Fiction

Journey by Night: A Short Story by Bob Majirioghene Etemiku

Image: Bigstock.com

Brrr…brrr…brrr

The person at the other end appeared hesitant to take the call. The day before, that person at first let his phone ring and ring and ring, and did not take the call. Take this call, ogbeni, take it…Omeneku hissed in my mind.

‘Hello…?’

Ah bros, how far now? Wetin I don do again wey you no wan take my call?’

‘Me? I have not received any call from you, not me!’

‘But I called you yesterday. Your phone rang and rang. Check the…never mind. So sir, did you talk to your printer?’

‘Oh, yes I did as a matter of fact. But the man insists on seeing your manuscript before he can make up his mind on the cost of printing your book.’

‘But sir, I already sent the manuscript to your box…last week’.

‘I saw it boo. But I couldn’t open it. What kind of application did you use to send it…it’s definitely not PDF, I know that for sure’.

‘Oh…’ Omeneku was beginning to be exasperated. ‘It’s called Nitro, Nitro reader…’

‘Nero you say? What kind of application is that? Never heard of it.’ His exasperation was beginning to grow.

‘N-I-T-R-O, N-I-T-R-O,’ Omeneku spelled again and again, mindful that his airtime was fast depleting, and he was not making any headway. ‘It looks like the regular PDF, but you have to download the free version…’

‘Oh, I see but-’

‘Ok, never mind sir, I’ll come to your office in Lagos, tomorrow. I’ll take the night bus.’

‘Ah, ah, Mr. Man! You mean you still embark on these dangerous night trips? You mean that after seeing the carnage on the roads and the suffering that those fine boys subject travellers to, and you can still travel by night? Na wa for you o!

‘But the roads are no longer as dangerous as they used to be. Or, what I wanted to say is that the roads may be dangerous by night, but the drivers are smarter now.’

‘How?’

‘They take a detour away from the Benin-Lagos Highway and completely cut off the dangerous spots and the sections that are known to be infested with the fine boys…The drivers meander all night through the towns and suburbs of Akure, Oshogbo, and before you know what’s happening, you’re already in Ibadan. You know Ibadan is just two hours from Lagos?’

‘I know that but nothing will ever make me take a night bus anywhere, never!’

‘That’s you sir. Since coming over to Abuja three years ago, I’ve always sneaked in and out of Lagos, and usually by night bus. As I hate flying, I would also hate to spend the whole day on a bus.  That’s why I take the night bus, and before you know what is happening, kpakpakpa, I’m done with business and I head back to Abj’.

‘Hmm, but be careful…I don’t trust these night journeys’. Omeneku was mindful that he had talked for over five minutes and his airtime would soon finish.

‘Ok, thank you. See you in Lagos on Tuesday morning.’

‘No, on Wednes-’ The line went off.

*********

My name is Omeneku, Omeneku Kanga and I’m a paralegal. A paralegal – yes, I do bits of stuff here and there in a law firm.  I hardly travel but if I have to, I prefer to go by road and by night. But this time, my plans to travel by night were nearly aborted by other considerations. Because ten minutes after, there was another call for me.

‘Yes, Oyibo, how far?’

‘Are you coming?

‘Er, I don’t think so. Have you called Epa? Call him.’

‘Ok’. Oyibo is a nanny. Her real name, Grace, became obscure because of her near-white skin. As part of my moonlighting activities, together we help pick up our big oga’s children daily by 1.30pm. Her call came at 1.12pm. By 1.20pm, I received another call.

‘Yes, what’s happening? Where’re you? Have you picked them yet?’ the questions came like bursts of bullets from an AK 45.

‘No, Epa. Y’know I told you over the weekend that I’ll be in Lagos by the week?’

‘I remember oga mi but are you already in Lagos?’

‘No, sir, I’m just getting ready and set to go. The bus leaves in two hours.’ This time, there was some exasperation at the other end.

This journey by night was not going to be. Christ!  I had turned on the TV – a mistake. There was a big man on air being interviewed. It was absorbing. I remained rooted where I was, taking in the scenario. As I listened, I was caught between the sounds coming from the TV, and the tick-tock, tick-tock coming from the clock on the wall. It was only an hour left before the bus took off for Lagos. I was still in my boxers; my bath towel draped over my shoulders, the water in the bath running and already overflowing. Luckily, I had packed the night before. Now, all I had to do is jump in the bathroom, turn off the overflowing tap and make a show of taking a bath. And within the hour, I was at the bus terminal.

‘Am I late?’

‘Which of the coaches…to Lagos?’

‘Yes madam, the night bus.’

‘No, you’re not late; you’re just in time…it will leave in 30 minutes’.

‘Ah, very good. I’ll like a window seat please. I enjoy looking at the scenery whenever I travel’.

‘That’s ok, I can arrange it’. I waited a few minutes, and while waiting, I turned to look around me. The waiting hall was half filled with passengers, some of whom just sat down waiting, mostly poker-faced. The television sets in the hall appeared dead. Perhaps that was why everyone who entered the hall caught every other person’s attention. But pieces of luggage were getting packed and tagged, and depending on the weight or otherwise, they were either dragged or carried or pulled and hauled into the belly of the vehicle. And before long, a harsh sound, reminiscent of the drone of a revving airplane took the place over.

Oga, here you are, seat number 49 at the back and a window seat’.

‘Thanks my dear, I appreciate that’.

‘You’re welcome, and have a nice trip sir’.

‘I intend to.’

I took my seat somewhat far away from all the others. But I was soon restless. The booming from the revving engine was causing me a little bit of nausea. Oh, the papers, I’ve got to scan a couple of them before I leave.  Now let’s see – ‘N34 billion naira missing from state coffers’, ‘Pension probe unveils a scam’, ‘SEC chairman under fire!’, ‘Ace cop John Haruna dies in helicopter crash’, ‘Boko Haram Strikes again – 160 dead’, most of the papers lamented.

This is to announce the departure of vehicle number blah, blah, blah from Abuja to Lagos. All intending passengers are hereby advised to board the vehicle as soon as possible, thank you.

*********

Ah, here we go, I thought. I abandoned my scanning and passed through the checks – a man for a man, and a woman for a woman patted us up and down and let us up a flight of stairs into the coach.  Other passengers were already seated by the time I was up and looking for seat number 49. Yes, there it was, and perfect!  Perfect, no way! Yes, it was by the window, but there was no leg room. No way. Should I go tell that booking clerk to change the seat? Would she agree? Other passengers were already seated and seemed set to start sleeping for the night. It was only 3.00pm.

I was drawn out of my reverie by a camera-bearing chap. ‘Look in the camera sir.’

‘Oh, okay. Want me to smile?’

‘If you like but we just want to capture your face’.

‘This is a security measure, isn’t it?’ The young man taking the shots just smiled as he finished with me and went about his business, asking to take other passengers’ pictures. I looked around me. I was the only passenger at the back, and close – too damn close – to the toilet. Behind me, I saw a bag filled with something a little bit too heavy for me to lift and inspect.

‘Hey you, I thought you people don’t allow anyone in here with their bags, luggage and even laptop?’ I was talking to the bus attendant. The chap looked suspiciously at me.

‘Yes? We don’t allow bags in the coach. What’s the matter?’

‘Here…’ I tapped at the heavy bag behind me. ‘There’s a bag here…’

‘Hey Mr. Man, you better mind your business, and leave that there bag alone’. He walked away from me, and he too began to mind other businesses. What was in that bag? Guns and bullets I guess?  Sorry pal, I was not going to sit here close to the toilet, without any leg space and on a non-reclining seat that would make it nearly impossible to have some decent shuteye.  And what if that guy decides to start killing us all in our sleep in the dead of night with that gun in that bag near me? I’ll definitely be first to get the bullet, no be so?

The vehicle jerked, bounced and lurched like an eager bull ready for a timid matador.  I jumped up from my seat.

‘Hey driver, please wait. I forgot my bag in the hall. I beg wait’.  All heads turned in my direction. A few hissed and other passengers stared hard at me.  Ignoring them, I jumped down and walked to the booking clerk.

‘Hey, Madam, I thought we were friends…’

‘Yes, we are. You don’t like the seat I gave you?’

‘No, I don’t. It’s too close to the toilet and I can’t stretch my legs at all, madam’.

‘Ok, I’ll change it’. While she was at it, the driver of the vehicle blew his horn impatiently. It was the sound of a train about to depart its terminal.

‘Here you are: seat number 51. I’m sure you’ll like this one’. She said with a sly grin.

‘Thanks again’.

‘You’re welcome sir’.

Before I jumped onto the bus, the chap with the camera accosted me once more. ‘But you already took my photo!’

‘Sorry, company rules. I have to take your photo again’. I spread my lips wider than normal and opened my eyes wider than usual. He clicked away, and I jumped in the coach, not minding the baleful stares of my fellow commuters. As I found my way to seat number 51, I discovered it actually had more leg room, but closer to the toilet and to the bag that I suspected contained the guns and bullets. A strong stench of urine stung my nostrils.  But there was nothing for it – the coach had already reversed and was meandering its way out of the terminal. I settled in feeling cheated by the booking clerk, and remembering the sly grin she gave me after I requested to have another seat.  I began to console myself, however, that at least I had a window seat.

Yes, the window seat – this was usually my favourite kingdom if I was travelling on land – I usually see the world I’m leaving behind me leave me behind – if I was leaving the northside of the country to the southside, or the southside to the northside, the brownness, the scrawniness and the jagajaga of the long stretch of savannah, and the haze would gradually begin to give way to the miles and acres of tall and green trees, herbs and shrubs and its accompanying mellowness. But under normal circumstances, I would not be driving and engaging in my past-time simultaneously as I was doing now. From where I was huddled, I could see the houses on my side, the people like tiny pieces of humanity either selling by the roadside or just walking by. Everything I see was usually from my little window, from my little space and from my awkward sitting position and from a moving coach. Sometimes, I would try to see if I could see the world outside from the other window from the other side but no, I couldn’t. That was always somebody else’s window and somebody else seeing the world from their own awkwardness and from their little window.

I remained ensconced there, knowing that my familiar world would soon leave me behind and I watch it as I leave it behind. The opportunity to scrutinise the receding world came again – we had not left the city yet from the terminal – the coach had boxed itself into a wicked jam. Yes, that seems to be our lot in life – while we board the coach of life to a destination that we think we know so well, we find that things can stand still for quite a while as this coach had just done. Sometimes the deadlock takes a couple of minutes and sometimes it takes hours.  Many a time, we cannot fathom the reason for the deadlock and even when the deadlock breaks and the rollercoaster resumes, we cannot even fathom what it was that had held us up on the road of life. As I hunch up in that my little corner watching the comings and goings of the lower rung of humanity from my little window, I muse.  I mused about out different stations in life and our transport: we are all travellers aren’t we? We board or are aboard so many kinds of vehicles: where I was, I saw some in state-of-the art cars, others in lorries, cars, rickety buses and motor bikes all locked up where our coach was. It made me remember my sister telling me about her first pregnancy, and how she felt really privileged to be the transport or the vehicle that brought her baby to life. She also told me about the pain she endured  at the point of her baby’s disembarkation – yes, she said the pain was both in her body and in the heart – it was the fear that through life, she would never be able to carry this baby again in her the way she had carried her. But her pain, she said, melted the minute she held her tiny bundle in her hands, to be replaced with a promise to continue to be the coach with which her baby journeyed through life.

‘May I have your attention please…?’

I was dragged out of my reverie.  It was the bus attendant: he was clearing his throat as if he was going to make an earth-shaking announcement. He held a microphone in the cocky manner politicians do. I hadn’t seen him strike the deadly pose he had posed, what with his face-cap tilted to one side, maybe so that we could see his face better in the semi-dimness of the inside of the coach. While musing and enjoying the receding countryside of vast acres of cacti that dotted my side of the window, I had no idea we were already moving. I was staring at the point where the sky touched the trees, in the penumbra of approaching darkness.

‘Welcome to XYZ Transport Company. As you’re already aware, this is XYZ coach travelling from Abuja to Lagos – by night, and I am your bus attendant for this trip. I have a few announcements’. He paused and when he was sure he had our attention, he continued. ‘One, we require you to keep all windows closed and draw the blinds fast’.

Many passengers were already pulling their blinds fast, shutting the outside out from the inside. The bus assumed an induced darkness at once. My window was locked but I did not draw the blinds fast.

‘This is to ensure that the central air conditioning system performs well. Two, you’re not allowed to make or take any calls on this trip. I cannot compel you not to but if you do, this coach will stop where there are military checkpoints and they will take your phone from you. You will never get it back.’  Before I turned my phone off, I signalled to him. He ignored me but I turned the phone off nevertheless. The thought that those stupid soldiers were going to take my phone off me was not appealing at all: I had planned to browse and read my bible all night. Oops. ‘Three, there’s a toilet at the end of this aisle. It’s only designed for light use. Please do not defecate or drop paper in it’.

I tried to look in the other faces to see if anyone was uncomfortable with this but the faces were not visible. So, what if I have some business to attend to in the middle of the night, I was thinking.  ‘If there’s a serious case we’re likely to stop for you, but you shouldn’t count on it’. What about the bag just behind me filled with guns and bullets, I was still thinking to ask him but before I did, he had slinked off into the cabin.  I was not to know that before he made the announcement he had set up the video and television.  As if we were in a theatre for the premier of an important movie, all the lights went off.  Two TV sets mounted near the roof of the coach fluttered to life. All at once, our eyes shifted from our nearly induced early slumber and were riveted on the sets – it was a local movie, a ‘home’ video. Since the conductor was no longer there, couldn’t this be my chance to see what was in that bag behind me? Yes, yes it should be!  What if there were actually guns and bullets, to be used to finish us off at a designated point in the dead of night?  I might as well just nick a couple to defend myself mightn’t I? What if I get caught in the act? But what if there were no guns and bullets in that bag? I would likely be given the beating of my life and get thrown off the vehicle in the dead of night.

*********

I made to execute my plan. But just as I was trying to fiddle with the bag, a form from the front part of the seat rose. I froze. The silhouette seemed to be floating towards me, holding the rail and seats on either side for balance. Ghost..?  The coach ghost it must be. Why is it coming at me? Why?! Why is it coming for me? What have I done wrong? I have not even begun to fiddle with the bag.Is that why the bus attendant warned me to let the bag well alone?

It inched closer and closer. The closer it got, the more I cringed and sank lower in my seat. It seemed to be taking its time; no, it was treading carefully, what with the coach swaying this way and that, as if it was trying to avoid some of the many potholes that dotted the highway. Oh, dear, silly me – the form was not a ghost after all but a passenger with a full bladder. Clutching his crotch, he tenderly made his way to the toilet and shut the door after him. Phew, that was close… Whatever was in that bag was no business of mine. If the chap who was going to start shooting us comes any closer, I’d fight him to a standstill before I die. I was going to stay awake all night and watch him. After all, why should I have to die like that just because I wanted to take a trip to Lagos by night bus? Why?

My attention turned to the other passengers. Half were already dozing. Half were riveted on the television screen. What the hell, I’d better join them. At least, it would keep me awake somewhat. Oh, there was KOK, Kanayo O Kanayo, easily one of Nigeria’s doyens of the ‘home’ movie industry.  He was playing the role of a nice guy to his dead brother’s widow. And yes, KOK’s wife in the movie would not like his role and would visit a juju man to muddle things up? Yes, that’s what was going on.  Less than 20 minutes after decoding the plot of the ‘home’ video, I was already at the end thereof.

Yawwwn.  I was bored like hell. Yawwwnnnnn. And I was feeling sleepy already? How am I going to confront the deadly killer tonight when he comes for us? Surreptitiously, I turned my phone on, hoping no one would hear its Nokia welcome tone. No one did, apparently because everyone’s eyes were still glued to KOK on the television screen or they were already dozing. I checked the time: 8:30. I turned the phone off again so that the coach attendant would not catch me and hand me over to those blood-thirsty soldiers. But the night was still at its infancy, and it was not yet time to sleep. Should I begin to shout and scream and wake everyone up, and tell them there is a bagful of bullets and guns at the rear of the coach? Will they believe me? And if they do, how will this play out?  Will we be able to overcome the owners of the guns? Will they overcome us? And if we do have the upper hand, what next? But if they do, surely we are all dead meat, we this sleepy, bloody bunch of civilians.

*********

Was it these thoughts or was it the cold in the coach sending this chill down my spine? I looked around me again, and when I was sure no one was watching, I gently slid the window blinds aside, and with the same gentle guile, I slid the window open. The soft, warm night breeze filtered in like a silent rushing wind. I smiled to myself, and from my little window, I saw the night of the bush – quiet, dark, perhaps silently following us every inch of the way. The greenery and sometimes brown cacti had all morphed into one unrelenting, eerie monster making faces at our coach. See, wasn’t that a frown on the face of the night, insulting us for intruding on its privacy? And what were these undulating distant glows, with somewhat human postures that were crouching, bending or just sitting rushing to meet with us? No, these were too big to be glow-worms or fireflies.  Ah, these were but those people whom we call stupid, whose lives hung out in the dark like dry trees in the night, standing guard for us to pass by. Are they really going to trample on and throw me out of the coach after they seize my phone for receiving or making a call in the dead of this night? Aha, I have missed my chance to tell them I am trapped here in a coach populated by armed men posing like passengers, and who will soon fall on us before the night is over. I missed my chance. Perhaps I should make that call now…? Perhaps…

I looked up toward the sky without thinking about it. Up there, up, up there, there were no stars but their imitations – several were putting up a fashion show, trying as hard as they could to shimmer to display some mettle. But they were hardly impressive in their show of glimmer and glitter. Stars in my childhood twinkled but these glimmered; stars in my village were little constellations in the sky that you could trace with your fingers, but these were like large silver plates carefully disguised and scattered all over the firmament. Their effort seemed to make a deliberate mockery of the mysterious and opulent galaxy that led three sorcerers from their comfortable villages in Persia, down through the thoroughfares, over the hills and mountains, through caves and taverns until they arrived at the humble birthplace of the infant Jesus, laden with gold, frankincense and myrrh. What journey will this be, with bullets and guns stowed away at the back of the camel, no the coach, I am riding on? What kind of journey will this be, with the imitations of stars above us, staring balefully, eyeing us malevolently?

*********

Tired from watching the sky, feeling comfortable from the warm air blowing vigorously from the opened window, and keeping an eye on the bag behind me, I decided to take a brief nap. But wait, what time was it? Surreptitiously once more, I turned on my phone and very loudly my Nokia welcome song came on. No heads were raised, no bus attendant accosted me, nobody approached to throw me out and hand me over to the soldiers – 11:30pm, and I could feel the shudder of the coach racing at top speed in the still and dark night, far away from life and the human congress that should have kept us company. Sometimes it ran full tilt onto a gully, and we all jerked fitfully with the gallop of the coach.

I turned the phone off again. Its goodbye tone was loud as well – but there were no raised heads or eyebrows. I could not have seen them even if they were raised – most of them were either awkwardly slanted in positions of slumber or were still riveted on the KOK movie. Yes, I can take that nap now…nothing to be worried about now… Don’t…worry…nothing…will…happen… Zzzzzzz…those…guns…with bullets…zzzzzzz…bullets, guns…zzzzzzzzzzz…

*********

‘Ibadan! Ibadan! We’re now at Ibadan. Where are the Ibadan passengers? Oya, oya, get down kpakpakpa. We have only five minutes!’

In the semi-luminous state I woke up in, there was a mini scuffle – yet-to-be-fully-conscious passengers like me were standing up and sitting down again, wondering why we have been woken up, and rudely at that. Oh, the attack has started? Have I been shot? Where? I moved my limbs. But I am all right, I’m not dead nor seeing the scuffle from the great beyond? Who has been shot? How many are dead? Are they leaving us alive for some kind of ransom?

*********

As my eyes were not clear yet, I thought I made out apparitions from the land of the dead, filing back to their graves after a visit to the netherworld. No, no, these were the Ibadan passengers alighting and retrieving their luggage from the belly of the coach. Most of us non-Ibadan passengers were getting off the vehicle as well. Others were already lined up by the road emptying their bladders. I made off to the long line of gentlemen standing astride, holding their something, and the somethings letting off semi-circles of brine. I held on too, but I was not letting off like the others. I was surveying the dark scene, and getting ready to make a run for it at the slightest signal of any scuffle or gunfire.  How did we get here?  Did I really doze off that long?  Is this really Ibadan, which Bekederemo once said resembled broken China in the sun?

But the interlude did not last. The impatient driver was already hooting his horn. It jarred the ears and seemed to violate the serenity of the sleeping town. Some passengers reluctantly began to climb aboard the coach. Those yet to board lingered some more. They turned on their phones. Some made quick calls.

‘We’re already in Ibadan…yes…in two hours we’ll be in Lagos? Oh, that’s good, but it’s just a few minutes after 2am…oh, I should stay put at the station till dawn?…why now?…why can’t you come and pick me up then?’

Some silence and I listened some more. ‘You mean it’s not safe to venture out in Lagos at that time of night…ok, ok I understand, thanks my love…’ The caller was female, apparently talking to a heart throb.

I looked around. The bus attendant was nowhere in sight. Neither were there soldiers who might come yank off the phones from the offenders and never give them back.

The coach blew its horn once more, and moved a notch, perhaps to goad us to board quickly. The ruse worked.

‘Wait oh, wait oga driver!’ And that was how we all scrambled back into the vehicle. It took off once more without further ado. Back by my little window, I turned to see if the bag with the bullets and guns was still there: it was smugly ensconced there like a baby taking a nap.  I looked out into the night – Ibadan. The city was nowhere to be seen.  Darkness overwhelmed it. How I wished I could have seen the broken china in the sun in the dark. But it was all dark on my side of the window. And for the first time, I could envisage what I would likely see on all the other windows even though I would not be there to see that it would indeed be dark outside. It was dark in the coach as well. After about two minutes of taking off again, the bus attendant had turned off all the lights in the coach. We were no different from the outside. I opened my window again and felt the warm rush of the outside air hit my face. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed that I had violated one of the coach’s rules. The passengers seemed all fast asleep once more. Hmm, how lucky for them that sleep comes that quick: very lucky they are, poor folk…

There was no quick sleep coming for me. The television had long gone off and KOK was no longer there fighting with his television wife. Still it was dark outside with nothing of the familiar delights of humanity to feast my eyes on no matter how trivial. Aha, there must be light in here somewhere; yes, my phone. Are we still within the vicinity of the fine boys to still be afraid of them? Have we not gone past the soldiers who would come thrash us for putting calls through to our accomplices along the highway? Are the rules of the coach still binding barely two hours from the point of disembarkation?   I looked up once more – pitch-darkness stared back. I looked out from my window – a longer and larger layer of darkness confronted me too – now, I get it – this must be why we are known as the Dark Continent; it must be.

I turned on the phone. It shuddered powerfully. Hmm, my Nokia 300 – red, tiny but aggressive. It welcomed me with its usually loud tune and lit up my concave in the coach.  Oh, two messages… someone sent me two messages. Let’s read them shall we?WHERE ARE THE DOCUMENTS? said the first and, I NEED THEM NOW!  the second one said.  Documents! What documents? Who sent this anyway? Oh, the documents!

The documents – I remembered them. Two days before the journey this night, the big oga had shown me the documents.

‘Here they are…I’m leaving them here so you could pick them up for me whenever I’m not here’.

‘Okay, I’ll keep an eye on them’.  The following day, the oga’s friend called.

‘Hi, Omeneku how are you? Is your oga in the office?’

‘No, he’s not. Anything I can do for you sir?’

‘Oh, yes please. There are some documents in his office he’s asked you to give to me. You know where they are…?’

‘Yes, I do…did he say I should give them to you?’

‘That’s why I’ve called. Please bring them to my office right now… we should be doing some business together with those documents’.

‘Oh, ok I’ll get them across to you right away…’

‘Thank you. I’ll be expecting you…’

I put a call through to the oga. ‘Your business partner just called to say you want me to give him those documents…you didn’t tell me’, I began.

‘The copies, not the originals…’

‘But he said you wanted me to give him the originals!’

‘The originals! Don’t be silly my friend. How could I ask you to give him the originals?’ He said the ‘friend’ loudly and with a derisive note. ‘Giving him the originals would mean that he’s the owner of the papers, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t that leave me in the lurch?’

‘Yes, but I wasn’t going to give him any original documents. That’s why I called you first’.

‘Hmm, that’s smart then. When you get to the office, let him have just the photocopies. Leave the originals where they are’.

‘Okay boss…’   I learnt that the boss’ pal actually made the call from our office. He had been there, and learning that the oga and I were away, had set about rummaging through the files in the cabinet for the original documents. He had asked the secretary to give him the documents but luckily for us the oga had taken them from where they were and showed me where they were.

‘You mean you were right here when he called me about those papers?’ The secretary nodded. ‘And you didn’t tell me about this?’ The incredulity in my eyes produced a look of fear in her face, and now, because I didn’t want to pursue this, I shrugged and walked into the oga’s office. I looked around to the position where the papers were. Where else would be better to stow them? What if the chap came back, and tries to rummage through this office and eventually finds them? Those documents are worth millions – they were signed approval by the government for a contract for the construction of a big water project. Of course, I would be blamed and, or held responsible for the theft if they got missing. Or maybe, I would be held as an accomplice? These thoughts raced through my mind as the coach tore through the night.

I pulled the papers from where they were and walked into the main office.  ‘Ah, here they are – the papers that oga’s friend was looking for. I’ll just leave them here. But you must not give them to him unless I say so, understand?’  The secretary nodded again.

But throughout that day, I did not leave my seat or take my eyes off those papers. When I was sure nobody was looking, I took them away to another location in the office. Oh dear, I forgot to tell the oga about that new location. He must have looked for them, and knowing that I am the only one who knows their former location, does he think that I am making away with them in the dead of this night for my own ends? Does he think I have pinched them to sell to the highest bidder? If he does not think that, what would he think the moment he discovered that the documents were ‘lost’? I glanced at the clock on the phone: it was 3:45am.  This time was the deadest time of night, just at the threshold of daybreak – it was also that time of night when sleep was heaviest and sweetest. Should I call him? Dare I wake him up to tell him that I am not running away with the document, perhaps to sell to a bidder? Should I?

Brrr…brrr…brrr…brrr…. There was no response from there, but I knew that it cannot be helped. After all, this was an unholy time of night when no reasonable conversation could be expected to take place – the night bore down heavily on the dark city here and sleep would sit on many brows everywhere. But the stakes must be addressed shouldn’t they? Yes, they must…I must tell him where the documents are no matter the time of night. If I don’t tell him, how then could I get this big fat worry off my chest – the thought that he may be thinking that I’m making off in the dead of night with his document? How do I get any piece of sleep before I reach the bursting city of Lagos?

Brrr…brrr…brrr…brrr…brrr…brrr…brrr… There still was no response. Poor man, he must be fast asleep from the hassles of the day. Perhaps a message or two about the whereabouts of the documents would suffice? Oh, yes – send text messages as responses to the two messages! Yes, that’s it. He’ll see them first thing in the morning when he wakes up!  THEY’RE ON TOP YOUR SHELF OGA SIR – THE ONE WITH THE DRINKS, and to the second message from the oga, I said: SORRY I FORGOT TO TELL YOU I CHANGED THEIR LOCATION. Now, that should do the trick shouldn’t it?

I turned from my phone to look outside again. My eyes hurt – was it from having little sleep or from having focused on the phone in the dark? It was still pitch-dark outside too with only a colony of ‘stars’ lounging around the semi-luminous sky. There were fewer bumps on the road now and the coach seemed to coast along on an even keel. I stared out of the window a little harder than I had done before. The warm breeze had given way to a sharp pungent stench, made more pungent by the chill that permeated the bus. And oh, there were now pockets of lights here and there and intermittently too they lit up the horizon. Hmm, the horizon – what was an arid stretch of brownness along the way had melted into the dark, and turned itself into another vast stretch of dark and thick moulds of undulating blackness. I could sense it that this was thick foliage of a mahogany rain forest but it was still semi-dark with the moon helping me to establish the outline of a city still asleep, with buildings and cars that ventured to pass the night out of doors. The moon – where did it spring from?  I had suddenly chanced upon it – a naked African boy running in the sky alongside our coach. It looked like a lonely child that had wandered all on its own throughout the night, and it seemed curious about the little millipede wandering around it. Was that a smile on its face? Can even a seemingly well-fed moon smile? Yes, indeed it was smiling and seemed to love the company of the little, white millipede trying to outrun it.  See, look at them, were they trying to outrun each other, the millipede and the moon? But oh, that’s a shame because as much as the little millipede tried to inch ahead of the  moon, the moon always managed to remain in front of the millipede, a smile of mischief on its face. The moon did it as if there was no way in hell that the millipede could ever outrun it, but it did it nicely anyway. And sometimes too the moon would sneak off briefly into the dark clouds, as if it was doing a peek-a-boo with its new, weeny lovable friend the silvery millipede – yes several times. And at those times that it sneaked off into the clouds, I would look around and see that apart from the moon, something much more consistent also followed. Unlike the moon, it was a little bit more subtle and had followed us all through the journey unseen apparently – from Abuja to Lokoja to Ijebu to Akure to Ibadan and now to the outskirts of Lagos. It was everywhere with its power to overwhelm. It put us to sleep, and laid a blanket of fear on our brows. It laid a siege on our journey and instead of worrying about the bullets and guns, I should have feared it instead. The subtle follower was there all through our lives and in our coaches, and perhaps when it was time, the eternal struggle between light and darkness ensued. Was that what was happening between the clouds and the moon even up there?

But the playful boy in the sky escorted us into the heart of the city – past the lights at the Redemption Camp, a place of hope to the Christian faithful. The little boy in the sky became my comforter after Ojota; the outskirts of Lagos welcomed me with a slap of its famous stench. Ah, this is indeed Lagos, Eko – how else could I have known I was already in Lagos if that stench at Ojota had not wrapped its arms around me with an embrace I could not wriggle out of. This side of the city, like Ibadan, was dark in the wee hours of the morning but the giant billboards bore all the euphoria of its character – I AM NIGERIAN, STAR IS MY BEER!  COCA-COLA – YOU CAN CONQUER THE WORLD! EKO’O NI BAJE! GLO, RULE YOUR WORLD…!  As I watched the neon lights on the overhead bridges glow with the confidence of the billboards, I could not help but wonder why I still had to rely on the little African boy in the sky to find my way round the sights and sounds of the sleeping city of Lagos, at 4:00am.

But 4am in Lagos was still dark, and after alighting from the coach, we sat poker-faced at the terminal. No one ventured out in the dark in this city. I tried to see if the playful boy in the sky still wanted to play with his millipede, but he was gone, as quietly as he had come. I looked around me at the terminal, trying to see if anyone would haul in the bag of guns and bullets. No one did. But what really was in that bag, if it did not contain weapons of a nocturnal onslaught? I was not to find out. I looked around again:  some of my co-travellers were lying down to sleep, as if to complete what was left of the night. I was still curious: how is the day going to break? When am I going to blend into the seam of this famous city? Where are its danfos and molues, rickety yellow buses with their devil-may-care drivers and garrulous bus conductors?  

I heard the sound of one – Keja, keja, keja!  I checked the time – 5:00am. I looked at the sky. It was still dark. I decided to venture out. The shock came instantly – under the cover of darkness, the traffic of humanity was already pounding the streets to their various destinations. I eagerly joined the already heavy crowd, taking care to hold my bag fast. As I passed by the first person that dark morning, we made eye contact. He was wary. I was wary. I was nervous and the fellows that passed by me were nervous as well. But I managed to make it to the next bus stop, without an area boy yanking my bag off me and fleeing into the dark.

I was on another journey before the break of dawn and the whole place was still very dark. This time, I had no fears of guns and bullets but of the people with me in the danfo…

 

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Image: Bigstock.com

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