I had seen you before. But that day, you gingering towards me, wagging a finger at my nose, you looked strange. The open-and-close anchor locket swung against your sweaty chest as you spoke in pidgin: that shot goal na. Why you come say e no score? You no wan my team play?
You scowled and contorted your mouth; the words came out as bubbles, syllables chasing one another in a half-run. Your teammates held you back and called me all sorts of names. Broke, chill, the boy na chicken na. Him no sabi.
I made sure my ears were well above the noise to hear the yellow weavers atop the cassia, behind the stadium fence. I backed away from you, trying to prevent the clouds in my voice from letting loose.
Your guys finally calmed you. You took the ball, kicked it hard over the fence, muttering as you went to sit behind the post.
You came to me beside the goal post when it was almost night, and the matches were over. You didn’t say a word, and I didn’t look up. You watched me take off the soccer boots and roll the hoses off my legs. I packed my things in my Cowbell bag, slung it across my shoulder, ready to go, before you talked.
“Neymar, right?” you asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“You play like him,” you said, removing a reed stuck to the hairs of your leg.
“Thanks.” I looked away, not wanting to be flattered.
“What’s your real name sef?”
A guy in a lemon A-shirt came over to tell me the Manchester United match was starting soon. We jogged off, our legs kicking up dust against the rusted gate.
The next day, you came to join me on the floorboard between the collapsed fences. We were the only ones on the field. I watched your black figure sway towards me in the hot breeze, in the middle, where the grassy field was all a circle of sand.
You extended your right hand and scratched the back of your head with the other. “What’s on, bruv?”
“Cool.” I took your hand, snapping fingers behind each other’s thumb.
Two guys walked towards us from the other side of the stadium. One of them had the black-and-white ball under his arm. I noticed, as you kept your gaze straight, back bent over with your weight resting on your thighs, that you were concentrating on them. When you finally found yourself, you said, “I’m sorry about yesterday,” the faint frequency of your voice waving with the swaying branches over us.
“It’s nothing, bro. I understand,” I said.
“So, are you a Man U fan?”
It amazed me the way you jumped from one topic to another. “Nope. Juventus,” I replied, wishing you would stop asking questions, even though I still wanted to hear your voice.
“Oh, you guys did well against Man U.” You stood up to meet the ball rolling over to us. The two guys were nearby, and the one with the ball had kicked it towards us. I stood to take a pass from you, kicking the ball high in the sky as if to stone the white disc of the sun.
It took a few weeks before you reappeared. So that when Matthew, my next-door neighbor and church member, brought you to our house, I needed a careful stare to know who was who. I heard him tell mummy that you were the new chaplain’s son at Bowen University before she let you in.
You gave me a sliding handshake and sat on my study chair. I asked why you had not been coming to the field for the past three weeks. You said you had been ill. Did I not know? Malaria. You’d been admitted to hospital.
“Sorry man,” I said.
You picked up an old exercise book under my OAU Post UTME Crush and asked where I got the Alma Rome notebook. I looked up from my phone and said I attended summer lessons at the school throughout my junior classes.
“And do you know me?”
“You?” I sat up in the bed, rested my back on the wall, and began to fiddle with the pillow on my legs.
“I know you na,” you said. “Who doesn’t know you? Are you not Novice, the girls’ guy? I remembered we started calling you Novice during junior-class-one summer because you couldn’t hold the table tennis bat. Yeah. Novi for short.” You let out chuckles that resonated and bounced off the walls of the room like beach balls. You dropped the book and added, amidst chuckling, that only God knows how many love letters I read then.
You took Ayọ́bámi Adèbáyọ̀’s Stay with Me from in between NoViolent Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah on my bookshelf and said, “O boy, you fancy fiction o. No wonder the shelf in the hallway is so big. But wait, do you only read African books?”
“Interesting,” you said, flipping through the brown pages that smelt like newly printed newspapers. I suppressed the urge to laugh; I was sure you didn’t know much about foreign books, and I didn’t want to laugh at it.
You fiddled with my phone, an old Infinix Smart, your touches making popping sounds against the soft screen, as I devoured the plate of jollof rice Mummy had brought in. You didn’t want to eat, even when I said Mummy had fried one of her chickens to a golden brown for you. Each time I spoke, you threw a laugh at the dimly lit screen, feet softly tapping on the red rug, the cadence of your voice adding flavor to the smells of maggi and pepper-reddened oil.
“It’s getting late,” you said, switching on the desk lamp, drawing down the window curtains. You stood up to stretch, hands slightly brushing against the ceiling fan. I cracked one last bone of chicken, packed the food onto the bedside table, then led you to the door.
Outside, the moon was silver milk, casting shadows of bushes, houses and shops across the lone, untarred road. We walked on the left-hand side, scared that if we didn’t, a car would come from behind and knock us off the road.
I tapped you on the shoulder. You removed your earphones, and I asked if it was not too late to go home.
“No now, this is just past eight,” you said, returning to your neck dance.
At the Grammar school before the main road, where you would turn left for a five-minute walk to Bowen gate, you typed your number on my phone and backed away, still bouncing to your music. (I later found out that you didn’t take your iPhone around because of the Yahoo-Yahoo contents on it.)
As you turned away, the breeze blew your unbuttoned shirt to reveal, on your undervest, a stem of a flower with cracked hearts as leaves.
“You go visit me tomorrow, Abi?”
The following day, I met you outside the fitness center, leaning against a pole, arms folded across your chest, tongue puffing out your cheeks. Your tan shirt added a touch of bright glamor to your brown shorts and dark skin.
You beamed your hello, said you wanted me to meet your parents. We headed for the staff quarters, even though you knew Reverend would be at the university chaplaincy. You told me Reverend wouldn’t be what I expected, that he used a wheelchair. A surgeon had mistakenly needled his spinal cord, you said. Stupid man. But the real stupid thing was that the careless doctor was not in jail because Reverend refused to press charges.
I didn’t know what to say. Sorry? Eyah?
Your mom was the only one at home. Your two sisters had gone to choir practice. I searched for your eyes or nose or mouth on your mummy’s face as she answered my greeting, smiling. If not for the voice, it’d be hard to believe she gave birth to you.
We sat in your room, talking as we sipped chilled orange juice. Your room was larger than mine and fancier. The walls were cream-colored, like your palms. A big wardrobe, with the same brown of the wooden door, stood against the wall, opposite a window opened above a neatly made bed. There were three vases of artificial flowers sitting on the nightstand. Adjacent to the wardrobe was a large wallpaper with the glossy image of a white Jesus fingering a burning heart-shaped object on his chest. The curtains and the bedsheets were made from the same chocolate-colored material.
We talked about colors, flowers, butterflies, music and football, arguing whenever our views clashed, and then you said you wanted to meet my father.
I hated talking about my father, or my family for that matter because some things were better swallowed, kept down and never spoken. You were proud of being the last born and the only son, but I wasn’t, even though I was the only male child among countless children. Anyway, I told you that my daddy was a polygamist. You kept quiet and then you changed the topic. I was relieved, at least I wouldn’t have to tell how my birth had ruined my parents’ marriage.
You brought up university. You had written the Joint Admission Matriculation Board examinations and was expecting your results. I wrote mine last year and was now at Obafemi Awolowo University, part one. You had chosen Tai Solarin College of Education instead of Bowen University because you wanted to be far from home. But now you regretted it. You wished you could be in the same university with me.
I tried to let you know OAU was good although slightly overhyped. Students suffered. Accommodation was terrible, and most of us paid too much to get hostels off-campus. Transportation was a mess—bus drivers would pack twenty-six people into an eighteen-seater after charging twice the regular price. And to crown it all, the Students’ Union was paralyzed.
“Could you believe that during our second semester exams students studied under solar streetlamps and in front of ATM screens?”
“Because there was no light?”
“For one good month.”
“Oh,” you said sympathetically, bring the glass cup down from your mouth.
“It was serious, man. We wrote one late evening exam with the help of a candlelight. A girl mistakenly burned her answer sheet. Funny but sad. She was not allowed to take another sheet because time was up.”
The first time I let the cloud in my voice box loose was on a Friday night. It was well past ten o’clock, and I was already sleeping when you came into my room in around neck underwear. A black shirt clung to you, showing your muscles as though clipped at the back, the way clothes are clipped to mannequins in boutiques. It gave me the impression that you visited the gym a lot. And I couldn’t help but imagine how ripped your abs would be.
You sat on the study chair, panting.
“Kí ló ṣẹlẹ̀?” I asked.
“Don’t mind them.” You swiped at the air as if to zap off imaginary flies.
You hissed, stood up, leaned your head against the wall above the study desk. “Everyone,” you said. “Oyin and Joke.”
“What did they do this time?”
“They’re your elders. Wetin dem do sef?” I asked.
“Well, leave that for now. Can I sleep here?”
“Of course,” I replied, both surprised and excited but trying hard to hide the excitement. “Mama and Love had gone to vigil,” I added.
In the darkness of midnight, I woke to you towering over me. You pinned down my arms and legs by my sides and brought your face close. I did not shrug, and I closed my eyes instead, waiting for your warm breath.
I was in another world.
Our hearts thumped like the banging of a drum set’s pedal against deep bass. I heard the smacking of lips and the slurping of tongues. I could feel the cloud in my throat moving smoothly towards my mouth before bursting out in rhythmic moans.
For the first time, we talked about girls. We were alone on the field waiting for the evening matches to begin. We sat down to the mangoes we’d plucked by the George Iwilade Library.
“Janet was my first love. I mean real love,” I said, digging my teeth into the creamy flesh of a mango.
You paused, washed your mango with a sachet of water before saying, “Good one, Mr. Lover Man.”
“She’s cool. Bulging eyeballs. Jet black hair. Skin glossy as an ackee seed. Did you say my lips were sexy the other night?”, I asked before giving the mango seed last hard suck. “Hers are superb,” I added. “Tight and beautifully shaped.”
“Ha-ha, Mr Poet, you can describe o.” You rolled your eyes
We talked about the other ones. Olamide: butterscotch-skinned and wide-hipped. Hannah: pointed-nosed and pink-lipped. Motunrayo: gap-toothed and pecky butts. Bolu: fair, thin-legged, and busty. And finally, Tope: alluring face and moderately curved.
“If it comes to it, can you marry her?” you asked.
“Well,” I took a deep breath, “I think I can because I can live with her.”
“O boy, you don’t marry someone you can live with; you marry the person you can’t live without,” you said and looked away.
Some guys were coming from the other side of the field. Someone had kicked the ball in front of them, and they all started chasing after it.
The day you came and met me wrapping a teddy bear around Love, I was glad you missed the embarrasing show my parents had put on earlier. I was building a network of colorful toy lorries with Love’s plastic blocks when Mummy’s voice came tumbling out of the sitting room.
“You, this wicked man! Do you want me to shout f-f-for the neighborhood to know you are a thief? Ehn?”
“Mama Emma, calm down,” daddy said, amused.
“It’s just ten thousand naira. I will return it by month end,” he added with sarcastic flourish.
“Wait a minute. Did someone send you to kill your first wife? Why can’t you borrow from the mad women in your house?” Anger choked down the rest of Mummy’s words.
When daddy muttered something unintelligible, I knew he was already at the door. He probably gave the slipped edges of his agbada some hitches, throwing arms back like a swimmer before hurrying off. Rain clouds were gathering outside.
“You’d better take some sand from the front yard and never set your cursed feet here again,” Mummy yelled after him.
Honestly, if it had come to a fight, I would have gone out to the sitting room and slapped daddy hard on the face. How bold of him to cheat on his wife and then abandon her to care for the children they had both made on top of that.
The raucous had settled by the time you walked in. I was tying the teddy bear on Love’s back like a baby.
“Let me tie the wrapper around it,” I said, trying to get hold of her. She kept running away from me.
“No, no, no,” she said as she toddled towards the door.
You helped her open the door.
“Don’t mind him jare. It’s ok as it is”, you said to Love and then turned to me, alarmed.
“There is trouble o. Reverend found out,”
“That you press button?”
“Don’t be naïve. How many times will I tell you that I’ve stopped scamming? He saw the video of our last time.”
“Shit! How did that happen?”
“Don’t know joor.” You hissed and buried your face in your palms.
“So, what are we going to do?” I asked, scared.
“Don’t know either. Reverend is unpredictable.” As an afterthought, you added, “But chillax. All is well.”
You were feeling sleepy and so you joined me on the bed. It started raining. Water poured in hard torrents, hitting the pans and the netting of the closed louvres. We could hear it slammed against the roof like the sound of a radio searching for stations.
“I’m going to camp next week. Oshogbo. It’s CACSA, our type of CAC,” I whispered before you drew your face closer under the duvet, your warm breath fresh.
I followed you to the sports complex for dance rehearsal the next day. Rehearsal had started, and people were already in the chain-linked basketball court, twirling their waists. I waited on the raked steps with your bag as you walked towards them. Not long after the tutor’s bellowing and feet stubbing had begun, two girls, one dimple-cheeked, the other slightly bow-legged, came over to me on their way to the eatery.
“I know you from somewhere,” dimple-cheeked said, smiling so that the dimples deepened even more.
I looked up from my phone and said, “Oh. But I don’t think I’ve seen this face before.” I fixed my gaze on the dimple and shook my head like a child proving their innocence. When bow-legged said that I should chaperone them all the way to the eatery, you said something I didn’t catch through the chain-link.
The girls ordered chicken and chips with chilled Hollandia yogurt. And because dimple-cheeked said she knew you well-well, I got involved in the talking, flirting, and selfie-ing that followed.
Later, while walking me back home, you kept quiet and gazed in front of us as if searching for a future, something an untutored eye cannot grasp, until we got to the gate where you turned back.
“Emma,” you said, wrapping your arm around me. “Those girls are mean. They can make you do what you don’t want. You know I…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, cutting you off.
Osogbo had fine drizzles that smelled of dry brushwood and new grasses. It made me think that God, having realized that the world he created was imperfect, was now trying to give it some finishing touches. The city had beetled, overgrown flowers lining up the walkways that divided the streets into lanes. I was damn sure I wasn’t going to like it here, as green hills, with matchbox-sized houses below them, glided across the windows of the bus.
The welcome service was superb even though the hall was overcrowded, and people clustered outside around the windows. Ecstatic cheering and clapping followed every performance. The girl beside me, a thicker version of Ariana Grande with the skin color of uncooked spaghetti, also sang. When she was done, the moderator didn’t need to say clap for Jesus before the auditorium erupted. When she came back to sit, she wore a smile so perfect it made me wonder how stunning she would look before my camera. I shunned the idea and thought instead of you.
I got a bed space in a corridor-like room with pairs of iron bunks facing each other. I stared at the topaz bulbs from my top bunk bed still thinking of you, although we had spoken for several minutes on the phone.
On Monday, I went to Holy Mary Garden at St. Charles Grammar School near the campgrounds. There were well-groomed ixora bushes, bougainvillea, hibiscus flowers and, most sweetly, butterflies that looked as if they had flown out of 3D wallpapers. I took pictures of all the flowers and butterflies, clicking and flashing. I had planned to send them to you on WhatsApp before, suddenly, without warning, my camera flickered off. I knelt and inspected the viewfinder, scared that that would be the end of the camera and, perhaps, my budding photography career. I found out later that it had merely ran out of film.
On Tuesday, I spent the cold night at a bar, sipping gin as speakers blared into the cool air. Waitresses walked up and down in the dim pink light balancing silver trays and swinging their buttocks from side to side like the girls in a GTA video game. Ladies in bras and panties either stood with legs thrust against the wall or twerked to Wizkid’s Daddy Yo, bums puffing up and down in large pants. Behind me, five guys—rat-faced, slant-mouthed, tattooed arms, dread-locked and braid-headed—chatted as they drank and exhaled thick clouds of marijuana smoke, reddened by the light.
On Wednesday, I attended the evening Bible study. I sat facing a slim girl who would not stop staring at me. She had bulging eyeballs that darted around under long curved-up lashes and high cheekbones above her thin lips. She wore a jacket over her loose gown, so I couldn’t see her shape. After the sermon, she came over and said hello, taking my hand in hers, warm and soft like a chick, and somehow, it softened me.
On Thursday, I watched a football match at a viewing center on the nearest expressway to the campgrounds. Chelsea played against Manchester United in the FA Cup final. No team scored, and so the match went to a thirty-minute extra time. The last corner kick was taken seconds to the final whistle, and a leg rose to meet the ball in an overhead kick. The ball went arching overheads and then landed into the left side corner of the net. A goal. Martial, a Manchester United player, had scored the winning goal.
Shouts of goal were muted by the sound of breaking bottles and the sight of blood. A riot had broken out. It was bound to happen because Chelsea fans had taunted Man United fans from the first minute and vice versa. They had heckled at each other throughout the match. It turned violent once Chelsea fans realized that their team had zero chance of equalizing, and why were Man U fans celebrating too loudly anyway. The chaos had ended with a Man U fan bleeding to death on the bar floor.
Two days to the end of the camp, you called. Your voice was phlegmy, and you talked as though someone had punched you in the stomach.
“Reverend is dead”, you said. “They want to do an autopsy.” Your voice trailed off. The call ended abruptly, and I wondered why. Could it have been poor network? Perhaps you ran out of airtime.
On Saturday, I got my things and left.
I’m on the bus now, and as my earphones purr Kizz Daniel’s Sofa into my ears, music and memories seep into my head, spreading like spilled kerosene on the sand. I think of Broke and that beautiful moment on the field under the early moonlight.
In Broke’s own words, it had been too early for him to go home, so we stayed back on the field that night, chatting. Post Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination results were out, and TASUED had given him Political Science.
“At least I won’t face fourteen years imprisonment if I embezzle,” he said, smiling through the nose, his tight lips spreading as he threw his head back between his shoulders. I guffawed. “Wow! See this,” I pointed at a cream-and-chocolate zebra butterfly on a leaf, glowing in the fluorescence of the moon. I squatted to snap it with my camera.
“Interesting!” He bent down to catch a full sight.
While going home, we came across some guys smoking on the front window of an incomplete building, opposite the police lounge. They were shirtless, and the light atop their pots glowed, shinning and dimming in the moonlight like orange stars. Broke went over to them, giving them slapping handshakes, while I stayed back on the untarred road. I was looking at the butterfly picture: a 1024×768 resolution of a dreamy, slightly blurred green background, with the brown butterfly in focus.
“Ruddy. Ponche. Fobia. Chenfu…” I heard Broke say before each handshake.
“Haafa Broke? Who be that guy?” A toad-like voice blasted the chilled, moonlit air.
“Na my nigga bro,” he said.
“Him no fit greet?”
From the way toad-voiced sounded, I could tell he was the leader of the gang.
“Abeg no vex. Him no saabi,” he said and came back to me.
When we had walked out of the reach of their stale breathe, he said, “They’re yahoo guys. I don’t want to get along with them anymore.”
The bus comes to a final halt at Hospital Road junction, exactly where I will turn left to board a motorcycle. The motorcycle will drop me in front of Bowen’s main gate, and I will pick my way to the staff quarters. The sun, plugged into the sky like a CCTV camera, will peep from behind a cloud.
Just then, I will see a black minivan parked in front of Broke’s apartment from two poles away. Two police officers will alight and walk past the doorstep cordylines into the house.
Som Adedayor is a Nigerian writer. He is a final year student of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun state. Longlisted for the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction, his works have been published in or forthcoming from Lolwe, The Offing, Dgëku, Agbowó, OlongoAfrica, etc.
Image (c) Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash