“…and I yeEEEARGGHHHHHH!”
He starts awake; drenched in sweat. He looks around wildly for a bit before calming down; recognizing his surroundings. His chest heaves; his breathing labored. He calms down and looks at the neon screen of the table clock beside him.
4: 15 am.
Rising from the bed, he walks to the window and looks out to predawn Jos. The streets are brightly illuminated, shiny with wet slickness after the rain of the night before. It looks really picturesque.
But he sees none of that. Instead, he sees screaming children and burning bodies. He hears their yells and their pain – he flinches in front of the window; away from their desperately reaching fingers.
The room is cold. He automatically reaches for the AC remote; turns off the AC and throws the remote on the bed. And then he sits beside it, shoulders sagging, and covers his face with his hands.
No matter how hard he tries; he cannot get away from the nightmares. And they had suddenly begun to show up during the day too.
He laughs out loud, his shoulders shaking in mirth. Explosive laughter reverberates around the empty room, echoing and coming back to haunt him. His laughter thins out and abruptly turns to a sob. He covers his head with his hands and starts wailing. Tears stream down his face and he wishes he could just forget.
Anna had held him close that first night. The night the nightmares began.
He had woken up screaming and struggling violently. She had grabbed him; and in spite of his kicking legs and flailing arms and had held him tightly till he calmed down. Only then did she let him go – and just to turn on the lights.
“What is it? What happened?” she asked, her voice heavy with concern.
Slowly, haltingly, he began to tell her about the bodies.
He left the house after two days of recurring nightmares.
Anna stood by the door, tears in her eyes. “Please don’t do this baby,” she pleaded with him on her knees that morning as he sat on the bed and told her his decision. “Think about me. Think about the sacrifices I made – what I went through just for us to be together.”
He looked her in the eyes for the first time that morning. He could see pain, hurt, loneliness and fear in their dark depths. He thought about what she said about sacrifices. Yes; she knew a lot about those.
He silently marveled that she would bring that up now – after three years of living with him. There were times he had deliberately made her angry – just to see if she would mention it. But she remained silent, stoically taking all his rough treatment and only allowing herself a small sad smile.
He looked into her eyes that morning – and then looked at her. The strain of the past few days; days of waking up and not being able to sleep anymore were clear to see. She had lost weight; so much so he could feel the sharp ridges of her wrist-bones as her hand lay on his thigh. Her normally light skin was pale and her full lips drooped at the corners. Her chin trembled.
But he knew it was the best thing to do.
As they stood together by the door, he gently placed his GT Bank ATM in her palm. She made to fling it away, but he whispered hoarsely ‘please’.
She nodded gently and he held her suddenly, tightly to him. “I’ll be back soon,” he said, turning away quickly so she would not see the tears. He pulled his backpack on, gently squeezed her hand and walked away.
He heard her begin sobbing as though her heart would burst.
But he did not look back.
After a bath and fresh clothes he looks better. But his looks and his feelings are not in agreement.
He hides his haunted eyes behind a pair of dark Ray Bans and walks out of the hotel into the pre-dawn Jos air. It is cold; so he huddles deeper into the black Nike hoodie he’s wearing. He thinks briefly about the hotel room and if the staff would assume he had checked out.
No, not immediately; he figures. I still have about ten days on my tab and some of my clothes are still there. I might be back.
He adjusts the backpack slightly and shoves his hands deeper into the hoodie’s side pockets as he walks at a brisk pace. He has no idea where he is headed; but he knows he’ll know it once he gets there.
A car speeds past; splashing water at his legs and drenching his jeans and sneakers. The car stops a few meters in front and reverses.
It stops beside him as he tries vainly to slap most of the wet away from his trousers.
“I’m sorry,” the pretty female occupant of the car says. “I am in a hurry and really was not paying attention.” He nods absentmindedly and continues walking.
“Hey! Can I just help…” but he interrupts her with a wave and negative shake of his head. A few moments later the car zooms past for the second time.
9: 45 am
He has been walking for almost four hours and as much as he hates to admit it, his legs are aching. He stops for a bit; sitting in a park and watching Jos wake up sluggishly and reluctantly. Acting on a sudden impulse, he waves a cab down and yells ‘AIRPORT!’
He sits in the economy class section of the plane, looks around and thinks; so this is what Jacky means when he says ‘flying poor’. This is not it.
He feels lethargy steal over him and surrenders himself to the soft and gentle pull of the Valium he consumed before getting aboard. He sleeps, and this time…
“The engines of that craft are making funny sounds sir. It just landed from Jos,” the flight dispatcher said.
He looked at his watch. “Okay then. Have it checked and ascertain whatever’s wrong with it – and let me know as soon as possible.”
The dispatcher; who was female nodded but did not move. He looked back at her and asked, “What?”
She cleared her throat. “Well sir, it’s scheduled to fly to Lagos within the next twenty minutes. It’s already almost an hour late,” she finished.
He thought about that. He really thought about it. “How serious are the ‘serious sounds’?”
The woman scratched her head. “Well sir, they’re not really loud and it’s not exactly anything out of the ordinary. We hear sounds like those daily,” she concluded.
“Okay. Have a cursory check and then dispatch for Lagos. Once it lands we’ll have the maintenance crew go over it properly,” he finished.
The woman nodded and hurried out.
Barely hours later, he got the call…
He wakes up in his seat, shrinking away from the shadow that loomed over him. Oh let this pain be brief; he thinks.
“Sorry sir but we’ve arrived Lagos,” the pretty air hostess smiles at him while eying him a bit strangely.
“That was fast,” he answers as he scrambles out of his seat. She moves back to give him space to move and he nods in appreciation, slinging his backpack as he makes his way towards the exit.
“Enjoy your stay sir,” the girl calls after him. He waves in acknowledgement.
As he steps outside the airport, he takes off his Ray Bans and stops a passing okada man, “Okada!”
The bike stops. He walks towards him and says, “Iju.”
The okada man looks up. “Which side for Iju?” he asks.
“Where the plane crashed.”
The okada man sniffs. “Na everybody wan go dat side.” His face softens slightly. “Your pessin die for dia?”
Getting no answer the okada man continues, “I no go fit reach there, mopo dey dat side. But I go drop you for one junction before…”
He interrupts. “That’s fine. Let’s just go,” he concludes.
As he mounts the bike, the okada man says “Ya money na five hundred o.”
He does not answer. He just waves the bike on.
As he approaches the site of the crash, his heart starts thumping crazily. He feels moisture gather in his sneakers, but he’s made up his mind. No turning back now.
He sees a few people milling around, some of them in civilian clothes, some in long white coats and gas masks – some in military uniform.
He turns a corner – and the full import of the tragedy hits him. No; he thinks. No. It cannot be this bad.
It is worse.
As he makes to lift the tape which cordons off the site from the surrounding area, a menacing mobile policeman shouts, “Hol’ it!”
He stops and turns to face the policeman approaching him. The policeman stops and shoves his face close. “Wetin you dey find for hia? You no see rope?”
He winces. The policeman’s breath smells of gin and groundnuts; an unlikely combination that makes him queasy. Without a word he pulls out his ID card and shoves it in the policeman’s face.
The card reads; Tunde Balewa, Airline Quality Control Engineer Dana Air.
There’s no way anyone could have survived this obviously; he thinks in horror. Oh dear Lord. I killed them.
There’s a roaring in his ears. He tells his legs, move; but they do not respond. Suddenly, the entire site is covered by a black cloud and it starts again…
He is seated beside a woman with three of her children. He looks around wondering where he is. And then he recognizes the thrum of twin engines. He sees a pretty air hostess walk down the aisle pushing a tray and he recognizes the uniform she’s wearing – just before he recognizes her.
No; he tries to scream. No!
But nothing comes out. He struggles with his seatbelt as the woman and her kids look at him strangely. The air hostess runs towards him and holds his shoulders, trying to calm him down but he struggles harder.
You don’t understand; he’s screaming. I shouldn’t be here. You’re all dead!
But they cannot hear him. And suddenly, the plane bumps in midair – and starts plummeting fast. He becomes calm; as the other occupants of the plane begin to scream. You deserve to be here more than anyone else; an inner voice tells him and he closes his eyes, accepting the inevitable…
He starts awake; drenched in sweat. He is still standing where he was, but the black cloud is gone.
He slumps to his knees, overwhelmed by guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he sobs. “I’m so sorry…”
Overhead, there’s the sound of thunder. With a sudden rush, the heavens let go.
The mobile policeman who let him in rushes to his side. “Oga, come join we for shade for dat side…”
Still kneeling, he declines. The soldier shakes his head and rushes to the shed to join his comrades. Together they turn to look at the educated fool who has let go of his senses.
He revels in the rain. His shoulders square themselves again – he feels absolved.
He feels cleansed.
This is the story I contributed to the Naija Stories Dana Airline Crash Anthology. To download the full anthology, please click here: http://www.naijastories.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/So-We-Do-Not-Forget-Anthology.pdf
So we do not forget. Thank you.
I’M NOT READY
Can you forgive me? See the thing is…
See the thing is, I don’t know much of anything,
I’m a mess of prescription drugs, alcohol and pills
A collage of bitter memories – sad indeed;
A composition of ill health, fevers and chills
When I wrote for the next girl, she did come; true
My mistake was in mistaking her for you
As a result; instead of a taking my time I rushed;
And ended up making a huge big deal out of a crush
You can’t hurry love; we all know that,
But there’s a mile between knowing and doing; that’s a fact
The difference between coming and going; rap and crap,
The difference between boys and girls – yeah all that
A car’s passing right now, playing Wizkid’s Don’t Dull,
Can’t get the hurt of misplaced love out of my skull,
You know what they say; all cats are grey in the dark,
Didn’t look like I should have, can’t blame PHCN for that!
But I do need to ask – fuck took you so long?!
I want to yell get out, goodbye, so long,
I mean – I sent a cab, and it is possible you missed that,
But BRT buses are still running, so why the time lapse?
Life traffic is insane; Lagos traffic even more so,
But you could have taken an okada to avoid the go-slow
So she came in first, and I thought that was you
Gave her my best shot, my best call, yes, even jewels
But it was not meant to be, and that made it worse
Cause I knew from long ago – never settle for what’s not yours
Now you come in, smiling, all ready for loving
My frown made you ask, ‘did I do something?’
No baby, you did absolutely nothing;
That’s the problem – I did too much in a hurry
Now I have to say just leave; don’t be angry
I just don’t want to waste your time; I’m not ready
Maybe a day from now; or maybe a month,
Maybe when all the bitterness is gone from my tongue
Maybe when all the sorrow is said and done
Maybe I would have all the time to mourn
But for now…
The okada stopped in front of the address I’d given him and I hopped off, paying him with some of the change I collected from the fruit woman before heading inside the house. I waved to the sometimes over-sabi gateman standing outside the gate and made my way to my apartment which was in the back.
Opening the door, I went in and closed it behind me, moving into the kitchen and dumping the pineapple on a tray there. I continued to my room and changed into a t-shirt and shorts before returning to the kitchen to prepare the pineapple and to continue thinking.
We woke up, Sunday morning – or rather I woke up and made tea. Usually she would already be up, and in fact be the one to wake me but I guess she was exhausted. She did not wake up until I kissed her gently and she responded, putting her arms around my neck and almost spilling the tea I was carrying all over the bed. We laughed self-consciously like two kids and she collected the tea from me, refusing to taste it till she brushed her teeth. So I made her stay in bed, brought the necessary toiletries and a bowl for spitting in for her, and she brushed right there in bed. As I carried away what she used and handed her the teacup, I caught her looking at me strangely. But she liked it and she was happy – or so her eyes told me.
We spent the day indoors, only stepping out briefly to buy chicken and burgers at the KFC stall in Shoprite Alausa and then coming back home to eat. That was when she mentioned a trip to Benin to see her folks.
She would be travelling the following day, to return three days later. They had not seen her in a while and were getting concerned even though she called them regularly. I understood, even though my folks when in Lagos and I had no such issues. Much later in the day she left for home, almost in tears as she entered the cab taking her to Iyana Iba. She kept giving me instructions; to warm the efo stew, and to boil the ewedu and to air out the yams and plantains and… I paid the driver and he zoomed off, taking the one great love of my life away.
We spoke on the phone after that, and all the way through her trip to Benin. She called to tell me she had gotten home and we would speak later. I in the meantime had made arrangements with a friend and had gotten an exquisite piece of jewelry. It was time to make it official.
But she never came back. Not to me.
I came to myself to find that I had stopped peeling the pineapple halfway through, and I had laid the knife aside. I picked it up again and continued where I had stopped – and did the exact same thing with my memories.
It’s been three months, and the only thing I know for sure is that she’s alive and well…well.
Early the following morning she had called and we had had quite a lengthy conversation that ended on the note of her saying she was missing me so bad – and couldn’t wait to be back. I held the exquisite piece of jewelry in my hand and told her I couldn’t wait too. And for the first time in the seven months we had been together, I told her I loved her. I actually put it in words.
We hung up and continued with the day – and sometime in the course of the day I got a text saying she was so busy, she was sorry but we would talk. I replied saying no problem – she should take all the time she needed. That night she called and I spoke with her entire family. They sounded like they liked me and the idea of us together. But you never know.
I was a happy man. I made arrangements for some chocolates and cakes and candles and the like. I made plans for a huge dinner – after which I intended to propose to her. Somehow I floated through the day.
And then she called sometime that afternoon. The moment I picked the call I knew something was wrong…terribly so. She spoke and it was her but at the same time it was not. Something had gone out of her voice; something that made the phone conversation feel as though I was listening to a pre-recorded message. She spoke and I felt the bottom drop out of my world. I felt the lights of my life go out; I felt how Uriah must have felt when looking down from heaven (or hell) and realizing he had died because he had a beautiful wife the king just so happened to covet. I think I died a little that afternoon.
Sounding like a cracked-up Lady Gaga on auto-tune, she told me it was over between us – that she could not be with me anymore. She said things had changed; and it was best if I just forgot about her. She thanked me for the most beautiful seven months of her life; and that she hoped I would find someone who would love me like I deserved. And then she hung up.
I must have stood at my desk, holding the phone with my mouth open for several minutes. Even if she had a given me a chance to say something I doubt I would have been able to. As it was, she did not.
In shock I called back. The phone just rang. After a while, it was switched off. I was confused.
No. I think I died.
The day after that I did not go to work; choosing instead to stake out her Iyan-Iba apartment. I must have left that area sometime after eleven at night, and she did not make an appearance. Not for the next one month.
It was all just so crazy and I know this sounds so unreal; like something you would find in a movie or a book – online or somewhere else, but it’s the truth. That was it for me and her.
I took some time off work; I could not function properly. Not after that severe a shock. It took a while, but slowly as the shock began to wear off I started feeling a strange kind of anger. A really violent anger that had me lying awake late at night hurling curses and calling her all sorts of names. It got to a head when one day, on my way from Shoprite, I nearly killed an okada man who nearly hit me. As it was, I broke two of his ribs and his jaw. I was arrested.
It was sobering for me – me who never lost his cool. I was afraid of this person I was becoming, just because I’d lost someone I thought was forever. It was all too much.
I was released that same day, and I made plans and travelled to Jos the following day. I knew no one there, but I did not care. I just wanted to get as far away from Lagos as possible. After a few weeks, the anger had receded, leaving only some sadness and a dull ache somewhere in my chest region whenever I thought about her. I returned to Lagos shortly after that.
When I arrived Lagos, I made some half-hearted attempts to find her but was stonewalled. I gave up, went back to work and tried to continue living as I knew how. But I also knew things would never be the way they were. Not with me.
I kept the ring, placed it somewhere on my dresser and looked at it every morning. What made the pain so drawn out was mostly the fact that I had no idea what went wrong. Friends kept asking me what happened…all I could say was I don’t know. And though they mostly thought I was just trying to be vague, I had no idea.
And I hate loose ends.
I finished cutting up the pineapple and poured the cubes into a bowl before placing it in the refrigerator. As I poured myself a glass of cold water, while eying the half-full bottle of McDowell’s Premium Whisky, a series of knocks sounded at my door.
“Coming!” I shouted, shutting the fridge door and placing the cup on the sink before wiping my hands on a red towel. “Who is it?” I asked as I approached the doorway.
“It’s me,” a sing-song voice replied and I froze, almost losing my reasoning. No way; I thought. It couldn’t be!
It could not be. It should not be. I ran to the door and tore it open.
Of course it couldn’t have been. And it wasn’t.
It was Ayanfe, my landlady’s daughter bearing a message from her mother. I quietly closed the door and went back to my pineapple.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll find someone else to make me happy – someone else to peel pineapples and chill them before serving them to me. Or maybe that ‘someone else’ would prefer oranges…or might not even like fruits.
Maybe tomorrow. But today…
She liked pineapples.
I stood in front of a fruit seller’s display in the Ketu market, lost in thought. Thoughts of the nostalgic bitter-sweet kind. Thoughts that seemed to flow from somewhere just beyond my conscious thought process.
I came back to myself, registering the noise of buyers and sellers and the smell. It was actually a composition of smells; from the rotten banana to the sickly-sweet smell of rotting pineapples to the sharp bitter tang of spoilt oranges. Here now I smiled, remembering how she would cover her nose delicately every time we came down to the market together.
She liked pineapples. Especially those in between rotting and over ripening.
I drifted again.
I could see her as clearly as though she was standing there – right in front of me, a little to my left as she usually did. She would pick what she wanted to buy and then ask me; “what do you think? Should I buy this?”
I would just wave – because as far as I was concerned, the question was pointless. She was the one who was shopping; she was the one who had stuff to buy. Why ask for my opinion knowing fully well it did not matter?
But she loved doing it, and I loved to indulge her. So more often than not I would mumble what sounded like an approval and she would go ahead and purchase the stuff.
And then we would walk home, and she would wash the pineapples (another pointless exercise far as I’m concerned), peel and dice them into tiny slices. And then she would put them in a plastic bowl and place them in the freezer. And then she would cook a heavenly dish and we would eat together. And then she would run my bath water, and bath herself, and then we would make love.
Lying in the warm afterglow (not every guy falls asleep after sex), she would then serve the pineapples, picking the tiny slices and popping them in my mouth, smiling happily all the time.
No, we were not married. We never made it that far.
Someone bumped into me solidly, jerking me out of my mental traipsing and dumping me into reality hard. It was one of those wheel barrow pushers, carrying a load of yam. I ignored him and pointed to the pineapple I wanted, a large yellow-green orb. The woman smiled, putting her incomplete set of dentures on display.
“Two hundred naira sah,” she mouthed in a singsong accent. I nodded and opened my wallet, pulling out a five hundred naira note. She collected the money, handed me the fruit in a black nylon back and handed me my change. I thanked her and walked away, deciding to do all the reminiscing I wanted to in a safer place.
I crossed the expressway and hailed a bike. Giving the rider my house address, I jumped on when he agreed and continued to do my wool gathering.
I thought about the last time I saw her.
She had come over that Saturday looking like a million naira, or as my friend Gani would say; ‘looking like a meal of men’. Heh.
She came bearing the usual things, fruits and foodstuff. I always complained about how she spent money on me – about how it made me uncomfortable. But she only smiled and told me it made her happy to take care of me, because I was doing so poor a job of it. She was right, but I still did not like it. So we had an arrangement; I would give her a monthly allowance and she would spend it however she liked. We both had good jobs; she argued. Why should she not spend on her man? Grudgingly I accepted, knowing fully well the amount we agreed was nothing compared to what she spent.
So she came in that Saturday, packing stuff and looking like she was headed to a refugee camp with the Red Cross. I had missed her during the week – it had been a full one so we hardly had time for a movie or any of that. I had made some food; jollof rice, the only thing I knew how to cook apart from making eba and plain rice. She ate, making fun of my cooking but enjoying it all the same, and then she started making soup.
We’d talked and talked long into the night, catching up on each other and sharing experiences. We started to watch a movie on ONTV, but barely five minutes into it she was out like a light. Gently I carried her into bed and tucked her in, and then lay beside her watching the play of moonlight on the strong yet gentle planes of her picturesque face. It was Mother Nature giving me a picture to hold on to, a picture to keep me going after.
But of course, I did not know it at the time.
Thank you all so much!
Please indulge me – the story is too long is why I’m posting it in two parts. Part II comes up tomorrow – God willing!