I could not understand his sorrow but I felt it. On the roof where we sat because he loved to look in the distance, we watched over new blue, green and red roofs and the flat-topped brown ones farther on. He downed his whiskey and finally spoke, “There are some that content themselves in knowing that they could rather than in that they did, those who pride themselves in wanting to have written a book as opposed to actually writing it, mediocrity is what befalls them. They come into and leave this world without it witnessing what a marvellous thing they could have done, they leave without it hearing what a beautiful voice their words have and what a tale it could have told. It is a pain to see, from a distance, high up here where we sit.” When he was done talking, I could only stare into my glass, speechless, till I saw pity at its bottom.
From the moment he spoke those words, a restlessness was born in me. It was as if he drew my ears into a fleshly dance and ejaculated words into the fertile canal that leads to my mind so that I was left gestating when the dance ended. Pity filled the parts within me where restlessness did not till I felt bloated, weighed down, my spirit sagging from the weight of truth it suddenly was forced to bear and the weight of responsibility it was all too familiar with. This restlessness was invasive as the worms mother once told me occupied my childish belly and had to be flushed out. This restlessness was itself restless and itching to burst forth. Mother. Mother who had big hopes for me and taught me to have big dreams. I was certain that though dead and gone, she was disappointed in this shadow I had become. I wanted to rend my clothes, scream wildly and do the masquerade’s dance of invisible feet but could I? I decided to walk a walk that would take me nowhere yet everywhere. I stood up to take my leave because I could not bear to remain in his presence. I despised him. He was miserable from seeing alone, how much more miserable am I that felt? I despised him for his shallow misery. I despised him for his truth that uncovered a truth I had buried beneath my black skin and learned to forget.
Walking down the many stairs, I hastily declined his offer to see me off. It was evening and what remained of the sun made the sky flaxen and the grey clouds protested by getting darker by the minute. I walked in the spiteful light of the evening’s truth and the fading light of the evening sun because I could not bear to stand still and wait for a Keke Maruwa—one of those tricycles that wobble to and fro along the road. The busses never come there anymore because the road is only tarred for half the distance between the blue roof area and the brown roof area farther on where I lived. I had walked for only five minutes when one such tricycle sped up to me and honked. I nodded and got in. This is the usual manner—the keke driver honks to ask if one is going in his direction and one nodded yes and got in or shook one’s head otherwise. Three other passengers already were in the tricycle’s back seat so I sat beside the keke driver and held on to its vertical bars for safety. Seating by the tricycle driver is not allowed in the blue roof districts but where we were going, the iron hands of the law rusted, turned the colour of our roofs and became too weak to enforce its laws. It was a quiet ride till we exhausted the tarred roads and then because misery loves company, one by one, encouraged by discomfort as the keke rocked this way and that, navigated the unavoidable ditches and knocked human elbow against human belly and human head against tricycle metal, the passengers and the driver voiced their bitter complaints. The driver was loudest of them all, speaking in ‘broken’— the Pidgin English that was fast becoming the lingo though the people all spoke a common indigenous language.
“Since tree months ago that I bought this keke, I have repair it four times. You say why? Bad road! Bad road no good for this business. But man must eat, and children must eat and wife must cook soup and tie fine wrapper so I no get choice. But my own is still good, I am owner of two keke now. I drive the first one for five years and it is hard and it spoil plenty, plenty times but I manage save till the money complete so that I now buy this one and have two keke. Somebody is driving that one for me and making money too so that it will only take two and half years this time and I will buy another one. I go rich by five years time with maybe four keke. I hope they will do this road so that it can happen fast-fast but I know sey it will happen. Government fit to forget us but God cannot, Olorun wa, there is God in heaven.”
One by one they aired their complaints, hopes and plans though they were total strangers. All through this I was silent as one enduring a painful ordeal wordlessly. I hated the blind faith in their well-laid plans because I saw the disappointments soon to come though they did not. Them I did not despise because I could not be bothered. It was inevitable that my silence would eventually be noticed when they started to go quiet. Luckily, this happened only a few feet from where I was to stop so I was spared any probing questions. Thank the heavens for small favours. The truth is I once was them—hopeful, full of dreams, and with spirit buoyed by mother’s belief in me that was unwavering even in her dying moments. Mother’s health had started to fail around the time I graduated from polytechnic where I studied Business Administration. She had joked that she was more joyful than her aged body could take, and that this was why her health was failing. When mother had but nine and ninety breaths left, she called me to her bedside. Beautiful as a withered rose, she smiled weakly, as warmly as she could manage, though her eyes now sunken with age betrayed her sadness.
“Adelaide, my husband…you will cross the divide. You will say I told you so, and you will bless my spirit…”
When she had said this, and I knew it took all of her might, she stifled a cough and smiled through her last few breaths. Tears stung my eyes before they rolled down my cheeks. Looking back now, I realise that I cried for myself more than I cried for her. It was I who was now orphaned, who would miss her dearly and who was unsure how to carry on without her. We always fought as passionately as we loved and through it all she called me Adelaide, her husband. Never Laide, never Ade.
The divide was what she always called the gulf in class between us and the big men the colourful roofs sheltered. But I tried and I failed. I found no big-man salary job. They reserve that for the big man’s sons and the big man’s brother’s sons. Day and night I sought wings with which I might cross and found none till I accepted my reality and wanting to cross became my solace. This is the truth that I had buried but that he dug up. Though my situation is not as it might be if I had had no education, mother dreamed dreams of a life of whiskey and colourful roofs for me but they remained just that—dreams. They became solace shared over beer, tall tales of having wanted to be the big man whose roof once was brown now was blue. This was his truth that I despised him for and because he, well off as he was far off, could see the totality of what my life had become as one of many that ended up miserably average from contenting themselves with having tried and failed.
When I had walked perhaps two kilometers thinking hateful thoughts, a drunken thought occurred to me. Did worms not require specific conditions in order to survive? Mother once said that worms are good for us but that they got too many and became harmful, she said alcoholics killed all the worms and did themselves no good. Though this one was born of truth that struck hard and struck home, it was worm nonetheless and would die from alcohol. With this decided, I started for the bar called ‘Abe Igi’ for it was under trees. The tree was called ‘igi fruit’ because all who knew its indigenous name were either dead or too old to be audible if asked and the literates knew nothing but their watermelons, apples and pineapples. The woman who owned and ran the bar was known only as Simbi. Simbi and her twin daughters, a nubile trio, teased and flirted with their customers till they promised heartily to return soonest. Ram to the slaughter! In the centre of the bar where the largest igi fruit stood, Simbi had put up a large sign that said “Abe Igi go soon reach intanashona levuls (international levels), make all of you just watch na”. It was said that when she started the bar having only three tables, a dozen chairs, a small fridge and her pepper soup pot, she had put up this sign as a reminder of her dream. Presently, the shade the trees provide can no longer cover all of the tables when the sun is overhead and the chairs now number several multiples of three. The Oluokun of Okun Land recently honoured her by drinking at her bar and his son Obalola Laolu loudly proclaims her daughters wives for his taking. I despised them. Or did I? I never have been one to lie to myself. One who lies to himself regards himself to be foolish enough to believe lies obvious to himself. It was their success I despised, the ease with which it came for them and the seemingly nonchalant air with which they accepted it, expected it even. Where were the many failures that ought to tilt their optimism into misery?
It wasn’t long before my usual was brought me—two bottles of Star Lager from the deepest parts of her freezer and a bowl of catfish pepper soup. I downed half a glass of beer and absent-mindedly began to trace words on the table where I sat. Simbi came and sat with me. She smiled her disarming smile and I nearly let go of my misery.
“Delaide, what are you doing? See cold drink and sweet fish in your front and you’re looking at table.”
“I am searching for something and I think if I write down all my thoughts, I can search the puddle of it all and find a thing—an idea, perhaps—that I believe in and that would consume me so.”
I have no doubt that my reply held little meaning for her yet impressed her. The illiterate and semi-literate have always been impressed by the learned’s use of words that they could not fathom and more by its use in ways they could not fathom. The less meaning they were able to discern from one’s words, the more impressed they were. This, however, wasn’t my intention. It has always been the case that when alcohol started to settle in my senses I became a drunken poet, unnecessarily wordy.
“Hmm. You and your grammar. Just eat fish before it will be cold. Do you now know the shirt I took? I will wear it so that you can see.”
I could not help but smile as she left, even my man nodded within my shorts.
It took all of me to get up from the bed the next day. The room smelled of reckless passions of the previous hours. When I rolled back the cover we shared so I could swing my legs onto the ground, meandering marks glared at me from her mountain bared as she slept facing away. Simbi looked so peaceful in her sleep and I thought to read to her the traditional poem of a lover’s joy. My heart melted though my mind still weighed heavy with yesterday’s thoughts. I knew that more could be found with her than the hush affair between us if I didn’t put so tight a lid on talks of permanence and matters of the heart. Was my heart little to give with more to gain? Or too much and with little to gain?
I sat in the morning hush on a roof that oversaw old brown roofs and new red, green and blue ones farther on. Pigeons strutted about importantly on the roof to my left and four others strutted more importantly on the roof to my right as if of a higher faction, deciding pigeon matters, flying off to investigate roofs and converging again. Together we oversaw all that was below and beyond us. On the horizon, it seemed the buildings faded into trees and the trees faded into the blue sky with clouds rippled across it. The decorous clouds reminded one of Martian sands troubled only by the wind, devoid of desecrating human footprints. The sun did not peek from behind the clouds till the four pigeons had completed their rounds and converged again on the roof to my right. They strutted impatiently now and only the brown roof below us concerned them. The littered brown roof sat flatly on the small rectangular house that sheltered the fat Yoruba woman and her many fatherless children. She sold pap made from oka baba and fed these birds in an effort to woo them. One whose man will not stay by her side woos birds to adorn her roof. When she throws oka baba on the floor, her chickens and the pigeons are drawn into a fight, gobbling food while pecking one another angrily with beaks. Seeing this made me wonder whether her man was drawn into such fights with other men till he up and left, unwilling to compete for the love of a woman rightfully his. I looked on with disapproving askance as flabby hands threw more oka baba amidst the birds, kerosene to the fire, beaks pecked at differently coloured feathers feverishly.
The serenity did nothing to ease my troubles. In front of me on the ledge I placed a knife and a small worn notebook. I had bought this notebook as a graduation gift to myself, to contain all ideas worth pursuing and the blueprints of my achievements to come. I could not bring myself to open this notebook but I knew what was written on the first page. Success is never final and failure is never fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. How these words mocked me! I turned away like a disobedient child turns from his mother. I despised him for his truth that forced this choice upon me so I addressed him though, faraway as he is, he cannot hear me:
“In these words my soul’s entirety I do outpour and between these lines lay my uncertainties unclothed. Much is to be said with little words yet a lot is to be left unsaid in faith that you see.
I have heard of a man’s heart in slumber, afraid to love but does a man’s soul slumber, afraid to soar? I have heard caged birds sing forlorn songs of aloneness but do birds set free sing songs of the caged bird?
Is it the words of a prophet spurred on? Is it an ancient raven’s only stock and store? Do the chords that soothed the weary soul of a king awaken the slumbering conqueror in a man yet ordinary?
The world is to be mine but I find myself struggling through an emptiness.”
The slumbering conqueror in a man yet ordinary. These were words that never left me since I first discovered L.A Poe’s prose poetry. My choice was made so I turned around and picked up the knife. I cut myself and felt the blood rush to where my flesh opened up. I closed my eyes and embraced the pain. As the pain coursed through me I finally found strength to open up the book and I let the blood trickle from my fist onto the first page. The sun looked on, the sole witness, as I muttered to myself: “The world is to be mine, the world is to be mine…”