The book lying open in her palm was a light paper back, but she held on to it as though it were leaden weights. She licked her finger, turned a page and chuckled to herself about a joke she’d seen thrown around that very afternoon; Igbo people licked their fingers to turn pages of the reader on their iPads. Or at least she tried to. Her lips stayed thin, pressed against each other though in her head she was urging her facial muscles to contort into a rictus and howl with delight. She sighed, looked up from her book and out into the belly of the train compartment. Scattered around the older tired people in small groups of twos and threes; people her age lived. A boy with blonde hair that fell like badly shorn curtains around his face leaned in to whisper something to his giggling coffee skinned girlfriend and instead, stole a kiss on her neck. African students, singled out by the expensive labels gleaming on their jackets, argued wildly about Chris Brown being a better dancer than Michael Jackson. Three Indian school girls in crested jackets sat in a row, fingers clacking and swiping at phone screens that lit up their ochre faces with an otherworldly glow. They all seemed to content in their worlds, they couldn’t even see each other. She was merely one of the extras in their wildly interesting lives; a shadowy girl half hidden behind a book they’d glimpsed on the metro. She reluctantly looked away, put her head back to her book. But the words on the pages had turned to gibberish in the seconds she’d been away and she couldn’t seem to concentrate enough to give them substance. She closed the book and thrust it into her bag and plugged on her earphones.
As Avenged Seven Fold screamed into her head, she checked her messages. There was one from her younger sister, two from friends and one from him. She started a reply but her mind wouldn’t cooperate with her fingers, so she put off the screen and lay her head on the side window. Even with the music on its loudest, the susurrus of whispers that had begun nearly three days before picked up from where they left off.
What if this train crashes?
It rang clear in her head like a writing prompt. The writer’s block which had crippled her from finishing three stories over the last week suddenly lifted against her wishes and let her mind run unchained. Her hand flew to her phone and tapped desperately at the volume keys but the music streaming from her phone was already at its loudest, and the voice in her head was louder.
Only three ways it could happen; this box car derails, we run into an oncoming truck or we get hit from the side by a car. No, not a car, something bigger like an 18 wheeler truck at full speed or a trailer carrying logs. That would be delicious, the way the metal of this box car will crumble. No, not just metal, they use a lot of fibre glass as well. If we get hit from the side, the blonde emo boy and his black girlfriend will be the first to go, they’re smack in the middle of this car and their bodies will fly sideways into the grill of the truck. They won’t even have time to scream cos they’d be too busy ssing with their eyes closed to see the headlights coming. His neck will probably snap first, then his spine. Then she start to scream and stop mid-way as the truck hits her body and breaks her rib cage…
Her eyes went to the couple, still oblivious to their lone audience. She could see them bloodied up in her mind’s eye as ghastly images of them were enthusiastically conjured by her renegade brain. The girl broke away from her boyfriend and turned to her. Then the girl brushed back her kinky hair and smiled. She closed her eyes tight and hugged herself, but her dark lids only provided empty screens on which her thoughts could come to life.
…The boys would be thrown from their own side of the car to this side if the train is hit from the front, they’ll still be screaming but of course not about Chris Brown. Ha-ha-ha. Hitting the wall at that speed means someone’s legs will be broken if any of them manage to survive which they won’t because, this box car will burn. Impact with an 18-wheeler means most likely explosion. That’s how you’ll know if those girls have all that long hair or if they’re wearing weaves. Just kidding, synthetic or not, hair is very flammable. Their hair will burn, every single one of them. Good thing you have yours in a hat, you’ll get to see them scream and claw at theirs before it’s your turn…
She closed her hands into fists on the edges of her seat and tried to shake herself free but the free fall into suicidal thoughts had reached its nadir and she couldn’t think of anything else. The music had been subsumed into her waking nightmare, no longer a welcome distraction but an accoutrement. As Christina Scabbia sang of letting herself embrace the darkness, she lost control to her heaviness in her chest, and her mind took permission to imagine, to escape.
…The train car stops skidding, everyone is dead but you, and you’re only alive cos you actually used your seatbelt. The world thrives on irony. The fire is burning, swallowing the room as it moves. Everything smells of burning flesh. The heat is heavy on your face and your wool shirt is beginning to shrivel.
You unbuckle your seatbelt, close your eyes and walk into the fire.
You can hear the sirens in the distance, getting louder as you begin to scream. You want to run but there is nowhere to go, the fire has engulfed the entire car and is starting to spread to the next one. You fall to your knees and your sight goes in a spectacular pop, then your hearing, then the world goes silent. Your mother will never know you killed yourself, you won’t have to worry about that. But he will know. No matter how you do it, he will know, and it’ll break his heart but he’ll understand…
She gasped loudly and sat up in her seat, eyes flying open. She tugged at her headphones, pulling the buds from her ears, ambient sounds of the train slowing to halt rushing to fill the sudden silence. The train was empty except for the couple, who were nested around each other. The girl was watching her from under her sleeping boyfriend’s chin with a sad look on her face. She rose to her feet suddenly self-conscious and patted her cheeks, her fingers came away wet. She shuffled out of the box car as she wiped her face dry with the back of her hand, stopping on impulse at the doors to look back and flash an apologetic smile. She walking up out of the station on to street level, she took a minute to still herself and breathed in deeply, preparing herself to be around people again. She pulled her sweater taut over her back, hunched against the evening chill and began the walk home.
“What is happening to you?”
He stopped in front of the Mr Biggs at the bus park and turned to the girl he was walking with; Bella, his first friend since first year in Unilag. She had a weird look on her face.
“What?” He asked.
She paused. “You’ve been wearing these same clothes for almost a week. You used to dress so fashionably, but nowadays it’s like you just roll out of bed and walk to class.”
He looked down at the yellow checked shirt and grey pants stained from lunch three days before and realised she was right. He also realised then he hadn’t had a bath all week either. He hadn’t noticed.
“I’m fine.” He said but his voice rang hollow.
Bella watched him for a few seconds, and started for the lecture hall, pushing away the strangeness she felt. Something was off with him. He used to be the one constantly teasing her about not looking her best, his favourite line ‘these Unilag vultures will eat you raw if you don’t look sharp 24/7, so it’s better you hear that what you’re wearing is shit from me than from them’. Now he didn’t seem to realise he was disintegrating before her very eyes. But he was always the one with the answers, and she wasn’t sure she had it in her to be someone else’s pillar.
The lecture hall was filled beyond capacity. A General Studies course meant the faculty’s entire second year population was squeezed into a lecture hall originally designed to take just two hundred. He and Bella pushed and bullied their way onto a free swath of stairs on the aisle between two rows of choked seats. The class droned on around them and he copied like everyone else but nothing sank in. He stopped writing and sat back, watching the wizened man in front of the class traipse between the blackboard and the lectern, gesticulating wildly and throwing in anecdotal quips laced with biting Yoruba remarks that threw the class into occasional uproars. He heard himself laugh with them, an involuntary action that didn’t tally with what he felt, like swallowing, or blinking at the morning sun. He laughed and copied notes, turned to ask about words he misheard the man say, pushed his foolscap a little to the right so Bella could see what he wrote as he hurried to finish the lecturer’s ‘shotgun’ test. But as they walked out of the lecture hall and out into the afternoon sunlight he felt nothing, not even the hunger that gnawed at his belly, or relief that he’d known the answers to the test, or Bella’s gratitude for him helping out.
As they walked back from the gruelling lecture to the cafeteria at Sodeinde Hall, he found himself threading his fingers into the spaces between hers and holding firm, the smoothness of her palms against his rough whorls mooring him temporarily. They ate, him shovelling food into his mouth and perfunctorily chewing and swallowing, getting none of the comfort people purported. Bella watched him steal glances at her from the corner of her eyes and swallowed the joke she was about make about his eating habits; something about his wide eyes and furtive glances reminded her of a frightened puppy.
“Where is your phone?” She asked finally.
He looked up from his plate in surprise and patted his pockets, getting increasingly frantic as each pocket yielded emptiness. He stopped abruptly and turned to her.
“My pockets, they’re empty.”
His face crumbled in despair for a few minutes, and he sighed loudly. “My momsie will kill me. You have no idea how long I saved for that phone and when I got it, she got very pissed cos she thinks I don’t take care of my stuff. She said if I lose it, I shouldn’t even bother asking her to buy a new one. That phone cost me half of my allowance last year and then some. I’m just tired of everything right now.”
A patina of defeat smoothened his furrowed brows and he returned to his food. She let him eat, her appetite gone and pushed her plate to him when he emptied his. She paid for the meal and wove her arm around his, steering him out of the cafeteria and towards the taxi park and Moremi Hall, her hostel. They walked mostly silent, except for when he occasionally gave a spontaneous observation about a girl’s skirt or the irregularity of a guy’s hairline, echoes of a different time. They stopped in front of her hostel and she reached into her handbag and drew out a small, shiny blackberry. His face scrunched in confusion, then lit up in a smile as she took his hand and closed it around the phone.
“It must have fallen out of your pocket immediately after the lecture. Good thing I went back to carry my note or someone would have stolen it. But the way you just gave up on the phone, you that I have to literally separate from that screen every single time I want to talk to you … Are you sure you’re alright?”
He flushed. “I said I’m fine. It’s just a phone. They come and they go. No point getting sad over something so transient.”
Something about how he said it made her reach over and wrap him in a hug. He hugged her back and lingered, before reluctantly backing away.
“Talk to me, Igbekele. Something is wrong with you. I know it is. But I can’t help if you don’t tell me anything.”
He hesitated, then latched onto her wrist and pulled her out of pedestrian traffic pouring in and out of the hostel gates. “I feel, I don’t know, oppressed. Like someone is pressing down on my chest all the time. I can’t breathe and everything just feels like I’m being forced to do it. I don’t see the point in any of this. I just want to lie down in my room off-k and never come out. But I can’t, cos school fees cannot waste. But I know if this doesn’t change, I’m going to fail this semester and I can’t do anything about it.”
Bella’s eyes were wide, her wrist rigid in his palm. She leaned and whispered. “Why don’t you tell your dad?”
He cackled. “So that what will happen?”
“I don’t know? He will get someone to pray for you? Help you snap out of it?”
His mask of cheerfulness slipped for a moment and his whole person seemed to age before her eyes, shoulders sagged, mouth bent like a bracket flipped onto its side. Reflexively she backed away, wrestling her hand from his. She pointed to the phone in his other hand. “You should probably get it charged and message me when you get home.”
His gazed shifted from her face to his empty palm and he gave a rueful smile. He powered up the phone, the screen blinking to life. “My battery’s full, I didn’t feel like talking too much today so I put it off.”
She stayed a while at her hostel gate, watching him walk away, head bent towards his mobile phone, oblivious to the life streaming past him on the walkway and felt her heart grow heavy. Reluctantly she looked away and made her way inside.
The dings came hard and fast, as the world he had staved off poured in all at once. Emails, instant messages, updates for his applications. He hid the ones he could and sorted through the ones he couldn’t. Most were dispatched with two or three lines of text, peppered with smileys for cheerful emphasis. His lover had only sent one message but was online flirting heavily with someone else. He sent two messages to his lover’s Whatsapp just so he didn’t seem bitter and closed the conversation. Then he saw a few of her tweets, filled with words that made him worry. So he pushed aside his numbness and sent her a slew of instant messages, asking her to message once she was free. He put on his headphones and some A Perfect Circle and started his walk home.
—- —– —— ——- —— ——– – —— —- —– —— — – —
[So what happened today?]
He typed, sitting atop shut toilet seat, spinning the small switchblade on his pinkie finger by its belt-hole ring. He could feel the coldness of the porcelain seep through the material of his shorts but this was the only place he felt calm.
[Class was cold, it rained all afternoon.] She typed back, sitting on her bed, the paperback discarded for a melancholic Stephen King tome, she was in no mood for romance.
[Then I got to the train and it happened again. But this time it was so vivid, I could see and smell everything. So many bad thoughts in my head right now. I wish I could just shut it off.]
He sighed and flicked out the blade. [I wish I didn’t understand how that feels.]
She looked over to her sister, snoring lightly on the other bed and huffed. Her fingers travelled the breadth of the touch screen. [I wish I could just give myself permission to do it. I’m tired of feeling so old, so frail. I’m tired of feeling everything so strongly that nothing is the same. I don’t wish I was normal, but I wish this sadness wasn’t a part of the package.]
He ran the blade along the inside of his forearm, tracing old scars. [I would have done it already. God knows how close I’ve come in the past. Even when I wasn’t looking for a quick and easy way to get there, I was giving myself to people who treated me like I was worthless so that when the time came, I wouldn’t feel anything. But I can’t bring myself to do it, my mother wouldn’t survive it. I’m her only ‘good’ child, her one chance to do things right. She wouldn’t survive me going like that.]
She gave a bitter chuckle, then burst into laughter at the irony that he had never heard her laugh. [Don’t I know it? I think there’s something wrong, if there is you’ll tell me, right?]
[I would. Promise.]
[How about the doctor, have you heard from him yet. I’m worried.]
He started to type something, then shook his head and held down the backspace key. Pressing the blade down, he gritted his teeth and started to type. [Yeah. I heard from him today. He says the test are conclusive. There is nothing they can do about it. The damage is degenerative and non-reversible. Eventually I will lose all hearing in the left one, then the right. But I still have a few years. Gonna make the best of it, after all it could be cancer, right?]
[Fuck that! You’re allowed to be sad about this. You should tell someone, start with your friends.] She typed back, blinking away the cloudiness in her eyes.
He scoffed in the pseudo-darkness. [And have them treat me like an invalid? Nah. I’ve seen people go soft around sick people. I can’t stand it. I want to still be normal in their eyes for as long as possible.]
[Then take a few days off class and just make sense of this. Lie in bed and pig out, wallow.]
He laughed. [If I let myself feel even a tiny bit of this, I’ll never get out of bed in the morning. Class gives me routine. Something to do in the morning. It’s easier this way.]
She scratched her hair under the bonnet as she struggled for words. [What I meant to say, is that when the sadness comes, acknowledge it. Don’t fight it, don’t pretend it isn’t there. Otherwise you will break down. Breaking down isn’t pretty, trust me. If you start to feel overwhelmed, buzz me okay? No matter where I am, send a message, a tweet, anything. I promise I’ll respond.]
He froze, he’d been absently pressing down on the blade so hard it had dimpled his skin. He withdrew the blade, closed back into its switch and handled his phone with both hands. [I was just about to tell you the same. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with you, that’s why I left you all those messages this afternoon. Are you alright?]
There was pause. He watched the dimple rise and a bead of blood grow from the pierced skin. She rubbed her nose to stave off the sniffles that threatened to run, and shifted her phone from her left hand to her right.
[My gran died today. I loved her so much and now she’s gone. Just gone, and I don’t get to get any closure. I hadn’t seen in her more than five years.]
[Oh God. I’m so sorry.]
[She was my last living grandparent. There are just so many memories of her, her braiding my hair and telling me fairy tales on her veranda. I was planning to go see her first the next time I came home to Nigeria. She was one of my main reasons for wanting to come back. I’d planned to hug her first thing after I saw and breathe deeply, see if she still smelt the same as I remembered. But even as bad as I feel, I don’t even want to imagine how bad my mother feels right now.]
[I can’t even say I know how you feel, the grandparent I was closest to I hated because of how she treated my mother. But even then when she died, I felt guilty for the kind of relief I felt. Don’t worry about your mom though, when my mom’s mother died, we were all expecting her to break down because of how guilty she felt that she couldn’t be there for the old woman the way she wanted when she was alive. But surprisingly she was fine about it. Even more than the rest of us. They might not show it but they are aware that their parents are aging, and in their own ways, they prepare for it.]
[I hope so. She will have to travel down for the burial. We can’t all go, cos now just isn’t a good time. That fucking sucks.]
[I’m here if you need someone to rant to, just let it all out. Or if you can’t say, then try to let it out some other way.]
[I know. I think I’ll use all of this and try and channel it into some writing.]
[You should. Send it to me when you’re done?]
[Love you. *hugs*]
[Love you too.]
She put the phone down and powered up her laptop. The blank word page was empty except for the single blinking cursor, waiting. She typed out four letters; L-I-F-E.
He palmed the switchblade and put it back in his pocket and switched off his phone. Blanketed by NEPA induced darkness, he listened through the walls for the snores and the heavy breathing of the people in his house, counting till he was sure they were all alive. It was something he did as a child when nightmares kept him awake and he ached when the thought struck him that he couldn’t hear her breathing across the ocean and the thousands of miles that separated them. He couldn’t do anything but listen when she wanted to talk, he couldn’t help in ways that mattered. He thought of the old woman, dying alone and his chest constricted. He tried to breathe but all he could do was gasp for air. He swayed, pressing down on the bleeding wound from the switchblade trying to still himself and then he exhaled, a loud sob. He began to weep, loudly, messily, for her grandmother. It was as though all the things he couldn’t feel for himself, he felt in her stead. He felt her anger and her guilt and her pain and he tamped his hands over his mouth and wept into it, rocking side to side, riding out the emotions. He let the tears fill the barrenness of his cheeks and the tightness in his chest ease into relief. Slowly, the pain ebbed and the tears eased and he turned on the shower head and stood under it, spent but no longer numb.
As she closed the page on her laptop screen, the blank white now filled with black font and pulled her blanket over her legs, he crawled into his bed beside his blissfully oblivious friends clean and smelling of bath soap. Their sleeping thoughts were of each other, niggling worry that the other person was alright, and hope that the next day would be easier. In those moments the miles meant nothing to their friendship, and the distance didn’t nothing to dull the intensity of their fierce protectiveness of each other. In those moments, they were kin.