The music plays, it’s slow and languid. People sway in front, their chests breaching the raised dais. Their eyes turn dreamily at the lead singer as she whispers poetry into the microphone grazing her lower lip. I sway with the crowd for a while, try to lose myself in the music. But she isn’t the one I’m here for, the one we’ve all come for. I turn away, slip through the small clump in front and weave past the larger smatterings of people who stand at the back only barely watching the stage. These are the people comedians write jokes about, the bourgeoisie of Lagos who pay money to come to these concerts then skulk in the background, people who say ‘I don’t need to be a part of it to enjoy it’.
We come here once a month, all of us. We come jittery with excitement buoyed on a wave of alcohol swigged straight from the bottle, peppered with blue ovals and green grass. Everything is beautiful as we drive, squealing along to Taylor Swift’s New Romantics even though we secretly hate her. The Lekki expressway is a shimmering yellow brick road and the tollgate gleams chrome in the moonlight. Even the rolling paper of the joint we share is beautiful, printed fuchsia strawberries turning to ash.
I’ve lost them, my friends. Pulled from each other by new friends and old flames, we dispersed into the park, me to the front of the stage and they, I don’t know. My throat is raw from screaming and I am starting to regret not taking that joint; I am recently out of a job, I came here to forget. My jaw is locked in a permanent rictus I flash at people I know but can’t remember where from. I see S., hug him, happy to find a familiar atoll in the ever transmuting sea of faces; but he takes my Power Bank and disappears in high tide. I know W. is somewhere in the throng, with drink to parch my thirst. I should find him.
Retrace your steps.
We drove around thrice, listening to Azealia Banks hiss through the speakers looking for parking.
“Serves us right.” T. says.
And it does, we’d been joking about parking being horrible tonight for weeks, we should have known better. But not everyone is obsessed with time, not everyone has as little of it left as you. We take a detour, looking for cigarettes I know I won’t smoke. But it helps to have your hands full, something to do while your posse air kisses and drowns in small talk. But there were no lighters, and matches are no good. We promised to come back.
I check; they didn’t.
The third act is on stage when I slip past the gatemen a third time tonight.
His voice is mellifluous but only handfuls know the words. She was something foreign, he is something old. I see an old love, shirt three buttons undone, cleavage bared, a mating call. I try to slip past and succeed.
The lounge is full and I am starting to despair. My glasses don’t work so well at night and I find myself trying to discreetly peer into faces to discern their features, single out my friends. I can’t find any of them, though I hear their laughs echoing above the din.
They sound happy without you, I think, then banish the thought.
My bladder presses against my abdomen like a phantom foetus. My stride turns into a waddle and my friends forgotten, I rush for the bathroom. Miraculously there is no queue and I scramble to the nearest stall, unzip my pants. Something old is doing a cover and everyone, finally included, chorus joyfully. I listen to their voices over the prattle from the lounge and start when I hear a scream.
I see him, the source of the sound, perched on a toilet seat in the staff restrooms behind the guest bathrooms. The front of his shirt is scrunched into a tight fist in the hand of the man who holds him there against his will, twice his size and menacing. I peer through the open gate that should separate the guests from the staff, still unsure of what I’m seeing. Then his mouth moves.
“Please sir! Help me! I can’t stay in this toilet! I can’t!”
His conviction moves my feet around the gate and past the threshold of silent bystander to active participant. His eyes shine with unshed tears and my approach emboldens him because he starts to thrash. For his tiny body, he packs a fight. He screams and scratches, fingers clenching my direction, his tiny mouth opened as wide as it will go. The English that pours forth is clipped, reminiscent of old money and Soyinka interviews.
“Please sir, help me beg them. I can’t stay in this toilet, I will die there! Please! please!! please!!!”
Another man joins the first in the toilet and tries to swipe his legs. He kicks the man in the face and nearly upends the toilet bowl. I look at the three women watching impassively. Two young and casually dressed, one elder with slick textured hair, a finger curl laid carefully across the ridge of her left cheekbone. She is a relic of an older time. The younger women seem to look to her. She watches the men restrain the boy, her expression the very image of apathy.
“He’s a child!” I hear myself say, loud enough to register.
And the child, finally seeing an ally or a patsy intensifies his thrashing. One of the younger women shakes her head and says,
“You’re such a bad child, Ibrahim.”
And my grasp of what is happening slips.
“Leave him alone!” I say, louder this time, hoping to draw the attention of other revellers. No one comes.
I make for the restroom and stop shy of the door. The older woman moves to block my path, coming within reach of the restroom. The boy lunges, his fist tightening around the lapel of her jacket. The men, startled, try to pull him away and he drags the woman into the toilet with a violent jerk before his fingers are pried off her.
She struggles to right herself, her impassiveness faltering long enough to show fear, and maybe worry. I glance behind me, remembering my friends but I turn away and they are just as quickly forgotten.
“Let him go.” The woman says.
No one is more shocked than the boy. The men release him, reluctantly, and then disperse. The woman makes for her office. The boy follows. She stops at her door a few feet down to fish for her keys and the boy drops to his knees before her and begins to wail.
“Mummy please forgive me, I promise I will never do it again. Just forgive me.”
She continues her task as though he were nothing more than a door stop.
He panics and looks around, his eyes widening as he spots me. I am just as surprised as he that I am still here, still an active participant in a scenario when the information is constantly mutating. He drags himself to me and tries to take my hand. I flinch involuntarily as he comes into the sphere of the fluorescent lamps, the light exposing how uncared for he is. His shirt is clean but faded; his trousers too small. The back of his ears is ashen from neglect and his lips are cracked. He is young, younger than I thought. I wonder what he is doing here at this time of night, mixed up with park security.
“Uncle, please help me beg mummy.” he says, “She took care of my mother when she was sick. I just want her to say she forgives me. I want her to know I’m sorry.”
I look to the older woman but I am stumped for words, shed of my former self-righteousness. She says nothing, just watches us, her hand still on the knob of her door. Her gaze is unassailable so I direct my questions to him. I pull him up to his feet and march him to her. I press my hand into the crook of his clavicle. I try to understand.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“You should have started with that.”
One of the younger women, still hovering, still a bystander.
Ibrahim looks up at me, his eyes full of apprehension. He hesitates, I tighten my grip.
“My friends…” he stutters, “My friends… they were there. I was with them; they said they wanted me to show them around.”
“What friends?” I press.
“Tell him Ibrahim.” The older woman’s voice is tired, like she’s lived through this a thousand times. “Tell him who your friends are and where they are coming from.”
Ibrahim doesn’t answer. Instead he turns his attention back to her and tries to genuflect. I pinch his clavicle and he yowls, springing back to his feet.
He returns to his litany, perhaps realising that his only ally has switched alliances.
“Mummy please forgive me, I know how much you have done for my mummy, I will never disobey you again, please just tell me you forgive me.”
His fervency equals the most charismatic of pastors and even with the facts before me and his obvious duplicity he almost manages to milk sympathy out of me. The thought flits through my head: with a little finesse Ibrahim will get almost anything he wants out of anyone.
“Answer her question.” I ask, putting some backbone into my voice.
He turns his whimpering stare at her. She is unmoved.
“Forget about your friends. You say you came to meet your friends abi. Tell him where you are coming from.”
She raises her voice. “Tell him.”
His face falls. “Sango-Ota.”
It registers, even though he says it with such a tiny voice, I have to parse the words. Sango-Ota. Half a day’s journey. A place even I, with my wanderlust, have never been because it is too ‘far’.
My hand swings from reflex, catches the back of his head. I am furious for being dragged into a lie, lured by the façade of his innocence and my own saviour complex. The woman lets out a wry laugh, it sounds like a rasp. I start to apologise but she stops me.
“You were only trying to help.”
She sighs, her whole being collapsing, her ramrod spine melting under the weight of something that I realise she otherwise won’t acknowledge.
“There are things worth more than money.” She says, “There is dignity and that is something you learn by example. His mother let him come here. He says they called him, but he doesn’t have a phone. So who did they call?”
I step away from Ibrahim, and look at him anew. The fright and fear and adrenaline pumping through him has turned him into a bag of shivers and his eyes flit between me and the woman, desperately seeking even the tiniest bit of empathy.
“… and the worst part is he is only thirteen years.”
My head snaps up to her at that.
I feel slimy all over; I feel the wild urge to scrub myself raw. I want to trounce Ibrahim, thoroughly, utterly. I know the urge is from the impotent hope that violence meted out in concern will somehow change the trajectory of his life, save him. Memories surge, things long buried, hands that roved in places they weren’t allowed. Of violence, meted generously, silence bartered with whippings.
“What are you doing here? If you were my brother I would have killed you here and now! At least that way you’d be better off dead than useless.”
I am practically screaming at him, angry impotent screaming that turns shallow as soon as it leaves my lips. He glances stealthily at the gate. I see myself in his beady eyes, a terrifying stranger. I grow quiet.
“If you saw him with them,” the woman says, “sitting with his legs crossed, giggling when they let him drink from the bottle. He thinks he is all grown up but he doesn’t know what they do, how they ruin people.”
“Who?” I ask.
She points to Ibrahim. “His friends.”
I try but I am unable to compute. “His friends?”
“Old white men.” She spits the words with thinly veiled disgust.
I think I blanch, I am not sure. But I know I don’t look back when I turn and leave. Finding my friends all of sudden seems like a real concern, one I can process. I cannot handle the thought of a thirteen year old, a child, mired in such ugliness. I don’t want to deal with the fact that he already is.
I find my friends, almost immediately; like this is a play and they were merely waiting in the ante-room for their scene. I take the bottle from W. and swig hard. It makes my stomach churn, but I don’t care. I tell W. and the others, as abbreviated as I can without fudging any details. I say it like she did, the old woman.
“Old white men.”
Their eyes widen, their mouths twist.
I change the topic, hard.
“He’s finally on stage!” I exclaim.
We swarm, singing loudly, enjoying each other’s selfies. They sing drunkenly on the drive home and I sit quietly in a grown man’s lap trying very hard not to dwell. But my thoughts roil around Ibrahim and how much of a coward I am. I wonder if I doomed him, or if he is already beyond help. I roll the word I should have said to the older woman, the word I should have screamed in the lounge; the excuse I should have used to march Ibrahim out of the concert and into custody of the police men two streets away at the City Hall.
The car swerves wildly, screeching towards the raised drain. We bank in other direction, grabbing at each other, screaming to gods we’ve spent the evening disobeying. The car stops unexpectedly and we tumble out, hyperventilating. W. laughs. We give him stares. He laughs even harder, points at the road.
“He nearly killed us because he saw a pothole.”
And then we’re all laughing, volleying dark jokes about other close shaves. It’s easier than contemplating our mortality. We are all escaping something. I am trying, but I can’t seem to escape Ibrahim.