Onitsha town flew past. It was noisy with the yawns of multi-directional motions. From where I was crammed at the back of a heady minibus, I continued to watch as its spinning form sped by along the expressway. After a while, it slowed down to a halt, took the shape of fiery motor park touts and came at me as I jumped down from the bus. An onslaught of persuasions began. Swiftly, I held firmly onto terra firma, deliberately ignoring them and looking around me. But their seething directness surged into my clinical detachment. I took a few steps away, raising my arms in objection like a VIP avoiding some crazy paparazzi. But they were not at all deterred by my cold reception of their urges. I had to turn around sharply and tell them off. My grim visage and my enormous build might have worked to my advantage. Yes, they scampered away to some other prey.
The smashed and twisted tar of Upper Iweka Road lay close by. It, too, was a beehive of forceful persuasions. Boldly, I began to walk toward that direction, wishing that I would see a good bus to travel by. See, the touts were bouncing along the dashed and heavily congested tar, seeking for prey. And amidst the cacophony of rush hour city honks, they would reach out for people’s bags and purses. Then they would urge their owners to travel on any one of some cranky vehicles that appeared forsaken and dusty from recent odysseys. This they would do, even to victims who were rushing to some emergent engagements that had nothing to do with traveling. Saddled with lustful subtexts, most of them dashed for ladies who wore provocative dresses and put up suggestive catwalks. Others created scenes around people only to surreptitiously make away with their hard-earned Naira notes. Only a few strong and outstanding luxury buses had passengers going to them with little or no harassment from anyone.
I was headed for Lagos. Aside some money on me, Norman Cousin’s Human Options was my only companion. I held it to me as a priest would a Bible.
“”Excuse me Sir, do ply in our bus to Lagos with us….” Someone suggested in a near impeccable but funny diction that was evident of some sort of schooling.
I instinctively turned around. Wait a minute! He was a tout! And he wore their stereotypical stamp: bedraggled clothes. I wondered at this incompatible mixture. In order not to be outdone, other competitors were trying to reposition my thoughts from him. Their bus dey break down for road oh! You go regret am oh! I am determined to direct my will myself. I noticed he clipped an elegant personal ID card to a rope around his neck. There was his image, this time in a shirt and tie! I brought the card up for a closer look. It read:
University of Experience
Name: Jude Peterjack
Class: Advanced Multi-service Personnel
As I went straight to the luxury bus he had indicated, I tried to probe into why he was different. He was evasive. Ah, my curious mind was restive. Besides, his face rang a bell. I wanted to know, to know….
The bus was already half-filled with people. As a pot-bellied man sitting near the front door of the bus thrust a ticket into my hand, I noticed the inscription on that side of the bus:
BE FREE MASS TRANSIT LTD.
I looked at the fare ticket the pot-bellied man had thrust into my hand and almost shouted. Two thousand two hundred Naira for Lagos! I protested immediately. He was ready with diplomacy. He went into a long jeremiad about inflation, trying to appeal to my emotions. Among the already-seated passengers on the bus, two ladies popped their heads through the windows and began to persuade me to yield. It appeared they had also been fleeced of their money this way and wanted more company. Mystery loves company. It was not all these that made me pay. My empathy for “Jude Peterjack” made me pay, seeing that he sweated it out to get me here. I quickly passed him a tip of one hundred Naira as I held the iron rail of the bus door.
I went up the steps to the deck, found a comfortable window seat and sat down. My mind went to Jude again. His aura was reminiscent of something in my past. A déjà vu? As if on cue, he hurried up the deck and came towards me.
“Sir, if I tell you that you were my senior back in secondary school, would you agree?” he asked.
“What!?” I enquired instinctively.
“Yes, you were my Senior Prefect back in Government Secondary School, Minna,” he was sure now, “that was about eight years ago. I was in SS1A then.”
I was so stunned that I did not know what to say. I only had to let a “yes?” to escape my mouth like an editor hungry for more of some breaking news.
“Yes, you are Great Onaga, aren’t you? I did not recognize you at first, but after a while, I did.” He spoke rapidly, fingering his ID card.
Yes…, memories of him as the most punctual student exploded into my consciousness. Yes…, he never got himself entangled in the morning drills for latecomers at the school gates.
“Oh!” I shouted, “is this you, Jude?”
“Yes, senior” he laughed.
“Longest time, man, you’ve really grown.”
It was not that he had grown much; rather it was only that he had changed much. Little wonder I did not recognize him on time. His once radiant and chubby cheeks were now as shrunken as dry leaves. And his eyes told tales of intense poverty and countless wars (woes?).
We exchanged memories and banter. I was cautiously and slowly arriving to that fundamental question about how he got into this touting business when the pot-bellied men interrupted us in Igbo:
“Judo, ke ife ika na eme ebe afu? O na imaro na anyi kwesili ipu tufu 8:30 akuo?” (Judo, what are you still doing there? Don’t you know we have to move this bus before 8:30?).
“Judo” looked at him and then turned to me and said quickly, “I know you would be wondering why I am here in this place, well, I dropped out of the University due to hard times…. See you later Sir.”
I was surprised that he had revealed some aspect of his condition to me without much ado— seeing that he had been aversive earlier on: Probably some kind of cathartic outburst— back of meeting an old acquaintance.
I watched him go and my heart reached out to him as would that of Jonathan to David. Then I slide open my glass window and stared at the outside world. The dawning permutations of humanity were struggling to escape from poverty. In the distance, vultures converged on a boundless refuse dump. Carrions were their quest. Every so often, refuse would be dropped and the vultures would scamper away for a moment only to return like flies on a briefly-protected sore. At last, human scavengers came and drove these others away. But I know they will return, the real scavengers will return, when the time comes.
A young skinny girl approached the luxury bus. On her head was a blue plastic bucket. It was heavy with chilled bags of pure water and smoking bottles of soft drinks. Droplets of water had collected in the bucket from moisture and from broken bags. They found their way to her headgear. Soaked, the gear made low squelchy sounds and produced impure drops that ran down her forehead as she walked. And each time the drops got to her eyebrows, she would wipe them from off her face with her free hand. She looked up through my window at me.
“Brother, make I bring mineral or pure water?” She cooed.
I looked at her dirty headgear and shook my head. But she lingered. After a while, I discovered I needed to do something before she would leave or else I would suffer some qualms. I fished out a five hundred Naira note. Because I would mind if her water were to quench my taste, I did something else. I wanted her to work for part of the money so I asked her to get me a handkerchief, which was normally sold for fifty Naira. I had intended to give her one hundred Naira from the change she would bring back. She brought down the heavy bucket and wrung out her headgear. As she walked away, I noticed that she had learnt to heave her hips! She should not be more than eight years old.
At the moment, a tall beautiful lady came up the steps to the deck of the bus. She surveyed the empty seats before her. The shadow of a frown creased her face. In five sweeping seconds, her almond-shaped eyes, golden necklace, blue zip boot cut jean trousers covering a pair of voluptuous hips, milky halter top with necktie fastening and pursed but sensual lips all registered in my memory. And carelessly, as I came to learn later, I wrote her off as the proud and cold type. My experiences with extremely beautiful ladies must have dictated that conclusion. Out of habit, I looked away.
She looked in my direction and strangely (Holy Lord!), she came up the aisle to me.
“Hello, excuse me,” she pointed at the empty seat beside my own, “is anybody sitting here?”
“No” I replied, surprised.
She dropped a big white file on the seat. Then, she turned to me again and pointing at the file, she said, “Please, I am coming.”
“All right” I acknowledged. Her sweet-smelling and mildly applied feminine perfume wafted across to me.
As I watched her go, something told me that I had goofed somewhere. Acting on reflex, I pushed my head through the window and looked down. The water girl was gone with my money, her water and all! I hissed and shook my head in disgust: See how this society has messed with the mind of that child.
There was a little fuss in front of the bus. The lady was trying to come up the steps with a trolley case. She was dragging it by the handle. Its roller blade wheels were having a difficult time rolling up the steps. But nevertheless, up they must come, I thought. Judo came to her aid. Surprisingly for his lean frame, he picked up the suitcase from behind. And with the lady pulling up front, it was carried over the steps and lowered on the deck. When she rolled it to her seat, Judo lifted it again, gave a suppressed snort and pushed it into the luggage rack above my head.
“Do make yourself comfortable” he beamed.
“Thank you” the lady sang, gazing after him as he hurried away. I sensed she was impressed by his diction and I also sensed that he wanted to get away from any inquisition or tip, especially because they would be very mortifying for his male ego.
She had taken up her file, pushed it into a pouch at the back of the seat in front of her own and sat down. Suddenly I became uncomfortably aware of her nearness in space to me.
For want of something to do or say, she looked at her wristwatch and began, “do you know when we would be on our way?”
“I don’t,” I replied, noticing her aquiline nose for the first time, “The bus may have a fixed time for departure or the driver may decide to wait till all the seats are occupied— which is the more likely.”
She chuckled at that faint joke in my tentative reply. And, oh, how the chuckle went down the deep recesses of my mind and brought up bubbles of heartthrobs that ruptured and sped and spread through my entire being. I checked myself. And for cover, I, too, glanced at my wristwatch: 8:30 a.m.
Then, I opened the book in my hand and concentrated on absolutely nothing. Say something for that chuckle, you fool.
I sensed she wanted me to say something. I also sensed she either had felt something that had made her come straight to sit beside me or had just started feeling it in synchrony with me. What’s wrong with you? Love at first sight? Even you!? My mind was racing.
I noticed her sneakers for the first time. They were made of the familiar brown canvas of the National Youth Service Corp members. She brought out peeled oranges from a purple bag and began to take one.
“Do you care for some?” she offered.
“No, thanks” I swallowed. I must start off now: “You must be a youth corper.”
“Yeah,” she replied.
“And you must be serving in Lagos?”
“Yeah, are you one of us?”
“Nope” I answered. Then somewhat filled to the conscious with mirth for seeing her thoughts go in tandem with mine, I joked, rather impetuously, “just traveling to Lagos to see if I could get a job as a cleaner in one of the big business firms there.”
“Really?” she was all eyes.
“Yeah, you never know, from that low status, I may get close to one of those powerful people there by virtue of constant proximity. And, of course, I’ll become powerful myself.”
“A powerful cleaner.” She teased.
We laughed over it. I was beginning to enjoy her company, however foolish my joke was….
“Well, on a more serious note, I am going back to my cyber café somewhere in FESTAC town.” I softened, inevitably advertising. I fished out my complimentary card from my breast pocket and gave it to her. Caressing it with very delectable fingers, she studied it.
“The other note was a joking one or was it a lying one?” she had this quality of being social without appearing loose or puerile.
“All jokes are props— something that is used to beautify an otherwise trite appearance, experience or thought. And, of course, all props are lies. Therefore, all jokes are lies.” I reasoned logically, in spite of myself. After all, I was enjoying myself.
“You must be a philosopher”
“Well, I used to be one but I deplored when I learnt that my model Philosophy professor who thought me Logic and Clear Thought was caught pants down with a girl in his office. Logic and Clear Thought my foot!” This is top gear.
And she laughed. And how pleasant it was. We continued this way, almost oblivious of the gradual built up of noise from the increasing number of passengers around us. We soon wrote our names on the manifest. I discovered her name because she wrote before I did, but I pretended not to know in order not to appear forward. Her name was Linda.
TO BE CONTINUED….