A week before all hell broke loose, we were living in a rented flat on the third floor of a three storey apartment in CMS, close enough to smell the sea even though the tall buildings surrounding our house blocked it from view. Mama got out of bed that Saturday morning and when she stepped in the living room, there was water on the rug. She stared at her feet, at the water that had turned the colour of the rug from bright green to a darker shade, towards the bathroom where a tap had been left running through the night. Then she screamed my name.
In my mother’s house, whenever something went wrong, who mama called depended on the extent of the fuck up. If it was something as basic as a broken mug poorly hid under piles of trash in the waste bag, an unflushed toilet or an unswept room, she yelled for my little brother Timothy. I could be responsible for any of that, but she would scream Timothy’s name and even before he appeared, she would have started scolding him. If it was something like someone forgetting to turn off the bathroom tap and the room getting soaked with water while we slept, I get called to answer for it.
“Why is there water running all over my house! Why is there water running all over my house!”
Her face was more shocked than angry. She had one hand pulling her nightgown up, keeping the hem from scrapping the wet floor. The shock of the cold water when I stepped into the room made me almost jump.
“The bathroom…” I pointed, moving towards the door, the sound of rushing water becoming clearer as I approached. I switched off the tap and cursed under my breath. It was a Saturday morning, I had my day all planned out: recline to the sofa with a bottle of groundnuts and watch the English Premier League. West Ham were playing. Nobody I knew gave a shit about West Ham. Everyone was into the big four: Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs and Liverpool. Arsenal used to be in the top four, but now they are a joke.
My Saturday hadn’t even begun but it had already been ruined. The carpet had to be removed, taken outside and brushed with water and soap. It would spend days in the sun before it would be brought back inside. The room would have to be mopped up and dried with some of our old clothes we used as rags. By the time we were done, it would be late in the afternoon. God help the child who switches on the telly before then.
I returned to the room. Mama was still standing there; the incensed look on her face had deepened. I took a quick glance across the room, towards where we plugged our telly and other electronics. Mama had raised us to switch off all electrical appliances before we went to bed, so I wasn’t too worried about them.
“Who used the bathroom last?”
“It is not that, it is the water,” I said. “Remember there hasn’t been any water since yesterday morning. Anyone could have left the tap on and not know it.”
She said nothing, but she still looked annoyed. I walked to the door of our room and shouted, “Timothy! Wake up!”
I have the tattoo of a shark head on the left side of my chest. Its jaws are open, showing an alarming row of fangs. Because of that, I never took off my shirt in the house, not even when mama wasn’t around. She had a way of appearing in rooms without anyone hearing her come in. One minute you are alone in the house, scrolling through your Twitter feed, the next mama is standing by the door, nylon bags in each hand, that perpetually annoyed expression on her face.
I got the tattoo at school. My ex introduced me to horoscopes and stargazing. I was a Pisces. I was a bit disappointed when I checked the sign for Pisces and found out it was a fish. I wanted to be something like Sagittarius or Scorpio. Something with a cooler and much more badass symbol. But Erinma laughed and said, “Why so shallow?”
Erinma was tall, wore glasses, baggy jackets and kept her hair short. She was quiet but had a habit of moving her lips like she was always mumbling things to herself. She was a year ahead of me in school and two years younger. Her conversations revolved around an innate belief in predestination and predicting fates and trying to add tags to behaviours and personalities.
“That girl is definitely a Scorpio. They seem all sweet and charming, but they all have dark sides you don’t even want to see.”
“I am surprised you didn’t see that coming, John. It is so unlike a Pisces to be both unobservant and laidback.”
At first I found it intriguing how she was, how she saw everything through the prism of their stars. I would find myself being self-conscious, trying to see if my behaviour followed the pattern my star had laid out for me, She was a Leo and had claw mark tattoos just below her left breasts; three slashes that looked like healed scars in the dim light of her room the night we first had sex.
The morning after, while scrapping my back as I showered, a stinging pain made me rinse off the soap suds and stare at my back in the bathroom mirror. There were slash marks on my back from her fingers. An accidental stamp of a Leo ownership.
Timothy helped me drag the soaked carpet downstairs. We left a zigzag of wet smudges behind us. The sun hadn’t yet come out; there was just the smell of the sea and morning noises from across the street. Timothy still had sleep in his eyes. I noticed he was growing his hair. When I was his age, papa was always at me to cut my hair. He said I looked like a vagabond walking around with my amateur attempt at an afro.
“Look at your son,” he would say to mama as we sat eating or watching the telly, “look at his hair like those useless area boys. Is it a crime for him to look responsible?”
The evening my father died, I was in a barber’s shop, cutting my hair; trying to keep it long enough to still look the same, yet short enough for papa to like it. I remember frowning hard as I stared at my reflection in the mirror, watching three months of well cultivated hair slide off my scalp. The barber thought I was unhappy with his workmanship and paused for several seconds to turn my head this way and that, looking for where he erred with the clipper.
The only reason I was cutting my hair was because it was during the period I was to start school at Ibadan and I would need to take a list of fees and bills to papa. And knowing papa, he would start talking about how he wasn’t planning on sending a riff-raff to the university, I had to go cut my hair or get the money myself. I know papa.
The people who witnessed the accident said it was his fault. He was driving too fast, and on the wrong lane. But it didn’t make sense to me. Papa was meticulous, orderly and obsessive about being on the right side of the law. How could a man who wouldn’t even give policemen bribes at checkpoints be driving on the wrong side of the road?
His eyes were wide open when I went with mama to identify the body. His body looked like if you shook it, it would come apart in a hundred different pieces of battered flesh and broken bone. Mama was silent as we stood side by side in the morgue. She reached a hand, placed it over his face and closed his eyes, but when she took her hand back, papa’s eyes flipped open. For a second, I believed he was alive. Just too mangled to do things living people did. Like talk, sit up, blink and say something.
The morning after my father died, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at myself for a very long time. Then I took a shaving stick and scrapped off the remaining strands of hair on my head. Exactly the way papa always wanted it.
“Let the breeze blow your brain small,” he would say, “so you will be more intelligent.”
Timothy used a dustpan to scoop water from the floor into a bucket which he carried to pour into the bathroom when it was full. I worked with a mop, dabbing at the floor and at sweat beads on my forehead with the front of my singlet. In the kitchen, mama made no noise as she prepared breakfast. Not even the bang of a pot against the gas cooker, not even a spoon scraping against the side of stainless steel.
The sun came out in the middle of our work, closely followed by stifling heat that soaked my singlet and made mama open all the windows and fold the curtains into hanging balls which we used to kick and punch when we were younger. The sun stole in through the window and used the burglary-proof bars to form patterns on the floor. Mama felt the undersides of the sofas and asked us to take two of them outside to dry. Timothy and I exchanged pained glances.
“It is not that wet, mama,” Timothy said.
She looked over her shoulder at him from the window where she was folding another curtain. “It is not that wet, mama,” she mimicked and resumed what she was doing. Timothy scowled and stared at me. I was chuckling. The heat hung thick in the air like a persistent memory. But I kept my singlet on. If I took it off and mama saw my tattoo, all hell would break loose.
Timothy and I huffed and grunted as we hauled the chairs down the stairs. The morning had come fully alive with the smell of cooking, the sound of some of our neighbours’ generators, Lagos traffic outside, the voices of children, of people and the people in televisions. The sound of living things.
We placed the chairs upside, facing the sun, and paused to wipe our faces. Timothy had his shirt off and his lean, hard body shone in the sun. My younger brother was the better looking one in the family. He was the one girls stared at when we walked together on evenings when the sun had gone down and a cool breeze was blowing from the sea. It used to make me feel self-conscious, then I went to the university, joined a gym, got a bigger chest, a tattoo and two girlfriends.
“It doesn’t matter what your horoscope says,” Erinma said after she found out about Sheri, “you are a lowlife scum like the rest of you all.”
She was standing by the door of my mini-flat. Her voice was calm but anger flashed in her eyes and made her tremble like jolts of electricity were coursing through her. Erinma was quiet. She was the type of person who would walk into a room of people and try to disappear in the mass of bodies. She seemed to have the ability to make herself wither till you forgot she was even there in the first place. It was one of the few times I saw her come really alive and animated.
“Get my name out of your fucking mouth, you filthy piece of shit!” she yelled.
“Keep your voice down!”
“Oh, fuck off!” she said, her voice a notch higher. “Of course, you are so ashamed you don’t want your neighbours to hear about what a piece of shit you are. You are probably fucking them too…”
“Oh wow, so you can be shocked?” she stared at me in mock surprise, “I am shook. Dear me, I am shook. The filthy cheat is shocked at the thought of upgrading his cheating game. Awww,” she placed a hand mockingly on her chest.
“Fuck you,” I finally said. “Get the hell out of my apartment and don’t ever come here again.”
“No, fuck you,” she snapped back. “You get your lying, cheating, deceitful scum self the hell out of my life and . . .You aren’t shit!”
She paused at the door on her way out. “I hope she gives you STDs. I hope she has a cultist sidecock. She isn’t shit either.”
Timothy hummed something as we kneeled to mop patches of wet floor. The water we used to clean was soaked with a lavender- tinted freshener and the smell clashed with the aroma of stew wafting from the kitchen. Now and then, I looked up to see mama standing by the kitchen door, watching us work, her face devoid of expression. Even before papa died, she was that way; a quiet woman with occasional bursts of talk and temper. She had a habit of squinting through her glasses even though she said, whenever we asked, that she could see clearly with it. She said nothing when our eyes met. Mama could eyeball a statue and the thing would beg for a moment’s breath of life so it could turn its head away.
We finished cleaning and sat to eat. The electricity was out and there was no fuel in the generator. Timothy offered to go get some after our meal. Mama told him to leave it alone. “The sun is too much.”
“Next time, whether the water is running or not, always check that the water is turned off,” mama said to us, but facing me. “I just have this feeling we were lucky to wake up when we did. It could have been worse. The water could have risen higher. It could have spilled downstairs into the neighbours’ rooms.”
Timothy and I nodded even though she was facing me as she spoke. Her voice was clear and kind, but that’s how her voice always sounded: clear, well thought out, kind.
Timothy was sixteen. My parents had accepted I would be their only child before mama fell pregnant with him. By the time he was twelve, he was almost as tall I was and at sixteen, we were shoulder to shoulder at six feet. Mama said we got our height from our uncle Fidel. Uncle Fidel was a giant of a man with a shaved head and the biggest hands I have ever seen. I used to imagine him getting into a fight and using one hand to chokeslam his opponent on the ground the way the Undertaker and Kane did in the ring. When my father died, he drove all night from Onitsha to Lagos. His big hands swallowed mama’s when he held her hands in his. Around my shoulder at the funeral, his arm weighed heavier than the weight of losing papa.
“Have you decided which university you want to go yet?” I asked Timothy as we stood by a barrier that stretched as far as our eyes could see, staring at the sea through the steel netting.
“I never know. Uniben maybe, Unical maybe. Mama wants me to go to Unilag so I can be closer to her, but I am tired of living in Lagos. I want to go far away.”
I nodded. I got it. “Hopefully, you pass JAMB.”
He gave me a look. “You think I am like you.”
I faked a punch, he stepped back, raising his arm to parry. I smiled. “Do you really believe I failed JAMB three times? I knew what I wrote, Timothy, these results are not mine.”
He said nothing. We stared at the ships anchored in the water, at speedboats leaving a foamy trail as they sped past, at floating debris and the sun, the world’s biggest basketball, sinking into the horizon.
“Don’t you think you should go to Unilag,” I said finally, “so mama won’t be all alone?”
His tone was hard. “Why didn’t you choose Unilag when you were filling your own applications?”
“I did. The first and second time. Besides, Ibadan is like just two hours away.”
We fell to watching the sea again. I stole glances at him as he stood there, leaning his face against the netting. A beautiful boy. His jaw was set in that hard grimace that told anyone who knew him well enough that he wasn’t going to back down. It was the look that he wore during staredowns at school. The look of a cornered animal about to dig its feet in.
“Oh well, whatever you think is best for you,” I finally said.
The sun sank deeper into the horizon and the shadows came out. The smell of exhaust smoke hung heavy in the air, competing for a space in our heads with the smell of the sea. Timothy walked in front of me on a crowded sidewalk, his earpiece stuck in both ears, lost in a world of song.
We returned home. There was light. I went to the room I shared with Timothy and plugged in my phone, powerbank and laptop. Timothy and Mama were in the sitting room, watching Faith Today. Or rather, mama was watching, Timothy was staring into space, staring intermittently at his phone each time it beeped.
Later that night, just before we went to bed, mama asked me to say the prayers. There was silence for several seconds as I suddenly didn’t know how to start. I hadn’t said a word of prayer in my two years away at the university. I didn’t even go to church.
Timothy nudged me with a knee. I opened my eyes. Mama’s head was bowed, waiting. A lump formed in my throat. I coughed twice.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
The next morning, mama led the prayers after devotions. She sat still, the lamp casting her shadow on the wall as a cone. Her body didn’t move as she prayed. Her words came in bursts, fits and pauses that stretched long enough for me to open my eyes to see if she had finished.
“Father, give us hearts to constantly seek you,” she prayed. “Give us hearts always hungry for you. Help us to hide your word in our hearts and your laws in our heads in Jesus name.”
It took me a while to realize mama wasn’t just praying, she was talking to me. It has always been her way, even before papa died.
“Father, any evil mark the enemy has placed on us, we ask that you blot it with the blood…”
My eyes flew open. I stared from her to Timothy whose hands were over his face like he was peeking, and back at her.
Unconsciously, my hand reached to touch my chest where the tattoo of a snarling shark’s head was.
Hurricane Orji came in the night. It came like the ghosts of the hundreds of swine Jesus cast into the sea, still possessed; hungry and howling and running riot like they had been told, Go! again. It came like the restless spirits of the hundreds of thousands of bodies the sea had swallowed, spilling towards the shore in storey-high waves and careening towards the city, a sweeping, rumbling force of chaos and destruction.
There was no warning, no sign, no wind. Nothing in the air or water that told us all hell was about to break loose on Lagos Island. One minute the sea was the sea, the next the sea was God’s outstretched hand of judgment running through the city like an unwritten 11th plague. One minute the city was quiet, save for the throbbing of generators and the occasional rumbling of a fuel truck passing by, the next there was a roar and then there was screaming and there was darkness and there was Hurricane Orji, hungry and growling, ripping through the city, taking everything in its mouth and spitting them back.
We were awakened by the howling of the wind and crashing sounds. It was about two in the morning. I ran to the window and looked out. It was pitch dark and the wind that blew against my face took me by surprise. I quickly slid the glass shut.
“Which kain rain be this? Timothy asked me when I turned back.
I was opening my mouth to answer when the window exploded.
Mama prayed loudly. She paced the room and prayed, her voice competing with the thunder of the storm outside. It was the first time in forever that I have seen mama so animated. She gesticulated, clenched her fists into a holy ball and bounced them around as she waged spiritual warfare against the hurricane.
But the storm raged on.
I was on my phone, trying to send tweets and messages and SOSs, but the network connection was poor. Timothy was huddled in a corner, wrapped in one of mama’s wrappers. He wasn’t the hard guy who wanted things his own way anymore, he was just a boy. A scared boy.
We didn’t know it was a hurricane. We thought it was rain; driving rain. Mama mentioned something about God promising not to destroy the world with a flood as she prayed. The crashing sounds grew louder and suddenly it hit me that it wasn’t the crashing of water falling down, it was the sound water makes when it rushes towards the shore and slams itself against rocks.
“Mama!” I shouted, “ it is not just rain, it is the sea. It is the water. The sea is overflowing.”
She stopped her prayers and stared at me. The light from Timothy’s phone’s flashlight illuminated the confusion on her face. She walked towards the shattered window and peered hard into the darkness.
“It is a hurricane,” Timothy said suddenly.
Mama whirled as if she wanted to attack him for the pronouncement.
“A hurricane in Nigeria,” I said, “that is so imposs…”
Our house started to shake.
It was the longest night of our lives. We huddled together in a corner of our apartment, tense, listening to the storm raging outside and feeling our hearts thundering inside our chests. Mama had stopped praying. Her arms were wrapped around Timothy who moaned as if in pain. The building shook again and again, startling us afresh each time. Images of hurricanes I had witnessed on CNN flashed across my mind: entire communities submerged in water, houses torn apart and scattered as floating debris across the surface of the raging tide.
My phone was still on; the battery at 23 per cent. It might as well have been off because there was no network signal. It was good only to use as a torch. The morning light never seemed so far off.
Dawn finally crept in. Soon we could see the lines on our palms. But nobody moved. Rain poured in through the window and water had started to pool at our feet. I thought of the previous week when the bathroom tap had been left on. I thought of the work Timothy and I did that Saturday and the soaked carpet and the chairs. Through the window, we could see the rain as it fell, the wind blew hard and when it changed courses, it blew our curtains almost to the ceiling. Now and then, thunder howled a warning.
Mama broke the silence, “John, go to the window and see if …see what is outside.”
I stared at her.
“How long do you think we are going to stay here?”
Gingerly I approached the window. Each step, I expected the floor to give way and my body to be hurled into angry waters. I wanted to be in Timothy’s place; to not have to play man. To have mama’s arms around me, holding me from falling apart like a house overrun by the hurricane.
I reached the window and looked out.
The air was calmer, but the road was submerged with water for as far as my eye could see. People were coming out of houses, braving the current to wade through the waist deep water, trying to find dry land. A couple of cars, turned upside down, were floating in the current. The water went into every nook and cranny and brought things out. Some houses looked like they were waiting for another bashing to crumble into debris. In the distance, I watched someone lose his balance and disappear momentarily underneath the water. I held my breath as I watched him come back up then disappear again. When he reemerged moments later, it was as a floating object fighting against the current carrying him away. He was too far away, but I imagined him screaming.
I heard mama call me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the carnage below: the water rushing by, looking for where to crash against, what to displace; the sea trying to swallow the land and everything on it but not knowing how to; with things like plastic buckets, used tyres and wooden benches popping from its belly, refusing to digest. I watched another person, a woman, lose her balance. I waited for her to pop up again. I waited and waited, scanning the area around where she was, but the she never reappeared.
“Oh my God!”
I didn’t even hear mama and Timothy walk up to stand behind me.
Mama said we had to move. Timothy said we were fine where we were, we were several floors up, away from the reach of the water. Mama said she didn’t trust the house not to collapse, after the way it shook throughout the night. Timothy argued that it was unlikely because the worst of the storm seemed over.
“Stay here then,” mama snapped at him. “Stay here and shake.”
She went inside and we could hear her rifling through her stuff for things to take with her. I walked to our room, threw some clothes and my laptop in my backpack. Timothy entered as I moved around, looking for things to take. He stood by the door and watched me.
“You really are not coming?”
“I can’t swim.”
I turned to stare at him. “I can’t swim either.”
“What if the water carries me away?”
“It won’t,” I said. “I will hold your hand.”
The water was cold as we stepped outside. Mama walked in front , her bag slung over her shoulder. We passed neighbours who had gathered on the stairs, talking in hushes as if the water had ears and if they spoke too loud it would rise.
“You are going out ?” someone said, “isn’t it too dangerous? We should wait for rescue teams.”
Mama looked at the man in the eye. “Wait then,” she said, her voice toneless except to my brother and I who could sniff the irritation. Someone shouted at us to wait for her as we were almost at the door, but mama kept walking.
It occurred to me that I have never seen mama interact much with the neighbours. She has always kept to herself as far back as I could remember. We waded through the water, taking gingerly step after gingerly step. Where the water stopped at my waist, it reached mama’s belly. Timothy walked between us, his body tense, throwing furtive glances backwards to make sure I was there watching his back. I have never seen my brother so afraid.
Ahead of us, mama grabbed onto a floating stick and used it to test the path in front of her as she moved. She headed towards the bridge which curved upwards. The water had calmed to a faint throbbing aftermath.
Around us, people were wading through the water, bags on their heads, heading towards the bridge, towards higher ground. Timothy stumbled on something and righted himself quickly. I put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
The bridge was in view when it happened.
There was a truck blocking the road, the storm had whirled it around and left it blocking the road, half submerged in water. Water gushed through the narrow spaces on both ends of the truck with force. A force that was strong enough to bowl me backwards when my foot slipped on something in the water and I lost my hold on the side of the tank.
The water closed in on me, reaching for every opening. The water was a spirit seeking to possess me. I fought back, seeking balance. But the water rolled me backwards with a velocity that wasn’t obvious on the surface. I opened my mouth to scream and water entered my mouth and exploded somewhere in my head.
Then I felt hands reaching for me. For my leg, then my shirt. Then Timothy was in my face as I came up coughing violently, holding me like if his grip wasn’t tight enough, the water would take me again. I looked up and we were about fifty yards away from where mama was standing, looking so lost.
Timothy kept his arm around me as we walked back, towards mama. She put her arms around me and drew me close. Timothy stood, his arm locked in the embrace, then I felt him wrap his arm around mama as we stood there, a reunion in the middle of a hurricane.
Mama waited and watched us pass the gap by the truck, then she followed suit and we continued our trek towards the bridge; Timothy walking in front, the dread and apprehension that had stiffened his body gone. He kept shooting glances behind him as if trying to make sure that I was still there. I took my place behind him, walking in his shadow, conscious of mama at my back, our backs, taking her place to watch over us, to carry us across the water. ✚
David is the author of Gundown, a crime novel.