Roadside visions

Mama Biola settled in a red plastic chair, on the pavement, right beside the intersection leading out of Florence street. The street had grown and taken up a distinct character over the years. Driving in, you would find brown brick three-story buildings, the spaces between them uniform and precise, that existed before the owners started to tweak and tweak until some balconies were made of glass. A particular balcony stood out, as it was on top of a makeshift hairdressing salon where a dark woman sat, braiding and wiping sweat on her wrappa, her laps spread apart. Below the glass balcony was another makeshift barbing saloon, old white towels spread on the balcony, showing that as time passed some wages expanded faster than others. The children played in front of houses in mid-august when the schools were closed, their dirty feet and tangled hair coated in dust adding the feel of a community. The street reminded one of where you drove into and settled, where your lives twisted then intertwined with the neighbors until you become unsure of whose business belonged to whom.

Mama Biola had been sitting there, wide awake, when the intersection started taking up souls in broad daylight, when the men who smoked in front of the nearby shops spent the evenings hitting buttocks as women hurried by, when the drunk man drove right through the walls of the boarding school, when housewives settled with trays and sold fruits in front of the shops, when the task force came with cudgels and overturned fruit trays. Every morning she appeared promptly, bubba neatly tied around her large waist, there was a time when her waist was something men had fought to wrap their arms around but five children, including Biola, had made sure she expanded and never returned from the first child. Mama Biola, like the street, could never return, so she had settled on this intersection with a mission.

The mission came to her when her last son, Tolu, was off to the university. She found herself chasing this man right through her university campus, into the classroom where she took LIT 411, trying to tell him something. Every step was a step backward, doors leading further down the past, opening more doors, the second door took her to the large hostel where she spent her first year, 12 matrasses, with small spaces in between, littered across the room. Opening the third door she returned to the government school in Ekiti where she signed, “I was here” on the walls, watching the man slip through yet another door. She finally caught up with him in a small abandoned building on the field where the girls scout met, she opened this door to find the man, a knife in one hand, second arm around another stranger, his back to her. She was not able to keep moving, not because she was tired and out of breath but because she recognized the second stranger in the room without seeing him completely. She tried to make a sound, tried to move but could only feel her breath constricting, her chest tightening as she fell to the ground and woke up in her own sweat.

She stayed mute for weeks after, abandoning her shop, only going to the church fifteen minutes away, getting up at 6am and taking a keke off Florence street. She spent her days on the stairs of the elevated stage, lying on the red rug before the wooden cross, she ate nothing, not even when Biola came with large bowls of amala and ewedu from Iya Sade, and allowed her hunger pangs to go up with prayers. She stopped only when Tolu was home from the holiday and cooked his food in the special oil given by her pastor, she took him to the pastor too, watched and nodded as he knelt as the pastor brought down freedom upon him.

“Freedom from what?” Tolu always asked.

She could not bring herself to tell Tolu anything explicitly, she followed him out when he met his friends, she complained that his jeans were too tight, she invited young women from the church over. Somedays she stared and stared at him as if trying to wax a confession from his lips, he caught her pleading eyes and looked away. If Tolu was perturbed by his mother’s attitude, he did not show it. He retained the lightness he had carried from birth, taking morning strolls and greeting the neighbors, betting over matches at the garden in the evenings. He ignored how heavy and insistent she had become until the day he was visited by Sam.

Mama Biola was walking home from her shop when she met them under the large fruit tree across the road, Tolu had his hand on Sam’s back and his loud laughter was ringing in her ears. She ran toward them, dropping her bag on the floor, screaming, she spat on Sam and it landed on his black leather shoe. Tolu tried to hold his mother, pull her away, take her home, his eyes never meeting Sam’s.

That was the moment things started to change, when his mother spent the night crying loudly, when Tolu stopped coming home for breaks. Mama, at first, did not relent on her mission to exorcise this despicable thing, she visited his school often times and was told by his roommates that he was away, there was the time when she waited the whole night at his bedroom door and he did not come. She tried what she could, deprived him of money, deprived him of her, begged him in small notes to come home to a woman she would find.

Tolu, in his final year, graduated and did not invite his mother. By this time, she had become stubborn, she refused her urge to take a bus and head to Lagos, it was 7 months since she spat on Sam. She waited and waited but the distance only widened. She had support now, Biola, Demola and Simi had equally stopped speaking to their brother, she also had the proof that God abhorred that. What other rationale was needed? She sent Tolu a letter saying that he should consider himself motherless.

Tolu sent letters 2 years after his graduation, Mama Biola refused to open any of the, she put it under the fire and it crumbled under the soup she was making.

She had more dreams since then, for more strangers she would later run into at the intersection, dark cars with secrets she had learned to ignore, she always tried to put them out of her mind with more prayers. What finally drove her out of her home was the news she received from Biola, right before the Easter Sunday, when Biola came in crying, head scarf in hands and whispering to mama, “He’s gone”

She had seen it in more dreams but this did not in make it any lighter, any softer. It wasn’t so much that he was gone, but also the way he left, falling from a bridge in Lagos, drowning, falling without being pushed, jumping into the water, leaving more notes for his family, ones where he did not forgive his mother, ones where his words will forever remain bitter, there was no softening. No assurance that he had given up what he was.

Days after the burial, Mama Biola found the red chair and settled on the intersection at Florence street, she spoke about the visions she had seen to the strangers who would listen as they passed, bubba tied neatly around her waist.