By Nebeolisa Okwudili
Saturday, December 1, 2012.
I didn’t break the plate. I hadn’t been the one whose hands it slipped off from but she yanked my ears so hard, digging her witch’s fingers into the flesh until she drew blood. Her first son did. I was washing the dishes used yester night for dinner when her son Chiedu hurried into the kitchen I’d just mopped, requesting for a plate I’d just washed.
I warned him to be careful because I knew too well water might make the plates somewhat slippery since I hadn’t wiped them dry with a napkin, some experience had told me that. When I wake up in that house every morning, this is all I get to do: I sweep the compound littered with the dead leaves and flowers of some so-called trees (I don’t know the names of); I pack the shit of the most cowardly dog I’ve ever met in my life (yet my uncle called it a security dog); I wash the car, scrubbing the tires as though they wouldn’t roll on the ground; I wash the dishes after mopping the floors of the sitting room and the kitchen; I bathe my cousins who loved rubbing me lather when I bathed them; I wipe the appliances and furniture; then the rest I do when everyone has left the house.
So Chiedu pretended to be in a rush and picked one and tried to dash away with it. It slipped. I knew it, I thought on hearing the sound. One halve was okay (okay as in that it could hold itself and remained a jagged piece) but the other splintered like the noise it released. He had a smile on his face, his shoulders raised somewhat to a shrug. I did want to slap him, to at least break his skin with my strong palm just as he’d done the plate before his mother would come in.
She was in the kitchen before a second thought. I gripped at the sponge, careless of the water that dripped from it. “What in hell happened here?” she asked, in her usual thin voice. With such a voice you couldn’t think she could step on an ant. At least that was what I thought on stepping for the first time into the house, wielding my satchel. The day my uncle brought me from Anambra to Lagos. Her voice, so thin one would think she’d fetched a degree in English phonetics from Harvard.
“Ma,” I asked.
“Don’t pretend you never heard my question!” She yanked at my ear. I could see the effort in the contortion on her face. “You bastard!” She kept on; I sensed the stickiness behind flabby flesh. “You broke my ceramic, isn’t it?” By this time her son had slinked away from the kitchen. “Did your mother or father ever have a ceramic before they died, eh?”
When she let go my ears, I felt them pointing to the ceiling like a charged rabbit’s. I threw the sponge into the sink and sat on the floor. By this time she had left the kitchen. I wasn’t ashamed when Chiedu walked into the kitchen. He said, “I’m sorry” in a most unapologetic way. I should know that the boy was mocking me for my obvious manner which he’d easily tag as foolishness. When his father purchased an SUV and called us out to look at the new car in the compound, the little boy took a cue from his mother’s vanity and asked me, “Even you?” He snickered. Regardless of a sullen emotion, I went out to glance at the sparkling grunting thing my uncle’s wife was revving up with the key. She saw me outside and bawled at me to get inside and tend to the food on the stove.
I’ve never understood why the woman had so much hatred for me, and no matter how much I strained to please her by working hard, she didn’t get pleased an inch. She’d strike me with the ladle (if I was in the kitchen) at any mistake I made. And she made me shriek a lot. I could survive that, if that was her only share of hatred, but she kept on calling upon my dead parents, making mockery of them. Nothing pained me as that, even if she refused that my uncle enroll me to school. My parents had travelled to attend a marriage ceremony in up Sokoto and suffered a crash on returning. People (who might’ve witnessed it) attributed it to the dicey road. So when my parents were driven to the hospital, the medical men found out they’d died few minutes before they were transported there.
My uncle wife called me a misfit. One night my uncle came back from work and she asked me to serve him dinner. I never knew she was following me; in my rush I almost tripped off by the slightly higher floor of the kitchen. “Are you blind, you misfit?” she asked me. I dodged her sweeping hand. I don’t know if she derived pleasure inflicting pain on my body. That night I heard a quarrel ensue in the master bedroom. I couldn’t have known he’d heard her. I heard my uncle’s voice: “You dare not call him that name again! For God sake!” She was in reply: “And so what? Huh? Did I do anything?” “That boy has had enough from you. I’ve told you, let me not hear it, please.” “So that boy’s going to separate us? Huh?” That night my uncle slept on the sofa in the sitting room and I couldn’t watch the midnight movies on NTA.
Their quarrel made me want to know about the word. Misfit. I didn’t know that in my tiny intelligence, the meaning I was able to come up with was correct. I couldn’t fit into their family. I thought I should find where I’d fit.
I’d once tried to commit suicide. I’d heard that taking unapproved or expired drugs could kill someone. I snatched my cousin’s bottle of expired cough syrup and drank everything in one gulp. I sat on the sofa, because I thought it was a dignified place to die, and waited for death to snap my breath and I’d be a cadaver, my real stuff enjoying peace with my parents. One can imagine how qiuck I thought it was. I waited for that tingly feeling to creep on me. But it was only a blurry sensation that lightened my head and I dozed off. Perhaps I’d find where I’d fit in. I rose up with blood gushing from my freshly-cut head. My uncle’s wife had come in and finding me asleep, she fetched an iron pipe and split my head.
“You misfit, c’mon find something to do!” When she noticed the blood, she threw a crumpled hundred naira note at me and told me to get treated in a clinic. I took one of my shirts and arrested the wound and went out in search of a clinic. Everyone in the street was looking at me. I couldn’t stand spirit when the man wiped the cut. I’d received so many cuts before from her but no one had ever warranted a clinic’s service. Thanks to my blood that clotted so easily in contact with air. I remember when I went to a private hospital for a blood donation (blood donation in this case, but they handed us a thin wad of a five hundred naira note). The nurse carried all the necessary tests and finding out how healthy my blood was, she prepared her instruments to collect my blood but my blood thickened from its passage through the needle to the coil of transparent wire. She flicked at the coil but the blood wouldn’t pass as it was supposed to. I didn’t get a share of the five hundred naira.
So I couldn’t obtain cash to feed myself. I read a boring novella that used to be Chiedu’s favourite and at the end I tore it to smithereens and packed them up and put them in the dustbin. At first I’d wanted to eat the white torn pieces of paper, to tell the truth. I ended up drinking cups and cups of water like I was bent on a wet fast. Not that there wasn’t any food in the house (of course there was bread in the refrigerator, and my cousins’ milk too). After the day she’d left her hand’s imprint on my face because I’d eaten some slices of bread in the refrigerator, I dared not touch anything. How could I have known that the woman had counted the number of slices left in the pack after breakfast? For the outright stealing, she made me soak garri for dinner. She refused me the convenience of adding sugar to it. When my uncle asked her if I was having my meal, while the family was seated around dining table, I heard her say: “Of course. Now can we eat?” This made the garri in my mouth a coagulated lump I found hard to gulp.
It didn’t take long before my uncle noticed how wiry I’d become under his roof. I was in a threadbare shirt that night and I’d just settled his plate of food on a stool (because he’d come back late from work that day and his family had already eaten dinner and had gone to bed) when he stopped me short on my way to get bottle of water for him. “D’ you eat at all?” he asked me, holding my lower arm, his hand was rounding my thinness. “Look at you! Nekene!”
“Yes, uncle,” I replied him. I avoided his eyes.
“And you’re like this, one piece of bone?”
“I don’t know.” I smiled.
“I’ll surely purchase supplements for you tomorrow. Chai, not in my house. What will people say when they look at you?”
His wife must’ve heeded and came out from the bedroom. I knew the sleepiness she displayed was feigned; she hadn’t worn her nightcap. She yawned and asked, “What is it?”
“You say you live in this house and you’re not noticing the thing he’s becoming.”
“How d’ you mean? Is he becoming a bad boy?”
“Can’t you see how thin he is?”
“Is it just now you’re noticing it, huh?” Discerning the issue had been about me, she returned to the bedroom.
That night again, another palaver. My uncle was bawling at his wife to mind the way she talked to him, while she was claiming that respect was reciprocal. Reciprocal indeed.
I couldn’t sleep, with the garri heavy in my stomach. The tiles that floored the ground were cold and yet all I did was roll and roll. I slept late and woke up late as well (late because she woke me up with a bath of water from the refrigerator). I greeted her, she left me with the words: “Get up misfit!” Her image was a beast, a beautiful and fearful one receding from the kitchen, which was where I slept. I walked out with her. Pain throbbed in my head at the pace of my heartbeat. My uncle had gone already, off to work as always. My cousins were making noise, calling on their mother to come and bathe them. Chiedu was eight years old and yet she wouldn’t allow him to wash the dishes or even his clothes. Chiedu came to me to help him pull up his trousers. I did but I didn’t leave him without a slap on his backside so he ran to his mother to report me. His younger sister was mocking him: “Nto…you think you can send anybody like that.” I could hear food sizzling in the kitchen and I knew right well it was the meal to be put in my cousins’ lunchboxes. Whenever I woke up late, she prepared the children’s meal late. The sequence of activities slackened to a lateness of ten to twenty minutes: bathing time for dressing time, dressing time for breakfast time, and so on. Schedules just toppled on themselves, and those she couldn’t get in order she made sure she laid the weight on my head. The day became a thread of knotted things to do.
I got tired. I’d been working from morning till the time students were returning from school. Most possibly it was two o’clock. My back cringed at the least possible bend. I stretched myself on the rug in the sitting room and looked at the lights. I was aware the lights had to be turned off, that she’d return and most probably loan me a slap if the lights had been on since in the morning. She’d complain of her credit cut down by the insignificant bulbs that were almost good as them being off. Chiedu and his sister were back with their noise of tuning into their persistent want for cartoons.
The funny thing was that both of them didn’t like the same cartoons: while Chiedu loved Samurai Jack, his sister ravished at the sight of The Powerpuff Girls, both cartoons about people trying to save the world through martial arts. They bugged me to slide in the videos so they could watch, noisily: Chiedu slurped at his milk (a noise very close to snoring) while his sister ate popcorn, which she couldn’t eat without littering them on the sofa and on the rug. At the moment all I craved for was silence for a nap. I’d eaten the remnants of Chiedu’s fried egg and potato. It was obvious he didn’t like fried egg, just the way he did pancakes. His mother was unaware of this. I was delighted anytime she prepared pancakes to put in their lunchboxes. Usually the eba and egusi soup I was left for lunch didn’t go any way to quench my hunger.
I managed a light nap but Chiedu wouldn’t allow me. He came to my ear and blared at me to wake up. I thought his mother had returned from work. When I knew that his mother hadn’t, I slapped him and he fell, his head struck at the wooden edge of the sofa. He was crying and his sister joined him. He couldn’t move his neck. Any touch heightened his crying. I was cold with fear. Since I had little things to boast of, I arranged my things to leave.
Into the streets with only a fluffy satchel hanging at my back, the whole clamor of outside bustle climbed into my being like ghosts and made me numb. The place hadn’t changed, yet I couldn’t align my thoughts straight. I’d made sure I’d jammed the gate, causing the silly dog to bark in its cage. I tired to imagine the scene when she’d arrive: seeing her son in pain (that was if the boy didn’t sleep) she’d ring his name, she might rush; her daughter would be narrating what’d happened and the girl might miss the point of where it’d begun when he woke me from sleep;…she’d call the police. I knew little of my uncle, so there wasn’t a great deal to say of him. I only hoped the case hadn’t been serious but I was sure I wasn’t coming back. Maybe it was the numbness that restricted me on that decision. If the bean-cake seller by the bend of the road was at her usual position, she would’ve stopped me and maybe asked if I’d begun evening classes. That was an aloft thought for me. The woman who sold provisions adjacent the bean-cake woman was waving at me but I didn’t reply her greetings. I kept walking.
It dawned on me that my uncle’s wife might be coming, like she did on days I’d qualify to erratic. She’d fling her handbag on the sofa and dash to the toilet to pee and come out to carry out an inspection on the house to see if I’d completed all my daily tasks. She never appreciated my work, she only frowned in the least. Fearing she’d be passing my route I took an apian way.
I passed where there used to be a cantilever glide-able iron beam not until one day it lost its grip and fell on a small boy’s head and almost broke his skull. I was with the bags of provisions on my way from the market when it happened. Everyone there insisted on its removal, no one considered its duty at night of barring the road from suspected robbers. A blacksmith brought his electric saw and gradually fell it off. Now only its memory remained, a ragged chunk of metal as insignificant as the drooping tongue of a stray dog. That was what came up in head when I saw it. Then the twelve o’ clock bell that meant the beams would be gliding to a horizontal angle.
I walked for quite a while, hitting people, unsure where it was I planned to move to, sunk in thoughts. The night hadn’t showed up – the sun was still enjoying its last hours in an egg-yolk shine. Chiedu must’ve shut up by now when he’d turned stoic to the hurt in his head. My cousins must’ve been searching all over the house and might’ve turned it to a game (“who would be the first to find me”) that was on the brighter side if I hadn’t inflicted an inability on Chiedu’s neck. I kept on covering distances till I reached where I didn’t know, where I hadn’t ever come near to since I lived with my uncle. Chiedu’s sister must’ve broken into tears on not finding me. I wished her the best.
I sighted someone I’d mistaken as my friend in Anambra, Chukwubuliem. The boy so much resembled him I’d nearly shouted the wrong name at him. He shared the same gait with Chukwubuliem: Chukwubuliem had told me of his brother’s experience at his aunt’s house when his parents couldn’t endure the suffering the boy was giving them. “If the boy was only a tout,” he would say of his brother, “then my parents would be giving tithes to the church everyday.” He said his brother would steal bread and sweets from provision stores, bully the neighbourhood children just as he always slapped his younger siblings at the slightest provocation, gamble with boys too obvious to be older than him and would mostly lose at and create a scene when he couldn’t pay for the failure, and the boy was the most arrogant person he had seen. His parents couldn’t bear his brother anymore and bundled the boy to the puritanical and stingy aunt of theirs who counted everything in her house, from tablets of soap, to slices of bread, to the number of twenty naira notes in her purse, to the inches of the tuber of yam left that she’d recently cut from.
Whenever his brother returned for holidays during Christmastime, he’d be updated with new forms of punishments their aunt had devised. Though the aunt was a teacher, she refused to send his brother to school again after the boy had come had come seventeenth in a class of twenty. So she pushed him over to the shop she supervised after school hours and sacked the girl who she’d hired.
I was finally coming close to the end of the road that roughly bent under the bridge, to a wet sandy path. Mattresses, thin in the barest sense they could serve for picnic mats, were strewn everywhere, roughly rolled or folded. A stank smell prevailed and saturated inside me with a steamy deadness. I felt it sewer to my brain as though my grey matter was gradually sucking it up. It must’ve been the urine or some bodily waste. I met a woman breastfeeding her baby from a sagged breast. With such a young face you wouldn’t have believed that she owned such sagging breast. Her free hand held a cigarette that’d been reduced to a stub. She didn’t make a show of recognizing my presence, looking away, drawing a long breath and looking at the charring end of the cigarette. The child whimpered when the nipple slipped off the grip of its teeth. The woman pushed the nipple back to the baby’s mouth. The baby hiccupped and she turned the baby to lie on its belly and stroked the baby’s back. By this time the cigarette had been spent and the stub was already soaking in the wet ground.
When she’d finally cured the baby of its jerking, she looked at me, somewhat winking because of the sun, and said, “Hey wetin you want here? Anybody wey you dey look for no fit dey.”
“Nobody, I no dey look for anybody,” I replied her, holding unto the strap of my satchel.
“Den wetin, dis one you dey look me like dis, anyting happen? Govment die?”
Only then did I contemplate that maybe I’d made her uneasy all the while with my gaze. I heaved to tell her something of my worry. She didn’t decode it, rather. She told me to hold her baby while she went down to the other side of the bridge to urinate and purchase something to eat. “You go follow me chop?” she asked me. I declined and gave her the assurance that her baby was in safe hands. In the absence of the mother I tried tickling the child at the stomach but all I saw was eyes the shape of cocoa pods, perhaps earnest to decipher who I was and why her mother had deposited her in my care even if we had barely met for half an hour ago. I imagined it wasn’t any older than a year and half when it stretched its small arms apart to billow a yawn. It smiled when it touched my shirt. I found a shade under a leaning zinc sheet and stood under it.
There was a black bag beside me, I noticed, which I supposed to be the baby’s mother’s. I saw a brown envelope and a red pack very similar to the commonest brand of condom in the whole country that substituted the brand’s name for the commodity. I removed my eyes when I noticed the woman coming with a black polythene bag, her gait somewhat reclined to her left, as though it hadn’t been long the leg had stepped on a naked nail. It was clear her climbing up the sloped ground had been a difficult task, but she smiled at me. For a moment I thought the woman was suffering from a mental instability.
She took the child from me, tickled its cheeks with her free right hand. I watched as the baby released a slow smile as if it was sick of a disease that prevented it from relaxing its cheeks. The mother called some incomprehensible names and swung and swung the baby in her arms before she took her seat on a stub of rock like a boil on a human skin.
When she sat and opened the polythene bag, she made a sign of offering me her meal. Again, I declined. Even if I was hungry, I wouldn’t have accepted it. She shrugged and said, “Anyway”. She ate in a hurry you’d think the meal would vanish the next second, slurping the chewed mass like liquid. I still don’t know how she did that, but the sounds coming out, I was sure, weren’t anything far from slurping. The akara stained her teeth when she looked at me and exploded her face in a smile. There was a more slurping sound when she bit into the sachet of water and drunk from it. She ended up with a gasping “Ah” and told me it was the single meal she had eaten through out the day, and perhaps would be the only thing that would enter her stomach for the day. I imagined the both of them living alone in a house decked with gold and a storehouse full of exotic meals, but that was as illogical as impossibility. I wished I could do so much for the woman, especially for her child, but my case was coming close to being attached to theirs.
By the time she’d finished her meal the sun was giving signs of packing its shine to leave. The river was taking a devilish sheen. I’d heard my uncle once tell his wife of a boy who’d drowned and surfaced on top of the river the day after, with eyes and tongue plucked out. He said such things had happened several times while his stay in Lagos, especially where the river ran to the clumped parts of the suburbs. “They occurred in the ‘ember’ season,” he said. He meant October down to December. They were periods known for festivity, and that called for the urgency of human heads. Just as was popular during the election period when the popular slogan ran, Heads Must Roll. Anyway I didn’t have much to be scared of because it was neither close to a festive period, nor was election or the funeral of a titled man drawing near.
I didn’t understand why she lent her daughter such a stern look, as though she wanted to rend the little cheeks with sharp slaps. Then she switched into a smile. She pointed into the horizon and asked me if it wasn’t beautiful. I told her that it was. Tears jumped from her eyes and she said, “I used to be a painter. I no been dey mad like dis. I used to paint and make serious paintings wey been fetch me good money.”
“What happened?” I asked her, giving her the comfort by removing my eyes from her.
“I know sey people wey no like me been charm me, make me like dis. Now my people no want accept me.”
I was speechless, actually I wasn’t ready for gory tales. I sniffed to show her attention.
“One morning I just wake up no find my head correct. I begin talk to myself, den I come dey throw things anyhow. Dey carry me go charmist but e no work. Now I just dey walk anyhow. I just dey beg for food, imagine.”
“How I take myself here, I no know.”
At this instant she lunched into the genealogy of her family. She said that right from the start she knew her grandmother didn’t like her because she was pretty. At first I thought this being illogical, but when she explained that her father had married two wives, while her mother was the second (and according to tradition, the junior wife), everything was coming to light. “As it come take be, my stepmamma be my grandmamma favourite because my grandmamma bring her from village make my father marry,” she explained further. I’d wonder how many people she’d told this story when later the sun had gone and the inhabitants were returning.
She forced out a smile and said, “Well...” and I completed her words in my mind: “what can I do?” At least that was her shrug was saying. She had to be the ransom for a mother’s unintended crime, just the way her baby was a victim of homelessness.
For a long while we didn’t say a word and watched the sun leave us.
The inhabitants were arriving: first it was a man in oil-stained blue overalls who was angrily scratching his head, he didn’t reply our greetings but went down to the river and pissed into it and returned to unroll his thin mattress and lay on it, sighing as a man does eventually at the knowledge of his death after a long illness; then two boys with satchels of faded material, dust swathed on their faces that you could hardly discern whether they were fair, chocolate, or dark, each of them with polythene bags, their hunger not permitting them the patience to rest and eat, they greeted us and sat by the huge pillars of the bridge, dropped their satchels carelessly to set on the meal of fried yam and stew, the thin sauce staining their shirts in their nonchalance; three men walked gaily, a lady aback them, one of them held a rolled newspaper you might as well assume was an old one, perhaps a year or so outdated, they all addressed the woman with the baby as Madam Linda, they chanted it twice, but she didn’t reply, only smiled at them, she whispered particularly it to me that all the men who’d greeted her did was to waste their money in a kwasi bar where she felt the owner implemented a spiritualist’s help to tie her customers to her bar regardless of how much they had in their pockets; of the rest people who came I didn’t register because I was engrossed in the tale of one of three men who the police had recently held as a suspect for the sudden burglary of a store close to the market.
The disconcerted policemen had wanted to please the rich store owner and nabbed the unlucky man on his way to work one morning. Owing to that it was raining, nobody had particularly noticed, or they’d have mounted on the policemen with fury for false accusation when the man would raise an alarm, since the policemen were without guns. The police were grimly hated in the neighbourhood and people waited for the slightest chance to work their wrath on them.
“You for see how dey crush de poor man with dat deir iron baton,” she said. “Later dem come release de man say dem notice he no guilty.” She strapped her baby to her back. She wagged herself to placate her baby from arousing from its slumber. She did this for a long time, greeting the returning homeless people to the coldness of the bridge, hinting me on a thing or two on those that struck her memory. For a young girl of about sixteen, she said the girl had been pregnant and chased away on discovery by her mother who couldn’t bear the shame of a pregnant daughter, the shame of neighbours saying that she hadn’t carried the duty of inculcating common societal values to her child. The girl’s mother had sent word to her aunt (the most possible person the girl could meet with her problem) so the woman who was alone with a maid in a massive duplex would reject the girl when eventually she came seeking for refuge. So the girl sought the refuge of abortion. These stories, if true, only meant that some of these returning people had bared their tiny secrets to the woman, most probably in an unconscious way. I wasn’t sure I was willing to let her into my past. I wasn’t yet willing to let her into the lives of my parents or their property, which was now in the control of my uncle’s hands. I was ready to go to any length to preserve their stories in my mind.
Darkness was coming in on us like an adversary but the place wasn’t any getting silent at all. People kept streaming in and people kept leaving to either purchase food or drink or making it heard to a human square area that they wanted to ease themselves of their bowels’ contents. Cold slinked in like a criminal that I had to hug myself tight. No doubt it was as a result of the moving body of water down the sandy and gravelled slope. The sounds of cars didn’t stop, everyone was in a haste to reach their homes. The woman beside me (who was now singing to her baby in a language I assumed to be Tiv) pulled a wrappa from her bag and handed me. “Use am cover yourself make you no shiver,” she said. When I threw the wrapper around me the heavy smell of wet grass and urine pushed a dour sensation into my nose. I managed not to cough or she’d immediately discern it was owing to that the material stank.
The two boys who’d been hungry to eat their yam and stew were looking into a mobile one of them was holding. When one of them noticed that I’d been watching them, he invited me to join them. I refused and told them I was okay. He shrugged. Under the screen light, it was visible, the puckered scar on his right cheek. It was most probably a blunt one in a fast attempt to slash his flesh. When they were returning I couldn’t have seen it with the dust that’d formed a powdery film over their bodies. Now the both of them were laughing, only halting to notice that some concerned people were looking at them.
The girl who’d done the abortion in the woman’s tale was seated on a cloth lain on the ground. She was no longer in the blue shirt and trousers I’d seen her in, before. She strapped a faded green sleeveless top that would’ve served as the underwear below the shirt I’d seen her dressed in a moment ago, and a loose black skirt that ran way below her knees. She didn’t care that how long her skirt was didn’t matter as it hadn’t performed a duty of concealing her pink underpants. Or that she was aware of it, at least it wasn’t in my power to sum up who she was as today was the first time we consciously met each other. That was if she was aware of me. She seemed to be chewing at something for so long. Only then did I imagine how she’d changed into the outer clothing she was wearing on. Maybe she’d gone down, close to the river, to do that; the river kept the secret of uneasy people. Only later would I notice that the river also kept the secret of bathing people.
The girl put her hand into her leather handbag to get hold of her mobile. I didn’t like the smile that shone on her face at the knowledge of who was calling her (perhaps she had a call). I knew she wasn’t looking at me, in the least she was absorbed in some meditation. In the plethora of voices I could make out the words she was saying to her caller: “Ah, you go leave me like dis? It’s not fair, broder, you have to help me...” I wondered if he cared that the boy chewing sausage close to her was listening. “Ah, it’s not fair. Can’t you see I’m hopeless? You have to come to my aid if everyone rejects me.”
The woman with the baby touched me. I turned to her. “No mind de girl, she do like dat since and dey never come carry her. She dey always get call for night. She dey pretend to herself, no be me.”
Somehow I thought I was under a spell by this woman because I didn’t understand why I believed everything she said. I just don’t fall in for people’s words so easily. My mother had once told me that, I remember faintly. That reminds me of when my parents died and my uncle came to take me to his house. I refused vehemently to follow him, claiming that I’d stay with the maid my parents had hired to take care of me, till they returned. It was a tug of war. My uncle wanted to take me, so I think, because there was nobody to settle the bills for the maid’s service, which was if she’d work without my parents any longer. It’d been my mother’s idea to fetch an elderly woman to investigate my activities when I was alone at home afterschool, not that I couldn’t take care of myself. I don’t know where they’ve put the maid after taking me from the house, since then I haven’t set eyes on her or the house. What a lovely lady she’d been to me, but that is aside for the period being.
The sounds of speeding cars were dying slowly, only that if one strained to ascertain, one could gradually listen to the sluice of water over the bared stones directly under the bridge. I was gradually getting used to the cold, up to the extent I left the stub of a rock I sat on to find a manageably level ground to lie on. But there was no such place. Slices of foam mattresses had eaten up the space, so I resignedly sat on the ground, quite away from earshot.
Then two men dressed in black shirts and trousers, who I hadn’t noticed all this while, stood up and rolled their mattresses. They went down to hide the furled things and appeared. They walked away from the bridge, towards the market, rolling up their sleeves of their shirts to an awkward height of their upper arms as though bracing for a fight. I waited for them to leave before I hopped to their vacant space, laid the wrapper and squeezed myself to a doughnut to shrug off the cold.
I thought I’d first imagined the sound that pulled me from my shallow sleep. I couldn’t have mistaken it to anything but two persons making love to each other. No matter how reduced they’d brought their shuffling sounds to, one could still hear it. The chain of wheezing sounds of speeding cars couldn’t veil it. It didn’t need straining. Everyone was asleep at this time, I guessed (at least they must’ve known better). I looked to the inclination of the sound to be hit by my discovery. It was the two boys of which one had held the mobile. If in any case I must’ve seen their merrymaking in any perspective to lighten the gravity of its profanity, I should say that it was weird. And almost special, like finding gems in mud, supposedly misplaced by a rich lady in her bid to find safety in the midst of a flaring riot, that sort of incident. For that moment I didn’t have anything to define it, because I hadn’t heard of it before. It was like the word misfit.
Because I didn’t want them to stop their entertainment, I stared at them in utter silence. They moaned softly, running their palms over each other’s muscular bodies, requesting for something which I couldn’t discern but imagined was ‘more’. I heard the soft sloppy sounds of their kisses as their hands and legs worked on each other like a kneading process. When they’d come to, they rolled off from each other’s bodies and lay on the ground aside themselves, gazing at the sky, their chests rising and falling. I joined them in gazing at the sky, but it was bland to me, like sour butter. I found no appeal in it as they did.
We heard steps coming, heavy boots pressing into soft grass and then striking on sandy ground. The two boys didn’t move, they seemed to be wiping their palms on the grass. It was evident the men coming didn’t want to go through the stress of waking people with their voices, so they walked with stamping feet. People were getting up slowly, but the woman with the baby didn’t move an inch, her hand wrapped around her baby swathed in wrappa like eggs in a cocoon. Some rolled over a little, saw through sleepy eyes that nothing was the palaver, they went back to their slumber. Then the men started kicking people; only when they reached my side did I notice that they were with guns. I was usually an easily-scared person, even scared of dark places to the age of six, I froze in my back.
Soon everyone was awake and the men began to request for money, which they called taxes for sleeping out for free under the bridge. “Oya, bring all de money wey you make for today, yesterday,” they shouted. They ordered us to make a straight file and come one-by-one with our proceeds. The person behind me was whispering to the person behind him that the men were soldiers who were on night patrol. People emptied their pockets and handed over all they had, to the men with guns. It was surprising that most of them hadn’t hidden anything. One man knelt, pleading to them that it was all he had after being sent away from the office where he helped offloading cartons of beer when they were sent from the manufacturer. The men booted him away, one of them hit him with the wooden end of his gun and threatened to shoot the man in the leg if he didn’t stop making noise.
I saw them excuse the woman with the baby but they collected money from the remaining three girls, squeezing one so badly at her backside that she had to push her belly out to deflate the squeezed flesh. They collected the only two hundred naira note in my pocket. I’d hoped I’d find a confectionery or restaurant willing to accept me to work for them. Maybe that way I’d be able to lead a new life. At least I thought that life wasn’t all about building imaginations that were devoid of obstacles.
We watched them leave, the men, like we didn’t want them to, like children not eager to see their parents leave so they’d be left to the wrathful pity of their seniors in the boarding school, but that’s for that, like my mother would tell my father in Igbo amid a story she was telling, while she digressed. With the night, we weren’t sure if the men had departed, or they were at a safe distance just to hear us grumble so that they’d come back to torture us. The woman with the baby scratched her way to my side and tapped me.
“You dey unlucky dis men come today,” she said, as though if the men would come the day after was any better. “Dose guys, illegal soldiers dem be, all of dem.”
She didn’t say how, neither did she say where she was walking to, but I followed her. There was anxiety in her voice that left me thinking if she felt better-off that she was not snatched of her money. Not long would I notice that she was walking to her bag. When I looked back to inquire about my space I supposed it’s already been taken up by a fat man in what looked like safari suit. Only that a man in a safari suit shouldn’t be any close to these parts; he should be found in the posh parts of Lagos, like Ikoyi and VI where the buildings towered up like statues of great Grecian gods, so high you could keep walking the neat paved streets, looking for a glint of sunshine.
The woman rummaged in her bag for quite a long time. By now people were discussing about the men that’d just visited, some cursing them to have their abdominal region painful with all sorts of infirmities like cancer and kidney stone that was soon becoming popular among people who loved to eat seafood. From faraway came the sounds of hip-hop music, their bass stripped off by the wind. I thought that I’d once heard the woman who owned the kiosk telling the akara seller that the government had issued a ban on the use of loudspeakers by places like churches, mosques, and videoclubs-cum-nightclubs. But that could’ve been a rumour, and a rumour was bound to be infested with lies or exaggerations.
“See, what even bring you come dis kind place?” she asked me, as though she was annoyed at me that I was the reason she couldn’t find what she was rummaging in the bag for. “My mind somehow tell me say you no belong here, I been ask.”
“Huh?” I pretended not to have heard.
“What bring you come dis place. Most people like your type coming here be people travelling to dis Lagos or oder places, no come get where to spend de night. Me I no just understand you.”
“I run commot from house,” I said in a voice close to a whisper.
“Why you run from house. I no know boys too run from house.”
“No, I live with my uncle and his family.”
She nodded, spreading the blanket. “I see... E come be de man or him wife?”
“His wife. The woman no just want make I rest.”
She looked into the dark space where the lights from the buildings in the distance resembled shinning pollen in the air.
“You know what I want tell you?” she asked me. I wagged my head sideways, even if I wasn’t sure she’d see that in the night.
“You better go back,” she said with a resolute air.
“You hear me. You better pack your tings go back your house. You no belong for here.”
“What make you think so?”
She looked at me and sat on the blanket. She laid her baby on the blanket and saw that the baby wouldn’t rouse before returning to me. “So, see, you no know de kind tings wey people for dis place dey see day by day. Even me want commot from here sharp-sharp. Just because I tell you? Person fit come rape girl for here as long him hold gun. Who want challenge de person make him chop bullet.”
She was supine on the blanket and looked like she was dead. I explained to her I didn’t have money to transport myself to where my uncle lived. And I couldn’t walk there on an empty belly, I’d slump in that bid and I’d be unable to stand the embarrassment thereafter. She offered to give me fifty naira. She rolled to her baby’s side and furled her arm over the sleeping being.
I’d barely slept for two hours when the cold clatter of metallic items woke me, leaving me with a jolting sensation in my head. Day had crept in in my sleep. People were preparing themselves; some were ascending the slope with plastic buckets even though you could see that they hadn’t had their bath. Perhaps all they did was soak a towel in water and wiped their faces from sleep, their legs and hands from dust. Most of the people ran their activities in a hurry and I thought I’d suddenly appeared in an area where actors and actresses were putting themselves in readiness for a film. No one was concerned of the other close to him; they went about their businesses in nonchalance. Boring into her ragged hair locking at the ends in a brown tinge, with her fingers, the woman was looking into her baby’s face and spurting an awkward smile to her baby who was fiddling with the buttons on her sweater. The baby smiled back and shrouded her face with small palms in a playful manner. A close look at the woman would tell you she was tired or in need of some sleep. She lifted the baby so the baby’s legs dangled in a bid to kick at the mother’s face.
“Ngaji,” she said, brandishing teeth the colour of butter, “how yesterday be? You know sey some people come here?” She brought the baby’s face close to hers until they touched. Then she noticed I was looking. “How yesterday?” she asked me and tugged at her wrappa that was loosing.
“Fine. Good morning.”
A truck trailed on the bridge and bared a deafening horn. The woman immediately jammed her daughter’s ears with her palms. Again she smiled at me. The horn came again. The woman cursed, wishing the bloody driver a stomach ache. Slowly the number of people under the bridge, under a huge shade with the sun cutting the parts close to the market, began to dwindle. The woman hissed at the girl in mockery of the call the girl was making, shouting confusedly, “I’m coming, I’m coming. Just wait there, just wait there.” The heels of her shoes lent her an uneasy gait. Or was it her tight skirt that made her backside jut out like an overripe watermelon, such as found in northern states like Kaduna and Kano where they were harvested in multitudes and piled in wooden baskets in a huge truck travelling to God-knows-where.
“See her buttocks, my friend,” the woman said, jeering with a pointing lip, “she tink dat spoiled mango she dey carry for back about fine at all. Make she go remove am.”
“Only she know,” was all that left my mouth. I removed my eyes from the girl’s direction.
The woman stretched forth her hand to me, veins running the length of the skinny body, a crumpled fifty naira note spilling from her grip. “Dis be de money. Start go house. E no go make you reach house,” she said. I took it from her and tucked it in my pocket. I tried not to concentrate on her, but on the smoke slowly sliding down from the bridge already crammed with cars of people in a haste to go to their working places. Then I imagined that the vehicles were too much a weight the bridge would no longer bear, and then what...?
I imagined myself coming out from the rubbles, alive, without a sign of a tiny scratch on my body, journalists putting my story on the screen and on the newspapers with headlines like MIRACLE, BOY APPEARS FROM BRIDGE COLLAPSE UNSCATHED! Maybe my uncle’s wife would begin to love me, maybe she’d request I enrol in a good school and cut the list of chores I was expected to do before she returned from the market. When I looked for the girl with a funny gait, she’d already left the site of the bridge, perhaps beside the road now and waving down a moving public bus painted in yellow and slashed with green stripes, arguing the price of transport to go to where she intended.
Nebeolisa Okwudili is a student at Federal University of Technology, Minna, Nigeria. His short stories have appeared in a series by the Latin Heritage Foundation.