16 August 2005 | Vol. 5, No. 2

Petrovesky and Pollarbywall

During the long holiday of 1978, a man named Petrovesky came to live in our neighbourhood. Petrovesky was a giant who always wore a long black coat and carried a short black cane with a gold tip. He had a long nose, big blue eyes and a red beard that reached all the way down to his knees. He also had giant wings with which he could fly and he always flew at night to various places around the world but he would always fly back to Port Harcourt before morning.

Though we never actually saw Petrovesky in person, that holiday of '78, the tree-lined, gridlocked streets of old Government Reserved Area, where the colonialists used to live, buzzed with talk of this man whose powers were incredibly magical. For example, it was said that by merely pointing his cane and uttering a few words, Petrovesky could turn a man into a dog or whatever animal took his fancy.

Invariably, where two or more were gathered in the long hazy shadows of the many trees of our perfect little world, the perfection-ruining Petrovesky was bound to form part of the topic if not all of it. There were some speculations at first that perhaps some politicians may have brought in this man to help them defeat their opponents because that holiday, everybody—including those who were not yet of voting age—knew that the general elections of 1979 were not so far away and politicians, as my mother often said, "would do anything to sell their lies and win." But no one could say which of the political parties Petrovesky was supposedly working for.

Though the generally pleasant scent of the queen-of-the-night tree was the pervading evening fragrance in Old GRA, everyone nonetheless noticed the foul whiff of evil inevitably exuded by the ubiquitous Petrovesky. We kids were particularly worried because this strange character or 'karakata,' as Koko's younger brother referred to him, presented curious problems that we were not sure how to deal with.

"They say he's an American pretending to be a Russian," Simi Long-John said, his face set in that hooded scowl he'd been born with. This was on the first day we actually talked about Petrovesky as a group.

"No," Tam-Tam said, shaking his shaggy head. "I heard he's actually a Russian pretending to be an American who is pretending to be a Russian."

If there was one thing that was clear, it was that this Petrovesky was a very unclear character. "Well," I said, shoving my hands deep into my jeans pockets, "I heard my father telling Koko's father that Petrovesky is really a Pole who can pretend to be either an American or a Russian depending on what mood he's in."

"Huh?" Koko's lollipop nearly popped out of his big mouth. It was always a wonder among us how that boy always seemed to be sucking on a lollipop. We'd considered Cello-taping his mouth several times. "My father," Koko said, still licking his thick lips, "told my mother that Petrovesky is a magician from that country with a name that starts with 'C' but then has a 'Z' following immediately."

"Czechoslovakia?" Tam-Tam, who we sometimes derided for knowing everything, offered.

"That's the one," Koko nodded.

"Na wah* for this Petrovesky!" Simi Long-John and I said as one in Pidgin English.

Indeed it really was too much for Petrovesky. We were arranged in various half-leaning, half-sitting and half-lying positions on the long bonnet of Grandpa Long-John's long abandoned Toyota Crown. While that lazy early evening breeze made a poor pretence of blowing, we contemplated the matter in silence.

Considering that none of us was even thirteen at the time—in fact, Koko was yet to mark his twelfth birthday, though that had not stopped him from joining the rest of us in Man O' War which we all preferred to Boys Scout—silent contemplation was very unusual for us.

Yet it really couldn't be any other way. There we were with an annoying matter on our hands that demanded instant blows, but for once none of us had any interest in settling a controversy with a fight. The matter was simply beyond us. And it wasn't just the inconsistency of where the man was originally from that confounded us. The mystery with which Petrovesky had moved into our neighbourhood and taken everyone's interest away from everything else (including Saturday afternoon football, for goodness sake!) was like the time they said Michael Jackson was coming. It didn't matter that they eventually said he wouldn't be coming anymore; people still talked more about that than anything else for a long time.

So, that evening, we hung out in silence on Grandpa Long-John's forgotten super cool ride and pondered the wonder of Petrovesky until our different mamas bawled out our names along with very articulate promises of what hellish things awaited us if we failed to retire indoors immediately.

Early the next day, Koko showed up in our front yard as I leisurely polished my father's new and forever gleaming Peugeot 504.

"Armed robbers attacked a house two doors away from Simi Long-John's," he said.

"What?" My eyes popped. I felt the goose pimples growing all over me. Armed robberies were things we heard about on the radio. I threw the washcloth on a clothesline and forgot about Dad's car. "How did it happen?"

Koko shrugged, turned down the corners of his mouth and showed me his open palms all at the same time. I sighed and shook my head. Wasn't it just like Koko to bring the news without the details?

By chance, my disappointment was shortly eased by the sight of the incomparable Grandpa Long-John merrily meandering back from the vendor's with a copy of the Tide held upside down while he very happily read out loud to himself. It wasn't that I'd never seen this before. Indeed, Grandpa, as we called him, had once explained that reading the paper upside down made it more interesting. And to prove that he was actually reading the paper, he often read interesting crazy stories from foreign lands to us. He'd even chided his grandson, who, if he happened to be within sight, always frowned home in disproval whenever Grandpa came waddling along, bent over and reading his paper upside down. On that occasion, Grandpa, with a twinkle in his eyes, a wide grin on his weathered face and a shaky finger playfully warning the air, had said that while he was like a carefree young man having fun in his old age, his grandson was acting like a joyless old man with no sense of fun whatsoever when in actual fact he was still only a kid!

Nevertheless, despite his explanation, and the fact that Grandpa was a retired professor of mathematics and economics whom the government still called upon once in a while to chair some committee or other, never minding or perhaps all too aware that Grandpa would mostly sleep through the sittings, I never could get the niggling idea that Grandpa was slowly going insane out of my head. And every time I saw him coming with his paper upside down, I just couldn't stop myself from cracking up. Funny thing was Grandpa just loved me for laughing at him.

Before long though, while I was still laughing, the aforementioned grandson, the bespoke and equally incomparable Simi Long-John himself, who seemed to be frowning harder than ever, came along with the meat of the armed robbery matter.

"It's Petrovesky!" he said, emphasizing the truth of it with a pointed finger hammering the air. "He flew in his American gangster friends last night with his giant wings."

Koko's eyes and mouth widened. "Swear!" he said.

"I swear!" Simi Long-John swore. He wasn't about to relax that old man's frown of his.

"Man," I said, crossing my hands in front of my bare chest, "this na serious matter-o!"

"Tell me!" Simi Long-John exclaimed, meaning I hadn't heard the half of it yet. "They say Al Capone's great-grandson's bother-in-law's friend was with them. They say he was the one with the machine gun."

Koko and I gaped at Simi Long-John in horror. Was he serious or was he joking?

Simi Long-John hissed. "Why I go lie?" he asked us.

Koko and I exclaimed our wonder. What was quiet Old GRA turning to? Suddenly, a morning shower—the type only places like Port Harcourt can bring down without warning—immediately dispersed us. But nonetheless, we stayed united in our fear of what unknowable wicked things the evil Petrovesky was going to bring into our lives.

The following weekend, Koko's uncle, an eternal applicant whom my mother said couldn't keep a job unless it meant sleeping and eating and sleeping again, suddenly disappeared just like that.

When we hooked up with Koko, he took out his lollipop long enough to say, "Petrovesky and his Russian comrades kidnapped my uncle." We sighed our collective frustration and, since it was already dinnertime, it made sense to return to our different homes just to avoid such troubles from our mothers that we could easily avoid.

By the middle of the next week, it was clear that Petrovesky had an uncanny knack for getting linked to every unfortunate happening in our neighbourhood. On Wednesday when the dockworkers began a strike demanding better conditions of service, what did we hear? Petrovesky had secretly brought his Polish unionist friends to stir up trouble.

It just went on like that until it began to seem like there was more than one Petrovesky as one of him couldn't possibly be responsible for all that was going on around us.

"Maybe he's got a twin," I told my pals as we watched white egrets flying overhead in perfect V formation late Friday afternoon.

Simi Long-John shook his head and aimed an imaginary machine gun at the egrets. "It's that long red beard of his. My Grandpa says there's juju power in it."

We all thought about that for a minute. "Why doesn't someone cut it off?" Tam-Tam asked as if he'd thought over the matter very seriously and, in his wisdom, he just couldn't see why no one had as yet thought of cutting off Petrovesky's juju beard.

The rest of us didn't know why either and, more to the point, it seemed pointless to spend the rest of the day worrying about it. In any case the egrets had all gone. So we split up and headed to our various homes.

I'd barely made it through the door when my younger sister rushed up to me anxiously. "Daddy is going to divorce Mommy," she said.

"That's nonsense," I said smugly, waving the matter away, so confident that we won't suffer the misfortune that had long overtaken Simi Long-John.

But within a few weeks, my father did indeed divorce my mother and promptly married the big-assed nurse that usually took his temperature at the hospital even when there wasn't a sign anything was wrong with him. I couldn't see it at first but, before long, Simi Long-John and the others convinced me that, of course, Petrovesky had engineered the whole thing. Again we sighed our collective frustration. But this time we individually asked in four different ways why no one had yet thought of a way to stop the evil Petrovesky. Couldn't the government do something? What about the churches? And the traditional rulers? Someone even asked if the water goddess popularly known as Mammy Water couldn't be consulted to help in the matter.

That same week I found myself believing that it had to be true that his big shaggy head made Tam-Tam smarter than the rest of us because he didn't need any convincing when his father's pickup had an accident the same day their kitchen got burned by their new house help from the village while she was trying to turn on their new gas cooker.

"I guess it's Petrovesky," he said, quite calm, considering if the kitchen hadn't been an outhouse, he'd be homeless.

I opened my palms before him like an unfurling flower. "Did anybody actually see him do it?"

"Does anybody ever actually see Petrovesky do anything?" Simi Long-John retorted.

"That's true," Tam-Tam said. "That man is a ghost."

"It can't be anybody but Petrovesky," Koko said. "That nobody saw him do it does not mean he's not the one who did it. That old wizard won't mind burning a person up, how much more a kitchen?"

It made perfect sense.

Then Koko's elder sister got pregnant just before her sixteenth birthday. We all knew before anyone mentioned it that Petrovesky was responsible. What finally did it for us was our age mate Sunny falling off his bike just at the corner of Aggrey and I. B. Johnson—an eternally quiet place—only to be turned into a cripple by an Army Land Rover coming up from, of all places, Waka Jaja Cemetery! I mean, what could have taken anyone to that cemetery?

That's when we swore: Between us and Petrovesky, it was on. There'll be no truce. A fight to the end.

"We have to get rid of him," Simi Long-John said.

Tam-Tam nodded. "Not a bad idea."

"Count me in," I said, punching the air with my fist.

"Me too," Koko chipped in.

We swung into action immediately. Meetings everyday. We were dreaming, scheming and downright agonizing over how to get Petrovesky. We had a number of startlingly brilliant secret plans.

"That old well at the back of our school..." I reminded my pals and the place became a particularly clever part of some of our best plans. There was also the construction site at New GRA where wet cement was a sure bet everyday of the week except Sundays. We also thought of Fisherman's Wharf where we knew nasty things always found a way of happening to people whom some other people had declared nasty.

"Petrovesky is nasty," Simi Long-John said.

"Beyond words," I added, as we were all clearly longing for the opportunity to show that merchant of trouble who really ruled Old GRA. "Time to chop off that juju beard!"

"Clip those giant wings," Koko said, making clipping motions with a half-finished lollipop and a forefinger.

"Break that short black cane of his," Tam-Tam said.

"Throw rings of tires over Petrovesky like those armed robbers the traders overpowered at Beach Market," Simi Long-John said.

"Good talk," I said. "I've already drained a gallon of petrol from Daddy's car..." And we were all armed with matches in two pockets each. Hell, we weren't scouts but we were one better—Men O' War—so we were more than prepared.

There was just one problem.

"Now where the hell do we find this Petrovesky?" Tam-Tam asked.

And that was it. Though we'd never actually seen him, there was no doubt in our minds that we would recognize him when we eventually did. I mean, who could miss those giant wings and the long red juju beard? Hell, I even had in my mind a distinct idea how someone such as Petrovesky was sure to smell. It was a weird mix between the smell of a horny he-goat and a just-awaken bat. But since we had no idea where his exact residence was—knowing only that he was certainly in the neighbourhood—we had no idea where to apprehend Petrovesky.

We were not worried about how. Despite his famed gigantism, juju beard and flight capabilities, we had an airtight plan to take Petrovesky if we could only find him. We'd all spent many hours on a gigantic net-making enterprise and we knew our net of strong twine and vandalised phone line wires could trap a shark, not to talk of Petrovesky who, despite all his special attributes, was still only human. For the juju beard, we'd helped ourselves to a small bottle of holy water from St Mary's to handle that! Moreover, Simi Long-John took to carrying permanently in his school bag those big shears Grandpa Long-John usually trimmed flowers with. And, amusingly for a scowling son who never particularly liked studying, Simi Long-John's folks assumed he'd suddenly developed a new love for schoolwork as his school bag was always with him in those days when we hunted Petrovesky with uncommon vigor.

The only thing that stopped us from showing Petrovesky what was what was our inability to uncover the gigantic scoundrel's hideout.

In the middle of all that grand frustration, the newly refurbished Post Office building got flooded in a freak storm. Then the rains refused to take a break for the customary August Break like we'd all known it to since we were old enough to notice such things.

Petrovesky's handwriting was clearly visible in all these calamities.

By now, even our parents had lost patience with the Russian-American-Pole or whatever he was. He could mess around with a lot of things and get away with it but playing with the weather was one thing these folks weren't going to allow. Petrovesky was surely going to get it then: Our parents too were out for him.

By September when the rains did take a break, everybody was in an excited state. For once, we and our parents were on the same side of an issue. "Get Petrovesky!" was one thing nobody had to say because it was already on everybody's mind. But then our folks came up against the one thing that had kept Petrovesky in circulation despite our concerted efforts to take him out. No one, absolutely nobody, had a clue where the thieving, kidnapping, teenage-pregnancy-causing Petrovesky could be found.

Comfortably perched on the usual bonnet one afternoon, I belched contentedly and rubbed my tummy for I'd just had a meal of pounded yam and afang soup. "Maybe Petrovesky has flown back to where he came from," I said.

"I doubt it," Koko said. "Too many bad things are happening. He's still around."

"Maybe he's not really one person," Simi Long-John suggested with a tired frown.

I wagged a finger in his face. "I said that before."

"Maybe he doesn't even exist," Tam-Tam said, nodding wisely to himself.

At first that came across as really stupid. How could the invincible Petrovesky not exist? I mean, think about it: If there was no Petrovesky then who was responsible for all the misfortune that had befallen Old GRA? We stood around Grandpa Long-John's old ride, waiting for the first person among the three of us who was going to give the I-know-it-all Tam-Tam the comeuppance he surely deserved. But by the time our mothers started bawling and no one had said a word, we said our goodnights and trudged back to our different homes with our heads bent low.

As out-of-this-world as it may sound, we eventually spent the rest of the long holiday of '78 thinking about what Tam-Tam had said.

For some funny reason, it wasn't until the long holiday was over and we were back in school that word got round that Petrovesky had moved. Had Tam-Tam been wrong, then? Anyway, supposedly, that great trouble-bringer had relocated to England on the singular mission of making all the cows there mad.

"So how come many bad things are still happening around here?" Koko asked no one in particular.

"Bad things used to happen before we ever heard of Petrovesky," Tam-Tam said.

"And they're still happening now even though he's gone," Simi Long-John said.

"Maybe Petrovesky is really everywhere at once," I suggested, holding on to the half-hope that perhaps there'd been a Petrovesky after all.

"Or maybe there's a little Petrovesky in all of us," Tam-Tam said, smiling in that knowing way of his. I felt bested so I gave him the wicked eye.

"Nobody believes that," I said, managing to sound superior. "For all his powers, no one has said Petrovesky can be in more than one place at a time." I gave Tam-Tam the wicked eye again. I was ready to go back to the former way we used to settle controversies. All that quiet contemplation was beginning to fill me with more contempt than could be safely channelled in the singular direction of Petrovesky. But Tam-Tam was wise enough not to push it.

Yet the report of Petrovesky's relocation had already become a big bone of wide contention among a sizable number of people in Old GRA because, even though it became clear that Petrovesky or no Petrovesky, life just had a way of springing bad things on people every now and then, some people were not happy to go along with this reality.

Koko's uncle was one such person. He reappeared after we resumed school and began telling stories of how he'd been tortured in Siberia by Petrovesky and his Russian comrades.

Then my father suddenly divorced the big-assed nurse to get back with my mother again. My now ex-stepmother, who'd been a spinster long enough and was now suddenly a divorcee, quickly said Petrovesky had sent an agent to cause the split.

My mother, always incredibly good-natured, brushed the entire episode aside and asked how come no one had noticed that Koko's elder sister's baby had a face just like Koko's uncle's face.

Koko's uncle resented this. "Why won't the baby have a face like mine?" he asked. "For goodness sake we're related!"

"Plain as day," my mother quipped, typically refusing to say more.

Next, that talk of a Petrovesky agent gained currency. By all accounts, that long-bearded malefactor (I actually learnt that word in Bible study class that same year!) had sent a man by the name of Polarbywall, to replace him in our neighbourhood. Word, ever so quick to get around in Old GRA, had it that Polarbywall was the one who made the baby to have Koko's uncle's face just to give the man a bad name for a sin he didn't commit.

Polarbywall, we also heard, was a man supposedly hundreds of times more evil than Petrovesky. And unlike his predecessor who would have been easy to spot had he ever made the mistake of venturing out in the full glare of daylight, Polarbywall, we heard, looked exactly like every other man. And word had it that he had taken up permanent residence in our neighbourhood, promising to deal with us all mercilessly.

This was simply too much for us. It was just too amazing.

"It's all a lie," Tam-Tam said.

"Just like Petrovesky," I added.

"I think I agree with you fellows," Simi Long-John said.

Only Koko had doubts. He momentarily took out his lollipop.

"Petrovesky was real," he said. "When I asked my uncle if he was really kidnapped by Petrovesky and his Russian comrades, my uncle was so dazed by the torture he'd suffered that he didn't even know what I was talking about. When I explained it to him patiently, he admitted that Petrovesky had indeed kidnapped him."

"Na wah for you, Koko! So how did he come back?" I asked.

"Polarbywall brought him back," Koko replied.

"Huh? That's nonsense," Tam-Tam said. "Why would this Polarbywall be so kind?"

"Man, Koko," Simi Long-John said, his brow all knotted up. "Petrovesky was a lie. Polarbywall is a lie too."

"I don't agree," Koko says.

The rest of us tried to reason with him.

"Did you ever see Petrovesky?" I asked, my hands expressing the wonder of the matter in a globe-like cup.

"No, but—"

"Did anyone you know ever see him?" Tam-Tam asked.

"My uncle did—"

"That's all a lie, Koko," Tam-Tam said, speaking gently as if Koko was retarded and needed special handling. "Your uncle got your sister pregnant and ran away and now he's come back with these stupid Petrovesky and Polarbywall stories. Open your eyes and you'll see."

Koko snorted. "My uncle didn't get my sister pregnant! Petrovesky caused it! She told us so herself! You're the one that needs to open your eyes, you dirty-minded Mr. I-Know-It-All!"

"WHAT?" It was a primal war cry from Simi Long-John, Tam-Tam and me.

Simi Long-John slapped the lollipop out of Koko's big mouth. He quickly followed it with a hooked left fist. Koko tried to parry the blow but Tam-Tam and I were already in the mix on Simi Long-John's side. Koko was bleeding from several cuts and bruises when his uncle suddenly arrived and pulled us off him.

"See what Polarbywall has done?" Koko's uncle screamed. "Do you see it now? You kids have always been friends. Now Polarbywall has turned you to enemies!"

And that's how that man who'd never done a day's worth of honest work in his life (so my mother often said) started building up the Polarbywall scam. Incredibly, some of our parents fell for it. And Koko's uncle, by general reckoning the laziest man in the neighbourhood, passed round a collection tray.

Whereas we fought the phantom Petrovesky with our minds and voluntary physical activity, Koko's uncle, the big-assed nurse and some other shady people now called for a levy, claiming they needed the money to fight Polarbywall.

All of us, except Koko of course, believed our parents, smart people that they were, will not pay.

On the Saturday afternoon that the Anti Polarbywall Committee—as those dupes called themselves—began collecting the levy, Simi Long-John, Tam-Tam and I convened on the bonnet of Grandpa Long-John's abandoned ride.

"My father won't pay," Tam-Tam said. "I heard him promise my mother who knows Koko's uncle is just looking for some easy money."

"I know my father would rather buy himself a cold beer than contribute money for that lazy man," I said.

"There's no way either my dad or Grandpa will have anything to do with that stupid scam," Simi Long-John said, for once managing to smile.

Satisfied that our families were safe from the appalling fraud that Koko's uncle was about to perpetrate in broad daylight, we settled in to take special note of the fools that would fall victim to this elementary scam.

When people started showing up, to our great surprise, our folks came sauntering through with the horde.

Simi Long-John, Tam-Tam and I ran to Fisherman's Wharf.

"I cannot believe it," I said.

"The shame of it!" Simi Long-John cried.

"What are we going to do?" Tam-Tam asked.

"That Anti Polarbywall Committee is nasty," I said.

"We have to set our parents free," Simi Long-John said.

"Good talk" Tam-Tam said.

So right there and then we went back to dreaming vicious schemes involving the old well at the back of our school again. Of course, since we are already there, we couldn't help but think of Fisherman's Wharf again. And there was another new construction site at New GRA with its devious prospects. And we knew which part of Waka Jaja Cemetery was easy to dig up since we were the only ones that ever went there. And the sweetest part was, unlike Petrovesky, we knew exactly where to find this particular set of strange 'karakatas.'

We got back to Old GRA ready to finally put our enormous net of strong twine and phone wires to some use. What strange—and some not so strange—things had happened while we were plotting at Fisherman's Wharf!

From the safe distance of their front door, Koko's younger brother told us that Grandpa Long-John had been made chairman of the Anti Polarbywall Committee. Koko's uncle, not too surprisingly, was the treasurer. My father (oh the shame of it!) was not only the secretary, he had donated his precious new Peugeot 504 to the committee! And the big-assed nurse was the assistant secretary!

As we strolled dejectedly to our favourite meeting spot, who did we see coming along with a copy of the Saturday Evening Tide opened upside down? I could have died of laughter! And I knew if I did, they would blame it on Polarbywall. Tam-Tam soon joined me laughing but Simi Long-John frowned himself home without a word. Koko came around and we saw no point in not letting him take his spot on Grandpa's abandoned old car. Grandpa stood with us and as usual read to us funny little snippets from around the world. And it didn't seem strange at all that there was an Anti Polarbywall Committee in Old GRA. After all, crazier things, apparently, were happening in other parts of the world.

Somehow, after that day, considering everything, it didn't seem to make any sense to fight the Anti Polarbywall Committee, which, in any case, was growing too big and too powerful. They had somehow managed to get the police on their side and even the army had donated an old Land Rover to the committee. It sort of made sense to leave the committee alone. After all, if our folks didn't want saving, why should we have bothered?

Not too long after that, Grandpa Long-John died of natural causes. His death, naturally, was nonetheless blamed on Polarbywall. Koko's uncle, not surprisingly, immediately volunteered to combine the tasking role of chairman with that of treasurer of the committee. My father, we later heard, seconded the idea.

Next thing we knew, the Anti Polarbywall Committee became a political party. And, incredibly, they won every available post in Old GRA during the 1979 general elections.

It all seems so long ago now yet Koko's uncle is still running things in Old GRA even though he now lives in New GRA. And they say all he does is sleep, wake up, eat and go to sleep again, preferably with young girls.

There are times I regret that my boys and I never got to carry out any of our deliciously sinister plans. But how were we to know that to successfully fight phantoms like Petrovesky and Polarbywall you had to become a phantom yourself? Koko's uncle figured it out. And now look at it: decades after, he's still the boss—the very last person you'd have thought of as one, according to my mother. He goes everywhere wearing a long black coat and carrying a short black cane with a gold tip. Reminds you of someone from the long holiday of 1978, doesn't it?

* It's too much.

About the author:

Crispin Oduobuk, a read-a-lot, travel-when-can, music and Internet freak, lives in Abuja, Nigeria. A 1995 Literature-in-English best-graduate from the University of Abuja, he's been published in BBC's Focus on Africa magazine, The Washington Times, Ken*Again, Eclectica, East of The Web, The Ultimate Hallucination, Prose Toad and others.

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 5, No. 2, where "Petrovesky and Pollarbywall" ran on August 16, 2005. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story, editors' select, million writers award.

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