The year was 1989. You, Samuel Agbayeni, had left the town of X for a place called Lagos. Where you came from, people spoke about Lagos like it were Britain; like it were a place where people never suffered; like it were God’s own dwelling place. You were wasting away in your town, suffering from the material wretchedness visited on your parents by the civil war that occurred several years ago. Your father, Olagbemi, a quiet former secondary school math teacher whose lips were always parted in a bemused smile, fought in the war, and was now retired to farm work. Your mother, Adenike, a short, pudgy, spirited woman, sold small food items in the market. They never wanted you to leave; no one wanted you to. But you had looked around; at the worn ply wood roofing sagging with the burden of age, and collected water from countless rains, at the unpainted, blackened walls of your father’s living room, darkened and made smooth by years of touching. You stared at the old, torn, outdated calendars hanging from rusty nails. Then your stare shifted to the ancient furniture; nicked, scratched, and squeaky from merciless use. Suddenly you saw the privation in which you had spent the last twenty five years of your life. Your mind had been made up to leave, and that you did.
Right from the time you arrived, you realized your folly was as great as the city. You realized you had no destination, and had no means to survive, you realized that you weren’t prepared for the coldness and hardness of the world you had thrust yourself upon. The city had snarled, belched, screamed and yelled at you in a most confusing mix of traffic and an impatient crowd of people. You were about to find your fate in the convoluted destinies that made up the city’s stories. Somehow you had managed to convince Jide, a trader of spare parts, to allow you the shelter of the dingy, small room he shared with his family of seven in a house that held several other tenants, who shared a makeshift bathroom of heavily rusted corrugated iron sheets, and a dug-out toilet. Every night, the mosquitoes sang to you on the cold concrete floor that you shared with Jide’s six children. Some nights, you heard soft moans come from the bed where Jide slept with his wife that was veiled by a green mosquito net when sleep failed you. Every morning, you stayed in line to have your bath. Sometimes, someone would want to prove smart and jump the line, sometimes they succeeded, at other times they generated bitter brawls.
Some days, it would be the women, especially Iya Deborah, that stick-thin woman with yellow owlish eyes, doing battle, pulling at cloth wrappers, trying to render an opponent naked, tearing at hair, gouging at eyes, as they grabbed each other locked in combat. On days that the cloth wrappers came off, sagging breasts would be seen flailing madly, or the firmer ones bouncing aggressively as the combatants aimed lower for each other’s underpants to complete the show. Some other days, it would be the men threatening to ‘deal’ with each other; pointing fingers at each other as they vituperated. At one time, one of them might be furious enough to beat the floor with his palm, and slap his chest with it while he swore. At other times, one might be crazed enough to drunkenly lash out with a fist. You knew one Emeka who lived some rooms away from Jide. He was a tall, wild, young man, whose palms and soles were as dark as the rest of his body from smoking too much hemp, and in whose culture it was to be always in conflict with people that could break his legs, knock out his teeth, or lock him away in prison.
The other time he had been taken away by soldiers who swooped in on him one sultry afternoon, while he was indoors with Titi, a dark girl with buttocks the size of barrels, and breasts the size of watermelon fruits, who sold gin and herbs by the motor park in Agege. They had dragged him away in between themselves, holding him up by the belt, clearing his feet from the ground with booted legs, while cursing him in Hausa. He had brayed his innocence through teeth stained yellow by tobacco. Titi had watched; a brown adire cloth wrapper tied to her chest and her hands on her head, as she mumbled pleas on his behalf. Emeka Ologogoro, they called him, for he loved spirits even as he enjoyed taking wraps of hemp. You had known him not because you wanted to, or to know anybody for that matter, but because you had felt a homicidal inclination to pick up a four by four lying nearby, and clobber him cold when on a bad morning he called you a Yoruba chicken as he argued with you about turns for the dug-out convenience. You had smothered the inclination, because it wasn’t your way.
From these, you had learnt a few lessons about low-living in Lagos; it was for the angry and the crazed out of the earth. For all of these, you paid Jide by working as a sales assistant in his small shop. You knew it was either you left Lagos for your town, or you had to stand on your own. You chose the latter, for you couldn’t stand the ridicule that would greet your return to the town of X. There was something uncanny about you. It was some kind of unrelenting will that brought you good fortune; perhaps it was because God wanted to substitute for the fact that girls were never really excited about you. You were smallish, and were as dark as soot and had a nose that took up space on your face, and had small lips that were almost always drawn tight. You had never believed in anything. Even as your parents believed as Christians that there was a God who rewarded evil with a burning wrath of a lake of fire, and good with a paradise of heaven, to you it was all bullshit.
When you were still in secondary school, and had watched your grandfather dying in the local hospital, his eyes half-closed, mumbling the names of people long dead and beckoning towards empty space, saying ‘Jumai,’ his friend who had died in 1967 fighting alongside Benjamin Adekunle in the Civil War, you had imagined that he was delirious. Later on, as your grandfather had conversed with his first wife who had been struck dead by thunder in 1965 as an alleged reprisal from an irate Sango, the god of thunder, you had scoffed at the otherworldly. And when your grandfather went ahead to scratch the invisible itching back of his dead wife, it took you a lot not to burst out laughing even amidst the stench of death and disease. You were unbelieving. Your mother had concluded after thrashing you for hiding cigarettes in a bible for a smoking experiment with your friends in school. You had never wanted to be looked down upon. Or it could have been your mother’s genes spilled onto your character.
Like the day at the Ala River in the town of X, when Obaraboye, your friend, had called you a lizard on two legs. You had asked him to apologize, but he had laughed and swum away. You had coolly looked down at the pile on the grounds that were his clothes, and you had taken them and asked him to beg for them. He had laughed harder, until you hissed and started for home, until your form was disappearing with his clothes. His face had crumbled, and his laughter had collapsed into a frightened plea, ‘Samu, don’t go with my clothes,’ he had screamed. You had pretended not to hear, and he had become maddened with fear, screaming on the gods to damn you, and then shouting his plea if you would hear it. That day, as he ran out of the water chasing you naked, as would a lunatic, he resolved to keep a distance from your unresolved madness. You never cared, just as you didn’t care if you had to sleep on the streets of Lagos. What would haunt you now was not leaving your parents behind as an only child, but the thought of failing to stand on your own as a man. For you, the town of X was history in the meantime.
You had to make ends meet, that was the real deal. You saw that Emeka had a day job, at least one that profited him enough to seduce the gullible, young girls that hawked oranges on your street in Ejigbo, keep his room to himself, and smoke all the shit he wanted to, and yes, drink all the strong stuff his scrawny throat would allow him. You had to ask him, yes, you had to, and for one thing he knew better than you was surviving Lagos. And then you had met him one cool evening, after it had just rained, in front of the house, his hands in the pockets of the stained, yellow flannel trousers he wore. He seemed much sober for his usual rapacious self, and his brown teeth ground on his dark, fleshy lower lip in mock concentration. He had seen you, but you knew he pretended to be pre-occupied. Nonetheless you were going to make your concerns known to him, and he would help you out. At least, you told yourself he would. You had hurried to him, as his legs began to take him to his room without the due awareness of his mind, and you had called, ‘Emeka, wait,’ and he had stopped, as though a button had been pushed somewhere in the messed up recesses of his mind. ‘Wetin?’ He had drawled gruffly in a hemp-tempered voice, and you had told him your concerns, albeit cautiously, in the way characteristic of you. As you talked, you observed on his face, a shit-eating grin, the type dopers wear when ultimately stoned. You were almost in obvious resentment, but you quelled your emotions. Emeka, glad that you had to look to him for guidance as to survival in low-living, spoke as would a god to a man. You were slightly irritated at his opportunistic condescension, but you listened more than you were irritated.
He had told you that he had been working for the white men that were constructing the road at Yaba, and that another hand would not be a burden, if you could wake up early enough and work like a man; he had said that last phrase with a doubtful twist of his lips, and a shrug to match. But you knew what you wanted, and what you wanted was to survive. Jide wasn’t too happy with your decision, but he told you that you could move out when it was convenient. So you started work, helping with the unloading of gravel that was brought by a truck, and getting paid seven naira for every day of work. It was hard work, real hard work, and you soon found out that Emeka and his friends often drink and smoke hemp to drown out their pains. One of the white engineers, a tall, lean, sunken-eyed, brown-haired, French man soon noticed how you slumped every now and then out of exhaustion, and then he made your acquaintance. He soon found out that you spoke good English, and that you finished secondary school. What more, you could drive. He looked you over, and said in the sibilance of his accent, ‘Alors, mon ami, you could drive me then?’ His eyes shone as he handed you the key to his car. Mr. Jacques was now your boss. You had your own luck, and it worked for you in a way so peculiar that others wondered, only that they weren’t patient enough to witness your misfortunes: they were grand as well.
Soon enough, you had been able to secure a small room for yourself at Iyana Ipaja, and for the three hundred naira that you were paid every month, you soon found some inglorious use: for you had begun to drink and gamble. You gambled like no other, and the more you lost on your bets, the more you were inclined to gamble. You permutated numbers at the local game center; crossing out figures and judging the odds. Sometimes you did this with drunken recklessness, at other times; your mind was attuned in its acuity. And so you did, and then you started to notice the girl that attended to you; the tall, light-complexioned girl with an ample bosom and smile that showed a fine dentition. Sade was her name, and she was empathic when you lost, which you did most of the time. It was soon obvious that apart from the game, Sade also had earned her place in your mind. Not long, she became part of your expenses. You would buy her tins of imported milk from Leventis, shoes, and light floral dresses. She soon got carried away as girls were apt to, and moved into your small room, and consequently into your bed. She often blew your mind on long, hot nights, fondling you and making you feel like a man, because she said you made her feel like a woman. She started to notice that your life was on the wrong part when she got pregnant, and had to compete with your drinking and your gambling. It became obvious enough, but your boss the French man failed to notice. He was too busy with the Sierra Leonean black whores at Obalende, and the club on Victoria Island.
The day the witches from the town of X would catch up with you was on one afternoon when you had gone to take some shots of the local gin and herbs, and you had thought of returning the car keys to your boss. As you stood before Mr. Jacques, your legs fighting for control, you fumbled in your pockets for the keys, and then you had brought it out. Miraculously, the keys had turned into some pieces of paper you had used for gambling the day before. Mr. Jacques stared at you, a rictal frown turning his face into a gargoyle-like mask, and he started to speak solemnly, even as you were later able to find the keys in your breast-pocket. ‘Zut Alors! Sam, when I was in Paris, I spent a large sum of argent on gambling. I win nothing, and I had to start selling things. You see Sam, gambling can either take you up, or bring you down. Today, gambling has taken you down,’ a brown finger stabbed downwards. ‘The soul of the gambler is a redundant thing,’ the man reflected. ‘Merde,’ he spat. ‘Don’t bother reporting for work tomorrow,’ he collected his keys, and you had stood smiling, like you didn’t hear him, like you were musing at the comical tone of his voice. He was gone, and you were left in your drunkenness, and of course with the witches that laughed mirthless at your drunken stupefaction.
For the first time in a long while, you saw yourself as you had seen yourself when you arrived in Lagos, you were a hopeless wretch. You weren’t alone in your hopeless wretchedness, there was another hopeless wretch, and she was pregnant with your little wretch. Several times, you felt an almost incurable need to laugh. It was useless exhibiting sorrow of any kind, it wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t do, and you were steeped like never before in drinking, but you dreaded gambling now, since it had brought you down. All you could think of was how to find your way up, but it wasn’t easy, since your live-in wretch would be at your neck wringing your clothes in her hands, screaming at you to do something, but you were trying. It just didn’t seem that way to her.
And one cloudy day, you had met Emeka at a drinking joint downing a shot of gin and herbs. He hadn’t shown much enthusiasm, dopers never show much enthusiasm. He had regarded you with a trained eye and had decided you needed a job. And then, he had mentioned the construction of the Third Mainland Bridge, and had asked if you wanted to work there. You needed not to be told that you were to be there. You had been amazed at what you saw there; sturdy giant steel bars reaching deep into the water, and stretching for miles. The pay was good enough: fifty naira for every day of work, but the work was harder than the Yaba road construction work. And you slumped at it, like you did at Yaba. Just when you wanted to give up, your peculiar fortuity moved a piece, and it was seemingly lucky.
You had started to hear among the working men about the need for a night watchman who would look after the equipment, and the heavy stones by the lagoon. You had thought about it, especially when the pay would be five hundred naira a month. It had seemed too good to be true, but the men had also started to say something about the job, you never paid heed to rumor, or to idle talk for that matter, and what they were saying was idle talk and you would have none of it. Not even when you told the German engineer, the bald-headed one that wore a red jacket and black working boots every day, about your decision and he seemed particularly excited and wanted to add fifty naira to the monthly pay, did you suspect anything. All you wanted was to make sure little wretch, and live-in wretch wouldn’t suffer. Or at best, cease to be wretches. When you started the job, you were provided with a make-shift shelter that would protect you from the weather if it rained, a flashlight, and a double-barreled shotgun, in case you needed to fend off violent trespassers. Every night, while the wind blew across the lagoon, you would walk, clad in your army green rain coat, your shotgun slung over your shoulder, around the large, dark, looming equipment, the great piles of rocks, and other things that by their sheer size were beyond your knowledge. And then you would retire to your shelter, to wake in the morning, and go to Sade, who was now becoming inexplicably tolerant and appreciative of the time you spent at home in the little room at Iyana Ipaja.
You had a friend among the workers. He drove one of the heavy vehicles that carried rocks – a short, muscular middle-aged man who smiled all the time, and showed a missing incisor. His name was Ladokun, and he fed you news of what happened at the site every day. One evening, he had come to you, the rough flesh of his face drawn in a frown that expressed grief and anxiety. You were asleep, and Sade had to wake you, you weren’t pleased, and your displeasure written on your face soon gave way to curiosity when you saw Ladokun’s face. What he told you made you forget to offer him anything. Eight men had drowned at the site that day, and Emeka was one of them. Then it started, the morbid trail; men started to die every day at work; they drowned in the lagoon, and others started to leave, afraid that their turn would come. You were overcome with fear yourself, such that every night you couldn’t walk about the large equipment and the great piles of rocks and other things that were there. All you did was stay in the shelter, while you clutched the double-barreled shotgun and doze when your eyelids were too heavy to stay open.
Fewer and much fewer men came to work in the days that came after, so you were told, and the German was so worried he spoke German to himself all day. One night it had rained heavily, and you had heard the drips of water fall to the earth, giving irregular punctuation to the heavy silence of the night. The equipment had been there, dark, looming, and foreboding as always, as the great piles of rocks stood guard like failed pyramids against the swell of the water. You had remembered that your gun was unloaded, and you crouched to load it with some buckshot rounds, and then the rain started again and was blown in your face by a light wind. You had sat back against the metal wall of the shelter, into the dying hours of the night. Your shotgun was laid across your laps. Soon you fell asleep.
In your sleep you heard heavy footfalls, and you started into wakefulness only to find that in your wakefulness you heard it still. You had sprung like a tiger would on a prey; only it seemed you were being preyed upon. You proceeded with caution, your gun in your hands, numbing fear in your mind. As you peered out of the shelter through an open window, what you had seen you would not be able to tell, for you had seen someone, or something that looked like the German, moving among the piles of rocks, among the large, looming equipment, dressed in white trousers and white shirt that looked bluish in the pale blue of a receding night. You crept out and watched as the man or thing walked, head-straight on into the lagoon. You wanted to scream, to yell for help, but the eeriness of it all held your jarred nerves together, and you crept back into the shelter for the merciful hours of the day. The next day you had hurried home, never wanting to recall what you had seen the night before.
Ladokun had come to your place at Iyana Ipaja with that long drawn expression he used to announce misfortunes. He had told you about the disappearance of the German, and you hadn’t doubted ever since then that the German was the one you saw walking into the lagoon. You left your job even when people stopped dying, even when Ladokun came to tell you that everything had gone back to normal. You had found a job as a secretary at the University of Lagos. Years later, after the construction of the Third Mainland Bridge, after the opening of the bridge in 1990, there came a tale that a certain white man had to make a deal with the spirit of the water for the bridge to be built, Sam; you never for once doubted it.
Image: Miss Skew via Flickr