My mother said there was something they drank that made their voices sour, something that made their voices hoarse and hollow like a ghost’s spectral cough.
Sonnie must have drunk it, just like the many other bus conductors hanging out of Lagos buses like demented monkeys, their rasping voices screaming: “Oshodi o! One more yansh!”
I knew so many conductors; I met them every day on my way to and from school. I watched them scream out their routes, the veins standing out on their necks like excited snakes. They were people I saw for fleeting moments, for two or three bus stops, like figures glimpsed in a fog; men without history, without anchors. But Broda Sonnie was the only one I really knew. I knew what he looked like when he was not hanging from a speeding bus and screaming like a demon.
When I was eight years old, I told my mother that I would like to be a conductor when I grew up. The slap my mother gave me still stings today, three long years later. “When your father left, I thought he was gone for good,” she said and flung her Scholl slippers at me where I huddled in the corner, rubbing my cheeks and crying softly. “I didn’t know he had infected you with his foolishness.”
My mother never spoke about my father except when she was angry, especially when I made her angry, and then it was always to tell me how I had been infected with his foolishness.
I don’t remember my father. My auntie Ruth told me he left when I was two.
“He ran away with a woman he used to go and drink beer with in her beer parlour. That your father, he was a serious womaniser.”
I like so many things about Auntie Ruth: the way she tosses her head when she laughs and the way her laughter thunders like a man’s; the way she used to put my head between her warm thighs and cut my hair with a comb and tiger razor blade. And I liked to stand outside the window and watch her dress, knowing that she knew I was watching, yet pretending not to know.
I remember the day she surprised me as I leaned against the crack in the door.
“Oya, come inside and watch, you hear,” she said, standing naked before me, my eyes level with her dark and taut nipples. My face was flushed as I clamped a hand over my crotch to hide my rising shame. Looking down at me, Auntie Ruth laughed her manly laugh and said, “This boy, you are your father’s son.”
She was the one who spoke to me about my father: how my mother had married him against the wishes of her family; how it was love at first sight, and how my father had a roving eye and a throat that was always thirsty.
“If he didn’t drink beer, he couldn’t go to sleep and your mother didn’t mind. You know, they say a man without a vice is a dangerous man. Your mother let him drink, but she began to worry when he refused to drink at home. Maybe it was her sixth sense, because it was when he was out that he met the woman he ran away with and broke your mother’s heart.”
“Is that why mother is always so sad?” I asked.
“Yes,” Auntie Ruth said.
“But it happened so long ago,” I said and Auntie Ruth smiled and stroked my head. “Sometimes sadness is like a scar. It never goes away.” My mother always told me I should not talk to Sonnie, but
I liked to talk to him. I liked to sit with him and watch him count the dirty naira notes he came back with from work.
We called him Broda Sonnie because he was older than all of us, but not so old as to be somebody’s father. He was old enough to work and old enough to smoke cigarettes and not hide it when an adult appeared.
His mother was the landlord’s sister and because the landlord lived at Ikorodu and came to collect rent only once every six months, everyone paid their money to her and called her Mama Caretaker.
Sonnie was her only child. She gave birth to five children but four of them had died before her husband also passed away. So every night when Sonnie jumped off the bus, the sound of his slippers on the macadam echoing like a wet banger, Mama Caretaker would hug him and then she would dance and thank God for not letting the ever-hungry road swallow her only son. She lived in mortal fear that the road would yawn open one day and claim him.
Sonnie liked to smoke Simon Black and I liked to sit and inhale the beautiful aroma, especially on Sundays when I’d sit with him and the other older boys who came to our yard to lift weights and shoot the breeze. I liked the way they teased one another as they competed to see who could lift the heaviest weights. Most of the guys came from the adjoining streets, including Mufu, Risi’s big brother and his two friends, the ones everyone called Ayatollahs because they wore their beards long and always dressed in flowing gowns. But after Mufu went to Mecca, he didn’t come any more and then we heard that he had bought original weights in his compound but they were only for Muslims and not for Christian infidels.
I wondered then what he meant when he called Broda Sonnie a Christian infidel because, though Broda Sonnie was not a Muslim, I never saw him go to church. Still, Mufu stopped coming to lift weights in our compound and he asked Sonnie to stop seeing his sister because he was a Christian infidel.
When someone couldn’t lift a particular weight, the others would laugh and call him “woman wrapa.” It was always like that and sometimes if we, the small ones, joined in the laughter, one of the wicked older boys would give one of us a knock on the head if we laughed too loud, especially if the joke was on him.
But no-one beat me because they knew they would get into trouble with Broda Sonnie, so I stayed there all the time and smiled when they called me omo Igbo-Aburo Sonnie.
I liked to watch Broda Sonnie lift weights. I liked the way the muscles rippled under his skin like caged snakes seeking escape routes. His skin was dark and rough and covered with scars that looked like malevolent tattoos, and every single scar had a story behind it.
“This one was the day we fought soldiers at Oshodi,” he would tell me when the yard had emptied and I was sitting and watching him smoke before he had his bath. “That day, they broke my driver’s head and I was just running away when the man threw his knife at me. Bastard! The knife would have entered my heart if I hadn’t turned on time. Kai, you should have seen the blood. I thought I would bleed to death.”
He always spoke to me in lilting Yoruba, spiced sometimes with English words or expressions. He spoke slowly because he said I was too Igbo to understand if he spoke as fast as he normally did on the bus, and I always marveled at how normal his voice sounded at home but different once he got on the bus, as if bus conductors had a uniform for the voice, something they put on to disguise their real voices.
“This one nko, what happened?” I asked, tracing a finger over a scar that stretched from his belly button and disappeared into his pants.
“That one, na wa!” he said, his voice dropping low to a conspiratorial whisper. “That was from a girl, one fine girl I used to eye at Obalende. One day we went out and I by forced her. When I finished and was resting, she took a razor blade to cut off my John Thomas. God saved me that day.”
He liked to tell me stories and he could sense that I liked to listen and once in a while, after I had helped him write a letter to a girl he liked, or helped him calculate his money, he would squeeze a five naira note into a ball and stuff it into my trouser pocket. “Omo Igbo, don’t let your mother see this money. Her wahala is too much.”
And whenever my mother did catch me with Sonnie, she would pinch my ear lobe between her thumb and middle fingers and squeeze until I yelped like a dog.
“I have told you. This foolishness your father gave you must go away, you hear?” My ear tingling, and blinded by my tears, I would nod and say yes.
I liked to write love letters for Broda Sonnie. He’d sit on the bed and smoke while I sat at the foot of the bed and wrote. The things he asked me to write were things that had happened to him while at work on the bus.
At the beginning, I wrote to many girls and most of the things he told me to write were things he said to impress the girls: how policemen chased him and his driver through eight different streets; how they knocked down a policeman at an illegal checkpoint in Mushin and refused to stop; how there was a riot at Obalende and their bus was the only one that escaped without a broken windscreen because no Area Boy dared touch Sonnie Omo Edo-Bendel’s bus.
But when I began to write to Risika, Sonnie stopped boasting. He would sit on his bed, his voice low and serious as he spoke words that seemed to come from a different person, not the rough, hard-living conductor who defied policemen and touts. Love made him calm, like my mother had been when she went to the hospital to remove her appendix and they gave her an injection that made her so slow she couldn’t even lift her hands to beat me when I spilt the Lucozade.
Risi was in the boarding house at a teachers’ training institute in Oshogbo and Broda Sonnie would ask me to write to her every month end, as soon as her reply to his last missive arrived.
“So that by the time she has finished digesting that one, another will be on the way,” he would say, and I would settle by the foot of the bed, pick up my pen and paper and begin to write, as he spoke in that strange voice that didn’t seem to belong to him.
It’s been two weeks now since I wrote to you. I am well and working hard. I am saving money too so that I can buy that bus I have been telling you about. It is not easy to buy a bus but if you are serious and you can save, anything is possible.
For two months now I have not touched alcohol or gone to a joint to smoke. I want you to know that I am ready to do everything you say if only you will continue to love me as you have promised.
I know it is only one year before you finish your TC2 and I hope that by then I will have saved enough money to buy the bus so that I can be my own oga and not have to balance anybody. Then we can get married and live in happiness.
Your brother is still fighting me but I have decided to leave him to his God Allah. They used to say my eyes are red, but if you see me now you will know that I have stopped going to the joint to smoke gbana and I know that everything will be all right.
I know you say I should not be buying you something every time I write so that I can save enough money for the bus. But don’t worry, I am saving and this is just a small something for you to enjoy yourself.
It’s me, your darling,
I liked Risi and whenever she came to see Broda Sonnie she would buy me chocolates or digestive biscuits and even though she never said it, I was sure she knew I was the one who wrote the letters. I liked the way she walked as if she was gliding on air and I used to marvel at the way Broda Sonnie behaved when she was around. He would smile the way the people who win the Lotto smile on Saturday nights on the network news.
Risi’s father was an Alhaji and he had built a mosque, two streets away from ours, where all the Muslims in our area used to worship on Fridays. At first, people liked Risi’s father because he had dug a borehole where people could fetch water without paying. Then he went to Mecca with Mufu and when they came back everything changed. Mufu said only Muslims could fetch water from the taps and if you were not a Muslim and you came there, the Ayatollahs would chase and whip you with koboko. Mama Ndu and the other women in my compound gossiped that a big Saudi Muslim had given Risi’s father one hundred million naira to convert all the people in our area into Muslims.
“The wahala those people will cause in this area, only God knows,” Mama Ndu would say whenever Mufu drove past in his Hiace van, Islamic music blaring from the speakers he had mounted on the roof.
When Risi wrote, Broda Sonnie would call me to read out her letter to him and I remember the last letter I read out for him, the last letter that brought everything to an end. I can still remember it word for word because after I read it to him, Broda Sonnie had dashed out of the house and I had folded the letter and stuck it into my trouser pocket.
My darling Sonnie,
I hope all is well with you?
I don’t know if you have heard of Romeo and Juliet, but these days every time I think of you and me, I always think I am Juliet and you are Romeo and that something terrible will happen to us. I know you won’t understand what I mean, so when I come back you must remind me to tell you the story of Romeo and Juliet.
I will finish my exams on the 16th and even though I have told Alhaji and Broda Mufu that I will return on the 18th, I will come back to Lagos on the 17th and spend the night with you. My brother has said he does not want me to visit you during my holiday and I do not want to offend him.
So prepare for me and you will have my love all night.
I love you,
“When is the 18 ?” Broda Sonnie asked.
”Tomorrow,” I said, and he screamed and rushed out of the room.
I didn’t see Risi arrive. But we all knew she was in the house when we were awakened that morning by six men, led by Risi’s brother and the Ayatollahs.
“Sonnie! Omo Buruku. Open this door,” Mufu screamed.
As the tenants trooped out of their rooms they were met by six heavily-armed men bearing daggers, machetes and a locally-made pistol. The men asked everyone to stand aside. And we stood aside and waited until Broda Sonnie, tired of the clamour, stepped out of his room, his mother and Risi tugging at his arm and begging him to step back inside.
But he refused and there was something about him, a look of quiet acceptance and calm, that hung over him like a shroud as he walked out to the front of the compound and was encircled by Mufu and his Muslim brothers.
“Mufu, I love your sis…” he began, when Mufu stepped forward and stabbed him in the stomach.
Shock and pain coloring his face, Broda Sonnie reached for the dagger, but Mufu drew it out and stabbed him again. Then, as Sonnie sank to his knees, the other men attacked, hacking away until all that was left was a bloody mass.
Mama Caretaker’s scream still echoes in my head.
Toni Kan is an award winning poet, essayist and short story writer. He is one of Nigeria’s most anthologized young writers. He is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection When a dream lingers too long and the novella Ballad of Rage, both of which received honorable mention at the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and LNG Literature prize competitions in 2003 and 2004 respectively. His works have appeared in Salthill, Drumvoices Revue, Farafina, Sentinel Poetry Quarterly and the ANA Review.