For the majority, life was difficult in the village where Mekere grew up. It was idyllic but there was usually enough for them to eat. Mekere’s father had several wives and when he died, the men in the family fought over his meagre belongings. It was said that Mekere was the reincarnation of her father’s mother, her paternal grandmother. Perhaps that was the reason why her father loved her as much as he did. It was rare for men to show affection to their children in those days and she was the only female child which he approved of her education before his death. Not many of his other daughters were interested in being confined to a class room.
Being a teacher was always the ultimate and so Mekere went to Teacher Training College where she studied to be a grade teacher. Her siblings taunted her and even her mother was disappointed.
“A man’s body is always going to be warmer on a bed than paper”, her mother was fond of saying. The bride price for a woman was highly valued and Mekere’s mother felt cheated out of it since her daughter was more interested in books than in marriage. The family could also demand something extra from the groom as they deemed fit since the price was dependent on her family’s status, her level of education and her age. The younger, the better.
Although it would also be to her family’s advantage, they felt the education put ideas of being a lifelong spinster in Mekere’s head. as a favoured child, Mekere sometimes felt untouchable and her mother’s anger did not ruffle her in the least. After a few years she got her certificate and was ready to move to the city. By then, her father was getting weaker everyday but she made sure he touched her certificate when she got it.
She was not happy to leave everything familiar although she was excited at the unknown but she needed money for her father’s treatment. Her mother worried enough for the two of them as it was but Mekere was undeterred. Her mother had seen a boy from a good home who she thought Mekere might like but all Mekere would talk about was her impending move to the city for still more education. She knew that she could be whatever she wanted if she set her mind to it. She would respond to whoever spoke to her only in English and her mother got increasingly worried.
The move stretched the gulf between Mekere and her family and after her father died, she stopped visiting altogether. She sent letters home but they never wrote back in response. She saved up all her money and with the simple accounting she learned, she planned to invest in something tangible but a young lecturer who swept her off her feet…
For Ina, she was ready to do anything and in her naivety, she believed he really loved her. He promised her marriage and he married her in a court for he had no use ‘pagan rites and barbaric customs’. So she wrote home to tell her mother about her marriage and asked her to come for a visit. She also enclosed a black and white photograph of her baby, Ukeme with some money. She had the life she wanted till the sun dimmed a little. Ina travelled to look for greener pastures in Jamaica and never returned. She had no idea if he was dead or alive, he never called or sent a letter. He wanted a better life and Mekere was limiting him, a liability. She slowed down at work and when she became broke Whinery Yard became her new home.
That morning when Ukeme stormed out as his mother limped in; he went to a secluded part of the Yard to sit. Most of the boys usually hung there to fraternise. Ukeme did not feel like going to school and skipping one more day of class would not hurt his already fallen grades. Although he was smart when he applied himself to studying, he saw no point. All the graduates he knew had no jobs and those who did never practiced what they had paid so much to learn. He figured it was low self esteem that made people want to acquire an education they would never use.
As usual, the universities were on strike so the boys who had come back home from school were idle and looking to make trouble since they had nothing better to do. Ukeme sought them out this morning to avoid thinking about his situation – his mother’s situation. Many at times, he had gone to post bail for her when the Police did sweeps of the area where the ‘service providers’ worked. He hated to think of them as prostitutes. He shuffled his feet which led him to the back of the Yard where he found his friends’.
Vincent had left the Yard only last year and when he came back from school he looked better than ever. He looked fatter although he had grown slighter older. He had a satisfied look in his eyes. But his phone never stopped ringing and more than half the time, he was on the phone speaking in code and the other guys did not understand him. In truth, he looked more secretive but because he looked better than all the others and had more money to spend, they easily overlooked all the other things that he said or did. He was bolder than when he left and he had missed his friend.
Uchenna popularly known as Usoji was one of the regular residents of the Backyard Forum. He had been away for some time. During the last UTME exam, he had travelled all the way to Ilorin to write the exams and from there; he had gone to visit his aunt. He was excited at the prospect of going to the university but he was too care-free for Ukeme’s liking, shallow. He behaved as if nothing else mattered beyond his own feelings and he was prone to lamenting. Ukeme would not miss him much.
Although he had no roots so to speak at Whinery Yard, Soji was undoubtedly the most happening guy in the forum. He knew what was obtainable in town, he was open and honest and he never made fun of people. He possibly remembered where he came from. Like most people in the suburbs, Soji had dreamt of coming to Lagos for a long time, hitting it big and making his mark. He did not plan to go to school because he had come to Lagos with just a bagful of dreams. Soji had grown up in the village where life was hard and he appreciated the little things. But even Soji had enrolled in a technical school. Soji’s second cousin – his father’s cousin with whom he had come to Lagos– had painted a pretty picture on his infrequent visits to the village and told his cousin that he would be helping Soji fulfil his dreams by releasing him to join him in Lagos where dreams come true. It just never happened like that. Soji had come to the Yard in search of his own space.
Ukeme was happy to see all of them and they back slapped, shook hands and snapped fingers. He was yet to see some of the other regulars who would help him get a break from his depressing thoughts. Ukeme believed that other people had lives better than his outside the Yard especially when he saw them coming out of shining cars and gated compounds. He used to pray to escape his life but for some months, he had not believed enough in God to pray. He thought it was futile praying and that there was no greater Bing who listened to him because the situation remained the same and sometimes dropped sharply downwards. He discarded those thoughts and greeted his friends.
“Vincent my guy, long time. You no wan come back from school again?”
“Ukeme, business dey there. You no go understand.”
“Tell me now, wetin I no fit understand!”
“Na true Vincent talk, you no fit understand. Just wait for your time.”
“Usoji you don come again. But anyway sha, how body? Wetin you bring come from villa?”
“Plenty things, my container sef dey high sea for river Niger!” They all laughed at his quirkiness. They knew he had no shipment and anything he brought would have been devoured by the several hungry mouths his mother struggled to feed on a daily basis, they all knew that. They humoured him nonetheless.
“Soji, e tey wey I see you o. you sure say we still dey this Yard together?” Vincent wondered why Soji had been away from the Yard for a while. He smiled at Soji in spite of the questions bubbling at the back of his mind.
“My guy, no vex. I wan tell you when I dey comot but I forget.”
“No wahala. At least, you’re fine. Gist us about school and the village now” he urged the other guys.
Vincent’s phone rang yet again and he excused himself and Ukeme raised his eyebrows but said nothing. The other’s continued talking as if there was no interruption. They spoke as if they were in on something but he did not ask any questions. He just wanted to take a break from the thoughts that were bugging his mind.
“… really need that trip. Mama was not there to make me do anything and you know how grandma can let us get away with anything. I learnt how to play snooker and I was even about to take the title of Champion from the village boy that had it.”
“Sounds like you really enjoyed the village. Abi will you go back? I can see that you have also built muscles.”
“Yes now, is it not good. There was this weight thing that we used to carry, just that the boys were always charging and grandma warned me not to go there because of the boys smoking weed there. If only she knew…”
“Knew that you were a weed pro yourself, ba?”
Thy laughed and Vincent joined them. He had a mobile phone that reflected the light whenever the sun touched it. the other boys were in awe of his phone and Vincent only let them touch it for a few seconds before sliding it back into his shirt pocket where the bulge reminded them of how Vincent was now a big boy.
“Vincent, you don turn serious big boy o. show us the way na.” Usoji wanted to be in on all the deals, shady or not and even though Ukeme suspected his friend was up to no good, he stayed with the Backyard Forum. He did not want to be seen as a small boy so he listened more and spoke less.
“It’s just business. I met one big boy in school, his father has plenty money and he just likes me. So he offered that I should be the one supplying diesel to his father’s estate. Just like that!” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.
“Guy you lucky o. I for like be like you.”
“Yes o, the sooner I get my certificate from technical the better for me. I will become a big boy like you too.”
“Na God o. its not me, no be my power.” They all laughed at his attempt to be modest. Ukeme sighed deeply and Vincent turned to him.
“Ukeme, wetin do you now? You’ve been doing ‘hmmm’ since and you’re not talking but na you find us come here.”
“My friend, everything. Life here is what is happening. You know how it can be, it gets to you sometimes.”
“Yes o, that’s life for you. If you let it weigh you down, you will die quickly. That’s the truth, I’m not trying to scare you. Stop being moody and enjoy the moment. We might not be all together like this for much longer.”
They all looked wistful and sighed. If only they knew the different paths life would take them. Soji broke the mood. “Vincent bring card make we play, no cheating sha.”
“Why you go think say I go cheat! No need to cheat, I go still win una.” Vincent dug for the pack of cards in his trouser pocket but not before Ukeme got a glimpse of a knife. He said nothing but it reinforced his belief that something was going on with level headed Vincent and he resolved to talk to him alone, aside the others. Vincent hands shook slightly as he cut the deck of cards.
“Let’s play!” Soji screamed.