Joseph was next. But at that moment, the headmaster, Mr Effiong, entered the class.

We were instantly on our feet.

The headboy alerted us with the ruler smacked on his desk thrice… one, two, three.

‘Good morrrrrrning, sir, ‘ we bellowed in unison.

Mr Effiong was brief in parley with Mr Ekpe and soon exited.

‘ Where were we,’ Mr Ekpe asked himself. ‘O, yes.’

Then, pointing at Joseph, he asked.

‘Eight times ten? ‘

‘Seventy two, sir,’ Joseph answered.

‘Clap for… er… what?’

‘Seventy-two, sir.’

‘What was your question?’

‘Eight times nine, sir. ‘

‘Eight times ten!’

‘Seventy-two, sir.’

By now the boy was completely flustered. He was on the verge of tears.

‘Son of the devil! Come forward! ‘

Joseph made his way to the front.

Punishment was routine but brisk, with a stiff eighth stroke of the cane to close.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I dredged up this memory, dear reader, as an example of the childhood experiences that bound us classmates forever in a coterie of brotherhood.

So, be not alarmed if while waiting for your flight in an airport lounge, you hear a middle aged man shout, ‘Son of the devil!’ or ‘Eight times ten!’   Watch as another middle aged man freezes in his tracks ; watch him turn incredulously, and then see him dissolve into the arms of the first middle aged man.

‘Seventy-two!’ the second middle aged will cry in ecstasy.

Argot, peculiar to an exclusive group, like a pheromone, has brought two long lost brothers together. Watch them babble excitedly, a discussion that is occasionally punctuated with uproarious laughter. It is a warmth that is impossible to feign. It is the same way i have always felt towards my classmates, including Joseph, up to the time of his premature death.

We all went our separate ways after primary school. Each boy chased his own dream or came to terms with his own reality. Yes, dreams are there to be chased, but, sadly, life, with it’s brutal checkmates and constraints, is also there to be lived. And life will assert itself. Only in rare instances is it subdued, beaten into an unanticipated line, with an outcome that was not written in the skies, so to speak.So that Ubong, who once dreamt of being an engineer, ended up a long distance bus driver like his father. Oto, calm, measured Oto, wanted desperately to be a teacher but his father, the only bread winner in the family, died when he was in junior secondary and he had to drop out. He became a peasant farmer. Umoh, the brutal bully of our class, always spoiling for a fight, surprisingly became a pastor, whose life work to this day is to lead people gently to Christ. A boy, hopeless in arithmetic, became an internationally renowned information technology (IT) guru. I am of course referring to Joseph, my dear classmate.

Joseph’s exploits in the information technology industry came to me in snippets during the intervening years. We had long since lost contact.  I heard that he was middling in secondary school. However, he aced his course in computer science in the university, graduating first class, with honors. But  it was when he subspecialised in data management that he came into his own and found his professional identity. It was a perfect fit and he took to it exultantly, like a child to a mound of soft sand.

He attended several courses abroad and excelled in all of them. He obtained his IBM data science professional certificate  in record time at the top of his class. He helped apply artificial intelligence to a vexing problem that caused clogging on the virtual superhighway. Global companies, international behemoths of trade and finance, lined up desperate for his signature. He chose one  closer to home, in part, I heard, because he wanted to be no more than a short flight away from his now ailing father.

Life settled into a  breath taking routine at his place of work. He rose rapidly through the ranks to become assistant deputy director . He married a lovely girl he met during a course in Kenya. A year later she bore him a beautiful little girl, Akanimoh (the greatest wealth).
We old boys spoke of him with extreme pride. In hushed tones. Life was good for him.
And so the years passed.

* * * * * * * * * *
Then out of nowhere, disaster struck. It started initially as a fairytale. Then hushed rumors. There were texts and trembling WhatsApp messages. Joseph was in trouble. Corporate indiscretions. A set-up. Jealous co-workers.. A summons to headquarters.
Slowly, the true story solidified, like raindrops from dirty vapor. And it made for a mind-boggling tale.

Inflated invoices .Defalcations.Inventory shrinkage.Electronic malware. Keyloggers. Cloning. Grabber . TeamViewer. Reconfiguration. Swift transfers. Incestuous relationships. Criminal gangs.

Dear reader, I am sure you get the idea of what transpired, despite the confusions of finance – and technology – speak, which was so convoluted and arcane that at times I was dizzy listening to it.

But I have tried to simplify as much as possible an explanation related to me by another classmate of ours, an auditor.
He said that Joseph’s books, both virtual and hard, stank even before opening them, an audit in which he was not involved. At the end of which a sum of two million dollars was unaccounted for. All was eventually traced to our dear friend, a corporate malfeasance to which he ultimately, tearfully confessed.

In short, our dear classmate, Joseph, had gone to bed with strange fellows and had been caught in flagrante delicto, with his hands, so to speak, in the till.

I was devastated. We were all devastated. How was this possible? From someone who came from so little and was already vouchsafed so much? With a sky that could not be his limit? Could it be due to hubris, Lucifer’s progeny? A moment of madness?

But in retrospect certain things now made sense.

This period coincided with his golden age. He built two ornate mansions with grand staircases and crystal chandeliers. He purchased for his personal use, among others, a Mercedes Maybach. He opened four mega Filling Stations. He built and handed over a lovely building to the church, for which, in addition to several other acts of charity , he was made an elder, a title he bore with solemn pride. His father, a retired fisherman , who incidentally died during this period, had his hearse drawn by two white horses with dark manes, accompanied by four guards in white hats and white britches with raised swords. Joseph followed the hearse directly, adorned in a white damask material embossed with thirty two carats of gold. The Prelate himself officiated, assisted by three Archbishops.

He could have gone to jail. But so otherwise diligent had he been throughout his employment , initially applying a software that saved the multinational company millions , and so sincere was his remorse, that he was quietly dismissed.

A race was now on to recover as much of the money as possible. Voluntarily, he relinquished back to the company the remaining millions, a pittance as the money was in the weak local currency, in his various accounts. The mansions, filling stations and sundry other properties were confiscated. Rolex watches. Versace apparel. High-end shoes. Jewelry. A wine cellar with scores of Moet and Chandon Don Perignon, each bottle going for, i am told, the eye watering sum of five thousand dollars . All were seized and auctioned off.

But now, looking back, these physical losses were not as devastating as the psychological toll this whole process took on my classmate
He was broken and went to pieces.

It is not the size of the dog but the size of the fight in the dog. This aphorism has often got me thinking about something quite banal. And please forgive my attempt at juvenile philosophy. What is the relationship between the mind and the body? By mind i refer to something inclusive. You can call it psyche or spirit or soul or mentality, or whatever you wish. But here i refer to the invisible essence which is the counterpart of what we see.

A body without a mind? That is a dead body! A body with a broken or disturbed mind? These exist everywhere, in all forms, in varying severity. At one extreme is the psychiatric patient, who, for instance, hears voices that are so real to him it is like the person talking is standing next to him. Or the mentally challenged person i saw once who endlessly recounted in stark detail the events of the 1990 soccer world cup final, an occasion that occurred decades ago in another continent: ‘Voller to Berthold. Littsbarski beats one… two… three, cuts inside. Lays the  ball to Brehme. Shot! Over the bar!’ On and on and on, in an endless loop.

Then there are the less severe forms of a disturbed mind , like, for instance, the man in otherwise rude physical health, who can neither eat nor sleep, held captive by an imaginary knock on the door, like a murderer assailed by ghosts. These things, like thought and action, demonstrate to me the close relationship between the mind and the body. Therefore , it is not surprising that the physically disadvantaged but mentally robust poodle takes on the much larger Rottweiler. Spunk. Spirit. Fortitude. Call it what you will.

But, like I said, please forgive me this toddled attempt at metaphysical discourse. It has been brought about by the memory of the last time I saw my classmate- five years after his dismissal , shortly before his untimely death.

The tavern was located in the southern part of the town, near the local government headquarters. It was a sordid affair, covered with discarded burlap and rusting corrugated metal roofing sheets. A faded pink lace-material screened the doorway. Inside, two long wooden benches sat customers in front of wooden tables. The madam of the place stood behind a table on which her wares were displayed. These consisted of a dozen unlabeled bottles. They contained moonshine, also known as One – Touch, or Push – me- I – push- you, or Ufofop (hot-hot! ). There were several flavors.

‘ White,’ Joseph ordered.

‘E don finish, Oga,’ the madam replied.

‘Lemon grass,’ Joseph said, changing the order.

‘ Na only one shot remain for that one. But  Lipton dey.’

‘Bring one bottle.’

I had been reliably informed that I would find him here, where he spent his mornings and afternoons. Our greetings were as warm as ever. But I almost broke down at sight of him.
He was in a terrible shape . There were bags under his eyes which loomed large in a bewildered face. The corners of his mouth drooped. He stooped and was thin. Almost cachectic. Somebody who had always been chubby. His voice was a hoarse whisper.

It was obvious to me. He had lost the will to live.

His wife, i heard, had left him and gone back to Kenya with the girl. But not before she tried all she could to help him. She begged him to think of his daughter and get a grip on himself. She brought close friends to cheer him up . She cajoled. She wheddled. She threatened. The counselling sessions she arranged with the pastor irritated him. When she tricked him to see a psychiatrist, he was infuriated. Nothing helped.

Then one day, in a drunken stupor, he beat her up so badly she had a black eye, a dislodged tooth and welts all over her body.

She crumpled into a corner, huddled into a ball, and wept bitterly , not just because of the assault she had experienced for the first time in her marriage, but also for what was and what could have been – idyllic days with the gentle love of her life ; a future shattered like a pot of clay.

She left that night with her girl.

But I was there on a mission.

‘Etop wants you to come to Abuja. For some R and R,’ I told him.

‘Etop. How is he? Still at NNPC?’

I nodded in agreement.

‘ How time flies,’ he whispered.

‘Your flight is on Tuesday, in three days time. I hope that is okay,’ I continued, putting the flight ticket on the table.

‘Everything is taken care of. It is the first flight. A car will pick you up in the morning. Etop will be at the airport waiting for you. He is so looking forward to seeing you.’

‘ I am looking forward to seeing him too, after such a long time.’ He smiled, weakly.

We were having a Directors conference and I stood up to go. As we embraced each other goodbye, it was all i could do not to break into tears.

It was the last time I saw him alive.

The next day, as I preparing to leave town, I got a brief short message service note from him :

Da, I am sorry I will not be able to come to Abuja. Please kindly let Etop know. Regards. Joseph.

Later, I found out that he died two days after our meeting . The housekeeper discovered his fully clothed body in the morning. He was half out of bed. There was dried vomit on his face. His body was stiff.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The muffled footsteps of ghosts is unlike those of the living. Live footsteps have a cadence, a rhythm, from which one can deduce the urgency or otherwise of the task at hand – fast and staccato, like somebody in a great hurry, or slow and desultory, like a wayfarer luxuriating in new scenes and vistas.
Ghoulish footsteps are arrhythmic, lacking a neural or auditory or motor input, as they must!  There is no linearity. It is enamored of the outlier, in thrall to the unforseen – expecting fast but terminally slow; anticipating slow but furiously fast. Sometimes, it is circuitous – if such can be described.
Shhhhhh. Listen!

Can you hear these muffled footsteps? Is it Joseph shuffling around in the classroom? Still incarcerated by the past? Now exorcized?

We set up a fund for the funeral .  Every man gave according to his ability. Classmates came from far and near for the burial. It was a simple affair in a dugout plot next to his father. But the heavens had darkened and a thunderstorm was imminent. Lightening flashed. Thunder rolled. The diggers fretted at the shovels. The pastor’s  monotone quickened. A gust of large raindrops fell . The coffin resounded to the thud of the first clump of earth. The skies opened up in a deluge.

We ran for shelter.

The End.

This story is the product of the writer’s imagination and any resemblance to people or places is purely coincidental.

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