HOW FORTUNE SMILED ON FORTUNATUS by Samuel Oluwatosin Kolawole
Fortunatus Osifo-Whiskey was seized by the police while playing checkers, and clamped into detention with no money in his pocket. He was hooked by the hem of his trousers and whisked away so fast he wasn’t allowed to put on the pair of flip-flops he had slipped off before the game started. For him, removing his slippers, made of strips of an abandoned Michelin tire, had a way of making his blood warm to the game. It gave him a sense of seriousness and determination.
Fortunatus played draughts all day. He played draughts every day. People placed bets on him. Champions from other districts came to challenge him. As a matter of fact that was the only thing he succeeded at. But then he had tried his hands on so many things to make something good for himself. He cherished deceptive hopes. He nursed lofty dreams and newfangled ideas. Sometimes he would take long walks, thinking deep, born aloft by wild fantasies. He would make plans of grandiose proportions that never materialized. Fortunatus could never bring himself to follow anything through. His hypertensive father had long left him to his own devises and his mother was not alive to bewail his situation.
He tried in vain to pass his school certificate exams and so could not proceed to any higher institution. Whenever he failed he blamed the educational system.
“They messed up my grades those bastards! They destroy our education and then send their kids to expensive schools abroad” he would say to his friends who also idled about.
He resorted to cheating. He would scribble answers on little sheets of paper and tuck them in his faded tennis yet he flunked all of his papers. He even paid a supposed university student to write his exams for him but the fellow vanished.
Then he tried foreign education. He wrote letters to American universities and received sleek brochures from the post office mailed at no cost. With those brochures he bragged, flaunting them as he carried them about.
“I am going to Berkley University” he announced to his friends once
“Berk- what?” one said.
“Ber-keee-leee University, one of the best in America, see, they sent me this” he gushed and brought out a brochure, rolled and tucked into his back pocket. His friends gathered around, their eyes shining with astonishment. They gawked as Fortunatus flipped through the glossy pages, showing American students, smiling and holding their folders close to their chests on their way to their lecture halls or sitting with legs crossed on stone benches, pictures of lecture rooms with semicircular tiers, young ladies playing handball on a well manicured turf. Like little children they drooled over the pictures, not bothering to read the contents. One or two of them would regard Fortunatus with envious eyes as though possessing a brochure automatically translated into a place in the university.
“So have you been given admission?” someone asked.
“How will you get the visa to travel?” another asked.
“Who will pay your school fees?”asked yet another.
It was obvious his friends were hoping to puncture his inflated self image with the tool of doubt.
“I was given a scholarship and I will be going abroad in September. Once they send my letter, getting a visa will be easy.” He boasted. They then began discussing volubly about America and the wonders therein. September came and he was still around. He blamed his inability to travel on some white lady at the embassy who didn’t like his face. Somehow his friends believed his story.
He tried boxing. He said he was going to be the world’s heavyweight champion of boxing.
“Very soon I will be greater than Mohamed Ali” he would say. So every morning he jogged for several minutes, throwing hooks, and jabs at an invisible opponent, his head bobbing, his eyelids fluttering as he winced with each punch thrown. He practiced the Mohamed Ali “dance”, the great boxer’s body movement with the brisk footwork that confounded his opponent on in the ring.
He carried an iron bar with bricks hanging on both sides to build his muscles and punched the unplastered walls of his neighbor’s house till his knuckles turned red and water trickled out of his eyes in pain. He practiced with young truant kids so he could make himself feel special, important. He conquered them and felt good about it. The kids adored him. He was a one eyed man ruling in the land of the blind. One day, a mock fight turned sour and the lad involved went home to bring his mother, his face swollen, blood coursing out of his ear.
“Do you want to kill my son? Are you not ashamed? So you can’t you find your mate to fight with, someone of your size that you can throw punches at?” the angry mother shouted, her wrapper coming undone. She cursed him endlessly in her mother tongue as she scratched furiously at his face.
After that drama, Fortunatus decided to commit his skills to a loftier purpose by fighting a real opponent. He reckoned that would mark the beginning of his journey to greatness.
“I’ll work my way up. I am going to become the heavy weight shampion! Who wants to challenge me? He who faces my fist faces death-one blow from me kills you seven times –one blow seven die” He bragged.
Someone told him about a place near the spare parts market where boxers fought with bare knuckles and people placed bets. When he got there, a bout was already underway. The bare-chested boxers circled each other amidst the chants of the crowd. One was throwing rapid punches into the air and spitting, his head slipping from side to side. The other thrust his clenched fist back and forth, his arms shaped like a sickle. He had the uneven athletic build sculptured by manual labor, the kind that emphasized the torso and seemed to shrink the waist.
The next moment, they closed in on each other and fought savagely with naked fists. The fight was fast and bloody. Their bodies moved as though without premeditation like a wind-up toy. A flurry of blows later and it was over. One was stretched out on the floor, lying supine, his face twisted in an odd way as though some part of his brain had been injured. The other, the victorious one, was staunching his bleeding nose. The crowd roared with excitement as he was hoisted in the air upon the shoulders of two.
Right there, in the midst of the raving crowd, his dreams to become the heavy weight champion of boxing melted into thin air. He gave his situation serious thought and discovered that he loved his life, troubled as it was. Being a rational human being with ambitions and hopes for the future, he reckoned that getting a damaged brain was too great a price to pay for greatness in the ring. As a matter of fact there would be no greatness if he got a damaged brain.
So he moved on to the next ambition and the next. He tried politics; he even wanted to become a televangelist. Fortunatus made pronouncements, promises and commitments based on the imagined outcome of his dreams.
“I will buy you whatever you want when I become famous and wealthy like Mohammed Ali” he once said to a teenage girl who hawked oranges. She could not look into his eyes. She bit her nails timidly and dug her toes into one of the sandy pothole of the asphalt road. Her goods lay beside her, on the ground; oranges nicely peeled in a ring-like pattern and arranged in a dented metal tray.
“Do you want a Mercedes Benz? I will buy a Mercedes Benz for you, a brand new one with the seats still covered in nylon?” he added. This time the girl looked up and rolled her eyes. She gave a nervous smile, and twirled her lips. He then made a playful marriage proposal which made her giggle. The gullible girl fell for it and in the end he impregnated her. He knew fatherhood was beyond him so Fortunatus thrust the burden of raising his son to Mrs Preye, his aunt who had not had a child in thirteen years. Not that she minded, his aunt was a catholic who easily saw the illegitimate baby as a gift from heaven, and cared for the child as her own. Mrs Preye was the only member of his family who still cared about him.
Fortunatus was dragged into an airless Black Maria like a calf to the slaughter. His opponent, those who watched and placed bets and bystanders had been smarter. They had taken off the moment they spotted the vehicle pull over and now he was the scapegoat.
“Officer what is my offense!” he screamed as a grim faced policeman dragged him.
“Mr Man shut up! When you get to the station you will explain yourself” said the policeman and with a quick motion of his arms heaved the struggling Fortunatus into the black container of the vehicle crammed with people, the door clanking shut behind him. His legs folded, bare feet placed on the cold metal floor of the vehicle and knee dragged to his chin, he peered around in the dark. The other suspects were quiet except for someone whose age he put to be about sixteen whimpering in a corner. Their looks expressed varying emotions from bewilderment to anger but no one said a word. The vehicle drove at top speed, creaking with every bump. After what seemed like an eternity they reached the police station. Three bolts were snapped back and they all came down. Police men with rifles hanging from their shoulders surrounded them, gesturing for them to move into the station.
“Line up and hands up! Quick! Quick! Straight line! March like a soldier, one two, one two” a voice boomed. It was the DPO, who was standing by the entrance waving his baton. He had been waiting to receive them. At times like this the DPO preferred to handle the booking himself to be sure that there were no discrepancies. He was a plump individual with a bald head, an egg-shaped face, wide-lips, and on whose thick neck hung a glittering necklace. An oversize trouser lay beneath his mountainous stomach held by a lustrous belt
He hitched up his trousers, shambled into the reception room and edged behind the counter, adjusting his belly with his two hands. Behind him hung an old calendar, the framed picture of the president and state governor. Also on the wall was message written on a tarnished paper.
THE POLICE IS YOUR FRIEND; HELP THE POLICE TO HELP YOU.
The suspects marched into the station; a bungalow with peeling paint with their hands raised, crowding the reception. From a dim passage leading to the cells behind the counter, the stench of urine combined with the smell of insecticide hung in the air. A spectral cough floated in from one of the cells.
The reality of their situation dawned upon them almost at once when they entered the station and saw their proximity to their fate. Their tongues loosened and a profuse murmur of supplications went up suddenly from their throats. The teenage boy broke into fresh tears, calling out for his mummy. Someone asked about the crime he committed to deserve such a harsh treatment. Another begged the DPO to consider his age, the greyness of his hairs. Yet another insisted that he was not a thief but a poor trader trying to survive.
“Will you shut up?” The DPO barked as though addressing one person, his cheeks quivering. The room became a little quiet.
“Oya eferybody off your shirt! Off your watch, your belt, your shoes, stockings! Eferything! Remove eferything in your pocket. Leave your underwear; I am not a woman so I am not interested in seeing your carrot! Oya, now quick! Quick! Do it!” he bellowed, his stomach quivering behind the counter. Again a clamour arose; now about three of them were shedding tears. The teenage boy began to wail but the cry was pinched off short as one of the officers approached him and struck him across the face. He placed a finger on his lips; a gesture that the boy should keep quiet. The boy sealed his lips, trembling. Mucus tumbled out of the poor lad’s nose.
A sick looking man went behind the counter and, attempted to squeeze a note into the police officer’s pocket without notice. The money fell on the floor and he scrambled to pick it up.
“Oh you think say you fit bribe me? Do I resemble a poor man? Did I begging you for money?” he said to the man, his eyes running over him from head to toe.
“No sir, yes sir, sorry sir, no sir!” Whined the poor man subserviently.
“Ok so if I do not look like a poor man why do you want to give me this wretched money?”
The man had no answer. He stuttered but nothing came out. The DPO fell silent. He brought a pudgy finger to his jowls to scratch it, absorbed in some inscrutable contemplation.
“With 5000 naira you can deliver yourself from this mess.” He concluded.
“Officer Tanko!” He barked.
“Shun sir!” Tanko stepped forward, clicked his heels together, stood at attention and brought a hand to his forehead in salute.
“March those who no fit pay into the cell” he said.
The suspects began digging into their pockets to bring out cash. A new line was formed at the other end of the counter manned by one of the gun-toting officers to collect money. One by one they presented their cash as each individual negotiated his own release. Those who had 5000 were released first, followed by those who had 3000 then 2000. Some had only a 1000 naira, but with a lot of pleading they were released. In the end, only Fortunatus, the sick looking man and the teenage boy were left. They were ordered to strip to their underpants. One of the constables shoved all their belongings in a bag and tossed it in the corner of the office.
They tried to shut out the intensifying stench of urine, excrement and insecticide from their noses as they were shoved and kicked through the damp, dim lit passage to the cell. The smell permeated the whole place. When they got to the end of the corridor, the officers opened the cell door with its rust-coloured bars. Keys jangled, rusty hinges squealed. They pushed them into a ten by twelve feet cell and a starved army of mosquitoes. The cell was empty except for a metal slop bucket overflowing with decomposing faeces with flies buzzing around in the corner of the room. The teenage boy promptly threw up, while the sick looking man swatted as the mosquitoes charged at him. Not long after he fainted and was dragged out of the cell. Fortunatus never laid eyes on him again.
An hour passed and Fortunatus sat on the cold hard, floor, resting his back on the wall. His feet felt something moist, and slimy. Fortunatus slapped a palm on his neck and brought it back stained with his own blood. He cursed.
The tears finally came. He had been a strong man in his own eyes. He had weathered the storms of his life but now he was getting to his breaking point. Fortunatus shut his eyes. He dropped his head. Moments from his wasted past crowded his mind. He remembered his son and his aunt. He thought about his poor father, and hoped he never found out about his present predicament. He thought about the pain he had caused his family, and wondered how he had made such a mess of things. Everything had happened so quickly but here time passed slowly. He wished for the present to end. He had never really examined his life until now. Now he felt contrition.
They came for the boy. His mother came for him. The traumatized boy left quietly, unable to speak, drenched in his own tears, his body stiff with cold. Seconds later Fortunatus heard the distant voice of the boy’s mother as she burst into tears. Night came with the shrilling sound of crickets. The cell turned silent except for the drone of those infernal mosquitoes.
The next morning a key turned in the lock and Fortunatus scrambled to his feet. He was led to the DPO’s office where he was crouched behind a desk that seemed to have been constructed to fit his bulky size. The gigantic table filled the room so much so that it was difficult to notice anything else. There was really nothing else in the room. His table was bare except for a transistor radio and a baton. His uniform, cap and his shinny belt that looked like a hangman’s noose hung on the wall. He was scratching his pen busily on a sheet of paper.
“Shun sir!” the constable who brought Fortunatus saluted, jaw rigid, chest out.
“Yes, how may I help you?” he stopped writing and looked up. Fortunatus thought this was a rather asinine question since the DPO summoned him in the first place.
“One of the criminals we arrested yesterday sir” the constable replied. Fortunatus was furious “Criminal? What is my crime? What is going on here?” He thought.
“I am not a criminal sir! Your boys picked me on the road” said Fortunatus in frustration. Hunger gnawed at his stomach. The constable raised a hand and sent it flying across his face. It was swift and stinging. Forunatus’eyes turned red and watery.
“You think you can use strong head here? If you say you will not cooperate with us, we too we will not cooperate with you. Heaven helps those who help themselves. If you refuse to help yourself, we will finish you, period!” the DPO said. Fortunatus did not know what to say.
“Officer take him back to the cell and lock him up where he belongs!” he directed.
Fortunatus was taken back to the cell trying to analyze the implication of the DPO’s words. He tried to keep calm. He tried to take his mind off his troubles. Several moments later, they pushed him out again. This time his aunt, Mr. Preye was waiting for him at the counter.
Their journey back home was quiet. Aunty Preye said everything that was needed to be said with her silence, the look on her face and her occasional sighs.
“Find something useful to do with your life” she said just before dropping him off and handed him some bank notes.
After several days of pondering Fortunatus Osifo-Whiskey was back to playing draughts with what was left of the money Aunty Preye gave him.
Draughts was the only thing he succeeded at.
Soon he was able to buy his own board and build a shed where people played for money. He also collected a percentage of every bet placed. More and more people trooped in as the months advanced. Soon the place became constantly clogged up, always filled with pool aficionados.
Fortunatus began allowing a woman selling liquor into the shed. Under the influence of alcohol, the customers did things they spent the rest of the month, and some their lifetime regretting. He hired a wide-chested man to keep the peace in the casino.
Soon Fortunatus Osifo-Whiskey never had to worry about police raids. He always had money in his pocket. He had made something for himself
[The author retains copyright to this story. Please do not reproduce without permission]