood there, handsome as ever, the storms raging faster in his eyes. “Daddy…” he choked out.
“Oh Junior, my boy!” the man – who until then Valerie had just known as Mr. Adindu, the eccentric artist who turned up paintings that were masterpieces for the gallery’s high-priced exhibitions and who kept largely to himself – opened his arms and shuffled forward.
“Daddy…” The other man moved with swifter strides to him and pulled him into a gentle hug.
Both men buried their heads in each other’s shoulders and held fast.
Feeling the pin-pricks of tears, Valerie looked from the poignant reunion to the painting of the plumbing pipe sandwiched between acres of sand – the twenty-year-old memory a father had of his son.
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