The plump clay-coloured weathered-face woman sitting beside you presses your lean body against the side of the bus; but you do not complain. You are less bothered: tomorrow is Christmas and your grandmother eagerly expects you.
You poke your nose outside for clean air but the cluttered atmosphere around the bus park smells of tepid seriousness but not of holidays, of celebrations, of shared joys that the season of Christmas brings. Through the window, you see a clean-shaven man haggle and haggle over the price of okpa with the seller. You see children running around, some rolling black tyres excitedly, the rest of them flying kites that ruffle in the air under the pewter sky.
The park is filled with men and women, buying and selling. Some are shouting at the top of their voices in a bid for getting more customers; some are singing sonorously the kind of wares they sell:
“Buy Christmas toys for your children!”
“Christmas chickens here!”
“Get your bag of rice at cut-price rates here!”
It is such things as being rooted in a spot and watching a bus park seethe with a horde of fast-moving people that makes you nostalgic for past holidays. You long to be in your room in your grandmother’s village. You long to listen to her tell you stories about how Christmas was celebrated in her time: stories of families returning from all parts of the world to be together, stories of children and oftentimes, youths – going from house to house as they sang and had their red raffia bags filled with breadfruit. You wish those stories to be true and to reflect what you now see out of the corners of your eyes.
Shaking your head to loosen a crick in your neck, your stare rests on a young boy holding two big healthy adult roosters, one in each hand. The legs of the roosters are tied with a thin rope; their striking plumage of long flowing tails and shiny, pointed feathers, flutter and flutter in the air, till flecks of coloured feathers float in the air. Your stare lingers. You are not surprised when the lanky dark-skinned boy catches your stare and runs towards you, where you sit in the bus.
“Which of them do you like sah?”
When he says sah, you know he means sir. Displaying his chickens, he raises them in his hand, one after the other.
“Choose one. I still have plenty of them in my shop.”
You smile, as the long, high-pitched, staccato tuck-tuck-tuck of the chickens sounds as if they are saying, “Our wings are heavy and tired from being displayed like banners. Please be merciful, and buy us.”
You really want to buy one of the roosters. You are sure your grandmother will like it. The last time you bought one, she oohhed and aahhed at the sight of its big size and weight, and then she told you that you had good eyes, just like your father.
Rubbing your eyes with the back of your palm, for dust gathers in your face, you ask, “How much is that one?”
“Sah, it’s only two thousand naira,” he replies in an unassuming, excited tone.
“Two thousand what? For just one chicken?”
You do not know, but the alarm in your voice pervades your face.
“Sah, it’s the economy. It’s Christmas. Maybe you are new in Nigeria or haven’t bought chickens by youself, but that is the way the prices of things go up around here. It is worse during Christmas but fairer during other special holidays.”
He speaks hurriedly, impatiently; his eyes are begging you to understand, not to challenge the price carelessly. It is a busy day, a very busy day. The boy is likely to miss other customers if he spends time haggling with you and you end up not buying.
“What economy? Is that the proper way things should be done in an economy? Should we always expect the prices of goods to be hiked up during Christmas? This is very bad for Nigeria.”
“Sah, all these things you dey talk na just grammar. Oyibo,” he says in pidgin English. “Are you buying or not?”
“It is not a matter of buying or….”
The boy looks at you; he hesitates, hisses and then goes back the way he came. He is quick to find another buyer.
The woman sitting beside you coughs. A dry forcible cough. She mumbles words you cannot clearly hear.
You turn to look at her. At her oversized body. At the way her belly nestles on her thighs, folding in parts of her cadet-blue blouse around that area. At the way her off-beat breathing hefts her saggy breasts up and down as if she was panting. At her coarsened nose that twitches irritably at her own stench. Maybe, you wonder, the sweat underneath her armpit oozed out such smell. Her eyes are not fixed on you, so you look away.
“I was saying that the price at which the boy sells his chickens is okay,” she finally says, audibly. Her voice comes out hoarse. “The hen I bought at the market around the park a few hours ago cost more.”
You swirl your head, look down at the red hen pecking grains of rice between her spread feet, and ask, “How much did you buy it for?”
“Two thousand three hundred naira,” she replies, her stare pointing to where the driver sits.
“Ahn-ahn! What is happening in this country? When did things begin to get this awkward? I bought a chicken last Christmas holiday for only one thousand five hundred naira.”
“Was it on Christmas’s eve you bought it?”
“No. I really can’t remember.”
You scratch your head lightly, then you say, “Aha! It was about two weeks before Christmas.”
“Don’t you know market prices rise every day, especially during holidays like Christmas? And that much later after Christmas, they get even higher? Mister, you will have to wait for the New Year celebrations to lull and for schools to resume, before expecting prices to return to what they used to be.”
The unwavering look on her face flusters you. You wish for someone to see things differently, the way you see them, from your perspective. Does this mean that there is no rational person in the country? You wonder.
As you turn your head away to face the open bus window, since you do not wish the conversation to continue, a beggar startles you. His callused hand pushes a cracked bowl in your face. He says repeatedly, “Allam Abdullahi.” You wave your hand at him, and his guide leads him away – the beggar is blind and uses a walking-stick.
Earlier, you fail to notice that there are many beggars in the park. They line the walls of the park; those standing outstretch their hands in mid-air, while the ones sitting have bowls and plates between their spindly legs. The shrill noises of the crowded park stifle their cries for alms, but their “begging business” is thriving. It is Christmas holiday, after all, and people are swimming in and out of the park like migrating schools of fish.
The sky grows sombre as the bus you are sitting in is completely filled. You watch gusts of wind break up the white cotton clouds into smaller, roundish lumps; these lumps turn grey in a few minutes. All of a sudden it begins to rain. Everyone in the park scuttles off to shelter from the massive beads of water that pelt their clothes and skin, while your bus drives out of the pot-holed park and onto the tarmac road. It veers past traffic, plunges down hills and barrels through towns and villages.
In a few hours’ time you will be in your grandmother’s home. You will visit her hen house while she prepares food. Your grandmother will call you for supper and you will ask her what happened to all the chickens in the hen house. She will not answer your question, she will not ask you how your journey went, she will not tell you the folktales about Christmas that you had expected to hear. But she will tell you of the incredible profit that she made from selling all her chickens.
You wonder, later, if travelling a day before Christmas had made you feel bodily absent from Nigeria, a country you have lived in for so many years; if the economy has left you to one side and forged on without you. You will remember the overwhelming shock you got when you realised that the woman who sat beside you in the bus was blind and that the little boy to her left was her eyes.
You will sit outside by the doorway with your grandmother, on a low wooden bench under the moonless night. Your lips cracking, you will breathe the dry scent of the harmattan from the dripping trees across her front yard.
And then you will again long terribly for a country you once knew so well.
Okafor Emmanuel Tochukwu is a Nigerian writer and was born in Lagos in 1993. He is currently studying electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Benin. His creative writing has appeared in Naija Stories and Uniben Talking Drum, as well as on StoryMondo, and is forthcoming in Aerodrome and the first ArtBeat Afrika short story anthology. He recently concluded an online writing course with the University of Iowa. An active member of the University of Benin Creative Writers’ workshop, Tochukwu is currently working on a full-length debut novel.