His work shed was the last among the rows of makeshift sheds that lined themselves along the road bringing Isale-Osun to complete a four-way junction at Olaiya. He laid down on a bench and jolted up when we stopped in front of his shed and peered inside.
‘I think he’s a mute.’ The lady said and turned to return to her mother’s shop. I murmured a ‘thank you’ after her. My tailor’s shop was also on the same side of the road and when I asked if there was a cobbler around there, she asked her daughter to take me to the one at the end of the road.
I was, to confess, a little annoyed that she had brought upon me a burden of having to communicate with a mute. But I was desperate, and the mute had a good smile. He motioned for me to sit on a bench and, as I sat down, I removed my backpack and hand it to him, I pointed at the torn strap I wanted fixed. He examined it and, with his right index finger, he traced ‘100’ on his left palm. I shook my head and traced ‘70’ on my own palm. Pity restrained me from offering him 50 Naira, which was what I would have agreed to pay anywhere else. He agreed to the price and went to work. I watched him work the needle and brown thread and marveled at his dexterity. He had the distinctive look of a northerner. He was light-skinned and he bore a smile that gave his face a warm, crude handsomeness. He wore a faded shirt, black trousers, and slippers. He was in his mid-twenties, that I was sure.
When he finished, he pointed at a different tear on the other strap to me and I nodded that he should fix it as well. He worked with a swift calmness that felt strange in a pleasant way.
I quickly recalled the beggars I had encountered on my way there. Half of them had no physical disability; and more than half, have their faces memorized in my brain, after seeing them for years. It is more than seeking alms to them; it is a job. Something they wake up in the morning and look forward to doing. I had stopped giving beggars money when, years ago, one of them rejected my money for being ‘too small’. He said I was ‘a big man’ and could do better than 20 Naira.
He pulled the straps to test the strength of his repair. Satisfied, he handed me my backpack. I examined it, awed by how neat his work was. There was no wayward thread hanging loosely about, or squeezed patch; and he managed to keep each strap at the same length. I stood up and gave him One Hundred Naira. He searched his pocket for change, but I gestured for him to keep it. He frowned and shook his head. He handed me my change but I refused to collect it from him. We continued like this – he, insisting I collect the change, and I, insisting he kept it – for a moment. I walked out and heard him made a strange sound. I turned around and he had placed his palms together, bowing a little. I did the same and said my first and only words to him: Thank you.