On the mudbanks of the creeks crisscrossing the city like flooded wheel ruts—where the mangrove grew lush and thick and their roots intertwined like the arms of broiling octopi, and swarms of vampiric mosquitoes rose at sunset to descend on the cringing populace like a biblical plague—thrived the shanty towns giving shelter to the most godforsaken of the city's poor. They also fed the crime rate, or so the Commissioner of police went on TV to declare each time the city was hit by another one of those epidemic waves of armed robbery. These slums were as a consequence regularly disinfected of their inhabitants and bulldozed to the ground, but, stubborn as a rhizome, they immediately sprang up again.
It was to a cybercafé situated in the heart of one of these plank-and-corrugated iron metropolis where 13-year-old Samu'ila hurried, as he did every morning in lieu of school.
On arrival, he pushed against the glass swing door standing before him like a magical mirror. As he stepped through the doorway into the glacial air of the cybercafé, he forgot, in an instant, every aspect of his life exuding the stink of the mundane.
The cybercafé was bathed in the radiance of fluorescent light. It was a long room, a converted warehouse constructed with no means of ventilation other than the doorway, which was always shut. Thus, despite the two air conditioners wheezing and juddering to the flux of electric current, the air in the room, though cold as a morgue, was stale as cow piss. A red carpet covered the floor, worn down the middle to desert-brown by the march of feet. A row of tables lined the two sides of the room, and on their surfaces sat the computer monitors. Beneath the tables, their little red, green and yellow lights blinking with haphazard regularity, stood the CPUs, and beside them the UPSs, while on the ground (where the red of the carpet was still as bright as the day it left the loom) lay a snake-pit tangle of wires slithering in and out of everything.
The walls on all four sides of the room were plastered with notices which warned off fraudsters and spammers. Samu'ila, coming to a halt before the desk of the cybercafé attendant, saw a poster on the wall behind the desk which hadn't been up at his last visit. It read:
We are pleased to announced to you
That our overnight browsing is now
We promise you, you will surely
Going to have a great night with us,
As you come.
We are here to make a different.
Signed by: THE MANAGEMENT.
The attendant was a young woman. She was dressed in blue jeans with a pink halter top whose décolletage made Samu'ila suck in his breath—he had clean line of sight all the way to the areolas of her braless breasts. Her feet (with taloned toenails as varicolored as a candy mix) were propped on the table surface, crossed at the ankles. She was engrossed in a glossy paperback, which she held in front of her face like a compact mirror. Though aware a customer was waiting before her, she did not raise her eyes from the book in her hand. Samu'ila, however, was used to her ways.
"Which book you dey read today, aunty?" he asked.
"Love's Brazen Fire," she replied. Then, with the soulful sigh of a hippopotamus in heat, she swung her feet off the desk and slammed the book face down on it. "Goddammit—why you people no go leave me alone!" she exclaimed.
She glanced up. "You again," she said, her voice losing its indignation. "You no dey go school at all?" Without waiting for a reply, she added, "How much time you want today?"
"Four hours," Samu'ila said.
As she held out the ticket with one hand and stowed away Samu'ila's money with the other, the attendant announced, with the singsong of a recitation:
"The printer is out of order. If the computer hangs, restart it. If it takes forever to open a page, I am not the server. Please, don't call me for anything."
Samu'ila, used to her ways, said, "I know." The attendant picked up her book and again buried her nose in it.
It was 8:20 in the morning, and the cybercafé was already three-quarters full. Samu'ila chose an unoccupied system at the far end of the room. Approaching it, he walked into a blast of air so cold he could feel the skin of his armpits break out in goose-pimples; the spot he had picked was in the path of the draft from one of the air conditioners. Despite this, Samu'ila pulled out the chair and sat down. He cracked his knuckles with anticipation and then drew out the sliding panel on which the keyboard lay and carefully punched in the password on his ticket. The monitor screen burst into life. With a happy smile on his face, Samu'ila bent his head over the keyboard and tip-tapped his way into the phantasmagoric realm of the worldwide web.
There was an offline message in his Messenger box.
Where r u? I've been online and waitin since midnite my time. I need 2 talk wt u now! Pleeeeeaaaaasssssse! Lotsa luv.
It was from Ben, the sexagenarian widower whom he had met three weeks ago in a chatroom for the recently bereaved. Ben: the wealthy American retiree with no children and five dogs. Ben: the lonely old man who would do anything for him, if only he would ask. Or so he said.
An IM box popped up on the screen. It buzzed without sound, one time, two times, three times.
Samu'ila tapped out his reply.
Yes luv, i'm here : - )
Hi dear! Where've u been? I've been waitin foreva...
I'm soooo sorry luv, had som problemz @ de boardin house. missd u.
I've missed u 2, my dear. Watch the screen...hav I got a surprise 4 u!
Samu'ila waited, his fingers poised over the keyboard; when the Messenger box showed no typing activity, he raised his arms and interlocked his fingers behind his head, then leaned back in the chair. Stifling a yawn, his gaze traveled the length of the room. He wondered what the surprise could be. His attention was drawn to the other side of the cybercafé, where one of the customers who was sitting in front of the system just beside the attendant's desk, was on the phone. The man's conversation was loud, explicit, and unabashed: bank details, professional credentials, and payment figures rolled off his tongue with ease. He was gesticulating wildly with his left hand as he spoke into the mobile phone clutched in his right. His gestures were however at variance with the forced, almost cajoling calmness of his tone. Samu'ila gave a vicious smile at the thickness of the man's accent, the obviousness of his Americanese: the smile dissolved when the man tossed the phone onto the table and, with a shout of joy, hi-fived himself. Samu'ila, chagrined, looked away.
He was back to staring at the monitor, his thoughts preoccupied with drafting a phrase to convey the right amount of ecstatic gratitude, when a webcam request appeared on the screen. Acting on reflex, he tapped the "ENTER" button to accept the request, but only realized what he'd done when two enormous, sea-grey eyes leapt off the screen at him.
"Aiyee!" Samu'ila exclaimed, jolting his chair backwards in alarm.
The eyes, their enlarged whites swimming with rheum and crisscrossed with broken capillaries, seemed to ogle Samu'ila a few more seconds, then retreated from the camera, and Ben's face swam into focus. The picture on the screen was grainy, the movements were delayed and disconnected; Ben's color came across as a pallid, sea-bottom white in the darkness framing his face.
Samu'ila raised his left hand to his chin and scratched gently. The eyes staring out of the screen at him—so far away and yet so near he could feel the sting of their gaze—aroused in him a sensation akin to nakedness. He felt exposed, like the lone fish floating in a fishmonger's barrel. He for the first time felt the effect of the draft, the numbness creeping up from his toes. Then the eyes threw their gaze downwards, and seconds later the red of Ben's text appeared on the screen.
Can u c me?
At this question Samu'ila immediately felt better. He glanced round to see if anyone had observed his discomfiture, but everyone around him had eyes only for the screen before them. He decided to let Ben stew a bit; it was only when he began to beg with "pleases" stretching from one end of the screen to the other that Samu'ila relented and typed his reply.
I can c u.
The first time Samu'ila set foot in a cybercafé he had done so at the behest of one of his older brothers, who had sent him inside to call out a girl he liked but hadn't the courage to approach himself. At first, Samu'ila thought he had stumbled into some kind of adults-only game arcade, but he soon discarded that idea, convinced of the life-and-death nature of the proceedings in that room by the hushed intensity hanging over it like a heat wave.
Before that day, Samu'ila had suffered the usual run of fantastical stories that were the stock-in-trade of schoolboys. He had heard one could watch the latest movies and music videos on the internet for free. He had been wowed by the revelation anybody could play any computer game of their choice with an opponent halfway across the world. He had had his dreams hijacked by the strange story of the girl who would send love letters to a boy she didn't know, who, when he opened them, would find himself transported into her bedroom, where he would be unable to do anything but watch as she lay naked on the bed and performed disappearing acts with a carrot stick. He had been told anything in the world, from a paperclip to a cruise on an ocean liner, could be purchased on the web with only a mouse; that there were machines called "search engines" which manufactured answers when questions were fed into them. He did not believe any of these stories, not until the day he stood behind the source of his brother's heartache and watched with stricken eyes everything he had discounted come true. On that day was born the passion that would eventually see him abandon school.
In the early days of his conversion, when his compulsion still had the glow of innocence upon it, Samu'ila would employ the dregs of his childhood charm to devastating effect, extracting from his father little amounts of money for candy, but he would save up every penny with a dogged parsimony, all for borrowed hours of bliss in the nearest cybercafé. Then, when his father began to complain he would lose all his teeth at the rate he was going, and his mother rolled her eyes in exasperation and pointed out the road to his father's room, Samu'ila began to pilfer. He did it with such skill, not even a hint of suspicion besmirched his good name, and all the rewards of this larcenous pastime he dedicated to his quest for absolute mastery of the new medium which fantasy had adopted.
By the time he met Ben, he had already thrown over the vision of an education for the dream of early riches. He had also become as proficient with the mores and processes of the internet as a worker ant with its duties. He could find any web address he wanted. He could utilize a search engine to the utmost of its capabilities. He could register email accounts in the German, French, and Italian languages. He could download, upload, convert, and compress. He could extract email addresses, generate bogus online personas, and spam whole country populations at the click of a mouse. His typing speed had by this time gotten to the lower reaches of a secretarial sufficiency.
At the time he met Ben, he had 11 email accounts, all of them with different names. When he gatecrashed that chatroom for the newly bereaved (where he spotted Ben, stalked him, and then, three days later, made the pounce) he had been masquerading as a 23-year-old woman, a widow in weeds, and a Liberian national stranded in this inhospitable country without friend, family, or hope. Ben took one look at the picture on his Messenger profile (the jpeg which he had appropriated from the obituary of a drowned daughter on the website of a newspaper whose circulation did not exceed the borders of the island of Martinique) and whatever misgivings the lonely old man might have had at once evaporated. He couldn't believe his luck: he fell head over heels in love.
Ben's head was bent over the keyboard as he typed out a message. His hair was thick in front and at the sides, grizzled, curly locks giving his face a cherubic quality—thus the frazzled patch at the top of his head was the more startling.
So? What do u think?
Though he understood what Ben was alluding to, Samu'ila, in the role of a woman, never made anything easy for him. That was a cardinal rule.
About me! Are u...pleasantly surprised? Incredibly disappointed?
U r welcum ; - )
Ben's next question was so predictable, Samu'ila's face split in a grin of delight at his clairvoyance, and he began typing out an answer even before he had finished reading the message.
Wen r u goin 2 let me c ur face?
Samu'ila's reply was prompt.
Bt u've alrdy seen my face.
I don't mean ur pictur. I mean c u as u r seein me...thru a webcam.
Bt i've told u be4 ben, not many cafes arnd here hav webcams. & i can't afford de moni 2 browse in de ones dat hav dem. its nt so easy 4 me comin 2 chat wit u evryday, its jus dat i luv u & i need 2 talk wit u bt it is getin vry hard 2 find de moni.
Folding his arms against the cold, Samu'ila leaned back in his seat and waited for Ben's reply. It took some time in coming.
Why don't you call me, or giv me a # so I can call u?
Bcos i dont hav a fone.
You don't hav a friend whos cell u can borrow for 5 mins?
Ben's face had taken on a hooded look: his eyes waited for Samu'ila's reply with an expectancy easily mistaken for distrust. Samu'ila noticed Ben's eyes were of a color so light they gave him the myopic stare of a seer; also, his nose had a slight hook at the tip, like a raptor's beak. The sustained blast of cold air from the air conditioner was now a force not to be ignored, and Samu'ila, of a sudden, realized the discomfort which his feet had for some time been under had its origin in the throb of a full bladder. He decided to end the session by re-exerting his authority.
I'm startin 2 tink dat u r only interested in my body. 2day it's my face, 2moro it wil be my boobs dat u're demandin 2 c. u sound like evry man whos tried 2 take avantage of me... like dose men in Liberia, dose men dat killed my husband... & i REALLY thot u were diferent! u've made me feel bad. bad and dirty. like a SLUT!!!
Samu'ila waited for the first exclamation mark-riddled "sorry" to appear on the screen before he continued:
U wnt 2 c my face, u wnt 2 hear my voice... bt what abt me? u tink i don't want 2 be wit u rite now in ur room, wit my head on ur sholder and ur arms tight around me, holding me safe? BUT I CAN'T!
A sea of words splashed across the screen, but Samu'ila didn't read them. He thrust his clasped hands between his knees and stared up at the ceiling for some moments. Suddenly his hands rose towards the keyboard and, after hovering over it in a butterfly dance, swooped.
U dont apreciat de sacrifice i make 2 b here 4 u evryday!!! u dont evn ask why i'm not @ work. 4 de past 3 wks I've been online wit u evry morning & u don't even wonder hw i'm survivin? or if i even have a job? DO U LUV ME @ ALL?!?
On that note, and still without reading any of the messages flooding in from Ben, nor paying heed to the pleas the distraught face on the screen was mouthing, Samu'ila signed out of his Messenger box and logged off his account. As the monitor blinked and went blank, he caught sight of his reflection in the dull-grey depths of its screen. He wiped the happy grin off his face. There was still a lot of work to be done on the mugu, and celebrating beforehand, as everybody knew, was bad luck. But even this thought couldn't dampen the good feeling bubbling in his belly like cold fizz.
After some moments of silent contemplation (during which he browbeat his bladder into a state of acquiescence), Samu'ila rose from his seat and moved to the now-vacant computer beside the attendant's desk. As he settled into the lucky seat, the attendant glanced up, caught his half-guilty, starry gaze, and hissing with annoyance, yanked up her blouse. Then she returned to Book Seven of her unending romantic saga.
As for Samu'ila, when he signed in this time, it was as a 15-year-old Mozambican girl—a virgin, and looking.