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Adetokunbo Abiola is a prize winning Nigerian Journalist and writer. He has published a novel titled Labulabu Mask (Macmillans Nigeria). He has also published in print and online magazines such as Rake Journal, BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Flask Review, Zapata!, Liberation Lit, and Sage of Consciousness Review. He is currently working on a short story collection.

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A Touch of Madness

Just as Justin Okosun opened the front door to his flat, his wife, Agnes, grabbed his shirt at the back, stood in front of him, and said she wanted a divorce. Justin sighed, shook his head, and stared past her head to the window that overlooked the path that led to the main road. In the past few months, many of his wife’s friends had packed their properties and walked out of their marriages. These were friends whose husbands had retired with Justin—Mabel Ohenhen, Gladys Ehimenka, and Fidelia Ajuya: mothers, housewives, and churchgoers. With the non-payment of their husbands’ pensions and gratuities, poverty set in, and they couldn’t stand the suffering. Staring at his wife’s face as she stood in front of him that August morning, Justin suspected that he was about to suffer the problem Agnes’ friends’ husbands faced when they were about to leave.

She wanted a divorce, Agnes explained, but there was a way to stop it. Two weeks ago, there had been an announcement on the radio that all pensioners of Justin’s set were to report at the Pension Board to submit their documents. Justin had to be serious about this issue. He should take his documents to the Pension Board to process them, so that he could get his pension and gratuity, needed at this when the family was suffering from severe deprivation. Justin must not refuse to go, as he had done in the past two weeks.

“Your gratuity is your life,” Agnes told him. “You must try to get it or I’ll leave.”

Six months ago, the flitcher job with which Agnes used to supplement the family income had been lost. Government policy had led to a ban on flitching at the forest reserves, and this had led to the closure of the saw mill where Agnes worked. She had been a diligent worker, enjoying the saw mill atmosphere and was on good terms with the management; but when the general manager explained why the place had to be shut down, she had accepted without complaint. But since then, bills had piled up, and Agnes’ mood took a downward swing. Another woman would have been tempted to imitate her friends and ditch her husband, but she was not made this way. She stayed loyal to Justin, committed to her marital vows. It wasn’t that she was romantic about the situation; the family now lived from hand to mouth, but it was not in her nature to be disloyal. She went to the provision store she had opened everyday, sold consumer items as she did while a girl, haggled with the customers that came her way, chattered with the other traders, listened to the news about pensioners, and trudged home late at night to face crushing poverty.

When the announcement came that his set of pensioners must go to the board to submit their documents, Agnes nagged him to go for the exercise. Things were different, she argued. Getting the pension was going to be much easier than in the past. The announcement said so. Besides, Justin had no choice now. Their landlord had given them an eviction notice. Thomas, their son, had been sent packing from school for non-payment of fees. She had been patient over these encumbrances, but the last straw was when the power authorities cut off the light supply. Justin must take the situation serious and make a move, or there’ll be trouble.

Sitting on the big sofa in the living room, he listened to her as she threatened again and again that she would walk out of the marriage unless he went to the Pension Board to fight for his entitlement. She had discussed with a pensioner, a friend, who had after three days accomplished the submission of her documents and would soon be paid her money. If an old widow could do this, why not Justin? Two days of stress couldn’t be such an inconvenience. Her friend had given her names of contacts at the Board to make things easier for Justin. She also had a contact, Mr. Aghahowa, a friend to her sister and a boss at the Board. He would make things far easier for Justin.

“My contact can be trusted,” Agnes said. “The pension officials are not as bad as being painted.”

“Agnes, if I go, its not because of your contact.”

“I didn’t say its because of my contact. Can’t you see it my way? You served the government for thirty-five years. Are you going to throw everything away just like that? All because you say you now believe in other things?”

A year before Justin retired, he thought it would be almost impossible to get his pension. This was why he attended the seminar - the courses about how to win business contracts fired his imagination. Justin—having spent over thirty five years at salaried appointments in Benin City, Warri, and Sapele—saw another way to make money. Another reason for attending the seminar was the condition of pensioners he knew. He saw retired workers having nothing to do, trapped in the porches of their decrepit rented apartments day in day out, abandoned by their children. Justin had bristled over this.

The talk with Agnes over, he went to the front yard of his apartment, and Thomas came to stand beside him. Justin had not said he would go after his pension, and Thomas wanted to tell him about the effect of his refusal on Agnes. Both Thomas and his father knew that Agnes was scared of poverty at old age, and the fear had gone worse with her retrenchment from the saw mill. At her provision store, the fear dominated her talk. She was bitter about her fate, especially when some of her friends told her that their husbands had got their gratuities.

“Every time, she keeps telling me to convince you to go to the Pension Board. When I refuse, she’ll blame me. She’ll say I want to allow you to ruin my future, that she’ll leave us and pack to her father’s house, that she was tired of suffering. I think you should go to the Pension Board, papa.”

Shaking his head, Justin told him that he was sorry Agnes felt the way she did. But he was on the verge of winning a contract at the MTN Branch office in Benin. The total amount of money was four times that of the gratuity. He had to spend all of his time at the MTN office to make sure he was around to answer any question about the work. He almost clinched a similar contract six months ago, but he had fallen sick and wasn’t around when he was needed. He was on the verge of clinching it once more. The accountant at MTN wanted Justin around in case he was needed for anything. They—Justin and the accountant—had been discussing the contract for the past four months. Not only had the accountant put in a good word for Justin, he had also taken Justin to meet the general manager. Justin was to print the recharge cards of MTN. Every arrangement had been put in place. So it wasn’t that Justin didn’t want to pursue his gratuity and set Agnes’ mind at rest, but the recharge card work had come up, and Justin didn’t want to do anything to make him fail again.

“If you tell them about the gratuity issue they’ll understand,” Thomas said. “They must know that gratuity is important, too.”

“I know gratuity is important,” Justin said. “But I can always struggle for it. Its not running away.”

“For mother it’ll run away,” Thomas said. “Suppose you don’t get the contract? You’ll lose both the contract and your gratuity.”

Justin paused and thought about the possibility that had made him sweat at night on the bed. He had submitted his proposals and the bid paper containing the quotations; he had met all the crucial people at MTN. There was no reason why he shouldn’t grab the deal. However, Justin felt it would be disastrous to lose out and not get the gratuity. He stared at Thomas, looked away quickly, realizing his son had sensed his fear.

(continued on page 2)



A Touch of Madness by Adetokunbo Abiola - 1 2 3
originally published July 21, 2008

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