People were milling about, rushing and hurrying in that relentless motion that defines Lagos, while I sat on the steps of the food seller’s shop and cried, turning my head from left to right and back again, hoping to see my mother
materialise before me and ask why I was crying, before slapping my eyes dry of tears with a sharp: “You didn’t see me and then you start crying? What’s wrong with you? You think you are still a baby? Come on, wipe your tears, let’s go.”
The way I was feeling then, I wouldn’t have minded one of those slaps. A slap would have been far better than being alone in a busy street in Lagos.
But my mother did not appear, and when the shops began to close as darkness fell across the market, I began to shiver from cold and fear. What was I going to do when everyone left and darkness fell? I had no idea.
I pulled out the corduroy top and began to pull it on when, in a moment of startling clarity, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. “Take the long sleeves. You will need it when it gets cold at night.”
Had she planned it all the while? Had my mother decided, like a desperate goat, to gnaw off the rope that tethered her so she could roam free in Lagos?
I set the bag down and began to skim through its contents. Aside from my clothes and shoes, my mother had left me one thousand naira and a note that had only one word, the final piece of the puzzle: ‘Sorry!’
That was when I stopped crying. I stood up, dusted the seat of my trousers and set out for the main road. I walked to the post office, crossed to the other side and joined a few men and boys waiting to buy akara.
While I waited for the bean cakes to turn brown, I worked out my plan. I would sleep, wake up the next day and go to Ojota, where I would take a bus home. Once my father saw me without my mother and once I told him the story of my misadventure in Lagos, he would do something. What it was he would do, I had no idea. I paid for my akara with the left over change from the food seller’s. Then I bought a canned drink and found a spot in a dark part of a car park to eat.
As I ate, I saw a man chase a young girl past me. He pushed her against the wall and tugged at her wrapper, which unravelled like a loose bandage.
“Don’t by-force me,” the girl said, laughing as he tried to take off her panties. Pushing him gently away, she stepped out of her panties, then turned her back to him.
The man bent her over as he let his trousers fall. I looked away as they became one, but I couldn’t shut out the sounds the girl made.
I finished my food and walked up and down the street.
There were still cars around but by the time I made it back to the post office, the street was deserted and men and women, whom I suspected were mad, were lying in front of the building. There were a few children too, mostly boys, and they were huddled together and playing a game of Whot.
I found a space a few feet from them and sat down. I took a shoe lace from one of the new shoes my mother had bought me and tied up my clothes and shoes into a bundle.
Then I put it under my head and fell asleep.
When I woke, the sun was up. I was stretching and yawning when I realised that the bundle I had kept under my head was gone. I sprang up, crying in disbelief. I dipped my hands in my pocket. The one thousand naira had gone, too.
I started screaming, running into the early Sunday morning and looking for the thief who had stolen my shoes. I found him by the woman selling akara. He was one of the boys I had seen the night before and he was wearing one of my new shirts.
“Thief,” I screamed as I got to him. “Give me my shirt.”
I was reaching out to grab him when his fist connected with my left eye. I fell and then he was kicking and punching me until I was curled up in a ball and screaming at him to stop. He spat and walked away.
I lay there hurting, dusty and sobbing but nobody looked my way. They came, they bought their akara and they walked off, as if I were a piece of rubbish left by the roadside.
“Come,” someone was saying. “Stand up.”
I opened my right eye. There was a boy, dark, skinny, roughly my age. He was standing there with his arms outstretched. I took his arm and he pulled me up. Then he led me to a tap at the end of the park.
“Oya, wash your body,” he said, stepping out of his clothes as he spoke. I looked around first to see that no-one was looking. Then I did as he did. Scooping water with what was left of an old bucket, I had my first bath outside, right there in the park.
His name was Michael and, after we had showered, he asked me to go with him.
“Are we going to your house?” I asked, hoping to find an adult who would help make sense of all the madness.
“This is my house,” he said, waving expansively. “I dey live here for Marina.”
“Where your mama?” I asked, also switching to pidgin.
‘I no sabi,” he said, stopping in front of a stall to buy a tin of Robb. “Rub am for your eye. It is swelling too much.”
I thanked him and applied the ointment to my swollen eye.
“See, first thing you must know be dis, this is Lagos and there is no paddy for jungle. You see, you be JJC and I want to take you to a man who will take care of you or else one day you go wake up and somebody don steal your head,” he said, and laughed. “You go dey pay the man o, but at least nobody go steal your thing again, you hear?”
He stopped so suddenly mid-stride that I bumped into him.
“So, who be dis man?” I asked, as we began walking again.
“Im name na Baba Ejiga and im na Area Father.”
The Area Father, Baba Ejiga had one eye and he was smoking Indian hemp when we got to his shack, nestled under the bridge at the crook where the sea lost the battle to the metal and concrete pillars which propped up the bridge.
“Mikolo, who be dat?” he asked, his one eye darting furiously from me to Michael. It moved so fast that I had difficulty looking away.
“Na JJC. The bobo just land and e never begin shine im eye.”
“Hey, wetin be your name?” Baba Ejiga asked me. “My name is Daniel,” I answered and he lowered his head and sighed.
“Na aje-butter you carry come meet,” he said and shook his head. Then he looked up at me and spoke fluent, un-accented English.
“How in God’s holy name did you get here and where did that nasty bruise come from?”
Staring at him, at his itinerant eye, the matted hair, the ramshackle shack and the joint in his left hand, I couldn’t reconcile the voice with the man.
After I told him I’d been abandoned and the victim of a robbery, Baba Ejiga was silent for a heartbeat. Then, he shook his head and said to Michael, “Mikolo, this one na bad market, o, very bad market,” he said, as if I was not there.
He raised his joint to his dark lips, drew long and hard, and then held it out to Michael who took it, sucked on it, inhaled, and handed the joint back. I watched in wonder, my mouth hanging open. Michael couldn’t have been much older than me.
“Carry this JJC waka. Make you show am way. If anybody worry una, tell dem say this JJC na my person.”
Adapted from Tony Kan’s Night of a Creaking Bed.