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Bus Passengers

By Ify Okoli (Nigeria)

 

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BUS PASSENGERS

by Ifesinachi Okoli

Rain on a Monday morning is...bad luck.

For many, it portends a premonition of doom especially if you had an incorrigible boss you had to hide from, a spouse whose trust you had betrayed or someone you could not stop lying to. After the excitement of the night before, the deep dreamless sleep, it was mortifying to wake up on a work day to the sound of rain drops hammering away on zinc roofs, the characteristic sound like the quick march of a hundred tin soldiers.

Usually, the sound would have brought unconscious dreamy smiles to many sleep-deep faces if it had been 2a.m in the morning, but by 6a.m, disgruntled faces left their beds and because the electricity had disappeared sometime in the night, hands groped about in the blind darkness hoping to feel the smooth slender body of a candle stick.

Tunde, like many others woke up late and after preparing for the office, he made a brave decision to enter the heavy rain. The glow-in-the-dark clock on the wall read 6:30a.m when he made his decision. He grabbed his small black umbrella and with his folio tucked in his armpit, he opened the door. To his dismay, the front of his house was flooded and the drops of rain lashed at him with a vengeance. Despite the rain, soft white light had kissed the once dark cloud introducing dawn.

Grunting, he rolled up his trousers and locked the door behind him. He plunged into the semi-darkness gasping as the cold seeped into his warm blood and the wetness made his shirt cling to his skin. Despite the umbrella, he was drenched in minutes.

The water level had risen almost to his knees; he couldn’t make out the gutters but avoided them by instinct. He had once fallen into a flooded trench and the memory still gave him nightmares. A terrible stench assailed his nostrils and he noticed that the dustbin that served most people in the area was overflowing. Most of the garbage had fallen into the water and bits of it floated past him including a dead rat that almost touched his leg before he noticed and jumped forward. There were many crawly white things on the bin and several of them swam happily in the green coloured water.

Maggots.

Tunde cringed. He thought he was going to be sick. He waded through the torrent into the main road and squeezed out some of the water from his pants. The streets were empty except for two women who huddled close underneath a spoilt umbrella in a mechanic workshop.

They too were shivering like Tunde and speaking in loud Yoruba language.

Tunde was lucky as a motorcyclist in a yellow raincoat came riding by. Dashing into the street, he flagged him down before the women could. The women rained abuse at him, calling him a lazy man in their local language. Tunde paid them no heed. This was the latest he had ever been on the way to his office. He had worked at his new job for just three months.

To his surprise, his boss had developed an instant dislike for him and enjoyed barking at him over every little mistake. She was a middle-aged single woman who behaved as if she was always on her period. It was so easy for Tunde to rile her that he had tried to stay off her path for most of his time spent in the office and this day, he had no intention of getting on her black list on a wet Monday morning.

“Alakija bus stop,” he told the motorcyclist and hopped on without bargaining the price. He knew it would be a waste of time as the motorcyclist had an upper hand in the dreary weather.

Five minutes later, Tunde got to the bus stop. The motorcyclist called a price four times the usual. Tunde spread his five fingers at him in a familiar gesture of insult. As he gave the motorcyclist the money, Tunde continued mumbling calling him a good-for-nothing thief.

The motorcyclist grinned, pocketed his money and drove away. He was left standing in the rain.

It was now broad daylight and some people were huddled under roofs. There were few vehicles on the road. Only bus conductors braved the rain, yelling their destinations into the wet morning.

“CMS last bus! CMS last bus!” a conductor yelled close to his ears.

Tunde dashed into the bus to escape the rain. In annoyance, he folded his umbrella that had proved as useful as a pencil in the farm. The bus was empty. He was sure that the other buses had left and this was the last one heading his way. He wondered how anybody could have managed to rise up earlier than he did in the crazy weather but thought to himself that this was Lagos. Crazier things happened even without the rain.

One by one, the familiar faces he had grown accustomed to meeting at the bus stop trickled in. The man that preached every morning came in next. Tunde almost groaned aloud when he recognised the navy blue button down coat with short sleeves. The man climbed in front, wiping his dripping face with a chequered handkerchief.

“Good morning, my brother,” he said to Tunde.

“Good morning Sir,” Tunde replied trying not to notice the thick dark curls on the man’s arms.

“Thank you, my brother. God bless you.” The man launched into a familiar worship song singing out of tune but with such reverence that Tunde felt that he ought to bow his head and join him.

“Worthy...you are worthy...King of Kings, Lord of Lords, I worship you...”

The Yoruba woman came after the preacher. Everyone knew her as the Yoruba woman. From the long gashes across her cheeks to the haphazard way she tied her scarf and her thick Ibadan accent, it was easy to know. She was usually one of the early comers except she might have decided to sleep in today. She sat down beside the preacher, frowning up at him and moving her big bottom about on the seat to create more space for herself.

“Ah conductor, come and whyne up your window-o. This rain is toushing me,

abi?” she called out.

The bus conductor did not hear her as he was still shouting his bus stop to passersby so she poked her head through the window and yelled at him some more.

“Olori burukun!” she cursed and was finally rewarded when the conductor did as she said. She cradled her head in her hand in boredom. Few minutes later, she was nodding off to sleep.

The others came almost simultaneously until the bus was full. There was the UBA man who always had the logo of the bank where he worked pinned onto his breast pocket. UBA man was tall and handsome and was so polite that it infuriated Tunde. To Tunde, UBA man was one of the men spoiling men’s reputation before women and that was why women expected so much from men these days.

Like Sade, his girlfriend who always wanted him to call three times a day (especially at night before she went to bed), pull out a chair for her to sit down and hold her hands in public. It had been the reason for their last quarrel and she still had not called since a week ago.

Tunde snorted.

A short young man came in next carrying a carton containing a DVD player. He did not say anything to anyone; just climbed in and sat still. It wasn't until he answered his phone that Tunde knew that he was a trader in the popular Lagos market. Most of his conversations were spoken in Igbo language and the rest in pidgin English.

Aisha came in next. Her house was not far from Tunde’s. Her aged parents ran a shop attached to the front of their house. She was a shy lady who hardly talked much. Tunde knew that she was married but her husband had been out of the country since the marriage. Nobody knew why and nobody thought to ask any question. She greeted Tunde, looked around and satisfied that she did not recognise any other person stuck ear phones into her ears and launched into silence.

Tunde noticed an old Toyota Camry park in front of the bus. A plump fair woman got out, waved to the man driving and dashed into the bus. The car continued down the street splashing water on the sidewalks.

“Good morning oh. Good morning,” she greeted everyone in her loud squeaky voice. Tunde noticed that there were patches of white on her face and the dark smudges on her cheeks that she had hidden cleverly below layers of make-up were starting to show. Her curly hair was wet, plastered on her cheeks but her lips remained a bright caked red as if she had smudged red foundation powder on them. The Yoruba woman in front woke up, startled and turned around. Her frown quickly melted into a smile.

“Madam Eunice, how na?” the Yoruba woman asked.

“Fine. Iya Bosede, how work?”

“We thank God. Your husban’ and shidren?”

“They are fine. My husband just dropped me off. He dey go work.” Madam

Eunice’s voice reflected pride. She continued, “this rain, eh? I told my children to stay at home. No school for them. Market go dey today, sef?”

“Ah, market must dey, Madam Eunice. Market must dey. Na market me I dey go.”

“Ok. I did not want to go to work but if I stay at home with those children, I will grow grey hair,” Madam Eunice stated, her fingers fluttering delicately in the air.

“Abi oh?”

Madam Eunice continued her idle chatter while Iya Bosede, apparently used to the annoying voice and tired of it, replied with casual nods. When she could take it no more, she joined the preacher in his song. Madam Eunice took her cue and shut up. Feeling odd, she joined in the worship song.

When the pretty slim girl arrived, Tunde could not help but stare at her. He had met her at the bus stop only once before and had not tried talking to her because she had that air of arrogance about her that announced that she knew that she was beautiful. She wore a turquoise blue shirt now dark blue in some patches that showed off tantalizing bits of smooth brown skin. The UBA man got out of the bus when he saw her to allow her to come in first before he did. Tunde noticed that though they mumbled a greeting to each other, she tried hard to avoid him touching her. The pretty lady entered and sat beside Tunde at the backseat so that she was sandwiched between Tunde and the UBA man.

“Nneka, you didn’t reply my greeting,” UBA man said to the pretty lady when they were seated. He was trying not to gaze at the transparent shirt.

Nneka replied, “I did. You did not hear me. Duke, it’s too early in the morning to start an argument.”

Tunde was puzzled. By the way they talked, it was clear they had probably met before. They spoke like two adults having a lovers’ fight.

Tunde noticed the huge gold ring around her engagement finger and had to wonder. Tunde was sure UBA man was not the man engaged to her.

“But I did no...” UBA started but was interrupted by a loud angry voice from outside yelling, “idiot conductor! You stepped on me! You stepped on me!”

“Sorry sir,” the bus conductor said pushing down the seat that blocked the doorway so that the new arrival could occupy the remaining back seat.

The new arrival continued ranting as he entered the bus then he paused, noticing the pretty girl before a wide grin split his broad lips.

“Our wife, Nneka, how now?” He sat and leaned over UBA man to touch Nneka on the arm. UBA man shifted in discomfort.

“Fine.”

Tunde noticed the uneasy look that passed between Nneka and UBA man and wondered what that was all about but the new arrival did not notice. Tunde observed the way the gaze of the new arrival lingered for a tad too long on the round mounds Nneka’s transparent shirt failed to hide.

“Have you been hearing from your fiancé in the UK? You know, Bobo is my best friend. He told you, didn’t he?” the new arrival said.

“Yes he did,” she replied. “We have been in touch.”

“Very good. Greet him for me. It’s just that with this new deregulation scheme going on in the country, I hardly have time for myself. Work, work,work! I would have called him more often to tell him that – conductor, do you want to wound me??! See my leg-o!! – that you are very fine over here and we are taking very good care of you.”

“Thank you, Christian.”

Christian? Tunde thought amused. The name did not suit the bearer at all.

At this point, the last bus passenger entered and sat by the door, muttering to herself. She was huge and struggled to squeeze into the tiny space left.

“You people should shift, abeg,” she snapped. It came out more like an order than a plea but the others eager to be on their way, obeyed her without complaint. She grunted then forcefully rammed her large hips into the Igbo boy seated next to her.

“Madam, what is it now? Ogini di?” Igbo boy asked in indignation.

“Didn’t I tell you to shift? Are you deaf?”

“Shift to where?” Madam Eunice squeaked. “Can you not see that there is no more space or do you want me to fly through the window?”

Miffed, the large woman pointed out, “is that not a space between you and that lekpa sitting beside you?”

“Why you come say she be rekpa? You nko? Onye iberibe! Rook at you, Olobo, fat woman!” Igbo boy retorted to the large woman. His accent exchanged the ‘r’s and ‘l’s. Aisha remained silent despite the insult. She smiled quietly at Madam Eunice and patted her hand, urging her not to say anything more.

The large woman continued muttering under her breath. “Lekpa Shandi girls, later they will start chasing our husbands. Like that useless man I have at home. Useless man! Lazy useless man! Na so so small small girls him go dey pursue.”

Christian barked, “where is the driver? Won’t you move this bus? You think we don’t have work to go to, eh?”

The rest joined him in mumbling. Even the preacher stopped his singing to whine about the missing driver until a pot bellied man wearing a kaftan with a chewing stick in his mouth hopped into the driver’s seat.

In a second, the whole bus reeked of cigarette smoke. “Can you imagine?” Christian said. “Smoking in the rain? Wonders will never cease!”

The bus conductor closed the door, collected some change from the driver before walking off into the rain. It was as the driver manoeuvred the bus into the road that the passengers realised that there was no bus conductor.

“Driver, where is your conductor?” Christian shouted. His voice was so loud that it competed favourably with the large woman’s.

“Yes oh, driver! Where is your conductor?” the large woman echoed. She had pulled out a little mirror from her bag and was struggling in the rattling bus to apply her lipstick. Tunde had watched her dip the curved end of an eye pencil into a lipstick cylinder and was generously smearing the bright red paint across her lips before she asked the question. She smacked her lips loudly.

“Stingy man! Can’t you pay for a conductor? Only you want to eat your whole money,” Christian said. “See, your bus is even leaking! Look at my trousers! Driver, your bus is leaking!”

Sure enough, water had seeped through a hole between the door and its hinges and was dripping lazily into the bus. Tunde watched Christian block the space with his hand until the water trickled down and disappeared into the cuff of his shirt. Soon, his elbow was a darker shade than the rest of his suit.

“What kind of bus is this?” Christian bellowed. “Driver, give me a rag. Am I not talking to you? You are acting like you can’t hear me. Look at me! By the time I get to the office, I will be looking like I fell into a gutter!”

Nneka was trying to hide her smile. Her lips were folded in leaving a single curved line behind. Tunde was trying hard to hold back his mirth.

“Driver, are you deaf?” the large woman reiterated. “Rain is falling on me here. See my body,” she turned back to say to Christian as if to gain a partner who would concur with her. “Oga, see my body.”

Tunde noticed the red chip where the lipstick had stained her teeth.

“Useless driver!” Christian barked.

“Sorry oh,” the driver sang and passed back a rag that was so dirty that its colour could not be defined. Grains of sand trickled from the rag.

“This rag is too dirty! You have poured sand on me!” Christian yelled.

“Sorry oh oga, manage it. I don’t have another one,” the driver said.

“Can you imagine this buffoon?” Christian barked. He stuck the rag in the space where the water was gradually pooling. Soon, it was soaked and he had to squeeze the water out of it.

The preacher started his song again, this time more slowly. One by one, people joined him until there was a cacophony of voices and musical notes.

Worthy...you are worthy...King of Kings, Lord of Lords, I worship you...

Then he stopped and began preaching. “People of God, praise the Lord!”

“Hallelujah!” chorused a few voices.

“Let every living soul know that he will be blessed today. People, praise the Lord!”

This time, there was a louder “Hallelujah”.

“Let us bow our heads and say good morning to Baba God who has made it possible for us to see a beautiful day.”

Somebody snorted.

Tunde bowed his head but did not close his eyes. He did not feel like joining in the prayer but felt compelled to. If he lifted up his head, he knew people would think him a heathen who did not believe in God.

“Thank God for the rain. It is a blessing,” the preacher continued.

The ringing of a phone interrupted the reverent air. Though the prayer went on, another voice filled the void.

“Yes blother...am in the bus to CMS to open the shop...isi gini?...eh...no plobrem...one DvD and some erectlonic parts Chima will bling after...yes blother, bye bye.” It was the Igbo boy.

As the murmur of others joined the prayer, a text message came into Tunde’s phone. He flipped open his phone. It read:

Madam is in the office. Asking of you. Where are you? She’s looking for

fresh meat to devour today and yours seems to be the most delicious.

J.J

Tunde replied the text:

I am stuck in traffic cos of rain. I am almost there. Which kain wahala

be this sef? Make she free me, abeg.

Tunde was so pensive that he did not notice the hand that crept slowly across a suit clad body and came to rest on top of Nneka’s hand who was sitting beside him. Tunde felt heat wash through him as the thought of facing his boss filtered through him. Beads of sweat popped up on his brow and he tugged at his tie to loosen it a bit.

Then he noticed the hand.

He looked up, puzzled. All heads were bowed even that of Christian. Tunde traced the hand to its owner. It belonged to UBA man. The hand was now caressing that of Nneka whose eyes were tightly sealed and lips moving in prayer. She did not throw the hand off.

“Interesting,” Tunde thought, his worries temporarily evaporating.

UBA man removed his phone from his wallet and began punching in. A minute later, Nneka’s phone beeped. Tunde shut his eyes half way pretending to be in prayer. He watched her open the text message on her phone. He was able to see the message because her phone was configured with large text.

I missed you this weekend. I didn’t mean to ignore you. My mother was around so I couldn’t invite you to spend the night. Forgive me. I don’t like us fighting. Duke.

Duke, the UBA man, Tunde thought, stealing a glance at the handsome stranger whose eyes looked as if they were closed.

Nneka punched back:

Duke, I think we should stop seeing each other. My fiancé will be back next week for our traditional marriage. People might begin to talk.

Send.

Duke:

I understand but I can’t seem to get my mind off you. You are like a breath of fresh air. I have never met anyone who is so attuned to my needs as you. I really miss you, my angel.

Nneka:

All you think about is sex, sex, sex. If you really love me like you claim then marry me or let me be so I can marry the man whose ring I wear. This is the end. No more texts, please.

Send.

Tunde wanted to laugh. He noticed that Duke had not actually said that he loved her but that he missed her and like every girl, Nneka had fallen for the line interposing ‘miss’ for ‘love’.

Typical.

A few seconds after the last text was sent out, the prayer came to an end and everyone looked up. The rain that did not seem to have an expiry date had slowed to a feathery drizzle leaving the streets flooded with debris floating past. The roads were crowded again and the traffic had begun. A watery sun peeked from the wet sky in a feeble attempt to inject cheeriness into the dreary atmosphere.

Tunde opened the window that had remained closed throughout the rain allowing the fresh air to smack his face. Sounds poured in. Marketers, conductors, vehicle horns, the noise was everywhere.

The noise and the people.

Gradually, every square inch was beginning to be filled by humans constantly on the move. Tunde looked back at the couple sitting beside him who pretended not to know each other. He looked at every person trying to guess what went on in their lives behind closed doors but as hard as he tried he couldn’t guess anymore than the others.

Rain, premonition, lovers...

They all had one thing in common: the flood – water flood, flood of ill feeling, flood of emotions.

Tunde shook his head noticing for the first time the Nigerian Navy stamp pasted on the top right corner of the bus’s windscreen. Christian had started to complain again about his ruined suit threatening not to pay the bus driver. Madam Eunice was gossiping on the phone with someone about her perfect home. Iya Bosede was arguing with the preacher that his sticky arm was touching her. The large woman by the bus had dozed off and her head kept bouncing about on her folding neck as the bus skirted about the potholes on the road.

Tunde’s phone began to ring. The call was from his boss, herself.

Miss Tunji-Davies. The boss. Irritable-stuck-up-pain-in-the-arse-extraordinaire.

“Hello ma.”

“Tunde,” she yelled, “if you are not here at the office within the next three minutes, consider your appointment terminated and I mean it this time. Did you hear me?”

“Yes ma.”

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes ma”

“Very good,” she snapped.

The line was disconnected. Her harsh voice reverberated in his ear long after the call ended. He remembered that her personal assistant, Tayo, a proficient gossip, had once told him that Miss Tunji-Davies had a son who was serving time in juvenile detention. Though he had not believed it then, now, he was more inclined to think that the thought of it had to be the cause of her permanent irritation.

What went on in the secret lives of people...

Tunde just wished it had not rained at all this morning. Maybe then, he would not be under so much pressure to keep to madam’s order to the letter thereby putting his job on the line.

Rain on a Monday morning is definitely bad luck, he thought and groaned.

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