(short story) by JJ Bola
Car horns claxon like fanfare; the sound of trumpets blowing as if announcing the imminent arrival of a god that never comes. Smoke rises from beyond the stretched bridge we are on like wayward spirits haunting the sky in the shape of old memories. Underneath a group of children kick a flat football through car tyre goal posts and wave their arms in victory. The concrete streets, cracked to the depths of valleys, which when it rains becomes a purgatory; too far from heaven or hell to be called either.
‘It rained seven days here, only finished yesterday! You came at the right time.’ He says, smiling, peering into the rear-view mirror back at me. His accent is strong, or at least it would be away from here. I return a smile. I try to. But a dormant pessimism I tell no one of, saps the energy from all I feel. I wind down my window letting the smokey air hit my face like a cool breeze. The car slows to a halt, joining the other cars in front, and the air quickly turns warm.
‘This is your name but you are not Nigerian?’ He asks, breaking into laughter, teeth flashing a wide smile, looking ahead at the traffic kissed by a crimson sunset. He honks and points his hand at something I do not see. He reminds me of my father, quintessentially, an African man; impassioned but ever stoic and calm.
‘It’s also a Congolese name.’ I reply.
‘Oh, Congo! Ali Boma Ye!’ I laugh as if hearing this for the first time.
‘It’s very common in Nigeria, this name.’
‘I know. Everyone assumes I’m Nigerian at first. I’m learning there are some of the same names and words; Bola, Ikoyi or Buka for example…’
‘Even the way we call for Taxis is the same, that smooching sound…’
‘Like this…’ He smooches his lips together, and it rings loud in the enclosed space of the taxi. I attempt to imitate and fail miserably.
‘Yes, that. I can’t do it. Anyway, there are lots of similarities, but I think the main difference is, we Congolese are better dancers.’
He smiles, breaking again into a laugh, which he does so easily.
‘We have to remember,’ he says,’ these borders are not our own. Our ancestors travelled lands far and wide and knew each other well.’
‘True. We are a people of beginnings.’
I look to the right and see rows and rows of floating thatched faded wooden and tin homes on the water, and boats, small boats and canoes, absent of its fishermen. Smoke lingers closely above, as though a cloud that refuses to rain and refuses to leave. And high above that, another cloud.
On the bridge, we do not move. I wonder what it must look like from the sky, now black, to be stuck, one behind another, in rows and rows of cars or homes, on the bridge or on the water.
‘What do you think of Lagos?’ He asks.
‘You know, it feels very familiar. It feels like home.’
‘Yes. It is just like Kinshasa; the energy, the hustle, the bustling streets, the orange-red dust, the rusting brown roofs; the floods, the only difference is the languages. But If I watch, and mute everything, it feels like I’m looking at my home city.’
‘Home is everywhere; and anywhere we find it.’ He adds.
‘And nowhere too,’ I say, in a whisper, which he does not hear; which I barely even hear.
‘Are you married?’ He asks jovially, skipping the rear view mirror, now looking back directly at me. His skin, stretched, dark, is beautiful, old but youthful. He holds the smile on his face, as if I have already answered his question with a fairy tale of a love that crossed continents and overcame all odds.
‘No.’ I reply. He looks forward again. ‘Not married.’ I pause. His face remains the same. ‘Maybe in a few years.’
‘You know the musician, Nat King Cole?’ He says.
‘I think it was he who said, it is good to marry young.’
‘Maybe, but it’s difficult for me to think about marriage now.’
‘Yes. Time. It is a question of time. I think about my previous relationships, and if I would have married any of them, I know I would not be able to do what I am doing now; I would not have found myself.’ He nods in agreement, approval even. ‘So I remained married to my books.’
I hesitate to ask about him, about whether he is married, I want to but I do not wish to disturb his contentment. He is zen-like whilst driving; his two hands clasp on the steering wheel as if in prayer.
‘And it’s hard to get to know someone, you know. That can take years.’ I say, filling the growing silence.
‘I was in a relationship once, many years ago.’ He says, in a smile, looking back ever out to the traffic. ‘I was in love. I gave everything to that woman.’ He exhales deeply.
‘We knew each other for years, we knew everything about each other. And then, one day, she left. It broke me down, destroyed me. I did not touch another woman for 16 years. I tried to kill myself three times.’ I feel my stomach shrink into itself, my skin flakes from the lack.
‘It did not work. And after, I met a woman, who I loved, and had only known for a short time. We married. We are together now.’
‘Everything in its own time.’ He says. We finally move.
I lie in bed sleepless, staring at the ceiling in the darkness, enveloped by the silence of the city thinking back about this man. I now understand his tranquillity, his contentment, why his arms remained stretched outright, like a praying mantis, on the steering wheel; it was because his god had arrived, and he, like this city, was alive.
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