Writers Project of Ghana

Nowhere Is Comfort by Priscilla Adipa

"Another day, another dollar," he muttered as he lifted the bag of cement from the truck to his right shoulder. Quietly he repeated the words as he carried the light brown bag to the building under construction. His bare shoulders bent with the weight of the bag. His yellow-stained eyes followed the footprints of his fellow workers. Aweke had never held a dollar note, not even seen one before. But the phrase, learnt from an American rap song long forgotten, kept him going until the job was done, and he was handed a pittance for his trouble. Another day, another dollar.

The working day over, Aweke went in search for a drink at The Spot. He went to the chop bar because that was his routine. Yet, before entering the restaurant-cum-bar, Aweke had to brace himself against the loud laughter and hefty bodies gathered around discoloured white plastic tables. Instead of relieving his fatigue, The Spot reminded him of what he was. Like everyone else in the chop bar, he was a burly man, whose fingernails were chipped from manual work, and whose calloused hands left rough imprints on the beer bottles that circulated in the bar. In The Spot Aweke saw that he was indeed a common labourer.

Aweke sat alone in a corner. On his table a bottle of Star Beer and a bowl of plantain chips. In his mind there was a memory of the soothing taste of his specially grown marijuana. He needed it now to rise above the scene, to smooth out the harsh edges of the bright lights from the TV screen mounted above the bar counter. If Aweke was high, the stale smell of sweat would dissipate, and the impatient calls for beer would sound melodic, like a rendition of his favourite hip-life song. So strong was Aweke's craving that he sat with his ears tilted at an angle, as though he was waiting for something important to happen. But the only thing that eventually happened was the arrival of his best friend, Solo.

~+~

Solo clapped Aweke's hand in a loud handshake. Their fingers snapped together as their hands unlocked. "Chale, chale what dey happen?" Solo said, as he pulled a chair to Aweke's table.

Aweke's "nothing" barely escaped his lips. But always the optimist, Solo pressed on. "Chale, we need to go to that new club. You know the one behind trade fair. Some say the girls there are finer than Miss Ghana herself."

"And with what money?"

"You paaa. You know I got your back. I know the bouncer. Free entry I tell you. Free entry."

Aweke refocused his eyes on Solo's slim face. "Isn't that what you said the last time? Was I the only one who was kicked out of that other club with 'girls finer than Miss Ghana herself?' Chale, mabrĪµ, I'm tired. Thank you, but tonight I go sleep."

"So just the one time something doesn't go according to plan and you go give up? Suit yourself. But don't come complaining when you wake up in the middle of the night wishing there was someone next to you keeping you warm."

Aweke smiled joylessly. "Solo, this is Accra. Not some winter country okay? Someone next to me means more heat than I want at this moment."

Solo shook his head at his friend. "Lost cause," he said, before calling for a beer.

Plans for the evening out of the way, the two men sat in silence with only the crunchy munching of plantain chips filling the space between them. It was a Friday in July. The year was 2014, but Aweke and Solo could have been sitting in 2004 in another chop bar exactly like The Spot. They were now thirty-three, but nothing much had changed for them. The same plate of plantain chips went back and forth between them, and the beer they washed the chips down with had a familiar savoury taste that had become comforting over the years.

Solo was one of the friends Aweke found when he and his mother moved from Ada back into their family's compound house in La in Accra. After her husband's funeral, and despite Aweke's protests, Aweke's mother decided she needed to be closer to her family. So a couple of weeks after Aweke's father was buried, Aweke and his mother boarded a bus that brought them to Accra.

At first, the cluster that made up his family's compound house irritated Aweke. In Ada, their small house had stood on its own, never part of a collective. In La, the family compound consisted of six small single storey houses arranged closely together in two rows. Aweke and his mother were going to live in one of these houses, and the realisation that the other families living in the compound would be observing his comings and goings disoriented Aweke.

In Accra, Aweke was again unsettled by the ocean's bland smell, different from the tangy scent the Atlantic gave off in Ada. The beach sand in Accra also felt coarser under his feet, and he noticed too that when he spoke Ga, it was less infused with the Pidgin English he heard some boys shouting out the first time he went to the beach. The difference in speech stopped him from asking the boys if he could join them in their game of football. He sat on a rock and watched as the boys kicked the ball around, all the while anticipating the force required to hit the ball towards the unmarked goalposts.

It was later that evening, on his first day in Accra that Aweke met Solo. Aweke was a few feet from his front door when the creaking sound of a screen door being opened filled the quiet compound. Aweke turned towards the noise.

"Solo, boni? Is that you?"

The voice came from the small house that was directly opposite Aweke's. Right next to the screen door leading into this house, a boy Aweke's age lowered his body towards the paved ground. The boy shook his head at Aweke and placed a finger across his lips. Aweke rushed to his front door, arriving there just as the boy's mother appeared in the doorway of the house opposite Aweke's. She peered through the light-softened darkness into the small courtyard between the two rows of houses. The netting in the top half of the swing door framed her torso, blocking off some of the light streaming from behind her. "O Aweke, boni? Is that you?" she said, when she saw Aweke.

"Ofiane ee, yes, please, it's me."

"I thought it was Solo. You haven't met him yet, have you? Anyway, wo ojogban. Sleep well."

Solo got up from his squatting position when the slap-slap sound of his mother's slippers grew fainter. He grinned at Aweke and threw him a thumbs-up. Aweke saluted as Solo walked off, his steps springier than usual from his victory.

The next day, Aweke and Solo laughed at Aweke's imitation of Solo's mother's expressions. They laughed even more raucously when Solo's mother, on her way to the market, walked past them at the entrance to the compound house.

Soon, Solo became the one Aweke confided in. But Aweke had long grown out of this need since their secondary school days. So he was surprised when he spoke his thoughts out loud. "I need something else to do."

Solo looked up at his friend. He grabbed a handful of chips and stuffed most of them into his mouth. He chewed slowly, as he waited for Aweke to continue. When Aweke remained silent, Solo said, "I feel you on that, chale. But the choices for us school failures are limited."

"I still need something else to do," Aweke said. He pushed his words out so forcefully that bits of ground plantain chips flew from his mouth onto the table.

"I hear you," Solo said. "I hear you."

~+~
Aweke and Solo left The Spot late, both softened by beer. At the turning to their street, Solo went off to find the girl who would keep him warm later that night, while Aweke continued on home.

Sleep didn't come quickly to Aweke. All he could think about as he counted the cracks in the ceiling were the things he did not want to do. His former life as a laundry-man ended when he placed an overheated iron on his madam's silk shirt. A series of errors with different families meant that eventually no one was willing to recommend him to others. Aweke did not miss his laundry-man life though. Sometimes, he'd found his madam's camisoles mixed with the dirty clothes, and against his calloused hands, the smoothness of the flimsy dress-like underwear emphasized the things he might never have. He was better off as a labourer. He was paid less, but at least he did not have to touch other people's possessions and have to let go. Sleep finally came to Aweke -- a somewhat tolerable slumber because of what the next day held. Tomorrow, on Saturday, Aweke would play football with his friends from the neighbourhood. His thoughts would cease on the field, and he'd laugh more readily when someone missed the ball and kicked the air. And after the game, he would not hesitate when the group went towards The Spot for fufu and light soup. Invigorated by the game, he would add his voice to the conversation, as Solo would narrate his exploits from the previous night.

~+~
The next day was better than Aweke anticipated. Solo not only entertained the group with stories about 'fine girls' and "an explosive fight between two macho men," but he also had some news for Aweke: a gated community along Spintex Road was looking for security guards.

"My info is legit," Solo assured Aweke, "At the club, I talked to this guy who is applying for the job. I even got details of where to apply. Do I have your back or what?"

Things became clear to Aweke. He would start out as a security guard. Eventually, he would break away and start his own company. Maybe with one of the other guards working at Spintex Estate. Then one day, he would buy camisoles with lace trimmings for the woman he would marry.

Aweke applied for the job. The possibilities of a new life made him cautious during the interview, so that he stuttered when asked to discuss the security guard experience he didn't have. But he got the job. The job was meant to be his. Aweke ignored Solo's taunts about GuardRight Security being desperate for workers. The job was his.

~+~
It was a new feeling. He continued to sing his refrain under his breath as he made his way to work each day: Another day, another dollar. But now, the chant was less about seeking motivation, less about keeping his spirits up so the job could be done, and more about reminding himself of the future. Another day, another dollar.

He would make it. Everything was within reach. The camisole and all the things that came with it: respect, contentment, love. Soon, he would drive past his ex-girlfriend's mother's house, and news would reach Ofeibea of what he had become. Ofeibea would regret leaving him, and he would take her back with grace. He would forget her words and the contempt in her eyes. "As for you, why don't you want more?" she'd asked when he decided to work as a labourer. "I can't be with a man who is not ambitious ooo. But a common labourer? Maba? Why? Aweke? Why?"

She'd stormed off after that speech, leaving Aweke a few feet from The Spot. They'd been on their way to the chop bar when he'd told Ofeibea about his new job on a building site. He hadn't seen her since that day.

From Akosua, Ofeibea's sister, Aweke had learnt that Ofeibea was working at a salon in Cantonments. That's all Akosua had said when Aweke saw her at The Spot and asked about Ofeibea's whereabouts: "If you are looking for her, she's at some rich people's salon in Cantonments." And before Aweke could gather himself to ask which salon, Akosua had walked off to serve the plates of kebab she was carrying.

~+~
Aweke greeted each person who drove through the black iron wrought gates of Spintex Estate with a smile. Whenever cars approached, Aweke stepped out of a small guardhouse placed between two gates, one an entrance to Spintex Estate, the other the exit. He raised his right hand to his temple in a respectful salute as he lifted the boom gate, a white pole embossed with a red swirl running from one end to the other. Sometimes, drivers rolled down their windows and greeted him in return. More often than not, drivers nodded in acknowledgment, reluctant to open their windows to let out the cool air from their air-conditioned cars. Some too ignored Aweke and stared blankly ahead as they drove past.

A year went by and still Aweke chanted with hope. He continued to greet the cars that passed him with a salute. He saved his salary and avoided The Spot. His mother stopped waiting up for him. Her eyes showed fewer signs of worry.

And then Aweke heard from Solo that Ofeibea was seeing some "big man." She was no longer a hairdresser. She had opened a boutique somewhere in La.

Aweke began to wonder if Ofeibea's sugar daddy was one of the men who drove past him at his security post. Was it Mr. Ibrahim, who always gave him a five cedi note on Fridays? Or Mr. Osei, whose wife returned his greetings? Aweke's salutes grew limp. His thoughts shifted from the back of his mind to the front of his mind whenever a car approached Spintex Estate. He feared the day Ofeibea would drive past in her sugar daddy's car. In his dreams, Ofeibea looked past him with indifference as he lifted the boom gate for her sugar daddy to drive into the estate. Sometimes Ofeibea's sugar daddy was Mr. Osei. Other times it was Mr. Ibrahim. But always there was Ofeibea's condescending look.

Yet in other dreams Aweke was amongst those that drove through the gates of Spintex Estate. He was not the security guard or the driver, and it was Mr. Osei or Mr. Ibrahim who lifted the boom gate, and saluted with an expectant smile. Aweke dreamt these dreams most often at his security post, when the solitude of playing the guard at night gave him time to wonder. The dreams often felt so true that when a glare of headlights awakened him, a deep anger welled up within him at the person driving a Mercedes Benz or a BMW past his sleepy form. For it dawned on him as he watched the rear lights of the receding car that although he was a step away from lavish houses and expensive cars, he was still a common security guard.

Aweke described his dreams to Solo, his shoulder dropping as the words unfurled, his gaze fixed on his hands, clasped around a green beer bottle. They were sitting at The Spot, where Aweke had gone in search of Solo.

Solo laughed at first, then stopped abruptly when Aweke refused to look up from the beer bottle he was hugging. Solo thought to give his friend some hope. "You can come with us tonight if you want," Solo said.

Aweke took a moment to respond. When he did, it was with irritation at Solo's thoughtlessness. "Chale, can't you see I don't feel like clubbing?" Aweke lifted his head as he said this. His eyes narrowed with comprehension when they met Solo's. "I'm not that desperate," Aweke said.

Solo leaned back into his chair. His smirk hardened. "You are desperate. Like all of us. You are just afraid to admit it."

Solo stretched his right hand towards the bowl on their table for some more plantain chips. A Swiss Legend watch with black leather straps and a rose gold timepiece rested on his wrist. Another sign of Solo's nightlife. Little signs Aweke refused to acknowledge.

"We'll leave Sonny's place at 2 AM. You can come if you want. I'll clear it with the others."

Aweke looked up at Solo who had risen from his chair. Aweke said nothing as Solo sauntered off. Knowing Aweke disapproved, Solo had never referred to what he did with Sonny and his gang. Now an offer to join. Aweke wondered how desperate he looked.

He knew what he could gain by joining Solo. He'd seen the increase in Solo's possessions. A night with Solo's friends would bring him closer to buying something flashy for Ofeibea. Maybe an iPhone or a camisole -- a red camisole that would hug Ofeibea's breasts and hips. Aweke gripped his beer bottle. He felt the soft silk of the camisole on Ofeibea's body. His eyes grazed the waitresses at The Spot and he was overcome with longing.

Aweke knew that at 2 AM he would get into Sonny's Toyota Corolla, and they would head towards East Airport, then up Spintex Road, and onto dirt roads into a hodgepodge of completed and uncompleted houses. They would choose a house that wasn't in a gated community, a house that looked deserted. A stone thrown at the electric fence snaking above the boundary wall of the house would tell them if the electric fence was on or not. Sweat covered Aweke's forehead as he thought out his future. With any luck, there would be no one at home when they broke into the chosen house. No one would hear his heavy breathing or see the madness in his eyes when he took the PlayStation console and the American dollars from some sugar daddy's house. Aweke prayed the house they would raid would be Ofeibea's sugar daddy's house.

Priscilla Adipa was born in Accra, Ghana. Her short stories have been published on Brittle Paper and Flash Fiction Ghana. Priscilla is currently working on a PhD that examines how art spaces in Accra and Johannesburg attract audiences and facilitate their engagement with art.

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