That was how I came to live on Lagos Island under the protection of Baba Ejiga. We slept on the streets, usually outside Baba Ejiga’s shack, while he frolicked inside with one of the many women who never seemed to tire of him.
In the day, Michael and I prowled the market looking for women to assist with their purchases. We were mules, young ala-barus who eked out a living from the pittance they let drop. Sometimes we stole from them, pilfering items from what they’d bought. Most times they never noticed, though sometimes an eagle-eyed woman would catch you and bitch slap you into the gutter.
We were children, so it was easy for people to forgive us, to put it down to hunger or the devil working overtime, as usual. There were many children living rough on the streets of Marina and we marked our turf, sometimes fighting battles for control. The adults let us bloody ourselves while they sat and watched, amused, as we morphed slowly into what they had long become, little devils with fangs for teeth and claws for fingers.
Once in a while, one of the older boys would be caught stealing: a radio from a parked car or a handbag from a woman exiting the bank. Many of us would give chase and when we caught up with the thief, we would descend on him, kicking and punching him until he was down. Then, someone would find a tyre, another would pour petrol and the hapless thief would go up in flames.
And every time I watched that senseless orgy of rage and violence, I would wonder why we were so quick to land that blow and kick out at one of our own, someone we knew and lived with. Was it out of a feeling of betrayal and anger that he’d let himself be caught, thus tarring all of us with the sludge of shame? Was that what fuelled our rage?
Often, we retired early, bathing in the park or running across to the old quayside where we washed in the briny waters of the Atlantic. It wasn’t uncommon to come out of the sea and find your clothes gone, hidden away or cast into the sea by another boy you had offended without knowing.
While the other boys laughed, the unlucky one would walk back naked to wherever he kept his change of clothes. We didn’t possess too many things. We were light travellers, unsure of what the next minute held, and that was why all we owned we hid in our stomachs. Our stomachs were our treasure houses because they were easy to transport and no one could steal the food you had eaten or the drink you had taken.
We ate well, saving only the little we needed to pay Baba Ejiga or entertain the young girls who flocked to us like flies to shit. I avoided them, but Flora would never let up, always coming to sit by me while I read old magazines I picked up from the streets or bought when I had extra cash. Of all the boys who lived with Baba Ejiga, Michael and I were the only ones who could read.
“You dey fear woman?” Flora would ask me every time I refused to accept the little things she brought me on her way home from hawking on the streets: a loaf of bread, a tin of sardines or condensed milk.
We became friends the day I took ill with malaria and she ran all the way to Obalende to buy me Fansidar and folic acid; and later in the evening, when I had stopped throwing up, she bought me jollof rice and dodo.
“I know you like jollof rice and dodo,” she said, wiping the sweat off my brow.
We talked. She was from Delta state, like me. Like me, she had never known her father and like me, her mother had left her at an early age, but hers had drowned.
“You know, when a woman drown she will lie face up, but a man will lie face down. That is how you know whether the dead person inside the water is a man or a woman,” she told me in her shaky English.
Once we became friends, Flora spoke English instead of pidgin to me. She lived with her aunt who was married to a warden at the prison quarters in Ikoyi and, once in a while, I would walk with her all the way to Ikoyi and then take a bike back to Marina.
One night as I saw her off to her own block, she pushed me against the wall and kissed me, surprising me by her impulsiveness.
“When are we going to do it?” she asked.
“Do what?” I asked, lowering my gaze as my heart hammered in my chest.
“Do what? Ah ah. Sometimes, I feel that you are fearing woman.”
“But you are not even a woman,” I said.
“Who said? I am thirteen years and Janet is twelve but she is doing it with Michael.”
“Michael is older than me.”
“Ehen, it doesn’t matter,” Flora said, and reached for me again.
This time, our kiss lingered and Flora was moaning and I was feeling her breast when someone slapped and punched me. We sprang apart and a huge man started punching and slapping Flora as she ran, and kept calling her a whore.
The next day, when I saw Flora she had a black eye and a cut above her upper lip.
“Na my auntie husband. He was angry because he wants to by-force me and I don’t agree,” she told me that night as we sat at the back of the car park and kissed. This time our kisses were long and languorous and gentle because I was careful not to hurt her lips.
“God will punish him,” I said, with impotent rage.
Even though Flora wanted us to, I never summoned up enough courage, so we spent our times together kissing and sometimes, when no-one was nearby, she would lift her dress and let me fondle and kiss her small breasts.
Then one day I waited and waited and she didn’t come to the Marina. When I still didn’t see her after three days, I sought out Janet and asked where Flora was.
“Why u dey ask me, no be u pregnant am?” she snapped at me. Flora was pregnant.
That was when I began to drink.
Without Flora, and with nothing to occupy me in the evenings, I started drowning my sorrows, sitting with other boys and men in front of the women who sold kai-kai, the local brew, drinking my life away.
I didn’t smoke cigarettes or hemp because they made me light-headed so I sat there and drank shot after shot of kai-kai. But while everyone else got drunk, I would remain clear-eyed and sure-footed. Soon, my reputation spread and people came to see the eleven-year-old boy who could down a bottle of kai-kai and still walk straight.
Michael was the one who told Baba Ejiga and the one-eyed man, always eager to make a quick buck, began arranging drinking bouts for me with men who would square up against me and end up being carried away by friends, after they had lost their bearings and their bets.
I never found out what it was that made me incapable of getting drunk, but it made me popular, and the women who sold drinks would offer me free drinks because they knew that my presence at their stalls would attract customers.
But it all ended the day I stole a wallet. This wallet wasn’t filled with money but with pictures and cards. A note, scrawled on the back of the picture of a smiling man, read:
‘Mummy Rose, you took me from the streets and gave me a new life at Sweet Home. Without you I would be dead now, burnt on the streets like a common thief. But today I am a doctor and even though I do not know what God looks like, when I close my eyes and think of God, I see your face. Love always, Keme.’
I would read the note, turn the picture over to look at the smiling face of Keme, and then read the note again. He was tall and big and dressed in convocation garb. Looking at him, I became suddenly dissatisfied with my life. I was like someone coming awake from a bad dream.
“Let’s find this woman,” I said to Michael.
“How?” he asked, through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“See this card. It says ‘Rose McGowan, Founder, Sweet Home for Boys’ and there’s an address in Yaba.”
‘So, how will you say you got her wallet?” Michael asked.
“I found it on the streets,” I said.
“And?” he asked.
“And I decided to return it to the owner.”
“Dis boy, kai-kai has turned your head. If that woman sees you, she will lock you up.”
“Michael, let’s try. Our life can change and we can be like
Michael stood up, flung his half-smoked cigarette into the overflowing gutter and exhaled loudly.
“Daniel, too much hope is not good for people like us,” he said and walked away.
I left early the next morning, afraid that dallying would weaken my resolve. I took a bus to Sabo, then got on a bike that took me to Oyadiran estate.
When you pick a pocket or reach into a woman’s bag and pick a naira note or wallet or mobile phone, your mind is focused on two things: filching what you can, and not getting caught. You usually don’t know what your victim looks like. So when Rose McGowan came to the door after I’d spoken to the maid, I was surprised to see an ageing woman with an American accent.
“Yes, wetin I go do for you?” she asked in pidgin as she took in my shabby appearance.
I didn’t speak. I reached into my back pocket and saw her flinch and take a step back. She relaxed as I pulled out the wallet and extended it to her.
“Where did you find that?” she asked, reaching out to take it.
“Mummy Rose, I am a street boy and I need your help,” I said and then burst into tears.
I wake up and the ceiling is white. There is a ceiling fan and it is whirring slowly. I am sweating and my heart is pounding, but it is not from fear but from excitement. I have been here for months but I still feel like a hungry man who has stumbled on a feast. I still cannot believe that it is all true and real.
I swing my legs off the bed. I find my slippers and walk outside. The sun is bright. It is a lazy Sunday afternoon and Michael is lying on his back under the almond tree behind the hostel and reading a novel. I sit on the grass beside him and knock the book out of his hands.
“Mikolo!” I say and Michael laughs.
“May his soul rest in peace,” Michael says.
Baba Ejiga died two weeks after I ran away. A jealous husband had surprised him atop his wife and pierced him through the heart with a rusty dagger. This was two months before I went back for Michael.
“After he died, I couldn’t stop thinking of what he said when you left,” Michael told me on his first night at Sweet Home for Boys.
“What did he say?”
He said, ‘That boy wasn’t supposed to be here.’ After we buried him, I sat in his shack and for the first time I wondered why I didn’t leave with you.”
I am fourteen years old now and I am dying. My liver is ruined, eaten away by all that kai-kai I drank like water in the days when I lived rough.
Michael was supposed to take over my top bunk and the new canvas shoes I got for Christmas, when I die.
But my friend has beaten me to it. Two weeks ago, we buried Michael, the one with the healthy liver, the one who didn’t have the angel of death hovering over him.
Now that he is dead, everyone says he knew he was going to die because of the things he did that Saturday afternoon when we all got up to go to the river.
“I’m not going,” Michael had said to me when I tapped him on the chest and roused him from the light sleep he had fallen into as he listened to music on his new MP3 player, the one he got as a prize for coming first in the spelling competition.
“Why?” I asked, pulling the wrapper off him.
“I want to sleep,” he said and tried to grab the wrapper from me, but I was holding on too tight and the wrapper tore.
“See, see. You tore it,” Michael said and jumped off the bed.
I ran but he didn’t give chase. He just walked out of the hostel and sat on the dwarf fence that ringed the building, and stared out into the distance as if expecting somebody. I knew he wasn’t expecting anybody because no-one ever comes to visit.
“Sorry,” I said, touching him, but he brushed off my hand.
“Leave me alone.”
Michael didn’t talk to me until we left and he didn’t even speak to me when he ran behind us and joined our group.
Once or twice on our walk, I would ask a question and look at him, but he would ignore me and stare straight ahead.
“See, the twins of Ikorodu, they are fighting,” someone said and the other boys sniggered.
Michael and I were the closest in the hostel and we never, ever, seemed to fight, so no-one could understand why we weren’t talking.
When we got to the river and separated into two groups,
Michael said he wasn’t going to play and just sat on the sand, watching.
When I think about it now, I guess that’s why so many people say he knew he was going to die. Everything he did that day was strange. First, he said he didn’t want to come.
Then, when he did, he said he didn’t want to play with us.
And then, he didn’t want to talk to me.
Michael would still be alive if he had stayed back at the hostel. Or if he had come with us and just sat on the sand like he wanted to. But he didn’t. Every time the ball bounced outside the line, Michael would jump up and chase after it.
Then, when he got the ball, usually from the river, he would throw it up and spike.
I wasn’t looking. I had stubbed the big toe of my left foot and broken my toe nail. I was trying to peel off the broken nail which was still hanging from my toe when I heard my name.
I looked up and all the boys were running to the river bank.
I saw his back, I heard him scream, a watery gurgle more like, and then he was gone, the waves frothing where his red shirt billowed in the rushing water.
Adapted from Tony Kan’s Night of a Creaking Bed.