Teaching anyone to drive in Lagos is not easy. In fact, it is harder if it is a woman. “Turn Left!” I yelled. Immediately, I put my hand on my forehead, closed my eyes and shook my head. “Why do you always make the same mistake?” I asked, stressing each word. My hand was still on my forehead.
“Look, Jude, I will leave this car for you o” My Pumpkin replied firmly, as if to match my aggressive tone. “After just one day of driving lessons, you’re putting me on the express road, at night, is it my fault I am messing up?” she concluded with a long hiss. Her long hiss reminded me of a particular marriage preparation class we both attended, seven months ago, just before we got married. Our counselor specifically addressed the issue of “hissing in marriage”, and here was my wife, failing that course. I smiled. It was these little defiant attitudes that attracted me to her in the first place.
I looked over to the driver’s seat; at the plump, fair-skinned nurse behind the steering, my own woman, my wife. She wore her white nursing uniform, the one that I liked, above knee length, which showed her smooth legs. Her matching white nursing-cap settled on her head. On her breast-pocket, there was a gold plated name tag, with an inscription, “Mrs. Ebere Eze”. I remember the first time I saw her, I kept asking myself; how could someone be plump, yet so beautiful at the same time? To me then, it was a mystery, and also funny. So I called her Pumpkin, My Pumpkin, like the fruit, she was round, yellow and good to look at.
“Pumpkin, I know we’re moving too fast” I said. “But you know it is necessary you learn how to drive now”. She had to learn real quick.
“Yes, I know it is necessary but –“
“You know Mama’s condition is not getting better” I interrupted. “I need to be with her, I can’t be driving you around again, you need to be independent, starting from this night!” I said quickly.
A lot of things changed after we discovered my mother, Mama, had a serious heart problem. After Mama suffered her heart attack two months ago, she became bed-ridden . It was tough for Papa, I and my siblings.
“Don’t press the break suddenly; it has to be progressive, ahn ahn”. I said, calmly. My Pumpkin did not respond, her expression was blank. I knew she was still angry at me for my ranting earlier. “You have to start wearing your seat belt, especially now that you’re driving”. I spoke again, trying to ease the tension between us.
“See, I can’t stain my Uniform” she replied “I can’t stain it with this seat belt”. Her expression was still blank, her eyes still fixed on the road, and her hands clutching the steering wheel tightly like every scared learner.
Even though wearing the seat belt was paramount for her safety, I could not agree with her more, the car, an old rickety Mercedes Benz 230, which was an inheritance from a friend who relocated overseas, was in a terrible state. The seat belt had accumulated all the dust particles from the streets of Lagos, and had transformed from its original black colour to brown. In as much as I cared for My Pumpkin’s safety, I also cared about her looks, I did not want the belt to stain her white nursing uniform. I knew I had to change this old car; it was becoming an object of embarrassment. But this was not the time to spend lavishly or buy new things. Mama will soon die, we had to start saving for her funeral. We had to avoid anything that would bring unnecessary costs.
“Still I don’t understand why I have to drive to work this night o” My Pumpkin said in a gentle tone. In as much as I was happy the tension between us was easing, I was irritated by that question. This was about the 50th time she asked this question in the past 30 minutes.
“Honey” I said as calmly as I could. “I want to sleep over in Mama’s house this night, to take care of her; you have to learn how to be independent on the road”. Women can be difficult sometimes, really.
The car turned slowly into the family compound were Mama lived. And because it was around 9’ o’clock at night, the compound and the whole street were dead silent. As the engine came to a halt , My Pumpkin and I went into a little celebration.
“You see, you did it !” I said , smiling very broadly for the first time since we’ve been on the road. “Driving is not hard, it is just moving from point a to point b” . We were both still clapping hysterically, like little children.
“It is true sha, but I need more practice o” My Pumpkin said immediately. Then almost without warning she turned to me , and gave me a big one on my lips. I love kissing her. “You know I’m still scared” she said genuinely, her hands around my neck, our faces where just inches away.
“Ebere, it is normal, but you are a good driver” I said immediately. “Like I said, you will just have to drive yourself to work today. I have to spend the night with Mama. Ufoma will follow you, to give you confidence”. Ufoma was my younger sister.
“Ufoma’s company will give you confidence”. I assured her again. “So off you go” I said, as I saw Ufoma approaching the vehicle. I planted another kiss on her lips ,quickly, before Ufoma could come closer and see us in our private moment.
I stood outside, in the well-lit compound, and watched as My Pumpkin drove out into the Lagos darkness. Ufoma was sitting beside her, giggling and teasing. “I know Ufoma will give her ease and confidence” I said to myself. I stood outside until I could not hear the sound of the old Mercedes Benz, until she drove off.
My phone rang at 7:30 am in the morning. “Who is this now?” I complained bitterly, as I struggled to wake up to pick the phone. I just started sleeping two hours ago. Taking care of Mama was a whole night’s job. However, there were some encouraging signs. She talked quite a lot last night , and had a huge appetite for dinner, these were more than enough signs to show her improvement. I looked forward to telling the doctor and My Pumpkin about Mama’s progress as soon as possible.
Grudgingly, I picked up phone, and pressed the answer button, without looking at the caller.
“Hello, who is this” I said, half-asleep.
“Please, is this the owner of car number LX 12 XPP, Mercedes Benz 230” the caller said quickly, it was obvious that he was in a haste.
“Yes, it is, any problem?” I replied, no doubt this caller got my attention.
“Look, sir” the caller still spoke in haste. “Your car has been involved in a fatal accident” he continued without any sign of emotion or sympathy in his voice.
“I’m sorry , I don’t understand what you mean” . I replied. In as much as I completely heard what the caller on the other end said, I just wanted to be clear, I was half-asleep.
“Oga see, I don’t have much credit” the impatient caller continued. “I am from the Nigerian Police Force, one of the passengers of the car is in a stable condition, the other is dead, I’m sorry sir” he said, again mechanically. Now I was wide awake. I sat up on the sofa, the sitting room, where I slept, was dark and silent. “Please- “
I could not remember what he said, but I know he said something about picking up the body of the dead passenger from the Police station, which was not too far from the scene of the accident. I wanted to ask him which passenger died, but the phone went off, as he said, he didn’t have much credit.
My mind was blank. Just blank. Till daylight, I could not think, I just stared. Who died ? Ebere , My Pumpkin or Ufoma my little sister?
The Irony of Life. For the past three months, it had been all about Mama, the one who was going to” die soon” , the one in her final moments. But little did I know that someone nearby, had a shorter time to spend on earth.
“God forbid it is not Ebere !” I said to myself. There was this evil part of me that wished that Ufoma was the dead passenger, not that I hated Ufoma, but I could not just imagine My Pumpkin gone forever, besides, the guilt knowing that I killed her. How can I send a leaner to drive at night after just two days of practice? No it can’t be her. I slumped back on the sofa. I was certain that My Pumpkin would survive, she is a nurse, she will know what to do to survive, “She will” I said.
Then suddenly, like an evil revelation, reality dawned on me, My Pumpkin did not put on her seat belts, perhaps I knew the casualty after all.