By Simi Oba-Pedro
Four doctors and six x-rays later, nobody could tell Olori why her right knee hurt like it did. It started off as minor discomfort, then pressure and now, it felt like all the tendons were torn. It was why she always had to recline and stretch her right leg when sitting, like she was doing now in the middle of Murtala Mohammed Airport. Because of the angry, sometimes curious glances she got about her sprawling leg, she had ordered a knee brace from Konga.
Olori was on her way to Abuja, and in another four days, Borno. She had been to sixteen Nigerian states in six months, and sometimes traveling by road was the only option. She had come to absolutely detest the sitting for long hours, not cooking her own meals, and even the sightseeing. She couldn’t wait to quit at the
British Council in six months when she would have saved enough to open a small studio cum gallery and afford rent on her own apartment. Most of her belongings were stashed at her parents and she looked
forward to having furniture she could call her own, a kitchen to beat eggs in and an internal environment she could control.
Her flight was being delayed without explanation or apology and she adjusted her right leg and her luggage. Julia Michaels was on repeat in her ears and her chewing gum had lost its taste in her mouth. Water was dripping from the roof and a cleaner had put a bucket earlier to manage the leak. She sighed. This was the one of the main gateways to Nigerian’s economy, the nation’s busiest airport and the roof was leaking right in the middle. The airport was humid as the air conditioners were almost permanently off or faulty. The band of her shorts was damp and there was a fan in Olori’s left hand waving furiously at her face and neck while trickles of sweat slid down her cleavage uninterrupted.She had to come to the airport at least two hours before her flight and expected to leave the airport two hours after landing because it took forever to retrieve baggage and other checked-in items. The excuse was that the conveyor belt system was old and slow. The ethics of the uniformed officials was another shameful matter entirely. Olori’s tail bone whimpered from being stuck in the same position for two hours and she was shifting in her seat when she saw Chris.
She had imagined this moment for seven years now, and it was happening on this hot Tuesday afternoon, her almost 33 years old, with rough braids and her top clinging to her body. All of her expectations – the eye contact, followed by stopping in tracks and a clap of thunder in the sky – were cut short as he didn’t even look in her direction. He was walking towards the entrance, dragging his box behind him and had stopped to make a call. He was less than four feet from her and he looked like he always had. He still used Power by 50 Cent, she could smell it. Inertia held her captive ass he watched him. His gestures were animated, his voice clipped as he spoke to whosoever was supposed to pick him.
Olori had always expected him to call or at least mail her. She could not accept that he wouldn’t eventually. Hours turned into days, days into weeks,weeks into months and her tears continued to flow. She called him and he didn’t pick up. One night she got drunk and set her phone on permanent redial for six hours. She knew him to be impatient and irritable, but he never dithered. She wrote his parents and his parents wrote her back.
She knocked on his apartment door, but it’s either he was never in or seemed to know that she was the one. She mailed him every day for 131 days. She told him about her day, sometimes attaching a picture of a painting she had done. She always apologised and reminded her that this wasn’t constructive; his attitude, his silence. He never replied. He didn’t block her, he just stayed mute. She went to his Faculty, his spot in the library, his favourite coffee shop, visited Francis in the hospital but she never saw him or bumped into him. Francis was in her corner throughout that period, with his left hand set in a cast because of an
accident that was her fault.
She liked telling the story of their relationship, about how they were friends throughout their four-year study at the University of Lagos, and how he had had a controlling girlfriend. That relationship ended during their National Youth Service Corps year and they became closer. She had been his breakup buddy and sounding board. At the end of service year, she had moved to Onikan to be near the art hotspots: Freedom Park, Muson Centre, Bogobiri house, African Artists Foundation, TerraKulture; and he
had gotten a job in Lekki. They went exploring almost every evening and he attended all her Behance exhibitions. She never guessed how he felt about her until he kissed her on Oriental Hotel rooftop after a night of spoken word, barbecued goat meat and a bottle of Baileys. She kissed him back and it was magic. Three weeks later, they were in an official relationship and their happiness was unparalleled. When Chris got a scholarship for his Masters’ degree in Germany eight months later, it took her less than a minute’s deliberation to decide to go to Germany too. After all, her two preferences, Paris and Amsterdam were just train rides away. They could even go on vacations together, she reasoned.
FreieUniversität Berlin quickly became home for them. In fact, being away from Nigeria brought them closer because all they had was each other. They both lived in the Student Village near the Schlachtensee Lake although in different buildings. Chris enjoyed his Physics and she breezed through Art History. Chris was the sanguine one, so he made friends and his friends became her friends. Life was perfect for them. Chris was her first boyfriend and he was perfect. He wrote with lipstick on her bathroom mirror whenever he slept over and had flowers delivered to her door every Sunday evening by 5pm. He bought her expensive white nougat chocolate. He was sensitive to her needs and moods, and was respectful of her space and time when she needed to paint. He had held her hand while her belly button was pierced and sat in the hospital reception for three hours when an infection ravaged the wound. He was embarrassingly honest with her, and all her complicated ‘onion layers’ as he called it faded around him.
Olori dropped her hand fan as an air conditioner gurgled to life and brought her back to the present. Her phone beeped on her lap and someone bumped into her outstretched leg. She didn’t apologize. The insults aimed at her and the announcement blaring from the speakers about boarding for the 3pm Abuja passengers were distant sounds. Fear, anger and regret through her as Chris turned and met her eyes. She forgot to breathe as she looked at him. Nothing had changed.
Chris’s family had come visiting for Christmas. He was born on Christmas day so it was a double celebration. She had met his mum before she left Nigeria and kept in touch. Meeting his dad, two younger twin sisters; Morounfolu and Eniola and his best friend and cousin, Francis was a bigger deal.
The twins were 15 years old and the life of the party. Francis was quieter, easy going and pleased to finally meet his cousin’s girl. She ran around to ensure their comfort and planned an itinerary of events to make sure they had the right exposure to the beauty that is Germany and also that they were never bored. She cooked Nigerian meals and took his sisters shopping. One night during the first week oftheir 19-day stay, he had taken her in his arms and buried his head in her hair, thanking her for making his family her family. She cried.
It was the day after his birthday, after a lot of cake and peppered snails and pounded yam, after sharing gifts and receiving them that it happened. On the itinerary for that day was a trip to the new Berlin Skyrider Park in Kreuzberg. Olori had been there a month before at its opening and had taken the roller coaster ride. She had put it on the itinerary immediately. That morning, Chris’s mum and dad decided to sleep in and Chris wanted to give her some time alone to bond with his sisters as they would be leaving in a week. Francis volunteered to drive them and it was settled. The thirty-two-minute ride to the park was full of tense excitement as the girls chattered away. The park was crawling with people and there were long queues at every turn. Not wanting to disappoint the girls, she ushered them to the inline tube water slide. Eniola was scared of large bodies of water and refused to go in. Morounfolu decided to be brave on the condition that Francis took the ride with her while Olori took a video with her phone. She had agreed and over forty people gradually teemed into the slide.
Olori stood stunned, unable to move, still recording a video as the water slide collapsed twelve minutes later. There were screams from the pool and from Eniola who was standing next to her. She still had nightmares about that day; seeing people drown, seeing people being flung far and apart, seeing metal bend and thrust and slam into bodies. Eniola screamed and screamed. The events that followed happened in a haze. Emergency services went into action and closed off the area. She remembered being sent to the
hospital with others for being in shock. Eniola had held her hand in the ambulance, crying and saying she had not seen her sister or Francis.
Olori tried to call Chris but she couldn’t find her phone. He found them two hours later, in the hospital after Eniola called him. He rushed in with his mum and dad and Olori closed her eyes. Her hands shook, her skin was clammy as the build-up of emotion clogged her chest. She tried to sleep but the screams and the panic as more people were brought to the hospitals pierced her senses. She tried to remember detail by detail what had happened and yearned for her phone. She never found her phone but she saw the video she shot on the news hours later.
After hours of lying still and pretending to be asleep, steady silence took over the hospital floors. A nurse had come to check her twice and she overheard her telling someone that she was still in shock and she needed time to rest. Tears slipped out of her eyes and she tried not to sniff. The cup of coffee she had in the morning continued to curdle in her bladder and the joints were beginning to rebel against the hospital bed. She sat up and was hit by a wave of nausea, she stayed still for a moment and opened her eyes to find
Chris sitting in a chair with his head nesting in his palms.
‘Babe?’Olori called out tentatively, her voice shaking. This could only mean the worst. The Berlin Skyrider Park accident was her fault, their undoing.
Chris looked up and she read his pain in his red puffy eyes.
Chris never cried, this could only mean the worst. Olori recoiled and burst into tears. Chris sat and watched her. She needed to explain, to apologise, to do anything that would make it right but instead her words snuck out of her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. A bitter taste rose from her throat to her tongue, her stomach contracted violently and she rushed through the door marked toilet in her hospital room. She dry-heaved over the toilet bowl for a few minutes before washing her face. She remembered to pee, wringed her hands and took deep breaths to keep dread at bay and face whatever had happened, whatever would happen. But Chris was gone by the time she came out of the toilet. That was the last time she had seen him. Till now.
Morounfolu had died from crushed lungs and Francis had his left hand amputated because it had been affected by gangrene. The guilt started to eat at her as she stood at Francis’ bedside and it had not stopped ever since. Painting about it, writing about it, making apologies every Christmas to Chris’s parents
and Francis didn’t stop it. Even Eniola hugging her after she was discharged from the hospital didn’t assuage her guilt. They forgave her. They told her it wasn’t her fault before they returned to Nigeria with Morounfolu’s body six days later.
Francis had remained in Germany for four months and she visited him every day. She cooked him food, painted him and for him, and read him books. She was there for his physiotherapy and when his prosthesis was secured for the first time. She knew Chris was always around. His perfume lingered in Francis’ room and left her longing for him. Francis told her to give him time and promised that he would come around. Olori wrote his parents, apologising profusely for taking their daughters to the park, apologising for the accident and wishing she could turn back the hands of time. She always asked how Eniola’s therapy was going. She sent the paintings she had done in Morounfolu’s memory. They wrote back, asking about her welfare, telling her it was an accident, telling her to concentrate on her schoolwork and thanking her for writing. There was never any mention of Chris. She stopped writing them after a while. They were far too kind and that turned her guilt meter up a notch. She left Germany two years after the accident. She painted a series of gripping horrific images of that day which she called Her brush strokes told her version of events of the accident and immortalized the thirty-two people who had lost their lives. Her series had put on the radar of the British Council and seven years later, she couldn’t wait to fly under.
Chris’s eyes fixated on her and he ate her up. He still hated her. She had killed his sister, and turned his best friend and cousin handicap. He still had not forgiven her and the tremor in Olori’s jaw assured her that he never would.
Her phone vibrated on her lap and it was a welcome distraction. She had never learned to cry in style and she blinked back tears while clearing her throat. When she looked back up, Chris was hugging a woman. She was shorter than him and she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. She smoothened his ruffled hair and disheveled shirt. The ring on her left hand glittered.She also happened to be carrying a baby that bore a spitting resemblance to Chris.
They walked out of the airport, hand in hand. He didn’t look back.
‘Last call for boarding Flight Number 2227, Destination Abuja.Last call for passengers boarding the 3pm Abuja flight. Approach Terminal 3 now.’
The blare of the speaker was like a drill in her cerebral cortex forcing her back to the present. She reached into her handbag for a handkerchief and blew her nose. She stood up and made her way to the terminal with her hurting knee and heart. At least, she hadn’t missed her flight.
Writing has been Simi’s desperate act of sanity for as long as she can remember. She longs to quit her day job and make literature and photography the centerpieces of her life.
This story first appeared in Issue 2 of The Mainlander Publication. You can download this and other stories featured on the publication here