By noon the entire stretch of the Uselu-Lagos road was as congested as the nose of a naked two year hold on a rainy April morning. The occasional sniffle allowed drivers as much as half a meter forward, but no more. Horns blared and many a driver’s mothers were cursed by frustrated souls impatiently hunched behind the wheel. Each one perched on the edge of their seat like cannons on the verge of being launched.
Adding to the misery of high humidity and still air was the midday sun sending down her rays in a pinching fury of hot spikes. Trapped between the parched earth and the sweltering sky was a simmering stagnant steam that slowly boiled alive anything that moved.
Sweat poured down faces. Front and backs of shirts were soaked. The stench of moist armpits radiated with unfettered restraint in the overcrowded vehicles. The only people spared of it all were those fortunate, or rather with the foresight of riding bikes. The bikers, popularly known as okadas, snaked in and out breezily, unperturbed by the snaky crawl of traffic much to the chagrin of the taxi drivers who made doubly sure there was not so much as a hairs distance between theirs and the car in front, just to teach them a lesson.
Among the steady stream of cars slowly heading toward New Benin was a well used Datsun. The outer part of the car summarized the interior upholstery in the words ‘reluctantly hanging on for life!’ Repeated panel beating had left very little of the original maroon of the car. In place were scabs of scrap metal of various hues but mostly metallic. On the inside, the upholstery had been eaten away by the friction of countless bottoms and backs. So much that the leather covering had pealed away, revealing the yellow foam in most parts and the occasional visible metal support. Places where attempts at sewing or plastering the tears added to the injurious panorama of the vehicle. To cap it all off the sound of the engine was like that of a hundred church bells ringing off at once.
In the backseat between two other passengers was Eka, dressed in a flowery gown that enhanced the softness of her features. Its bright patterns of jasmine and chrysanthemum in contrast to the surrounding were like patch of spring flowers in a lawn of potpourri. Her complexion was early dawn with a few streaks of sunlight. She sat with her knees pulled together despite the weather calling for a languidness that would cause one’s cells to struggle to keep its contents secure. A small frown appeared between her brows and disappeared a moment later.
“Why did I have to notice that?” Iyobo thought to himself.
Seconds later, Iyobo pounded open the glove compartment. A black hand with five fingernails clogged with grime and dirt fiddled inside and fetched a handkerchief; one of those complimentary souvenirs given at weddings. Only rather than the pristine white cotton raiment, his was an unpleasing patchwork of brown, mud red, gray and black stains. It had no doubt never seen soap and water in its life. With this he wiped his forehead, temple, and neck then brought it down under his chin and finally, to the back of his neck. He did all this without taking his eyes off the car in front of him. Still in that state he shoved the hanky back into its dirty abode and slammed it shut.
“Why did I have to see that?” Eka said to herself and turned to the dizzying commotion in the school compound they were parked beside. A stream of unanswered questions unleashed in her head, all she could do now was pretend he meant nothing to her.
Two days earlier she flagged him down during his after-lunch rounds. She was standing in front of the Government Hospital her countenance listless. She plunked herself into the front seat and sat down, erect and motionless. He waited for her to give him directions and when she hesitated he cleared his throat. When she still didn’t respond he asked where she was going.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“I mean where do you want to go?”
“I said I don’t know. Just take me anywhere.”
“Madam, we can’t just go anywhere.” He paused, “Maybe you should come down.” He leaned across to open her door but she slapped his hand away.
“Look, if its money I have lots of it. Just drive!”
When he hesitated, staring at her wide eyed she shouted, “Move!”
He obeyed, writing it off as one of those customers. In this town it was not unusual to carry the occasional quarrelsome passenger. They came with varying flavors and intensities; the inevitable occupational hazard. Although, this particular lady had something about her that troubled him in a way he couldn’t quite put into words. Her countenance suggested a fluidity that adhered itself to everything it came in contact with. Within that short while she’d already touched him, and the ripple was now reverberating throughout the rest of his body. She was calling out to him, somehow. He stole glances from the corner of his eyes unperturbed about where they would end up, or where he should pretend to be driving her to.
They had barely driven for two minutes when tears began to roll down her cheeks. He didn’t see it at first till he noticed her trembling within his periphery. From low whimpers she escalated into full fledged weeping. Alarmed, he pulled the car over and tried to console her.
“What’s the matter?” he said. Not knowing whether it would be proper to put his arms around her though she had no wedding band on. Her openness made her look both vulnerable and beautiful. He was tempted to just sit there and stare.
“It’s alright. Whatever it is, I’m sure there’s a solution. Don’t cry, please.” He put his left arm on her shoulder. She made no attempt to shake his hand off. Moments later she calmed down a bit.
“What’s your name?” he asked softly, barely above a whisper, afraid to upset her calm.
“Eka,” she answered, still sniffling.
“That’s a lovely name.”
“Thank you. It means young girl in my mother’s language.”
“And where is your mother from?”
“I see. That explains why you’re so beautiful.” She blushed, naively.
On saying this he became painfully aware of himself. She was neatly preened while he was in his work clothes; a pair of worn out jeans, t-shirt and rubber sandals. He ran his hands over his head. “Do you now know where you want to go?”
“It happened four months ago… the thing”
Iyobo was startled. His hands that were making their way back to the steering wheel stopped midway. Is this something he should get himself into? He’d parked beneath the shade of one of the trees that lined the road like sentinels. They happened to be on one of those roads that were only busy after office hours. So, save for some traders selling wares along the road, souls were scarce.
“What thing was that?”
“It was the last thing I expected to happen to me from the last person in the world who I thought would ever touch me.”
She paused for a very long time. When she continued speaking he didn’t realize he’d left his mouth agape. Her voice was low and clear. Each sentence that came out of her was marinated in sorrow that emanated from the very depths of her being. Iyobo listened and listened. About an hour later when he thought she was through he started up the engine.
“You’ll spend the night at my place. Don’t worry my sister lives with me so you can sleep in her room. I won’t hurt you. I promise. And I won’t ever let anyone hurt you again.”
Tears of gratitude streamed down her face. She made to hug him, but stopped, perhaps noticing him for the first time. She stared hard at his face, unblinking. He ran his hand over his head and eased the car unto the road. During the drive home he thought that if ‘the thing’ had happened to his sister he would get himself a gun and pump a few rounds into all the people who played a part.
Iyobo’s apartment was no more than a two bedroom flat with a small kitchen tucked in the corner. It was however in sharp contrast to his appearance. The sitting room consisted of a blue carpet, two sofas, a well-stocked book shelf and a center table with a small transistor radio on top. Eka’s took it all in, before settling herself in the sofa. Her gaze lingered on the book shelf, and for a split second he caught a glint. An otherness to her. In that instant, he knew that if circumstances were different, they would have a lot in common.
“Clara, my sister, will be home anytime from now. Please, make yourself comfortable.” He offered her a glass of water before excusing himself in order to freshen up. By the time he returned from the bathroom, she was gone from the house. On the table, next to the radio, was a note that read “Thanks for your concern, but I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
Please read and let me know what you liked/didn’t like about it. Positive criticisms welcome.