My mother wanted to see the world, but I was like a noose around her neck, a piece of rope that tethered her to the village, a swollen foot that would not let her run with the wind and take flight.
She used to sit outside my grandparents’ house, chin in palm, while her eyes stared into the distance wondering what could have been. I’d sit and watch, even though I pretended to be playing with stones. Most times, when I thought she had fallen asleep, but her long drawn-out sighs would remind me that she was not asleep, just lost inside her own head.
She was happiest and saddest when an old friend, who had left the village, returned with tales of the city and how wonderful things were there. My mother would be full of questions, the way a boil is full of pus, and when the friend left, my mother would lie on her bed and cry. My mother didn’t speak much to me. She made sure I was clean and fed and out of the way. I didn’t mind, until my grandparents both died two months apart. That was when I began to notice that my mother really didn’t want me around.
My father lived two villages away. My mother said he was the devil’s overtime, even though he never, ever, spoke to me, nor called me son.
“See, see your useless father,” my mother would say when she took me with her to the market to cut my hair.
But my father would laugh and say, “When will this your madness end?”
Whenever he said this, my mother would curse him and push me hard, urging me to move fast as if I was the one who made him refuse to acknowledge that I was his son, and while we stumbled along, the man she called my father would blow cigarette smoke into the air and laugh.
Everyone said he was my father because, according to them, we looked alike. He was dark like me and he had bow legs like mine. He also had ears like mine, the wide, open ears that made my classmates call me ‘Batman’. I guess my mother had hopes that, one day, my father would finally take a good look at me and acknowledge that I was his son after all.
I was nine years old when my mother said we were going to Lagos.
“If you don’t run, can you count the miles?” she asked me as she buttoned my shirt, and I shook my head. “You see? One day I will wake up and I will be sixty years old and I will ask myself, ‘What have I done with my life?’ Will I say, ‘I had a baby boy whom his father rejected’? Is that what you want me to say?”
“No,” I said, and she sighed.
“It’s not easy for me. If I was alone…” she said, and left it hanging.
I was getting used to it all now: her constant “If I was alone, life wouldn’t be like this.”
When my grandmother was alive, my mother didn’t bother me too much with what would have been if I hadn’t been born, because every time she did, my grandmother would hiss and say to her, “Did anybody force you to spread your legs for that good-for-nothing?”
I didn’t want to go to Lagos but I also wanted to, because the fact that I was going there had brought me new-found respect. My friends looked at me like I was going to the moon.
“You will see big bridges and houses taller than trees,” someone said.
“And the roads; they say you can’t cross them because there are like a hundred cars passing at the same time,” said another.
“You will tell us about it when you come for Christmas, abi?” another asked.
I nodded and looked away. I had lied to them that we would be staying with my uncle, even though I had no idea where we were going to live. And I didn’t know whether we would be coming back for Christmas.
It was my father who came to pick us up on the day we left for Lagos. My mother and I sat in front, while the market women sat at the back with basins stacked high with their purchases. We looked like a family taking a leisurely ride. That is, if you took a picture of us in front and cut off the women at the back.
My father smoked with his left hand, while his right hand gripped the steering wheel. My mother sat me in the middle and, all through the ride, stared fixedly out of the window.
My father did, at least, acknowledge my presence on the short ride to Asaba, where we were to board a bus for Lagos. When he finished smoking his second cigarette, he flicked it into the bushes and pulled out two tablets of tom-tom from his breast pocket. He popped one in his mouth and offered me the second. I was reaching out to accept it when my mother slapped it away. My eyes clouded with tears as I stared downwards, focusing on a hole in the floor of the car, through which I could see the road.
“This madness of yours, when will it stop?” my father asked her, before lighting another cigarette. The luxury bus smelled like new shoes. My mother and I sat in the middle. I had the window seat, from where I could watch the hawkers selling everything from biscuits to gin, wrapped up in sachets. There were very many people hurrying and trying to catch their buses.
A fat woman, who’d arrived late, ran after her bus, which was already leaving the park.
“I have paid. I have paid,” she cried, waving her ticket above her head with her free hand while the other hand dragged a travel bag along. The bus squealed to a halt; the conductor jumped down and, cursing her, pulled open the boot at the back. As he took the woman’s bag, it snapped open and spilled its contents.
Falling on her hands and knees, the fat woman began to pick up her stuff, a bra here, a blouse there. Behind her, the conductor picked up the biggest pair of panties I have ever seen and was waving them above his head as people laughed.
“What’s funny?” my mother asked, giving me the look, the one she gave me before she slapped me and made me see stars. This time she didn’t slap me. She just looked at me, said something about my father, and hissed.
“I want water,” I said a few minutes later as our bus made its way out of the park, but my mother just glared.
“You want to piss inside the bus, abi?” she asked, but I was smart enough to say nothing. I looked out of the window as the bus hurtled on its way to Lagos, eating up the distance like a carnivorous monster.
My mother did not look at, nor speak to me. She stared straight ahead, her eyes unblinking. I ignored her, too, wishing my grandparents were still alive so I wouldn’t have to make this trip.
“Take,” my mother said and gave me a sausage roll and a can of Coke. I said “Thank you” and ate, chewing on the stringy sausage roll and sipping the tepid drink.
As I ate, I did not tell her that what I really wanted to do was whip out my pingolo and piss, for fear that she would hiss and slap me. Instead, I held it in, sweating and moaning softly while my bladder threatened to burst.
Finally, we made a stop at a place called Ore and everyone got down so they could piss and stretch their legs. “Forty minutes! Forty minutes, o, or we go leave you for this place!” the conductor screamed, a vein standing out on his neck. I ran to a bush and pissed for almost twenty minutes, or so I thought, because the stream of urine seemed to go on forever in a warm fountain. I slept for the rest of the journey and only opened my eyes when my mother hit me and told me we were in Lagos.
Lagos was madness. Watching the crowds, the innumerable people stuck in what I supposed was perpetual motion, almost made me dizzy. Looking at the people in Lagos was like looking into a gigantic whirlwind, but instead of bits of rubbish, what we had inside was an eddy of human beings.
We got down from the bus at Ojota and, grabbing my hand while the other one held onto the new travel bag she’d bought the previous week, my mother led me a short distance to where we boarded another bus, a small yellow one. I sat in the middle with my mother, beside a fat woman who smelled of fish. Her bottom was so big it kept pushing me and whenever I wriggled to create space, she would look at me and hiss.
We drove onto a long bridge that snaked over a shimmering mass of water. Somebody behind me was telling a young woman with him that it was the 3 Mainland Bridge.
“It’s the longest bridge in Africa,” the man said. “They say it takes four days to walk from one end to the other.”
When I looked up, my mother was peering at the man with an expression that said she didn’t believe him. I knew that look. It was the look she had had on her face when her friend had come back from Italy and told us how she had married, and divorced, a white man.
Five years have gone by since I arrived in Lagos with my mother on a giddy Saturday afternoon, but I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I remember it the way I can taste the salt on my lips, residue from the corn I have just finished eating.
We got down at Obalende and my mother turned to me and said, “Hold my hand.”
She said it as if I had done something wrong, but I searched my head and couldn’t remember what I could have done to make her angry, so I held her hand and walked beside her, breaking into a short run at intervals to keep up.
My mother had been to Lagos before. In fact, she had lived in the city for two full years with an uncle, but he died suddenly, knocked down by a truck as he tried to cross the expressway.
“It was bad luck. The devil really exists, you know. Paulina had made all the plans for us to go to Italy together, and then Uncle Stanley had to go and let a truck kill him. I came to the village with his wife. We were waiting for the mourning period to end when I got pregnant. How can you tell me the devil doesn’t work overtime?”
I heard my mother tell this story once to a friend visiting from Jos. Her name was Justina and she had a limp that made it seem like one part of her bum was bigger than the other.
I was sitting behind the door and doing my homework while they spoke. If my mother had seen me, she would have chased me away. That night, after Justina left, I listened to my mother talking to my grandmother as they prepared dinner.
“Mama, see this world is not fair. See Justina with her short leg. When we were in school, nobody thought she would find a husband. See, now she is married with two children and her husband even bought her a car and sent her home with a driver.”
“The cow without a tail,” my grandmother said, turning to look at my mother, “it is God that chases the flies away on its behalf.”
Justina is dead now. She was killed when Muslims attacked Christians in Jos. They said she was pregnant when she was killed and that the attackers stopped her car, beheaded her driver, ripped her stomach open and kicked the foetus around like a football.
When my mother heard this, she sat down, rested her chin on her hand and stayed that way the whole day, muttering over and over again, “This devil knows how to work overtime.”
And that was the thought in my head, too, the day my world, as I knew it, came to an end.
The bus we were on got to Marina and my mother stepped down beside me. While we stood there, still trying to find our bearings, the bus roared off, leaving a cloud of acrid white smoke behind. I looked up and the sign atop the long building with fancy blocks in front of it said ‘General Post Office’.
My mother and I crossed the street and, as I walked beside her, she said to me, “We’ll go to Mandilas, so I can buy you some clothes.”
There were rows of shops selling clothes, shoes and belts and it seemed everyone was talking at the same time.
“Fine girl. Come buy jeans,” someone said, tugging at my mother’s arm. I thought she would slap his hand away, but she smiled indulgently and kept walking.
“See. Fine blouse. Wear am go church na so so vision you
go dey see,” another man said.
It was a blue blouse with a dragon design embroidered across the front. My mother stopped and asked him how much it cost. I watched as she placed the blouse against her body to see whether it would fit and I wondered why she had stopped to haggle. Was it the promise of visions or the beautifully-rendered design?
My mother bought the blouse and we walked on, stopping at three other shops to buy three shirts, two pairs of jeans and a pair of canvas shoes for me.
“Take the long sleeves,” my mother said, urging me to take a blue, long-sleeved corduroy shirt the shop owner was offering me. “You will need it when it gets cold at night.”
We made a few other purchases, mostly bras and panties and frilly things for my mother. Then, finally, she asked me to go with her so we could find something to eat.
My mother ordered rice, beans and plantain for me.
Then, while I ate, she gave me some money.
“Hold this money for me,” she said. “I need to buy something. Wait for me when you finish eating.”
I took the money, nodded, and then went back to my food.
That was the last time I saw my mother.
Adapted from Tony Kan’s Night of a Creaking Bed.