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BN Prose: How To Ride The Bus by Uche Okonkwo

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It’s Alade’s second week in Manchester and the wonder is yet to wear off. The brick buildings on Sackville Street still catch his eye; the double-decker buses, one of which he is riding in now, still cause him a childlike excitement; the pristine streets; the no hawkers and no traffic. The weather! They call it summer, but isn’t summer supposed to mean hot, or at least warm? He feels like he is inside an open-air refrigerator all the time, the sun shining bright but offering no heat. Even now he is wearing a heavy sweater and two pairs of pants, and is envious of his friend Dimeji, who, having spent over three years in the UK, is comfortable in denim shorts and a T shirt.

Alade has never seen so much white – the daylight, all that bare skin. Everything is so brilliant! He glances at Dimeji, who is sitting beside him flipping the pages of a magazine, like so many of the Manchester people Alade has seen on buses. It amazes him how anyone can choose to read instead of stare out the window at all the life passing by. Alade always insists on sitting on the top deck when they use the bus, to Dimeji’s amusement and sometimes exasperation. ‘You’ll get used to all this, don’t worry,’ Dimeji would say, with his usual gravity. But if getting used to ‘all this’ means becoming like Dimeji, part of Alade hopes he never does.

This place is nothing like Lagos, where Alade has lived all his life. Except that there are many Nigerians here; more than he had expected. He sees hordes of them, particularly when he goes around the Primark at Piccadilly Gardens. Piccadilly – he likes to say the name, just to feel it roll off his tongue. Pic-ca-dil-ly, like the beat of a happy song. Each time he catches a snatch of conversation in a Nigerian language he slows down and stares. If not for Dimeji tugging on his arm he would probably block the speaker’s path, with a huge grin on his face that screams ‘I am your Nigerian brother; what are the odds!’

The bus pulls up at a stop and people get on. Seconds later a woman carrying a toddler, whose hair is the same shade of red as hers, comes up from the stairwell. She takes the seat right in front of Alade and Dimeji, to Alade’s delight, and settles in as the bus continues down Anson Road.

Alade stares at the pinkish skin of the woman’s neck, at the freckles dotting her bare shoulders. He had seen white people in Lagos, especially when he went to ‘the Island’, but never up close like he does here, never like this. If he wants to, he can reach out and touch her, pretend he is brushing off a fleck of something. He likes the wispy hairs at the nape of her neck, the swirly pattern the curls make on the canvas of her skin. The rest of her hair is bunched up in a fetchingly untidy bun atop her head, and it bobs in time as she moves to the rhythm of the song from her headphones. Now he gets why every Nigerian female he knows wants hair like this – hair that can swing and bounce with every movement of the body; hair that can be so effortlessly long.
A pair of brown eyes peeks at him from behind the woman’s neck, and the rest of the face slowly emerges: rosy cheeks, a pert nose, lips the size of a grape and the colour of a strawberry. (It greatly pleases Alade that he is starting to think in terms of foreign fruit already.) He smiles at the boy, who responds with a blink. Alade has always been good with children, and he will not allow this little white boy with red hair to be the exception. Alade sucks in his cheeks, rolls his eyes and tilts his head. The boy smiles. Next, Alade blows out his cheeks and closes his eyes for a few seconds. He opens them again to find the boy gone. But then the boy peeks from behind his mother’s neck again, waiting to be caught. When Alade’s eyes meet his the boy disappears with a chuckle.

They carry on like this, Alade making faces and the boy disappearing and reappearing. With each round of play the boy’s chuckles become louder, his movements more frenzied. The boy’s mother looks back at the same moment that Dimeji glances up from the pages of his magazine. Dimeji does not look happy.

The boy’s mother gives Alade a small smile before looking ahead again. Dimeji shoves an elbow into Alade’s side just as he starts to make another face at the boy. Alade looks at his friend with a frown, and Dimeji mouths the words: Stop. It.

Alade is so alarmed that he obeys his friend at once, keeping his eyes fixed in front of him, ignoring the toddler who is smiling, shaking his head, waving his little hands, trying hard to catch his eye again. Alade has to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep his face from responding.
The bus reaches the next stop and the woman stands and hurries down. She steps out of the bus and Alade watches her as she walks up the road. He cannot see the boy’s face now.
‘What was that about?’ Dimeji snaps.
‘I should be asking you! I was just playing with the boy.’
Dimeji looks at Alade like he is irreparably stupid. ‘You were playing with the boy?’
Alade is not stupid. He might be a JJC here, but stupid he is not. ‘Yes, I was playing with the boy. Is that a bad thing now?’
‘Here, people get arrested for playing with children,’ Dimeji says, using his fingers to make air quotes around ‘playing’. The air quotes worry Alade.
‘But I wasn’t doing anything–’
‘I’m not saying you were; I’m just telling you how it is,’ Dimeji says. He tugs at his earlobes. ‘Keep your face straight; keep your smiles to yourself. Mind your business, and leave children alone, before you do the one that will make them call you a child molester.’
‘Ah!’
Dimeji shrugs. ‘I have told you,’ he says. He goes back to his magazine.
Alade stares out the window. It’s not as bright outside as it was moments ago. He looks up at the sky. A cloud is blocking the sun.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Monkey Business Images

Uche Okonkwo has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester. She is a freelance writer and editor with years of publishing experience who blogs at Truth & Fiction. She is also the winner, (Inaugural) of the 2013 Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize. Uche will work for Naira, Pounds or Dollars and can be reached at anne_okonkwo[email protected]

30 Comments

  1. Jo!

    August 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

    I REALLY like this

  2. Teris

    August 12, 2014 at 11:47 am

    very apt.. nice.

  3. Lamie

    August 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Lol!!! Alade ooo

  4. Sisieko

    August 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Manchester winter has to be worst

  5. Vocalcords

    August 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Niceeeeeee

  6. Abena

    August 12, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    haha,very very interesting write up.Makes you feel like a real JJC as its really is.And ooh that unfriendly UK weather!i love it,more please

  7. birdieblue

    August 12, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    What is the world turning to when we can’t even take joy in the innocence of a child’s pleasure.

  8. www.eniwealth79.blogspot.com

    August 12, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I smiled through the reading. Nice one Uche.

  9. lol

    August 12, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I am really curious are people really that unfriendly in the UK? I remember visiting my Nephew’s school with my sis-in-law when we were visiting and like people do here in the US, I entered the building and gave this lady a smile and hello. The woman looked like she was being forced to respond but that has never bothered me even in Nigeria until my sis-in-law told me we don’t say hello here, I know it is different where you come from. See as my body cool…..I still don’t believe people really don’t want you saying hello and giving them a smile. So I still do it.

    • Mz Socially Awkward...

      August 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      To answer your question – depending on what part of the UK you’re in, it’s more than likely a “yes” (but again, depending on your locale as I’ve personal experience of open, friendly Glaswegians and from what I hear, the folk in Wales tend to be quite warm). My own response to such unnecessary unfriendliness is to: (a) either ignore your obnoxious self completely, because no be your own dey pain me; or (b) catch your eye pointedly with a smile and say “hello”. If you choose not to answer, I’ll usually shake my head with a laugh and walk away. Again, no be your own dey pain me…

      Very nice prose. It’s sad when certain cultural attitudes in certain environments attempt to suck out the natural cheerfulness and optimism in people. Never let “them” win.

    • TA

      August 12, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      My fondest memories of Glasgow is all the shortbread biscuits (cookies as my Americana niece would say) I consumed. Those were happy teen days before love handles .I can swear it started growing from my head. Lol!
      The average Londoner is not friendly sha. As you say Mz SA na dem sabi, shebi me I just dey waka pass as visitor? So I feel the pain of my friends who reside in London whose loneliness are fueled by an unfriendly society.

    • Tincan

      August 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Not really, to answer your question. Speaking for London, We usually don’t do the big American smile and cheerful hi/hello but mostly we do the ‘plastic’ smile. It is pretty much a shallow smile that lasts for all of 1 second. I remember my first time in the States, when my friends and I would walk into a shop in a mall. The sales girls were always like ‘hiiiiiii’ with big smiles and all. I just thought they were weird – at least until I got used to it.

    • esteelauder

      August 12, 2014 at 4:28 pm

      People are actually friendly. I schooled in Nottingham and it was really a nice experience

    • Taye

      August 13, 2014 at 10:10 am

      Majority of people are really like that here – you cant really say hello to a stranger without throwing them back. Also, people don’t smile – in the mornings everyone looks gloomy and wrapped in their own little world when commuting. It is pretty draining

  10. TA

    August 12, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Nice article Uche. Keep them coming.

  11. yuukay

    August 12, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    Really nice article,  just had this smile on my face throughout and sad at the end when he was hit with that sad reality of what our world has become, wicked ppl making the world unbearable for others also Reminding me when  was serving far away from my state and how  will be so excited when  hear people speak my language.

  12. ego

    August 12, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    i schooled in aberdeen. The folks there have this one second fake smile that annoys me. Initially I would respond. Later I just ignored the fake greetings and cold smiles, and looked at them with a blank face. The other extreme were the ones you would greet cause you worked with them or were lectures and they would completely ignore you. They are very cold people and they made me miserable.

  13. ego

    August 12, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    I meant “or were your lecturers”

  14. omalichaspeaks.blogspot.com

    August 12, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I remember being very cautious about smiling and playing with little kids. Even now in Naija I’m still kinda cautious about playing with kids. I can’t shout biko. In the UK I find the older generation much more friendly than the younger generation.
    Office Bullying- click my name to read more and share your experience.

  15. sadidy

    August 12, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Totally loved this. reminded me of my time in Manchester. taking the tram to the city center, Piccadilly gardens, Trafford mall, old Trafford football stadium. yeah, lots of Naijarians in Manchester.
    funny enough, ive meet a lot of chatty and friendly British people.
    really nice story. innocent behaviour is perceived as perverted or child molestation. the world has changed, sadly.

  16. peaches77

    August 12, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    The greyer they become, the more friendly they are.

  17. Abadini

    August 13, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Uche has a beautiful soul. I can feel it.

  18. Titi

    August 13, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Beautiful prose. Truly

  19. CHY

    August 13, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    love this

  20. Lizzie

    August 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I love this! and yes there’s a world of difference btw Americans and the English/Scottish people. Americans are way friendlier.

  21. Tos

    August 26, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    i always meet the very nice ones…most times they offer to help carry my luggage if they perceive that am struggling with it. The last time one chatted with me about Boko Haram when he found out i was Nigerian, and this happened in London. But yer he was way advanced like in his late forties….a young chap also helped me on that same trip but in hertfordshire…. 🙂

  22. chinco

    August 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    All I hear is how unfriendly the British are but on visiting there ( London/surrey)… They didn’t seem so bad but hand down the Americans are more

  23. chinco

    August 26, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    *hands down Americans are friendlier *….

  24. Nancy

    September 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Lol, this must be a kind of reminiscence

  25. Ojb

    October 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I schooled in Sunderland and worked in New Castle. ‘mind your business’ is the watch word because when the oyinbos give me the fake smiles and high-pitched ‘Hellooooo”…. I check myself; especially at work.
    The truth is in that part of the world, when someone who generally ignores you starts giving you a plastic smile, something is up. I however still see a good bunch in all these people despite the paranoia. School environments sort of give you a level ground in learning how to deal with those situations. and yea…. the older they are, the more friendly…. I once had an aged couple invite me for tea at the city centre twice, I honoured the invitation and met their grandson who happened to be a perfect gentleman… well bred and well groomed. So they all are not like that.

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