Most friendships do not start in the most flattering way. There is no outburst of mirthful laughter or the ravishing communion of a shared experience. Some just start slowly, imperceptibly, before it blooms into a fondness reinforced not just by shared joys, but by mutual struggles and inconveniences.
The friendship between you and I grew slowly, like a snail crawling on wet cement, until the cement set and became hard as stone. The snail became stuck. I was the snail.
Our first conversation was in our first level in the university. We shared, with a few others, the hostel room 305 during our freshman year. That day, I laid on the bed with a Philosophy text book in my hand. The sound of music and video games poured from different corners of the room. The aroma of burnt soup lingered in the air. Sweat glistened under the bright fluorescent bulb and drizzled down your bare brown skin. You were on the top bunk of the bed opposite mine, your feet crossed and pointed upward while you fanned yourself with a large book that had Past Questions & Answers in CHM101 written in bold letters.
I had just ended a call with my friends. You stared at me curiously before you asked: “kana jin Hausa?” I was quiet.
It was your eyes that broke my defenses. I think I spoke with those eyes first, before I ever truly spoke to you.
“Where did you grow up?” You asked again, eager to start a conversation.
“Ni dan Jos ne,” I said.
Those small eyes glimmered under the bright light. You smiled as you told me you grew up in Kaduna, Kafanchan precisely. Your lips quivered and you rolled each word as you spoke in Hausa. Your accent added the right musicality to the language. We felt like two aliens in a new world. We talked and laughed, not minding the surprised confusion plastered on the faces of other roommates who called us “aboki” or joined our conversation with malapropisms like “yuwa” or “kai kai.”
The next day, you brought a plate of spaghetti and beans to my corner. We ate in silence from the same plate. The aroma of the food was surpassed only by its taste. One night you asked me to accompany you to the market. Then one Saturday morning we solved our math workbook together. Then one Sunday we went to church together. Then one evening you laughed so hard I feared your chin would split apart because my attempt to crack a joke had only been an insipid show. It was at that moment I knew we would be friends. I tell the lamest of jokes, and if anyone finds them funny, then that’ll be a blue mark in my litmus test for friends.
The first day we traveled back home together, you insisted on traveling while the sun was still up. Night travels were my sort of thing; I loved to watch darkness wrap the vehicle and how it would cause it to float through the arms of the road, as if the vehicle were some huge black bat sensing its way through. You were scared, but you didn’t show it. My job was simply to take you out of your comfort zone. I persuaded, convinced, threatened, and finally, I won. I can be stubborn and persuasive.
By 2:00pm, with our bags strapped to our backs, we entered a bus going to Onitsha, where we would board a night bus at Upper Iweka, heading to Jos.
By 6:00pm, the journey to the north started, and I wished I had listened to you. The bus smelled of onions, garlic, and god-knows-what. More passengers who paid less so that they could stand in the bus, were crammed into the vehicle. The drivers and conductors used this strategy to make more money at the expense of the “real” passengers’ comfort.
You grumbled, as one of the “attachments” asked if he could sit on the arm of your chair. You eyed him, stretched your hiss, and then directed your anger to me. You asked we switch seats. I laughed. The man gently dropped his bag and sat on the extension, pushing your hands off. He smelled of sweat and dust. A smile stretched on my face. I imagined how crumpled your face could be: your grumbles and hisses were amusing.
A call came in. It was your brother. The light from your screen illuminated your face; it looked like that of a teenage boy caught with his hands vacillating under his pants. He scolded you for travelling at night. You assured him that it was safe, and you had company, too. You poked your middle finger to my face. I laughed, but I felt pity for you. The call ended. Your palms met your face in a covering. The man beside you adjusted his buttocks, and the phone in your hand fell atop the base of the vehicle. You pushed him off.
Another call came in. This time you were quiet almost throughout the call, and the only things you said were: “I’m sorry, sir”. “Yes, sir”. “Okay, sir.” It had to be your dad. “Amen” you finally whispered, and the call ended. You glared at me. Although everywhere was dark, I could still see the white of your eyes. I prayed silently that nothing happened on our way. We remained quiet until dawn. You were staring and clicking on your phone when I woke up. There was still about 7 hours before we reached your terminus. It was in the discussion we held in that seven hours that I caught a glimpse of your soul, and felt the warmth of your spirit.
I have tried and failed in my so many attempts to write this. I have so many drafts littered everywhere, unfinished, like the many dreams and aspirations we had worked on together. I have attempted to master language. Like a chiropractor, I bend words and stretch sentences, hoping that somehow they would take the shape of my emotions and bear the semblance of the ache in my heart. I search for words that can fit, sentences that can fully express my pain and bitterness. But we have not yet coined words for this kind of emotion; words to define how this heart sinks into nothingness. Words to measure the circumference of the hollowness in my spirit. Words to express adequately the guilt that comes with the inability to grieve a friend.
There was this smooth intelligence that was characteristic of our discussions, especially at nights. Your range and depth of ratiocination was an intriguing element of your opinions on diverse matters. I still remember our conversations on existentialism, free will, and the concept of fatalism. Or the night we discussed African traditional religion and then delved into alternate realities. Or was it the time you schooled me on trading and arbitrations? Boy, you sabi!
So when you told me you had three carryovers, all I did was laugh, as though in the brief moment of laughter, reality could be warped and the past rarified.
“How did I get three carryovers?” You asked me. I was silent, as though through silence I could defy reality and strip it of its sourness.
We had read for the exams together, practiced many questions from the previous years. We wrote the exams and came out excited.
Your eyes were dark; distraught and pain and frustration were all soaked in the tears you held back. I had wished to hold you, to provide a support, for I didn’t understand the weight of such disappointment on a young mind.
After 300 level break, I was a friend in need. You lived alone in a lodge at Eziobodo, one of the off-campus residential areas. I resumed late that semester and the rooms in the hostels were all fully booked. I didn’t have enough money to rent a lodge off-campus and since I would be spending just a semester before my six-month industrial training, I discarded the thought of buying a hostel space. For almost a week, I struggled on how best to approach you and ask if I could stay at your place. “Highest, ‘im go tell me no,” I encouraged myself. That night, I sent you a quick message. You were so excited. you sent me all the emojis that expressed happiness. I was shocked – I wouldn’t have agreed so easily if I was the one. The next day, I stood before your door, my bags in front of me. You opened your door, and with a wide smile, ushered me into your home.
Reminiscing on the memories we shared is like staring at a clear, calm body of water. All I see is a reflection of happy and painful moments, all shared in profound geniality.
I still recall that morning. It had started like every typical Monday morning in school: rush to bathe, rush to brush, rush to complete an assignment. Until you screamed my name so loud. I rushed to the toilet where you were. Blood stained the floor as it oozed from the deep cut behind your leg. I watched as it flowed like the stream of consciousness slipping out of my mind. I struggled to breathe.
I rushed out to get a bike, throttling down the busy road dressed in just a pair of boxers and singlet. I found one and didn’t even bother to ask the rider how much his fare costs. When I brought the biker home, you were already dressed, and the floor of the room was stained with the red of your blood. I grabbed a shirt and threw my legs into a pair of trouser as I walked out to meet you. We sped off to the hospital. On our way, I kept asking you to tell me how it had happened, what gave the cut, but you kept quiet, terribly quiet. At the hospital, the wound was carefully stitched up, and we returned to our lodge.
The wound took time to heal. The pain was unbearable at night, and I watched as you wriggled on the bed, like a worm baptised in salt. I endured your tantrums on those days it seemed like you would cut off your leg. After some weeks, the wound healed, and life became pleasant again.
Some memories hang like idyllic chandeliers in my mind, casting golden lights around the walls of my heart. One of such memories was the day red ants invaded our room while we slept. It bit you first before it got to me. I heard your loud cry, first in my dreams, then in reality. I remained on the bed and watched as you screamed and struggled to open the door, bare-chested. The door clicked open, and you ran outside. I took out my phone and turned on the torch. Its white light poured on the line of red ants that led to our bed. Those ants: villainous and organised creatures! I felt a pinch on my thigh and then it got hot. I jumped out of the bed and screamed. Your laughter cracked the quiet night. I pulled hard on the door, but you held it firmly outside. I begged you. I screamed. The tingles I felt close to my buttocks made me hysteric. I pulled, you laughed; I pulled harder, you laughed louder.
I tumbled backward as the door flew open. I hauled myself up quickly, ran out of the room, and chased after you. The sound of your laughter filled the dark hallway. We both fell on the floor. Your loud cackles made me forget the pain on my thighs and I joined in your laughter.
We sat outside: two refugees chased from their home by some group of bandit soldier ants. The warm breeze caressed our troubled faces. In our silence, I heard the inordinate thumps of your heartbeat. The glint of the moon reflected on your brown eyes. I saw the uncertainty etched around the edges of your eyes, and in them, still, I found a reassuring hope. I checked my phone. The screen now had a crack. The time on it showed 3:45am. My shoulders drooped. I had closed my books just two hours ago. I heard your gentle snore. You sat on the floor and held your knees close to your chest, while your head rested on it. You slept like a true refugee as I gazed at the dark, starry sky. Sleep claimed my body, but my mind kept wandering.
At the break of dawn, we launched a counter-attack: we sprayed insecticide and threw burning papers on the lines made by the soldier ants. It was a hard battle. Three hours later, we lay on the floor, totally exhausted by the cleaning and washing.
I was in Lagos when I got the news of your death. The phone was still on my ears, but I heard only the buzzing sound of the caller’s voice after he said: “Emeka don die.” At that point, my mind became a pendulum, oscillating between the zones of sanity and delirium. I was in traffic when I got the call. Time warped into a visceral construct. Thoughts and reasoning got drowned in the cesspool which was my mind. I felt pain in my head, but it was not a headache. The vehicle seemed to press into me from both sides, as though it would crush me. I tried to open up the windows. My hands shook as l lifted them. My body trembled as glaciers of memories emerged and floated in my mind.
I went home that evening holding myself as one would caress an open wound. My body had moved up the stairs that led to my room reluctantly, as though there was an unspoken pact it had with my past.
I was told you died of shock, during a gunfight between the police and a gang of robbers at Port Harcourt, where you had gone to start your six-months industrial training. The caller said he was told that you got so scared as the bullets were being fired that you passed out. I was shocked, shocked because gunshots could scare you, scare someone who grew up in the crisis zone that was Southern Kaduna! It stunned me that although you knew and understood the rhythm of violence and gunshots, you couldn’t dance to this one. It was not an unfamiliar tune. You were a Kafanchan boy: you nodded and tap-danced to the sound of gunshots.
That night I held my body together while I slept, to avoid a possible disintegration. The words of W. H. Auden in his poem, “Funeral Blues,” danced in my mind:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can come to any good.
Crying and silence are both forms of grief. Silence, for me, remains the strongest. I watched my soul get doused in the petrol of my affliction, hoping that somehow, someday, a memory will strike enough spark to set it aflame. I have imagined walking down FUTO road and then hear a song or a sound of laughter or see a cloth that reminds me of you and will evoke a strong memory that will cause me to fall and scream a very loud cry. I would whimper, I would wail, I would groan until everyone gathers and ask what was wrong with me. I would tell them you died two years ago, but I could only get to cry today. I would then laugh; I will laugh so hard they would think I was mad. There is a great rift between madness and insanity. They won’t understand what momentary reprieve I would enjoy seeing tears on my cheeks, knowing that those tears that have been hidden for years, now flow for you. They wouldn’t understand the joy that would seize my heart when I’m finally able to cry. If only the tears would erode my face and flood the banks of my sanity. I’d laugh and beg them not to console me. How do I explain to them the burden of grief I carry, and how I yearn to pour it out in the stream of my ululation?
You didn’t look like someone who could die at a young age. I had imagined us in old age, with white hairs and experienced eyes, holding the hands of our wives. Or in the bar, drinking very expensive wines and reminiscing about our university days. Your death was a shock. I still don’t believe it. Maybe that is why I haven’t mourned you yet; my mind hasn’t accepted your absence. Can one mourn for someone who he believes is not yet dead? I have tried to imagine you in the grave, but I can’t.
You did not look like those people in posters carried around the campus by classmates who wore black clothes and covered their eyes with black glasses. We watched them march around the school, singing with a sorrowful voice that filled the air with sadness. I did not think that it would be you in that poster this soon, did not think that you’d ever even be in that poster, did not think that students would sing around the school, entering lecture halls even as lecturers taught, flinging fresh branches from a mango or guava or pear tree on the pillars and desks in the classroom. What, dear friend, would have given me room to think it was you who would appear in that poster soon?
You share some commonality with the branches they held: young, green and fresh. Like the branches, live tossed you abruptly and violently in different directions and then brought you down. How I wish you’d gone with a fight; but like it is in your nature, you left with a smile, peacefully. My heart breaks each time I remember the permanence of this absence.
is a creative writer and poet. He believes in the facility of words to express complex feelings and thoughts. His works have been published in Praxis Magazine, Jalada Africa & elsewhere. When he’s not studying for his Engineering degree, he’s either collecting books and memorising poems or writing personal essays. He enjoys reading the works of Chigozie Obioma, Don Dellilo and Ocean Voung. He tweets @itz_Leystan.