By Tolu Daniel
It was in 1994 when I realized people could generate enough heat to fry fish. Men, women, boys, girls and anybody who was anything in Ijeja would all cram themselves into our sitting room. Sometimes even dogs. Some sat on the floor. Others stood and kept hitting the head of those who blocked them in a jostle for the right to see the black and white pictures of men in round necks and shorts running after a ball from one end of a rectangular pitch to the other.
The World Cup was on and our house was the meeting point for the entire neighborhood. The games that involved Nigeria were naturally the most watched. People would sit on all the chairs in the house, including the dining room chairs. Some would even bring chairs from their houses or stools or big yellow kegs which they would sit on and sometimes drum with when the frenzy of excitement caught up with them. The refrigerator with rust blending into its original brown, sitting in the corner of the dining room would witness a surge in visits on those days, whining with age.
When Nigeria lost a game you could always tell from the maniacal anger in the voices of the men, the resigned look on the ladies and the interest-less bants of the children who didn’t even know why they had to watch the games. During games that Nigeria won, you could hear their laughter rumbling like thunder on a cloudy day as they jeered and booed the opposing teams as if they could hear them.
I still remember that goal scored by Rashidi Yekini in the opening match against Bulgaria and how he went inside the goalpost to shake the net. The house erupted into celebrations. Chairs in the air. Fists bumping. Rhythm-less dancing. football-players-styled embraces. Bear hugging. The screaming and hysterical emotions running from one individual to the other. It was as if we were experiencing an earthquake, not that we ever did or knew how that felt like but the noise and the heat in the small space tripled. I didn’t really understand why we were screaming or dancing at the time. And I didn’t care. It was just more important for me to be a part of the jamboree.
Father purchased the black and white, second hand television just three days before the World Cup began. It was the reason our sitting room played host to the whole neighborhood. Most of the folks that lived in ijeja were either artisans or low level civil servants and since my parents were middle level civil servants, we had it better than most of them.
We lived in a three bedroom flat, with a large compound where on most days I and the other kids in the compound would hold a track and field event. This event was usually rigged to my favor because I was the youngest. During our version of the relay race, I would be placed on the team that had the older and faster kids. I would then do my best impression of my favorite American athlete Michael Johnson as I had seen him do on television countless times whenever he was about to swoop in for victory. Pushing my chest forward and swinging my arms and legs slowly, with my tongues out, to get that slow-motion effect that I saw him do often.
On some occasions, my impressions would land me into trouble and cost us the race. The other kids in my team would be livid and swear never to allow me on their team again while the opposing team would laugh at me till I cried and ran into the house to hide myself.
It was Easter and Uncle Yomi was around. He was father’s Uncle’s brother in law’s son or something like that but he liked calling himself father’s younger brother because father’s parents had raised him. He had adopted the family name as he had come to them as an orphan. He was tall and had a moustache and he kept an afro like father although his was much taller and bushier, with a comb hanging just in between to give it the shape of a police beret.
Uncle Yomi claimed that he was once an athlete for Nigeria and was training for the Olympics when injury struck, an injury he never recovered from. He liked making up stories, stories that could not be confirmed. He told us that he had once chased a vehicle speeding at 80km per hour by running after it with his superfast legs and eventually caught up with it. He also said that he once fought a grizzly bear and bested it in a bout of wrestling.
His stories didn’t do much for mother who always told him to stop feeding us with his lies. But that Easter, she wasn’t her usual self. She had become absent minded in the months that followed Tolu, my little sister’s birth. I didnt know why and neither did Tobi, my older brother. Her conversations with us had become of the ‘have you eaten’ or ‘have you had your bath’ or ‘did you brush your teeth?’ variety. She wouldn’t even wait for an answer before moving on to something else. Tobi claimed he liked her more this way since she never bothered about his home works or forced him to do the dishes like she always used to.
It was a Friday night. The moon was out and stars visible in the absence of light in the neighborhood. NEPA had struck earlier that evening as usual. Uncle Yomi said he was tired and not in the mood for stories. I was disappointed, so I looked for something else to do. Mother was in the sitting room listening to NkanNbe on her transistor radio. After a few minutes of listening with her, the voice from the radio started talking about how a little boy’s severed head was discovered under the bed of his step mother after several days of searching for him. I found myself imagining how it would be like to be headless, thinking whether the boy endured any pain while parting with his head. These thoughts sent shivers through my body. I ran to our bedroom and hid myself under the blanket, teeth clattering and shivering.
I must have slept off while hiding because the next moment my eyes opened reminded me of the goal we celebrated during the world cup – the almost senseless noise that had followed. There was a sound I heard from the intangible land of sleep. Brash and harsh. It pierced through my subconscious.
It had reverberated into the room I shared with Tobi and woke me.
We lived in a three bedroom flat and ours was the first from the gate. I stood from my bed and made my way to the sitting room. I was already by the veranda that led to our rooms when I remembered that the door to the sitting room from the veranda could have been locked. I checked and it was! Mother always ensured that it stayed locked whenever we were about to go to bed. I peered through the big round hole at the centre of the door into the sitting room and noticed the broken front door. It lay flat on the floor, with nails and side hooks gone. And dust everywhere.
Father was out of bed— with just his singlet and boxer shorts on him. Mother was by his side, dancing from left to right to a soundless music and muttering something incoherent to her-self. They were facing the broken door and some strangers – men of the night. Their room was closest to the sitting room.
Uncle Yomi lay flat on the floor too. Like the door. “It’s a tactic”. My instinct whispered. He had done worst things in his stories. He usually slept on the longest couch in the sitting room but this time he was lying with his face kissing the floor and arms spread, mimicking a bird in flight. Stealthily, I walked back to our room to wake Tobi.
He did not stir.
Aunty Kemi, mother’s younger sister who usually slept in the nursery with Tolu opposite the room I shared with Tobi fumbled out. Her eyes were sleep-laden. Like they would shut by themselves if she wouldn’t shut them soon. I knew she hadn’t heard the sound.
“You boy, what are you doing there?”
She walked to me, pulled my ear and dragged me towards my bedroom.
I tried to scream but she held my mouth. My noise was turned into a myriad of muffles. Then, we heard the sound of a slap. We stopped. She darted towards the sitting room but the locked door stopped her. She tried to force it open before realizing the futility of her efforts. Run out of plans, she turned around and looked straight into my face. I pointed at the big hole. She must have realized then why she had caught me gawking.
There were three armed men in the living room. One of them kept redesigning father’s face with slaps. It became bumpy. They were asking him questions.
Another stood by Uncle Yomi’s body. He kicked him now and again until he was tired. My legendary uncle lay still. The third one stood by the side, gun in hand, watching all that was happening while leaning on the brown fridge.
Mother sobbed as she watched father get slap after slap. My mother who hadn’t wept when she learnt of granny’s passing on.
I was scared.
The robbers ignored her and uncle Yomi on the floor. It was father they wanted.
“There is no money here sir…” He said. As though he was their butler, our house a castle and the robbers – owners. He should have thought he was reasoning with them.
The robber that had kicked Uncle Yomi earlier moved to where our TV and radio were. The one leaning on the fridge walked to father and began talking with him. He told father he was always addressed as Askari, caressing his gun –one I had seen in American movies – as he spoke.
“Where is the money you collected from the bank yesterday?” Askari repeated the question his partner had asked father over a hundred times.
Father just stared at him.
How did they know he had collected money yesterday when it was just him and his superior at work that knew about it? It had been withdrawn for immediate disbursement. How do you explain that to a gun-slinging robber? He wouldn’t buy a lie that all the money had already served its purpose.
“Perhaps I should refresh your memory” Askari snarled at father.
“erm…em it was for work sah!”
Askari’s face took on the cloak of a charged up bull running at a bright-colored cloth.
“Do you think I came to your house just to stand here and stare at the ceiling?” He screamed as he paced around the sitting room. He released the safety hammer of his gun and pointed it at father.
Mother screamed. Askari was blowing father’s brains off. She had heard too many stories of similar endings. Askari pulled the trigger twice. It did not shoot. The bullet in the revolver refused to come off.
Askari threw the pistol on the floor in frustration and kicked it towards Uncle Yomi. His body slightly moved. It was too insignificant that it was only me who noticed it.
In his fury, Askari picked up the gun and went outside our compound. The deafening sound of the gunshots heralded his return. It distilled the silent noise of the night. He walked up to father again and placed its round mouth on his temple.
“Where is the Money?”
Father’s face turned pale. He raised both arms.
“Oga, there is no money sah… Please sah I have children sah, don’t kill me sah. I beg you sah,” father stammered.
“Open ya bloody mouth, you stubborn fool! I go show you today…”
Askari pulled the trigger. The gun refused to work. Again.
Then, a police siren started wailing loudly in the night outside. It must have come from Mr Elema’s flat-our next door neighbor-a police officer. It was so close. Within a blink, the sitting room fell silent.
Our house was a circus the next day. Several good men and women sprawled at different angles in the house, reminiscent of the world cup days. Some came to see for themselves the damage and some just for the fun of it. The door was still broken. Father’s face had been stitched up by Doctor Ajayi –a family friend. He was now boasting about the incident with Askari and the gun like he had been superman. Just like Uncle Yomi would have had he not passed out. We knew it could have been his forefathers’ work.
Still, Uncle Yomi had awoken on time for the action: some minutes after the siren. He was screaming.
“Wey dem? Konidafun iya nla ya anybody!”
Like a street thug, he had crouched and tightened his fists, pacing around the room.
‘My Legendary Uncle and Other Awful Memories’ originally appears in The Wagon Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 4. More details about the publication can be found here.
Tolu Daniel is a writer and photographer. His works have appeared in Wagon Magazine, Afridiaspora, Saraba Magazine, Brittlepaper, Bakwa Magazine, Elsewhere Literary Journal, Muwado Hub and a host of other places. He lives in Abeokuta, Nigeria.