A journal of narrative writing.
Living Precariously
Page 3

He was taken aside by Papa Onyeka who luckily had not lost anyone - his wife was at her table and his four children had gone to after-school lessons in another house in the neighbourhood - and given the news. Ugochukwu insisted on seeing the body, as if without this evidence what he had just been told would be untrue. His wail on seeing his wife's broken body filled the air like a big burst of noisy, unexpected tropical rain and thunder in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Someone said later that it raised the hair his arms to hear a man cry like that.

* * *

Emeka finished shopping. If he worked fast, he thought, he might finish work on the Mercedes before the owner came. As he walked to the shop from the bus stop, he saw a crowd at the pipelines area. Perhaps the pipe was broken again. That would explain the busy noises emanating from there.

Suddenly, there was an explosion. Boom, the sound went and Lagos trembled. Later, people said it sounded like an earthquake, others said it sounded like the rapture trumpet. Nobody was sure what had caused the fire; the newspapers which appeared the following day said it was someone starting up a motorbike.

Terrified screams and the smell of burning flesh filled the air.

Something told Emeka to look for Okechukwu in the shop. He was not there. He asked the other mechanics and one told him that Okechukwu had come to ask for a bucket. He must have been collecting petrol. "Stupid boy," Emeka thought, his heart pounding. Emeka searched frantically for Okechukwu, going as close as he could to the still burning fire. Soon the police came, pushing people away from looking for survivors amidst charred remains. Few had survived, the rest were skulls and seared flesh.

Emeka stood, shocked, numbed. What would he tell Okechukwu's mother?

"Chineke me!" my God, he screamed, his hands on his head, his heart thumping.

He did not remember walking back to the shed. A fellow mechanic asked him if he had seen Okechukwu.

Emeka replied woodenly, "He did not have his bath this morning."

"What?" the mechanic asked confusedly.

"I refused him a bath this morning."

* * *

Nobody knew how to tell Mama Nneoma even though the news had traveled the very next day to the village via mobile phones, the latest news-bearing media. The poor woman had lost her husband only the previous year. It was dreadful news- even the body of the son, it appeared, had not been found.

Not many people in the village bought newspapers; not everyone could read and they were just too expensive. But in Lagos, people read about both incidents which appeared on different pages in the papers the following day - the pipe explosion disaster in Abule Egba appearing as breaking news on the first page, and the house collapse in Okota buried somewhere in the middle. People read about these events a little indifferently. Some blamed the greedy people who went to scoop fuel, others blamed the government for failing to provide for the people and for not providing good firefighting equipment. Some cursed the landlord; others pointed fingers at the 'thieving' contractor who built the house with inferior materials. But things did not change very much and life lost none of its tempo. Life in Lagos could be precarious, more so than in most places; that was nothing new. It could be an aircraft crashing with 'important' people on it, a politician getting assassinated, armed robbers killing a man who had just handed over the keys to his car without resistance. Or it could be a car on top speed hitting a pedestrian running across a highway in Lagos instead of using the pedestrian bridge. Then again it could be a stupid newcomer entering a one-chance bus and thus into the embrace of kidnappers hunting for human blood or human parts for money witchcraft. It was mildly interesting to listen to on the national network news, if it made it there, or to gossip about in offices and marketplaces. The pain of loss belonged only to those connected with them.

Ah, there was lots of money in that Lagos, but it was also a really dangerous place, people in the village said. It had a big mouth and it swallowed many things and many people. Everyone agreed that it would be best for her dead daughter's husband - the one who had married her not quite six months before - to tell her.

If Mama Nneoma noticed how solicitous her neighbours and relatives were being to her, she did not show it. She was her usual, smiling, contained, quiet self, carrying in public the sorrow of her recent widowhood with dignity. Only the sadness in her eyes and the lines which had become more deeply etched into her forehead and the corners of her mouth told of her private suffering. Her husband's brother came early the following day to ask how she was doing and to clear some of the grass growing in the compound. She sent her younger children to the village primary school, and went as usual to her shop in Afor-Udo to sell kolanuts. She chatted amiably with her neighbours, tying and retying her top wrapper frequently as she was in the habit of doing. But nobody talked to her about how short her hair remained even though it had been at least a year since it was shaved off at her husband's death, or about that big elephant in the marketplace- the death of her children.

Mama Nneoma dreamt again that night. Again, the details were hazy, but she thought she saw her children in Lagos coming home. And she longed to tell them to stay; she needed them in Lagos to stay safe, to help take care of their younger siblings. But the words seemed to stick in her throat and would not come out.