Stages on Life’s Way

Enitan woke up to the sound of Ogechi’s voice, she was shouting something. Her voice was hoarse—the first thing that had made him fall in love with her. He waited a while until she calmed down. “What was that?” he asked.

She didn’t look at him. “It’s my mum,” she said.

“What’s going on with her?”

“She’s not well.”

“Is it serious?” She didn’t answer, he knew why she was like that. He propped himself on his elbow and blinked to clear the sleep away. It was too bright in the room—like living on the face of the sun. She didn’t like the room bright—it was unusual, he thought, but then, these days, she was unusual. He yawned and he could smell his breath. He thought about those Hollywood movies where the couples would wake up in the morning and instantly kiss, morning breath be damned. Unrealistic, he thought, because he knew his breath stank, so bad. He bounced off the bed, stretched, his joints making a clicking sound. He went into the bathroom. He sighed and checked himself in the mirror. His hair was a little too long and, due to sleep, had matted to his skull overnight; now he would have to endure another painful comb through. He brushed and ran water in the bath, he played music from his phone. He stretched a little, then entered the bath, rubbing his head with shampoo, letting the cool water cascade down his shoulders. He thought about Ogechi, how she seemed to have changed, how these days, when he really looked at her speaking to him, he could see the hate crusted around her eyes. Of course, he had a role to play in that, definitely. Definitely. As he swabbed his armpits, he thought about how he had never really learnt to swim, even though he had always submerged himself, as a kid, in bathwater, delighting himself with the sounds under the milky-coloured water.

When he finished bathing, he combed his hair gently in front of the mirror, not really seeing his reflection, but looking into himself. His phone played his favorite song, a thing of beauty, where the talking drum was not an accompaniment but an instrument of authority. He repeated the words from the song and he remembered why he loved it. He didn’t use the lotion because it made him sweat, it was hers and it didn’t smell good; like spittle. He had brought his clothes with him to the bathroom, so he dressed now, buttoning his polo shirt the wrong way and redoing it when he noticed.

He left the house immediately; they had agreed on that, he would leave the house every day, even when he didn’t have any place to go.

He left the house immediately; they had agreed on that, he would leave the house every day, even when he didn’t have any place to go. Now he walked from the house to the bus park and sat there waiting for the one p.m. Lagbus. He watched, chuckling inside a little as a boy holding his mother’s hand stepped into the dirty puddle he had avoided as he walked to the bus stop. He watched as the mother complained to no one in particular about how dirty the little boy’s white socks had suddenly gotten. She cursed the government and blamed her son’s dirty socks on the governor, other people in the park, who had previously been “ennuied” interjected themselves and their problems into the narrative and began a far-reaching conversation that prodded everyone in the park except him.

The sun was digging into him now, his back soaked, his armpits wet, his face already starting to follow suit. It was the kind of sun that made you feel ill. He regretted not having a handkerchief and hoped that the bus arrived sooner, but he knew it would be late. An old man was telling a story now about how he’d gotten into a fight with the electricity officials, they had brought a bill of sixty thousand despite power having come on only twice in that month, he was sure they didn’t even read his meter. He didn’t pay it, he said, and when they came to disconnect his power in their white trucks and unloaded the ladder at his front gate, he rushed out and scared them with his machete. “Bravo,” one person said. “That’s how it should be, we should be like doctors peering into the cancer which is corruption in this country and exposing it.”

“So, what happened next?” another person asked.

“The police came,” the old man said.

“And? You scared them with a machete too?” the person said.

“No, I bribed them, which is even worse,” the old man said.

“Hmm, so what happened in the end? You still had to pay for the light, right?” the person said.

“Of course, that was inevitable—”

“What is the moral of this story you just told?” the woman with the little boy asked.

The old man shook his head and coughed, it racked his feeble body. “It’s that the more you try to fight it, the more it spreads, the more the cancer metastasizes… Down the rabbit hole you keep going.”

“So, the imperative is to be a coward and shy away from fighting?” the woman said. “Do you want me to pass that on to my little son here?”

The old man laughed, he adjusted his white cap and leaned on his stick, the sweat on his face glistening deep in circles around the tribal marks on his cheeks. “Look at me, look into my eyes, do I look like a person who hasn’t fought?”

“I don’t know, you tell me,” the woman said.

“I marched for the British queen, waving the little Union Jack and then I celebrated as I watched them leave, I saw them leave… Our independence, then the coups, the civil war, the oil boom, then numerous coups… Then the men from the coups after decades of bloodshed and trampling on rights said, ‘Ah we’ll adopt democracy now, no more regimes…’ Then I watched as the men from the coups became democratically elected officials, I saw the men from the coups become presidents, one after the other, and I saw the sons and daughters of those men build buildings, banks, petrol stations around the country in their names. I saw their million-dollar farms and their billion Naira automobiles. I saw the country, the giant which had gained fame in the ’70s for its oil and the efficiency of its refineries, export oil to foreign refineries… I saw education become another commodity unavailable to the masses. I saw ignorance become a virtue and selflessness a thing of the past. Those people hold the key, they’re not in the shadows, yet we’re scared of them. I don’t know why. We know them yet we pretend to not. We fight and bleed to at least get a piece of that national cake, a cake that is poisoned by deceit and the cries of people in the South-south. There’s a Yoruba proverb: Aso o bo Omoye mo, Omoye ti rin ihoho woja. We’re too far gone… I’m too far gone in the system. So, I don’t know what you should tell your son, I really don’t know.” It’s late to clothe Omoye Omoye has gone naked into the market.

The people in the park (except Enitan) sighed and looked to the bright sky, as if the answers resided there.

*     *     *

The bus began driving up the bridge, and Enitan got glimpses of things below. They passed the people jogging, walking, they passed a beggar sitting in his own excrement. Nine metre level headroom above water, he’d read. He sat in the back trying to piece together things no true Lagosian should ever do; wait—were they heading directly now to Ajah or Olowu? If so, how was he supposed to get to Falomo? If they were not heading to Olowu and they were going via the law school, how long would he have to walk from there to his destination?

The woman from the park was pointing out something from below the bridge to her son. Enitan was seated next to the old man, who was seated next to the window, and despite the general airiness of the bus, he was still hot, still sweating. He should have sat next to the window, he thought. It would have helped.

The bus purred along and inside was quiet until a man from the back stood up and started shouting. Enitan didn’t realise the man was peddling something until he brought out bottles of a black liquid from a sack. “Alomo bitters!” the man shouted.

“What does it do?” the old man asked the salesman. The salesman looked at the old man and appeared perturbed, as if he was doubtful that the old man didn’t know what Alomo bitters did.

“For your back,” the salesman said. “Rheumatism, Jedi-Jedi… and other things.”

“What other things?” the old man said.

The salesman smiled, embarrassed. Other people in the bus were interested now, there were a few chuckles here and there. “That one you know, sir. Opa-eyin.”

“I don’t, what is that?”

“You know, for strength.”

There was laughter in the bus now, even the ticket collector was braying like a donkey. They knew the old man was messing with the salesman.

There was laughter in the bus now, even the ticket collector was braying like a donkey. They knew the old man was messing with the salesman.

“Strength where? For…?”

“For when you want to do,” the salesman said, looking down at the sack.

“Do what?”

“What?”

“Do what?”

“The deal, when you want to score.”

“Like a football match? I’m too old for that,” the old man said.

“Not a football, but in your house with woman,” the salesman said.

“My woman doesn’t like to exercise, she’s too old and lazy.”

The salesman smiled an awkward smile and turned towards the back of the bus.

“That’s it? You’re giving up? So, no sales today?” the old man shouted at the salesman.

The salesman considered this for a moment and to Enitan, it seemed, the salesman unfurled himself and became taller. “Alomo bitters is also good for stamina when you want to fuck ya woman,” the salesman shouted at the bus, frustration imprinted on his rotund face.

The bus erupted and people clapped, including the priest who sat at the very front. “I will buy one, then,” the old man said.

“One thousand, sir.”

“Bring it, you have change?”

The salesman nodded and reached into his sack, he brought a bottle and wrapped it in paper, then put it inside a bag for the old man.

“In this country? Dilly-dallying will get you nowhere, especially if one is a hawker like yourself…” the old man said, as he accepted the package.

The bus fell silent again and Enitan thought about Osun, the Yoruba deity of the river and freshwater and how many people forget about her connection to sexuality, fertility, and pleasure. He dozed off soon after, dreaming of wading into a frothing sea full of knowledgeable beasts and mermaids. He was jolted awake when his phone vibrated in his pocket. There was a text: I thought you were coming? Call me. He dialed the number and rubbed his face as it rang, sleep still in eyes. Why had he been dreaming about swimming, when he couldn’t even swim?

“Hello,” the voice said. “Where are you? You texted me you were coming.”

“Yeah, I did, I’m in a bus.”

“What’s wrong, your voice sounds weird.”

“I just woke up.”

“You slept in the bus? You know that’s dangerous, right? You could miss your stop or worse… Somebody might steal something from you.”

“No more dangerous than…. Chill, it’s Lagos! Not a city in a dystopian… Jungle.”

“Humph, I’m just saying. So, how’s she?”

“Eh, just there, still same, you know how she is. I mean, you’re a woman too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m different, you know that. I actually love you, Ogechi doesn’t. She cheated on you while you were away.”

“I know that, yeah I know that.”

“Where are you right now?”

“You mean where the bus is? I suppose in the physics of it, I’m also moving with it.”

“What are you talking about? Are you drunk?”

“I wish I was, but no… Just sleepy.”

“You’re weird.”

“I have no idea where I am right now, I’m on my way to Ikoyi, that I know.”

“You should go back to sleep.”

“I don’t feel like sleeping anymore.”

“Okay… Have you told her about me?”

“We can talk about that when I arrive at your place.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Yeah.”

He hung up the phone and closed his eyes. Images from his dream flashed in his mind. Was it because he had thought about Osun? He sighed. He was still sweating.

“You sigh like an older man,” the old man said to him.

He seemed taken aback at the voice of the old man, or that the old man would speak to him at all.

“I had a dream, it’s a paradoxical one, I was trying to unravel it.”

“Hmm, the Yorubas say Alaa go,” the old man said. “Dreams are stupid.”

“Possibly true in this case, since I’m underwater in the dream and in real life I can’t even swim.”

“What university are you in?”

“I’m a graduate.”

“Oh wonderful! Where did you go to?”

“Abroad, New York University, I also hold a master’s degree from there in world history.”

The old man opened his mouth and held it there for a long time before he closed it. He looked over—really looking this time—at Enitan, taking in the faded blue shirt that said FBI and the jeans that had holes in them. He raised his eyebrows at the Sanskrit tattoos that covered Enitan’s arms like a sleeve.

“So, you’re visiting then?” the old man finally said.

“No, I moved back.”

The old man opened his mouth again, he chuckled and looked around the bus. “Ahan, Iru eyan wo leleyi,” he mumbled in Yoruba. What kind of a person is this? “Why?” the old man asked.

“Ah… Because this is my home, my country.”

“I still don’t understand why someone like you that had a life would want to come back here.”

“Because I grew up here.”

“You don’t look like you’re educated, you do sound it, but you don’t look it, look at you…”

Enitan looked at himself and didn’t see anything wrong.

“Do you know what a superstitious Yoruba person would say to this? I’m not superstitious, but do you know what they would say?”

“No?” Enitan said, even though he had an inkling of what the old man wanted to say.

“Are your parents still alive?”

“No.”

“Do you have a job here?”

“Not really, I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer, what kind of things do you write?”

“Fiction, nonfiction, right now I’m working on a book about Lagos.”

“Lagos? What about Lagos? Which Lagos? Precolonial or colonial Lagos? Or postcolonial capital or even postcolonial industrial center?”

“Uhh… It’s a treatise on Lagos and its important voyages: To and fro, and the cultural and economic implications resulting from that.”

The old man shook his head and fell silent.

“You were saying something about Yoruba superstition?” Enitan said.

“Oh, what I was saying is, they would say, oh won pe wapada ni’ won fi in kan pee pada ni…. That you were called by something—oh don’t make that face, you must have seen the movies or heard the stories…. That something called you back, someone with bad intentions, with Juju, principalities, something. But that’s still a reason, right? You appear not to have any. Coming back here to write…. Your generation, in this country, cannot succeed where we have failed. You’re all lazy.”

“Respectfully sir, I disagree,” Enitan said.

“Pshhh, you disagree… Look around! What do you see? It’s muck… It’s ignorance, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s steep decline in the very fiber, it’s corruption, it’s death, it’s blood and oil money, it’s religious fundamentalism. Look around!”

“I don’t see anything… I don’t see anything that’s not in other countries, I don’t see anything, but I feel potential, it’s abstract, it’s everywhere.”

“I don’t see anything… I don’t see anything that’s not in other countries, I don’t see anything, but I feel potential, it’s abstract, it’s everywhere.”

“No, no… no,” the old man muttered and looked out the window.

Enitan took out his phone and played a game of Tetris but he wasn’t really concentrating on it. He could feel himself looking into the bus from an outer body, willing this body to say something. You don’t talk to an elder person like that, he thought.

People got off the bus and people entered. The bus fell silent and moved along unbothered by the myriad thoughts and problems of the people in it. The little boy was sucking on his thumb and watching his mother sleep, her head lolling gently like a scarecrow, and one man bought Gala and passed money to the hawker who ran beside the bus, chest heaving. “That guy could be the next Usain Bolt,” the man said to no one in particular.

“See! See! Helicopter!” the little boy said, shaking his mother awake. “Abi! Abi!” she replied, then went on dozing, her mouth slightly open.

He felt his phone vibrate in his hands. Still in the bus? He wondered if he should have brought a book from his reading list, but Wittgenstein in this hot bus? He really should have sat down next to the window, he thought, he would have been able to rest his head. He closed his eyes, not sleeping and didn’t open them until the ticket collector shouted: “Ikoyi! Next bus stop! Ikoyi!”

“You’re going to see a lady,” the old man said.

“Yes,” Enitan said.

“You need this then.” The old man pulled out a white handkerchief. “You’re sweating like a miner.”

“Oh, sir, I can’t take that.”

“I insist.”

He took the handkerchief from the old man’s bony fingers and wiped his face. It smelt good, so he wiped his face again, smelling it.

“Keep it,” the old man said.

He folded it, and noticed that there was a fish pattern and that the handkerchief was actually blue: how could he have missed that, he thought.

“I made it myself,” the old man said.

“Are you a tailor?”

“I used to be; in the ’90s I did contract work for the ministry of defense and Fuji musicians… Now I just make handkerchiefs for my wife. I also used to be a gardener.”

“It’s very artistic,” Enitan said, happy he was on better terms with the old man again.

The old man looked at him, smiled sadly, and clicked his tongue. “You’re me you know… Or rather you will be, in the future. Full of regret, you will feel like your feathers have burned off. But, that’s if you stay here.”

He thought about the old man’s words for a long time—he pretended to clean the surface of his phone—until he could see the landmarks that told him that he was now in Ikoyi, his destination. As the bus rolled to a stop, he turned to the old man, who seemed fast asleep. “Maybe, maybe not… At present I’m happy and I always tell myself to live in the present.”

Enitan stepped off the bus seconds later and he couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard the old man laughing.

 

Ridwan Tijani was born in Nigeria and now he lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. His work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and Mulberry Fork Review. He is at work on a novel.