It was a cold, dark night, but I was wide awake, and determined to remain so. Momentarily, my thoughts would fleet to the lady who occupied the front seat beside the driver, just in front of me. She did not quite keep the vigil, and by her routine of sliding to sleep and waking in a start, she would make the man drowsy. On his part, the driver had been, in the word of a fellow traveler, a stubborn driver. Earlier in the journey, before those batteries ran down, and the men hesitated and grumbled and finally got out in the rain to push the bus out of a freshly-made ditch in the middle of the road, he blared music from the vehicle’s sound system, and would not listen when implored to turn down the volume. At the last stop, he also threatened to extinguish a burning cigarette in the eye of a passenger.
So I was determined to stay awake and watch things unfold. We clambered bumps and dodged potholes, walled up on the right and left by pitch-black forests, but my eyes stayed on the road ahead. In the darkness, I could see only a few meters - the few meters illuminated by the vehicle’s headlights – but I was convinced that such vigilance was essential to our safety. It had gotten totally quiet, and half the bus was soundly asleep. Outside, the torrents had settled to a light drizzle. We had been overtaking vehicles for a while – something I considered a boon – so ours was now one solitary vehicle on the vast highway. Not a fleck of light could be seen on the rear-view mirror.
Then the bus slowed and began to veer towards the bush. I cast a sharp look of apprehension at the driver.
“Driver, wetin dey happen?”
As the words left my lips, his own apprehension peaked. Letting out a crazed shout, he began to furiously whirl the steering wheel, intent on an about-turn. Then I glimpsed the flashing lights of two hand-held torches, just beyond the glare of the headlights, and knew something beyond the health of the bus was amiss. In a second or two, as the driver was negotiating the turn, heading back in the direction we had been coming from, I knew what it was. We have been ambushed by highway robbers. But I didn’t need to think, for as we made to accelerate in flight from the threat now tailing us, an apparition appeared before my eyes: a big burly person clad in white underwear, wielding a sophisticated gun, jumped over the concrete demarcation from the other lane. By the light of the headlights, I saw his features quite clearly. On this cold night, save for that white underwear covering his groin, this fellow was naked in the rain. On his face, and in those glazed eyes, I saw pure desperation. He held the gun with both hands, like a log, and made to smash it into the windscreen of our vehicle. Suddenly, I realised how presumptuous, at the risk of my very life, I have been, just watching these things happen; everyone of my fellow travelers, now fully awake, was hiding under the seats. Even the driver, bless him, was crouched beneath the steering wheel, navigating with his hands and his imagination. I speedily ducked under my seat, praying that no bullet would pierce the sides and hit anyone.
When we arrived at a shelter several miles from the spot of ambush, it was a cacophony. People spoke at the top of their voices, at the same time, everyone recounting their own version of the incident. Excitement mingled with hysteria. But some, like the lady who sat beside the driver, fell completely silent, the silence of shock and frozen faculties. People called friends and family on the telephone to report. Some took positions at the edge of the road, warning vehicles to go no further. Our driver sat on a low stool and shuddered intermittently. He was tonight’s hero, the reason some of us can now chatter excitedly, and having all reached a silent consensus to forgive his earlier misdeeds, we couldn’t thank him enough.
Not that I had no premonitions, at least an hour or two before the attack. The Benin-Ore expressway is treacherous territory. A little after we passed Okada, I noticed that the roadblocks, where soldiers and mobile policemen made bonfires and stopped vehicles for routine search, had ceased. I was still worrying about this situation when we ran into the robbers. At the shelter, I was able to piece together the rest of our escape story: In the struggle to effect our escape, the driver’s renegade persona, so distastefully exhibited thus far, came to good use. Under his manic coercion, tyres squeaked and screeched, the engine roared, the smell of a burning clutch chocked us, and the foreboding darkness of blackened forest scenery, sparsely punctuated by flashes of unsteady light, blurred in a wide, sweeping, dizzying arc. Then a front tyre fell into a depression in the road, a fortuitous pot-hole, filled with muddied rain-waters that obligingly splashed themselves so generously on the brute who tried to smash the vehicle’s windscreen. Before he came around, and before his cohorts could catch up, we returned to firmer grounds and bolted, a quarry lost to desperate hunters. For all my prior vigilance, I still can’t say how the driver sensed trouble seconds before it would have been too late.
I had ample time, that night, for sober reflection. It is a short distance from robbery to death on the highway – what with the possessed breed of highway robbers we hear about nowadays, who seem contracted to offer innocent travelers on the altar of sordid death. That night, as we counted our blessings quite vociferously, people were connecting so easily with their spiritual sides. It is weird, and amusing, how the consciousness of death serves the demands of life. Two fellow travelers, who had been quarreling almost the entire journey, using the worst invectives on each other, suddenly became best of friends, excitedly making conversation and effusing a camaraderie that was just astounding. Even the driver would not take credit for the bravery, the sharp instincts, the excellent composure that saved our hides, declaring that it was God at work, not him.
The experience unlocked a chest of disturbing contemplations for me. Woke me up, as it were. Even now, I feel entirely too young to die, but if death had happened, what kind of life would I have lived? Or, knowing I would die this young, how would I have led my life? For one, many extant worries would have found no sanctuary in my soul. Worthy deeds, hitherto relegated to the fringes of attention would be enjoying more honourable places on my hierarchy of priorities. Fear and anxiety would not be such pernicious companions.
We passed the night at the shelter, and when the bus reached destination the following morning, and people began to alight, we made jokes.
“Bye bye, Oga. Make you go do thanksgiving for church tomorrow o.”
On that humid, frigid morning, the apothegm going back and forth in the inner crevices of my head did not sound so cliched: Live like today is your last, as it may very well be.