The car goes around a bend. The windows are up, the air cool, and we are hemmed in from every angle by the afternoon sun. In the back seat, my mother clasps my palm, as though to assure herself that I am really here.
We ease onto IBB Way. On either side, the town lies low and still, unburdened by the inflow of the season. The streetlights are sequined by Christmas décor. At the closest roundabout, tiny stars and bells garland an iron sculpture. I marvel at the clear sparkling roads, the sequence of space, the swept-smooth sidewalks bordered by chiseled lawns. But when I mention this, my mother says Calabar is no longer clean.
At first her words stop me. I am fresh from Lagos, after all, that great city of ambitious minds and endless bridges, dirt and sweat as much a part of its architecture as concrete and steel. That ugly place I have come to love; perhaps because of its unapologetic frenzy, its startling contradictions. Then I turn back to the window, looking out at a carnival billboard, unsurprised that my mother and I see Calabar differently now.
* * *
Before, the Calabar of my childhood: a slumberous Nigerian town content with its pace. Marian Road, the coolest road, was a long single strip of tar that cracked through elegant buildings. Aunty Margaret, the star primary school my sisters and I attended, fared opposite the wide sprawl of Desam House. Up ahead sat High Quality Bakery, where the sweet-tasting air made me fall in love with bread. Further down, behind a small grove of trees, came Sacramento Estate with its mosaic swimming pool. I would often stare at the turquoise ripples, terrified of slipping in.
My sisters and I excelled in school, showed up at birthday parties, played hopscotch and ten-ten and noti. We went to mass on Sundays. Afterward, if we behaved, my cousin would take us to see the Sunday-Sunday Show at Cultural Centre. In the dim theatre, I would shore up my laughter to match everyone’s, especially at the parts of the play I did not understand. On weekdays at four p.m., when NTA 9 began to broadcast, we would settle on the sofa and disappear into the tube, thrown into an animated world where Voltron was Lord. On Thursday nights, the series Checkmate moulded us into its taut grip. Then there were the commercial breaks, when we sang along with Joy soap and clapped in beat with Milo. Later, if I thought no one was watching, I would gloss my lips, sit in a bathtub filled with foamy water, and imagine I was the sloe-eyed girl in the Joy soap commercial.
Reading was our truest calling. American and British classics stood like boulders on our upper bookshelf. The African Writers Series bled across the middle, an orange and white turf. I ignored them all in my early life, bewitched by Enid Blyton. Friday nights were for movies, and Saturday mornings for trips with my father to Cyril Supermarket, those glorious aisles of sleek paperbacks. Nobody thought it strange, me being a writer. My mother used to keep my stories and manuscripts in her bedside drawer.
One weekend, my sisters and I formed a club called Summer, a mash-up of Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven—or so we believed. It had a mournful anthem and a tallying system that favoured the oldest. We held meetings in the garden. If we’d awakened to rain, peach-coloured hibiscuses would flood the walkway in the shape of sodden tissue paper. We rarely cleaned up the mess. Instead we leapt and landed on our invented kingdom. At times an adult walked past and warned us not to climb any tree. We never listened. Standing on a firm branch of the almond tree, basking in its green shade, a weak flame of sun straining through, made us feel as though we were the few on earth exactly where they ought to be.
On the other side of the compound, the whistling pine tree loomed over the landscape. It was a grand monument to Christmas. Every December, when a loop of blinking lights was strung around it, the season became more real, more noble than a time to give and get, to see family and friends, all billowy dresses and cross-body bags.
During the Akwa-Cross Trade Fair, we pretended not to know my cousin was the man in the Father Christmas costume. After mass on Christmas Day, we would drive to Calabar Road to see the Ekpe masquerades. They swept past in their swaggering might, staff in right hand, followed by a large band of drummers and singers. I liked to think of the Ekpe as black stick figures stuck in giant red doughnuts. Still, I crouched in the back seat when they moved close.
By the end of each outing, a dark plot for another would be gleaning in me. The world beyond our house, it seemed, was where excitement truly lived.
* * *
But home is where my blood is. Home is home. Why else, on my arrival, does my eight-month-old niece fit into my arms with no protest, as if she knows who I am? My younger brother is taller, his voice deeper, and as I sense the way he masters his thoughts before speaking, my soul bellies-out with pride. I watch my father too often—giving orders to workmen, walking to the garage—and the new fragility in his gait worries me.
I, too, am getting older. Christmas Day is like any other day. The smell of Christmas—a crisp, heady presence that stoked my childhood—is gone. What is left of the whistling pine tree is a stump of wood. When my mother tells me again about the Biafran War in the late 1960s, I listen more than I speak.
I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home.
On the 28th we gather before the TV to watch the carnival. Girls dance by, long-limbed and smooth-skinned, appliquéd wings flaring at their backs. A boy leaps off a tower of shoulders, his nimble body the nearest thing to grace. The camera switches to a wide overhead view. In the bright curve of revellers, skin and satin meld, and the scale of it gives me the sensation of inhaling wonder.
At night, a friend visits. We sit and talk. It pleases me, that I still know when she is about to laugh. We head out to find a cab. Outside the gate, I slow my hurried footsteps, smothered by the moment: the warm, humid air settling where it will; the stadium lights hurling a delicate, pearlescent glow around; the fireworks blowing and fizzing up high. On Marian Road, crowds thrive in place of cars, moving in every direction, as though in search of a new spectacle. One can almost believe the carnival has always been here.
* * *
It began with the roads. Some were tarred, others widened, the land gaining a sudden vastness that shocked the sloth from it. Although Calabar had always been reasonably clean, a social awareness campaign elevated the culture, so that cleanliness shifted into something divine. Driven by opportunity, foreign investors rushed into Tinapa, a free-trade zone and resort modelled as a first on the continent.
The government set up an annual Christmas festival with a string of balls, a series of concerts, a boat regatta, a beauty pageant. Even before they built the Christmas village, a cluster of shops with everything from snacks to souvenirs, there were stories of hotels being overbooked, of families renting out rooms. The carnival, our best card, made an arrival with five unique bands. By then, the rest of the country couldn’t help but notice. Cross River State found its voice as a major tourism destination.
The air moved at a speed that forced us to breathe anew. My younger brother didn’t care for NTA. Cartoon Network was what he loved. My big sisters and I grew up and moved to other cities, other countries. A few years after I left, my parents hired a team to cut down the almond tree. It had tangled with the electricity cables and disrupted power. The whistling pine tree turned into a haven for boisterous owls. Nothing more. When I received the news of its felling, I made a fine drama of it on the phone. “We’ll plant another one,” my mother said in a steady voice.
My short visits were days of discovery—a water park, a movie theatre, a fast food restaurant. Every unknown sight drew a flush of joy. Every slight change took on an exaggerated breath. Once, driving past a new store with my younger sister, I gestured at it, light at heart, but she shrugged like the whole thing was normal. I found myself recounting the sum of my memory, hoping to remember if we had ever spoken of what might come next, wondering how I became a visitor in my own home. There is a saying in certain Nigerian languages. A loose English translation reads, “The legs with which you go to Lagos are not the same legs with which you will return.” In my case, to come from Lagos was to be pleased with progress in the only place that is fully formed in my dreams, but to assume the fear that one day all I saw in those dreams would vanish.
I wanted to know who designed the new state logo, why Paragon Video closed, what was Jasper? From my younger siblings, a classic “Ushie” response would emerge, coiffed in the same dry wit I threw at anyone stunned by the ordinary. It brought to mind the night, many years before, when my mother told us how on NTA News, she had spotted the owner of Cyril Supermarket in a line-up of armed robbery suspects. We’d asked what would happen to the supermarket, and my mother opened her palms, a motion along the lines of “what other thing could possibly happen?”
I remember, even then, being suffused by a kind of despair. What bothered me most wasn’t the entire business, in truth, but the idea of the books that lured my imagination into life rotting away elsewhere.
* * *
I ride along to Marina with two old friends. Awaiting us is a well-tended resort overlooking the pier. The chain of carnivals is over—the mood in town that of recovery. At Eleven-Eleven, through the wound-up window, I see glitter caught on a slab, maybe some fallout from a costume. In front of makeshift booths, photographers display street portraits taken amid the festivity. Some of them will never be claimed.
The parking lot in Marina is almost full. We find a spot and walk down the promenade. We place our orders in a thatch hut. Across from us the Cross River leafs out, mile upon mile of grey, an unending panorama of water. From this distance, the canopied foliage opens out, launching itself into the horizon. Where once there were slave ships, a speedboat service appears to be at its peak. It is nothing at all like my childhood. In the crevices of my memory, this place will forever stay a seafood market.
A waiter approaches, his abashed bearing already saying what we’d rather not hear—the cold drinks and roasted fish are finished. We move to a lounge opposite the carousel. Here, still, the Chapman I crave is absent, so I make do with a soft drink. It loses its fizz as we catch up with our different lives. At issue is a decision: which city has the most absurd rents—Lagos or Abuja? We agree, in the end, it is a matter of relativity. Soon the bill comes, small enough for only one of us to handle. I think how when I eat out with friends in Lagos, I am quick to make sure we all contribute, even if someone offers to pay the whole sum.
On our way back to the car, I watch a teenage boy on the carousel, forehead low on the pole as though in prayer. Perhaps his insistence on claiming a space meant for a child is some form of rebellion, some twisted refusal to accept he is no longer one. Perhaps he is merely looking out for a younger sibling. Only when my friends speak do I realise they have noticed him too. One says she wonders why he is on a children’s amusement ride. The other admits she’d once done something similar. I imagine myself in a far-off park, all set to be the lone adult in a balloon race, but shame gets the better of me and my vision flounders.
The day after, I leave for the airport two hours before my flight. My mother draws close to me in the back seat. Yet I feel the pull of Lagos, a life I love and loathe alike, the days ordered by briefs and plans ruined by traffic. I will the world to do as I please, to bend time and circumstance into a straight line. The purpose, of course, is to trade in the hectic city for the laid-back town of old. But such a thing is impossible, delusive, even. And I wonder, as the car ascends the sloping airport road, if accepting my divided self will always be impossible too.