This is the first draft of a story that, almost a year and a few reincarnations later, I still have not figured out. It keeps refusing to work. Maybe someay soon I’ll share the second draft.
“Look at you. Look at yourself. Just look at you this old man,” the conductor said.
“Next time you call bus-stop. You call bus-stop and wait to hear your passengers. You listen. You don’t talk as if words and not air are what you live on, ehn. You wait and you listen.”
“You are a stupid man,” the conductor said. “I am just giving you respect because of your old age, you are a stupid man. In fact, I should have beaten you. If you were somebody else I would have dragged you.” Like a violent wave the muscles in his arm rippled as he threw a balled fist into the air.
“Ehhen na. Come and drag me. Listen to advice, you hear, listen to advice. Stupid boy. See how far we have to walk now because that your mouth won’t close. If you don’t know your job is it not better to kill yourself? Your mates are doing big-big things with their lives you are here doing ordinary conductor. And the conductor even, you cannot do. What can you do?
“You have no shame. This man, you have no shame. My mates? Your own mates are at home with their grandchildren, you are here fighting conductor. You have no shame. I’m telling you if it were somebody else I would have dragged the person. Foolish man. I don’t have your time. I don’t have your time.” He ran as he talked. He jumped forward to cling to the beaten yellow bus hobbling away.
“You, you cannot say anything abi? Standing there looking like atulu,” the old man turned and said to the boy as he snatched the bag from his hands. The boy watched him fumble with its zip, pulling it to himself like it was some piece of cloth he was ready to tear apart. From the bag came the old man’s cane. He straightened it out and with it beat the ground to test its firmness. Without zipping the bag shut he thrust it into the boy’s waiting arms. The boy collected it, his face betraying nothing. If he was livid or ecstatic you wouldn’t know. He might as well have just been woken from sleep.
“That you can watch your father being treated this way and not say anything says a lot about you if you don’t know. But I won’t say anything. Just keep going like this. You’ll see your end, and then you’ll remember I told you so. Your father told you so.”
The boy took his father’s palm in his and walked at a pace he was certain the old man could follow. The old man’s silence was a UFO, rumored only to exist among a few circles. But the boy had his ways. Twenty-three years teaches you experience if nothing else.
The old man had a flare for the dramatic. He could see, although barely, and could walk just fine—fine enough to navigate his way alone anyway. But he insisted the boy followed him to his monthly appointments. He’d insist they hold hands like a blind man and his guide. It was a family tradition he wanted to maintain, the visits to the hospital. The men of the house spending some time alone together without his wretched wife there to soil it. The only sun that bunched the thick dark clouds that characterized the years of his midlife against the horizon like cotton puffs chased by bellows were the little adventures to the hospital with his son in tow. His glaucoma wasn’t this severe in those days. They would walk hand in hand, their roles interchanged, father leading son. They would arrive at the doctor’s where nurses would grab onto the boy, caressing his cheeks and stuffing his mouth full of sweets. How he cherished those memories. They were safely locked away in the vault of his mind, unlocked only to be revisited and purred over in times of solitude, when the clouds gathered and lightning like an angry vein would flash in the skies and thunder would rumble in disapproval. The memories were his canopy.
The boy’s betrayal had begun in his teenage years. He would sit still on the bed he shared with no sibling, his arms crossed in silent protest, face a mask of defiance, and would refuse to follow. But any child’s resolve no matter how thickened is easily dissolved by his father’s scolding. And every parent knows a few whips of the ever reliant koboko is a potent cure for teenage angst, however temporary.
Teenagers become youths and the whip becomes obsolete but what the child sees from the top of the tree the elder sees sitting down with his legs crossed. He would remind his son that he had catered for him all these years, along with his mother, yes, but what did that woman know about anything? She had stayed home to sit and gossip with neighbors while he went out to fend for both mother and son. So he had done it all alone. Did the child think being a patriarch was an easy task? The least he could do to repay him for his labors was to once a month lead his blinding father to the hospital for his appointments with the doctor. That wasn’t too much, was it? On days when son remained particularly headstrong, a brief reminder that his pocket money was a portion of the pension of the man who was seeking his assistance would cure him of his stupidity.
The boy assisted his father, lowering him down to sit on the chair, a row of them at the reception of the ophthalmology/ENT building. It was a small gyre of a courtyard, with the sun coming through its translucent roof, surrounded by a circle of examination rooms and pharmacy, then offices and stores, and at last surgical theaters and admission rooms. The son rummaged through the inside of the bag. He came out with a turquoise card which he took with him to stand on a line where other patients stood, leaving his father sitting alone.
There were three women in front of him. The first had her gele draped across her sagging shoulders. Her wrapper required the support of one hand as it hung loosely around her waist. She ducked her head to speak through the small hole in the wall, behind which a girl the boy’s age sat, listening, and signing on the woman’s card. Her fat cheeks bounced as she chewed ferociously on a stick of gum. Her left arm was shelved in a blue jug brimming with dirty naira notes. The boy had tried to make an acquaintance out of her on their previous visits. He hoped it would lead to a deep friendship, and from there, a brief relationship that would leave him satisfied, and her, well, it didn’t really matter. He would stand there looking at her through the small hole in the wall, dreaming up things he could do to her, would do to her. But she was always so curt. She never looked up when she signed his father’s card, and his polite greetings were barely acknowledged, getting a mumbled reply or an absent nod.
The hospital smelled like hospitals smelled—medicines and open sores, with that acrid reek of antiseptic floating off the floor. The man sat and chewed his fingernails, a habit old age had refused to curb. He looked around as he chewed. People arrived to sit on the bench beside him, others behind him, old men and women with their patient wards, young ones with their agile bones. He wondered what it was that had overcome the boy recently, had resulted in his brooding. He was so nonreactive these days, would just stand and watch, silent at things that would otherwise push an elephant to act. Was his brain slowing being ate away by some tick? It would have been a different matter were it a behavior he’d exhibited since childhood. He’d had known it was some brain disease he’d gotten from that woman’s womb.
He wasn’t always like this, the boy, no, whose face used to be perpetually bent into a smile. It would take everything to get him to sit still, jumping from place to place, so nimble, riotous, zestful with activities. How old was he, how much had he grown that life had shrouded him in this cloak of despair, drained the joy out of him? These young people of today, they acted like they had seen it all, when they knew nothing. They carried heavy faces everywhere like they were shouldering the world’s burdens. Oh—how he wished the boy had an idea what growing up felt like, how much he did not know, how large a portion of his canvas was still left blank, waiting for life to paint it how it saw fit. He wished he knew what he didn’t know.
Beside the boy an orderly in green scrubs wheeled a trolley of files and cards into the girl’s little office. The boy shuffled on his feet waiting for his turn. When it came he stood in front of the hole in the wall. The girl chewed her gum like a sheep chews its cud, her lips jutting forward in a mechanical motion. She talked with the orderly with her eyelids fluttering like butterfly wings, her smacking lips bent into a smile. Nurses in their prim white gowns and green pinafores reaching down to their knees, neat white caps perched on the crown of their heads, crossed the courtyard as if in a hurry. They shuffled from room to room and would only exchange a tense smile like a grimace to acknowledge one another when their paths crossed.
The boy put his arm through the hole and rapped his fingers on the table on which the blue jug sat. He laid the card on the table and drummed his fingers on it. That caught the girl’s attention. She looked to the boy, who was now wearing a smile, and pursed her lips. She looked like someone on whose tongue the face of half a lime had been dragged through like a paint brush on a fence.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” she said, finally looking at the boy after so long.
Before the boy could speak, perhaps tell a joke to deflate the tension, a compliment to impress the lady, melt her steeled demeanor, a shout erupted from behind. The boy could only stand still and pray to the heavens. Not now, not now, he thought. Not when he was finally presented his opportunity.
“What do you mean you are busy, ehn, what is the meaning of that?” The old man struggled his feet. His cane, not completely straightened out before its support was sought, clattered to the floor. But only a few things can deter a determined old man, and fewer still when the action is one that comes naturally, like a fly perching on an open sore, or a pet goat chewing a family’s tuber of yam—do you chastise it for doing what it was always going to do, what it was created to do?
“Is that what they are paying you for? To laugh like a hyena because boy is toasting you? You don’t know he’s deceiving you, small girl, he only wants to sleep with you and run away. When he sleeps with you that is the end, you will get pregnant and will leave you to deal with it yourself. You are busy. Is it because it is government job? You think you can do anyhow, you are busy. You think we are here to play? You think we that are here are not busy? Or what is the meaning of that?”
The boy stood with his hands on his face. Busy nurses left their duty posts to come stand by his father, pleading with him to quiet down, “She wasn’t thinking,” they said, but that only seemed to fuel the old man’s already kindling fire. Higher and higher, his voice rose. His fury was like a charging bull, it knew no reason, would not stop until it made to shreds its target, would keep going until the hapless fellow found an escape. “She wasn’t thinking? Does this one even know how to think? We are waiting here, and common money collector that she is, simple job to sign card, she is doing shakara. What if she is now a doctor, will she make us wait years before she agrees to attend to us?”
The boy did not see why the nurses were pleading. Did they not know it would solve nothing? This was his father, the man making a scene, embarrassing foe and family, this was who he was. He was this way the last time they visited, when he had almost slipped on the wet floor, not really, but he said he had, and had screamed for the janitor, who wisely stayed away. The time before that, he had put up a tirade, always finding the littlest thing to complain about. He had been like this all through his childhood. They would drive to the hospital where female nurses would cradle his head, and in his mouth like it was a bureau of drawers they would shelve sweet after sweet, while his father would go into the doctor’s office. His raised voice would suddenly be audible and the nurses would laugh and whisper, saying his father gave instructions to the doctors as if he, and not them, attended medical school for seven years. The boy would suck on his sweets in quiet discomfiture, feigning incomprehensibility at what the older people around him discussed.
When three months ago they had moved to another city, they had visited this hospital, referred to them by the former one, and their first visit had been christened by his father’s shouts, complaining sluggishness in their handling of things, making a scene just so he could be known—Oh I’m here, know me, recognize me, look how loud this lungs can go! And these ones were begging as if begging helped the last two times. Let begging bring world peace. When he grew tired he would stop. And stop he did, when he decided he had made mincemeat of the silly girl.
She had signed his appointment card, the nurses urging her to forego the two hundred naira registration fee, and a doctor had hurried him into an examination room. The usual questions—do you use your eye drops regularly, do you see white floating things when you look up or sideways or blink—were asked while a sheet in a file was being written into. His chin was raised, his eyes examined with an ophthalmoscope, patiently, as he blinked and with his hands mopped the eyes clean of tears. There was more writing into the sheet, before the doctor said, “Okay, I don’t want to scare you, and this is only a speculation, I’m not sure yet so you can remain calm, but we probably will have to operate on the eye.”
“What do you mean operate? Operate what? Why? I’ve been going to my other doctor for how many years now, no talk of operation, how many months here and you’re saying you want to operate. If you want to take my money just say it or what is the meaning of this? Is that how you people do? If I had known I would have gone to another hospital oo, or what am I doing here sef?”
“No, no, sir. I’m not even sure yet, you’ll have to remain calm. We’ll have to carry out more tests, maybe switch your Betoptic to Xalatan, see —“
“What do you mean you’re not sure? Eh am I even in a hospital? Are you a doctor? You’re not sure? So what am I paying you for? What am I paying you for if you don’t know?”
“Sir, you know what? It’s fine. You’re fine. Nothing to worry about. You just go on, it’s fine.”
“It better be oo, it better be. Because I don’t know the meaning of you don’t know. You don’t know. You better know.”
The doctor sent him away with a prescription pad and a relieved sigh. They wouldn’t have to deal with him until the next month, and that was enough to be thankful for.
The door was ajar when they arrived home. The boy, having left his father way behind, briefly bent his head to greet his mother and her visitor in the living room, threw the bag onto the sofa, and walked into his room, shutting the door behind him. He had hardly taken off his shoes when he heard his father’s voice saying, “What is this woman doing in my house?”
The boy shed himself of his clothes one after the other until he was naked. He grabbed the towel draped over the wardrobe door and walked into the bathroom. He grew up listening to the shouts of his parents. When he remembered his childhood, he heard the raised voices of his parents going on for hours. Father’s about how his wife’s family were against him and were intent on using juju to kill him, mother’s on how her husband’s sperm was too watery to give her more than one child, and the one it brought was, in fact, a miracle. He could never say what would start the fight. It could be water left running at a tap, food cooked not early enough, father arriving too late; all he knew was that it always dissolved, like flesh thawing off a carcass to reveal bones, into these two things.
Neighbors who visited to quell the quarrels would have their pleas buried in the shouting match. After a few hours they would leave, the boy left alone to watch in helplessness his dueling parents. It took only a short while before the neighbors got used to the shouts. They stopped coming around. It became one of the things that served as a backdrop for their street, the fights a normal occurrence, like sleep. Some couples had dinners, some made love, this one fought.
When they moved to a new city, the boy, thinking himself an adult, had sat his parents down and advised them. Did they not see that their constant fighting brought nothing but shame to their family? Even a baby that had soiled itself would wail until it had its diapers changed; why were they intent on walking around with shit on their faces? They could not go their separate ways, that much was sure—what would people say? Besides, man was too old and blind to cater to himself, woman with no source of income; they needed each other and both were acutely aware of it. The only solution was for them to act like the adults they were, learn to live with each other’s differences. Father and mother had apologized to son, then to each other, both hugging and saying while one patted the other’s back, “Oh what a fine wise son we have raised, we did something right, dear, we did something right.” But night had come and like the talk was something that happened in a dream or in some other time, and not that afternoon, boy had heard parents going at it: “Useless woman.” “Unfortunate man.”
The boy was out the bathroom and the voices still raged on. “She wanted to poison me,” he heard the voice of his father say. He sat on his bed. He needed them to stop, just stop shouting. He wrapped his towel around his waist. Of what need was a shirt? He let himself out his room and into the living room. No one looked his way. Mother and father did not see him there, acclimating to the scene. The visitor, a little woman who somehow found enough space in herself to shrink into herself, sat on the sofa, her hands fumbling with the edge of her wrapper and her mouth moaning, “It’s okay, it’s okay, I will go.” Parents stood with their faces thrust at each other, mouths playing a game of Who-can-shout-louder. He had promised himself every day since childhood that he’d never turn out like them, would be better.
There was the television hanging on the wall. His parents the red sea and he the Israelites, he stomped through them and towards the television. He heaved it to himself and smashed it on the floor. There. He had their attention now. He had so much air to let loose. A vase stood on the center table and he sent it flying across the room. He then made little diamonds of the center table itself. “See what you’re making me do,” he cried as he hit his father in the stomach and, the figure doubling over clutching his stomach, pushed him to the floor to fellowship with the shattered glass, the father dragging the boy’s towel down with him. The visitor was up now, pleading, crying, holding the boy back. But in a battle of the feebly flowing river against the rooted stone, the latter will always prevail, the former parting when they meet. So it came as no surprise when the woman found herself crashing against the sofa where she once sat, after a slight push from an angry arm.
She was his mother and what mother flees from her son who lived inside her for nine months, sucked dry her breasts for three times that, where would such a mother be found? But the brain, as impartial an organ as any could be, is quick to alert her that she calculated wrong, and should indeed have run, when a shove between those two breasts sends her flying across the room. The boy returned to his room and locked shut his door. There’s this effect adrenaline has on the body after it leaves, seeping away through the skin, that makes it shut down, so the boy goes to sleep. He was awoken hours later, the sun gliding toward the horizon like a football sailing over a fence, to what he recognized as the raised voice of his parents, steadily rising higher, higher, coming from the living room.