Soon, the driver jumped onto his partitioned seat. I noticed he was not the pot-bellied man. He was a tall muscular giant with very large arms. He turned the ignition on. The engines gave a loud roar like that of a wounded lion. He stepped on the accelerator several times and the engines bellowed in tandem with the pressure. Soon, the roar melted into a soft somnolent and steady purr. The driver honked the horn and the touts about the bus shouted in unison: “carry go!!” What loud blasts the luxury bus produced. They motivated other honks from buses lined up near and far along the road. I looked about me. Our luxury bus was, indeed, packed full of people and with things. Lots of luggage had been squeezed into the luggage racks, into the hollow enclosures below the deck and into spaces at the back and on top of the bus.
At the moment, Judo and two other workers climbed on board and requested that everybody should come down for the routine search. Naturally, some passengers protested to this but the strong reason back of the search soon prevailed over their stance. Armed robbers were known to pose as passengers who took other passengers by surprise and fleece them of their valuables. Male and female escorts in mufti were hired to forestall such occurrence by conducting searches. Escorts also provided cover for commercial buses day and night as they traveled along dangerous routes. While the search wore on, a man quarreled with Judo over the cost of the fare to Lagos. He reasoned that the transporters should maintain the original fare of One thousand, eight hundred Naira rather than add four hundred Naira to it. Judo, stringing along the old tune of the pot-bellied man, stressed again and again that transportation costs would have to increase with an increase in the pump price of fuel. For if transporters venture to swim against this tide of fuel hikes, they would inevitably ruin themselves as they would not make any more profit from the business. Complaining passengers would have to bear with the trend. The man’s and many other people’s rumblings died away with snatches of hisses at Judo’s crammed polemics.
After the search was done and the tickets were marked, everyone settled down and one of the workers shut the door. The driver engaged the gears, honked again and jerked the bus forward. Soon we were on our way. He slotted a cassette into the stereo player of the bus. Soft pleasant music issued forth from hidden speakers, creating a reggae ambience in the bus. It was the classic Bob Marley’s Is This Love? that was playing:
I wanna love you and treat you right,
I wanna love you… ev’ry day and ev’ry night,
We’ll be together…with the roof right over our heads,
We’ll share the shelter… of my single bed,
We’ll share the same room…Jah provides the bread,
Is this love, is this love, is this love, is this love that I’m feeling?
She shifted away from me slightly, almost unnoticeably. I smiled to myself. The music played on. Almost subconsciously, I began to browse through the book of Human Options. Then a piece of paper fell off from the book to the deck. I picked it up. And my eyes held fast onto a note on it:
We do not only speak with our mouth, we speak with our body language, our power of extrasensory perceptions and our power of prophecy, persuasion and seduction. We are, thus, able to exchange familiar and spiritual passwords with total strangers and then get along with them almost immediately in the physical as if we’ve known all our lives.
I remembered that I had written the note the day before. It was an inspiration that had cropped up to my consciousness and, of course, I had scribbled it down hurriedly. Little did I know that my soul was foretelling the future. And now, my subconscious had succeeded in reminding me of the piece of paper. I began to nod my head in time to the rhythm of the music. It was really a reggae ambience we had in the bus and I drew share to that.
The bus wriggled past multitudes who thought it wise to transact business on the expressway. It made its way to the Niger bridge: the popular gateway to the eastern part of the country. The metal sewer covering at its entrance responded noisily to the relatively infinitesimal weight of the luxury bus as we went atop. Large X-shaped iron bars went past in prim regularity. As I looked through the window at tiny dots of black canoes floating innocently on the wide expanse of the Niger River, I noticed that Linda was staring at them too (or was she staring at my profile?)
“It is poetic” she cooed, her full and sensual lips probably moving gracefully with the words.
“Hmm, poetic you say, why not seraphic?” I teased.
“Because I see no angel there.”
“But I see them.”
“Where?” she drew closer and her arm touched mine slightly. And her rosy perfume played at my nostrils. And the gentle breeze of the river enveloped me.
“Everywhere.” I said silently, slightly recovering my lighthearted mirth from her Calypso aura, “only fellow angels can see them just as only saints could see the emperor’s new clothes.” I was not sure if we would draw from the same frame of references.
“And a little rascal saw correctly that he wore no clothes at all?” she teased, revealing her likely IQ level, and added, “by the way are you an angel?”
“You could say that again.”
“So you’re one,” she pursued, “how is heaven like, my lord?”
We laughed. Wow! How easily we could play without restraints.
Then, I dropped the H-Bomb: “Well, heaven is like sitting and joking with a female angel as I am doing right now.”
And it brought her to space. For she smiled shyly and turned away, “well, I am no angel,”— then regaining some poise, she fired a backward arrow— “If I were one, I would have flown to Lagos with my wings.”
“Now you come, angels always think about flying.” I said. Another H-Bomb?
She retreated again into her cocoon. But almost as if she had forgotten her diadem, she came back and fired, “but here you are, you’re not thinking of that.” She then ran back and lingered at the threshold of her privacy.
Gradually I drew her out again and we became entangled in floating playfulness again. And we were so until a pastoral baritone hit the reggae ambience.
“Brothers and sisters” he addressed everyone, “we have to commit this journey into the hands of the Lord.”
Linda and I were jolted back to the fragmentations of the commonplace happenings around us. We had to pray. The driver switched off the stereo player. We began in earnest. We prayed away blood-suckers and principalities and powers. We cancelled out all manipulated accidents on the way. Everyone joined dutifully in the prayer. Soon we were done. The responsive “Amen” rippled through the bus. And the driver switched on the stereo player again. This time its music volume was reduced.
The driver sped on. Trees whizzed past in long, long irregular rhythms. An inexplicable feeling of trepidation enveloped me for a while, then it left me as suddenly as it had come. Our bus virtually overtook every vehicle we sighted ahead. I imagined we were in a plane which is taxiing madly, warming up to fly from off a long, long tarmacked runway. Soon we branched into a narrow road that could only manage to hold two luxury buses passing by each other. Linda soon became drowsy. She was unconsciously lowering her head toward my shoulder and just when she would have dropped it on its broad muscles; she would jerk herself up and resume the downward slid again. I was tempted to tell her that she should just drop her head comfortably on it and never mind doing so, but I did no such thing. I just watched her oscillatory motions with interest.
The bus flew over a huge pothole in the road. Such was the bang the tyres made that the lady almost jumped, rudely awoken and startled. The shock absorbers in the bus were not snug enough to save her.
“Driver, take it easy oh!” A nursing mother shouted from behind. No one responded to nor encouraged her plea save the lady and me.
“Life no get duplicate oh!” I bellowed.
“Nawa oh” the lady echoed.
Soon we settled down again to the monotony of the journey. And the trees whizzed past in long, long irregular rhythms. The mangrove forests along either sides of the road were toying with the idea of letting the savanna upstarts play. It was an intriguing spectacle. See, rolls and rolls of undulating grass and rock were stooping for retreating mangrove overlords.
The driver began to accelerate again at breakneck speed. Whenever he approached a cluster of buildings along the road, he would rather apply the horn than slow down.
“Ah, driver, you no dey hear oh!” the young woman at the back complained again after one of such moments, “make you—”
“Woman, allow him!” A baldheaded man interjected, “God dey with us.”
Surprised at this unusual aberration in the man, I swiftly supported the woman, “she knows what she is saying; the driver should drive more carefully.”
“Mr. Teacher, you go go help am?” he challenged me, obviously irked.
Though riled myself, I ignored him philosophically. What decorum of discourtesy! The old fool! Linda signaled that I should hold my peace; for she thought I was about to explode. I patted her hand slightly as a sign that she should not worry about me. Though an innocent touch, the impact of our contact soared through my emotional spectrum. This time, I had to will myself to hold my peace!
The driver slowed down and veered into a filling station. Hawkers rushed to the bus as refugees would some relief.
“Buy boiled eggs!”
“Brother, see fresh garden eggs!”
They sang like choristers struggling to hold the attention of a congregation. Some of the hawkers dared to come up to the deck of the luxury bus and employ short acts of gimmickry. Linda bought two eggs and offered one to me. I rejected politely, thanking her once again.
“I should have known, angels don’t eat.” She chuckled faintly, eating the free white and yoke of one of the eggs with relish.
I was beginning to take a special liking to this sui generis personality. An attendant refueled the bus and we resumed the journey.
“What’s the name if you don’t mind?” I asked after a while, behaving exactly as if I am not already privy to that fact.
“Linda.” She replied. And then after a measured time, she asked me in turn what mine was. Did she not note my name on the complimentary card? Well, it was the psychological moment.
I told her my name. And the very moment she heard it, she became enamored of it: Great, wow that’s great. Great, what a name! Great, you’re so funny. Of course, I enjoyed it all, however chequered it was with the occasional protests and attendant retorts from other passengers for or against the driver’s recklessness. And soon, in a moment of blissful fancy, we also exchanged phone numbers.
How beautiful life was. Here I was, discussing in low tones with a breathtaking beauty. And there was everyone else either drowsing or engaging themselves in idle conversations with their seat partners. How beautiful life was. Then, I noticed that Judo was tensive. He had become very cold and distant of late. It was as if an aura of despondency had enveloped him. He sat on the deck near the steps. Occasionally, he would come up to see if the luggage was still intact especially at the back of the bus. I must do something to help this young man, I thought, he doesn’t seem to me like one of those goons who would squander money given to them in senseless drinking sprees, drug addiction or promiscuity. I must help him.
Life wore on. In several places along the road, we saw the hapless and grotesque twists of heavy and small vehicles overturned in horrifying scenes of accidents. And amusedly, on sighting some of these phenomena, some of the nonchalant passengers in our bus would emit empathic reactions then, almost instantly, fall back to their indifferent molds.
Then, Be Free began to accelerate at a totally new and very alarming rate. What the heck is wrong with this driver? I thought. As if in defiance to my thoughts, he flew even more widely, crashing through the gears like a psychotic. The dizzying countryside idylls blew past as emblems of surrealism. I was alarmed.
TO BE CONTINUED….