Hard pressed on every side

Most of the businesses in Nigeria have an office gofer. Someone who can run errands for the staff, pick up food, clean a spill, make a cup of tea. Usually this person has an official designation, they might be the security guard or the cleaner. But when they aren’t opening gates, they hang around and wait to be summoned. 

The person who does this at my office is a girl called Esther who is always taking days off to write exams. She would say, “I won’t be around next week, I’m travelling to Ibadan to do WAEC.” Or “I have JAMB on Saturday, I have to attend lesson.” You’ll see her sitting in the corner reading Literature-in-English past questions, or squinting at an Accounting textbook. One day it was a Chemistry practicals textbook, I had to ask. 
She laughed, “Haha, all these subjects? It’s not for me, I’m doing the exam for other people.” 
I said, “What about id cards, don’t they check?” She said, “You know I’m a girl na, if they catch me, I just beg them.”
I would have complained more, but it seemed pointless to chastise someone who hadn’t passed her own JAMB for writing papers for someone else. 

When she returned from this last set of exams, my project was winding down so I was working late. Esther was cleaning the office. She was singing an indistinct song as she vacuumed. I moved my laptop to the kitchen area which has a sink, a fridge, and a small table with chairs around it. I was on a Skype call when Esther came in humming to herself. She started doing the dishes, washing coffee mugs and plastic take-away containers. The humming got louder, then she broke into a praise song. I muted the call and shouted at her. “Esther, stop singing!”

She looked over her shoulder at me, raised one soapy hand. “No, Uncle, you cannot stop me from worshipping my God.” Then she turned and continued washing. 

The whole thing guilted me because here I am thinking I’m a good person, or that I’m at least neutral, when I’m actually the villain in someone else’s testimony. I started praying more, I went to mid week service in church. On my way to work later that week, after the bus started moving, I brought out my phone and opened up the bible app. I disentangled my earphones and put them on to filter out traffic noise. As I was doing this, unravelling, inserting the earbuds, the woman next to me stood up, waved her hand over her head and said, “Praaaise the Lord!” She said, “I know some of you people will act as if I am disturbing you.” 

“Some of you,” she pointed her finger and swept it around the bus, “when someone wants to talk to you about God, you block your ears. You know who you are, God is watching you.” The roving finger stopped on me, then she went into her sermon. 

Our project ended that week and we celebrated with the entire department going to the beach on Saturday. I spent the day manoeuvring to be next to a sales rep, Tomi, that I’d been trying to impress. Whenever they divided us into groups for team events, I would wiggle around, swap seats until I ended up in her group. All that afternoon, I was quick with the punchlines. For anything she said, I had a funny anecdote to accompany it. We did some climbing challenge, I scrambled up, then stretched out my hand and we made prolonged eye contact as I helped her up. I was totally in. 

In the evening, the team gathered wood to make a bonfire. When the sun set, we lit it and gathered around. And there I was, right next to Tomi, like, “oh what a coincidence, it’s you again.”

She watched the flames and I watched her, yellow light dancing across her face. 
We were close to the bonfire, I could feel the heat from the blaze on my eyelids, it warmed the entire front of my body. 
She moved closer and brushed against the hair on my arm. The fire cackled and spat burning flecks into the night. She reached over and held my hand, I intertwined my fingers with hers. 

We stood like that for a while, staring at the fire, my body tingling, images flickering through my mind. 

She turned to me. I felt her breath on the side of my neck. She said, “If this small fire is this hot, can you imagine how hot hell will be?”
She dropped her voice and continued, “Father, help me make heaven.”

I said, “Amen.”

Dr Eggman, PhD Zoology

The homework for my cousin’s son’s class was: ‘Draw five sea creatures’

My cousin showed it to me across the dining table with an expression on her face I couldn’t read. Her son was sitting in a chair next to her with only his head showing above the table. She got up, tightened her wrapper around her waist and went into the room.
She came back with a blank sheet of paper and a pen and started to write an angry letter to the teacher. She said, “Can you believe this nonsense? The boy is just three, he cannot name five sea creatures, you want him to draw them. That is how they just pack useless homework and give.”
She ranted about the standard of education, then expanded the complaint to include the decline of the country.

I took the workbook.
I drew a generic fish. I drew an octopus.
I drew a crab, then debated whether it was a sea creature since I only ever see them on the shore scurrying from the waves.
I erased the crab and scribbled a sea horse from memory.
I drew a dolphin (big fish with pointy head) and a whale (much bigger fish with flat head).
Five.
I reviewed the drawings, shook my head. The boy was looking at me with expectant eyes.

I got fresh paper and made a list of animals I could use instead.
– Squid (octopus with skinny legs and pointy head?)
– Lobster (too complicated)
– Shrimp (small lobster, just as complicated)
– Sea horse –> sea lion (Does this count as sea creature?)
– Sea anemone (what is this even?)
– Sea section (har-har, no. -_- Punfound.)
– Calamari (??)
– Kraken

I crumpled the paper. The boy was still staring. I stood up, picked up my bag. I said, “It’s getting late, I’m going home.”
My cousin looked at the clock, “But it’s just six.”
I didn’t look at her. I said, “I live far.”

In the middle of the night, I woke up to pee and texted her: “Turtle!”
She didn’t reply until the afternoon. “The teacher gave him four over ten on that assignment. He was crying. Thank you, uncle.”

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.”