Short Story: The Gas Merchant

One hot afternoon in January, after the harmattan season had taken off in what would be remembered as the shortest visit by a season, Bulala Sise took a bus from Oshikun to Irunmole, where he schooled. Failing to wrap his head around a longueur that was his copy of the compulsory lecture notes sold by a perfidious lecturer in order to ignore the discomfort that came from sitting on barely half of his behind, his eyes caught an unfamiliar sight. There should have been nothing conspicuous about a convoy of tattered Toyota buses with shoddy paint jobs driven by individuals expertly dodging potholes as though an invisible scoreboard were recoding points, but a banner made out of cloth with the message “CHIEF MABAJETEMI’S YOUTH SUPPORT GROUP” was bound to place this particular convoy in the spotlight. What was so special about a man that young individuals would rally together to create a support group in his name?

The bus finally slowed down to take a right into the park, jolting to an abrupt stop as though the engine was waiting patiently to give up the ghost. Thank God it didn’t happen along the way, Bulala thought to himself, as he slung his bag over his shoulder before a crafty ‘okada’ man would drag him for attention. Just before the motorcycle roared out of the park, a billboard with an enormous portrait stood unopposed on the side of the road. WISHING YOU ALL A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR, SIGNED SENATOR MABAJETEMI, THE FUTURE GOVERNOR, the caption beneath ran.

The next morning, Bulala entered the kitchen. It was the size of a closet, with a table set up to carry stoves and gas cookers. Only one person could occupy it at a time, causing him to let out a groan every time he had to wait for a neighbour to finish his/her business. Lighting his gas cooker, he placed a kettle filled with water and stepped out to arrange his cooking items. To his dismay, the cooker had run out of gas, but luckily, he still had some money stashed in a book to get a refill.

After visiting the stations in his area – which were not many – he soon realized none were open for business; in fact, they were closed indefinitely. He could not believe his misfortune. Hastily, he picked up his cylinder and continued down the road, arriving at the store of the gas merchant.

Nothing had changed about this place. The unpainted walls, the cylinders as tall as the gas merchant himself, the substandard burners glittering in the sun which reminded Bulala of the last time he came: after spending over an hour waiting for his turn and another thirty minutes watching the gas move slowly into his cylinder, ‘Alfa’ (the gas merchant) pointed out that his burner was faulty and suggested buying a new one, which turned out to have the worst control ever.

“Did you attend the party?” a customer, wearing an agbada, asked his male companion as they waited their turn. The latter responded in the affirmative, describing how he was able to eat to his heart’s content and bag a few drinks for the road. He went on and on about the campaign promises the senator intended to fulfil, filling them with hope that a son of the soil would finally breathe life into this backward town.

“All that he is saying na wash”, Alfa interrupted, picking up a screwdriver to check the flow of gas into the cylinder.

“Shebi he has been a senator for three years. Is the town not the same as it was before he came?”

Bulala knew where this conversation was headed. He began searching his pockets, letting out a sigh upon realizing he had left his headphones back at the apartment. It wasn’t the first or second time he had been reluctantly drawn into a needless conversation. He loathed those mornings when his father sent him on an errand to purchase newspapers from the stand at the main road. He could picture the scene before he arrived: the lifeless wooden table shabbily crafted to hold nothing heavy, various newspapers, magazines and a few journals neatly spread across it, a crowd of people gathered round like a team of surgeons in an operating theatre, a newspaper peddler with an apron around his waist and an air of aggrieved voices arguing in favour of or against the actions or inactions of a ruling political party or soccer club.

“It is the work of Governor Komowe to develop this town. That one did not set foot in this place ever since he campaigned for second term,” the party customer fired back with a disgusted look.

“What do you even know about politics sef? Senators can only propose things that their district will benefit. If their colleagues don’t agree, it won’t be approved. Komowe has the power to convince his subordinates in the state assembly to improve our town, but as a Jege man, our town and any other community that is not Jege will get nothing. Is that not what the past governors have been doing? Jege people are wicked”

Customers exchanged nervous glances and kept to themselves. Alfa simply smiled and handed a customer his cylinder, collected his fee and set down another cylinder to be weighed. Save for an unkempt goatee which could pass for a patch across his tiny jaw, Alfa appeared to be a simple man. He wasn’t fashionable, opting for oversized shorts and a polo shirt on sandals, and maintained a puritanical profile leaving people with an impression that he could never be disingenuous.

“Guy, you be parrot. Didn’t you hear of that blogger living in Alhaji Ejekajo’s compound that was arrested by SARS? I heard he was saying bad things about the government online.”

Bulala frowned at the agbada customer. He (Bulala) lived in Alhaji Ejekajo’s compound and that ‘blogger’ was definitely not arrested for hate speech, not that such a mundane crime mattered in a society obsessed with crawling out of abject poverty. Yahoo boys, a name used by the general populace to refer to internet fraudsters, were a generally accepted but inconspicuous sight in Irunmole.

“I know the governor has done nothing: I live here too. I am not Jege or Ekun, but we should stop pointing fingers at Jege people as though the problem is tribal, not greed. At least, one of them built the polytechnic and many students are coming here for education. Another one constructed the road that we were enjoying for years. You Ekun people produced one governor. Did he do anything during his tenure? ” Alfa replied, fiddling with a cylinder to check the gas pressure.

“Ehn. That is in the past. We all know the ruling party did not want to give him funds because he was with the opposition. The opposition is now the ruling party and that useless Jege man wants to eat everything. Chief Mabajetemi will not forget us. You should have seen the cows he killed for the party. I heard he killed five and . . .”

“Shey na only food we go chop?” Alfa interrupted the party customer again, handing over his cylinder. Bulala let out a sigh of relief as Alfa picked up his cylinder for refilling. His stomach groaned at the thought of food. The time between the refilling and the meal he planned to prepare stretched forth like the road to Oshikun. The party customer picked up his cylinder and headed out of the store shed.

“At least he gave us food to eat. When he campaigned for Senate, I got Five thousand naira. FIVE THOUSAND NAIRA. Do you know when last I had that amount of money in one day?” the party customer blurted out unashamedly before disappearing between the houses on the right.

At this point, customers burst into laughter. Bulala’s cylinder was finally full. He paid Alfa and as he stepped out into the road, a thought occurred to him, but hunger would not let him speak. He imagined a store where people filled their gas cylinders with a pump – powered by electricity – administered by an attendant, Alfa collecting fees and making a record of each purchase on a personal computer; perhaps employing a POS machine for cashless payments. Alfa had demonstrated that the town lacked development from bad leadership. Ironic, he had never taken the initiative to make gas refilling more efficient for a business that had thrived when many others failed. Perhaps, development wasn’t a problem of bad leaders alone.

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