I looked up and saw her as she stepped into the bus, the last passenger, the one to occupy the vacant seat beside me.
She studied the empty seat, and to avoid her eyes, I looked away. I feared that my eyes may not be able to hold the secret of that moment; that they may become weak and reveal to her, how much I wanted her to sit beside me.
Nsukka was unusually cold that afternoon. It was long past the middle of March and there had been no sign of rain. But that afternoon seemed different. Though it was already 2:30 p.m, the usual hot malevolent tongue of the harmattan sun had not yet kissed the ground. All we had of the sun that day was a mild yellow disc beneath the hurrying clouds. It drizzled a little, just as I was leaving the bank but the sun was defiant and refused to give way to the threatening rain. The gentle struggle between the sun and the light rain gave that day a gloomy spectacle and from time to time, in the distance, one could hear the muffled protest of the thunder. It was the first promise of rain after the harmattan and the sweet scent of dry dust hung in the air.
The commercial motorcyclist who had picked me from the bank dropped me before Peace Park at exactly 2:30 p.m. I was to travel to Lagos the next day, for the commencement of my youth service programme, the one year compulsory service to the country. Emeka, a childhood friend and classmate, was also travelling to Kano State, for the same purpose. I had gone to the bank early that morning to withdraw some amount of money with which I would pay him the debt I owed him. He was staying with his elder sister around Ninth Mile junction. My target was to pay him up as fast as possible, purchase a few things and then, take another bus back to Nsukka to finalize my own preparations.
I bought a ticket and hurried into the bus. There were six passengers already in the bus but none of them had taken my favourite position, the seat directly behind the driver. ‘Man is selfish, naturally’, I thought to myself, ‘in case of any danger, any driver would strive to secure his own side of the vehicle first.’
I sat down and opened the book I had with me. It was an anthology of poetry, West African Verse. I buried my head in its pages as we waited for other passengers.
The driver came into the vehicle. He was tall and wiry, with a scornful smile that seemed to perpetually linger on his lips. The veins on his arms stood out like electric cables. A slightly oversized beret which had been decoloured by age, hung loosely on his small head. He picked up a brown towel from the dashboard and started wiping off imaginary dusts from the windscreen. One of the stickers on the screen read, ‘Life is an opportunity, Grab it!’ Satisfied with the wiping, he turned on the stereo player. The first song that came up was Fela Kuti’s ‘suffering and smiling’. I gently closed the book and joined in the song,
‘Everyday na de same thing… suffering and smiling suffer, suffer for world… Amin Enjoy for heaven… Amin Christians go dey yab... in spiritus heavinus Moslems go dey yan... Allahu – wa – kuba
Only one vacant seat still remained in the bus. It was the space by my right. Everyone was calm. They all seemed to have been lost in the magic maze of Fela’s music. I was lost too, but was jolted back to reality when the sweet scent of a certain feminine perfume wafted across my nostrils.
I looked up. It was the last passenger; the one to occupy the only vacant seat left, the seat by my right.
She was gorgeous. The tight pencil Denim jeans trouser emphasized her curves; a pair of voluptuous hips and two plump lobes of firm buttocks that quivered with each step. The white belt she wore had a blue stitching around its edges and helped to accentuate her hips as they heaved to announce every step. Even the V- necked pink top did not spare my adventurous eyes as it led them through the tiny line of hairs that ran from her navel into some point within the jeans, then up to the valley of her cleavage and the two firm and daring breasts underneath.
She surveyed the other seats and turned to get down.
I almost shouted to her that there was still much space left. But in a fraction of that second, I discovered that she wasn’t actually leaving; she had just gone down to get her bag into the bus.
She came closer, and pointing to the space beside me, asked,
“Hope you don’t mind if I…”
“Sure, I don’t”, came my frenzied response, cutting her question in a voice that I hardly recognised as mine.
“Thanks”, she said, and sat down. Her voice was calm, and the accent, soft. It was like listening to music. The pulse in my chest increased its pace and, though I tried to control it, I began to breathe faster. To my surprise, I looked around and the other passengers were all busy with their personal affairs. Were they so blind as not to have noticed the sweet, sublime and somnolent presence of this pearl? Was there not a single person among them who felt the way I did?
Just then, a tall skinny man in a tired brown coat brought the manifest, handed it to the passengers in the front seat and left. Many eyes followed his coat as it billowed in the breeze. Many eyes, except the pair by my right.
There was an unusual air of calmness about her. For no clear reason, deep within, I had an awkward feeling that she wanted me to say something, that she felt the way I felt. I banished that thought and, looking out through the window, I saw a vendor displaying some newspapers. The headline to one of the papers read, ‘HABEMUS PAPAM’, announcing the successful election of a new Pope. The drizzle had stopped and the sun was gaining more strength and intensity. My phone beeped a warning and I knew it was the battery. There had been power failure for the past four days and the usual resort to power generators had become an unthinkable option. The removal of subsidy by the federal government had made a litre of petrol as costly as a king’s coffin.
A small cock, bearing what seemed like a dead centipede between its beaks, ran across the vendor’s paper stand and my eyes followed it. It suddenly stopped, very close to the spot where the motorcyclist had dropped me, released the poor victim and in the next second, began pecking and tearing it into smaller shreds. The meal was almost ready when suddenly, from the other side of the scene, a bigger cock rushed in, chased it away, bent over, and busied itself with the meal.
My eyes were still tied to that short drama when she tapped me gently and handed me the manifest. She had filled her own columns. Her name was Nnenna, a student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and her next of kin was Ann. Her phone number was also there in one of the columns.
As I entered my data, I managed to get all I needed to know about her, especially her phone number, which I memorized before handing the manifest to the man behind me.
An old woman bearing a tray of banana on her head came to the window beside me and brandished her goods. After a brief advertisement, she asked me to buy one for my ‘beautiful sister’ who sat beside me. I smiled at the woman’s ignorance and noticed that Nnenna also smiled.
“Mama”, I said, turning to the woman, “my sister doesn’t feel like taking anything, but she will, next time.” This time, it was the turn of the woman to smile.
‘Did I really hear myself well?’ I thought aloud, ‘I just called a total stranger my sister and even promised someone a next time with her.’ For the many ears present, it was just a joke, but I knew it was more than that. That statement revealed my innermost desire to be with her. It made no sense, but it was true . The feelings I had for this total stranger were beyond words. There was something about her, not easy to put into words, but it was there, only felt.
For the first time, I observed that she was looking at the book in my hands.
“Do you like poetry?” she asked
“Yeah” I replied, “it’s my only way of sending my mind on errands and keeping my spirit afloat in this season of drowning minds”.
“Wow! that’s poetic”, she exclaimed, and added after a few seconds, “I’ve also read a number of poems, but they are mostly western.”
From there, we discussed poetry and poets. Ancient and modern. The first was Kwesi Brew’s The Mesh, followed by William Wordsworth’s Solitary reaper and its sullen theme of unexpressed feelings. This theme of bottled-up emotion led us to the theme of the brevity of life and all that makes it worth living, including love, as in Andrew Marvel’s To his Coy Mistress. The final poem with which we captured the above theme was Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, an account of how he met and lost the love of his life, Annabel Lee, in a kingdom by the sea.
So enraptured were we in the subject of poetry that we forgot the world around us for a while. For the first time, I realised that our bus had already left the park and was almost close to Opi Junction. She suddenly looked up and called my attention to a mirage that glistened on the long tarred road that stretched before us.
“Devil’s water”, she said, and added almost immediately, “that’s what Ngugi calls it in his Weep not, Child.’
Although I had read that novel, I pretended as though I hadn’t. Her voice was something else, and her laughter had a strange way of lighting up the whole place. I nodded slowly, a way of showing my keen attention and she smiled and continued.
‘After the first white men had constructed the first tarred road that stretched across their village, some of the natives in that novel were amazed at the sight of the small deceptive ponds that appeared and disappeared from time to time ahead of them on the long shiny road. The inquisitive ones among them sought to find this mysterious water and ended up losing their way back to the village.”
“That”, I said, “is the same as what happens to most of our dreams and desires, they often vanish at the point when we think we can almost reach out and grab them”.
She wanted to say something but just then, a lady in a black suit, at the last row, invited everyone to prayer. The driver turned off the stereo and my battery beeped another loud warning. A lady in the front seat fought with the wind as she struggled to cover her hair with a white handkerchief.
After breaking the yokes of ‘mermaid spirits’ and ‘blood sucking demons’, the lady finally ended the fierce prayer, which had lingered for about 35 minutes. Nnenna was beginning to feel sleepy and, though she fought to keep it away, from time to time, her head hit my shoulder and she jolted to wakefulness. This drama was further aided by the driver’s intermittent attempts to avoid the deep potholes that dented the road. There were so much holes and the old shocks of the vehicle groaned violently at each bounce. At short intervals, the driver hit the break, swerving from one side of the bruised road to the other. Finally, Nnenna gave up the struggle with nature, placed her head on my ready shoulder, and slept.
She was even more beautiful in that unconscious state as her lips parted slightly, allowing the mild evening sun to cast its rays of gold on her partly exposed glittering teeth. She seemed to be smiling.
All that while, and in spite of his struggle with the steering wheel, the driver had been stealing glances at us, through the rear-view mirror. I looked up and our eyes met. He looked away in pretentious ignorance and started groping for the stereo. He finally turned on the radio and Lionel Richie’s I call it love came up. I mumbled the lyrics along with the artiste and my heart felt heavier than usual,
“Baby I don’t know what love is, maybe am a fool But I just know what I’m feeling And it’s all because of you….”
We drew closer to Ninth Mile and I began to feel a strange heaviness in my chest. That was my destination. That was our crossroads. The thought of a stillborn goodbye filled my stomach with great trepidation. I wanted it to continue. I wanted time to wait for us. She had become a part of me, but I was too ashamed to admit it. How could I have fallen within an hour’s journey? But that was the truth. I had.
I finally summoned enough courage and tapped her quietly.
“Where are we?” she asked, wiping sleep away from her eyes with the back of her palm.
“We have come to the crossroads”, I responded. And she smiled at how easily I had made the first line of Kwesi Brew’s The Mesh, fit appropriately to her question. But I knew that I wasn’t just quoting a poem, we had actually come to the crossroads.
Adding a little touch of seriousness to my tone, I informed her that we were already very close to my destination. Her eyes darkened visibly and just then, I realized that I hadn’t even asked for her name ‘formally’. I did and ‘Nnenna’ was the reply, as I expected.
From her cold reply, I sensed she was sad too. She asked for my name and phone number. I gave her the former but not the latter. I neither wanted to give her my number nor ask for hers. I already had hers and intended to surprise her with my first call. At first, she persisted, but I assured her that fate would work out a way of letting our paths cross again. We shared the same hunger and would likely share the same road again, someday.
The bus stopped at Efficient petrol station, Ninth Mile and I came down.
‘Take care’, she said, and the bus sped off. I stood and stared, like a statue, until I lost the sight of it to distance.
Emeka was not around when I arrived, and his line wasn’t going through. I waited for about 20 minutes or more, and finally decided, while I waited, to surprise my new ‘beautiful sister’ with a call and know if she had reached her destination.
I did. But the voice from the other end of the line didn’t sound like hers. In fact it wasn’t hers. It was deep and tense. The voice informed me that an accident had just occurred around Texaco and that the phone belonged to one of the victims. Most of the passengers were dead already.
I didn’t give way to a second thought. In fact, I could not think. My mind was frozen and my heart began to beat faster, and louder.
Rushing out to the road again, I boarded a taxi that would take me to the scene of the accident. The news had already spread like a wild fire in harmattan. Even the taxi driver had heard about it. His own version of the story was even grimmer; he had heard that no one survived it.
We finally made it to the scene. A great number of people gathered round the upturned vehicle as the victims were being pulled out through the battered windows. The driver’s old beret lay very close to one of the windows. Shards of glass littered the whole place.
I looked up at another corner of the scene, very close to a wide gutter, and saw her lying helplessly. Her pink top was no longer pink but red. She was drenched in blood. The taxi driver helped me to carry her into the car. I couldn’t help the tears.
Inside the taxi, I felt her heart and found that it was still beating. We headed straight to one of the hospitals around.
The nurses were hostile, and the doctor, mean. They refused to touch the dying angel, if I did not provide a deposit of forty thousand naira. I was red with rage. How could they be that heartless? Someone’s life was fast ebbing out and all that mattered to them was money? The only money I had there was the thirty thousand naira I had come to give to Emeka. Without that money, how, in God’s name was he going to travel the next day?
When it became clear that the doctor meant what he said, I brought out the money and he invited me into his office. I was asked a few questions which included my relationship with her. I told him that she was my younger sister. I wasn’t thinking. The answer just tumbled out, uncensored.
I was warned to bring the rest of the money along, the next day or every treatment would cease. The only money I could count on at that point was the twenty thousand I had left in the bank, with which I was to travel the next day. But I had no option, what had to be done had to be done.
I sat beside her all through the night as I patiently awaited the arrival of dawn. She had been garbed in a sky blue gown, the same colour with the curtains in the room. A long white bandage was wound round her head. She lay there, as still as a stone.
The night was long and there was power failure. Myriad thoughts flooded my mind. I tried to control them; to tie them down and stop them from venturing into wondering if she would make it or not. But the more I tried to wrestle these thoughts and shut them out of the windows of my mind, the more I found myself basking in them.
Apart from the fight with my thoughts, I also fought with the giant mosquitoes that persistently courted my ears. Each of them whined wildly and strove to fly into my ear, as if to whisper some long lost ancient secret. My thoughts, my fears and their whining, all worked together to banish sleep from my eyes. To distract them and free myself a little, I decided to try Emeka’s line again. I brought out the phone from my pocket and was still scrolling down my contacts list when the phone gave a final beep, and the battery went flat. It was around 1:00 a.m. The mosquitoes resumed their plaintive refrains.
A distant toll of some church bell brought me back to consciousness. My eyes were heavy and through the window panes, I noticed that the first lights of dawn were already beginning to dispel the dark shadows of the night. I wiped sleep away from my eyes, moved closer to her bed and felt her heart. It was still beating but she remained unconscious. I looked around nervously and reassuring myself that we were alone, I quietly kissed her forehead and left the room, hacking my path through the cold misty morning, towards the park, in search of an early bus to Nsukka.
The mind is always buried where the heart is trapped. The journey back to Nsukka was colder and longer. I was both present and absent. My body was there but my mind was at the hospital, sitting by her side. The image of her face and the blood stained bandage loomed in my mind. I was deaf to every other sound around. Though the other passengers kept chatting all the way, their voices and the sound of their laughter sounded no louder than a distant murmur, a drowned whisper. The only thing I still recall is the argument that ensued between the two passengers that sat behind me as the vehicle drove past a giant yellow signboard with the inscription, “St. Luke’s Motherless Babies’ Home”.
“What’s wrong with it, aren’t they motherless?” The first voice demanded.
“Just as they are fatherless too”, the second voice countered immediately. It was a female voice.
“So, what is your point then?”
“The entire idea of being motherless shifts the blame to the mothers alone, the women. Why aren’t they called Fatherless Babies?”
There was a loud silence. We thought the man had given up, but he suddenly added, with a firm touch of finality in his tone,
“Feminism is a fad, a flamboyant fern that will never either fruit nor flower in the African soil”
The debate gradually turned into a rain of invectives, a battle of the sexes. My mind wandered back to the hospital and their voices once again, sounded no louder than an insect’s hop.
8:15 a.m. found me at Nsukka and for the first time, I noticed the blood stains on my shirt. I had two urgent tasks to carry out. The first was to withdraw the rest of the money from the bank, while the second would be to rush home and change into some new clothes before going back to the hospital.
Within twenty minutes, I was through with the transaction and was about leaving the bank when they stormed in. Armed robbers. About twenty in number, or more. The entire bank was taut with tension. Two security men were already gunned down and the rest lay prostrate. My fingers tightened their hold on the money, and in that instant, I dashed immediately towards the back of the building. I had just covered a few steps when I heard the shots; the first and then, the second. My fingers were weakened. The money fell. I fell. And silence fell.
The stale and pungent stench of drugs was the first thing that hit my nose as I opened my eyes. Mama was sitting at the other end of my bed. A sachet of some colourless liquid hung on a long tripod stand by the left side of my bed. A narrow transparent tube led the liquid into the veins of my left forearm.
Tears of joy rolled down Mama’s cheeks the very moment I opened my eyes and I think I heard her shout my name, ‘Nonso! Nonso!’ as she rushed out to call the nurses. I was very weak and found it difficult to keep my eyes open. I was later informed that I had lain on that bed for almost two months. I had been shot during the robbery attack and it had caused a great damage to my spinal cord. I was to be confined to the wheel chair for the rest of my miserable days.
I was still brooding over my woes when a familiar perfume played on my nostrils. I looked up and it was Nnenna. She was fully recovered and had come all the way from Enugu to visit me.
But she was not alone. She was with a young man, about the same age as myself. His face was familiar. On a closer look, I recognised him. It was Doctor James, the doctor who had initially refused to treat her. Well, all that was over now. The important thing was the joy of seeing her again. Our paths had crossed as I prayed. But there was something sinister about her mood.
After their stay, just as they were about to leave, she informed me that James had proposed to her. They were about to get married.
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I sat in silence, not because I didn’t know what to say but because I feared that my voice would quiver with each word and reveal the sullen heaviness I felt in my heart.
“Congratulations,” I finally said, when I had found my voice,
“I’m so happy for you two”.
And they left. And she left, with a huge chunk of my heart.
In the evening, around 7:30 p.m., I overheard two nurses discuss the mysterious massacre of nine NYSC members in Kano State, the very state Emeka was posted to serve. According to their source, the dead Corp members were brutally butchered by some faceless anti-Western Education sect, known as the Boko Haram.
Mama bought a copy of the Daily Sun newspaper, the next day, and the news was there. But they weren’t nine in number as the nurses had earlier reported. They were seven, and their names were listed there. Emeka’s name was the fourth on the list. I was numb.
That night, I tried to sleep but could not. My thoughts wandered through these events. And, when sleep finally came, I dreamt of Nnenna, the cocks and the mirage.