Welcome Home (Sanitarium)

Last week, I had to wake up early to catch a flight. I live on an estate that doesn’t allow public transportation in, so I had to walk all the way to the entrance with my luggage. It was just about five a.m., there were no cars or pedestrians and it was still dark. As I exited past the security guards, a bike pulled up to the gate carrying four people. 

There was the okada man, behind him was a woman, and sandwiching her was another man. In the front, between the handlebars was a little boy. The man at the back dismounted from the bike and swung the boy off, carrying him in his arms. He said “Wait” to the bike and trotted to the gate house. The woman grunted in response.

The woman was having trouble breathing. She put her head on the okada man’s back and put her hands on her pregnant stomach. I could hear her panting. 

I could also hear the man talking to the security men. “My wife…. ” he turned and pointed back at her. He went into a pleading explanation. His wife had an emergency and needed to get to the hospital inside, could the guards let the bike in?

The okada man on hearing this, said, “If I dey enter, na two hundred naira.” The woman was hyperventilating. She raised her head, clutched her belly and wailed, “Nooo….” she said, “one fifty.” The bike man shook his head. In between her gasps, they haggled. “Two hundred naira.” “Lai lai.” She screamed, “Argh” and bent forward, “one fifty.” Back and forth like that, nobody was budging. 

The woman started to get off the bike even though she was in great pain. She rocked side to side, huffing the whole time, then she stretched one leg to the ground and struggled off. 

The security guards had opened the gate. The husband was standing with the boy in the crook of his arm, waving the bike in. He was surprised to see the woman standing beside the bike. “Ah ah, what happen?”

The following day, I was returning to Lagos. The Owerri airport is one of those small ones that are like bus stops. It has just one runway and one building. No gates or any of that fancy stuff. When the plane lands, it rolls to a stop at the end of the runway, drops people and picks up passengers at that spot then K-turns and takes off. There is no room for anything else. 

We were lined up at the boarding stairs to climb into the plane. We had just trekked all the way from the one building to the plane because there’s no such thing as taxiing in Sam Mbakwe airport. 

There were two wheelchairs that had brought people who disagreed with all the walking. Airline staff were patting people down at the foot of the stairs and at the top, they were checking boarding passes. We shuffled up the steps bit by bit. Behind me, I heard someone say, “What is wrong with you? Let her pass!”

I turned around. It was a woman about four steps below shouting and she was addressing me. Closer to me was a woman carrying a wrapped infant. The shouting woman glared at me. “Let the woman with the baby pass. Why are we behaving like animals?”

Was I blocking the woman with the baby? I didn’t think so. Was I standing in a Lagos stance with my elbows out to fend off imagined competition? Not consciously.

I opened my mouth to defend myself and realised her question was not just for today. It was for every time before now. For the previous day with the pregnant woman. For the okada man who wouldn’t let fifty naira slide. And for me who jumped on the bike as soon as she wasn’t using it, saying to myself, I’ve got a flight to catch. Why were we behaving like animals?

I swallowed the insult and entered the plane. 

Peju

My friend Peju comes and goes. I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing, but she does. I suppose when you get to a certain age, it feels like no one sticks around fully anymore. All your friends drift in and out depending on what else is going on in their lives. 

Sometimes work gets busy, other times it’s family and events. Or people just don’t feel like talking and they take time off from other people. For Peju, it is usually a relationship and when I haven’t heard from her in a while, I remind myself not to be worried, and I give her space until she is ready to get back in contact. 

If it drags on long enough, eventually I run into her and her new boyfriend at the movie theatre or the supermarket. We go through the awkward first introduction of former close friends and inside, I feel something close to jealousy, perhaps. Maybe it is the feeling that you when get you realise that life moves on without you. Or more accurately, it is the feeling you get when you realise that parts of the world work better without you in them.

This happens every time, that is, until the relationship ends and she returns with a story, or until it normalises and she integrates it into her regular life. We never discuss the relationship awkwardness because to acknowledge it would mean it has to be dealt with in some way. And it isn’t the type of thing you tell other people because they are likely to say something like, “Maybe you like her.”

But it isn’t that. Really. I mean, there is nothing wrong with her. We just never got to that point. She’s smart, mostly funny, and not prone to the types of dark moods that haunt me. Physically, she is a little above average height. Curvy in the right places with a flat stomach and legs that look like she can run, which she does on occasion, quietly without bragging about it or sounding like she works hard to stay fit. She wears thick glasses, the type that are like gazing through a glass of water, and when she takes them off, you see that she is cross-eyed. 

Staring at her refracted eyes swimming behind the glasses you could go a long time without noticing it. Until she pinches her nose and removes her glasses to rub her eyes then you see one eye looking at you while the other one remains fixed on some space off to your left. Like a dent or a small scratch on an otherwise spotless car, it serves to humanise her. When she catches me staring, she says, “What? What are you smiling at?”

This time, she’s been gone longer than all the times before. And I had come to terms with not seeing her again until she swung by to drop off a wedding invitation. When she returned without one, I said nothing about it, asking no personal questions. We exchanged email talking about everything else and catching up, easing out the kinks and warming the friendship back up until the time apart was a wisp in my imagination. Surely she hadn’t been gone that long. 

Finally we met for dinner on a wet Wednesday after work–the only time convenient for both of us–at an empty second floor restaurant. Sitting by the window, I watched people scurry outside, heads bent from the light rain. 

We ordered with the waiter hovering over us and after he left, she clasped her hands together. 

“So what have you been up to?”

I shrugged. “Same old. Mostly work.”

“Are you seeing anyone now?” She asked.

“No,” I said, “are you?”

She turned both palms up. “Umm..” and let it hang there as the waiter returned with drinks.

She took a sip and leaned back in her chair. Together we stared out of the window. 

After some time had passed, without looking at me, she said:

“I dated this guy for seven months. I met him at my co-worker’s birthday. He was her cousin. We talked a little, the conversation flowed, and when he asked for my number, I gave it to him, no games.”

She stirred her drink with the straw, poking at the ice cubes and clinking them against the wall of the glass. I said nothing, glanced around the empty restaurant, tapped my fingers in a steady rhythm on the table and played with the napkin. 

She continued:
“He called me the next day and then everyday after that. We would see each other a few times a week. Do something simple like go to the movies or wander around the mall. It was really laidback. He invited me to a concert in their church and I went. Even met his family at his father’s sixtieth birthday. Very nice people. 

If I hadn’t seen him in a while, I mean like four or five days, he would message me and make a joke like, “When are we seeing? Send me a picture before I forget what you look like.” I would send him a selfie. Nothing weird, just my face, and he would say, “Why are you looking tired” or “Do one without the glasses.” Then we would talk and make plans to hang out.

I don’t want to say ‘He was the one’ or anything sappy like that, but things were going well, and I felt he was someone that I could take seriously.

About three weeks ago, Saturday afternoon, I called him that I was in the area. What was he up to? He said nothing, he was home cleaning up. So I went over.

When I got there, he was in his room. There were two cardboard boxes open in the centre of the room with old books in them. University textbooks, notebooks, novels. He was sorting through them, he would pick one up, flip through it, chuckle to himself and toss it in a pile on the floor. His laptop was on his bed playing music. I dropped my bag by the door, stepped through the rubble and sat on the bed.

We were talking as he worked. I would go through the laptop, select a song, if a book from the boxes caught my eye, I would pick it up. I found two novels that way and he put them by my bag at the entrance. Like that, the day trailed on. Tinny music from the speakers, ceiling fan whirring. He finished with one box, dragged it out, came back and started on the second one.

He was kneeling in the middle of this, holding a textbook for a course that he had taken and telling me about an incident between him and the professor. I sat up to listen and noticed a pink cover jutting out from under some books. I leaned forward and pulled out an album. When he saw the album in my hand, his story stuck in his throat. His voice croaked and died but he didn’t move to stop me. Tension came out of nowhere and enveloped the room. Even the music on the laptop changed and became ominous. 

I knew that what I was holding in my hand was important. Maybe the key to why things had been going the way they were with us. Too smoothly. Still he didn’t say anything, his mouth hung open, crouched on one knee, textbook in hand. So I opened it.

It was like the final scene of a thriller where the wife finds the mementos of his victims that the serial killer has been saving. Maybe he has been storing strands of hair, or a necklace or other keepsakes. The album creaked open, and all these photographs fell out of it. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Dozens of pictures of cross-eyed girls, faces looking left and right spilled out. It was like a history of his life from child to adult told through images of girls of increasing age. Not one single one with normal eyes, all of them looking this way and that way. There were no pictures of me. I don’t know if that would have been better or worse. 

The random thing that popped in my head at the time was that, it is statistically impossible for one person to know this many cross-eyed women.

I looked at him. And this was the time in the movie where there is the decisive silence, and the killer says something stupid like, ‘No, no, don’t worry. That was before I met you.’ He actually opened his mouth and said that to me.” 

She took a long drink and looked at me waiting for me to say something. 

I shook my head. “So, what did you do?”

“What do you think I did? I left. I would have called it ‘storming out’ but I had to tiptoe through the books on the floor to pick up my bag, put on my shoes and then leave. He didn’t say anything the whole time. Not that he could have said anything. Everyone knows what happens next. The police comes to take the killer away, as they lead him into the police car, he turns around and makes eye contact with his wife as if to say, ‘I thought you understood me.’
He called me a few times after, but I haven’t talked to him since.” 

The waiter brought the food. My plate had six identical jumbo shrimps. I pushed them around going over the whole thing in my head. I said, “I’m sure you did the right thing.”

Akowowonje

For the first Saturday of the year, the Akowonjo Youths Association was having a New Year Street Jam–an all first letter capitalized party. The event was featuring DJ Sholly, Big Bode, and Femo, amongst others. 

The youths approached the local government chairman for donations for the party but after trying to schedule an appointment with him for three weeks, they realised he was avoiding them. 

To fund the party, the organizers came up with the ingenious idea of blocking the roads in their community and taxing people who drove through during the busy holiday season. 

The young men created makeshift barricades of stacked tyres, cement blocks and wooden planks with nails jutting out of all sides. They manned the roadblocks in groups of four to six carrying placards for the party, stopping cars and shaking collection tins at the drivers. 

On Christmas eve, Eneyi Akpan, a bus driver registered with the Lagos state chapter of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, drove through Akowonjo. It was a dry evening. There was a low rumble in the air that is common on Friday afternoons or on the day before a public holiday, of people packing up, a low pre-celebration buzzing. It was not dark yet but he had decided to close early today to be with his wife and two sons. He paid out his conductor for the day and set off homeward bound. Rather than run an empty bus all the way home, he stopped at Ogba and picked up passengers going to Iyana Ipaja. As they they got in, he said, “Please, I don’t have a conductor because I have closed for today. Help me pass your money forward.” The passengers gathered their money together, made change amongst themselves, and gave him the final fare. 

At Iyana Ipaja, he contemplated going the rest of the way alone, but there was a throng of people at the bus stop waving him down. He leaned his head out of the window. “Iyana Iba two hundred! Two hundred, Iyana Iba.”

When he stopped, they rushed to the bus and made a big fuss after getting in. “Two hundred? Which kind nonsense be that? Na because of Christmas you dey do us like this.” 

He ignored their cries and collected their fares. When traffic slowed down, he bought bread from a hawker. “My pikin, den they chop bread like say na water.”

He was making good time. The bread was wrapped in nylon. He wedged it between the front seats And when he got impatient waiting for a traffic light or a warden to pass him, he would drum his fingers on the steering, then reach over to stroke the bread for his boys as if to make sure it was still there. He was thinking, it would be nice to get home before night for once and four of them could go for Christmas eve mass together.

On the Ipaja road, he saw what looked like a traffic jam ahead and without pause, he turned off the main  road, onto Water board road and ran into a set of New Year party planning youths. 

They dropped a nail studded plank across the road and their leader, wearing a red plastic Christmas hat with a golden bell attached to it, danced without music to the driver’s side window. He was holding up a tin of milk with a slit at the top.

Eneyi lied. “I just left home. These are my first passengers today. I am just starting evening.” After a few minutes of begging, the group let him through without collecting any money. The man danced away. Eneyi chuckled. “Christmas don come, everybody wan collect money. They for no let me pass.” 

He patted some confidence into his chest. His passengers laughed. A woman in the back hissed. “Lazy people. Don’t pay them anything.”

Water board road turns into Alhaji Masha street at the intersection of Tender Tots nursery and primary school. Eneyi met a second roadblock there. “Ah ah! Again?” He pointed behind him. “I just paid your people now now.” The leader of this band did not dance or do anything festive. He said, “Wetin consign us? To pass, pay white.” He signalled one of his boys who pulled a cement block into the middle of the road.

They argued back and forth. The passengers started to complain. “Driver, it is getting late. Abeg, pay him let us go.” Eneyi peeled out a fifty naira note and passed it to the man. 

Alhaji Masha street runs past the Apostolic Cathedral. Ahead of the church is a collection of massive portholes cutting off the road. To get across, you have to turn into Adeniyi Adedoyin crescent and loop back beyond the bad patch, which he did. That tiny detour had two roadblocks. Eneyi could not believe it. He attempted to bluff his way through the first one. He failed. They collected one hundred and fifty naira. 

At the second roadblock, which was visible from the first, he got choked up as soon as he started to speak and they let him through. 

He got back on Alhaji Masha and approached another checkpoint. Incredible. 

This one had a metal drum on the side of the road and one in the middle. There were fires burning in the drums. The collector at the checkpoint walked to the bus. He looked at Eneyi, then cocked his head and peered into the bus, moving his lips as he counted the passengers. 

He had bloodshot eyes. His teeth were the same colour as his skin.

“Three hundred.” 

Eneyi said, “What! Do you know how many times they stopped me before I reached here?” 

The collector repeated, “Three hundred.”

Eneyi shook his head. “You don’t understand. I paid before. Almost ten times. See my hand.” He stuck his empty palms out of the window to show the man. The passengers murmured their assent. “Yes na.” 

The sun was setting now. The flickering fires reflected off the collector’s face. He blinked for the first time during that exchange. He moved closer to the bus. 

“I?” He said, touching his chest, “don’t understand?”

He raised his eyebrows, pressed his lips together, and clenched his jaw. The muscles on the sides of his face expanded. 

He pulled his head back and tilted his body away from the bus. He tapped his chest three times. “I don’t understand, ehn?” 

He did a half-turn and punched the driver’s side mirror. The glass in the mirror shattered. The frame broke off the bus and clattered onto the road. 

The collector took a step back from the bus, his clenched fist dripped blood onto the road. He nodded and two of his men pushed the burning drum aside. 

The bus rolled through in silence. 

A few minutes passed then a voice from the back said, “I told you you should have paid him.”

The driver said nothing. Then he jerked the steering wheel to the right, parking the bus off the road. He turned to face the passengers, his shoulders shaking. “Who said that! Who?” 

The passengers stared out of the window, up at the roof, down at their shoes, blankly into the distance, all avoiding making eye contact with him. 
One of them whistled a tuneless song. 

Powers Revisited

To:

The desk of Nick Fury
Shield Helicarrier
Skies of Abeokuta

Re: Recruitment exercise for Nigerian Reserve team of Earth’s mightiest heroes

Sir,

Below is a summary of the prospective candidates at the open call that took place in Lagos with the chief interviewer’s notes appended.

Code name: Gbomo
Powers and description:
Woman – anyone she touches with her (magic?) feather turns into a tuber of yam. By her admission, nothing else can be transformed for the 12 hour period where the person remains a tuber.

Interviewer’s notes:
For her demonstration, she brought a young girl with her who she brushed with the feather. After the child changed into a tuber of yam, the woman unwrapped a black sack and put the ex-child now-tuber in it. I asked her if the yam had to be kept in the sack after the transmutation, i.e. if the sack had stasis/null field applications. She mashed her gums together as she thought about it. Through the interpreter, she said, sack is just easier to carry around. We did not observe the child return to human form during the course of the interview.

 

Code name: Hardeymolar
Powers and description:
Boy with voice powers – First thing he says each day comes true, or if it is an order the listener is compelled to fulfill it. Provided Hardeymolar hasn’t brushed, eaten, or drank anything yet before he speaks.

Interviewer’s notes:
He wore a scarf over his mouth. Initially we assumed it was his costume, odd because no other candidate wore a costume but discovered it was because his interview was at 3pm and his breath had started to get offensive as he had waited all day without saying or eating anything.

 

Code name: Iya Peju
Powers and description:
Woman who turns into bird. Limitations not discussed (see below).

Interviewer’s notes:
She asked that the curtains be drawn and the lights turned out. She tapped the tattoo on the inside of her arm, it glowed, and then her clothes fell to the ground. A pigeon crawled out of the bundle of clothes. While we waited, the pigeon pecked at a pouch that had been around her waist. The pouch broke open and garri (local ground dried cassava meal) spilled out of it. The bird ate from the garri and spread it on the carpet as we watched. Nothing else happened. It poked at the grains, we waited. An hour later we released the bird out of the window and had her things cleaned up. Her paperwork did not state the duration of the effect and we had neglected to ask before the transformation. Jim suggested the pigeon was scratching messages in the garri. I disagreed. Images are attached for your evaluation.

 

Code name: Multiplying man
Powers and Description:
Man with a 200 naira note that always comes back to him if he spends it or gives it away.

Interviewer’s notes:
Interview ran long because we had to wait 26 minutes for money to reappear in his pocket after he had given it to me for the demonstration.
While we waited, he asked if he would get US visa as part of offer if he was accepted into the team. I asked if he was planning to pay for the international flight with the same 200 naira note over and over. He laughed. He said, “What of Dubai?”

 

Code name: Super Dele Oguntokun
(possibly also his real name)
Powers and Description:
Muscular man in briefs. Super strength, (limited) invincibility.

Interviewer’s notes:
He lifted the conference table in the interview room. He lifted two of the conference room chairs on each shoulder. One with me in it, and the other with Helen. An admirable feat as we were both the heaviest people in the room.
After the furniture lifting, I asked Super Dele if there was anything else. He said, “Knife cannot cut me. If you stab me like this,” (he mimed an overhand stabbing motion) “the blade will bend.”
I nodded and wrote it down. He continued and I’m quoting here. “Any iron bullet from the hand of my enemy will curve when it reach me.”
I asked if he could show us. He stared at me for a long time. Then he took a threatening step toward me and said, “Why? Are you my enemy?”
I told him we would call him.

 

Code name: Chidi Bolt
Powers and Description:
His application said: Able to run at great speed.

Interviewer’s notes:
We took him down to the gym and rolled out the heavy duty treadmill used to test super speed. He folded his trousers midway between his knees and ankles in preparation, I asked if he needed any special gear, like a heat resistant suit or frictionless shoes. He said, “No, barefoot or slippers is okay.”
He asked if I would stand in front of the treadmill holding out a one thousand naira note while he ran. Which I did. After trotting for five minutes, he asked if I could tweet at him with my lips and showed me how to. He said, shake the money, I did that too. His eyes lit up and he ran faster.
After sprinting for fifteen minutes in which he showed no signs of flagging, my arm started to ache holding out the money. I asked if he was capable of going any faster.
“Oga,” he said, not even a little out of breath. “This thing is not beans. As I am running like this, I can catch any danfo in go-slow. And I can pursue it from Oshodi to Anthony even up to Gbagada.”
He was capped at 22km/hr.

 

Code name: Baba
Powers and Description:
Remote viewing (unproven), Able to see the future (unproven)

Interviewer’s notes:
He sat cross-legged in the middle of room. Into a calabash, he mixed his saliva with some black powder. The resulting paste bubbled. He pressed some leaves in his bony palms and squeezed the extract into the calabash. Then he chanted for a few minutes and said my mother-in-law had put a dead lizard under my bed. He said if I entered the house and smelled peppers or ‘iru’ I would know it was working. He wasn’t able to clarify what he meant by “it”.

 

Human resources pointed out that few if any of the powers have viable consistent combat application. We await your final recommendation.

Sincerely,
C. Barton