Hearts leap in unison, filling the mouths of bystanders in gasps and shrieks, none of which catches the big-headed boy’s attention. Each heart wedges its owner’s mouth wide open, some threatening to spill onto the hot asphalt as one wrong step sends the boy swaying into the path of a cruising blood-red Mercedes Benz, his big head dragging the rest of his lean body with it.
A rapid spin of the wheel and the maddening screech of crushed brakes punctuate the alarm-filled atmosphere. A silence descends, but only for as brief as momentary dazes last. Fresh rubbles of the squashed sidewalk are locked in a fatal kiss at an awkward dent on the car’s bumper, bleeding its red all over. The driver is four or five people late as he launches out of the car to examine the damage.
The boy’s frail figure sways to the command of the afternoon breeze, his bare, dirt-coated feet continuing to baton across the road. Oblivious to the barrage of sounds he’s caught within. Uncaring of all the mouth movements and angry facial expressions. Unbothered by the people running towards and past him to whatever it is their eyes bulged in their sockets for.
With hearts having sunk back to their depths, voices find their rooms again, all helter-skelter, united in clamour and admonishment for the boy to stop, but he heard none of it, and it is only when the smell of burnt rubber hits his nostrils that he takes quick successive sniffs, hold the baton, and turn around to see what might be burning.
Light wisps of smoke rise into the air as a small fire wrestles with the breeze. A skinny stray dog circles the fire, its movement tense, its tail taut. It has made it to the dump a little too late and now the refuse that could have eased its starvation is already blackening under the bright orange flame. The boy watches from the window space of a nearby building, feeling sorry for the dog. He runs his fingers down the ridges of his ribs, convinced the troughs are deeper now than the last time he checked, wondering whose was more conspicuous, his or the dog’s.
The fire starts to eat up the litter and grass around it, its smoke thickening as it grows in size. The dog’s movement slows, and its tail softens, curving into the space between its legs. The boy misses all these as he had jumped down from the window frame and disappeared into a door frame after seeing the bamboo pole jutting from a hole in the wall beside him shaking.
The fire grows too strong for the breeze, its appetite expanding its diameter across the open field in front of the building. Squirrels appear around the field, the smoke pushing them out of their burrows. The heat is visible as it creases up the atmosphere like squeezed paper. A few passersby stop to wonder why such a big fire is left to rage untamed, the smoke and the heat pushing them along in only a matter of seconds.
Soon, people from one side of the fire can no longer see the other side, with the flame now enormous, licking into the air and a cloud of soot hanging above it. The growth of the fire is stunted by a green puddle running along the path that separates the field from the building and a pack of bamboo standing against its wall.
The breeze grows into a strong wind and comes back to wrestle the fire, only succeeding in helping it cross the puddle. First, it was the pieces of paper and dry grass around the building. Then it was one piece of bamboo. Then the whole pack. Then the wooden skeleton of the roofing frame that sits atop the building. The boy rushes out of the smoke-filled doorway, clutching his chest with one skinny hand and scrubbing his eyes with the other. He opens his mouth to scream for help, but the roar of the fire consumes the feeble bleat that comes out. He jumps and waves his arms in a frantic frenzy, then rushes back into the smoke.
First comes the half-clad woman, then comes the topless boy, then an unzipped Ghana-Must-Go bag, then a lone sandal, several tattered scarfs, and a scatter-haired toothbrush. The half-clad woman will not stop weeping. Her knees will not stop kissing and unkissing the ground. Her hands shuffle between pulling her blouse over her bare buttocks and pleading with the angry woman throwing out her things. The boy stands there confused, his face travelling from his mother back to the door they have just been purged through, and sometimes following the trajectory of the flung items until they hit the ground.
The angry woman rages at the door, her hands pointing, clapping, spittle spraying generously from her dancing mouth. The veins in her eyes shade the eyes red, and the boy can hardly recognize the madam of the house who had always been kind and nice to him before today. Whatever the matter was, he does not understand why she would pull the wrapper from his mother’s waist and throw her out of the house almost naked.
The door pulls inward behind the woman. Her young son and his older sister appear and take either side of their mother. The girl slams her open palm into the air before her with her mouth just as furious as her mother’s. The boy hurls something in his fist at the topless boy who barely dodges the missile. At his feet lands two green ludo buttons. What was used just minutes ago in childhood fun between the two, is now being used to stone him. He looked from the boy to his weeping mother, wondering what switch flipped these people against them.
Just as the father of the house emerges from behind the door to join his wife and kids on the veranda, the angry woman turns to him and starts to shout into his face. He tries to hold her hands, but they evade him like eels desperate to stay free.
In a trice, the boy’s mother springs from her kneeling position and pulls the boy with her. The angry woman’s eldest child had appeared from the side of the house, pulling the family’s two fierce-looking Rottweilers. Together the boy and his mother raced down the busy street, their heels to the backs of their heads, their hearts thumping like bass speakers, he, topless, and her, naked from the waist down. Seeing the eyes and fingers aiming at them like arrows on pulled bows, the boy wishes he had pulled back to pick one of the scarves for his mother to cover herself with.
Beautiful cars to the front. Beautiful cars to the back. Beautiful cars left and right. Shinning in the sun, all of them. I touch their backs as I walk around the park, sometimes the headlights. Their shapes and sizes are like different animals. God knows what their makers were thinking. This big one, with its narrow eyes donning the look of a panther. This small one takes on the glare of a racoon. Maybe if animals can be cars, I will ride one someday. These painted ones, though, can never be mine.
Enough of waka waka. I better sit in the shade of this orange one here. The owners don’t like that but the crack in my foot hurts so much, and the sun is so thirsty today, sucking all this sweat from little me. The shade is actually good, and I can taste the orange of the car in my mouth. Hunger is not a good thing. If the owner doesn’t come soon, maybe I can put my bowl beside me and do some begging from here.
A dozen birds sit on a NEPA wire just in front. Maybe they’re chirping, I’m neither blessed with speech nor hearing. Oh, how I envy them. Sitting still and enjoying the breeze. Maybe with full stomachs too.
There are too many laughs in this car park. Too many happy faces. Too much joy. I am the blot that stains the perfect picture. Just look at my bowl, four five-nairas and two ten-nairas all day. Trekking this entire city with the sun using me as a running tap, and this is all I’ve made. But all these people are carrying big big nylon bags with all these expensive things out of that mall. I shake my head.
I remember when Jerry first came to meet me under the bridge, his ribs almost breaking out of his skin. I was the one showing him the way, but since he started taking these people’s things by force, I cannot see one single rib anymore. I can never do that, but I feel no pity for the people whose things he takes. They have no pity. They have no mercy. Jerry is just doing the same thing to them. Yes, he is a thief, but he is the only one I talk to. The only one who learned sign language because of me. I tell him to stop, but even if he robs this entire mall, he will still be my friend.
Is it just me or is this boy walking with his mother looking at me? Let me stand up and leave the back of this car. Maybe it is their own. Anything more than a simple glance can mean trouble, and me, I don’t want any of that. The best people just drop a note in my bowl and move on. The ones who look and actually see me see nothing but a fly perched on their plate of food, and while some just shoo me away, others are intent on crushing the fly.
I walk away from the car to the back of another, but there he is again. The boy is standing there just ahead of me. He is about my height, just tall enough to peep into the car window without having to climb on tiptoes. He was clutching his mother’s hand but now he is standing alone. He moves towards me in slow steps, his eyes not leaving mine. He drops something in my bowl, and then just as suddenly as he appeared, he is gone. His clothes had colours as bright as bird feathers. His shoes shone like they didn’t walk the ground. A kid like him will never play with a kid like me. I’m surprised he noticed me at all and came after me just to give me alms.
I’m rooted there seconds after he has gone, his sweet perfume crowding my nose. I do not want to stop feeding on it, but I need another shade from this cruel sun. I cross the backs of cars parked in one row and stop behind a huge one. This shade should do, and hopefully, the owner does not come as quick as the boy and his mother.
But as I rest my head on the fender of the car, there are the boy and his mother. Again. His mouth dances before her listening ear. His eyes point at me. I do not know how to react, so I do nothing but give a blank stare.
She steps forward and says something to me. I must tell her that my lobes are without drums and the mouth is but a mute dancer to me. Surprisingly, I am not annoyed that I cannot hear her. Just lost in the moment as her mouth continues its dance, a smile playing on her face. A best friend like her is the reason her boy looks like he walked out of a colourful billboard; the reason he has a hand to hold and a car to walk to.
If Jerry was here, he will remind me that a mother like her will not hold the hand of a kid like me. How stupid to get carried away by a smiling face and a dancing mouth. I’m not having these best friends today or ever, so, I rise, pick up my bowl and leave both of them there, a pain tugging at my heart for turning away from yet another road that is different from the lonely one I walk every day.
Tears sting the back of my eyes because I recognize this feeling. When Mama’s madam set her dogs after us back then, someone drove past us and parked his fine car in front so we could not pass. He begged us to enter the car so he could take us away. Mama had no wrapper on. It did not make sense that she said no and continued running with everyone laughing at her naked backside. But as I ran after her, I wondered what could have been if we had taken the offer.
On the day she almost burnt to death in that fire, didn’t someone offer to take us in after I rescued her from the building we squatted in. Other people pointed fingers and rained abuse on us for being in there in the first place? Mama said turning it down was the wise thing to do, but I wondered what could have been if we had taken the offer.
What about the day that fine car crashed on Modele Road? The crowd was angrier than the owner. When he offered to give me a ride, wasn’t it the right thing to turn it down and walk away? Though I wondered what could have been if I had taken the offer.
Unnecessary help is usually a setup. Mama always said people are never that nice, and Jerry agrees. I shake my head and look into my bowl as I walk away. My heart skips several beats at the stack of crisp one-thousand-naira notes laying on top of the crumpled fives and tens.
Will it hurt if I put Mama and Jerry’s words aside just this one time? I’ll never know if I don’t try.
The boy and his mother are still standing where I left them as I walk back with my head down and my heart beating like it’s trying to find a way out. I steal an upward glance and see him walking toward me with his arms out.