I stepped out onto the concrete pavement fronting the two-story brick public housing building and froze in place. To my right, a black top beckoned. It stretched into the far distance, crisscrossing with the main road that took a commuter out of the neighborhood. To my left, a back-door route beckoned. A brick wall closed off the cull de sac and pointed the way to a back yard path out.
I decided to take the short cut. I hooked left, squeezing through the gap in the chain-link fence that ringed the grounds behind the building. I treaded the moist and green grass in front of me, cutting a path that led me to the exit gate on the other side of the field.
Poplar was a neighborhood in East London. It was populated by a smorgasbord of ethnic groups that included sizable portions of blacks, whites, and East Asians. It bore the scars and triumphs of a working class neighborhood in London: graffiti, free-flowing laughter and the pungent smells of fried onions and curry.
I frowned at the graffiti on a nearby wall, wondering what the painter was thinking. I was all for creativity, but the act of expressing art in a public space without public permission always rubbed me the wrong way.
I walked over the overhead bridge to cross over to the commercial side of the neighborhood. Below, a transnational commuter train whizzed by, announcing its presence with a sharp, loud whistle. I emerged from the bridge and stepped onto a sidewalk that rubbed shoulders with another road more trafficked than the previous two I’d seen.
I looked left, and then stepped onto the black top to cross over to the other side. Big mistake. A Vauxhall honked wildly, and swerved to the left to avoid hitting me. I flashed the driver a peace sign as I regrouped on the other side of the road.
I walked into the neighborhood supermarket and compared it to the ones I was used to in the United States. Where Krogers in Atlanta or Vons in Los Angeles boasted enough aisles and stocks to lose your way and mind over, the Poplar community supermarket was smaller, but all the same inviting.
Clothed in colorful saris, an East Asian couple negotiated their way around two London teenagers who wore their pants half way down their butts, and their Cockney loud. I strained to pick up the language, but the cacophony of sounds in the store blunted the effort.
I picked up a pack of Hobnobs cookies (biscuits), paid for it by spreading my coins on the cashier’s counter. I spoke British notes, not coins. She arched a brow, smiled at me knowingly, and then pushed back the excess coins.
Outside, I ran into a buzz saw of activity. The open community market in front of the store was full of human activity. Two Nigerians in front of a mom-and-pops kiosk bantered away in Yoruba, while buyers and sellers of every ware domestic haggled over prices.
I cut through the clutter and arrived at the bus stop on Commercial Road. Bus number N15 bobbed and weaved its way towards me as it picked up passengers along the way. I rubber-necked in a bid to will up London’s iconic red door-less double-decker bus. That particular bus had been relegated to the heap of history, I quickly realized.
I waved frantically at the driver just as the N15 was about to pull away. I boarded the bus and tendered coins for my fare. The driver sorted out the right amount and returned the rest to me. I made my way to the top deck and got ready to kick it and enjoy the ride.
I turned to look. It was a teenager with a cell phone. I stood up to disembark the bus, but it was too late.
“Pu’ ‘er mo’er on the phone!”
“Hey” I said, in a bid to send a hint.
“Wha’?” He went on and on, loud and profane.
He looked at me. “Wha’?
“You’re too loud. Tone it down.”
“Ge’ off tha bus, mate.”
I stood up and walked up to him. “No, you get off the bus. This is a public bus, and the rest of us here deserve some quiet.”
“Ge’ off ma face, mate.”
“If you can see, you’d notice that I’m not your mate. Why don’t you whisper or at least wait until you get off the bus to be rude.”
“Wai’” he said. He stood up and leaned into my face. “Fuh off!”
My first instinct was to smash his face in with my fist, but I decided to act the adult in the situation. I walked back to my seat sucking in air in a bid to cool down my nerves.
I froze. I turned to face him.
His gaze said it all. He looked me in the eye in a bid to say, Yeah, I said it, and so what are you going to do about it?
I walked up to him, snatched the cell phone out of his hand, and tossed it out the window.
Hell broke loose.
He stood up and swung at me. I moved away just in time. Passengers scrambled to get off the upper deck. I caught a fist in the face, fell backwards and steadied myself with my hands.
A brawl broke out as other passengers tried to restrain the vexed teenager. The bus slowed down and then came to a stop. The driver came up to the upper deck and, after conversing with other passengers, ordered the teenager off the bus.
My left eye hurt like heck.
As he left the bus, the teenager’s language dissolved into deep Cockney, laden with lots of expletives.
I thanked the passengers who’d intervened on my behalf and then settled back into a seat, hoping that I was not hurt worse than I felt. The bus resumed its journey, but not before a rock hit a side window.
I looked around me. Where’d it go? I looked under the seats. I walked around and froze at the sight of a wallet lodged between a seat. I flashed the wallet at the other riders and asked for the owner. Finding no takers, I looked inside.
My jaw dropped.
Mercy Ogene’s picture graced a pocket in the wallet. I studied the British National ID card that came with the wallet. The teenager’s name was Roland Ekpeyong, and he was seventeen. The weight of it made me sit down.
My God! This was the toddler I held in my hands several years ago in Lagos when I was a teenager! I focused on the picture. He was all grown now…
“Stop!” I said as I shot up and ran down to the lower deck of the bus. “I know the owner of the wallet.” I emerged from the bus and ran down the opposite direction, my gaze sweeping and frantic. The sign in front of me said White Chapel, but no sign of Aniedi.
I walked up to the spot where Aniedi was ordered off the bus and showed a few pedestrians his picture. They all shook their heads no; none knew nor had seen him. I turned a corner and came face to face with a deserted street. Public housing and double-parked cars adorned both sides of the street, but no pedestrian was in sight.
“Wha’ you wan’ fro’ me?”
A cold metal pressed against my neck the same time I heard the voice. It was the teenager. “Aniedi?”
Dead silence. The grip on my clothing relaxed a bit. “Who are you?”
“Aniedi put the knife away right now.”
He let go. I turned around. Aniedi wore a brutal frown on his face, and his right hand messaged a switch blade that gleamed in the mid day London sunlight.
“’Ow you know ma name?”
I kept a distance from him. He still looked very angry, and any false move on my part might result in more hurt than a black eye. “I knew you when you were a baby.”
His eyes narrowed. “Baby?”
I nodded yes.
His brow relaxed a bit. “You’re ma fa’er?”
I shook my head no. “I was neighbors with your mother. We were schoolmates at Unilag.”
His demeanor went through several changes at once. He folded the knife and shoved it into his pocket.
“Call your mother.”
Through gritted teeth he said, “I don’t have my phone!”
I brought out my phone. “What’s her number?”
He stood there looking at me for a long time. I don’t know why I missed it in the bus. He had a hint of his mother’s looks: soft oval lines that made up the face, with the eyes being the most prominent features on it. His jaw was butt-shaped, a probable carry over from whoever his father was.
“What’s her number, Aniedi?”
He extended his hand. I gave the phone to him and flinched, afraid that he’d do to it what I did to his: throw it away. Instead, he punched in numbers. He placed the phone against his left ear and walked away from me. I was surprised that he’d turned out a south paw.
“Hey,” I said, extending my hand defensively.
He stopped, turned around and shot me an angry look. “Mom, theh is a man ‘ere. Says he knows you.”
I began to smile.
Aniedi broke away from the phone. “Wha’s your name?”
When Aniedo said my name, a joyous shriek tore through the phone, making Aniedi jerk away from it protectively. He handed me the phone.
“Monzur! Na you be dat?”
“Lord have Mercy! “
“MONZUR! The devil is a liar o!”
“All the time, my sister. Even Allah knows.”
I laughed with Mercy as I’d never laughed since Lagos.
“Monzur, wetin you dey do for London?”
“I came to a conference. International Baccalaureate.”
“Whatever dat mean. Monzur! Na your voice be dat?”
“Na me o!”
“Where you stay? Fancy hotel? Una yankee na una get all the money.”
“For where? We broke like una. You no hear say Wall Street crash? I stay with a friend.”
““How you meet my son?”
“Long story. I go tell you when I see you.” I shot a glance at Aniedi. “Kai, Mercy. See Aniedi. He don grow finish.”
“He let you call am Aniedi? He no like people to call am dat name o. He like him oyinbo name. He must like you.”
Not really, but I said nothing. Aniedi looked quite unsure of himself, fidgeting and pacing the small space he occupied.
“Come to the house. I dey home,” Mercy ordered. “Hey, Monzur. You remember this music?” I could hear Celestine Ukwu’s “Igede” in the back ground. I bent half way down and began to shake my rump, an effort at a dance similar to the atilogwu. I was as clumsy as they came but I didn’t care.
Even bone head Aniedi and a couple of passers-by had a chuckle or two watching me do the dance.
“Come to the house, my friend,” Mercy said. “You don eat?”
“No, madam. I was going to Oxford Street to go get a bite.”
“Which kind Oxford Street?” She hissed derisively. “Come make I make you naija food. Shey you still dey eat ngwo-ngwo?”
I resumed dancing. “I dey come.”
“You go knack am with odeku, abi?”
“You have not changed, Mercy.”
“Change for wetin? Jus because we dey for oyinbo land?” She hissed. “Abeg! Come see your sister, my broda. The devil is a liar! Abeg give Roland the phone.”
Aniedi took the phone from me, listened to his mother, and then gave it back. Carefully.
“Aniedi!” I said, psyched to the max as a result of my conversation with Mercy. “I held you in my hands when you were a baby!”
He sighed, his hands folded respectfully in front of him.
“Pull your pants up!”
When he realized that I meant his trousers, he reluctantly pulled them up.
“You’re a Nigerian – no, you’re Mercy’s son, and I expect you to have the same self-esteem as that woman. You do not talk in the bus with a loud voice. You have to realize that that is a public space, and everybody in that bus deserves a little consideration. And all that foul language. Where did you learn to talk like that? Does Mercy know that you do all these things?”
Aniedi looked at me as if I’d spoken French to him.
“Are you going to tell Mom?”
“What do you think? What do you think I should do, Aniedi? I have this swell in my eye because of you. When your mother asks me where I got it from, do you think that I should lie to her? Let’s go. Give me the knife.”
He pulled out the switch blade and threw it away.
I was so hyped, I was tempted not to acknowledge his regret. But I decided to lead by example. “I’m sorry for throwing your phone away, but I had to do it. I know that I get angry too fast sometimes, and I’m working on it. But…”
“Wheh do you live?”
“Have you me’ T.I.?”
I stopped walking. “T.I.? No. But I’ve met Barrack Obama, and that’s who you should be emulating. C’mon. Take me to your mother.”