The long limbs of twilight played a slow game of police-catch-thief with the last signs of daylight. The sun had not risen when he left Lagos. A medley of bad roads which were a fixture of bloated government budgets, and needless countless checkpoints, manned by hungry looking policemen more concerned with lining their pockets with the contents of his wallet than national security, ensured that sixteen hours after he drove past the Agba Meta he was only just approaching the Ring Road axis of Benin City. His arms were beginning to ache. He had never driven over such a long distance before. He had no complaints though. He was behind the steering wheel of a car which had papers bearing his name and passport. Mama would be proud. He had arrived Lagos with a rucksack of clothes several sizes too small, mama’s blessings and two crumpled one thousand naira notes slightly discolored from their long vacation in a knot of mama’s wrapper.
Life had been good to him but Lagos had first been cruel to him and had shoveled king-sized servings of misfortune down his throat with reckless abandon. He had spent his first night under a bridge at Ojuelegba, kept wide awake by a zealous orchestra of mosquitoes and the stench of marijuana and piss. In the morning he discovered the money he had hidden in a sock at the bottom of his bag was missing. The sock had been emptied and replaced. Lagos 1 – 0 Osayuki.
‘Lagos na wa,’ he sighed. All was not lost. The previous night, he had come up with the idea of splitting the cash and the surviving one thousand naira was stashed safely in his underpants.
A lot of water had passed under the bridge of his life since that sleepless night. He had wandered the streets of Lagos in search of a job suited to his meagre qualifications during the day and washed grimy Danfo buses at night. He would never forget the number plate of the first yellow bus he washed. AG904IKJ. The bus driver was a burly Yoruba man, with hairy armpits and a hairless head, who reeked of dry gin and paid him two badly faded fifty naira notes. He had not lacked places to rest his head because if there was one thing Lagos had in abundance, it was bridges. Bridges sprouted from the ground like ripe boils and he rested under a different bridge every night. The sound of rotating tires and hooting horns overhead made sure he never had a good night’s rest.
By his second week in Lagos, his cash reserves began to run low . He took his breakfast of bread and Pepsi off the menu. Unripe bóli and groundnut washed down with two sachets of water at five o’clock had to suffice. Driven by hunger and the determination to get some form of employment, however menial, he set out earlier and walked longer distances in his search for a job. His tired feet took him to Ladipo market where he found employment as a sales boy at a spare parts shop. The years of listening to mama haggle the price of pepper, fresh tomatoes and second hand clothes came in handy. He had an eye for a bargain and his knowledge of business studies helped him balance the books. For the first time in six years the Ladipo market branch of Chimezie Ventures had tidy books and even turned a small profit. The change in fortunes did not go unnoticed. By the next year he was transferred to the head office. Everything he touched turned to gold and lots of profit.
He whistled Victor Uwaifo’s Mammy Water to drive away the tedium and take his mind off the pain building in his arms. He had been away for too long. Eight years. He hadn’t seen mama for eight years. He hadn’t heard from her for the last three. The chaos of work and overseas travel had prevented his return home. This trip was long overdue. He had planned to make it last Christmas but end of year stock taking and last minute trouble at the ports held him back in Lagos.
His life had been an adventure and the memories of the years gone by were preserved in the album with the white leather cover resting on the front seat. He had formed the habit of taking pictures. There were pictures from his first trip to England. He recalled his futile struggle to grasp the words which flew out of the client’s mouth at lightning speed. There were pictures from voyages to Japan, China, Australia and New York. He never left a city without getting a souvenir for mama; Lace from England, shoes from Milan, perfume from Turkey, Indian spices, Moroccan headgear, and leather bags from Kano. He felt a lot like Sinbad the sailor.
Traffic slowed to a crawl at Mission Road. Christmas was in the air. Carols blared from speakers and packs of mothers, children in tow, bustled from shop to shop in a frenzied search for the best prices. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally eased out of Ring Road and got on the homeward stretch. Airport Road went past in a blur of bright lights, ritzy hotels, loud bars and commuters.
For a place he had spent the greater part of his life in, Oko, felt unfamiliar. The cratered red roads he once roamed on barefoot had been tarred. Civilization had found its way here and had snuffed life out of the rustic scenery. Farmlands had been replaced by buildings which oozed refinement and new money. At the entrance to his street a garish signboard announced the presence of a hotel. As he made his way down the street the raucous voices of men sitting at a table lined with green and brown bottles of beer welcomed him home. A weary looking man with several gourds of palm wine dangling from the handlebars of his bicycle almost lost his balance as he gawked at the vehicle and peered intensely to see if he could recognize the occupant of the big car with tinted windows.
His heart beat a little faster. He could smell home. He saw mama in his mind’s eye. He wondered how she would react to his arrival. Would she shed tears of joy, break into dance or throw a tantrum for his failure to show up or at least send a message of some sort?
He tooted his horn at the gate he had last seen when he was little more than a teenager with no idea where his life was headed. The gates were cranked open by a boy in a dirty shirt riddled with holes. He couldn’t be more than seven. Osas guessed he was the son of the neighbours. He recalled Mrs. Ehondor being pregnant when he left for Lagos.
He could not care less about the run down look of the house. He was taking mama with him to Lagos so he could afford to be indifferent.
The glare of his headlights caused a woman seating on the verandah to shield her eyes with a palm. The figure squinted at first and then let out a squeal of delight when he came down.
‘Osas, ó ré nè o,’ she shouted.
A dog barked in the distance. She held him in a warm embrace, her flabby breasts pressed into his chest. His response was less enthusiastic. She was an unwelcome distraction. He really wanted to see his mother. She was probably asleep. Mrs. Ehondor fussed over him, ran five curious through his hair and pinched both cheeks, all the while making sounds better associated with the arrival of a baby than a thirty year old man. The boy in the dirty shirt and shorts gazed on, wondering why his mother paid so much attention to the stranger with the big car.
She asked how Lagos was and then rebuked him for not remembering them. He begged her forgiveness and promised to settle her soon as he was done with mama.
‘Is mama in?’ he asked. The question brought a stop to her rabid movements .
‘Ehn, yes and no,’ she replied, her voice lacked the excitement it had buzzed with a minute ago.
‘Yes and no?’ he was at sea, his forehead was furrowed with confusion.
‘Sorry, yes, she dey but she no dey inside house, she dey back.’
He made his way to the backyard where mama maintained a small garden. He swept the garden with his eyes but mama was nowhere to be found. Mrs. Ehondor must have lost her damn mind in the time he was away. He had made up his mind to give her a severe talking to when he saw it. A wooden cross standing atop a mound of red earth. He would never see his mother again.
Agba Meta – the statue of three elders at the entrance of Lagos
Bòli – Roast plantain
Ó ré nè – Bini greeting acknowledging arrival of a person