BOOK ONE 

BLACK (1980-1993)

CHAPTER ONE

       I
Peter Black was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but the silver soon became plastic when his father died. A formidable adversary had made sure that the name ‘Black’ never remained in the limelight. He took over every possession of the Blacks, leaving Peter and his mother nothing but residence in a dilapidated building at the least inhabited section of the city of Port Harcourt. Hunger ravaged their skins in the day and cold tortured them every night. And it was this suffering that turned the ten-year-old boy into a pathological thief. The first thing Peter stole in his life was a loaf of bread. And he stole it because he had no other choice.

He rose from bed this morning before his mother but he didn’t wake earlier than her; in short, his mother didn’t have a minute’s sleep all through the night, Peter didn’t know that. He just rose and went to the back of the collapsing building to bathe his face and limbs; he always had his normal baths in the stream half a mile away each time he was returning from school. He would bath in the river and take some of the water home to drink. He never gave a damn about cholera. Peter Black had just been enrolled into the Government College, Port Harcourt. It was a public school and his mother didn’t have to pay tuition, not that she would have any money to pay anyway if asked. She did not even have to pay for books, the government provided stationery. But Peter never had a uniform; he always wore his rag to school, his sartorial pride was restricted to two pairs of shirts and trousers—both too old and torn to be worn presentably. His only pair of sandals was flat-soled already and fostered different holes as if mice had been at them. Peter was never bothered about his rags, but his unkempt appearance was always a constant sadness to his mother. Contrarily, what always bothered and worried Peter was the prospect of food. Some few days, he would be given some leftovers by some students and teachers but he always made sure he remained some for his mother, no matter how little the gift was. Some other days, he’d find some spoiling crumbs of fufu in some families’ trash cans and take home. He and his mother would peel off the greening parts of the food and eat the morsels voraciously absent soup or stew. Very few times, he would luckily catch some fish in the town’s river. They would cook the fish without the benefit of seasoning or pepper—they ate just to stay alive, pleasure was something they could not afford. Still, many of those days always greeted them with hunger, and the nights always lulled them to sleep with starvation. However, Saturdays were usually their most favourite of days, for Saturdays always brought them more than enough food. Black would go out on this day to different events where parties were had and he would beg cooks to spare the leftovers of their meals. Peter Black usually came home with food to last them for three days. After the second day, the food usually turned thickly stale, but they always ate it anyway; they had eaten worse things than mere staleness of food. Their taste buds had dwindled in such ways that they didn’t even always taste the staleness in their mouths.

This particular morning, however, was a Thursday, and as Peter washed himself he wondered if the day was going to bring them food or they would have to drink water all day as they had done two days prior. When he returned into the building to change into his second rag, he saw his mother shivering violently. He immediately forgot what he intended to do and rushed to his mother’s side.

“Mami, what is wrong?” he asked anxiously. He knew his mother was not feeling well. He had suspected it when he woke up and found her still lying down. His mother had always been an early riser; she was usually up long before Peter woke up most times, she would bathe him up and get him dressed for school. When he rose up before her this morning he had assumed that she was only slightly tired; he hadn’t noticed earlier that she was shivering.

“Mami, what’s wrong?” he asked again.

“I’m all right, Peter,” his mother replied, “You’ll be late for school, go and dress up.” Her voice was weak.

“You’re not all right, Mami.”

His mother gave a weak smile, “See, I’m smiling. I’m all right.”

“But you’re shaking.”

“It’s because I’m feeling slightly cold.”

Peter looked outside. Dawn had broken clear and the sun was already peeping from the sky; there was no cold now. The cold of the night had gone. His mother shouldn’t be shivering now if it was only cold; warmth had come. Then he suddenly remembered that his mother had not eaten for two days; the last time his mother had eaten anything was on Monday. The meal he had brought home on Saturday had only lasted them till Monday; he recalled that neither of them had eaten anything on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, the next day—yesterday—he’d eaten only in the evening; the food had been too little that his mother had allowed him to eat it all. Now, he was starving. Peter knew now that it was starvation that had reduced his mother to this shivering shadow of herself. She had grown very thin; her bones were threatening to break out of her shrinking skin, her eyes were very hollow now and the hairs of her head were pulling out already. The graceful woman he had grown to know has his mother had been turned into a scarecrow.

He could not help the tears that ran down his cheeks. He wanted to help her but he didn’t know how. His mother was dying of starvation and he could do nothing about it. This broke his heart, it shattered his ventricles. He had always imagined himself growing up and taking good care of his mother for all the suffering she was going through. But he was still too young to achieve that promise now. His mother needed him more than anything now.

“Why are you crying, Peter?” His mother asked. Her voice was getting increasingly weaker.

“Mami, please don’t leave me.” The little boy was crying visibly now.

“I’m not going anywhere. But promise me one thing, Peter.”

Though Peter Black was too young to understand what a promise was, he still asked, “What?”

“Promise me you will take back all that was taken from us. Promise me.”

“I promise, Mami, I promise.”

His mother began to shake violently again. He couldn’t bear to watch his mother in such pitiable state. He had to get her some food. He quickly ran out of the house to get his mother some food. As he ran the mile, he didn’t know how he was going to get the food, but he knew that he was not going to return to the house empty-handed. He was not going to school today, his mother’s life was at stake. He was already too late anyway.