‘A-a, Baba-o, wetin I do now?’
Baba-o went ahead to regale us of the drama that had played out the previous evening, when, as one of the spectators of our training session, he was leaving through the remaining entrance when he was accosted by a certain woman. Make no mistake; it was as if Baba-o and I were let loose on the earth the same day and time, by the same mother, though he was older than me by a few months. We were more identical than twins, and even though I had not run into trouble yet on account of the similarity in our looks and his wayward manners, I always prayed night and day not to, for though he was an acquaintance of mine who fancied me too, he had friends and company I would rather call dangerous and mischievous, who participated in small-time crime around the neighbourhood, doing some harmless pickpocketing and selling petrol on black-market basis. But the tables had turned, as fate would have it, and he was the first recipient of the dividends of our similar looks.
According to him, the woman had slapped him resoundingly, having watched him from a distance, and was happy to catch him, before any reprimand came from her. ‘’Emeka, I sent you to fetch water, and you left your jerry can for thieves, only to come here to play football? What is wrong with you? Why are you so addicted to football? You will meet me at home!’
She was about to turn and go, when he had recognised her as my mum and had replied in Hausa, ‘Mama Emeka, no be me ooo!’ my mum had turned to look, and didn’t know what emotion to display. Her lips which had been tightened in a fit of suppressed anger, slowly parted in a half-smile as she apologised, ashamed. Understanding what was on ground, he had willingly accepted, promising her to visit the slap on me for such wrongdoing. When he was nearing the end of the tale, I began to edge away from the threat, should he playfully try to fulfil it. I was lucky that day, for he would have been justified if he did. I also apologised, and he accepted, calling it nothing.
It was Monday morning, and I had just finished my bath. I looked at the dining table and saw my sister munching away at my favourite: beans and plantain. As I shifted my eyes to the early-morning AM Express on the TV, I thought I caught sight of her hands leaving her food to explore the mound of beans on a plate that was supposed to be mine. When the mound lost its first piece of plantain, she was not done yet, and the furious stare I shot her made her check herself. I decided not to leave anything to chance, as I dove to the table, converting the food mountain to a plain in no time. I looked at the time. 7.30 a.m! My God!
I could not risk that prefect’s whip, no, not again today. He had done enough damage to my body already. I looked at my arms, where the neem branch from Senior Biodun had torn my skin, but it had been made more painful and terribly visible by a rather rough tackle I had received the day before when I had made a public ignominy of a defender. I made for my room immediately and reached for my underclothes quickly.
The frustration began when I looked on the hangar and noticed my school uniform, shirt and trouser, conspicuously missing. I crosschecked, and my senses proved to be too real to deceive me. But I was cocksure I had ironed and arranged that uniform the previous night. Where could it be? In mad fury, I upturned the rack, my bag, the drawer, and every imaginable place where fabric could hide, but the frustration stared back at me the same way my freckled face depicted my plight. My mother had long left for work, my sister and brother had just left for school, so there was no one to direct my enquiries to. I heard a sound behind me, and I turned to face my father, all dressed and ready for work, brandishing his car keys.
‘What are you looking for?’ he asked, rather too casually to portray any concern.
‘My uniform’, I was surprised to think I was sobbing.
He took a long hard look at me and then fired the salvo.
‘I have thought about your recent recalcitrant activities in this house, and I have decided, short of giving you a good piece of my palms and whips, to allow you pursue your footballing. But I will not waste my money on you any further. I have done my best, to guide you into becoming a responsible human being. To that effect, I seized your school uniform. I bought it, and I will keep it till Bill comes of age, since he is in the same school as you. Good luck, and may you make the English Premier League.’
I was speechless and didn’t know what to think. He had walked out of the room.
‘By the way, don’t you have a training session today? You can go, and let me lock my house,’ he added sarcastically.
Slowly, I put on my housewear and started out of the house. No wonder he had kept mute all through that slap episode! Though I didn’t receive the routine flogging I was regularly treated to on occasions like that, owing to the funny drama which followed it, he had neither referred to it nor done anything predicated on that day’s happenings, which was unusual. Football was like opium to me, it was just not possible to talk me, flog me, or cajole me out of it. I just wanted more and more with each passing day. Getting any gratification from it was just so secondary, and I was ready to dare my father. I loved school, having the ambition to pursue a nice career, of which identity I was not just sure then, but anybody who thought he could use that to put me on edge just had to have another thing coming. I got outside, and he thought I was going to cry or beg, but I didn’t, not really out of defiance or any such thing, but I was just not sensitive enough to that kind of treatment. He actually waited for it, and when he saw he was beginning to lose face, he stuck the house keys in his pocket and walked to his car. I watched the BMW cruise past me indifferently and focused my attention on other objects of interest in the busy street.
Some furious driving in the distance attracted my attention. There was wailing and shouting, and when I looked out for the source of the disturbance of the peace and quiet of the street, I saw a Hi-ace bus coming towards me fast, swaying from side to side, oblivious that some occupants were sitting on the windows and even the roof. There were two or three flags sticking out of some windows, and when I saw the inscription, my brain clicked. The regional finals! Good Lord! So this was what I would have missed! Thank you, Lord! Can you imagine, I told myself.
I jumped out of our balcony and stood in the way of the approaching bus, raising my two hands in solidarity. The driver gunned on towards me, but the bus slowed as he recognised me, like I expected.
‘Pillars for life!’ I shouted and jumped into the bus. I got into the frenzy of the moment and put one leg out of the window. I was not getting the feel, and in ten seconds, I was on top of the speeding and swerving bus with two others, shouting on the top of our voices and daring anyone who refused to support our darling Pillars.
When we were ushered into the lush stadium, on which turf Femi and I had led several assaults, and were two trophies experienced, I settled for a pack of milkshake which was distributed free to every member of Pillars Supporters Club, and made my way to the ordinary section where we were led. As I sat down, someone dropped near me from nowhere.
‘Speak of the devil!’ I exclaimed, hugging him. I was actually wishing you were here with me.’
‘So, you are calling me a devil now?’, he asked, pretending not to get the message in my exclamation.
Yes’, I said, playing along. He looked me in the eye, nudged me laughingly, and I treated his sneakers to some milkshake paint. ‘Ýou were on the bus?’
‘Course yes’, he replied. Just then, the usher appeared with his milkshake, and I shifted uncomfortably as I began to fear he might do worse to me. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not time yet’, he said knowingly.
The rise and fall in the cheers took our attention back to the pitch. They had kicked off, and our Salami had tested the visiting goalkeeper the second time. He was pretty good at his job, we had to admit and agree, though painfully. It happened three more times, and he simply frustrated our strikers, who got to him effortlessly because of his weak defence manning.
In the 88th minute, Imeh, our defender took a goal kick. The ball soared high and landed on the head of Uche, who contested it in the air with another tough midfielder of theirs. It fell sweetly on Uba’s chest, who laid it to Utok. From Utok, the ball felt the feet of Nna, who lobbed it to the centre forward at the far end, and its next port of call was Bashiru. He was the one who did the unbelievable.
Like Houdini the magician and tricks expert, he dipped his foot under the ball, and it spun furiously forward. Immediately, three defenders who knew his reputation surged forward towards him with different intentions ranging from retrieving the ball to making him lose his ankle. He made a beck with a snap of his fingers, and the ball retraced its way back to him almost instantly, and the resultant collision of the defenders was legendary. We roared and cheered, and the cries followed and spurred him on to beating the last defender and slotting the ball home coolly past the impossible goalkeeper. The net almost laughed but covered its mouth in a smirk.
Our end of the pitch erupted with screams like a volcano, and some of us spilt into the field to felicitate. Bash was carried sky high, even though there were two long minutes to the grasp of the trophy. The coach was on hand to reassure us it was already ours: no need to hurry the celebration.
The kick-off was taken, and we showed better promise of increasing the tally. Nna got the ball deep into their half, and magically spun the ball above the head of his approaching opponent, and a ten-metre chase for the ball began. The dark, tall defender got to him, and, in the full glare of everyone kicked both ball and Nna’s legs in the air. When Nna landed, he angrily punched the opponent, and a scuffle ensued. His colleagues surrounded him, and so did Pillars players. Things were beginning to get messy, and the supporters were already on each other’s necks. The referee and his assistants helplessly moved to a corner when it became clear his whistle could no longer control the crowd that was gathering. We looked round for the security men but found none. We decided it was time to go.
All of a sudden, a swishing sound was heard in the distance, and my Femi lay lifeless beside me, beheaded and spurting blood profusely. When my ears picked the sound of the resulting explosion, I looked back, and all the supporters sitting behind us were already killed. I dove for cover under a corpse, and after a few minutes, I made for the exit. We had been hit by a rocket launcher!
The place was crowded as everyone scrambled to be the first to get out. There were two more explosions and the population at the exit doubled. Someone had axed the wall open to increase the door size. I couldn’t keep pace with the people struggling out, and I fell.
Feet trampled on my small frame in the flurry, and my head, feet, and arms suffered injurious impacts. Then something hard impaled my head, and I passed out.
I woke to the stern face of my father in the hospital, who hissed as I came to. My mother praised God.
My love for football has not waned one bit, but I am more careful these days.
By Henry Ogbonna