is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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.