I wasted no time pinging and subsequently chatting with her. It was such a relief to read her reply. And that was how we started chatting back and forth.
Then, we graduated to sending each other voice notes.
I remember the first time I sent her one of those. All I said was:
“Hi, Sewuese … I hope I pronounced your name properly. Emmmm … Just wanted to say wassup and see how this thing works.”
This thing referred to BBM’s Voice Notes, a feature I had neglected until I met Sewuese.
Within five minutes, she replied with a voice note:
“Hey, you butchered my name! Is that what you people do in Lagos?”
Then, she ended it with a laugh.
It sounded more like a peal of bells to my ears, a wonderful sound, quite unlike any I had ever heard before. It was not just her voice, but the power in her voice that I found surprising. There was an unrestrained carefreeness that matched the flow of her written words.
She corrected me in a subsequent voice note, taking her sweet time to teach me how to pronounce her name properly.
Then, we graduated to the phone call stage. We would even have tried Skype but she kicked against it, telling me in plain words:
“I won’t make it easy for you. You can already hear my voice and chat with me in the comfort of your own room. But if you want to see my face … Ah! That one is not free o!”
It was during that particular conversation, barely a week after the first voice note that we first discussed my coming to visit her in Makurdi.
There was never a question of who would come and see who. I knew it would be me going to see her and not the other way round. We came to agree that I would visit her in a couple of weeks.
So, I made several inquiries and finally decided to visit Makurdi by road. The decision to travel at night, however, was not entirely voluntary. It was a decision I made as soon as I discovered that the journey would take 12 to 13 hours by road. I did not want to travel by day and arrive at night.
No, I wanted to arrive in Makurdi during the day to capture in my mind a city I had never visited before.
Since I had no intention of staying at a hotel, I called around a few of my friends in Lagos to find out if they had relatives, friends or generally, non-enemies I could stay with while I was in Makurdi.
The plan was to leave Lagos on Thursday night, arrive on Friday morning and after resting, spend the rest of Friday and Saturday with Sewuese, and then return back to Lagos on Sunday.
My friend, Daniel, who had served in Gboko, a smaller town in Benue State, for his national youth service, had a few friends who lived in that part of the country.
Thankfully, he hooked me up with a friend who lived in Makurdi. His name was Luke Abanyam, a young businessman who had been married for less than six months to his wife, Hannah.
When I spoke with him over the phone, I joked with him that with so many biblical names between him and his wife, I felt like a heathen for not bearing a similar name. However, I offered to be christened “Paul” while I was their guest.
Luke simply laughed, waving my offer aside and said he preferred to call me by my own name: Bolawa.
After sorting out my living arrangements as well as other details like what to do when I got to the bus park, I simply counted down the days till my departure for Makurdi. I could hardly contain my excitement.
The day when Sewuese finally told me her last name, “Uchi,” was one day before my trip to Makurdi. She had refused to even send me her picture, despite repeated pleas, and was not on Facebook. So, I just had to be patient to meet her in person.
As I packed my bag the following day, doubts assailed my mind.
Was this girl even worth the trip?
Traveling at night was risky and I was crossing several states to meet a woman I had never seen. I had to trust that everything she had told me about herself was true; that she was a 24-year old graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she studied Civil Engineering.
Apart from her university education, she had spent most of her life in Makurdi. She had two sisters and a twin brother who she kept saying she wished I could meet. She talked freely about all her family members, but not him.
For some reason, he was off limits.
I decided to add Sewuese’s twin brother to the list of things I wanted to discuss with her in person.
I went to the bus park in Oyingbo as planned and boarded a bus going to Makurdi/Gboko. The bus was not a very big one: there were just about twenty of us there, minus the driver and conductor. I chose a seat at the very back because that was the one of the remaining two seats left.
The bus was a white one with several bumper stickers precariously placed everywhere but the actual bumper of the bus, completing the typical road transport adornment.
As I took my seat, after putting away the single travelling bag I carried, I surveyed the other passengers, the people I was going to spend the next 12 or so hours with in this small, but fairly comfortable space.
The driver, called “Captain,” was a man who looked like he could singlehandedly knock the senses out of any thug who dared to cross his path. He looked more like a heavy weight boxer than a bus driver.
But knowing how varied and colorful the life of a bus driver could be, I would certainly not have been surprised to learn that he was a bus driver at day, and a boxer at night.
Or at least when he was not driving.
He looked to be in his mid-40s and the sharp way he looked around, coupled with his red eyes, suggested that he had taken a few hot drinks before getting behind the wheel. In his world, drinking and driving was perfectly normal.
None of the passengers questioned or even challenged him.
The conductor, on the other hand, was a lean, sprightly young man who looked to be a teenager. Just like the driver, he came equipped with a sharp tongue.
As we waited for the bus to fill up, I took a quick survey of my co-passengers. From where I sat, I could not see their faces. Just the backs of their heads.
But, I could easily tell the men apart from the women just by looking at their heads.
There were women whose heads were adorned with elaborate hairstyles and not-so-elaborate ones, a few people wearing clothes that would have infuriated the fashion police, and of course, there was the occasional woman in an ankara outfit.
Typical passengers. Nothing special about them.
I could not suppress my excitement and I wondered:
Can they tell? Do they know what I’m going to do in Makurdi?
While the thought still lingered in my mind, the bus conductor shut the door, and a few of us prayed before the bus hit the road.
For the first few hours, I could not see much, and I honestly wondered how our driver could see at all. But, he skillfully navigated the roads, many of them ridden with potholes right in the middle of the highway.
I kept wondering why I had not just taken a flight from Enugu or some other location and then taken a bus to Makurdi from there. This journey was taking its toll on my body.
When we reached the outskirts of Ondo state, the driver jumped out of the bus and disappeared into the bush for a bathroom break. He was gone for more than 30 minutes. I began to think that we would stop there for the night, but thankfully I was wrong.
Just before the driver returned, another passenger entered the bus. Nobody seemed to mind, as they did not complain. Neither did the driver nor the conductor. They must have had a prior arrangement to pick him up at that location, but I still found it very strange.
“I hope this guy is not an armed robber,” I thought to myself as I studied him closely, where he sat beside me.
The guy looked to be in his early 20s with haggard features, but he had a very calming presence and when he smiled or pursed his lips, little dimples appeared in his cheeks.
He caught me staring at him and I looked away more than a little embarrassed. That was when he introduced himself.
“My name is Anthony, but you can call me Tony for short,” he said, flashing a benevolent smile and extending his hand at the same time. I took his hand and instantly, I felt a warm, tingling sensation all over my body, as if someone had just poured warm water laced with mint, on me.
What just happened?
Nothing looked different, so I just shrugged it off. Maybe I was just tired. Or maybe it was a reaction to the cool, night breeze, wafting in through the windows.
Tony had deep-set eyes, but even in the dim light of the bus, I could tell that his eyes were red, like the eyes of a person who had been crying for a long time. But, I did not ask him about tears. No. I asked him the next best question.
“Tony, do you have Apollo?”
He just laughed and mumbled something about the weather and being awake for too long.
“I understand, Tony,” I said, genuinely. “I myself left straight from work. So, I’m tired too, but it’s all for a good cause.”
“Really?” he asked, looking very interested. “Tell me more.”
And I did.
All my parents’ advice from childhood, to never talk to strangers, had apparently been dumped in Lagos before we got on the road. Now, as the bus rode towards Makurdi, I shared my secret with a stranger.
I had been itching to talk to someone about Sewuese and it appeared that Tony was the right person. I told him about Sewuese, and how I met her. He did not seem surprised about the BBM thing or that I was travelling from the West to what was known as the Middle Belt, to meet this girl in person.
In fact, I thought Tony was just a good listener, but as time progressed, he turned out to be full of good advice too.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do after meeting her?” he asked, in a very serious tone. “You know this is essentially a long-distance relationship, right?”
“Yes o, bros,” I replied. “But no … I mean … I haven’t really thought that far. I’ve been so focused on meeting her that I haven’t really made any plans beyond that moment.”
“Well, you should. You guys have already connected on an emotional and intellectual level, from what you’ve told me, but this meeting … Is it purely physical? What if you don’t like what you see?”
“Bros, I don’t know o. I think what we have right now, trumps any potential disappointment in the physical attraction department.”
“In English, please!” said Tony, laughing at my choice of words.
“If I was only interested in a physical relationship, I could have picked any of these Lagos babes, you know. They’re readily available and easily accessible. But, I’ve never met anyone like Sewuese. I doubt that something as flimsy as what she looks like will destroy what we have.”
I meant those words, but even as I uttered them, I could not help wondering about the other question that was still hanging in the air: how would we build a successful relationship that transcended the distance between Lagos and Makurdi?
I did not know the answer, but like all the other things I did not want to worry about, I pushed it into the far recesses of my mind.
Meanwhile, our conversation shifted, for the time being to politics, sports and all the stuff guys in their 20s can talk about in such a short span of time. Our gist even expanded to video games and in each topic of discussion, I was shocked at how little I knew, compared to this guy. I had to ask him at some point, what he did for a living. He seemed very reluctant to talk about himself, but he mentioned that he read a lot of books and that the internet was full of information nowadays. He was on his way to Makurdi to visit a relative.
That was all he told me.
When I tried to press him for more information, he said:
“My life is dry, believe me. Yours is more interesting.”
After that, I gave in to the lull of sleep and drifted off to la-la land. Being a very heavy sleeper, I did not wake up at any of the other stops and in fact, only woke up when I felt the warm rays of the sun on my face. I opened my eyes and caught sight of the rising sun. Tony was wide awake. I don’t think he slept at all. He said:
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I nodded in assent, simultaneously yawning. I looked at the time. 6:48am.
How much longer? I wondered.
“Just a few more hours,” said Tony, in response to my thoughts. “Meanwhile, enjoy the sunrise. Don’t take it for granted.”
I knew we were nearing Benue State when I started seeing more cars with the license plates proudly announcing, “The Food Basket State.”
Eventually, we entered Benue State, got to Makurdi and I got down from the bus to fetch my bag. Tony, who was following closely behind me, was telling me he needed to call someone, and went in search of a recharge card seller at the motor park. By the time I retrieved my bag, I did not see him.
So, I asked my fellow passengers, if they had seen the young man who sat at the back of the bus with me. They looked puzzled and one by one, they said the same thing: no one else sat at the back of the bus, apart from me.
“You were the only one in the back o,” a tall, heavy set man, said. “No one else entered this bus.”
“Wait, Oga, there must be some mistake,” I insisted, alarm rising in my voice. “I said there was a guy … Tony … tall, like this,” I said, using my hands to describe Tony’s height to him.
“My friend, you must have been dreaming o …” he said, walking away quickly.
I stood there looking and feeling very stupid. Was this a dream?
Strange. Very strange.
Then, I took my inquest to the driver and conductor. Same story.
“Ah, Ogbeni, abi you dey craze?” the conductor began. “I talk say nobody enter this bus for Ondo …”
I decided to drop the matter. Maybe I had dreamt the whole thing. After all, I was quite tired when I got on the bus the night before.
“It must have been a dream …”
That was what I told myself over and over again, because the alternative theory was not one my mind was ready to accept.
– to be continued –