“E shi ‘lekun Baba!” The old woman called out from the brick-walled house that towered over my weatherworn shack. A relic of British colonial times, the house, complete with large windows, cobbled pathways, and a clay-tiled roof, sat on 2000-square feet of land. My shack, made of the same red brick as the house, occupied a meager 50-square feet and was nestled between the back fence and the doghouse. The holes in the roof served as good entrances for rain and bird droppings, which often gave the shack the smell of a dumpster. I cursed quietly as the woman’s shrill voice filtered through one of the holes, forcing me to race out of the shack, but of course, not before hitting my forehead on the doorframe. I hated opening gates for a living.
I nursed the swelling on my forehead between my fingers, convinced it was a small price to pay to avoid hearing the woman repeat her directive. Her voice was definitely several decibels above normal human range and shockingly so, considering it emanated from a small, delicate neck.
Now, I liked my boss. This old woman was one of the good ones. (I called her “Mummy” to her face, like everyone in Ibadan called every sixty-four year-old woman.) She fed me three times a day and even gave me money for cough medication. You see I was just recovering from a ten-month old cough that reddened my eyes and filled my lungs with that thick, yellowish mucus. I wondered when I would eventually tell Mummy that her dogs made me sick. Anyway, Mummy was a good woman but at my age, I didn’t need to be hurting my ears.
I yelled in Yoruba, half for Mummy and half for whoever was hooting crazily outside the gate, that I was coming. I shooed the overweight Alsatian out of the way, pointing to the bare patch of grass between the fruiting orange trees. I made a mental note to collect the oranges before they fell to the ground. Thunder roared in the clouds above and for a second, I imagined two Greek gods, pitchforks extended towards each other in combat, blue sparks dancing at the tips of their weapons. Impeding my movement with every step, my slippers sank into the sea of red mud that had become of the driveway. I silently appealed to the Greek gods to end their war.
The horn on the other side blared again. I couldn’t see who it was—Mummy had insisted on a completely covered gate to avoid drawing attention to the house—but whoever it was obviously thought he had the right to be honking maniacally outside Mummy’s gate. My feet flip-flopped over the mud as fast as they could towards the dark-blue gate whose metal hinges I had oiled and replaced for six years. The hibiscus plants that lined the driveway were now brown with mud, resembling clay sculptures, the only remains of a forgotten civilization. I braced myself and pulled the rusty latch on the gate to the right, nearly cracking my ribcage as my elbow rammed into my chest. I suppressed a string of profanities as I pulled the gate open and watched a sedan, the color of vomit, windows tinted, pull into the driveway. Through the windows, I made out two figures in the car—the driver and someone in the passenger seat.
Mummy came out then, clad in the same flower-patterned skirt she had had on yesterday, clapping her hands wildly and shouting to the world that her son had come to visit. The driver of the car stepped out and walked towards Mummy, who now stood perched on the elevated pavement leading to my shack to avoid the mud and the fresh lump of dog poop nearby. The thickset man greeted Mummy with a kiss and a long hug. He was Uncle Femi, Mummy’s first son who lived three hours away and came home once a month to check on his mother. He was a generous man and as he greeted his mother, I played the lottery in my head. How much would I win from Uncle Femi’s pockets this time? I imagined the new radio I would buy, novel and shiny beside my frayed, five-year old raffia mat. Just then, as I was about to tune my imaginary radio, the deep furrows across Mummy’s forehead caught my attention. From my position at the gate, I strained to hear the conversation between mother and son.
I caught Mummy mid-sentence, “…reliable and trustworthy.”
“That doesn’t matter. I want you to be safe,” Uncle Femi replied, ironing out the creases on his large forehead with his fingers. He said something else about a young man, but Mummy didn’t seem pleased. She shook her head and Uncle Femi threw his hands up like I sometimes do when the bald pharmacist at the clinic tells me there’s no more cough syrup. Uncle Femi motioned towards his car and a man, about the height of Kilimanjaro, stepped out and walked towards him. His pants hung loosely on his waist, creases sharp as knives.
“Too young,” I heard Mummy say.
“Give him a chance.”
The creases on the man’s pants distracted me again and I missed Mummy’s reply.
Then, I had one of my coughing fits. My back arched as cough after cough threatened to shove both my lungs into my throat. From the side of my eye, I saw that Uncle Femi, Mummy, and Crease-boy had turned in my direction. In what seemed to be a few seconds of respite, I waved to them that I was okay. But very soon after, another wave of pain shot through my chest and I gasped.
Just then, I heard Uncle Femi say, “He’s old anyway; I don’t want him dying on my turf.”
I steadied myself against the gate, trying to gain control over my heaving body as Uncle Femi’s words played in my head like a bad song from my imaginary radio. I squinted as the last pang of pain traveled down my chest and settled in my stomach, like a stone sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Thunder roared again and I wondered if the gods were still at war or if they were revolting on my behalf. I waited for the pain in my stomach to ease before I straightened and pulled the gate closed, returning the latch to its original position. I started towards Uncle Femi, Mummy, and Crease-Boy. I thought of the holes in my shack, of the dogs in the yard, of my cough. Today was the day I would tell Mummy I hated her dogs.
Suddenly, a strange sound pervaded the sky above, piercing, like a victim’s plea for mercy at the hands of his assailant. I scanned the sky, and again imagined that one of the gods had been injured.
The sound came again. This time, clearer.
“E shi ‘lekun Baba!”
I sprang from my mat, wiping off the line of drool on my cheek with one hand as I hurried to button my shirt with the other.
A horn blared from the gate. I raced out of the shack, bending forward at the door to avoid hitting my head. Outside, a bright blue sky greeted me, naked except for a few white clouds. The hibiscus flowers, red like lips, flirted with me as I walked towards the gate. To humor myself, I dipped my head respectfully, not slowing my pace, resembling a man eager to escape from the eyes of his admirers.
I reached the gate and slid the latch to the right, thankful that the lubricant from last week hadn’t worn off. I pulled the gate open a few inches and peaked at the car outside through the new space between the gate and the fence. I recognized the black sedan on the other side immediately.
Written by Tolu Kehinde
photo credit: www.thinkafricapress.com