THE Railway Station was number three in the list of places to visit during my short stay in town. I came in on official duty to cover the centenary celebration for LIFELINE MAGAZINE. I handled its Social Events page.
When the taxi finally stopped, I had a hard time trying to open the door and step out, with all those young girls and women thrusting packaged oranges to my face through the lowered glass, each of them begging me to buy hers. It took a wild bark from the driver to clear them.
The trees that lined the frontage had lost most of their leaves to the dry wind. The driveway was overlaid with gravel up to the door. High above the door, some of the letters were gone, and it now read NIGERIAN RAILWA_ CO_P_RATION. Across the hall, there’s another door, which led to the backyard, if I still know the place quite well. A stocky fellow sat on a low cushion beside this door. He wore three-quarter baggy jeans and a rather under-size T-shirt, which forced out flab at his waist region. A cigar size chewing stick dangled from his thick lips. From the time I stepped into the hall, he had not taken his eyes off me. The counter was at the left end. Beside it, a rectangle was made out in black; names of towns, ticket prices and destination dates and times were written on it.
“Well done o”, I saluted when I got to him. I offered my hand.
“Well done”, he replied in a squeak, taking great pains to lean forward and clasp my hand... It puzzled me that he spoke in such a voice, because I expected a man that size to be a baritone. When I asked what day and time the train for Abaran, he said that trains were out of track for now.
“Since five months now”, he added.
“You mean trains to wherever”? I asked, more to hear his childlike voice again. But this time he only gave me a weak nod. I thanked him and made to go out, but thought I should see the backyard. My big friend cleared his throat, ready for another question I may have for him. But I just walked past, into the yard. Things had not changed that much. The corridor and the train tracks; the concreted area, the concrete seats and other structures. The same old features. There’s the overhead bridge too, which connected the corridor and the concreted area, so that the tracks ran along under it.
We used to play many childhood games on top of it. I climbed it to get a clearer view of the place. Maize and sugarcane farms were to the west, the canteen to the south, and the famous Station Market to the north.
We used to trek to this place all the way from Nassarawa. We’d come to United Bus-stop and then follow the rail lines that went through Down Quarters, another shanty town like ours, which was adjacent to the station. We would carry a sack in which to put our collection. When the Lorries were unloaded and the bad fruits sorted out, we’d pick from them those we felt were still manageable. Sometimes we’d steal from the good heaps; if we were caught, we’d get a slap or a knock on the head.
I had a deep attachment for one of the girls with whom we carried out these adventures. Hajarah! She was tender and pleasant to look at. Delicate. Innocent. One would think she came from the water. Hajarah…
Before going to the market, we’d climb up and down the bridge over and over again. Sometimes we’d line up on it and try out whose spittle could go farthest. That’s the joy of innocence. One felt free to do things. Could I try it now? An adult like me? What would people think?
Saliva was collecting in my mouth. My desire wanted some of the old game again. My will gave me clearance. I turned around and made sure that nobody was in sight. I lifted my head up, like in the olden days, and let it out. I did it again and again. I’d watch it fall to the ground in a whole or in tiny sprays, according as its density and velocity decided. I was so carried away in this childish game that I didn’t bother to check out the light footsteps that padded behind me. I was ready to shoot out another volley when I heard my name. The voice sounded frail and unsure. I let the rheum slip back down my throat, dropped from the parapet and slowly turned around.
Nylon headscarf. Bushy eyebrows. Well shaped lips and nose. Simple costume. Shopping basket. Baby carrier…The face was a relic of by-gone beauty.
Those eyes… those eyes…