I could not understand his sorrow but I felt it. On the roof where we sat, because he loved to look in the distance, we watched over new blue, green, and red roofs and the flat-topped brown ones farther on. He downed his whiskey and finally spoke.
“There are some that content themselves in knowing that they could, rather than in that they did; those who pride themselves in wanting to have written a book as opposed to actually writing it, mediocrity is what befalls them. They leave this world without it witnessing what a marvellous thing they could have done. They leave without it hearing what a beautiful voice their words have and what a tale it could have told. It is a pain to see, from a distance, high up here where we sit.”
When he was done talking, I could only stare into my glass, speechless, till I saw pity at its bottom.
From the moment he spoke those words, a restlessness was born in me. It was as if he drew my ears into a fleshly dance and ejaculated words into the fertile canal that leads to my mind so that I was left gestating when the dance ended. Pity filled the parts within me where restlessness did not. Until I felt bloated, weighed down and my spirit sagged under the weight of truth it suddenly was forced to bear. This restlessness, invasive as the worms Mother once told me occupied my childish belly and had to be flushed out, was itself restless and itching to burst forth. Mother—Mother who had big hopes for me and taught me to have big dreams. I was certain that though dead and gone, she was disappointed in this shadow I had become. I wanted to rend my clothes, to scream wildly and do the masquerade’s dance of invisible feet but I could not. I stood up to take my leave because I could not bear to remain in his presence. I despised him. He was miserable from seeing alone, how much more miserable am I that felt these things he mouthed? I despised him for his shallow misery. I despised him for his truth because it uncovered a truth I had buried beneath my black skin and learned to forget.
I declined his offer to see me off. It was evening and what remained of the sun yellowed the sky and the grey clouds protested by darkening with the minutes. I could not bear to stand in the spiteful light of the evening’s truth and wait for a Keke Maruwa. The buses no longer took that route because the road is only tarred for half the distance between the blue roof area and the brown roof area farther on where I lived. I had walked for about five minutes when one such tricycle sped up to me and honked. I nodded and got in. This is the usual manner — the keke driver honks to ask if one is going in his direction and one nodded his yes and got in or one shook his head otherwise. Three other passengers, two of whom were obviously Gbaja market women, were already seated in the tricycle’s back seat so I sat beside the keke driver and held on to its vertical bars for safety. Seating by the tricycle driver is not allowed in the blue roof districts, but where we were going the iron hands of the law rusted, turned the colour of our roofs and became too weak to enforce its laws. Sometimes when Esu buoyed the hearts of the agberos that ran the motor parks, yet another passenger may be seated to the left of the driver but only for half the usual price.
It was a quiet and nauseating ride at first. The bags of unsold pomo, iru, and other orisirisi pervaded the small tricycle and the alcohol in my belly raged because of it. The quiet only lasted till we exhausted the tarred roads and then, because misery loves company, one by one, encouraged by discomfort as the keke rocked this way and that, navigated the unavoidable ditches and knocked human elbow against human belly, and human head against tricycle metal, the passengers and the driver began to voice bitter complaints. The driver was loudest of them all. They spoke in ‘broken’—the Pidgin English that was fast becoming the lingo though the people all spoke a common indigenous language.
“Since tree months ago that I bought this keke, I have repair it four times. You say why? Bad road! Bad road no good for this business. But man must eat, and children must eat and wife must cook soup and tie fine wrapper so I no get choice.”
A chorus of laughter erupted at that last part and the concentration on his face gave way to a wide smile that revealed teeth brown from neglect.
“But my own is still good, I am owner of two keke now. I drive the first one for five years and it hard and it spoil plenty, plenty times but I manage till the money complete so that I buy this one and get two keke. Somebody is driving that one for me and making money too so that it will only take two and half years this time and I go buy another one. I go rich by five years’ time with maybe four keke. I hope they go do this road so that it fit happen fast-fast but I know sey it will happen. Government fit to forget us but God cannot, Olorun wa; there is God in heaven.”
One by one they aired their complaints, hopes and plans though they were total strangers. All through this I was silent as one enduring a painful ordeal wordlessly. I hated the blind faith in their well-laid plans because I saw the disappointments they were bound for. It was inevitable that my silence would eventually be noticed. Luckily, this happened only a few feet from my stop so I was spared any probing questions. Thank the heavens for small favours.
The truth is I once was them—hopeful, full of dreams, and with spirit buoyed by Mother’s belief in me that was unwavering even in her dying hour. Her health had started to fail around the time I graduated from Nalende Polytechnic where I studied Business Administration. She had joked that she was more joyful than her aged heart could contain, and that this was why her body was failing. When Mother had but nine and ninety breaths left, she called me to her bedside. Beautiful as a withered rose, she smiled as warmly as she could manage. Only her eyes, sunken with age, betrayed her sadness.
“Adelaide, my husband… you will cross the divide. You will say I told you so, and you will bless my spirit…”
When she had said this, and I knew it took all of her might, she stifled a cough and smiled through her last few breaths. Tears stung my eyes before they rolled down my cheeks. Looking back now, I realise that I cried for myself more than I cried for her. It was I who was suddenly orphaned, who would miss her dearly and who was unsure how to carry on without her. We always fought as passionately as we loved and through it all, she called me Adelaide, her husband. Never Laide, never Ade.
The divide was what she always called the gulf in class between us and the big men the colourful roofs sheltered. But I tried and I failed. I found no big-man salary job—those kinds are reserved for the big men’s sons and his brother’s sons. Day and night I sought wings with which I might cross but I found none. And as I inched towards an acceptance of my reality, having tried to cross became my solace. This is the truth that I had buried but that he dug up. Though my situation is not as it might be if I had had no education, Mother dreamed dreams of a life of whiskey and colourful roofs for me but they remained just that—dreams. They became confections shared over warm beer, tall tales of having wanted to be the big man whose roof once was brown but changed to blue. This was his truth that I despised him for and because he, well off as he was far off, could see the totality of what my life had become as one of many that ended up miserably average from contenting themselves with having tried and failed.
When I had walked two and ten kilometres thinking hateful thoughts, a drunken thought occurred to me. Did worms not require specific conditions in order to survive? Mother used to say that worms are good for us but that they got too many and so became harmful. She said alcoholics killed all the worms and did themselves no good. Though this one was born of truth that struck hard and struck home, it was worm nonetheless. Would it not still die from alcohol? With that decided, I started for the bar called ‘Abe Igi’. The trees there were called ‘igi fruit’, its indigenous name lost in the strained whisper of bedridden elders. The woman who owned and ran the bar was known only as Simbi. Simbi and her twin sisters, a nubile trio, teased and flirted with their customers until they promised heartily to return soonest.—ram to the slaughter! In the centre of the bar where the largest igi fruit stood, Simbi had a large sign that said, “Abe Igi go soon reach intanashona levuls “. People say that when she started the bar, with only three tables, a dozen chairs, a small fridge and her pepper soup pot, she had put up this sign as a statement of her vision. And she grew. The Oluokun of Okun Land honoured her by drinking at her bar and his son, Obalola Laolu, loudly proclaimed her daughters as wives for his taking. The trees could no longer shade all of the tables from the overhead sun and the chairs numbered several multiples of three
I despised them. Or did I? I have never been one to lie to myself. Mother taught me that people who lie to themselves go to bed with an itchy anus and feign surprise when they awaken to a smelly finger. It was their success I despised, the ease with which it came for them and the seemingly nonchalant air with which they accepted it—expected it even. Where were the many failures that ought to tilt their optimism into misery? It wasn’t long before my usual was brought me—two bottles of Star Lager from the deepest parts of her freezer and a bowl of catfish pepper soup. I downed half a glass of beer and absent-mindedly began to trace words on the table where I sat. Simbi came and sat with me. She smiled her disarming smile and I nearly let go of my misery.
“Delaide, what are you doing ehn? See cold drink and sweet fish in your front and you’re looking at table.”
“I am searching for something, Simbi”
“I am searching for something and I think if I write down all my thoughts, I can search the puddle of it all and find a thing—an idea, perhaps—that I believe in and that would consume me so.”
I have no doubt that my reply held little meaning for her yet impressed her. The semi-literate here have always been impressed by the learned’s use of words that they cannot fathom. The less meaning they discerned, the more impressed they were. This, however, wasn’t my intention. Whenever alcohol starts to settle in my senses I become unnecessarily wordy, a sort of drunken poet.
“Hmm. You and your grammar. Just eat fish before it will be cold. Do you now know the shirt I took? I will wear it so that you can see.”
I could not help but smile as she left, even my man nodded within my shorts.
When morning came, it took all of me to get up from the bed. The room smelled of our reckless passions of the previous night. When I rolled back the cover we shared so I could swing my legs onto the ground, meandering marks glared at me from the mountain she bared as she slept facing away. She looked so peaceful in her sleep and I thought to read to her the sonnet of a lover’s joy. My heart melted though my mind still weighed heavy with the previous day’s thoughts. I knew that more could be found with her than the hush affair between us if I didn’t put so tight a lid on talks of permanence and matters of the heart. Was my heart little to give with more to gain? Or too much and with little to gain?
I sat in the morning hush on a roof that oversaw old brown roofs and new red, green and blue ones farther on. Pigeons strutted about importantly on the roof to my left and four others strutted more importantly on the roof to my right, as if of a higher faction, deciding pigeon matters, flying off to investigate roofs and converging again. Together we oversaw all that was below and beyond us. On the horizon, it seemed the buildings faded into trees and the trees faded into the blue sky with clouds rippled across it. The decorous clouds reminded one of Martian sands, troubled only by the wind and devoid of desecrating human footprints. The sun did not peek from behind the clouds till the four pigeons had completed their rounds and converged again on the roof to my right. Then they strutted impatiently and only the brown roof below us concerned them. The littered brown roof sat flatly on the small rectangular house that sheltered the fat Yoruba woman and her many fatherless children. She sold pap made from oka baba and fed these birds in an effort to woo them. One whose man will not stay by her side woos birds to adorn her roof. When she throws the seeds on the floor, her chickens and the pigeons are drawn into a fight, gobbling food while pecking one another angrily. I wondered for a bit, whether her man was drawn into such fights with other men till he left, unwilling to compete for the love of a woman rightfully his.
The serenity did nothing to ease my troubles. In front of me on the ledge I placed a knife and a small worn notebook. I had bought this notebook as a graduation gift to myself, to contain the blueprints of my achievements to come and all ideas worth pursuing. I could not bring myself to open this notebook but I knew what was written on the first page. Success is never final and failure is never fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. How the words mocked me! I turned away in shame like an atole turns from his mother. I despised him for his truth that forced this choice upon me. I recited words I wished he could hear.
“In these words, my soul’s entirety I do outpour. Between these lines lay my uncertainties unclothed. Much is to be said with little words yet a lot is to be left unsaid in faith that you see.
“I have heard of a man’s heart in slumber, afraid to love but does a man’s soul slumber, afraid to soar? I have heard caged birds sing forlorn songs of aloneness but do birds set free sing songs of the caged bird?
“Is it the words of a prophet spurred on? Is it an ancient raven’s only stock and store? Do the chords that soothed the weary soul of a king awaken the slumbering conqueror in a man yet ordinary?
“The world is to be mine but I find myself struggling through an emptiness.”
The slumbering conqueror in a man yet ordinary. Those words never left me since I first discovered prose poetry. My choice was made so I turned around and picked up the knife. I cut myself and felt the blood rush to where my flesh opened up. I closed my eyes and embraced the pain. As the pain coursed through me, I finally found the strength to open up the book and I let the blood trickle from my fist onto the first page. The sun looked on, the sole witness, as I muttered to myself: the world is to be mine, the world is to be mine…