[Issue 8 / February 2014]
And then, two hours later, I fall off my bike while overtaking a Mercedes. I slam my hip against the curb but do not fracture it. My legs are trapped under the bike’s wheels. People in the street gasp, “Oh sorry!” Some others are not so kind: “Where are you flying to, mister man?” I do not stop to answer that. I get up quickly. Dust myself, head, shoulders, knees, and right my bike. I have to go. Round the bend, over there, might be standing someone who needs to get somewhere, and I need to get to that someone.
Sure enough, round the bend, there is someone, a young man. “Going?” he says. They all ask me that when they want me to stop.
I stop the bike. The young man has no hair on his face, or maybe he shaved it all off. “Where?” I ask.
“The National Directorate of Employment,” he says.
I look at him well. His head, the way it is inclined forward, as if he’d asked a question rather than made a statement. His eyes, the look they have of clear glass holding clean water. Ah, I know that look. You would, too, if you recall water just before the brown clouds diffusing from a teabag pollute it. It’s the same look one wears, without realising it, in a street one has never been to, before the clearness in the eyes clouds up with familiarity afterwards. This young man has no idea where he is going. Nobody a week old in this town calls NDE in full. He is my favourite type of passenger, next to the type who makes conversation on the way.
“Climb, let’s go,” I tell him. “Two hundred.”
“Ehn! Isn’t it a hundred naira?”
I laugh. It’s actually forty naira from Roundabout here, but apparently you do not know that. “That’s like asking me to carry you for free, sir,” I say.
“Hundred naira is what I have!”
“Ah, sir, don’t you know how much fuel costs?”
His eyebrows come together. He is in two minds. Maybe he has been told the fare to NDE would not exceed a hundred naira. Maybe he is suspicious of me. But I’m not worried. I meet his type nearly every week. Still, I cannot wait long for him to make up his mind lest he decides something that will ruin my luck. Two bikes have passed us already. They are not carrying passengers. One of the bike-men, sensing the haggling going on between the young man and me, had slowed, and smeared his gaze on us as he passed, hoping the young man would abandon me and hail him to stop.
“Okay sir,” I relent, “hundred naira. Let’s go.”
He straddles the seat, and we explore the town.
I turn left at the Roundabout, ride towards Hydro Junction, turn left when I get there, instead of right, ride to Adankolo Junction, go past the post office, Police Headquarters, NEPA Office, Secretariat; go left round Paparanda Roundabout, past St. Mary’s (my church), turn right off Cinema Road, through New Layout, and burst out at Government Road junction. If the young man would glance left, he’d see that two, three metres from the junction is the Roundabout where we’d stood and haggled minutes ago. But he does not look. He is silent. We continue down Government Road, past Government Villa, reach NDE, and stop.
“Thank you,” he says and pays.
I grip the handlebars of my bike and speed off. I do not wait to watch him retreat. I do not want any of this, him, his naivety, the inflated fare, to go down to my stomach and rush back up later like undigested food.
Early this year, you see, I went to the doctor for this lump under my ear. It had been there some weeks but didn’t hurt, so I ignored it, believing it would go away when it would. The doctor told me what the lump was and that it required surgery. I also remember he said that the surgery required money. Seventy-something thousand.
It’s been eight months since I threw that visit out of my mind, and the lump has grown to the size of three eggs put together. It still doesn’t hurt.
Vehicles on my lane freeze in obedience to the raised palm of the traffic warden ahead. People move in all directions, brushing against and smearing sweat from their bodies on each other, hurrying on without apologising. Two girls hawking trays of plantain chips meander through the spaces between vehicles, trying to corner the attention of sweating passengers by seeking their gazes with their own and calling, “Plantain chips here!” Every now and then, someone beckons, and either of the girls lowers her tray into the car window. Beside the road, some boys in school uniform are gathered round an orange seller, arguing over a polythene bag of peeled oranges. The bag bursts and the oranges roll all over the dirt. The boys scramble after them.
I glance down into the open window of a Camry beside me. The driver’s hand is firm on the wheel, waiting, but it is the gold watch strapped round his sweaty wrist I’m interested in. Ten-fifty. I should head for Madam More’s place to eat. I have not eaten anything since morning.
The traffic warden drops his hand. Vehicles on my lane and the other vehicles on the lane headed south of me, start moving again.
I turn left in the direction of Madam More’s place where I will eat pounded yams and ewedu soup, as usual, because it holds the stomach better. Madam More’s restaurant is not fancy. You don’t pay heavily for a serving no bigger than a baby’s palm, yet you eat till you belch. In the fancy restaurants—a relative took me to one once—doors are opened for you by security guards. The curtains are not mottled with age. You don’t get to burst into the place like you own it and slap palms with your men and holler. Instead, what you see are girls, especially, eating carefully, making sure the food avoids their painted lips and goes far into their mouths, almost into their throats, before they close their mouths and begin to chew. There, people laugh so deep in their throats it feels dirty, as if they are planning something bad.
“You think those who go there are paying for the food alone?” my friend Barna said about the fancy restaurants and their deadly prices. “No! They pay for the chairs and tables which are made of quality wood. They pay for the air conditioner’s cool breeze blowing them. They pay for the piano music. They pay for the waiters’ uniforms. They pay for the floor tiles. They pay for the liquid soap they use to wash their hands after eating!”
Barna is at Madam More’s when I park my bike in front of the place built of rough planks and zinc sheets now rusted. I can hear his voice riding high above everyone else’s. It is shriller today. It feels like the hot air from his mouth is contributing to the heat inside, and it is not long after I settle on a bench with five other men that I understand why he is shouting. There had been a match last night and Barna is a football freak, that’s number one. His club played the match, two. His club won by four goals, three. Ah, we won’t hear another thing today oh. I didn’t watch the match myself but my son Andy did, and I overheard him and our neighbour arguing about it. I hope someone will bring up another topic to shut Barna up.
Rita, one of Madam More’s waitresses, sets pounded yams and ewedu in front of me. She is wearing a blouse that exposes half of her small breasts, as usual.
“Did you people hear about your confused Governor again?” someone butts into Barna’s analysis of Mikel Obi’s fitness yesterday.
I had heard. Over the weekend, it was in the news that the Governor of our state left his party and went back to the ruling party under which he was elected Governor, in the first place, two years ago.
The person who raised the subject is Obinna, an Igbo man from back East, whose lips are as fat as his boasts. As we expect, he starts to make mouth about the big-big things the Governor of his home state has achieved, unlike the Governor of this state. “Go to my state and see the roads being constructed, go and ask about the scholarships being awarded to primary and secondary school children as if it is water! What about the ultramodern market? Ha, check those out now!”
“So why are you here selling boutique, instead of back home with your people?” I say, and Barna notices me for the first time. His mind had been in the green field in his telly, from last night, when I entered.
“Don’t mind Obinna!”
“He has mouth, let him run it.”
I eat a piece of fish, and we all laugh. You cannot help it with Obinna. Every time he starts making mouth about his Governor, and spraying saliva all over people’s food, I remember one of our friends, James, and wish there is someone I could ask about him.
James used to be with us years back, bombarding our ears with stories that would have been real if they had even happened in his dreams, and not in his head. But we made do with the fact that they made us laugh.
“When I went to marry my wife, Sheri,” he would tell us, “her parents said they couldn’t give me their daughter. That, what was she going to eat in my house, I, an ordinary bike-man? I said fine. Fine! I went back home.” He would suck soup from his fingers. “The following day I returned to her people with fish, correct dried fish, a whole basket of it. They called their daughter. When Sheri came out, her parents carried her, her mother gripped her hands, her father gripped her legs, and laid her across my lap. ‘Take your wife,’ they said, ‘a man who can fill our daughter’s soup pot with such choice fish is a man indeed!’- ”
Sheri never confirmed this story. We, men, wouldn’t have gone asking her to, but were it true, she would have proudly told it to one of her women friends who would have repeated it to another and then another, and among this chain of women repeating the story would be our wives who would tell it to us the evening of the day they had heard.
The luck that made James leave us was bad. A passenger had accused him of stealing his penis with juju, and shouted for everybody to come oh. People gathered. They didn’t wait for the passenger to finish explaining how he got off James’s bike and was taking out his wallet to pay the fare only to feel empty down there. Nor did they listen to James’s pleas that he was innocent. They started beating him; he was to produce the missing penis, else they would burn him.
Sheri heard that they were beating her husband along Mukaila Way, and ran there from the house. She collapsed on James, unconscious as he was, and begged the crowd to stop or kill her too. He was lucky; the police arrived and pulled him out of the mob. The passenger whose penis had gone missing could not be found; nobody remembered what he looked like, and everybody went back to their business.
James and his family moved out of town a week later. People said that the incident was his fault, that he had told the passenger it would be nice if one could magic away his debtors’ organs to blackmail them into paying. I believe the story. James can be that foolish with his tongue.
“One day, people of this land will tear out your big mouth,” Barna says to Obinna, in the tone of a promise.
I belch, forget James and laugh. “Abeg, give me toothpick,” I tell Rita.
“I may not attend that meeting tomorrow,” a man, just getting up and buttoning his faded, green jacket, says. I know him. His name is Faruk, a bike-man too. The meeting he speaks of is our motorcyclists’ union meeting, holding tomorrow morning, six o’clock, at the stadium. Faruk’s jacket reminds me of mine: green, faded as well, torn in two places, and discarded somewhere at home.
“I hear one of the issues to be discussed at the meeting is jackets,” I say, “that most bike-men don’t wear theirs while on the road.”
“You can imagine!” Faruk clicks his tongue.
“I better enjoy my sleep then, until you people finish,” I say.
“Is there any time you people don’t meet?” Zaingina scoffs, the hairs in his nostrils sticking further out. The meeting does not concern him; he is a welder.
I give him bad eyes, “Bastard,” and smile.
All of us who come to Madam More’s place are of a kind. We have grubby fingers from gripping handlebars all day. Our palms are hard, so hard that if any one of us were to clap them on both sides of your face, you might not hear well with your ears ever again. We know ourselves, too: Somebody I know knows somebody else I probably do not know but who knows one or two others I know. Our discussions are messy, no formula; one topic flows into another and into another and back and forth and then in every other way, in an unbroken chain, as batches of customers come and go. And when we finish eating, we belch and holler and slap our hard palms together, and leave behind leftovers of topics for a new batch to pick up.
I slip into traffic, twining between cars and jeeps and buses, through exhaust smoke. No space is too tiny to press through; let it be between two Lorries carrying bags of cement, I will squeeze through. A good bike-man understands that time is against him, and he competes with it. Nobody else gets this, nobody else gets us. Not our passengers and definitely not the traffic wardens. If an accident occurs between a bike and a car, the bike-man gets blamed. They say we have made a deal with the devil to die by our own hands. I say, we cannot afford to be slow, to pause. It’s like, if I linger long enough in the rain I will catch a cold; but if I stay out of the rain, under a shelter, I will start wondering what to do with myself besides wait. The only option, then, is to keep going, even when there is no destination. That’s what happened after the doctor told me about the surgery; I got on my bike, and sped off.