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Sunday, July 21, 2024
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Matches and stalkers A short story By Sally Sadie Singhateh

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry

The sun was still a fiery orb in the sky, lounging on the vibrant orange horizon like a lazy beach ball. The evening was warmer than usual and most people were already indoors with the fan on high or sitting outdoors waving a hand-fan with vigour in front of their faces to fend off both the heat and relentless mosquitoes.

It was almost time to break fast and the streets were filled with a mélange of aromatic smells emanating from bubbling pots of stew; and grilled, roasted, steamed and fried foods; porridges of different types; and desserts such as naan mburu and chakary. Ramadan was an excuse for most Gambians to feast like royalty every night for a month.

Almami was out walking on that Friday evening, but not by choice. He was grudgingly thinking about the number of people about to sit down for Iftar. That had been his plan when he’d walked through his front door over half an hour earlier, exhausted and thirsty from his job as a teacher for the afternoon shift at Matton Senior Secondary School.

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As soon as his knapsack was on the armchair, he’d taken the slab of steak out of the freezer and thawed it in the microwave. He then washed and chopped the onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes; got the salt, black pepper, chilli peppers, bay leaves and oil; and set it all out on the kitchen counter, ready to prepare his supper.

The rest of the evening should have been dedicated to working on his murder mystery story and the following day on grading student assignments. But there were no matches to light the stove, and so we find him heading to the nearest shop, feeling deeply peeved.

He grunted in annoyance and picked up the pace, flip flops flapping up sand as his stomach rumbled pointedly. He only had about four minutes before the shop closed for Iftar.

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Of course, he could have gone to his closest neighbour to borrow some matches, but Assantou Kanteh was on the look-out for potential husband number three and father for her two young children. Heat or no heat, hunger or no hunger, the torturous journey to the shop seemed more appealing to him than the advances of a woman nearly twice his age. Yet, as a sliver of hot sweat seared a line from his nape to his shoulder blade, he wondered briefly.

He heaved a sigh of relief when he sighted the shop and observed that it was still open. Vaguely, he noticed a large man in a loose-fitting shirt and slacks, leaning casually against the wall at the edge of the building and wondered about him as well, but fleetingly. They exchanged nods as Almami walked past him. The last customer, a young frazzled looking woman, was just leaving as he entered the modest shop. It was lined with half a dozen shelves that displayed an amalgamation of items, all tightly packed together, some placed on top of other items where there was not enough room.

There were candies and sweets; beverages, soft drinks and water; milk, eggs and butter; bread; onions, garlic and potatoes; canned foods including sardines, luncheon meat and mixed vegetables; an assortment of household cleaning and cooking products and items; basic spices; toilet and tissue papers; cigarettes, lighters and matches; pens, pencils and exercise books – the list seemed endless. A deep freezer and a sizeable fridge with a transparent door took up the back wall of the shop.

“Assalamu Alaikum,” he greeted the proprietor amiably.

“Wa Alaium Salam, Almami. How’re you doing?” The elderly shopkeeper’s tone was equally friendly.

“Same as always,” he replied noncommittally. “Barry, let me have two boxes of matches. I’ve run clear out?”

Barry reached for the boxes. “Things at your school going well?”

“Very well–” He hesitated a moment before adding, “Except the usual – discipline is becoming more of a problem with each passing generation. But, what can we do?”

“In my day, they did not spare the rod.” Barry handed him the matches in a small tote bag.

“These days, children have rights. Corporal punishment in schools isn’t allowed.”

Barry scoffed. “Rights! I don’t care what you learned people say; some children need the rod to learn certain lessons. Do you want anything else?”

“Yes, a small bottle of water.” He glanced at this wristwatch. “It’s time for Iftar.”

The water was duly brought from the fridge and placed on the counter. Almami put the bag of matches next to the bottle and took out his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers. He counted out some notes and handed them over to the shopkeeper. He opened the bottle, recited the prayer for breaking the day’s fasting, and took a few sips of water. He allowed for a few more seconds before gulping down the rest in one drink. He couldn’t remember feeling this refreshed and gave a silence thanks to Allah for creating water.

Barry put the cash in the till which was noticeably below the level of the counter. “Did you hear about the attack yesterday on the couple down Serign Street?” He voice was conversational as he counted out Almami’s change.

The latter sucked his teeth in exasperation. “Not another one. Was anyone hurt?”

“The wife was stabbed but I hear she’s recovering in hospital. It was a break-in. Evidently, they were followed home by a couple of no-good-doers.”

“What is this world coming to?”  Almami asked rhetorically, taking his change and dropping the coins into his trousers pocket.

“If you ask me, it’s all this violence on the television,” Barry philosophized, crossing his arms on the counter. “The young don’t know their right from their wrong anymore.”

“It’s frightening, to say the least. You can’t go out at night any more without being attacked.”

“Sometimes, even during the day,” offered Barry, nodding knowingly. “Remember that young man who broke into old Landing’s house last year. That was in broad daylight.”

They spent the next few minutes discussing the rise in violence then agreed that they each needed to get to the respective homes to eat – and in Almami’s case, prepare and eat – dinner. Such was the young bachelor’s life.

He grabbed the bag and bottle and was about to take his leave when Barry added, as an after-thought, “By the way, that brand of hot sauce you love is in. I almost forgot. They came in this morning. I’ve not even unpacked them yet.”

A surge of excitement swelled up inside Almami. He was unable to contain his joy. “That’s perfect! I’m having steak for dinner, so it works out really well!” 

Barry chuckled. “How many bottles do you want this time?”

Almami peered into his wallet in dismay. “Just the one – for now. That’s all I can afford.”

Barry shook his head negative. “I’ll tell you what; why don’t I give you your usual three bottles and you can pay for the rest tomorrow?”

“Barry, you’re the goods!”

All previous grievances gone, Almami watched Barry’s departing back, his thoughts once again shifting to food, but this time with delighted anticipation. As far as he was concerned, this sauce was the best complement for any type of steak – grilled, roasted, and fried which was exactly how he was going to cook his. As if in response, his stomach rumbled again, more loudly and for much longer. 

“I hear you loud and clear,” he mumbled under this breath.

Yes…soon, he would appease this stomach with that juicy piece of steak. It will be well-done on the outside and moist and tender on the inside, seasoned with the hot sauce, of course. He wondered if he’d have enough time to let the steak rest properly before his hunger got the better of him. He was practically drooling when Barry returned with the bottles in a much larger tote bag.

With a hasty goodbye and “good Iftar”, Almami departed leaving Barry to lock up shop.

The night had sneaked in while he was in the shop and as Almami turned the corner to his street, the world went dark – the power company was yet again at work. Dull flickers of light began to appear in the curtained windows of houses like blinking eyes in the darkness as people turned on rechargeable lamps and lit candles. In the distance, a generator or two started to hum.

Almami wasn’t particularly fond of the dark, and liked it even less when he was in it and away from home. He picked up his pace. The night grew suddenly quiet and his street was devoid of people. He lived in a quiet street where his neighbours kept pretty much to themselves and were often within the confines of their houses or compounds. His was the last street in the neighbourhood and a cul-de-sac. It was also one of the longest streets on that side of Kerr Serign with over a dozen houses on each side.

He had been walking down his street for less than a minute when he was suddenly aware of approaching footsteps. They still sounded far off – in the adjacent street – but were steadily growing closer. They sounded unusually loud in the silence. To pass the time and distract his mind from uneasy thoughts, he speculated on who they might belong to.

Those footsteps could only belong to a heavily built man wearing some kind of boots; perhaps heavier than Almami’s 75kgs and taller than his 5ft 9in. Those footsteps – heavy on sand. Definitely boots. Who wore boots? Construction workers or some kind of blue collared worker on his way home from work. But, most sensible people where indoors breaking their fast or performing their Magrib Prayer – except, of course, Almami. Who else roamed the night, not counting the Almamis who needed to buy matches?

His grip tightened on the handles of the tote bag. His flip flops gathered sand, making it harder to maintain a steady pace. Although they were still far behind him, the footsteps now seemed almost too loud in his ears, exciting the taste buds of his imagination.

Some random person going home from work?

The footsteps turned into Almami’s street and continued approaching at a much faster but steady pace. He ignored his rumbling stomach as a though vied for his attention. He ignored it also.

One of his neighbours coming home late? Perhaps?

He chanced a quick look over one shoulder. Not one of his neighbours. From the distance, the man appeared as Almami had imagined him: big, broad shoulders with tree trunks for arms and legs. He was the man leaning outside the shop. The man was holding something that Almami couldn’t make out but it looked suspicious to him. Almami looked away hastily, quickening his steps, as the man began to raise the hand with the item.

Visiting guests of his neighbours, perhaps? That happened all the time; but not really during Iftar hour.

He clutched his bag tighter as if seeking courage from the grip handles. The thought he had been trying to ignore resurfaced and he found himself wondering at the type of man that would go into a cul-de-sac he did not live in?

A thief? A burglar? An armed stalker?

A little shiver ran through him, despite the heat. He thought again about the attacks on unsuspecting people in his neighbourhood. The couple was lucky. The street shooting incident last month in New Town was fatal.

His strides grew brisker. In the Mystery of the Broken Laptop – the book he just completed reading – the main character was followed at night by somebody he thought was a stalker who turned out to be a stalker. The man was chopped up into pieces later on in his own house. The similarity to the couple that was attacked the night before was uncanny. His current situation to the mystery novel was creepy.

The footsteps seemed to be matching his pace and catching up. He ventured another look over his shoulder and found the man, now much closer, shaking his fist at him in, what seemed to Almami, a menacing way. Fear gripped him and he could clearly imagine a number of sharp items hidden beneath those loose clothing. He panicked and broke into a run. Vaguely, he could hear the footsteps behind matching his pace. They sounded determined on the warm sand.

He thought about shouting for help, but discarded the idea on the basis that he was not on familiar terms with the neighbours on this end of the street. Frantically, he began tapping the pockets in the back and sides of his trousers searching for his mobile phone just as he remembered that he’d left it at home in his rush to catch Barry.

He concentrated all his efforts on controlling his pounding feet and equally pounding heart as he expected, at any moment, to feel the agony of something sharp and painful piercing into his back. Alarmed, he put a bit more effort into his strides. His t-shirt was drenched at the back, chest and armpits; and sweat poured down his face in ribbons. He was wheezing slightly and every muscle in his legs cried out in pain.

As he sprinted past Aassantou’s house and approached his own, he allowed a smug smile to touch his lips knowing he was about to deprive his stalker of the chance to chop him into pieces, like the main character in the Mystery of the Broken Laptop.

Almami was a few feet away from the gate to his house when he tripped over his flip flops and found himself sprawled face down in the sand.

At that moment, a memory came to mind; he was not sure why that particular memory. He was perhaps eight or nine years old and it was the first time he had ever gone off with friends after school instead of going straight home, which had previously been the usual, expected practice. In his mind, he was retaliating against his parents for something he could no longer remember after all those year. He knew they’d be worried, but that had been his intension.

He’d had an amazing time with his friends at the park. They’d all gone to Dembo’s house afterwards and were fed lunch by his home-making mother. It was probably four to five hours later that he got back home, expecting his parents to be sorry. What he got instead from his terrified mother was a good walloping and from his angry father, a good tongue-lashing. It had been a good lesson because the next time he went off with friends after school without permission was when he was well into his mid-teens.

Almami spat sand from his mouth and tried to stand up but failed. Aware of the approaching footsteps, he scrambled on hands a knees for a few paces, finally found his footing, took a giant leap to his main gate, which stood wide open, and ran up the path that led to his front door without so much as a splinter in the back.

His fingers shook as he fished out his key from his pocket. He gave a little prayer of thanks and let himself into the safety of his house, making sure that the key was turned twice and the latch bolted. It was nearly pitch-black inside so he retrieved his mobile phone from the centre table and turned on the device’s torchlight.

A little bit of illumination goes a long way. His fear began to dissipate. He gave a small, nervous laugh at his silliness and allowed himself the luxury of a relieved sigh–

–which turned into a whimper of renewed fear as the heavy footsteps approached his front door. Tentatively, he braved a look out the front window, flicking the edge of the curtain back cautiously. Through the darkness, he could just make out the shape of the man mounting the steps to his front door.

He switched off the torch. His heart was hammering once more as he watched the man staring – what seemed to Almami – thoughtfully at the door, probably trying to figure out a way of breaking in, and spending the rest of the night slicing Almami apart bit by bit, just like the main character in the Mystery of the Broken Laptop. He moved away from the window.

A low unexpected knock on the door made him jump with a start. It sounded thunderous in the silence. He could phone up the police but he’d be long dead by the time they arrived. Maybe if he called out, Assanatou or Mustapha might hear. He’d have to go to his bedroom window to be heard.

Quietly, he crept towards his bedroom but stopped dead as something began to rustle outside his front door. It went on for a few seconds then stopped. There was nothing for a moment or two then the knock came again, this time louder and much firmer.

“Keep knocking,’ Almami muttered as he resumed his journey to his bedroom. “See if I’ll open.”

Six consecutive knocks thundered on the door, cutting sharping into the silence like a hot knife through butter and freezing Almami in mid-step. Then they ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The living room clock ticked. A dog barked in the distance and was answered by another one much farther away. Generators hummed in far-off houses. A few uneventful seconds went by.

Almami managed two more steps when his ears picked up a different sound. He knew that sound very well. It was the sound of an unlatched window being opened.

In his blinding panic, he found his feet frozen yet again as his thoughts debated with one another on whether to dash for the window, close and latch it, or high-tail it to his bedroom and bolt himself inside. As he stood indecisively in the middle of this living room, something sailed across the room from the direction of the window and landed a few feet away from him.

“A bomb!” He thought in terror. Deep inside he knew it was very unlikely but his drumming heart said otherwise.

He held his breath for a moment and listened, and was suddenly conscious of the footsteps thumping down the steps and receding until they could no longer be heard. But, Almami did not move for the next few minutes for fear that moving might trigger whatever was now inside his house. When he was sure that it was wasn’t going to jump up and murder him slowly, he moved carefully towards it.

Standing a couple of feet away, he used the tip of his flip flop to prod the bag. There was that rustling noise again. But now that the man was gone, it sounded less ominous and more familiar.

A note, which he had not noticed before, was pinned to the bag. He pulled it off and unfolded it. It bore Barry’s name at the bottom. ‘A man’s stomach rules his head. Enjoy your supper and make sure you’re facing my nephew when you thank him for his kindness; he cannot hear or speak”, the note read.

Almami reached into the bag and pulled out the two boxes of matches. He shook his head in amusement and wondered if it was healthy to continue writing his murder mystery story.

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