We were fine
Except for those thoughts
Those thoughts seemed okay
Except for those words
Those words were acceptable
Except for that deed,
That deed deemed cool
Our normal wasn’t acceptable
Our attitude wasn’t agreeable
Our lives became miserable
We sort to be expendable
Still we thought
We were fine.
The light turned red. The inattentive young man screeched to a stop. He looked to his right, catching his reflection. His black leather jacket fitted on jeans with high top boots. The sedan mirror distorted his height. A child pressed against the misty car window staring. The car air-conditioning was a necessity as the heat was worse than split pankere. Jide Jackson put two fingers to helmet and saluted the child who promptly retreated from view.
Jide smirked beneath the opaque visor, yanked his leather glove off one hand and revealed toffee-toned fingers. Finding a chewing gum in his pocket, he plopped it in his mouth. As the light said go, he righted his weight, closed his visor, balanced his foot on the footpeg and rode into the shimmering horizon.
The power bike went past cars as though they were trees, the rider lost in a bubble of worry created for the long journey. His family believed he rode at breakneck speed for the thrills, the badboy status. Jide maintained he did not. He increased his speed.
“Turn left.” said the mechanic feminine voice in his ears. He leaned in, decelerating, and entered the street.
“In the next 200 metres, you have reached your destination.”
True to her words, before long, he arrived at a gate. It was black, barred and towered over him. Electric wires ran across the length. Clearly, the builders ensured nothing unwelcome could come in. Or unauthorised go out. The fence that merged with the gate looked unfinished – but only because of its off-grey colour. The roughages on the wall were as heat rashes on the skin, permitting lizards and wall geckos free climbing rein.
Jide grunted and removed his helmet. There was an immediate tingle on his cropped hair as hot air met gel.
A guard walked up to him from the guard post inside the gate. His dark grey uniform looked smart on him, black armband matching the baton on his hip. The trousers were crisp. He appeared more suited for Aso Rock than The Centre. He moved like a man not used to being intimidated, and had the scowl of a man not used to smiling.
“Yes youn’ man?”
“I’m here…to enrol for The Centre.”
“You obviously did not read the rules and regulations.” The guard said, with a weird inflection on regulations.
“Too many.” Jide dismissed.
The guard recoiled like Jide puked on him.
“Ye see yaself mbok. If you had only read rule two line four you woul’ have noticed at that yunction that you cannot bring your vehicles in here.”
Jide craned his neck to see past the gate. “Right, so…what do I do? Go home?”
“It is you that knows what you will do. Am I a spirit? But so you will know and you will now say Okon dirrint tell you, there is a bus arong that way,” the guard pointed to a stretch, “it have being filli’ up since two hours now. If you run that way, take your reft, then your right, then another reft, you will reach the car park. You can go home, go try catch the bus, or sit down here and gist with me until the bus comes.”
Jide did not answer. He leaned to the right, clutching and revving. In a huff of fumes, he raced away, towards the bus park.
He blinked in quick successions as the sharp wind slapped his clean-shaven face, causing him to clench his narrow U-shaped jaw. Riding without his full getup was akin to taking a wooden spoon to a gunfight. His speed built up as he flicked his hand. Sweet Ma would have a fit if she saw his dashboard. Jide threw a mental shrug. The General popped up in his mind. Another mental shrug. Then he thought of his latest attempt at poetry. The trees dash by / singing the eye lullaby / I have always being…
Jide swerved into a cleared open space, made up of mud and sand. It was a sharp contrast to the road. The large fenced ground was the parking lot. Workers owned the sparsely distributed cars, Jide guessed. The space was as a desert with scattered cactus, a crude way of enforcing the ‘no vehicle’ rule. Jide shuddered. His involvement with his last two schools proved he was not kin with crude methods.
The bus rolled towards him like a big cat stalking its prey. Gritting his teeth, Jide accelerated towards it. The effect was instantaneous. The bus driver pumped the brakes, which hissed in protest as the vehicle slowed to a crawl.
“What the hell? Wetin dey worry you? You dey craze? Children of nowadays.” The driver stuck his head out through the window.
“I need to be on that bus.”
“See levels! I swear down, you won’t enter this bus. Is it because your Okada is fine?”
“What?” The driver snorted.
“Bessy.” Jide rubbed the bike tank, feet on the ground, eyes on the driver.
“Listen young man. Take Okada Bessy and get out. You could not ask nicely abi? Who is your father?” Unbidden spittle flew out the driver’s mouth as he shouted. A second person, an older figure, walked towards Jide, smiling.
“Boy. Let me.” The old man leered at the bike.
Jide observed him for a few moments. There was kindness in the man’s eyes. But, Jide had seen same in several others. They had all turned out to be mirages.
“Trust me.” The old man ventured.
“Wrong word choice sir.” Jide returned to glaring at the driver.
“Suzuki SV650, 6-speed, constant mesh, 645cc, 4-stroke. Bessy sure is beautiful.”
Jide had spent a lifetime building a street face. He did not survive the back streets of Lagos without one. The street face kept your enemies guessing if their antics had made any impact on you. A street gangster never dropped his street face. Yet the face faltered as Jide dropped it in awe. Recovering quickly, he nodded, acknowledging the old man’s status as family.
He removed the mountain bag from the back, slung it across his shoulders and walked to the bus. With distaste, the driver pushed a button, and the door swung open. Jide and the driver had an icy standoff before he walked off in search of a seat, holding the overhead bar for support.
He sagged into an empty seat, his eyes closing.
Jide Jackson turned in surprise. JJ? No one had called him JJ for a long time. The name came from a few – as a parting gift of sorts – and had died a natural death.
“Hey. Do…I know you?”
“You can’t recognize me?”
Jide rolled his eyes. “Really Emeks? Rhetoric to mark our reunion?”
Emeka squashed Jide in a tight hug. As tight as the seat could allow. “You remember me.” Emeka squealed.
“I got expelled because of you Emeks. So…”
Emeka bent his head, interested in the fabric pattern of the carpet floor. “I’m sorry JJ. I never got the chance to apologize. You were gone before I could breathe.”
“Not your fault Emeks. I stepped in to stop a bully and got bullied out of school. Life’s a bitch right?”
“How can you blame yourself? Three years I gave that bully my lunch money and he still beat me at random. After what you did, he avoided me throughout our remaining school years. Especially with rumours that I was allied with you and anyone laid a finger on me and you would appear and mess them up worse than what you did to my bully. You, JJ, saved my hide. You can’t blame yourself.”
Emeka raised his head to see JJ feigning sleep.
“Ouch.” JJ exclaimed amidst smiles, rubbing his shoulder. “I have had enough of your history lessons. What you doing here?”
The bus jerked as it negotiated a bend and went past the open gate. This time, past the gate, the structures became visible. The buildings did not look state of the art. They had functional appearances. He noted the lecture halls. The paint held a dull brown glow, at the borderline to dirty. There was a small hut afar off. Jide wondered how many the hut could take at once. Ladies filtered in and out of a building JJ assumed was the girl’s hostel. It had a more modern architecture, evidence of its recent construction. The entrance sliding door was a teaser to the exquisiteness of the insides. JJ craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the boy’s hostel – and was adequately disappointed.
“Everyone get off.” The bus had parked in front of a lawned field. Not even bigger than KC field, JJ thought. Retrieving his mountain bag, he sauntered off the bus -throwing a venomous parting glare at the driver -with Emeka hot on his heels. Standing at the edge of the field, breathing in the grassy air, hearing the chatter, Jide gave a toothed grin.
The packed field held different colours as campers loitered. People were scattered around, looking for directions here, a missing friend there. Stalls sold various delicacies -boli and fish, guguru and ekpa, puff puff, eggroll and kunu. Other stands attended to campers’ registration needs. At the far end were a group of shirtless boys playing volleyball on an artificial sand court. JJ watched a setter lay the ball for the spiker who blasted it beyond the reach of the opponent blockers. He noticed the fans and groupies giggling on one end of the court. He nodded to himself, affirming his desire never to set foot on the court.
“Come on. That’s enough gawking.” Emeka tugged at JJ’s sleeve, leading him. They weaved and collided with a few bodies, with Emeka repeating sorry several times, before reaching the stand for newbies.
“Hello. My name is Leah Abba.” The speaker pointed at her nametag. “How can I be of help?”
“I…you…I am Emake. Ameke. He is…Sorry.” Jide stared at Emeka in disbelief. Emeka ploughed on. “I am Emeka Nwabu AKA Emeks. He is Jide Jackson AKA JJ.”
“Really Emeks? Why not give our zodiac signs…to your girlie while at it?” JJ said
“Stop it.” Leah chided, and turning to Emeka, she said “Thank you for the full names. That is what we need to begin your registration. Now if you will be kind enough to fill these forms, then we would move along.” She spun towards the new campers in front of her.
JJ filled his form and dropped it on the table. He made to step back when Leah called out. “JJ chill.” She scrutinized the forms, frowning. “You made several mistakes JJ. Almost looks like you made these on purpose JJ.”
“First…Leah? Stop the name-calling. Do Jide. It suits your chocolate lips better. Second, there are no conscious mistakes on that form.”
“Well,” Leah continued, pointing, “change this, and this, and this.”
When they finished, Jide and Emeka received tags with numbers 217 and 219 to keep on their persons all the time. Then they moved to their dormitory, right beside the lecture hall. A step into the dormitory and Jide decided he did not like it. It was not dingy, murky or stale; rather, the walls did not have colour association. The open door to right showed a large room with opulent brown sofas, pool tables, karaoke machine, plasma TV, and other things Jide knew he would see upon further exploration. Jide guessed the locked door on the far left, with a dissimilar colour to the other two, led to the dining hall. The stairs spiralled upwards, its golden cast a sharp contrast to the silver balustrades.
Jide followed Emeka up the staircase, oblivious to Emeka’s conversation.
Their room was a three-door apartment. The third door split the room into two apartments. Jide’s room had a single well-laid bed with a reading table, chair and lamp. In the corner was a locker sitting beside a miniature fridge, stocked with bottles of water. How convenient.
Jide placed another gum in his mouth. Emeka pushed open the dividing door.
“I forgot to mention that the Orientation is the next…” Emeka stopped short when he saw the look on Jide’s face. “Wetin?”
“You can do that?” Jide asked, pointing at the door.
“Walk through open doors?” Emeka asked. “Yes of course. Quite a skill to learn but I’ve got the hang of it.”
“No jare. I mean just waltz into my room like you are party jollof rice.” Jide stood and walked to the door inspecting it. He ran his fingers through the whole length. When he straightened, his street face was back. “OK. Clearly we have to fix it ourselves.”
“Wetin you wan do?” Emeka asked.
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix…”
“You didn’t read the rules and regulations document sent?” Emeka interrupted.
“Really? You too? Let me guess. If I did I would know that students do not tamper with camp property?”
“Well…close but you get the gist.”
“Fine. But I don’t intend on spending all my nights here alone. So, buy brain.”
Jide unzipped his bag and unpacked. He always used same bag for every travel. It was adequate. The space, fit and look were perfect. He removed all his well-placed boxer shorts, followed by his undergarments. His meticulous process had him spend more time than the average unpacker. Then he transferred the clothes to the locker. Emeka, returned from his room in a change of clothes.
“Bro what are you doing na?” Emeka inquired
Jide unscrewed a bottle of water, took large gulps, before responding. “I’m frying fish. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“You wan fall your hand. You want to set a bad image for your name. The Orientation is a big event. Attendees for the secret party are selected from it. If you are late for the Orientation, you won’t be considered.”
“Emeka,” Jide dusted his bed, preparing to lie down, “leave me and go. Let me fall my own hand. I want to sleep. Hear everything for me. Dance everything for me.”
Jide closed his eyes, embracing the fatigue. His mind drifted to Bessy, and he hoped he would not have to stalk the old man’s family to death. He had to lay low, though to be honest he needed a break, albeit illusory. Jide felt he was at his wits end.
He hoped his contact in Kaduna would prove reliable.
Honey, have you called Chuks?”
“Yes dear. Same plan; he would meet us at that curb opposite New Road.”
Jide held the milk balustrade and looked into the living room. His mother zoomed past him without as much as a glance. Her yellow floral dress swirled round her knees as she twisted and turned around the house. Jide watched as his mother rechecked the white LG fridge to make sure it was empty. Subconsciously, he fed on the wisps of the usual wonderful aroma that emanated from the fridge. Ice cream, biscuit, bread, cake were only a few things that always scintillated him; and they were present and available in the fridge. Many a night his tiny fingers had pried, unbeknown to the other members of the household, stepping away from the comfort of his sides, into the arctic region of the fridge.
His dad make grunting sounds as he heaved the big bags out the door. Jide had enough sense to know the majority and biggest bags belonged to his mother. He saw his mother whisper to his father, causing him to roar with laughter. His father grabbed his mother by the waist and planted a big kiss on her lips. She had to break it up as they both glanced at him. He wondered if laughter was a prerequisite to ‘whispering in the other person’s mouth.’ He tried joining in the fun as he smiled; but his father was already ebbing towards the car and his mother away from his line of sight.
Why was no one paying him any attention?
It was strange, though, seeing his parents work together. His parents had been fighting a lot. Anytime they fought, their voices rose to the decibel of a speeding underground train and Jide heard his name mentioned several times. He would cry as that was the only sound his vocal cords could make at his age. His parents, hearing him, would come to a truce to pamper and pet him. They then started going on dates, leaving the babysitter at home. The outings affected their relationship as their squabbles reduced. Now they had decided they wanted to travel together. Leaving him with his joyless uncle.
“Don’t go.” Jide whimpered.
His parents smiled in unison and rushed over to pep talk him, saying meaningless words like “for your sake”, “we won’t be long”, “Uncle Chuks” and “back as soon as possible.”
More mumble jumble came up on the way. Jide kept a straight pout and refused to be pacified. They soon arrived at the spot where Uncle Chuks was. He knew this was the moment of separation and so, in a final act of defiance, he willed his body not to move from the car.
“Come down this moment boy!”
His puppy eyes clammed as he slouched out of the car. Jide endured a minute or two of wet kisses from his mother. He did not want the kisses: he wanted her. He wanted them to stay, or at least take him with them. Was he so bad they would rather be away from him?
He watched his father march to his brown Honda Legend trophy car. His father once said it purred like a cat. He had smiled when his father said it, wondering why the cat sounded so grouchy. Now, all he could hear were the wicked hoots from the hood of the car; rubbing it in his face that while he would be at his Uncle’s house, it, the car, would be wherever his parents were. Jide looked on as his mother skipped to sit beside his father. He could not take it anymore. He turned the tap on and let out the water works.
Jide stretched his arm out, clutched the air and called out to them.
“Don’t go mommy. Daddy please don’t leave me.”
His dad was looking towards the left, at the direction of the incoming vehicles. Seeing an opening, he eased the car from the side of the road into the Lekki-Epe Expressway. His mother turned around to have one last look, saw his muddled face and called out to his father, making him turn to see his little boy.
“Don’t go mommy. Daddy please don’t leave me.”
“Jide” his mother mouthed as she stretched out her hand to grab his.
The screeching sound of the tires caught them all unawares.
“Don’t leave me!” Jide Jackson screamed as he sat bolt upright.
It was dark. Sweat dripped from his body like a cold bottle of coke. He placed his head in his hands as he listened to his heart rate reduce. He could not take it anymore. The pretence. His sham. If this healing centre was as great as jollof then he might become free. Jide shivered, the sweat drying. He glanced at his wristwatch. 10:45PM. The secret party should be in full swing. Or maybe rounding up –who knows what weirdos with issues do when they party.
He decided to go.
After a quick shower and change of clothes, Jide left the dormitory. The moon was a half-crescent, choosing only a few places to illuminate. The cool air caressed Jide’s body. He had angled away from the entrance when he realized he did not know where he was going. He walked into the field, aiming for the bench under a tree when a voice called out.
“Well, ain’t you a miserable one?”
Jide had a ready response. “Misery is a cloak only the broad shouldered can put on.”
“So you embrace your misery?” The owner of the voice had come into the light. Her face held an effortless smile. The silver moon rays nestled gently on her fair skin, causing an otherworldly glow against her silk white robe. Her hairnet-bunched hair completed her regal look. She raised her chin at Jide as if expecting him to buckle at his feet.
“I recognize it Fair Lady.” Jide said with a mock bow.
“But recognition fast becomes acceptance.” the Fair Lady noted, moving closer to Jide.
“Only if neglected.”
“And is something being done?”
Jide spread his arms to show the entire space. His lips curled, his eyes trained on the woman before him. The flowing gown did not distract from her curves. Jide did not trace them though. He knew better than that. He was smoother than that.
“I sleep in bursts.” She offered.
“I cuss in bursts. No biggie.”
“If I sleep longer than ten minutes, I wake up with a head splitting headache. The longer I sleep, the heavier the pain.”
Jide walked to the cement lover’s bench and took a seat. She followed him.
“I hate parties.” She said
“I hate not being alone.” Jide replied
“You hate I’m here?”
“Make two guesses.”
They sat in silence for a while. Each mulling on private thoughts.
“I hate parties.” She re-started.
Jide looked at her for a while before replying, “So?”
She beamed at him. “But your charm is pulling me. And I might have to take to where the secret party is.”
Jide glanced at the moon again and whispered a prayer to the stars that this place would do him good.
“Let’s go then.”