Mayowa crossed the busy dual carriageway – crossed the first carriageway, then the serpentine concrete divider, then the second – without using the pedestrian bridge. It was forbidden by law to cross the expressway without the agency of the pedestrian bridge, but oftentimes people did not pay heed to the barking of the incapacitated law that never leapt out of paper, and in certain cases, that blatant disregard had led to car crashes and violent deaths of the disregardful. So, Death, not Law, was the judge.
He was only a boy, a stripling of sixteen. He was going to sit his Senior Secondary Certificate Examination on that cloudy Monday morning. His first paper would be Physics Practical. There are precautions to take, Mr Owonifari’s voice rang again in his own mind, such as making sure you take metre rule readings with your line of sight perpendicular to the calibration, making sure all optical pins are upright, and no electric circuit connection is only partially made. Parallax errors, contact resistance, elliptical oscillations of the pendulum – these are forbidden in physics, the burly tutorial teacher added, for good measure. Those precautions were swirling in his head now, in a heady mix with the formulas for refractive index, electrical resistance, force and Young’s Modulus. He was bright, and so it could not be denied that he would sort them out once he ensconced himself in the quiet of the examination, away from the busy highway.
He was at the bus garage. There was a crowd jostling for an available bus. To be slow and sedate was a taboo—people were fond of sneering, ‘JJC! If you’re doing slow-slow, people will just hit you!’ He squeezed himself through the jostling crowd and was able to clamber on to the bus.
The driver swung the bus out of the garage and hit the road.
It was six-forty. The route to Anglican Mission School, Aladiye, the examination centre, went through crowded, poor neighbourhoods in which lived a potpourri of humans that varied from hardworking low-income families to lazy, lounging young hulks. The bus trip would take a mere twenty minutes, Mayowa’s meticulous father had told him as he checked his bag to ensure he had taken all he would need – examination slip, biro, pencil, eraser. Then he would have plenty of time to revise the set-up of the apparatus, the formulas, the precautions.
On the bus, two brawny young men began to argue. He could not tell why. But the argument began to burn rather strongly and the passengers were beginning to be uncomfortable. A third joined in and took sides with one of the two. At a point, the man on whose side the new entrant was bellowed to the other:
‘Dem never take blow tear your head before, abi?’
The rhetorical question was quick with wrath. A few passengers joined in now, not to stoke the argument but to placate the angry, sparring trio. But in the middle of the three, the fire raged on as their voices rose. Still, Mayowa could not tell what they argued about.
Matters got to a head when the one who asked the rhetorical question rose and hit the man at whom he was offended with his fist. Whereupon an elderly woman cried out to the driver, who had been unconcerned all the while,
‘Please, stop this bus and let me get off before these men kill themselves! My eyes shall not see evil!’
Her last cry was a part of a proverb of admonition which Mayowa remembered his mother often used: the whole body has to respond swiftly if the eyes will not want to see evil.
The old woman’s voice was laden with passion. The two offended men, as though they caught the passion, cried to the driver:
‘Stop the bus, driver, stop for dat house for ya front! We wan get down! We go deal with this man! If you no stop we go kill you join o!’
There was fear now, snowballing in Mayowa’s mind. Fear of the three terriers of men. Fear as to whether he would make it to the centre and take his examination.
The driver pulled up. The neighbourhood in which they all now were was the hideout of criminally minded denizens. The driver dared not protest. Everyone got off the bus in a jiffy. One man’s buba snagged on a piece of iron that jutted out from a seat, but he did not worry; all he wanted to do was get off.
The two men seized the third. They pinned him to the bus. He was shouting:
‘Leave me alone! You can’t do anything! You can’t!’
The one who had joined in, rejoined, ‘Okay! You go see now whether we fit do anytin or not.’
He followed up his rejoinder with a punch to the face of the overpowered young man. Straightway blood dripped from his mouth. The two men drew knives out of their belts, and the passengers froze with unspeakable horror.
One drove his knife through the captive’s chest and the other through his abdomen, and forthwith lifeblood gushed out and soiled their hands and dirty T-shirts. They tore open the captive’s midriff and his viscera fell out.
Three women, one of whom was the elderly woman who had cried out to the driver, wilted like tomatoes transplanted from a dumpsite and collapsed to the ground under the cloudy sky.
Mayowa was crying, shrieking he had to go and take his examination. The only time he had seen about as much gore was when Brother Seyi, his elder brother, slaughtered one of the family’s five goats on New Year’s Day.
The rest of the passengers shrunk from the scene and ran confusedly into the nearest building, which was uncompleted. Mayowa rushed along with them, desperate for the safety of being with people. For that was infinitely better, he thought, than being alone in this neighbourhood strange and unknown.
The police arrived at the house. There were only three policemen. They must have come to investigate the crime scene. But there was a way the police here worked: they rounded up people indiscriminately, and as often as not such people were innocent of the crime being purportedly investigated.
Mayowa had never thought of the prospect of being locked up in a police cell. His mother had told him stories about cells: mosquito-infested; shit-prints all over the grimy walls; a fan is but a dream, and so are good food and water; inmates are often brutal to one another and a new inmate is a despised minion to the old ones, who may have been there for years ...
There was a doorway that gave onto the bushes outside the house. Determined to escape the fate of being rounded up, Mayowa broke away from the grovelling co-passengers and sprang towards it, only to find that there was a policeman standing in the doorway, in his black uniform. The man seized the boy.
‘I beg you, sir, please, let me go. I am a student; see my credentials; I have an examination to take – please I beg!’ Mayowa begged tearfully.
‘You be student? Okay! Stand back,’ replied the policeman, gruffly.
As he stood back, the policeman vanished before his eyes.
There was another doorway that gave onto a dumpsite, mountainous and sprawling. This time, everyone rushed right through it, as a herd of demon-infested pigs. The sight of five faceless men armed with cutlasses and standing at a distance from behind them met their eyes.
Everyone threw themselves onto the dumpsite and began to crawl over it. Presently the men were throwing the cutlasses, but the cutlasses were poorly aimed and then because of the distance you could see the weapons flying quite slowly through the air and it was fairly easy to predict where they would land and so you could dodge them. Even so, occasionally, a cutlass pierced two or three escapees at the back, and out of them issued screams of the dying.
There were all sorts of debris on the dumpsite from shit to rotten food to old clothes to broken bottles, and everyone was soiled with the rubbish and with their own blood that flowed from pierced palms and knees and toes.
They all, bewildered, saw three men, old, shrivelled as Fagin, and weak, yet sage-like, sitting under a great almond tree. Bloodied and miserable, the ones who escaped the hail of cutlasses saw them now. Something surged in Mayowa – something called chutzpah – and he walked up to them and begged them to rescue him and the others.
‘Good morning, sirs; please, help us: some bad boys’ – glancing cautiously over his shoulder now to make sure none of the killers were within earshot – ‘got us trapped here and we don’t know what to do – how to escape. How can we escape? Or please help us beg them to forgive us and let us go free, please!’
The three elderly men simply nodded.
Mayowa was stunned. How would he arouse them? In an instant he had a brainwave: there is a proverb his father sometimes quoted about the wisdom of the elderly.
He retold to them his plight and then quoted the proverb to their hearing: ‘I’m speaking to you! You must know this area, please help us and show us how to get out! We’re in a terrible state. Is it not you elders who often say that an infant’s head must not be left to hang awkwardly while being carried piggyback by his inexperienced mother if there are elders in the market?’
The three men fixed their gaze on him, as though they had suddenly been woken up. Then one of them quavered,
‘You are right, boy. But these days are evil, and our eyes have seen evil so many times and, hard as we have tried, we have found we cannot stop it. But you are young. Maybe you can. Here, take this’ – he stretched a big stick towards Mayowa and pointed – ‘and go that way. You should find there a way of escape.’
‘Thank you, Baba. Thank you, sirs.’
Responsibility now sat on his shoulders, as Captain Flint’s parrot, and squawked into his ears – and how he himself loved Treasure Island – and so, hefting the stick, he gave forth to the others worn yet now hopeful the rallying call, ‘Let’s go’.
They all had been dragging on for only five minutes and were beginning to turn a corner between a haunted two-storey building and a moss-overlaid fence, when another hulk of a man showed up, whereupon they all shrank back and wails broke out from some of them.
Mayowa looked at the stick and then at the man, their challenger. He lost all clues as to what to do.
A young man stepped out from among them all and advanced towards the challenger. And a battle was joined between them. It was karate or it might be jujitsu or kickboxing – Mayowa could not tell; but he remembered he used to see scenes like that on the television sets of movie rental shops in the street on his way home from school.
The two men fought hard. The one from the dispirited escapees sometimes floored the challenger, and vice versa.
Then there came a moment in which, with a deft movement of his right leg, the challenger tripped the other man, who then fell to the ground and strangely could not rise. In a moment the challenger was upon him; he lifted him up by the waist, pulled down his trousers, ceremoniously kissed him on the right buttock and before everyone’s eyes he began to penetrate him. It was surprisingly swift and looked easy. They were going about in a sort of a circle like dogs mating in the street and the submissive partner had the look of a frightened rabbit and was shrieking like a cornered, terrified pup.
Mayowa turned away, disgusted and alarmed. He had overheard certain of his classmates gossip of a sexual escapade with a girl or two after school hours, but this act which now unfolded he had neither seen nor heard of.
His grasp on the stick was loosening. The stick fell to the ground. Something began to move below his belt. He looked at himself and discovered that he was having an erection. Doubtless, he thought with alarm, this must be directly connected with the ongoing act. He believed that he was being influenced, being charmed in a way, being sucked into a pitcher plant. Distraught, he struggled to repossess his mind.
There was an involuntary contractile movement in his tumescent penis and a certain liquid began to escape in spurts from it. He tried hard to stifle that reaction, but the attempt was too little, too late.
He awoke, slowly. It all was only a dream.
He saw that he was alone in the room. Perhaps Brother Seyi was still sleeping in the living room with his head among his great medical textbooks – Gray, Tortora and Derrickson, Singh and Vivekanda, and suchlike – on the dining table. Brother Seyi studied a lot and rarely slept on a bed for fear he might oversleep. He was at home these days because all university lecturers nationwide had downed tools in a showdown with the Federal Government that was now three months old, and all universities, including the University of Ibadan, where he studied, had been shut as a result.
He felt a certain wetness in his boxer shorts. He reached for the area and felt his groin. Truly, there was a certain substance there, liquid and sticky. He withdrew his hand and brought the fingers that had felt the substance close to his nostrils. The smell he could not describe. It was not offensive at all, but he just had no standard word to describe it.
His bladder was full of urine, but repressing it, he lay still, his eyes still open and ineffectually probing the darkness, his mind’s eye still viewing in smouldering broken episodes the dream he had just had. Of the sexual act he had witnessed in the dream and of his own nocturnal emission no one, not even his father or mother or Brother Seyi, had spoken to him; those matters were thought of as taboos, subjects not a word of which must be talked about.
Gingerly, he got up, as his bladder was near to bursting. In spite of the darkness he found his bag of clothes and fumbled in it for a clean pair of boxer shorts. Finding one, he drifted towards the door, groped for the handle, and depressed it. The door opened. He walked out and headed for the toilet.