They beat the pulp out of me that night of the 30th day of September this year. It was the eve of the National Independence Anniversary, which for 50 years had been trailed by mixed feelings. This was in spite of the general atmosphere of green-white-green that descended on the country.
I had almost passed by the boys sitting beside their rusty Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ a few kilometers away from mine when a careless log tripped me; I crashed into one of the boys with the load I was carrying. The oozing blood of the load touched this boy with an angry face and he raised an alarm the way he would had he seen ’a thief that killed and stole the only goat that belonged to an entire village’ – he was certain of an instant response. “Hey, blood”, “Catch am”, “He Kill am”, “Na thief”, “Na robber” and all sorts of hazy descriptions of me filled the air while strong but unknown hands descended on me.
Cynthia and I had set out on this journey from Ohafia in Abia State about four days ago, not on foot but in our own car. I have maintained an average speed of one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour until I got to the outskirts of Lagos at an area just less than a few kilometers away. My speedometer read zero and have remained so for four days since we arrived here.
Too many cars plying too few, too tiny and too crooked roads resulted in this protracted traffic jam that will certainly prevent the passage even of rats. For four days, we have been holed up like rats blocked out of life in their holes waiting to be smoked to death. “With a bomb blasting our heads off tomorrow, it would be the second successive fatal explosion of such in just two years of the two years of our reigning President,” I had thought to myself that eerily ominous independence eve.
The expressway has become garage to many cars and home to car-owners, too many of them heading to Lagos in a way that told their dissatisfaction with their home villages. Lagos must be home to all, fair-skinned, tanned or beige, rubicund or even without but tall, short, meaty or the lack of it with flappy wings for ears and the bespectacled. There were even those with bulging eyes that wouldn’t accommodate spectacles. They were all crammed on the road leading to Lagos; the traffic was hectic and all cars were static.
My new neighbourhood was an improvement of everyday-Lagos traffic jam. There had been no movement. Car owners and passengers have assumed friendly relations, coursing into one another like long time relatives. Those who were already resident or had friends in Lagos would trek whatever distance they had to just to lay their bodies on a secured bed, while the others especially the new immigrants who knew not a soul in the infamously famed city would go out to make ends meet but always return to their vehicles. When they told their neighbours they were strolling to visit a friend, usually it was an acquaintance somewhere holed up in the same traffic. Everyone has become a friend to the others so much so that when one returned from work or a visit, such one would greet the others like you do co-tenants in a face-me-I-face-you arrangement. The usual responses also became ‘Wetin you buy come na?’, ‘How that side?’.
The raucous exchanges at different points must have reached the ears of the ever-responsive Lagos street-hawkers, who swarmed our neighbourhood like patronizing bees. It was from them, especially the newspaper vendors amongst them that we regularly got our bits of information about what was happening in the fiscal and political worlds of Lagos. Albeit, they didn’t come alone; with them were also petty-thieves, rogues, fraudsters who would sell off your car without you suspecting only later to remember there was no way to drive free. Hence, car-theft wasn’t a lucrative venture but petty-theft; at some point, it was even the tenants at the neighbourhood that stole from the robbers since the robbers usually brought in more money than the neighbours’ fast-running-out purses contained.
It was an interesting Lagos that I had to finally settle for up to that eve of the Independence Day when things became a little sour. Almost alive, almost dead but quite unknown to me, Cynthia watched with the corner of her droopy eyes as I paced to and fro the steaming pot that perched delicately on an improvised stove bought from one of the hawkers, who sold cooking utensils, by the grassy side of the expressway.
Cynthia, reclining on the passenger seat of my old Peugeot inheritance, regarded me as proud though knowledgeable; so, when I caught her stealing a tired look at me, I felt she must be pleased that my three-piece suit, which I had planned three years earlier to garb this day and glaze the face of ‘that’ mysterious Lagos with, had been blemished by the tear occasioned by a jagged firewood. What I didn’t know was that Cynthia was distressed; she couldn’t bring herself to talk and was trying however to get my attention by pricking my heart with her mind’s language which she thought I should sense. Rather than sense this, I was turning over the thoughts of my wife happy that my expensive suit was blemished.
Cynthia was heavy with bad fat and a pregnancy that was almost term, precisely two and a half-month to delivery, when ‘the thing ‘happened. I preferred the simplicity of ‘the thing’ to other tags used by co-tenants, with medical leanings, who came not to take action but to propose a number of action-steps, when my wife finally gathered voice to grunt my attention to her. She was bleeding heavily that I wondered how I missed that red smell of her monthly ooze. I imagined it was because this wasn’t the regular monthly ooze, which had ceased about six-and-a-half months ago but a one-off misfortune.
While those good-for-nothing medical impostors argued about the likely causes, nature and whether to pray or act, mouthing tags like ‘incompetent cervix’, ‘premature labour’, ‘government ineptitude’, ‘bad roads’, ‘drugs, not available’ and so on, fearfully I lifted Cynthia and balanced her on my back. I paced quickly away from the maddening crowd, whose ranks kept swelling with increasing interest.
As I walked by the many vehicles lined-up on the road that night with rather clumsy gait, I noticed that the world was silent and had been silent for a while without my realizing it. For a long time, I had cared more about myself than my other half, who had become used to suffering all by herself. I would argue without being shamefaced about the world we lived in, the insecurities in the land and especially how the government had neglected her services to her people. In doing this, I didn’t notice how much I too have neglected my services to my other half until now when the world seemed to be silent and all that existed was either Cynthia and I or the rest of the world. Cynthia was writhing in some pain I could only comprehend now that I decided to set my heart to it.
This was her (nay ‘our’) first child which is nearing being lost. The nearest hospital is barely less than fifteen kilometers away. Even motorcycles could not traverse the spaces where I had to squeeze Cynthia and I through; earlier, motorcycle owners have had to lift their Machines literally on their heads only to realize there were still no roads for them after walking with their burdens through kilometers. Many of them had stopped and taken resting positions on the road just like vehicle owners.
She was still bleeding, she was alive and I was drawing closer to the Hospital. I saw the Sign of the Mother & Child Hospital shone by the flickering light of a generator-powered bulb as I walked closer to the junction. The colossal chest of the Hospital however came alive as I turned to negotiate the junction; but that was when Cynthia’s rhythm seemed to flatten-out. She stopped writhing and my mind fluttered between contemplating her recovery or an aggravation. In thinking I had a choice, I haven’t decided which it would be when that senseless log on the floor tripped me and made me crash into those creepy boys. They descended on me, tore my flesh and badly pawed my jaw while I stole ill-starred looks at Cynthia who was writhing (nay having a spasm) again on the floor where she was carelessly shoved. I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad; this time, her writhing could be recovery or an aggravation. I didn’t know what to think again; not with the many blows, ringed with steel, that were striving to snuff life out of me. The blows kept coming, but in an instant of relief and yet extreme grief speechless as it was, the blows withdrew and the boys, all inhabitants of the neighbourhood – car owners, motorcycle owners, passengers, street hawkers, petty thieves and their victims, gathered around the lifeless body of Cynthia. I couldn’t move my body parts, just my sight and my thoughts.