is Lagos! (PG-13) By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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So this is Lagos! (PG-13)
By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo
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Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
I had just completed my Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) Exams in June. After only two weeks of lazing away at home, idleness gnawed at my mind with mangled fingers, not unlike a terminal disease.
“If you’re serious about keeping busy,” my Auntie Felicia told me one Sunday, “come to the garage. I could use an extra hand in my restaurant.”
I jumped and danced with glee. Here was an opportunity to explore Lagos, something my parents had never permitted me to do before.
This is Lagos!
I woke up by 4.30 a.m. the next day to travel from Festac town to Apapa where my auntie had her restaurant. Under normal circumstances, this was a distance that could be covered in 30 minutes. Even less. But then, in the dictionary of our Lagos, the term ‘normal circumstances’ did not have a place!
“Mama put,” my twin brothers jeered at me as I briskly made my way out of the house. It was their custom to incense me at the slightest opportunity.
“Darling sweetie, have a nice day,” my mother called out quickly from her bedroom. “And remember, this is Lagos.”
I swallowed hard and said nothing.
“Darling sweetie,” my mother placated, “did you hear me? I said, remember this is Lagos.”
“I heard you mum,” I replied sullenly, the words nearly gagging me. I was swollen with anger, and needed only just a little, ‘fuuuurrrrrrrrrr’, to float away; or a tiny, tiny prick to go, ‘buuurrrrsssstttt’. My mother knew the signs, and was intent on stopping the quarrel, which she knew would ensue. She had heard my brothers’ annoying remark of, ‘Mama put.’ However, her bribe of ‘Darling Sweetie’, did not stop me from fluttering my bushy eyebrows at my brothers, cutting them into bits and pieces with my large, brown eyes, and lashing back with a shrill, angry cry of:
And for this, all I got was ‘Monkey teeth’, as teeth and gums, akin to a baying donkey’s, were bared at me, followed by peals of mocking laughter as they disappeared in the general direction of the bathroom. The need to get ready for school temporarily overshadowed any bitterness they felt for my comparing them with the short bottles of the malted drink, Maltex. That they would hit back at me for reminding them that they were ‘shorties’ was a forgone conclusion.
But I was ready for them.
Let them just try!
It was a dark morning. Cold wind loaded my nostrils with smells of putrefying garbage. In the distance, stray, straggly dogs struggled to outdo each other as they barked wickedly. Chaperoned by termites in nuptial flight, dull yellow streetlights, which failed to discriminate between puddles and potholes only added to my frustration. I waddled, slipped and caught myself just in time; lurched about like a drunkard and struck my toes on mean, but innocent looking objects. As I stumped along to the bus stop, I fumed:
It wasn’t as if I was going to be a ‘Mama put.’ After all, did Auntie Felicia not have a real restaurant?
‘Mama puts’ represented those women food vendors, who sold their stuffs at street corners. Images of poor and less privileged Lagosians handing over plates to the women, crying, ‘Mama put fifty Naira beans’ or ‘Mama put twenty five Naira garri’ in the fashion of beggars soliciting for alms came flooding my mind’s eye. Those brothers of mine! Thinking of them left a sour taste in my mouth.
One day …just one day soon.
“So you could make it,” Auntie Felicia cried in a loud, loud voice. “I’d since given up on you.”
“I lost my way at first and had to ask people for directions to Felic Super Restaurant.”
“Well, you’re her now, it’s only past eight. I’ll have to take Bisi to the market with me. We’ve run short of almost everything…
Are you not ready yet, Bisi?”
The way my Aunty Felicia was shouting, one would have thought that Bisi was in Kafanchan, thousands of kilometers away. Or stone deaf. She was like that, my Auntie Felicia. Very boisterous. Right now, she was counting her money, packing her pieces of black and blue and white polyethylene bags together, collecting her empty cans and plastics of palm and groundnut oil and doling instructions out to Bisi, all at once.
“Bisi, check if the curry is still remaining, check, quickly, quickly, where is the container.”
“No, madam it is almost finished.”
“Ahhhh Bisi! Bisi!! Finished or almost finished? Finished or almost-?”
“Okay, I will say finished,” Bisi replied, casting a quick glance in my direction. I took a look at the curry container:
“Bring let me see for myself. Olorun Jesu!” my Auntie Felicia exploded. “My Gad… d-d-do you call this finish?”
“Well, madam, since I don’t know when next we would be going to the market, I thought-”
“You thought what? This is how you serve my food away to customers eh? This is how you serve my food away to customers eh, and month after month, year after year I struggle and struggle and struggle without seeing neither head nor tail of what I am -”
“It is yourself you should be sorry for. One day you will open your own restaurant. I will see whether you will not fold up and return to Ifetedo in a matter of days. This is Lagos! How many times will I tell you, this is Lagos, you must learn to be sharp. Open your eyes, open your eyes for heaven’s sake. This is Lagos! This is Lagos!!”
We were probably the same age, Bisi and I. But she looked dull. Maybe it was because she was not educated, else how could she have taken one-quarter full to mean finished? Didn’t she know that this was Lagos, that one needed to be shrewd?
“Ibironke, can you manage without us.”
All thoughts of Bisi and her foolishness vanished from my mind.
“Yes, auntie, I can try-”
“It is either you can manage or you can’t. Which one do you mean?”
“I can manage-”
“Bisi, show her how to dish.”
I opened my eyes as Bisi demonstrated to me how to dish.
“Bisi let’s go or are you planning to take a whole week explaining just how to measure out fifty Naira rice and fifty Naira pepper soup to Ibironke? …Ibironke my dear, take care and I hope you have a good selling hand.”
“My hand is very good auntie.”
Next thing I saw, Auntie Felicia and Bisi were tearing away at top speed, their feet hardly touching the ground. Then they jumped into a speeding and overcrowded Molue and the van sped on, with the conductor beckoning passengers at the top of his hoarse voice. Two other commuters- an elderly man and a woman with a baby on her back- tried imitating my Auntie and Bisi. But they ended up ramming into each other, landing squarely on the tarmac. Horns blared angrily, but the vehicles only swerved and did not stop. A traffic policeman, two paces away pretended he did not hear the child howling painfully on its mothers back and simply walked on.
I exhaled slowly.
After about two hours, no customer had lifted the curtains of Felic Super Restaurant to come asking for food of any kind, not even drinks. How was I to justify my ‘Good Selling’ hand to my Auntie Felicia? Rubbing my palms together as if in solemn supplication, I went outside to take a look around.
The day had come fully awake, and the garage was a study in noises. Everywhere, horns hooted and blared; people shouted and cursed; conductors engaged each other in fist fights as they struggled for passengers; hawkers hollered attention to their wares; babies wailed from their mother’s backs; traffic policemen threatened unrepentant drivers; and shopkeepers watched out for thieves who were ready to steal anything …even packs of feces, if well presented!
Trailers and lorries billowed thick, black smoke into the atmosphere, and the bluish-black air tasted funny, like burnt rubber. A frail, old man covered in fine sprays of something white suddenly sauntered from nowhere and sat on the bonnet of a seemingly abandoned taxi. From within the taxi, somebody instantly got up. Hurriedly, this somebody shoved a baldhead out of the front passenger’s window, and made to grab at the old man. The distance thwarted him.
“People! People, see me see trouble O,” he roared thunderously, with eyes blazing like red-hot coals. “Daddy! …yu wan’ condemn my shock absorbers? Eh? …Yu wan’ put sand-sand for my garri? …If dem sen’ you, I beg, tell dem say you no see me, you hear?”
The old man glimpsed the terror in the red eyes, and the hatred in the voice. His astonished face seemed to protest:
I am not responsible for your frustrations, boy. So don’t hang it on me!
And like an alley cat caught stealing fish, he scampered off. Selecting another object, this time an abandoned petty trader’s wooden table, he sat down. When he was sure no body was going to molest him again, he set about his business. Bending down with hands on his knees, and mouth wide open, he coughed and coughed and coughed until his eyes, blood red now, smarted and watered. Finally done with his rib-racking cough, he blew his nostrils vigorously, rubbing the mucus with the back of his right and left hands. He then inspected his handiwork for several long seconds, and swiftly proceeded to wipe the back of his hands on his trousers, his consternated demeanor clearly screaming:
This thick, stinking, green and yellow mucus can’t have come from my body. No!
I am not sick, that I know!
Hungry, yes, but not sick!
After resting a while to catch his breath, the old man, like a soldier, continued matching on stoically as if he had never stopped. If anyone cared to investigate, this frail, old man was going nowhere.
The two men were superbly dressed. The strong scent of their expensive perfumes pervaded the restaurant, obliterating the aromas of fish, meat, rice, beans, eba, amala and other cooked food. After taking their seats and carefully setting down their expensive suitcases, they turned their attention to me.
“Lady, serve us the best you have to offer,” the taller of the two addressed me quietly in the manner of a gentleman. He wore an ox-blood colored guinea brocade, with an elaborate design of land tortoise on it.
And I prepared to listen as I dished and served them.
“You’re looking so well, Reginald.”
“And you too, Livinus.”
“Oh boy, I have missed you.”
“And me too, I have missed you.”
They were old friends who had not set eyes on each other since graduation, seven years ago. Livinus was a Lagos based business consultant, while Reginald was visiting from Ibadan where he represented one of the major banks. He was dressed in the typical banker’s fashion: a well-tailored navy blue suit, with matching trousers and shoes. Gold cufflinks with which he buttoned the white long-sleeved shirt inside his suit caught my eyes:
Yves St. Laurent!
I envied them their success.
“Don’t you have something to cool down with?” Reginald, with his mouth loaded with goat meat suddenly asked, catching me pants down in my eavesdropping act.
I indicated the cold bottle of water on the table before them. The two friends ached their eyebrows:
“Ha, ha, ha,” they laughed out, loud and clear.
“Hey lady, we need something to get us started for the day,” Reginald said, still laughing.
“Don’t you sell beer?” Livinus clarified.
“No, no sir, but I am sure I could get some from across the street.”
“And don’t you have anyone to assist you in here?” Reginald asked, this time, kindly.
“My Auntie has gone to the market with the other help. They won’t be back for a while.”
Both friends looked at each other. Reginald face registered pity for me. I was touched by his kindness.
“What are you waiting for then?” Livinus asked, not unkindly.
“And while you are at it, please serve us another plate of stew containing just fish,” Reginald demanded.
They could pay!
I know! I know they can pay.
I loaded two sizeable plates with the best portions of fish from the stew pot and placed it before them. Immediately they attacked it hungrily. I did my humble calculations and was impressed. My only fear was if Auntie Felicia would ever let me go once she discovered how good my ‘Selling Hand’ was.
It was to the shop opposite Felic Super Restaurant. The shopkeeper took one look at me and his face brightened.
“Hallo titi,” he crooned, exposing a bucal cavity devoid of any healthy tooth. Everything had been painted brown, or was it black by tobacco.
“Did you come to visit old Alphonso Aloysius Alao?”
I couldn’t help smiling. This seemed to put him in a lighter frame of mind.
“Hmmm… I knew it as soon as I woke up this morning… that … that something great was going to happen to me today… Tell me…”
If I left this Mr. Alphonso Aloysius Alao, he was going to croon all day like an infant. So I went straight to the point.
“Look sir, my auntie owns that restaurant opposite.”
“Oh so you are the one. You are Ibironke, the one that will soon be going to the university…”
My auntie had already spread the word around.
“Well…yes,” I smiled broadly. “You see sir, there are these important guests at the restaurant now. They want some beers, and seeing that you are just opposite and sell drinks, and we don’t, I was wondering-”
“Do not be wondering again, my fine titi, very beautiful gal. You see, it was a perfect arrangement between your auntie, Feli, and my humble self, Prince …Prince Alphonso Aloysius Alao. I will direct customers to her and when she needs drinks, she will come to me… So just tell me how many crates you want.”
“I just want only four bottles of Star, sir.”
“Forget that sir business, titi. Just call me Prince ...Prince Aloy. Now did you say only four bottles …is that not too small? These Lagos men can drink O, and when your auntie can, which is most of the time, she can make them drink up to three crates at a seating. I think you should obtain more.”
“No sir... I mean Prince-”
“Yes, Prince Aloy-“
“That is it, Prince Alphonso Aloysius Alao-“
“Let me just begin with just four bottles. If they want more, I will come back, at least you are not closing now, are you?”
“Me?” he asked, thumping his chest furiously with one thick finger, as if the very idea of closing then was a sacrilege. “Close now? …For where? What on earth for?”
“Then no problems.”
“You are very very right.”
Mr. Alphonso was grinning from ear to ear now. I shirked from him when he came a little too close.
“Is like you are a very intelligent girl, eh?” he flattered. “Frankly speaking I like intelligent girls. In fact, I will give any thing …any amount of money in this world just to be close to them, I swear.”
Funny old man! Why is he winking at me?
“Sir, can I have the drinks now please, my customers are waiting.”
“Not sir, titi. I say call me Aloy, and why not? You can have the drinks any time.”
While handing over a polyethylene bag containing four bottles of very chilled beer, he made to rub my arm, smiling crookedly. I cast him a killer glance as I snatched the polyethylene bag and fled, as if pursued by the devil.
“What of the money, fine titi,” he cried.
“As soon as they pay me, I will come over and balance you. I am not going to disappear, am I?” I called back.
“Oh that’s no problem. That’s how your auntie Feli and I used to do it. But even if you didn’t pay me, I will collect it somehow somehow,” he shouted after me, cackling.
“I-will-pay-you-your-dammed-money,” I replied, spitting the words at him.
They drank, discussed big money, big business and talked about sweet, good, old days long gone by. What wonderful appetite! Four more times I rushed to Price Aloy for more beers. And four more times I visited the stew and soup pots …for more fish and goat meat, liver, kidney, Shaki and even kpomo… The pots were nearly empty of everything now!
And I watched them like cinema as they ate and drank, for they made an interesting duo. Suddenly gazing at his wristwatch, which glittered despite the limited light straining into the restaurant, Livinus exclaimed:
“Can you imagine, Regi? We have been here for close to two hours without knowing it.”
“Our bill lady,” Reginald called quickly, after confirming the time by a quick glance at his equally glittering Rolex. They were suddenly in a hurry to get back to their lucrative businesses. As I handed the bill over, both friends rose from their seats, struggling for it, one pinning the other down.
“Don’t do that Livi”, Reginald said, laughing. “Let me pay.”
“No, I will pay,” Livinus cried, out of breath. Unlike his friend, he wore a serious grin.
“Next time, you can settle, Livi, but today, please give me the privilege.”
“No Regi. You pay next time. Today, I will pay, pronto,” Livinus insisted.
Soon the argument got heated up.
I sighed painfully.
“I said I would pay for God’s sake!” Reginald shouted.
“No Regi, you wont for heaven’s sake,” Livinus shouted back. “I will pay, I, Livinus Adewale, will pay, I will damn pay!”
Poor friends, I thought. How can they be fighting over who was going to settle an ordinary bill? I prayed for divine wisdom as I watched them about to go for each other’s throats, snarling like wild dogs, facial muscles tensed, sweat budding and beginning to slide down their faces and drip onto the table.
Soon, their voices rose higher:
“I must pay this bill and no one else.”
“That is a blatant lie!”
“Gentlemen …please, please,” I cried. An idea had suddenly struck me, and I stopped short of screaming at them. “Take it easy. Maybe I can help you.”
They suspended their argument and stood aback, each breathing hard, like people who had ascended mountain Kilimanjaro in record time. They then surveyed me as, if like a UFO, I had just zoomed out of mars and landed here on earth.
“How might you help us, young lady,” Reginald asked while Livinus, with eyes flashing, glared at me with mistrust.
“Here,” I said, smiling as I loosened the silk head tie around my waist. The two friends gawked at my fully developed pelvic, catching their breaths. In a moment, their eyes strained upwards and rested squarely on my heaving chest. But I didn’t care. What was more important to me was how to settle the small problem of who was going to foot their bill. I didn’t wish their friendship to come to an abrupt end, and knew beyond reasonable doubts that that would be the case if no settlement were reached soon.
“Take it,” I commanded, handing the head tie over to Livinus who accepted it with trepidation, as if it would suddenly spring and deal him a lethal bite.
“And what might I do with it, my dear lady?” he queried cautiously.
“Here is what you will do.”
It was Reginald who blindfolded me with the head tie. The idea I had cleverly devised was that while blindfolded, I would attempt to touch one of them. Whoever was lucky enough for me to touch him would then pay the bill! At first, they didn’t want to accept it, but then I succeeded in convincing them that my idea was entirely democratic, with no chance whatsoever for cheating.
The blindfold was a little bit too tight. But I didn’t mind. Why, no pain was too much to bear in preserving the brotherhood between two progressive young men. Besides, the exercise was going to last for only a few seconds.
Excited now, I began groping for both men. Moving towards the place where I knew they stood moments ago, I groped and encountered empty space, and my heart missed one beat. Moving haphazardly in all directions, and simultaneously doing a complete 360 degrees, with my arms fully outstretched, I encountered again, nothing but emptiness. This time my heart missed two to three beats, and inwardly, I cried:
And just as sudden, the restaurant seemed a little too quiet for my liking. I broke out in cold sweat, and with my heartbeats now in disarray, my heart began hammering against my ribs.
What was I doing blindfolded before two complete strangers. Suppose they took advantage of me, blindfolded as I was?
Suddenly, it felt as if a mighty hand, like a demonic vice, was clutching my throat, threatening to choke the living daylight out of me. I tore ferociously at my blindfold, which had now assumed the status of a live adversary, with blood pumping through its veins. God, was the thing tight? With all the strength I could muster, I fought the blindfold. For what seemed like an eternity, we wrestled, the blindfold and I. As if in delirium, I kept whimpering as I fought for my life!
Help me, God!
God please come and helllllllp me!!!
At last, I succeeded in tearing it away. While vigorously rubbing my eyes to restore the free flow of blood, I saw shadows of the two men around me, and my heart knew boundless joy, leaping to the high heavens.
Thank you God!
But then, by the time my eyes got accustomed to the dim light in the restaurant, these shadows, like a mirage on a searing hot day had melted and dissolved into absolute nothingness. Deep fear, starting from my back, crept steadily up my neck, like a coarse giant hand.
No, no, no!!
Quickly and on all fours, I crept under the tables with alacrity, searching frantically for my men. Standing up without thinking, I bumped my head hard against the roof of the long table. Stars, brilliantly colored, and in their millions super-saturated my being.
Raw pain stung me …like koboko … horsewhip to my bare skin. Dazed and out of breath, I scrambled out from under the table, tearing at my freshly re-touched hair with all ten fingers, dislodging three of my mother’s artificial nails, which she had lent me in the process. Again on all fours, and creeping like a fugitive, I searched behind the doors, and like a mad woman, I rushed outside to check.
I stole a quick glance at Prince Alphonso Aloysius Alao. He was waving madly with both hands, trying to catch my attention.
Last time I was in his shop, out of rage, I nearly slapped his face for him, but for the strands of white hairs sprinkled all over his ugly, vulture-like scalp. Imagine grabbing me playfully on my buttocks and squeezing lasciviously! What did he take a small girl like me, only seventeen years old for? Ashewo …a prostitute?
Angry and confused, I tore back inside and going down on all fours again, searched behind the counter where the pots of rice and stew and pottage were. I tried behind the doors, and under the tables …yet again.
My blouse, a body hug, which I had worn to announce my flat stomach, was suddenly too tight. I was going to rend it when I remembered where I was:
In a motor garage in the very center of Lagos!
Collapsing heavily on the floor like a bag of meal, I grabbed my head in agony. Streams of hot tears stung my eyes, blinding me. They then cascaded down my cheeks. I let them flow uninterrupted into my open mouth and wished the ground would open and swallow me. When the ground would not, I shuddered violently as several thoughts ran riot in my brain:
How on earth will I pay that cradle snatcher, that pedophile, Prince Aloy for all his beers? What will my brothers say when this news hit the headlines? They will taunt me to the very ends of this wicked earth! Ahhhh! Auntie Felicia… she would call me a fool, a nonentity. She would argue that the money spent in sending me through secondary school was wasted, thrown to the dogs, a perfect case of washing one’s hands to crack palm kernels for chickens! And Bisi! Was I not literary laughing at her when she took one-quarter full for empty?
Fear, and shame clutched my heart with cruel, cold hands.
So this is Lagos!
So this is Lagos!!
Flinging my hands into the air, I screamed as bile, bitter as brown ale, from deep within my guts, rose to my mouth:
Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh dear God…. dear God….
SO THIS IS LAGOS!
SO THIS IS LAGOS!!