The book peddler saw the elderly gentleman. Bespectacled and grey-Afro-haired, he stood on the other side of the vehicle-heavy road, gazing intently across at the peddler’s portable bookstand. In his ash-grey threadbare jacket and un-ironed clay-coloured trousers, the gentleman was the comic stereotype of an eccentric half-sophisticated egghead.
He likes books – I’m sure he likes books, the peddler thought. His intestine grunted. He crooked his index finger and drew it over his baked forehead to wipe off the sweat. It was midday, nearly a day since he had had a meal. If he didn’t sell a book soon, he might not have one today. He lifted his bookstand unto his shoulder and weaved his way through the near-still traffic to the other side of the road where Egghead stood.
“Yes, sah. I have them.” And he immediately flashed in Egghead’s face the only two books passersby had stopped to look at and touch, but seldom buy, in the last several months. Adichie’s ‘Americanah’. Achebe’s ‘There Was a Country’.
Egghead looked past the two books held to his nose and lifted his brow delicately. “Fah-seen-ating!” he said. “You have Max Siollun’s book. Fah-seen-ating!”
“Oh…yes,” the bookseller said as he put the unacknowledged books back on the stand, and for a flustered moment wondered who the hell Max Siollun was. The older gentleman mercifully came to his aid and pointed at where Siollun’s book rested on the stand.
“Breel-yant!” Egghead breathed as he held the book and promptly began to turn its pages. Then he flipped to the back cover and read a few words, his lips moving, making mumbling sounds. “Fah-seen-ating! Breel-yant!” he said again. “Have you read this book?” he asked the peddler.
“Ah, no sah!”
“And why not? I have been looking for this book. And it’s been on your stand – and you haven’t read it?”
“My own is just to sell the books, sah.” The peddler grinned. His intestine growled. The grin turned into a snarl.
“You should read, too, young man. There’s nothing as empowering as knowledge. If Charles Dickens hadn’t been a reader, he would have died a poor shoemaker. Do you know who Charles Dickens was?”
“Yes sah… no sah!”
The gentleman turned the book over in his hands a few more time and then slowly began to return it to the peddler.
The peddler’s face sagged, and this time his intestine’s growling was almost heard above the busy roadside din. “Ah, oga…sah… you’re not buying?”
“Well…” Egghead seemed to hesitate. Nervously, he pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. “How much is it?”
“Er…five thousand naira, sah.”
“No.” There was finality in the way he said no. He wasn’t even going to bargain.
But the peddler tried again. He was hungry. “How much do you want to pay?”
The older man scratched the sleeve of his jacket, cleared his throat and said, “Will you take five hundred naira?”
“Heeh, oga! Five hundred?”
Egghead stood there and stared at him steely. His eyes blinked behind his spectacles but he didn’t say a word more.
“Bring four-five,” the peddler said.
The peddler’s face looked like it was going to dissolve in tears. Crestfallen, he began to pull away from Egghead, the bookstand resting on a limp shoulder. The tugging in his bowel made him come back. “Sah, I have other fine books oh. Look. ‘Art of War’…’48 Laws of Power’… ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’….”
Egghead ran desultory eyes down and across the bookstand. He scratched his sleeve again and said, “You don’t have Norman Vincent Peale’s book….”
“‘The Power of Positive Thinking’?”
Egghead leaned back, slightly surprised. “Well, yes. But you don’t have it.”
“It’s in my friend’s shop. I can get it for you, sah.”
The peddler set his bookstand down by the road, at Egghead’s feet, and sprinted antelope-like through the heavy traffic, and then along the other side of the road towards a knot of shops. He looked like a polythene bag flicked along by the wind. Egghead wondered if he was sick.
He returned with the Norman Vincent Peale, struggling to rein in his fleeting breath, perspiration running down the sides of his face and dripping from his chin. He held out the book.
“Look at it, sah.”
The gentleman took the book somewhat unenthusiastically. This time he didn’t say, ‘Fah-seen-ating!…Breel-yant!’ He felt the texture of the paper, and his face crumpled. “This is a pirated copy. The quality of the paper is poor. Look at the small, faint print.”
“Hah! Which one is pirated again? We don’t sell pirated books here, sah.” The peddler’s frustration was building.
“Don’t tell me what I know, my friend. I had this book in the seventies…when I was at LSE. I know what a pirated copy looks like.”
When he began to extend his hand to return the book to the peddler, the long-suffering hustler broke into pleas. “Heh, oga…help me na. Buy a book. I never sell anything since morning.”
Egghead shook his head slowly.
“Four hundred naira, only,” the book seller offered.
Egghead considered. “I’ll give you one-fifty,” he said.
“To tell you the truth, sah, the price is six hundred naira. I said four hundred because I just want to give it to you.”
Egghead licked something off his front teeth, his face the image of apathy. He shook his head again.
“Will you bring three-fifty?”
The peddler heaved a sigh. He bent down and began to put things in order on his bookstand, preparatory to leaving Egghead alone and crossing back to his spot on the other side of the road. His intestine growled again. More terribly than before. He almost winced.
“Bring the one-fifty,” he said slowly, softly, straightening up once more.
The exchange was quick. The two naira notes – one fifty, one hundred – in his palm, the hustler said, “God bless you, sah,” half-hoping that his godliness would draw more naira notes from the older man. Egghead ignored him, engrossed as he was in frowning at the tiny print of his newly acquired possession.
The peddler gathered his goods and crossed the road. His growling bowel hurried his feet towards Mama Bayelsa’s Kitchen. He was not going to bed hungry tonight. Almost, he smiled at the thought. Almost.
Written by Nonso Uche Nnajide, tweets @Nawski