Note: Extract from an untitled novel
He walked past a freshly dug grave, then another. He glanced at the hastily sketched map he’d been given: a series of crooked lines standing for where the dead lay – an X, or was it a cross, marking Funmilayo’s final resting place. A line of tree stumps was supposed to be standing adjacent to her grave, marked on the map as circles.
He recalled another cemetery trip. Birmingham, England. The city’s main cemetery, whose name he no longer remembered. Those graves had been better tended than these ones in Lagos, and there were many that had fresh flowers on them. He had gone on the Day of the Dead, so that there were silently burning lanterns, and as the darkness set in and his female companion’s body pressed closer against his – in terror – he felt strangely comforted by the flames. Tongues of fire, he thought. Acts of the Apostles. At that moment he’d imagined what it’d be like wandering through a Lagos graveyard.
This city where death stalked the streets without bothering to disguise itself; where not even dying cured the dead of desperation. Graveyards full of the vengeful dead. How, he thought, would a young woman who had died of a cancer that wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late – how would she leave a peaceful ghost behind? Or a young man, who watched himself die because ambulances here sought souls, not broken bodies.
There was no day of the dead in Lagos. Every day was the day of the dead.
Now, here he was, walking, glancing from stone to stone, reading names and absences. Some of the tombs were covered in lichen. To read the names he’d have had to scrape it away. Soon he noticed a pattern:
Christian name, followed by a local one. Samuel Oyeyinka. Jeremiah Babatunde. Ezekiel Olawale. And then the dash. One woman’s grave bore no date of birth or age, only the date of her death. She had gone ladylike to meet death. As in life, she had refused to jettison her agelessness.
He wasn’t sure why he’d come alone. Who would he have asked to accompany him? He and Funmilayo didn’t have any mutual friends. Acquaintances maybe, but no friends. And Millicent? Whom he’d just met? She might seem crazy, but he didn’t think she would be crazy enough to accompany him to visit another woman’s grave. And hadn’t they only just met? Lost in trying to recollect Millicent’s face, it took a while to realise he was no longer alone.
There she was – an elderly woman and her large, trendy handbag. Silvery hair tumbled from beneath her brightly coloured scarf. She was looking at him, her eyes bright and piercing like an owl’s. He had no idea how long she’d been there. But he felt no fear. The sunlight did a great job dispelling shadows and mists and wayward acts of the imagination. He debated on whether to mumble a greeting or just walk past. Had this been in that English cemetery, he’d have shuffled past without a word. He owed no one greetings in England.
‘Good afternoon, Ma,’ he said.
She mumbled something. He respectfully lowered his gaze, and then made to move on. Might she be a ghost? Without thinking, he dug his heels into the ground, as though to convince himself that beneath his feet was sand. Every Yoruba child knew that if you threw sand on a ghost you rendered them powerless.
Then she spoke again. ‘Have you seen the caretaker?’ she said. Her voice was clear; her English confident. ‘I have been looking for him.’
‘No, Ma. It’s my first time here. I don’t know him … ‘
‘If you see him anywhere, tell him Mrs. Badejo is looking for him. He is around somewhere.’
‘All right, Ma.’ Then he added, hoping she might be of help: ‘I’m trying to locate a particular grave.’ He waved his map in the air.
‘This is a very disorganised place. It does no service to the dead at all,’ she said, her indignation showing up as a mild frown. ‘I’ve complained and complained, no one cares. Baba Luku the caretaker, poor man, is a pensioner like me. He hasn’t got the energy to do much more than what he does. It’s so unkempt. And not well protected at all.’ She sighed, then added. ‘And to think this is where I will be sleeping.’
Bayo wouldn’t realise what she meant by ‘sleeping’ until much later.
‘I think you should just look for Baba Luku,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘He’s the only one who can help you.’
After wandering around a bit, sadly noting how untended most of the tombs were, Bayo sighted Baba Luku sitting atop a fallen tombstone, smoking and chewing kola. He was an elderly man in a ragged white singlet and faded blue sokoto which sagged like a teenager’s. His bulging belly testified to a fondness for beer. But his arms were lean and strong and ready-made for labour.
‘Hey, who goes there?’ he said in Yoruba, a youthful grin plastered on his face. He blew clouds of smoke into the air, squinting as he did so. ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Good afternoon, Sir,’ Bayo answered, in Yoruba.
‘Ah, you’re a Yoruba boy. Good. But I can speak English too.’ He laughed, a wheezing laugh, his belly heaving dangerously. He spat at his feet. Then he switched to English. ‘I’m a civil servant, you see. Once a civil servant always a civil servant. When the civil service was the civil service, all of us had to speak good English. Queen’s English. So, I can speak English too.
Whichever you’re comfortable with.’ He looked around, as though surveying unfamiliar territory. Then he chuckled, and in a low voice, added. ‘Not all these ones speak Yoruba y’know.’ His eyes swept the horizon again as he said so.
Bayo smiled, unable to conceal his fascination. ‘I’m looking for a grave, sir,’ he said, in Yoruba. There was something about speaking Yoruba to elderly Yoruba people that endeared you to them. He assumed it worked that way in any language. Then he remembered the woman. ‘Baba, there’s an elderly woman who’s looking for you. Mrs – ’
Baba Luku laughed again. ‘Ah, Mama Badejo. That woman’s wahala is too much. Don’t mind her. She comes here every day to inspect her grave.
And yet if you ask her if she’s getting ready to die she will tell you her mother lived to be ninety-seven, and there’s no reason why she can’t outlive her. And she’s only eighty, but you can’t tell.’ Baba Luku groaned and rose with a sprightliness that belied his age. ‘I have to go and see her.
Come, let’s go. What did you say you wanted?’ He puffed at his cigarette again, and then flung it away. ‘Let the dead too smoke something.’
The sun rose in the sky. Bayo felt it burn his face. He walked a step or two behind Baba Luku. He thought there was something deferential about that. Baba Luku glided along rather gracefully, swinging his cutlass at the grass around him. He left his sagging sokoto where it was, so that the dirtstained rim of his underpants showed. His bare right arm had a series of fresh incisions on it. Bayo wondered if it was something to ward spirits away.
‘So – are you not scared … ?’ he said, in Yoruba.
Baba Luku cleared his throat and spat. ‘We’re all going to join them one day,’ he answered. ‘Nothing to be scared of. But that’s not to say protection is not helpful. You have to be close to God.’ He dipped his hand into his pockets and brought out a plastic rosary with a small wooden crucifix at its end and a Gideon’s Bible. He wound the rosary around the Bible and slapped it on his left palm three times. ‘No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper,’ he said, in English. ‘Lailai.’
He waved the Bible over his head, as though swiping at flies. He switched back to Yoruba. ‘There’s nothing to fear in the daytime. It is at night that you have anything to fear.’ The Bible fell from his hand. He cursed and snatched it up, offering a sign of the cross with his head tilted upwards, as if offering a silent apology to heaven. He dusted the Bible on his sokoto and blew at it endlessly, and then carefully placed it back in his pocket. Bayo watched this ritual patiently. A lone black bird circled overhead. Then another joined it. There was silence. A cough floated in from far off.
Bayo wondered if it was from Mama Badejo. For a moment the two birds seemed to have paused in mid-air, as though they had suddenly taken on the stillness of death.
Baba Luku’s voice jolted him back to reality. ‘Sometimes they are not ordinary, you know,’ he said. The birds seemed to hear him, and swooped out of sight with a violent flapping of wings. ‘But look, you’re a young man – what is your concern with death?’
Bayo explained his mission. He told his story; Funmilayo’s story. He had come to leave a copy of the magazine on her grave. Baba Luku gazed at the page for a long time. His thick lips, the skin broken, moved slowly. He was reading it. Every now and then the lips would pause. But Baba Luku didn’t look up for what seemed like a long time.
Mrs. Badejo was not in the best of moods when Baba Luku eventually found her, seated on the tomb closest to her burial plot. She was frowning so dramatically Bayo thought he was going to burst out laughing.
‘Mummy-mummy,’ Baba Luku hailed, running up to her. He bent by her side and started to sing a Yoruba song that Bayo had never heard before. ‘Oluwa da Mama si fun wa …’ he sang again and again. The song seemed to proceed from his stomach, his voice rising and falling with a practiced intensity, then fading away, and suddenly rising again. Mrs. Badejo fought unsuccessfully to maintain her frown. Baba Luku saw she was fighting a hopeless battle, and added dancing to his singing. An old man in a singlet and sokoto swaying rhythmically in front of an even older woman who sat on another person’s grave while she watched over her own.
Baba Luku broke her resolve. Darting from one side to the other, mixing slow steps with sudden hand gestures, it soon seemed Baba Luku had forgotten the reason for his performance. In that instant he was alone in the world, moving this way and that, an actor on a fully lit stage, foliage for curtains, dust for floorboards, and the ghosts of a thousand and one dead yet undead Nigerians watching in awe. When he stopped, there was a deathly silence. And then the birds again – a dozen or so this time, cutting through the air with a precision that made Bayo think of ceaseless applause.
‘Mummy-mummy,’ Baba Luku said, laughing heartily. ‘Don’t vex, eh? Immediately he informed me I was coming at once. Ask him.’ He gestured at Bayo, winking conspiratorially. ‘So what is the problem this time?’