Number 14 | Toni Kan

Toni Kan Number 14 Agbowo Art Caine Agbowoart

 

 

 

“I saw Gideon,” my sister told me on the phone the moment I said hello.

“Which Gideon?” I asked

“Gideon of Number 14,” she said and I felt the room grow small and become a noose around my neck.

I reached for my towel and wrapped it around me, a chill settling upon me suddenly from the air conditioner.

I was in the bathroom when she called and I had rushed out the moment I heard the special ring tone I had set for her.

“Are you there? Are you okay? I wanted to tell you when you had gotten home and was relaxed from work.”

My sister was babbling on but I was no longer listening. Her first words were like a hammer knocking hard against my head – IsawGideon IsawGideon IsawGideon IsawGideon IsawGideon IsawGideon IsawGideon.

Gideon was not someone she was supposed to see. Gideon was the past, a memory interred, a corpse we had buried and forgotten.

Gideon of Number 14.

That was how we described him even though his full name was Gideon Efe Ekwe.  We knew that because it was written in the tattered old Bible he always carried with him. And my younger sister used to joke that he had the initials of a politician.

“Just imagine his poster: “Vote for Your GEE,”” she always joked.

We lived on Olanrewaju Street in Yaba, right behind Tejuosho market. It wasn’t a big place. There were beer parlours and hair salons at its yawning gape and the street then snaked its way to a dead end, of sorts, which if allowed to go on would take you straight onto the rail lines. Our street was, in many ways, like a long rope that did not know how to unravel.

We did not have rich people on Olanrewaju Street. And when I say rich people, I mean Ilupeju rich, Ikeja rich, Yaba GRA rich; bungalows snug in their own grounds or duplexes half-hidden behind tall hedges or coconut trees.

The only family that could be called rich lived at No 9. It was the only bungalow on the street and was occupied by an Igbo man who worked at the Ports. Our parents always said “Ports” and for a long time I thought he worked in two places.

They owned two cars. He drove a 504 station wagon while his wife drove a 504 saloon car. She was the only woman who drove a car on Olanrewaju Street.

They were the first to buy a color TV and they were also the first to buy a VHS video player. They also owned a Blaupunkt stereo set. Everyone else owned a Sanyo or a Sony or a JVC. A Blaupunkt was the Optimus Prime of stereo sets, the Shina Rambo of sound systems. A Blaupunkt did not come like other sound systems did. It came as a set, on a rack, like a boss.

My mother’s friend, Mama Risi, who lived beside them at number 7 and right opposite us called them “Awon Ole.”

“How much does he earn that he can afford all these? I am sure he is buying them off wharf rats.”

I didn’t know what wharf meant but living on Olanrewaju street, we had a relationship with rats, big furry things that made me scream every time they scurried past or brushed their slimy wetness against me.

“Is it because they are rich? Mama Risi is too jealous,” my younger sister would say whenever Mama Risi got in her mood and my mother would hush her;

“Don’t say that about your elders.”

“Is it because she is an elder? What if it’s true?” my sister would insist.

“Then let others say it,” my mother would answer

“Is she not an elder to the other people?”

“Leave me alone, you aski-aski pikin,” my mother would snap and chase her away.

We called my younger sister ASK-ari because she could drive you stark raving mad with her questions. Every time she opened her mouth, a long string of what, how, who, what, if, imagine if and her favourite “is it because…” would come tumbling out like wrongly bound goods falling off a pick-up truck on the Third Mainland bridge. They always caused havoc.

We called her ASK-ari because growing up we thought askari was a name for people who asked too many questions.

Olanrewaju Street was a peculiar place. Located right behind the old Tejuosho market, it was never quiet. Some of the traders who sold stuff at the market had warehouses on our street and their boys were always rushing in and out of our street to pick up this or that.

I didn’t like them. They stared too hard and long and they were always trying to touch you, to hold your hand or ‘tap current’ by fondling your breast. One day, one of them tapped the wrong current. The girl held on to him and started screaming. Her brothers left their video game and came running out. They beat him like a pick pocket, tore his clothes and dumped him naked and bound in the gutter.

When the other Igbo boys heard, they came down from the market and tried to rescue him but a big fight broke out and many of the boys were bleeding when the police arrived and made a few arrests.

Long after the fight ended and after we had opened our windows because the tear gas had stopped making our eyes sting, I sat there and wondered why the police arrived so fast. I wanted the Igbo boys beaten and their hands broken so they would stop grabbing you as you walked past and trying to touch your breast and get their hands up your skirt.

But they were back the next day with plasters and bandages and carrying bales of clothes on their heads and their backs and looking for girls to ogle and call Baby’m.

In spite of these, for many of the girls on Olanrewaju Street, their biggest dream was to go out with an Igbo boy.

Whenever Mama Risi saw them parading all over to catch the attention of the Igbo boys, she would say to my mother “Ore mi, see them, see them selling their yansh like Agege bread.”

“Mama Risi, take it easy,” my mother would tell her, her embarrassed gaze scanning our faces to see whether we had heard.

“Igbo boys can spend on you well-well,” Yemi, the one who could not tell that 5 x 4 and 4 x 5 gave the same answer, used to tell us.

“Follow Igbo boy and you no go hungry and you know say boys wey fit carry load go fit carry woman,” she would say and laugh, her big breasts jiggling.

My sister told me she heard that Yemi had slept with 17 boys on our street and more than 20 Igbo boys. The boys on our street said she would sleep with you if you bought her a bottle of Maltex and that she would do “till day break if you bought her isi-ewu or nkwobi.

Gideon of number 14, never spoke evil about anyone. Whenever we talked to him about the girls, Gideon would smile and say, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.”

Mama Risi did not mind casting the first stone. She called Yemi “Ashewo kobo-kobo” and never talked to her or her big sister, Funke; the one who had three children for three different men at twenty one. She did not reply when they said “Ekaaro ma”. Instead she would spit and give them the look.

Yemi did not like me and my sisters. She always said “our own was too much” because my sister would not join her to visit boys but she did not mind telling us stories of what she had been up to.

“You see that Igbo boy, im thing big like horse own,” she said one evening then went jiggling all over as she strolled home from the new Mr. Biggs eatery that had just opened by the filling station in front of Tejuosho market.

“She thinks her Ashewo stories will entice me,” my sister muttered under her breath. “I will not sleep with an Igbo boy just because of Mr. Biggs meat pie.”

I looked at her, face squeezed with disgust as if sleeping with an Igbo boy was the worst thing one could possibly do, and said “Stop talking like Mama Risi.”

Most of the girls who didn’t like us also didn’t like Gideon. He was, with his Bible and dusty shoes, like a hot iron to their conscience. My sister and I were his only friends.

My younger sister didn’t care much for him and called him Gideon Bible after the small blue bibles Gideon sometimes handed out to neighbours on the street.

“Is it because he’s a preacher is that why Gideon Bible won’t polish his shoes?” she would ask and click her tongue and at such moments I could not decide who hated her more; me or our big sister.

Gideon had a brother who walked with a limp. His name was Kome and everyone said the limp was from polio. I knew polo but I didn’t know polio and for years I thought he fell while playing polo. He walked with a limp and a frown that made it look as if the world owed him an apology but the truth was the world, especially Olanrewaju street, didn’t care very much for a boy with a limp and a frown.

Gideon was usually soft spoken. When we chatted, my sister and I would strain to hear him. He liked to talk about current affairs just like Broda Phillip and it was from them that we first heard of Glasnot and Perestroika.

It was as if shyness made Gideon squeak. But when he preached, he was a man transformed. His voice rose a notch and carried across the street especially when he cried “repent ye, now!”

He usually preached on Saturday mornings because he left early for school on week days. Once he stepped out, his voice would rouse the street, inviting curses from men and women who left very early for work and had only Saturdays to sleep in.

“Omo yi, were ni e ni?” someone would scream.

“Go to hell,” another would yell.

But their curses only made him bolder and he would scream at the top of his voice, his clenched fist pounding his old bible, his eyes shut tight, the sweat pouring as he walked the length of our street. Just before he was done, my sister and I would go out and wait for him with a cup of cold water.

He would drink it and mutter a quiet thank you as if the effort had drained him of strength. Resting his back against the wall, he would lapse into a prayer of thanksgiving then fall asleep.

One day as he sat there with his eyes shut and back against the wall I turned to my sister and whispered.

“I want to kiss him.”

She smacked me so hard, my cry made Gideon snap awake. Later, after he was gone, she looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you. You want to send him to hell. Are you Jezebel?”

I knew I was not a Jezebel. I knew Gideon liked me too but his preaching and that old Bible and the heavenly something-something he always spouted had made him blind.

And I was blind too, too blind to see that my sister was as in love with Gideon as I was.

Sex was cheap on Olanrewaju. It was there in the cramped face-me-I-face-you tenement houses. There in the suffocating room and parlour six children shared with their mum and dad. It was there in the open-air bathrooms. In the street corners and everywhere you cared to turn or look.

It was common to wake up at night and hear neighbours going at it outside the window or to go the toilet and hear two people moaning. We knew what sex was before we fully understood what it meant.

Our street had a smell. It was foul and fruity, like rotting orange left too long in the shade. It was a smell that stuck to everything and became so present we soon stopped noticing it was there.

Many years later, that ever-present stink that stuck to Olanrewaju like a curse came to be for me like our country, a place we all wanted to escape from but did not know how.

And escape was something we all talked about a lot on Olanrewaju. We wanted to check out, not really from Nigeria, but from that street which seemed to hold us hostage, one that stole our dreams and stunted our aspirations.

But escape was mostly a thought, a dream, like Andrew, the guy who used to be on TV years ago, the one who could not check out because he was not really a human being.

“He is just a character in the government’s propaganda machine,” Broda Phillip used to say.

To get his attention all you needed to do was talk about politics or the government or something you heard on NTA network news and he would stop and chat with you but he did not really chat with you. Talking with Broda Phillip was like listening to a teacher, there was always too much to take in.

Broda Phillip was the neatest guy on Olanrewaju street. He had graduated from Yaba College of Technology with a Distinction and worked for Rank Zerox. That year and in many years to come, everyone who passed their final year exams at secondary school, applied to Yaba College of Technology and their ambition was to graduate with a Distinction even though we did not really understand what a Distinction meant. Yet we all wanted to get it because we all wanted to be like Broda Phillip with his black trousers, starched white shirts and blue ties.

He was the neatest and smartest guy on that street so no one could understand why he stayed on, living at Number 14 with his mother and four sisters.

One day, my sister was reading a novel called “Hell Hath No Fury” when she suddenly called out my name. I rushed out thinking there was something going on. But she thrust her novel at me and said: “read this passage.”

Two months after Amy Haggard was rescued from her kidnapper, she smuggled a gun into the prison where he was being kept in an ill-fated attempt to spring him. He shot two guards before he was cut down in a hail of bullets. He died and she went on trial. The defence lawyers pleaded insanity and a diminished sense of right and wrong. They said having become attached to Ryan Johnson, her abductor, Amy had begun to suffer from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome; a phenomenon that occurs when some who is held captive develops a bond with her abductor.

“I have read it,” I said not comprehending.

“You can’t see?”

“See what?”

“Stockholm Syndrome. That’s what Broda Phillip is suffering from, that’s why he won’t leave this street even though he can afford to.”

I didn’t really understand what it all meant but I understood enough to join my sister in calling Broda Phillip, Stockholm Syndrome.

Whenever we were around people and we wanted to talk about him, we would say something like:

“Did you see Stockholm Syndrome’s new shoes? Sweet.”

Or:

“This one the whole family is outside looks like Stockholm Syndrome has a visitor.”

No one knew why he stayed on in that house on that street and our consternation grew when he came home one day with a 404 pick-up van with Rank Zerox written boldly on the sides. We thought, finally, he had come to pack.

And our hearts were clenched in the vice grip of envy as he loaded his mother and sisters into the van.

“See, he is going to move everyone out without picking anything from that rotten house,” my sister said.

Broda Phillip turned the car around and the smile on his mother’s face and that of his sisters was bright enough for the blind to see.

We woke up the next morning to find the van parked in front of Number 14. Broda Phillip had no plans to move.

But it wasn’t his clean clothes or pick-up van that amazed us the most. It was his girlfriend. Auntie Franca was an Air Hostess with Nigerian Airways. Whenever she visited, the street would grow quiet as if someone had doused it with cold water. She walked as if an invisible hand was moving her buttocks this way and then that way; her green skirt hugging her behind like it was scared to let go even for a second.

Most times when she visited, we would sit outside and watch. His mother and sisters would sit outside till late, swatting at the mosquitoes or walking up and down the street because as my big sister would say, Broda Phillip and Auntie Franca were inside gbenshing.

“Why are you talking like Mama Risi?” I would ask but she would laugh and say:

“Stay there. Why do you think they are always outside when she visits?”

Everyone was always outside at Number 14, though, because the building was crowded and there were too many rooms and very few windows. The house was old and tottered the way a drunken old man totters, as if it was going to lose its moorings and collapse. But it never did and never has because the last time I visited Olanrewaju Street, when Mama Risi died, Number 14 was still standing like a rude finger in our faces and someone had painted a huge “This House Is Not For Sale” sign in front. That was when I heard that Kome was a millionaire in America, that Yemi was a big Madame in Italy and that Broda Phillip had become the Managing Director of a shipping company.

It was as if everything good had come and everyone had found their way out. But Gideon was the only one nobody knew his whereabouts or what had happened to him after that terrible afternoon at Number 14.

Broda Phillip eventually left but in a haze of something bitter sweet.

One evening, Auntie Franca arrived early and by the time Broda Phillip came home, parked his car and ducked into the eternally dark corridor of Number 14, his mother and his sisters had trooped outside.

But they didn’t stay out for long because a few minutes before 7pm, Broda Phillip tore out of Number 14 in panic. Auntie Franca had experienced an asthma attack. Unable to revive her, Broda Phillip had run screaming outside, his boxers worn the wrong way. Half of the neighbours had trooped into the room and found Auntie Franca spread-eagled on the bed with all her goods on display.

Too shaken to drive, neighbours helped ferry her to the hospital. Auntie Franca survived but the relationship did not and soon after, Broda Phillip bundled his mother and sister into his pick-up truck and finally escaped Number 14.

Broda Phillip was not the only one to leave in a hurry. One afternoon the Igbo man who worked at the ports chased his eldest daughter out of the house. He was wielding his belt and flogging her as she ran. Then as he raised it again and brought it low, the daughter ducked so that he spun on his heels like a demented ballerina and ended up in the gutter. That was when many people on the street realized that she was naked save for her under garments.

The story came out after many days but only after he had been helped out from the gutter by my father and after the daughter had been covered up by a wrapper my mother rushed out with. . The story was that he came home early that day from a trip and found his daughter having sex with the man they paid to iron their clothes.

They moved out soon after.

We woke up one morning to find the loveliest thing that had ever chanced upon Olanrewaju street at our doorstep. It had two blue eyes, curly black hair and skin that looked and felt like soft brown leather.

“What are you looking for?” I asked, careful not to spill the water I had fetched for Gideon, who was panting and wiping sweat off his brow with a crooked finger.

“Noffin’,” the small mouth said. “He was speaking too loud so I came to see.”

“To see what?” I asked and the answer was another Noffin’.

Her name was Diana and she was Mama Risi’s granddaughter. Her UK based daughter had recently split from her white husband and to avoid the custody battle, she had sent her daughter to come live with Mama Risi.

Diana was beautiful. Beauty, however, was no armour against the iron-toothed mosquitoes that swarmed around Olanrewaju street. One week after her arrival, Diana’s skin had become a patchwork of welts and badly scratched skin.

Everyone loved Diana even though she never said good morning.

“Don’t say hello, say good morning, they are not your mates,” her grandmother would admonish. But Diana was too stuck in her ways and the only concession she made was “Hello, good morning” and that only when her grandmother was around.

“Is it because she is half caste that she is saying noffin’? Is noffin’ not bad English? Can you say noffin’ at Cambridge?” my sister asked one ugly morning when the wind was blowing the stench of Olanrewaju street directly into our house and leaving every one short tempered.

“ASK-ari shut up, shut up and stop talking like that or you will become like Mama Risi.”

“What is wrong with Mama Risi?” ASK-ari asked and our big sister flung her flippers at her.

But it was true. Nothing was wrong with Mama Risi. Diana’s coming had made Mama Risi a better person. She was suddenly less judgemental. She still saw Yemi with the jiggling breasts and her girls standing by the street corner and hawking their sex but there were no more stones to throw. Her only focus was Diana and getting her to say Ekaaro and good morning or afternoon instead of hello.

Then we woke up that Saturday morning and everything changed. It was as if someone had dislocated the very joint that held up the scaffold of our communal existence.

It was the third Saturday of the month and so a quiet one because Gideon attended a Night Vigil every third Friday and couldn’t preach the next morning.

So, the street was quiet enough for us to hear Mama Risi cry.

“Diana don die o, Diana don die. Egba mi o. Omo mi ti ku o!”

The street was alive by the time we had made ourselves decent enough to come out. Mama Risi looked mad in her old petticoat and bra. Her hair was a wild mess as she ran around the abandoned car on which someone had placed Diana’s supine body.

Diana looked different. Her beautiful mosquito bitten skin seemed ashen and darker than usual, as if a giant mosquito had sucked out all the freshness from it.

There was no doctor to certify her dead and no attempt was being made to take her to the hospital. It was just one man or the other walking up to the body, touching the neck or the hand, shaking their heads and then walking away.

I watched the scene and what I saw was a tableau of pain and frustration and despair. It was as if Olanrewaju Street had manifested into a tactile essence and taken control, showing us all how small and inconsequential we were. The street had taken one of us, the most beautiful thing in our midst, and what had we done?

That was when I spoke up. “Let’s call Gideon. Gideon can raise her.”

Many years later, I am not sure why I spoke those words or how the crowd had managed to hear me in all that frenzy but those words were like an electric current pulsing through the mass. I saw someone pick up the child and as if one body, the crowd moved towards Number 14.

I marched with them, my love and pride propelling me. After Gideon had raised the child, everyone would tell him that “it was her who said to call you.” That would be it. No more proof needed. He would finally see how much he was loved.

They roused him from sleep and he stumbled out in his worn pyjamas, bible in hand, face set like flint. A hush fell on the crowd as he began to pray, a soft hissing prayer that soon grew in pitch eliciting “Amen” and “Blood of Jesus” from the crowd and then he began to speak in tongues, his eyes tightly shut, the distended veins threatening to burst on his forehead.

The prayer and tongues grew into a hubbub and the crowd was soon caught in the fever but every fever breaks and soon, the men began to disperse and then the women and soon it was just Gideon, drenched in sweat and covered in a haze of dust, a sad picture of defeat and frustration, circling the dead child, his legs dragging as strength left him.

I watched it all from my perch in front of Number 14. For once, it was empty. The entire street was empty. The neighbours were all inside, chastened by what seemed like sadness and pity for Gideon.

I watched him stop. I watched him wipe off the tears and sweat. I saw him tap Mama Risi on the shoulder and then watched him walk into Number 14. He walked past me with glazed eyes and disappeared into their room at the end of the corridor.

His siblings streamed out minutes after, Kome limping as if he was dancing to some horrible tune.

I waited a heartbeat then went into the corridor and that was when it hit me that I had never been inside Number 14 before. I had sat outside, many times, with Gideon and my sister and Broda Phillip, even. But I had never stepped into that corridor.

The corridor was dirty and pock-marked with holes. It looked like it had not been swept in years. As I walked further in, I came to the staircase that led upstairs. The banister was dirty and slimy, as if it had accumulated so much dirt that had turned the metal into a living, breathing thing.

I got to the door from which everyone had stepped out and as I raised my hand to knock, I heard someone crying. So, I lowered it and waited. There was a door at the end of the corridor. I walked to it and looked outside and finally realised where that foul and fruity smell came from. There was a low fence and then nothing, just brackish green water over which they had laid blocks, stepping stones, on which I realised that tenants who did not have bathrooms or toilets stood over to bathe or defecate.

The smell was thick and overwhelming.

I listened. The sound of crying seemed to have stopped so I stepped in. Gideon was sitting on a tired old settee. He had peeled his top off and the floor was littered with torn papers. I bent down and picked a handful. The first one said Isaiah Chapter 9. Gideon had ripped out the pages of his bible.

“Gideon,” I cried and reached out to touch him but he recoiled from me.

“Go. Leave me. Get out”

Stung, I stumbled back then fell.

That was when Gideon got to his feet and fell on top of me, his hands tearing at my clothes, his lips covering mine, muffling my cries.

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Toni Kan Agbowo Art Number 14

Toni Kan holds both M.A and B.A degrees in English Literature from the universities of Lagos and Jos respectively. He worked as a journalist for 5 years, post-graduation and rose to the position of Editor at the age of 26 years, before moving on to work in banking and telecoms.

Author of 5 critically acclaimed works of fiction and poetry including The Carnivorous City, Nights of the Creaking Bed and When A Dream Lingers Too Long, Toni Kan has ghost-written 5 biographical works.

Kan, whose works and awards have taken him to the UK, Scotland, Germany, South Africa, Kenya, Switzerland and Italy amongst other is co-founder of sabinews.com.

Toni Kan is at work on two books: Infidelity and Taxi Driver; a collection of short stories and another novel about Lagos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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