Lagos, Early 2000s
The tiny baby had a thick bush of hair on its crown. The kind of hair Onyeka imagined might gladden a new mother’s heart. The kind, when that was still possible, she had once so desperately wished for. The baby was barely weeks old, she guessed, in part because the woman cradling it did so a little too preciously – shielding it like a mother hen from the older children clustered around her, shrieking and leaping and tugging at it.
Onyeka drove with her eyes locked on the baby like it was a long lost lodestone. She could hear the older children break into a song as they trooped down the college gates. It was a fitful rendition of an old school gate roundelay. They sang.
We are marching to the gate, tombalalala atombala atombala, khoi khoi khoi. We are matching to the gate …
She imagined the smallish woman was the wife of a new pantry worker; a labourer, a water tank driver, but not a teacher. Her gown, brown like the colour of red dust, flecked with funnel-shaped calla lily flowers in pink, yellow and white hues, was a little too dowdy, a little too threadbare, even for the wife of the most junior college teacher.
From his station, Sunny, the doddery gate man, would prove her right when he failed to acknowledge the woman. Sunny did not wave or smile or do the exaggerated bow he sometimes did when senior teachers went through his gate. Of course, Onyeka knew Sunny’s game well. Properly incentivised, Sunny might even do a full dobale in the hope that such deference and fawning would prove fortuitous. But Sunny would not so much as nod his gaunt head at anyone he deemed incapable of gifting him the odd tip.
As it was, the woman, her older children and the enthralling baby had just disappeared from her rear-view mirror when Onyeka plunged her lime green Peugeot into an electric concrete pole.
There were things Onyeka knows she does not know. Things like Ezinne’s actual date of birth – it certainly wasn’t 25th December as Ezinne, their mother, had humorously claimed and had made Kesandu and her abide by so that on Christmas day, she delightfully danced atilogwu and thanked God for blessing her richly with two girls who proved to be worth much more than sons could ever truly be. This, as she unfurled four new colourful pieces of agbada – two to mark her birthday, the other two to observe Christmas. Like what became of the old humongous 090 cellular phones after Joshua Gwadiba’s government sold the cell phone license to MTN, flooding the country with smaller sleeker hand held phones. Then there were things she did not know for sure if she knew. Like when she fell in love with Arum. Like why she stayed in Lagos long after their dream ended. And then there were things she was dead cert she knew. This was one of them. With a great degree of certainty, she knew she would not have crashed her car had she kept a presence of mind.
Like she preached at home.
Hers was not a home where a pot of soup was left out overnight, a finger or two dipped in it. Or where said soup was scooped at random, risking it going rotten. Neither Chidiebere nor Anieto would simply forget to refill the blue water drum in the bathroom or the brown one in the kitchen when empty. No, like a well-oiled engine, her home functioned well, because she had instilled the virtues of keeping a presence of mind in them.
So Onyeka scrambled out of the Peugeot feeling a mammoth sized sense of hypocrisy. Her ears were ringing – a loud disconcerting din, and her pulse raced. She inspected the damage. There was an ugly dent to the centre of the metal bumper and some chipped concrete off the pole. She shook her head, regretting the crash, begrudging it: if only it had been term time, she would be in class, teaching modal auxiliary verbs perhaps, not crashing her car, not adding to a plate full of problems.
Deep down, Onyeka knew she was lucky. Her Peugeot did not somersault and catch fire like in that heart-wrenching accident on Third Mainland Bridge shown on Frank Olize’s Newsline programme where the couple were scorched unrecognizably to their deaths. She had wondered if the young couple left children behind. Frank did not say or may be Frank did say but not before the electricity went.
Kesandu would later say that NTA should not have shown their charred bodies on TV. That in England, the BBC would have pixellated them or not shown it at all. She had made Kesandu explain pixellation right before they debated what was more important: sparing viewers the gore or serving up the unpalatable so the story could connect?
She should feel lucky. Poor old Miss Rosaline collapsed onto a boulder last Sunday, clambering out of her Volkswagen beetle, mangling a kneecap; instantly making life on an unsteady teacher’s pension that more difficult.
She huddled back into the car, careful to pull in the hem of her ankara gown before slamming the door and firing the ignition. Once. Twice. Thrice. The Peugeot, like a headstrong he-goat, would not budge. She cursed out loud. Ekwensu!
She got out again and this time caught the attention of two passersby – a sprightly older fellow and a younger man built like a mule in a sweat drenched T-shirt.
“Push! Stop, oya push!” the older man would command as she steered the car off the road.
Mrs Hassan drove up the gates as Onyeka thanked her helpers. She insisted on dropping her off at Gabe’s garage towards the back of Market Road. She was headed in the direction, she assured when Onyeka hoped it was not too much trouble.
There was a troubling matter in the offing, Mrs Hassan said as she drove the compact Mazda which suited her slight stature. Import tariff for stockfish had gone up tenfold overnight and Mama Iles whom they bought fish from at Liverpool Market had sent word that her new prices would reflect this increase. She shook her head grievously. “I have to tell the others that I can no longer afford to buy with them. Nuhu and I will just have to manage without fish.”
Mrs Hassan was a widow and Nuhu was her only child. She taught Biology. For years, she has not been seen around the college without a colourful hijab wrapped around her head. Her husband, when he was alive, had wished for her to observe strict purdah altogether it was said.
When they reached the garage, Onyeka thanked Mrs Hassan and then handed her car key to Gabe who took off in his red pickup to retrieve the Peugeot. Gabe has been her mechanic since several years. He knew every part of the Peugeot. If there was any chance that the Peugeot could be brought back to life, that chance was Gabe.
Onyeka sat on a rusty metal chair at the end of the dusty garage brimming with several beaten down cars. The smell of sewage from an open gutter filled her nostrils. She pinched them together but this brought her no relief.
Gabe’s boys were arguing over how best to patch a busted tyre. Onyeka paid no attention and instead let her mind wander. With her hand on her jaw, she pondered what Arum might have said about her crash. She pictured him waxing lyrical about her losing her presence of mind. She pictured him, in relaxed beige short sleeves and matching khaki shorts, sitting the children on the maroon sofa, talking to them, like the adults they weren’t, about the importance of keeping a presence of mind. She pictured the children, imagining, at first, as they had once wished, that they had two – a boy and then a girl. Then four – two boys and two girls; because they had perhaps simply found the joy of parenthood to be boundless. She imagined their glowing, pubescent faces. And of their skins, she imagined a pleasant blend of light and dark hues, a straight cross between her and Arum.
The teachers meeting that morning had lasted far longer than she anticipated. She had heaved a huge sigh of relief when it was finally over. On one side of the ill tempered meeting were angry teachers, agitating over their long unpaid salaries. On the other side was slick talking Mr Opumie, the embattled college Principal, dousing the rising anger with bromides. “Lest we forget, we are all in this together. I myself have not been paid. You should all know this here today; I will split my salary a thousand ways to accommodate each and all of you. Hear? I will not dine while you all starve,” he had said on route to staving off the teachers with a suspect claim that all five months will soon be paid as a lump sum.
Mr Sangodele Faramade had also attended the meeting – his stomach churning turn masquerading as Vice Principal-in-waiting so infuriating Onyeka. She had felt a pin prick each time he intermediated on behalf of the teachers, each time he shoved moral authority down their throats, each time he saw Mr Opumie’s side with vain comments like ‘we teachers are right to be angry but we cannot really suggest that the Principal, sir, is not doing enough to get our salaries paid.’
Gabe returned an hour later with the lifeless Peugeot strung to the back of his red pickup. Onyeka wiped sweat from her face with the clean end of a makeup smudged handkerchief, dreading what he would say was wrong with the car.
“Madam, you are very lucky; your engine is this close to knocking,” he said in English infused Igbo, pinching his thumb and index close together, his sunburnt face brimming with the exaggerated enthusiasm of Lagos artisans on knowing a payday was at hand. “Do you hear the noise from the engine?”
Onyeka could hear the rattling sound. She had heard it all week and had simply wished it away as one would wish away an inauspicious bout of diarrhoea before a call to feast.
“That is why you come to me and not those rogues that crawl into Lagos everyday like soldier ants. Today they are bus conductors, tomorrow they are mechanics. They do not care to learn the trade well before challenging us that have been doing it for donkeyears.”
Onyeka bit the edge of her lip, regretting her decision to ignore the rattling. “What needs to be done?”
“We will replace some parts. But don’t worry, Madam,” Gabe said, smiling reassuringly, “your car will soon be back on the road. Have you not been coming here since?”
“How much will it cost?”
For an answer, Gabe scribbled on a piece of paper smudged with dirty fingerprint stains and handed it to her. Onyeka frowned at the steep quote. She would have protested could she not count in more than five digits, the dilapidated cars abandoned by the back of the teachers’ quarters, their interiors stripped, and their engines long dead. She tossed the paper in her purse and thanked Gabe. If he keeps his promise she will return in two days to collect the car.
Up the busy road, she waved at least three sweaty kabu kabu drivers away, opting to walk, meandering past vulgar tradesmen hunched over mounds of fufu, deftly rolled into balls, dipped into green, yellow and red vegetable soups, swallowed and then washed down with gold hued beer swigged from tall, foam crested glasses.
She shook her head with palpable regret. Had things not gone so monumentally wrong she should have no business with rattling engines. Were he still here, that would have fallen firmly into Arum’s territory. She shrugged. Well, Arum was no longer still here. She would wager now that even if he could still be here, he would no longer wish to be with her.
And so this was her truth: she was alone; stuck with an old rattletrap gaping with holes where things – the radio, the clock, speakers, and the cigarette lighter – should be, had they not since been burgled. She thought now of the rattling, as the anguished cry of a dying beast; the Peugeot finally speaking its mind.
She resisted taking the back route to the quarters, thus avoiding Moronfolu Street, notorious for petty crime, drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes. She had no wish to see with her own eyes, the vile establishment which harboured the prostitutes and their grisly pimps.
The sun hovered behind her, scorching the taut flesh on her neck, her triceps and her long forearms. Soon she would regret her decision to walk. She would wince when her heel dug into mud and hiss when sweat dripped down her temple, soaked her armpits and seeped through the sleeves of her green ankara blouse. She would pinch her nose when navigating a road wide pothole filled with brown putrid water, in the middle of which, the entrails of a rotting rat floated. Later she would grit her teeth at a half torn poster of President Joshua Gwadiba who had promised heaven on earth while campaigning, but had yet to deliver anything meaningful, three years on from a landslide victory. And when she could no longer bear the pain, she stopped and cast off her mud strewn shoes.
Walking barefoot made her no better than an agbero – her cautionary tale of choice. She would lose all kinds of face if she was caught by fellow teachers or her students for that matter, sidestepping potholes, barefoot, like a cave woman. But she no longer cared.
She pictured Yewande’s jaw dropping as she hears the embellished gossip that would surely spread. ‘Hears’ because Yewande would not have seen for herself.
Yewande, her four beautiful children and her able husband, Maduabuchi, when he was not away, lived in Ikeja, in a nice gated duplex with a security house and parking for at least four cars. Yewande had snubbed the teachers meeting. Onyeka imagined this was because she did not need her salary to run her home, not when Maduabuchi’s lucrative road construction contract had been sweetened so he would stay in volatile Jos and away from his family for two further years. Onyeka could scarcely have afforded to snub the meeting. She needed her salary. Acutely so. For months, she has watched her bank balance dwindle. She has lamented over it: all her good work as distinguished Head of English is worth is a dwindling balance, she bemoaned to Kesandu. “Three months! For goodness sake what exactly is the Principal doing about it? The man clearly has no gravitas otherwise he will be at the secretariat knocking on the right doors,” Kesandu had raged over the phone in an idealistic tone which made Onyeka conclude that she no longer fully understood the nefarious ways of the land; the wickedness at the heart of all the problems they faced.
Kesandu’s diabetes had flared up on the week they spoke about her salary. She had cancelled two night shifts at the Royal London Hospital, then another at St. Barts when her symptoms worsened. Despite this, the following week, she walked from her tiny bedsit to the local corner shop – which she said was special because it was owned by a black man and not an Asian – and sent something through Western Union. Mere weeks before that she had sent something for Anieto’s upkeep. Onyeka was grateful, even if she utterly hated to burden her baby sister in this way.
She approached the bend on Adebayo Street, happy to see the black hollow gates to the teachers’ quarters. Her flat was on the second floor of a three storey block, sandwiched between two greying blocks which housed just over forty teachers and their families.
When they first moved in, she had said to Arum, “This will do for now and when your paper grows and I get promoted, we will have enough to move. Maybe we can move to Ikeja if we are to stay on the Mainland. Of course we cannot think of the Island at all, not now anyway. But whatever we do, we cannot take too long or we will live here forever.”
She had spoken her mind so Arum would know exactly where it was. In happier times, cuddled in bed, he had revealed his pet hate was people keeping up appearances. She said she disliked tags, like being tagged a nagging wife who no one knew how to please. So on their main issue, their issue of childlessness, she had told him exactly what she thought they should do. Years later, she would get her promotion but Arum’s current affairs magazine would never take off. Something else happened. Something went terribly wrong, and so over ten years later – a good nine years longer than she had first anticipated, she was still living in the flat, with Chidiebere and Anieto. But without Arum.
She slid into her shoes just before she approached the quarters’ black steel gates where Musa, the quarters’ gate keeper was fumbling with the drop rod.
“Good even, Madam,” he greeted, waving, appearing puzzled yet smiling, revealing precious little of a crooked set of brown teeth.
“Musa, how now?”
“Madam, we are very well today o. Very well o. Wallahi Madam, any day above ground na good day, Madam.”
She nodded and smiled. Musa had launched a new platitude. The last one reeled out in his native Hausa accent was ‘Upward ever, backward never for this world wey we dey.’ Before that it was ‘Allah say we wey be em children no go hungry for this world.’ Musa switched his quotes as if armed with the knowledge that she had become too familiar with them.
“Of course, Musa. We thank God for everyday.”
“Madam, what of your car?” His furrowed face bore genuine concern.
“It is with Gabe.”
“Sorry Madam. Kai, I wish say na Mr Faramade this thing do. Hope Gabe go repair quick quick.”
Onyeka smiled. Just like her, Musa did not see eye to eye with Mr Faramade. She reached in her purse, retrieved a twenty naira note and placed it in his knowingly outstretched palm.
Musa, like a child who must satisfy an elder that he had not stolen a coin, quickly hid his good hand in the pocket of his brown dashiki without looking at the note.
“Kai Madam, wallahi you be good woman,” he said. “Make Allah give you one hundred times more, Madam. Make Allah bless you and your family well well, Madam.”
Onyeka smiled at him before forging into the concrete grounds, past several cars, tightly parked in a scramble for the relative security offered by the quarters’ spiked walls. A few cars were parked on the patchy grass lawn, openly flouting the quarters’ rules. Mr Faramade’s Nissan was parked under the tall mango tree, replete with green fruits yet to ripen. Onyeka was under the umbrella of the tree when she heard the boisterous sounds of children playing.
They were the Moronfolu children – so called because they were the feral children of the vile street who wandered street to street, from dusk till dawn. Onyeka stopped to watch them. They were in the middle of play, taking turns to hop delightfully in a circle over concrete slabs. A small boy tossed off his slippers, one landing on broken slabs, the other on a log of wood from a felled Iroko tree. He made his tiny body even smaller, vanishing like a squirrel into a sewage gutter. Onyeka grimaced. The boy soon reappeared, with a ball, his feet wet, a victory smile, and to cheers from his haggard looking cohorts.
Their leader was a tall girl with bushy hair finished in uneven pigtails wearing a dirt soiled yellow pinafore with one strap undone. Her face turned grotesque in anger as she scolded a boy for mindlessly rolling his battered tyre into the play area. A second group gathered under the guava tree. The tiniest children caught white flowers dropping as the tree shook. A big kid stood guard, watching the round berries land, awaiting the tree shaker’s descent down the mottled trunk.
Onyeka heard Mr Faramade’s angry voice before she saw him. “Get out from this compound, you wretched children. Get out,” he barked. “Who said you can come here and pretend to play so you can spy for those Moronfolu thieves? Get out from here now.”
She got a whiff of Mr Faramade’s long menacing figure armed with a long cane, storming past her, heading towards the children.
“Mr Blackie dey come. Mr Blackie dey come. Run oo, run oo, Mr Blackie dey come,” the children giggled. They made faces at him until he got close enough to whip them, and then they ran for the collapsed wire fence, losing slippers, cashew nuts and wild cherries from stuffed pockets.
Onyeka wondered if Mr Faramade truly believed the children were spies for thieves or if she was witnessing yet another show of moral authority.
The children would of course return, she knew. They may trample over themselves, hurt their knees and graze their elbows, but they will return – through the fence which remained collapsed because Mr Faramade had refused to release the funds for its repairs to Mr Idowu, a technical drawing teacher and the quarters’ assigned contractor, over a silly dispute.
Mr Faramade’s hollering drew some teachers and children out to their balconies. They watched him turn his ire to Musa. “Foolish man. What kind of megaurd are you? Of course you are not a real security man,” he raged, gesturing at Musa’s limp hand. “Did you not see those wretched children of thieves?”
Onyeka was horrified. “Enough, Sangodele. You know exactly why those children have access to the grounds.”
“Why don’t you go about your business Mrs Do Good?” Mr Faramade threw back, unruffled.
“The security of the quarters is my business. So is seeing that college staffs are treated fairly no matter how lowly you deem them.”
“Listen Mrs Anyikwa, you may have fooled everybody with your righteousness. Ha. The woman owed pity for what she has lost. You do not fool me. Pity alone will not make you VP.”
“Shame on you, Sangodele. You are a bully and you know it. Shame on you.”
“Ha. It is you who has no shame, throwing yourself at your pupil’s father. What? You want to become Chief’s fifth wife? You want his riches?”
Onyeka chided herself for plunging to his sordid level yet again. ‘Let her come out and say what she has done with her husband,’ he had maliciously sniped, during the whispering campaign against her when Arum first went missing. She had confronted him then but it would end in tears, for he was impervious to her suffering and blankly refused to apologise.
She left Mr Faramade to his rage as Musa scurried back to the safety of the security house. Overhead, a thunderstorm growled from the leaden sky, a rain droplet pelting her arm. She quickened her pace, knowing, that the ubiquitous heavy rain of the season loomed. By the entrance to her block, she saw a limping figure at the gates waving, languidly, at her. She squinted. It was Ugborji, Chidiebere’s uncle.
She waved back from under the entrance hood as the rain began in earnest, as lightning struck, fleetingly irradiating the deserted balconies, the rain doused cars, the mango tree, the security house, the dampened grounds.
Onyeka was puzzled by Ugborji’s visit. He had only visited twice since he brought Chidiebere from the village almost nine years ago. Once was to tell her that Simon, Chidiebere’s father, had been in a motorcycle accident which split his head open and that they needed money for his treatment. On the second occasion, a big market fire had razed Ugborji’s motor spare parts shop. Again he needed help.
Ugborji got close and immediately Onyeka knew something was seriously wrong. His face, rain lashed and grave, appeared sunken under the weight of the news he bore. A second lightning strike revealed a sad glint etched in his eyes.
“What is the matter, Ugborji?”
“Madam, I am sorry to trouble you with bad news,” he began, fruitlessly wiping his forehead. “It is Simon, Madam. He is dead.”
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