Because I couldn’t stop reading science books Leke who was two years older than me called me Engineer. He found it funny and anytime I walked up to the older boys in the playground, he would shout “Here comes engineer.” I was not bothered by this. Engineer was hardly an insult. There were worse names to be called. Bayo was primitive goat, Ayo was villager and Kale’s sister was something else that I don’t think it’s a good idea to repeat here.
I loved science books mostly for the pictures. In one I found a drawing of an old man with a long beard sitting in a tub and he was half naked and water was flowing out of the tub. He had just discovered that if you put something in a full container of water, the water that flows out will equal the size of whatever you put in the container. And he discovered all this by sitting in a tub of water. His name was Archimedes and I spent days telling Leke, who never listens to me and Bayo and Kale and Chinedu, who could run faster than everybody in our class, I spent days telling them of Archimedes.
Later when I found a caterpillar just the size of my thumb, wriggling and green in the soft black soil behind our house, there was no doubt in my mind that I would name him Archimedes. Like the wise man in the book. And I would keep my caterpillar and watch it grow into a butterfly and it would rise into the air and be sparkly bright with many colors and beautiful and I would show it to Father’s friends when they came to visit as they sat on the balcony drinking cold stout and listening to Victor Olaiya. Big sister Korede thought this was crazy but nevertheless found me a plastic bowl and I turned it over and put some soil and leaves under it and kept Archimedes there and I checked on him many many times in even one day.
On TV the whole entire world was looking for Anini, the man who could disappear and so I watched the news every night and tracked the progress of the investigation of his “many many dastardly acts”. Ruth Benamaisia whose face was round and smooth like a bowl and shiny and beautiful told us how the Anini chase was going every night. I liked hearing the news from Ruth Benamaisia. I liked the jokes she would make with whoever was reading with her that night. I liked how they laughed. And when they laughed I too would throw my head back and laugh out as loud as I could, which would make my Father laugh some more and he would smile at me, which made me happy and big sister Korede would just roll her eyes in that all knowing way of hers.
The Anini chase was going on but Mother couldn’t be bothered. She had important things to do. Like cooking and cleaning and going to work and coming home and making sure we were on the straight and narrow. I knew this because Mama Sapele had said this to Mother that she needed to stay home and make sure we were on the straight and narrow not spend so much time in the big company building. And this had made Mother upset. Which was easy to tell because she was so unusually cheerful that night. And even when big sister Korede had put her foot on Father’s glass middle table (which Manu broke eventually and made us say that we did so he would not get beaten), even when big sister Korede had done this, Mother had just sighed and kept on ignoring her till Ruth Benamaisia finished the news and Mama Sapele left.
Days after I found Archimedes, Ruth Benamaisia glowing from the box in our living room said something that made Mother tell us to fetch Father from the balcony and Father came in with his friends and he twisted the dial on the TV till the volume was loud and they all listened. When Ruth Benamaisia was finished there was a lot of shouting from Father and his friends. It was hard to tell what was happening except that “army boys they had no sense” and somehow Ayo’s father, who lived downstairs, was with them. I liked Ayo’s father. His voice was deep and he wore suits and he had a beard and he gave us minty Tom Tom sweets anytime we saw him. And he always called me boxer and pretended to punch me and I would pretend to punch him back and then he would fall down on the floor laughing, shouting, “I’m down, I’m down, KO, Boxer that is a KO!”. I thought it was all a bit silly but I was happy to play along. The next day Father’s balcony was a bit fuller than usual and Ayo’s father was not there, he was, I guess, still spending time with the army boys. And when I asked Father he explained to me that Ayo’s father had said something but sometimes you can’t say things and that I should not worry it would all be okay.
I wasn’t worried. Just a bit impatient. He still owed me Tom Tom from our last boxing match. But Father looked grim so I knew it would not be helpful to mention this. I just hoped he would come back soon and I hoped he would not forget to bring my Tom Tom along. Father went back to the balcony and that night many of his friends did not leave till the next morning and Victor Olaiya played all night on the stereo. And he played and played and Father drank and his friends drank and they laughed and they called the army boys bastards and other names I can’t repeat.
The next morning on Saturday the balcony smelt of stale beer and suya. I saw Ayo’s Mother in the yard downstairs by herself. Crying. Not like my loud crying or Korede’s tearful fits, but silent. Like at the end of the movie where the hero dies and one tear falls from the blonde woman’s eye. That afternoon, to cheer Ayo up I took him to Miss Segi’s blue car. Miss Segi had a shiny blue car. With gleaming wheels and insides that were light green. And soft. Or at least we imagined it to be soft. Miss Segi unlike the other neighborhood adults never took us on short jaunts inside her car. Whenever Miss Segi opened her door, you could hear her heels clicking as she stepped out of her place, clicking…then silence as she turned round and locked her door, and then clicking again as she walked down the stairs, clicking fading away until the blue car roared to a start.
I told Ayo it would be a good idea to decorate Miss Segi’s blue car. We made beautiful twirly scratches on the car. Little circles and big circles curling into each other, silvery thin and grey against the waxed blue shininess. It looked pretty when we were done. Like a little fairy had come and made the car hers.
Miss Segi must not like little fairies. She hated the scratches. We knew we were in trouble when we heard her clicky heels, clicking faster as she walked round the car instead of stepping in as she usually did.
“What is this! Morogo!!”
“No no no, this is rubbish!”
“Useless children, awon omo aileko!”
Miss Segi then went from apartment to apartment and made all the children come out. By then day was turning into evening, but the skies were still clear, with cotton wool puffy clouds sailing lazily across the pink and orange sunset. I could not resist staring at the clouds. One cloud looked like an elephant with two snouts. I told this to Ayo, pointing out the snouts. Ayo was not interested in the snouts. He was scared, trembling, and rubbing his hands against each other.
Miss Segi lined us all around her car. She pointed out the twirly silvery lines. She need not have done so. They were easy to see.
“Who did this?”
No one answered.
“Who did this?,” she repeated, her voice rising higher, her smooth calves tapering into heeled shoes tensed as she balanced on one foot, one foot tapping against the other ankle, first slowly, then much faster.
Ayo’s foot was also tapping. Against the grass. Also slowly, then faster.
“I’m sorry, ma”
I could not believe my ears.
“I’m sorry,” Ayo said again. “We thought you would like it.”
I should have known better than to partner in crime with Ayo.
“We abi. You and who? Show them to me now.”
Ayo pointed at me.
“Jus two,” Ayo replied weakly.
We were dead. I was sure of this. Miss Segi feared no one in the building and would definitely kill us. So I ran. Without even looking at Ayo or the others I ran past Miss Segi, and the car, up the stairs, through the door into my living room. Victor Olaiya was playing and Father was home early with a glass of golden liquid in his hand. He smiled at me as I ran in but did not ask why I was running. I ran to my room and closed the door. When I caught my breath I could see that someone left the window open. The wind was blowing in and making the curtains dance. The room was cool and just a bit dark. Archimedes was sleeping sleeping. He had not moved in days and Leke said he was dead and big sister Korede warned him not to be mean and told me not to worry that I will have my butterfly yet. I wish Archimedes would move because it would make me happy. And I pray Ayo’s okay and that Miss Segi will forgive him. And that the army boys will let Ayo’s dad come home. With my Tom Tom and maybe he’ll call me boxer again. But somehow I know this will not be. And that no matter what Korede says I’ll probably not get my butterfly.