Friday, October 17, 2014

Talking to Strangers

There’s this guy I used to see often. Sometimes I’d be riding in a danfo and pass him on Ozumba Mbadiwe Road; other times I'll walk by him while I’m walking across Falomo Bridge to Ikoyi, always on my way to work. He’d be either running on the culvert that divides Ozumba or stopped on Falomo bridge doing stretches, headphones clamped over his ears. I used to wonder about him – what drove him, if he was training for something, if he was ‘FitFam’, but like a really hyper version, like FitFam 10.0.

One day I saw a video on Instagram. My friend, Ore, had seen this guy one morning doing his warm ups on the culvert on Ozumba and made a video. I left an excited comment saying how I saw the same guy all the time. Ore responded: ‘he’s begging to be interviewed’.

A seed was sown and I went away thinking, ‘well, why not’?

But it wasn’t ‘why not’ in a rhetorical sense. Cos when I asked myself why not, a few reasons came to mind:

1) He could scream insults at me for interrupting his intense workout.

2) He could get up and, without warning, start chasing me down Falomo Bridge. And he will catch me; he can run.

3) He could tackle me and toss me over the railing of the bridge, and I would go tumbling into the lagoon, hoping my backstroke would be good enough to save my life.

Because, with any of the above outcomes, when they tell my story people will say, ‘Ah, o ma se o. But why did she not just mind her business? Shebi it was office they said she was going to.’

***

For about two weeks I didn’t see this guy on Ozumba; and as I was taking a different route to work I could not see him on Falomo Bridge either.  

It was my last day with my former employer the morning I saw him again.

Running late for work, I was marching across the bridge when I saw the familiar figure, legs splayed out like he was doing a split, the ever-present headphones over his ears, sweat running down his face and neck and turning his clothes a darker blue than they were.

This had to be some kind of nudge  after today, with my job change, who knew when next I would have cause to walk across Falomo Bridge in the morning like this? Who knew when I would see him again?

I didn’t slow down as I approached the man; there was no hesitation. All the reasons you can have not to talk to random strangers in a place like Lagos faded from my mind. I stopped in front of him, my feet a few inches from the length of off-white fabric he had placed on the ground to protect his clothes from the dirt. He looked up at me and nodded, making a gesture that seemed to say sorry I’m in the way; please go ahead

I shook my head, bent forward a little and started talking. He eased off his headphones and listened, squinting up at me in the sunlight. As we talked I noticed some of the people I had passed on the bridge earlier on in my march overtake me, giving us curious looks as they went. I told him about seeing him working out often, about my curiosity, and about the video and Ore’s comment that had prompted me to stop and talk to him. I asked if he was training for something. He said no; he exercised for his health. He said that, being a doctor, he was aware of the importance of exercising, and that if his patients knew half the things he did they would be much better off. He said he was working on a book on health and fitness, so he could share some of this knowledge. He did not attempt anything remotely bizzare.

When I thanked him for talking to me he thanked me back, saying it was nice having someone stop to ask for once. I was glad I did. (And thanks to Ore, for being the prompter.)

I haven’t seen this man since, but I like to think he’s still out there doing his thing. And I really hope he writes that book.



Friday, October 10, 2014

Danfo Chronicles: Dancing Solves Everything

It wasn’t long after I got on the bus at Obalende that I realised the driver was one of those mad ones. As soon as the bus was filled he leaned on his horn and swerved into the road. And from then on he drove at a terrifying speed when the roads were free, slamming on the brakes when he had to slow down or stop, constantly tooting his horn, running into potholes like they didn’t exist and switching lanes without warning. The bus conductor, hanging from the doorway of the bus, seemed to be enjoying himself; he shouted greetings and taunts at every other danfo* we passed. The radio was playing loud fuji music that instructed men on how to hold on to their Nigerian women – apparently it came down to money and good sex. (This is me saying it the nice way; the singer’s language was much more colourful.) None of the other weary passengers seemed to mind all of this very much. Apart from the occasional half-hearted ‘e ni suru o’*, we were all stone faced and stoic, holding on to edges of our seats. We carried on this way, our driver angering other road users and drawing curses all the way but causing no death or bodily harm.

We got into Victoria Island and approached the toll plaza just before Lekki Roundabout. In the distance we could see the long lines of cars, trucks and buses easing slowly toward the tolling booths. I took it for granted that our driver would find the shortest of these queues and quickly join our bus to it from behind, like any normal human being would.

But no.

Between each line of vehicles there were empty strips of road wide enough to fit a bus like ours. It was into one of these spaces that the driver directed the bus. He was going so fast I thought he would crash into the traffic cone ahead, and then into the culvert and caution sign that separated the toll booth from the road. But he screeched to a stop just in time, stepping on the brakes and sending us jerking forward. Somebody cursed the driver and his mother.

So there we were, stuck between two lanes of vehicles. The plan, I assumed, was that the driver would appeal to the other drivers to make room for us; either that or our driver would try to squeeze in. Knowing the temperament of the typical Lagos driver, and with the other drivers having just witnessed our driver’s stunt, I knew we would have a hard time getting on the queue. And we did. The driver beside us on our right had set his face in an immovable mask and was pretending not to see our bus.

But our driver had a plan.

He signalled to the conductor who hopped off his perch in the doorway – his shorts were riding low and exposing the top halves of each ashy buttock – and sauntered into the space between Mask Face beside us and the car in front of him. Mask Face didn’t do anything; I think he was trying to figure out what the plan was. So was I.

As the vehicle in front of Mask Face rolled forward, leaving a few metres of asphalt behind it, the conductor spread his arms wide and started to dance, turning around and wiggling his narrow behind at Mask Face’s bonnet. Mask Face’s face wasn’t so masky anymore. He slapped his horn and leaned on it even as the conductor danced some more. Of course, Mask Face couldn’t run our conductor over. He sat there furious and impotent, blaring his horn as our driver eased his danfo into the widening space in front of him.

The conductor gave Mask Face a cheerful wave and hopped back on the bus as we drove toward the booth, mission accomplished.

Just another day in the life.


* Minibuses commonly used in Lagos as public transportation

* ‘Have patience.’

Friday, August 22, 2014

Girl on the Side

It’s the picture on your bedroom wall that bothers me. It’s hanging right across from the bed, with Her smiling straight at me. I imagine meeting her eyes over your shoulder as we’re having sex. If I were a different kind of person I might get a perverse pleasure out of it; maybe it’ll make me want to hold you tighter, moan louder, work harder, to prove something.

I decide I will ask you to take it down while I’m here. I’ll ask casually, make it sound like a joke: ‘Take it down jor. You want your madam watching us while we’re doing it?’

Weeks ago I rediscovered you on Instagram; you were living only a few hours away. It had been all innocent at first, renewing an old acquaintance from school. But when the break up I knew was coming came it was you I called, and you said all the words I needed to hear – it was his loss and I could do better anyway and any man would be lucky to have me. And so when you said I could come over if I needed to get away from everything I came; even though I knew there was no future here, even though I knew I would feel worse after. Even though I knew about Her.

You come into the room. ‘Hey, you,’ you say. You’re smiling as you hand me the glass of water I’d asked for. I smile back and take a sip.

‘Nice picture,’ I say, nodding at Her.

‘Yeah.’

‘She’s pretty.’

‘Yeah.’

You take off your jacket and ask if I’d like to shower. I nod, because all my words are gone. I’m rethinking this whole picture matter. Wouldn’t there be something proprietary about me asking you to take it down when it doesn’t seem to bother you; something that might suggest that maybe I think or hope that this thing with us might maybe perhaps be something more than it is?

I undress, my back to the wall where she hangs, and watch you watch me. The picture stays.

After the shower I return to the room to find you waiting. I slip off the towel and the heat from your skin warms me.

When you come you come alone, and then you fall asleep. And you snore. And I’m there watching your open mouth and being jealous because I want oblivion right now and you won’t let me have it and I want to shove a pillow onto your face and sit on it until the noise stops and I can go to sleep and forget all this. At least until I wake up again.

I reach up to turn off the light and I can’t help it. I look up at Her again and I wonder, is it just me or is that smile a tad smug right now?


I just want to go home.

Friday, August 15, 2014

HOW TO RIDE THE BUS

My short story, ‘How To Ride the Bus’, was published on Bella Naija this week. You can find it here. Please read, comment and share.

Friday, August 1, 2014

TALKING PHOTOS #6: Gold Star



I watched him from afar, lonely speck of black in a sea of white. He liked to do this after every event, sit smoking a cigarette amidst the pieces of themselves the guests left behind on the grounds he kept. Just one cigarette, though. He had quit for real a month and two weeks before I announced that I was marrying the daughter of his greatest enemy.

I walked, the grass beneath my feet muffling my approach. I was late today, and I wondered if my father noticed this where he sat sending wisps of smoke up in the air. There was something essentially the same about the different events that held here: weddings, parties, conventions, concerts. The things that the guests left behind on my father’s grounds – the scarves, the condoms, the books and underpants and wallets – should each tell a different story. But knowing that my father would look upon every one of these things made the stories all merge into one – the story of his life.

He did not say anything that day, after I shared the news of my coming wedding. He just strode out and returned with a pack of his favourite brand of smokes, Gold Star. He’s never spoken a word to me since. By marrying into the family that had stolen his small business and made him into a groundskeeper, I had chosen sides. There was nothing to say.

Except that today there was.

He did not look up when I reached him. His lips were rounded as he made a perfect O with his smoke. As a child I would reach up, put my index finger through the hole and watch the smoke fade around it. Would it make him laugh if I did that now? I sat and looked off into the distance.

We had made a baby for him. After three years of trying, we finally had. When I first held her in my arms I knew she would be the one, the mender of fences, the bridge under which the waters of our strife would flow. She was doing it already; her other grandfather had visited for the first time yesterday. Maybe if I found the right words my father would too.

I could start by saying we had decided to call her Gold Star. I hoped he would like this. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

WIG DILEMMA

I was standing at the bus stop this morning waiting for a danfo bus to Obalende. I was looking off into the distance and practising reading conductors’ lips when I got lucky. This one was calling Obalende. I was standing off to one side at the bus stop, away from most of the crowd, and so I had a small advantage. I hopped off the sidewalk and went to meet the bus before it stopped. The bus looked full, so I knew there was just one seat left.

But then I noticed that this last remaining seat was one of those pull-out ones, right beside the door of the bus. And this seat looked shaky. I've seen people fall off seats just like this one in moving danfos, so you can understand my hesitation.

‘You no dey enter?’ the conductor growled.

I shook my head. ‘This your seat ehn…’

‘The seat dey good, enter.’

I glanced at the people at the bus stop eyeing me, ready to pounce on the seat I was considering rejecting. Then I remembered how long I had to stand most days before finding a bus to Obalende. I took a breath and got into the bus. I perched on the seat, careful not to put my full weight on it. The conductor climbed on, covering the doorway with his body, his feet on the ledge as he held on to the roof of the bus, and the bus eased into the road. My hope at that point was that one of the passengers would shout ‘o wa’ and get off at a bus stop soon. As it turned out, this did not happen for a while. Moments later the traffic eased and we were speeding down the express road, and this was where my troubles really began.

You see, I was wearing a wig. And though I’d been wearing wigs for some time and had grown used to them, every wig wearer knows the anxiety that lurks at the back of your mind when you imagine the various ways that your ‘hair’ can be separated from your head without warning. Like, you could be coming down from a danfo and a lock of hair could get snagged on the door or on some random shard of metal protruding from the roof, and then your head will be exposed. You could be riding on an okada with a helmet on, and then when you alight and take off the helmet to return it your wig comes off along with said helmet and your ‘true self’ is revealed. You could be riding in a danfo with open doors, sitting on that outermost seat, like I was, the wind whipping your face and your ear rings, one hand struggling to hold on to your bags on your thighs and the other holding on to the seat in front of you so you don’t fall off when the bus takes the next curve in the road, and then the wind blows your wig right off your head and into the face of the person behind you. Or worse, the wind blows your wig out the bus and onto the windshield of a poor driver who did nothing at all to deserve any of this.

With every second that the wind buffeted my face and head I felt a growing certainty that it would take my wig. And so I found myself presented with a choice.

With one hand I was holding on to my bags, which were resting on my thighs and held my laptop and wallet and random valuables. It was a no-brainer; I needed all this stuff so I couldn't let go. With my other hand, I was holding on to the seat in front of me, to reduce my chances of falling off the bus every time we reached a roundabout or a bend in the road. But, and here was my dilemma, I had the option of letting go of the seat and using this other hand to hold on to my wig.

My people, after careful consideration I chose to let go of the seat that was probably saving my life and hold my hair in place.

But wait, before you say I’m vain. Believe me, I promise and cross my heart sef, I chose this option only because of the poor person sitting behind me who did not wake up this morning expecting to get a faceful of fake hair, and for the sake of the even poorer driver behind us who might be so shocked by the unexpected wig in his windscreen he might swerve off the road and die.


Monday, July 14, 2014

UNTITLED

These days I feel like there’s been a lot of infighting in my head, with me constantly having to remind myself of the things that are important to me. It gets harder. The things that are important to me are not visible to the human eye. They’re not the typical outward markings of ‘success’. Sometimes it’s me wondering if I haven’t been/am not being ‘realistic’ enough, if I’ve been too stayed on a certain path, not leaving enough room for life to have its way with me, to change me, maybe for good, maybe not.

There was a time, in 2010 or 2011, when the chance to interview at a small oil and gas firm in VI landed at my feet. I went to the interview, but only because everyone said I should; and even though I did not plan to, I pretty much ended up telling my interviewer that I just wanted to write, and that a job that would not let me use this, well I had no use for. At the end of the day, the result was that a place would be created for me in their small space; it would be there if I wanted it. I did not want it. No big loss for them; they didn’t want me either, not really. I was a favour.

Sometimes, when I waste my time dwelling on all the ‘what-ifs’ in my life, that day comes to mind. What if I had acted the normal interviewee, told them where I see myself in five years, like a proper ‘going somewhere’ person who knows how to sound like she knows where she’s going? What if I’d started that job administering things I don’t know or care for? What if I had dipped a foot in the big Oil and Gas pond that people sell their grandmothers to get into? What if I’d taken the road not taken?

I don’t know. But are we supposed to know these things?

People who know better, they take the road they take and they don’t look back. Me, I’m constantly craning my neck to look back in the direction I came from, exploring the past to imagine a different present.

But none of that is real. The past is past, and all that I have is now.


There’s a difficult space between the things that I know and the things that I do. I’ve been living in that space far too long.

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