The Lagos-Oshodi line train runs from Alagbado through Oshodi and Yaba to Iddo. It chugs along the expressway by Ikeja every morning packed with people hanging from the windows and doors, sitting outside on top of the train carriages. And repeats this again at the end of the day, much of the same in the opposite direction.
This evening, the road to Ikeja GRA is blocked going in and out. It is one of multiple points where the train tracks cross the road. Next to the railway crossing sign is a brick shed painted like the trains, yellow with thin green and white horizontal stripes.
The traffic crawls forward merging into the main road. A man dashes out of the shed, leaving its wooden door flapping open. He is ringing a bell with one hand, and in his other hand he is waving a twig with an old red shirt tied to its end. He runs in between the cars, ringing, pointing the stick at the drivers and waving the red cloth. No one understands what he is doing until the railway barriers start coming down and they hear the rumble of the train.
With traffic in both directions, there isn’t a lot of room to move. All of the cars scramble, a few of them drive off the road to avoid being on the tracks. Vehicles pile up on both sides of the tracks as the barriers come down trapping a car between them.
It is like a game of musical chairs. Everyone else has found a safe spot except the blue Nissan and the two people in it. So they do what every losing musical chairs contestant does: Run around looking for a place to squeeze yansh into.
The blue Nissan accelerates, jerking forward until it bumps into the mass of cars in front. They honk to let him know there is no room on this side. He reverses until the back of his car hits the cars behind waiting safely behind the barriers. They honk back. No room here, oga.
People clamber out of their cars. They are shouting at the driver.
‘Forget the car.’ ‘Comot!’ ‘Run!’
There is a frantic exchange between the people in the car. The train whistles twice; more out of courtesy than anything because it isn’t slowing down. It is a tricky thing that whistle, it is not alerting you that a train is coming. This is past that. This is the whistle informing you death is imminent.
Toot-toot, semi last card. Toot-toot, last card.
None of the people watching want the train to hit the car, but if there is going to be a collision, they feel it is important to see it, to bear witness. At least that is what the spectators all say later. They are lined up along the barrier, practising, palms over mouths, hands on heads.
The train is bearing down on us and my wife is screaming. ‘Move forward!’
I am fumbling for the gear, past panic. I can’t tell if it is in reverse or drive. I move forward and bump into a bus. I move back and run into more cars.
Now she is tugging at my shirt. ‘No! Go back!’
This isn’t helping.
I reach over and hit her. Ka-pow. Hard, on the side of the face. Out of frustration, just to keep her quiet.
Her head snaps back and she slumps whimpering against the door. I see the train through the window behind her.
I pull the handbrake up then press it back down in a series of nervous tics. A tiny space opens up between two buses. I push the gear into drive and turn towards the opening. The car lurches under the railway crossing barrier and squeezes through the space. My side mirror scrapes along the body of the bus and breaks off. Seconds later, the train barrels through the intersection.
Even though I am shaking, I don’t stop. I drive through the crowd and turn into the expressway. I stomp on the accelerator, get into the left lane and leave that place behind me. When we are far enough away, I pull over into a side street, turn off the car and drop my head into my hands.
She is trembling in the passenger seat. ‘Thank God,’ she says. ‘Thank God we were on our way to evening service.’ As if getting crushed by a train on our way to church guarantees free passage into heaven.
It takes twenty minutes for me to compose myself. Then I turn around and drive us back home. She says nothing as I take a different route to avoid the railway crossing. Says nothing as I pull into the compound and park the car. But she rubs her jaw as she walks into the house.