When Tolu was at Comprehensive College, Aguda, he was regarded as a tiger, yet in every annual running competition for Lagos state schools, he always took bronze. When it came to the relay races he usually asked his running mates whether they were mad, for they either took last or second to the last. He got admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka at the age of seventeen and kept jogging around the school three days a week, amidst the hectic schoolwork. He never wanted to join the Runners’ Association in school, as he felt they ran occasionally and went to the gym often, and each time he saw them while jogging past the gym, he called them ‘fools for nothing good’.
When he graduated from the University, the self-assertion of being a sprinter had died and a new notion weighed upon him. This time he ran from Bolaji Avenue to Oshodi Road, chasing down his troubles and confusion to free himself from the indictments and abuse. Each day he pursued it, eight hundred meters away, and returned happy as though he had won an Olympic Gold medal, yet it came back with greater force. It came tempting him to depression and suicide, and the more he resisted them on his desk, the less he became conscious of himself.
Every day he chased his fears. While returning, he looked around the decayed houses, pothole roads, noisy streets, the dilapidated grammar school, the empty bookstores, the unsigned brothels, the madmen flocking around in rag clothes, and the corners where drug addicts slept. He wanted to scream when he gazed at all of these, asking himself each time: when would he wake up one day in the streets of New York or somewhere in Europe, or one of those places he had often read about in the novels?
He lived with his parents; his father was an obstinate, indoctrinated, old man trying to please the old century by always speaking against globalisation and technology. Anything that had to do with the twenty-first century was demonic; he loved to wear baggy shirts and four-button suits to work. His mother was gentle and always thoughtful, but she supported her husband by wearing only her native attire (Ankara) and criticized the new world fashion. Most times Tolu’s father – Femi – called him to the sitting room and asked him several questions about his move for the career he was trying to build, but he stood saying either motivating jokes or useless plans for the future. But most times he pretended to listen, though he kept thinking about how to twist the plot of his three hundred page novel. And each time he came back from his run, he had a new idea, or felt his characters should possess a new demon.
He didn’t run this morning, because he woke up too weak to think properly: confused, empty and lonely. He had switched off his phone, the windows were closed and the door shut; the room smelt of burnt corn. He rested his head on the table, sighing, almost in tears as his disappointments pressed down heavy on him. It wouldn’t have been this way if Professor Aloysius hadn’t always told them to seize the day. He taught them in his final year, Factors Affecting Contemporary Africa, and spoke largely about the revolution of the mind. Tolu loved his class and always sat in the front smiling. One day after class he met him at the carport.
“Sir, you spoke about doing what gives you joy,” Tolu said. “I have a flair for writing, but I don’t know how to go about it.”
“Just read and write what you know – that’s what every good writer does.” Professor Aloysius touched his grey beard. “Don’t take any other advice, because great men are non-conformist: they reject rules and methods because they only lead to laziness.”
“But I’ve tried reading and writing, yet nothing I write makes sense.”
“Then try harder. You need to fail so you will give life its full worth.” He approached his car, opened the front door. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, go get that book and read the life about it.” He closed the door and drove away in the silver Toyota Corolla.
He felt annoyed anytime he thought of Professor Aloysius, his optimistic lies and foolish zeal. He stood up, paced around the room before opening the door tentatively, and peeked at the dark passage – checking for his siblings, he saw no one, so he went into the kitchen and took a loaf of bread and butter from the fridge with a cup of water. He turned only to see his two stubborn brothers – Bimbo and Kehinde – staring at him, with their gaze asking, ‘what are you still doing here?’. He walked out of the kitchen nervously, felt pained, and turned back.
“Jesus! Are you guys devils?”
Both turned to each other and smiled. He rushed into his room, banging the door. He began to eat in the dark, heard his siblings laughing in the next room, and felt ridiculed. He wanted to take a knife, walk into their room, and warn them never to insult him again, but he remembered when he did that to Ezinne, that she screamed and never spoke to him again. He felt bitter that people’s gaze held more words of hate than what they said. When he began to have feelings for Sister Abigail six months ago, when he asked her about having a relationship, she asked what he did and he said he was a writer… she stared at him with that same hate.
He heard a gentle knock on his door and pushed the remaining piece of bread into his mouth, then drank the cup of water. He finished eating the bread before opening the door to see his mother standing there. He switched on the white fluorescent that streamed its rays on her black skin and an Ankara blouse and wrapper.
“Why are you sweating?” she asked.
“I was doing pushups.”
She walked into the scattered room, with dirty clothes around and stacked books on the floor and table. She gazed at them.
” Aren’t you tired of locking yourself in with these troubles?” she asked.
“I’m trying, Mama, but you wouldn’t understand.”
She sat down on the wooden chair and gazed around the dirty orange wall, allowing the quiet atmosphere to settle. Both could now hear from outside the screeching of iron wheels, a fiercer noise of clashed horns, fenders bumped, and tires careening into potholes.
“You didn’t run today?”
“No, I had a muscle pull and back pain,” Tolu replied, standing.
“Have you heard from Chigozie recently?”
“He has bought a car for his mother,” she said. “Since his father died he has always been supportive and thoughtful.”
“I guess he had a gift for that,” he replied.
“What about you?”
“I believe in the next two years people will read my novels,” he said, trying a faint smile.
“Tolu, what do you want from life?”
“I think it’s the best that everyone wants.”
“Do you think being a writer will achieve that?’
” I would try my – “
“Why haven’t you applied for a job yet? You graduated with a distinction in sociology and anthropology.” She raised six fingers of both hands. “Tolu, this is six years staying at home writing crap and reading about these dead men.”
“Mama, I’m a writer and I love what I do.”
“What have you ever written? And what do you expect from me?” She held her stomach, “and your father.”
“I don’t know but with time I can do something. Probably if I can leave this country.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m struggling to be an artist here. In this place, with everything I see – “
“Do you love me?”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” He walked close to her.
“Have you ever loved anyone else in your life?”
“Of course.” He said, wanting to touch her hand, which she rejected and a silence breathed upon them. They tried not to have eye contact.
“I’m trying, Mama, you know this is me. And I love you and Papa more than you can think of.” He said, “I am not a rebellious son.”
“Then do something, find something better than all these troubles you bury yourself with.” Tears trickled from her eyes. “Your father is too old and about to retire from his managing job, and I’m about to die.”
“Mummy.” He knelt.
“Why do you hate me so much?” She glanced at him.
“I love you, you’re the best thing in my life. I will make it this time. I would do anything to please you.” He searched her watery eyes.
“Why did you allow me to die?”
“I didn’t kill you, Mama. I can’t.”
“A cancer is growing inside of me, and they say I will die.”
“What can I do to stop the growth?”
“Go get a job, so that when I die you can look after your siblings.”
She cleaned her eyes and walked out of the room, leaving the door open. He rolled on the floor, then stood up and began to tear all the stacked books in madness, until he was exhausted. He looked at the door and saw his two brothers standing there, and didn’t mind.
“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Meet the Author
Victor Okechukwu is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is currently studying mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves reading and writing, and working towards being persistent in creativity.