Mummy told him that Lagos was not a safe place to be. She told him not to go anywhere without first giving Uncle Charlie the number and address of the person he was going to visit; in fact, she told him not to go anywhere. Period. She told him not to buy anything from the hawkers on the roads, not to type on his Blackberry when he was outside on the streets or inside any commercial vehicle, not to enter okada, and not to ask for directions from anyone on the road, because that was how they bewitched you into following them to some hidden place where they used you for rituals. And by the way, why should he need to ask for directions? Did she not mention that he should not go anywhere?
In other words, mummy was saying he should not have a life during his vacation with Uncle Charlie and his family in Lagos.
Ben disagreed with that. He was seventeen years old, certainly not a kid anymore. He could take care of himself anywhere. Granted, he had never been in Lagos before, had not been anywhere beyond the River Niger that separated Onitsha from Asaba, so sheltered had his upbringing been. But he had survived juvenile cultism while schooling in Government College, Owerri, and had slapped the pickpocket who had tried to relieve him of his wallet in Eke Onunwa, the main market in Douglas. So, yes, he could handle anything Lagos dared to throw at him.
And so, when Ebube, his cousin who lived in Alakija told him to pay him a visit, he embarked on what was his first trip out of his uncle’s house with lots of excitement and no consternation for whatever pitfalls might lie in wait. Ebube had taken him to his house once before, about a week ago, but this would be his first time out on his own. He took a bus from Ojuelegba to Oshodi, and didn’t mind the clog of traffic that held them up on the stretch of the road from Onipanu to Anthony; because he was engrossed with his Blackberry pinging and was nodding his head to the music resonating in his ears through his earphones. Ebube had told him to alight at Oshodi and get on a bus going to Mile 2. So that was what he did. He didn’t like that the sweaty conductor was hunkered over his side or that the woman seated beside him jabbered away in raucous Yoruba on her phone for nearly half the journey. It was hot and another holdup snagged the traffic just before they got to Cele. Why hadn’t mummy warned him about these terrible Lagos traffics?
After what seemed like an abominably long stretch of time, he got down at Mile 2 and took another bus headed for Alakija and its environs. This time, he didn’t have to endure a long drive. Within minutes, he was standing on the side of the busy highway, with the bus vrooming off amidst a hail of dust and stones, and lots of people milling around him. Hawkers yelling the content of their wares, touts heckling bus conductors, pedestrians conversing in loud tones – the same teeming spectacle had greeted him at Oshodi and Ojuelegba, yet it never ceased to amaze him how so many people could be in one place at a time. He crossed over to the other side of the highway, and approached the bank of okada men lounging in the corner. There was a chorus of ‘Fine boy, where you dey go?’ and a couple of bike-men even darted toward him on their motorcycles, in a bid to score him as a passenger.
After a brief moment of vacillation, he finally settled on a burly dark-complected man whose lips were thick and rubbery between several tracks of tribal marks that stretched across his fat cheeks. “Where for Alakija you dey go?” queried the bike-man.
“Star Breweries, just opposite the place.”
“Na eighty naira I go pay.”
“No, na one-fifty. One-twenty last.” And the bike-man looked off, his attitude dismissive, as though he didn’t care if Ben accepted his bargain or not.
Without a word, Ben began to walk away from him, already lifting his hand to beckon another okada.
“Oya, come – hundred naira…” the man interjected.
“Eighty naira.” Ben was insistent. Ebube had told him not to pay any penny more for the bike ride.
“Abeg nah. That place far small,” the bike-man wheedled. When Ben said nothing in response, he waved a hand for him to get unto the bike. As Ben did so, he suddenly got an uneasy feeling he could neither explain nor shake off. Maybe it had something to do with the sudden shifty look he saw fleet across the okada man’s face or the resurgence of his mother’s admonitions on his subconscious, he couldn’t say. But he tried to shrug off the feeling and watch the scenery as the bike sped on.
Even though he had only been in the area once before, he soon began to realize that the passing sights were quite unfamiliar. Where was that huge Coca Cola depot he saw the last time? And this many trees towering on the sides of the road hadn’t been there the last time, had they? The bike-man seemed to driving down a narrowing track road that was fast getting deserted.
“Oga, where you dey carry me go?” he said over the wind whipping past his head.
“Star breweries nah,” the man tossed back.
“But no be the road to the place be this.”
“No worry. Na short cut be this,” the man said reassuringly.
Ben’s mind warred with itself as he tried to relax behind the bike-man. He still felt uneasy with this development, no matter how hard he tried to dismiss his concern. Thoughts about different calamities raced through his mind, and his tenseness made him alert to his surroundings. His vigilance was probably what saved him, because he spotted the men hulking in the roadside bushes moments before they revealed themselves.
“Oga, stop! Stop me here!” he hollered at the bike-man. But the man didn’t say a word to him, he kept on driving. And that was when it dawned on Ben that the man was in on whatever plot was about to unfold. His heart picked up a rapid tattoo that resounded in his ears as he made a decision purely driven by self-preservation. Feeling adrenaline surge through him, he lifted himself from the bike, while it was still in motion, pushed himself backward through the air and tumbled to the dusty ground.
“Hey!” a loud voice shouted. There was a rush of feet coming from the bushes and the bike’s engine rumbled as it teetered out of balance and fell to the ground, throwing the bike-man off. “Hey!” More voices were shouting.
But Ben was already on his feet; he quickly turned back the way they came and fled. Driven by fear and desperation, his feet flew across the ground, creating more and more distance between him and the men who were hotly in pursuit. Soon, he broke out onto a main road, and the sight of human and vehicular traffic filled him a huge sense of relief. He stopped to gulp in air, looked back for the first time, and was satisfied to see that he was out of danger. Then, he dug his phone from his pocket with the intention of letting Ebube know his plight. He had no intention of flagging down any other bike; his cousin would have to come and pick him up from where he was. As the dialing tone buzzed in his ear, he thought about his mother and her exhortations about the city of Lagos.