As I ran out of breath, I slowed down and eventually stopped running. I sat down by the side of the road. I wasn’t wearing a wristwatch but I know that breather would have taken no less than hour. All I had on was the white t-shirt I normally wore under my white school shirt, navy blue house-wear shorts and blue rubber slides. In my pocket was thirty naira.
I knew I should head back home. I didn’t. Instead, I walked off towards the expressway. My mind was set on leaving my mother. I made up scenarios in my head: I’ll fly to the UK and live there. In five years I’d come back home in a big car and my mother would be sorry, sorry for not understanding that I helped someone in need with my own school fees.
So I kept on walking.
I got as far as Guru Maraji’s camp, about twenty kilometres from home before my legs gave way. I was exhausted. I was hungry. It was probably around 2pm now. I thought again of returning home, tallying up the people I could approach to beg my mother on my behalf. But I was so far gone that I couldn’t bear to turn back, literally and figuratively. I dragged myself towards a small bush by the side of the road. I saw a group of people roasting corn and approached them. That’s where I spent the next three or four hours, eating corn roasted with the leaves and tasted like it was boiled. I got to find out that they were traders from the hinterland, Saki. They were taking sacks of elubo to Lagos and their pickup had broken down. It wasn’t hard to convince them that I was a student going collect school fees at home. The pickup didn’t get fixed until sunset. As fate would have it, they were going to Mushin market, a stone throw from my grandfather’s house. I leaned against the smelly tubers of yam and grinned. Finally, I’m gone.
My grandfather, Prince Johnson Adekunle Taiwo, loved to watch the televison really loudly. You could hear it from down the street. I wonder now if it was because the man was losing his hearing at the time… He was watching the 9 o’clock news when I walked up the stairs. He did a double take. “Ta le leyi? Jide? How manage?” I told him I came to see Uncle AT from school- the third or fourth lie I’d told since morning. He took in my appearance again. How did you mother let your travel like this? Without missing a beat I told him I came straight from school and just didn’t know the way to Uncle’s house. He believed. Within minutes, his young wife had prepared a steaming bowl of rice and stew for me. I wolfed it down in damn near seconds. Then I was led to an adjoining room, which I learnt was my father’s in the 1970’s and then my uncles’ in succession. A warm sense of pride enveloped me as I inhaled the musky sheets and stretched out my weary limbs. For the first time in my life, I felt like this was mine. My siblings were my siblings- we’d lived all our lives together- but they’ve been on vacations to their dad’s side of the family that I wasn’t invited to. This was new. This was wholly mine. I’d finally found something that I didn’t share with anybody else. My heart sank a little when I remembered the circumstances surrounding my departure from home in the morning. But in the darkness and fuji beats that floated over from the adjacent Akodu Street, I convinced myself that everything was going to work out.
He woke me up around 10am, sat beside me on the lumpy bed and described how to get to Uncle’s house in Shogunle. I crammed it as best as I could and was excited about my next phase. Oh I got five twenty naira notes from him. Once I saw my uncle, London was just a few steps away. Grandfather seemed unfriendly in his speech to me though, telling me to never show up to his house the way I did. “So fun mama e, laye ko ma ran s’odo bayi mo. Tell your mother I never want to see you like this again. Look at the way you showed up on my door, all dirty and tattered. You hear me?! I’m going to church now. Say hello to your uncle.”
I had a spring in my step as I scurried across the busy highway where the bus dropped me off. Grandfather said AT’s house was on the third street on the right. Or was it the left? I wasn’t sure again. Maybe he said first right and third left. I had a vague memory of the building- like the room at the family house, the first inhabitant of the flat was my father. He later moved out to a Mafoluku apartment when he lived with my two step-sisters and their mother. After him, KT lived in there, skipping their other brother GT who had refused to return to Nigeria since he left in ’87. I’d been there before with my mother when KT’s daughter marked her first birthday. It was the same flat that AT now lived. Surely I’ll find it in no time…
I didn’t. I meandered around the neighbourhood in vain for hours. I didn’t know the name of the street or the number of the house. I tried my internal compass again a few times to no avail. Grandfather said it was a two-story building but he forgot to mention that nearly all the houses in the neighbourhood were two-story buildings.
I soon got distracted. As I perambulated around the area, I noticed a convergence around a particular shop and I was drawn there. Then I saw that it was a barber’s shop where people had gathered to watch a match. I figured, what the hell? There’s no harm in watching.
I wiggled my way in through the thick mass of bodies that were watching a rerun of Nigeria’s game against Spain the previous day. When Sunday Oliseh’s winning goal was shown again, the place erupted as though the match was live. I jumped in unison with this crowd, hugging unknown humans and celebrating our defeat of the almighty La Roja. But like the saying goes, all good things come to an end. The short reprieve from my troubles came to an end thirty minutes later when the post match analyses were done with and the crowd dispersed. Suddenly I was all alone.
Like a godsend, the owner of the shop noticed me. He came towards me and asked where I lived. The demon that had perched on my shoulder from Ibadan whispered to me ‘Tell him you ran away from home because your step-mother was mistreating you’. I opened my mouth and the words streamed out- my real mother had moved to the UK and left me with my step-mother. Ah she’s a witch. In fact look at the welts on my arm, she nearly killed me yesterday. I’m in this area trying to find my uncle’s house. Perhaps it was my command of the English language but this man believed me! He told me not to worry and that he would help me. I smiled internally at my ability to spin whatever yarn I chose too. I hung around until he closed and took me to his house. It was a pink duplex on the left side of the street. We got in there and it was a filled with mandem from top to bottom. He introduced me to the other people in there, arranged yet another meal of rice for me and allocated a space underneath the staircase for me to sleep in. My mind raced. How I wish my friend Kehinde was here to see me. I’d envied the fact that he and his brothers got a BQ to themselves when their mother remarried. Unlike me they didn’t have to worry about their mum going through their bags while they slept.
I throughly enjoyed the morning after. The throng of people that lived in this house woke up around six and began to gist. One of them regaled us with the tales of the the babe he spent the night with at the penthouse. Someone lit up a thick joint of weed and started passing it round. I tried it when it came to me. I coughed loudly and everyone burst into laughter.
Around ten o’clock my host tabled my matter. He relayed my story to his housemates and they empathized with my plight. However he insisted that I went back home. He detailed one of his younger associates to take me to Oshodi. I disagreed internally but didn’t say anything. We got there and that one handed me three hundred naira. No sooner than he left did I hop out of the Mass Transit bus he had put me in. I jogged off across the potholes and railway in the direction of Mosafejo. I found a foodseller and ordered hot rice and ponmo. I also bought a new tshirt from the traders along the road and swapped my smelly undervest for it. Then I planned my next move. For no particular reason, I entered a bus to Ojuelegba and spent the entire day sitting under the bridge with bus conductors, taking in the wild, unrestricted life they live.
Like Whitney Houston sang, with nightfall came my loneliness. I knew nobody in this city and I was just walking about. I decided to head back to Mushin, my grandfather’s house. I got as far as Idi-Oro before a brothel caught my eye. I’d always been fascinated by breasts. Since the day I laid eyes on Better Lover at Challenge, I’d had fantasies of holding one in my hands. Full one o, not like Abbey’s, my off-and-on girlfriend who once let me see her nubile breasts as she changed out of her purple St. Anne’s school uniform. What’s more, this would serve as payback for the day my friends and I were chased out of Asas Hotel. So I went in with hopes of at least seeing naked women. It didn’t happen. One of the barmen mistook me for the boys, underaged children who ferried beer across the open air bar and told me to work. I did a few rounds until midnight. One after the other, the hookers disappeared with johns into the rooms. We ‘boys’ swept and slept in the open area where the bar had been.
I woke up feeling like shit. This wasn’t the dream I had when I ran way from my mother’s grip. I wanted to wake up in London, not on a concrete floor with flattened carton boxes as bed. I slithered out of the place and without thinking, got on the next bus that shouted ‘Shogunle Bolade Oshodi!’ I was determined to find my uncle’s house and get to London by all means.
The universe has a funny way of working. Guess who I ran into as I crossed the expressway? None other than my host from two nights before. I pretended as if I didn’t see him but the man reached out and grabbed my hand. He practically dragged me into the house. There I was subjected to several minutes of questioning. Apparently the person that took me to the bus park had returned to to give me more money, in case I needed extra to get home. He was told by the passengers in the bus that I ran out as soon as he left. All them were asking where I actually came from. I tried my tact of speaking English but they weren’t having it. Finally one of them said ‘Awon omo Ilasa yen ni, bi won shey ma n shey ni yen. He’s one of the runways from Ilasamaja. That’s how they do. Always lying.’ I smiled to myself and nodded, ‘Yes I’m from Ilasamaja. But I wasn’t lying, my step-mother is wicked…’ I thought I could deceive them again without revealing my true story. It didn’t work. They warned me sternly never to show my face around the area otherwise ‘A a so tyre si e lorun ni! We’ll throw a tyre around your neck and burn you alive!’
So I faced the road again, with no idea what my next move was but impishly determined that Ibadan was not an option.
I can’t claim that I was on autopilot, I knew what I was doing. What I don’t know is how the ideas kept popping into my head one after the other. Something reminded of my mother’s America based brother, Uncle Mike. His family lived in Egbeda. I know because we were there three years ago for his daughter’s birthday party as well. I crossed the road and entered a bus heading there, with no clue where I was heading to. I got off at the last bus stop and started asking passersby “Please I’m looking for Mr. Mike — — . His wife works at Airport Hotel. They have a grey 505…” Nobody knew, or more precisely, nobody cared. That was my first introduction to the gruff impatience of Lagosians. I walked in several random directions, hoping that someone would recognize me. My heart became heavy and my steps heavier. I wasn’t even sure of the direction I came from anymore. I’d not been afraid since my adventure began but now I was starting to get worried. Nothing was going according to plan. I stood by a junction for a long time, biting my fingers, contemplating my next move.
A muezzin’s call jolted me out of the daze. I looked around and saw that people were gravitating towards a mosque. I joined them. My mother’s mother was a life-long member of the Ansar Ud Deen Society of Nigeria and our house was the venue of several asalatu services before she died. I wasn’t Muslim but I was familiar with the teachings. I knew Suratul Fatiha by heart but that was about it. I followed the movement to where the ablutions were being done, rinsed my hands, face, arms and legs in no particular order. Then I entered the mosque and joined the prayers, copying what I was seeing others do. After the prayers, a middle-aged man tapped me and told me to come with him. I did. He told me point blank that I wasn’t a Muslim and asked what I was doing there. I repeated the old tale but with a twist- I came to my uncle’s house but had lost the address. He offered to help me and asked me to follow him home. I did, without a second thought.
Alhaji lived in a large four-flat building at the end of a muddy street. We spoke again after dinner and he asked if I didn’t mind staying with him until we can figure out where I would go next. I was happy to take the offer of room and board. We seemed to be the only one in the house.
The few days flew by. My routine entailed sweeping and cleaning the glass dining table. Each time someone knocked, he always waved me to get back into the room. I’d be there until he called out for me again. Also I wasn’t allowed to step out of the flat, he had a mai-ruwa bring water upstairs. For a while I enjoyed it. I had no responsibility. He gave me food thrice a day and there was a radio in the room that played Raypower where I was. But I lost count of the days and it began to feel strange. I started to question it all. Why is this man keeping me here? Why doesn’t he want people to know I was here? Who were the people coming to see him anyway?
The following day Alhaji went out to the mosque. I started rummaging through the house. I got into his room and nothing looked stranger than normal- few books with Arabic written on them, jars of cream, tiny bottles of liquid, wooden slates with Arabic inscriptions on them. I tried the other room. A raspy voice sounded from behind the door “Who is that?” I stopped dead in my fear. Surely I imagined it. I slowly pushed the door open and saw a young man sitting on the bed. He wore a pair of shorts but his chest was bare. I gasped in horror. He looked at me with narrow blood shot eyes. My bones chilled. My heart jumped into my mouth. I willed my body to move but it refused.
After what seemed like an eternity, I left the door and ran into the wide parlour and towards the door, it was locked. I scurried back in terror, not able to process what I’d just seen. Was it a person, was it a ghost? Why didn’t I know someone else was in this house? Is he going to use me for blood money? Are they going to kill me and sell my body parts? Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God!
My eyes landed on the glass sliding door that led to the balcony. I dashed there and tried it. It opened. Somehow I had the presence of mind to I run back into the room I’d been staying in, grabbed my slippers and climbed down the iron column that carried the balcony. For the first time in God knows how long, I was outside of the flat. I climbed over the short fence, jumped down and ran. I ran and ran and ran. As the wind blew in my face, I started talking to myself. Jide what have you done? Who is going to save you now?
To be concluded.