Leaking Pockets || Cynthia Chukwuma



Image Credit: The Citizen

Leaking Pockets

by Cynthia Chukwuma

The ride home felt longer than usual. The bus seemed fuller too. Chioke stood, clutching tightly to a handrail. His vision blurred; he had brief flashes of black and thought he would faint. He felt like the sack bags his mother used to cover her poultry coop to protect them from the elements. People pushed him as they got in and out of the bus, carrying the smell of oily dinners and the stale smell that clung to people at the end of a workday. Apprehension rolled off the woman on the seat in front of him. She hugged her tote bag to herself and had withdrawn away from him as far as the blue seat permitted. When he had been forced in her direction to make way for a mother and son so they could get off the bus, he heard her inhale sharply. On another day, he would have amused himself by fixing his gaze on her, but today, his thoughts were all over the place. Even though he had promised himself three months ago to quit smoking, he found himself desperately needing a cigarette.

At his stop, he pushed through the packed bus and got down, made a beeline for the closest convenience store, and bought a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He had pointed vaguely to the array of cigarettes on the shelf behind the bespectacled cashier. The cigarette the cashier sold him was two times the price of the brand he usually smoked, but he did not care. He stood in front of the store, lit the cigarette with shaky hands, and took a long, deep drag. Only after the cigarette was burned out did he start the short walk home.

He smoked another cigarette as he lumbered on. He felt heavy; his brain was clogged; it had been that way since his stout, no-nonsense manager called him into his office and told him, “We have to let some workers go.” A panic that almost made him vomit gripped him and was still there in his chest, defying the effects of nicotine. He called Tobenna then because his mind was blank, his body became weak, and he did not know what to do. He told Tobenna in a chalky voice that he had been fired.

“Guy, what’s your next plan now?” Tobenna asked in his usual urgent tone, as if he were rushing to get back to an important engagement even though he was most likely playing a game.

The question irritated Chioke. Would he have called if he knew? Did he wake up every morning making plans for what he would do if he lost his job? But he unwittingly opened his dry mouth and said, “I want to go back.”

This answer shocked Chioke as much as it shocked Tobenna. It was as though it had been waiting somewhere at the back of his throat, and when it found an opportunity, it clawed its way out. He remained largely mute to Tobenna’s plethora of disparaging remarks—you know how things are back home; are you sure you won’t try for a language course? I’m sure you can find something else; how are you going to make it if you go back like this? Without any plan?—humming as though he agreed, even though he knew he had only one other option.

As soon as those words came, I want to go back, Chioke felt a sudden exhaustion in his spirit. It spread from his chest to his bones, and he had to lean on the wall of the restroom, where he had escaped to after leaving the manager’s office.

After he came out, he looked at himself in the mirror and wiped the bead of water clinging to his eyes. His lips quivered as he went out to pack his things and say goodbye to co-workers who would forget him within a week of his leaving. He had ambled around the shopping complex near the office until five-thirty p.m., his usual closing time. Only then did he join the throng of workers waiting at the bus stop to struggle onto the bus.

The street he lived on was alive with evening life. Roadside food vendors and trinket sellers were already setting up their stalls for the night market. He didn’t stop to converse with the small, bespectacled man who sold phone cases and eyeglasses; he could not handle another repeated conversation about the man’s cousin, who worked somewhere in Tanzania or Kenya. Nor did he scan through the cheap, pretty earrings, bracelets, and rings on the table in front of Nannan; she was always smiling, always complimenting his height and teeth. At a mobile food stall in front of an equipment shop, he temporarily put his melancholy aside to converse with the kindly woman stirring rice into fried eggs in an iron wok. She was one of the few constants in the neighborhood since he moved in, moving her food cart according to traffic on the street. She was generous with her rice portions and sometimes added one or two extra thin meat slices for him. The short conversation with her, mostly both of them complaining of the weather, briefly lightened Chioke’s mood.

The melancholy returned when he got to the nine-storey building where his apartment was. The entrance to the stairs was dark and smelled fusty. The motion sensor lights were weakened from many years of use, with some of them not coming on at all or coming on after he was on the next flight of stairs. He had been climbing the stairs for four years, yet today the climb was laborious. Halfway, he stopped and rested on the peeling railings, scratchy against the skin of his arm. He waited for the vertiginous feeling in his head to pass before he continued upstairs. By the time he got to the eighth floor, the woozy feeling in his head had returned. The motion sensor light on his floor flickered briefly, then went off. He struggled to insert the key into the keyhole before he unlocked the dark brown door and let himself inside.

“Your room is always in a mess,” Rachel always said when they Facetimed. He had gotten so used to the mess in the apartment that he no longer noticed it. No matter how much he cleaned, the room always seemed immune to order. There was always a pile of jackets and jeans on the armchair in the living room; presently, he removed his jeans and added them to the pile. His white-turned-brown sneakers joined the pairs of shoes spilling out from the shaky shoe rack beside the door. On the center table were two empty cans of beer, biscuit wraps, an unwashed takeaway plate with chewed bone pieces, and a laptop. At least the rugged floor was free of obstructions. He removed the laptop and placed it on the pile of clothes on the armchair to make space for the packaged fried rice.

He switched on the TV, sat down on the floor, and started to eat, scarfing down the rice without chewing. The rice tasted like starch today. It wasn’t spicy enough. The bok choy tasted slightly bitter. The meat felt like it had been left out of the fridge for too long before it was cooked. He thought of Rachel while he ate; thoughts of her made the food palatable. He imagined she prepared it, imagined teasing her about her poor cooking, though he had tasted her ofe-oha and ofe-akwu and concluded she was a better cook than his mother.

Before she became his girlfriend, he used to help Rachel buy bulk bags and shoes from Chinese companies; he helped her ship them to Nigeria for some commission. At first, her disturbance irritated him. She called at ridiculous hours of the night, and when he complained, she apologized repeatedly in a perfunctory tone that only annoyed him more. Sometimes they argued about the shipping fees; he would tell her to look for someone else if she thought he was cheating her, then her voice would become shaky and she would start talking about some misfortune she experienced earlier and how difficult life was for people in the country. 

They ceased talking for a while after she stopped selling bags and shoes and started a catering business. She no longer posted long threads of pictures of bags and shoes on her WhatsApp status; instead, she frequently posted selfies. He thought she was beautiful. She preferred to wear her hair in long, dark-colored, medium-sized braids. In the pictures, she smiled with all her teeth and had skin the color of roasted cashew nuts. She dressed decently; her skirts stretched to her calves, and her shirts covered the entirety of her chest. It had been easy for him to slip into more personal interactions with her. He wasn’t sure when they started dating; he never officially asked. They just started doing the things long-distance couples do. They made long calls to each other, talked while Rachel baked a cake or Chioke sat on the toilet seat, scrunching his nose from the smell of his shit. She sent him memes, random selfies, and long voice notes. He sent her pictures of the Chinese food he ate. He loved when she sent voice notes in reply to the food pictures he sent: “Hei, Oke! Is this what you’re eating? I hope those people will not spoil my baby’s stomach.” He liked the explicit certainty and possessiveness in her voice when she called him “my baby”. It made him feel soft inside, made him want to go home and lay with her.

After he finished the rice, he got two bottles of beer from the fridge and began to look for flight tickets to Nigeria. He wasn’t sure how long after a person was fired before his work visa expired. But since he had made the decision to go home, he wanted to do so as fast as possible. He got a WeChat message from Bashir, a distant friend, just as he was about to confirm his booking: Guy, I hear say you dey go back. Wetin sup naw? Abeg you fit help me carry something go house. Chioke sucked his teeth. Trust Tobenna to run his mouth. It would only be a matter of time before other people got to know he was returning home.

In his stupefaction over getting fired, Chioke had called a lot of people during the short time in the company’s restroom. He called Rachel first; she didn’t pick up. She was probably still sleeping. Then he called Oge, his ex-girlfriend, who had three or four agents that helped foreigners find jobs. Oge said she would check if there was something available and get back to him. She still hadn’t called back. He called Nnazuike, his former agent in Guangzhou. “Chai, sorry! This people sef. Na so dem dey do. I will see what I can do,” Nnazuike said in a tone that implied he would forget about Chioke as soon as the call ended. He called Peter Achu, who had helped him the last time his visa almost expired. Again, it was a promise: “I will see which schools have language courses open for admission.” But it was all before he called Tobenna, before the five words left his mouth with an unquestionable finality, leaving him unable to consider any other option.

Twenty minutes later, he cradled a can of beer; another empty can had joined the two on the table. “I am tired of trying so hard to remain in a place that doesn’t want me,” he told Nani. Her panting on the other side of the phone was loud. His call had met her on the treadmill.

“This place is so fucked up.” He rubbed his face and laid back on the ground, stretching his legs out. “My life’s so stagnant. Everybody else seems to be growing, doing things, but I’m still here, exactly where I started. What do I even have to show for all my time here?”

Eight years. Eight good years had passed since he entered the country, yet nothing significant had come out of them. He had been working full-time for four years, and in the four preceding years, he worked part-time as he studied. He came to China on a scholarship for his master’s degree. After his graduation, he applied for a Ph.D., also on scholarship, and got admitted. He had been luckier than most of his peers, some of whom had to return to Nigeria as their visas drew close to expiration without any hope of a job or school admission to extend them. He continued to combine studies with hustle. He sacrificed his sleep so he would study at night and work during the day—his routine reversed during the period he worked at a nightclub. He rushed from one end of the city to the other between school and work and hid in toilets to avoid the immigration patrol because he wasn’t supposed to work on a student’s visa. Once, he got caught on a job but got off with a hefty fine. It hadn’t been a sustainable lifestyle. A year and a half into his Ph.D. study, he decided to drop out. He found a job as an ESL teacher in a language center that agreed to give him a work visa. A year later, when the center closed down and he found himself without a job, he enrolled in a language course to extend his stay until he found this job.

But what did he have to show for this? For the annual trips to the immigration office to renew his visa? The nonstop hustle? His bank accounts were in such pitiful condition. The house he started building in Amawbia had become an abandoned building, home to weed smokers and school truants. There was nothing to show, no evidence of his hard work.

Money, he had come to realize, was not his friend. He made lots of it, but somehow, it trickled out of his accounts just as soon as it entered, as though his pockets had tiny holes. It was like pouring water into a raffia basket. He thought back to the crusades he used to go to with his mother in Nimo, where pastors prayed for men who had leaking pockets. He also remembered when his maternal uncle invited a priest for a vigil prayer in his home after millions of naira mysteriously disappeared from his account. Maybe he needed a similar vigil prayer.

But he knew how his money disappeared: Who believes those “invest 500 RMB and get 3000 RMB” investors on Instagram? Who joins a dubious agricultural investment scheme on Facebook? Who put six months salary savings into cryptocurrency without understanding how it worked? It became that, even though he spent frugally, wore shirts until they were completely worn before buying new ones, and ate cheap roadside food and instant noodles, his pockets kept on leaking. Now, eight years had passed, but he was still in the same miserable condition as he had been when he arrived in China.

“I used to feel like that too,” Nani said, heaving. “Like the place is just meant to stifle you. No matter how long you stay there, it’s probably always going to feel like you’re not growing. You’re never going to feel like you belong. It’s demoralizing, really.”

“The plan was to make the money and get the fuck out.” He kicked his leg into the air and deposited another empty beer can on the table. “You know, quick money.”

It worked for Nani. They came to China together, having studied Chinese together at an institute in Oko. Nani also worked while she studied. She, too, worked for a year after she graduated. She used the money she earned to start a shoe business, which had now grown to include designer bags, perfumes, and jewelry. When she left China and returned to Nigeria, she had done so with a boyfriend, a businessman who was already knocking on her parents door with a marriage proposal. It was what many of his friends did—the ones who came to China at the same time as he did and the ones who came after him. Nnamdi. Okon. John Peter. They all now had flourishing businesses, some with wives and children. But not him. None of the businesses he started had survived more than six months: the poultry farm, the air fryer business, and the children's footwear business.

He could try again. Apply for a language course. Find another job. Avoid false investment schemes. But the acute tiredness in his veins weakened him. He was lonely. His friends had all moved on, moving higher and further in life. And home called. A call for permanence and stability, which he lacked in this place.

There was also pregnant Rachel, now nearing the middle of her third trimester. They had yet to be married officially. When he brought up marriage with her, it was more because most of his friends were getting married and his father was beginning to drop not so subtle hints than because he loved her. Although he felt something for her, something warm and tingly, he could not tell if it was love. But he was willing to build a home and raise children with her. It seemed to be all that mattered. When the COVID border restrictions relaxed, he traveled home and took palm wine to her parents. He spent a little more than a week with Rachel. It was enough for him to fall in love with her throaty laughter, undistorted by static, and the unbridled passion she showed in bed.

Rachel didn’t say it, but he saw it in her eyes, in her daily complaints about how difficult it was with the pregnancy, that she wanted him home. He too had started to long for home, even though he knew it was no longer what it was before. If he was going back, it was to start over.

“Maybe you should come back first and restrategize,” Nani offered before she hung up the phone.

Restrategize. He tasted the word. Repeated it several times. It was a good way to put it. It wasn’t a word he would normally use. It made it sound as though he initially had something and only needed to rework it. Like a war general who had faced a minor defeat and needed to recoup his losses. It sounded like a promise. Things were not over. He was only taking a step back to take a step forward. 

Later in the night, when he facetimed Rachel, he said, “I want to restrategize. I will come back first, and from there, decide what’s next.” And because she wanted him to come home, Rachel said nothing else, only promised to prepare his favorite soup when he returned.

Maybe, just as John Peter used to say of his bad luck before he left China for Canada, the climate here didn’t suit him and wasn’t favorable to him. Maybe in a different place, his pockets would stop leaking. In a different place, he would do much better.

It was with this mindset that Chioke cleaned his old Echolac luggage and began to pack his things.

Cynthia Chukwuma is a graduate student in history at Wuhan University. She was shortlisted for the 2021 Quramo Writers’ Prize for her unpublished novel and has appeared in The Kalahari Review and Writers Space Africa. She posts some of her writing on Medium. Her IG handle is Cynthiac_linlin.

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  1. Wow a classic
    Just as expected
    When are we getting "the last cognadiman"?🤞

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