A private matter
He started like a preacher. His face, grim and unsmiling. His eyes, narrowed, unfriendly and fixated on nothing but moping at everything. He wore a navy-blue shirt, neatly tucked in a pair of brown cashmere trousers, streaked with black zigzag lines. His belt, brown, broken and bent at the tip held his trousers high, above his abdomen. I couldn’t help but notice the belt-holes around his waist and how they overlapped on top of one another like the tightened tip of a garri sack.
“Treasures appear in subtle packages my dear” Keffi nudged at me. She seemed to knock me out of the climax of my daydream.
“Hmmmm”. I was wondering why she made such statement in this 49-seated-99-standing lorry. The air smelt of roasted fish and tomatoes and sweat and rowdiness.
“That may be your future husband” Keffi chipped in.
“God forbid! Tufiakwa” I retorted, twirling my hands above my head and dusting them over her head. “It’s your portion Keffi. Not mine”
“I already have my darling Kunle” She chuckled.
Yeah right. I giggled. My stomach tightened. I shuddered at the thought. My eyes darted to and fro the preacher’s body and lingered on his chest.
What kind of love or desperation would make someone like me marry a man like this? I thought.
His shirt, faded, missing a button somewhere above the belly. His hair, uncombed, divided like ridges on a cassava plantation. He had thick upper lips slightly parted by two rabbit-like incisor teeth. He didn’t even have the looks that I wanted in a man. His body structure, small and frail.
Who knows? He might not even have eaten for days.
Even if he did, by the miracle of the beauty and the beast, have the looks, he certainly lacked the svelte composure that turned me on, the type that Keffi’s fiancé had.
I hissed loudly turning my face towards the window for a dose of air.
“Balende! Obalende!” the bus conductors yelled in unison propping themselves against the entrance of the door of the slowly moving bus.
“Enter with your correct money o. I nor get change” One of them bellowed.
His mouth seemed to be releasing aerosols of some strong drink, like Scotch Whiskey.
“If you are going to Oshodi” the preacher cleared his throat “If you are going to Oshodi come down here. This is Oshodi bus stop. This bus is now heading to Obalende”. A half-smile ran across his face.
“ Is he going to be transported free-of-charge to his destination for his free advertisement because I don’t understand o” I whispered, pinching Keffi.
She winced. “Leave me joor. That’s not a new thing in these kinds of vehicles. Maybe it’s because it’s your first time”
A lot of things were strange to me in Lagos. The way police stopped us at checkpoints, collected money from commercial bus drivers with unsmiling faces, and looking away as they returned their hands to their pockets. The manner that hawkers splashed at you when you called for one of them to buy fifty Naira Gala. Another was how one would be so stuck in traffic on the third mainland bridge that you’d watch the slow appearance and disappearance of fishermen on the face of the Lagos lagoon.
Nana, my aunt had lived in Lagos all her life yet she complained after every power outage, after every setback she experienced like she was new to them. If she didn’t say “God of Mercy”, she would yell “Christ! What a life” or she would say nothing, press her fingers on her temples and shake her head slowly. I imagined how her eyes would pop out and her mouth partly open, if she learnt that I went on a molue ride. She would be angry because she pleaded with me not to ever go on it.
I turned my face towards the windows. The houses raced back faster than before, and the lines by the sidewalks became a blurry streak along the road.
The preacher’s voice seeped into my thoughts “Heaven is real and hell is real. Where will you spend eternity?”
I chuckled. Heaven is what I experienced in London, with Osagie, my ex-boyfriend. Hell is the matrimonial home that my father had prepared for my mum in his hometown in Lokoja.
“How did your date go yesterday?” Keffi said, snatching my Blackberry from my hands.
“Fine” I didn’t realize how hard I had clenched my teeth when I snatched the phone from her till I bit my tongue.
“ Haba. Relax now. I didn’t even want to go through your messages”. The disgust in her tone was obvious.
“Sorry. That was pure reflex action”.
She ignored me and looked on straight ahead at the standing preacher.
“God is calling you today” His quivery voice wafting into my ears.
“Funny thing is that I have been calling Kunle since yesterday and he has neither picked nor returned my calls” Keffi said fiddling with her Galaxy Tab.
“Really? That’s quite unlike him” Phlegm seemed to get in the way of my words.
“I hope he’s okay” She heaved her shoulders and slowly dabbed the droplets of sweat off her face gently.
I looked at her cheek, smooth and velvety. Her black mascara enunciating the outlines of her almond eyes. Dots of sweat pooled around the tip of her pointed nose and below it a tiny mole. Keffi was gorgeous. She was the slender, caramel-skinned, thin-waisted kind of lady that you would love to watch from behind while cat walking on a pair of Guiseppe Zanotti stilettos.
“My brother and sisters, mummies and daddies I need your assistance.” The preacher waved his hands in the air “I am the fifth born of a family of fourteen”
His voice was buried by the noise that resulted; a mix of laughter and chortles and jeers.
“Shuo! Ya papa na Diego Maradona? Abi na Lionel Messi. How he take score fourteen goals. Abeg I need that medicine” An anonymous male voice shot towards the man from somewhere in the bus. There was laughter everywhere. I smiled.
The woman seated next to Keffi clapped her hands, in a way that expressed disappointment. “Na money you need and you come start to dey preach like say you be pastor”. Hilarity swept along the opposite end of the bus.
The preacher tried to calm the amused commuters and bring the mood of the bus back to its former, semi-quiet state. He raised his hands and pleaded but people ignored him. He sounded more like a politician that had read an unintelligent manifesto.
“I am not a preacher” He yelled “I am a dying man”
They didn’t listen but he continued “Up till yesterday, I was a member of the sect that was responsible for the bombings of several people in the northern part of Nigeria”
At that point, the bus suddenly went quiet. You could make the sound of wind whooshing against the glass.
A man holding the grab-rail, beside our seat row blurted “You mean you be Boko…”. He covered his mouth.
The preacher-man nodded slowly with sad eyes. He unbuttoned his shirt. There was a device, like a timer, fastened to his chest.
“Blood of Jesus” I screamed.
There were similar screams everywhere. Keffi grabbed my hands. I could feel the wetness of her palms against mine. She shifted on her seat and moved close to me. I shook my head. I wasn’t really sure if this was an American film. We were on Third Mainland Bridge, somewhere around the middle.
”Driver stop. Bomber on bus” People screamed.
The man interrupted “Driver, if you stop I’ll release the bomb. It is a timed-bomb. It can be triggered. Don’t stop the bus. No one should come near me”
The fat woman that had earlier insulted him untied her scarf and tied it back on. “Biko” She pleaded “I use Chineke beg you. Don’t do this please. I have kids at home”
He shrugged “ I will do what I will do”
“Chai!” she cried as she held her head between her palms “Chimo! God take control”
Everyone seemed to ask her to shut up and not put us into further trouble.
The bus became quiet. The preacher-turned-bomber, too had become lull, speechless. The only sound that could be heard were the revving engines of the bus and the occasional clunk that was made when the bus driver changed gears.
I watched the passengers seated around the man move away, giving him a bit more space. I heard gentle sobs behind me. Some of those standing, bent their heads and closed their eyes. Some brought out their rosaries and kissed. Some stared, dead in their gaze, watching with half-closed mouths. Some still, like me looked out of the window, admiring the faint view of the high-rise buildings seated in front of the lapis lazuli sky.
Is this how it all ends? My life? No life. No love. No child. Is this really the end of the big-bellied, fat-lapped, chubby, chocolate-loving, back-stabbing, nose-poking, Cambridge-graduate called Me?
We had heard of the bombings but it didn’t matter to us as long as it wasn’t brought to Lagos. They died in hundreds but it had become a norm. The government didn’t really care, neither did we. As far as the we were concerned, the bombings were just fiction and the people that lost their lives were mere statistics, nothing spectacular. The international community carried the news, but they returned and left with more news and no solutions. Here, in our midst was a self-professed suicide bomber, in Lagos.
“Are you out of mind?” Keffi pinched, her voice barely audible. The plastic furrows on her face getting more pronounced. “A suicide bomber is here and you have that smirk on your face?”
I elbowed her. “Please let me be. Okay?”
The bomber spoke, distils of sadness in his voice “They promised me life, money and freedom”. He smiled. “They said my family would never lack” his eyes blinked. “ It’s not my will but this is the only way”
“Jesus is the way.” Someone shouted from the back of the bus.
“Don’t preach to me” He had never sounded so angry “I know the truth.” He held up a copy of the Holy Bible and the Holy Quran up in both hands. He smiled, showing his big-teeth, like someone that had just won an argument.
He continued “I see a place, a throne room, where I will be king over queens”
This is madness. I thought
I sighed. Nelly furtado’s All good things come to an end, playing in my mind’s sound system. Truth was that I always wanted to see what the interior of these molue buses were like. Keffi decided we embark on the adventure. This is crazy.
He pulled the button of the shirt aside. “Ten minutes more.”
Noise rose again, cascading from the back and ending in front of the man. I bent my head, tried to pray. I couldn’t find the right words. I didn’t know how to articulate it. I felt something cold on my feet. I bent to look at the liquid. It smelt like urine. It began to dawn on me how close death called. My tongue was still hurting from the self-inflicted bruise.
Oh Lord! My sins are many
Keffi stared at me, a tear running down her cheek. I stared back, wondering what was in her mind. I couldn’t find the words to use to explain to her that her fiancé and I had been making out since I got back to Nigeria two months ago. I looked at her thin lips, the one Kunle said wasn’t as seductive and enthralling as mine. I purred when I recollected how he buried his lips deep in my mouth, searching for the chemistry that was absent in Keffi. How do I relay my escapades, even last night’s sand rolling at Alpha Beach with her fiancé. If I was to go to hell now, she would go down too. Didn’t she know that I admired Kunle before departing for the United Kingdom. Did she forget that I introduced both of them?
Keffi touched my forehead.
“What’s wrong?” I said. I was lost.
“You were sweating. I cleaned your sweat. Don’t worry. We will be alright” she said putting her arms across my shoulder.
I felt bad. She was still my best friend.
“Jumai” she started “I have a confession to make to you”
“Me too” I replied not giving her the chance to finish. “I have grieved you badly. I need your forgiveness”
The bomb-man broke the flow. “I will die alone.”
“Amen.” People thundered.
“But on one condition” he interrupted. “You give me what you have, your belongings or we die together”
Keffi was the first to give away her Galaxy Tab. I had five thousand Naira on me and handed it over to him.
Someone prodded me from behind “Abeg, help me gave am this crate of La Casera”. I grunted as I passed the heavy stuff to him. It was interesting to see how people gave their wristwatches, food, money, valuables in exchange for their life.
He glanced at his chest again. The timer beeped. “Two minutes left” he said. “Driver stop. Let me come down here”
The driver didn’t stop. Maybe he didn’t hear.
People started screaming and cursing and yelling at the driver. He looked alarmed. He pulled over.
We watched as the preacher trudged towards the door. People parted ways and avoided him like a disease. Maybe they were afraid to trigger the detonation of the bomb. Maybe they were afraid, like I was, that he could change his mind. As he alighted somewhere along the Third Mainland bridge, we watched him walk, waiting to see him explode, expecting to feel the bridge vibrate from a ghastly explosion.
But we heard nothing except thanksgivings and praises and murmurs from inside the bus.
“That guy na fake bomber” A man said throwing his hand back in disdain.
No one said anything. It might have been a scam, it might have been for real. Keffi looked at me without saying anything. I looked back at her. I could see the questions in her eyes. It was a brief moment in heaven and hell, something that would linger forever in our lives. The rest of the journey was quiet. I decided not to remind her confession because I didn’t want her to ask for mine. I was certain no one would hear anything about this occurrence not Nana, not Kunle, not even the governor of Lagos state.