By Busayo Akinmoju
Content Warnings: Unreality, imprisonment.
The people in the town streamed into the street.
They walked all together, on towards the building that had been newly painted blue that day.
At the intersection in front of it, they stopped. And like they had woken into a nightmare, like landing on their feet into a run, and like being able to think, to suddenly rethink, they turned their backs and ran away. That bright blue building, snugged along a row of unpainted others, had acted like a siren, a whining gas of colour that repelled them.
And so they moved in all directions, ungainly and thoughtless. On that sunny day, the corner of the town that could be seen from the blue building’s veranda was thickly covered by people, who then spread off everywhere, watched over by Tara. The person who’d peered over the bannisters from the moment the people had walked together until they hadn’t anymore.
And she was relieved when she saw it.
‘They’ve gone,’ she said to Bolu.
On that day, Tara and Bolu were scared. But Bolu was even more so; she wasn’t from this town. She lay on a mat they had found in a corner of the empty room the veranda led into. It was also painted blue; all of the building was that colour, inside and out. And neither of them could sleep with all the light that bounced through the bare spaces within that room, and how all the emptiness lay heavy and suffocated.
Because of this, and because the people had gone from the streets, they decided to leave and end their hiding. Bolu did not think it was a good idea as they went down the stairs, but because she knew things, Tara won and led in front; she ran her hands over the plastic feel of the new paint, pausing to scrape off a small bulge that had formed from the painter’s poor workmanship, and underneath it was the paint’s astringent smell. And dry, crumbly, grey cement. She didn’t say anything about it.
Like this story, in all of its pretending to be fair, even and moving with equanimity, we see these two girls walk backwards out of that room and out of the day’s new sunlight into the night and dream of the streets out below.
Those same streets, the veranda could see nothing on till 6.30 pm when the streetlights came on.
Tara knew things. Like, the town in this story had lived in one continuous day for years. For years and years, things had remained the same, with only small shifts in the weather, in how people moved and felt to keep up the disguise. No one had been born, no one had aged enough for it to matter or to show. No one had even left the town, and no one had died. To leave the town, one had to fall off of it. Fall out of existence to it, to remembering, to the family one had, out of one’s heritage. Only the Fikesi – ruler, traditional and elected spokesperson – could veto it, make an exception. No one living there had noticed these things.
Bolu had not been told any of it before the trip. Nor when she was made to look through the car’s window because of the shadow cast by the tall arc that led into the town. It only said WELCOME, did not mention where to. But when the clean, grey streets opened out calmly, she forgot about oddness and did not even notice that late evening had suddenly set on them.
What she knew were the things Tara had told her. Like how the Fikesi was Tara’s uncle, so her friend was related to royalty, or that the town was magical, which Tara had said to tempt Bolu into coming over with her. It was her first trip after a few years of not visiting. She had told Bolu about all of the sights, this and that.
‘I’ll take you there with me,’ she’d said. ‘Just come, it will be fun.’
Bolu had wanted to go.
‘And we can stay at my uncle’s place. It’s actually a palace, and it’s very nice. It has a swimming pool and all.’
So she had. She’d packed clothes for a few days and got into the car. What she’d expected was a greeting fit for a princess and her guest. Something like an excited town, drums singing their praises, and a crowd of faces squishing to see who they were as the car passed through.
But as the car turned into a street lined on both sides by trees, the trees became denser and turned into forest. Bolu sat up straighter and turned to Tara.
‘Ah, are you scared?’ Tara asked when she noticed Bolu’s apprehension. But Tara was concerned too and asked the driver where he was taking them.
‘This is not the way to the palace now, oga.’ Tara said.
The driver seemed surprised to hear them speak but reassured them that the Fikesi had asked they be brought to meet him where he was precisely. And it was at an old secondary school at the edge of the town.
‘Omo’ba ni yin, I cannot even do you like that. Don’t worry, we will soon get there. Let’s say in the next five minutes.’
When they got to the school, the Fikesi had his back turned to them, standing with a few other people on a sandy driveway in front of a green bungalow. He was talking and gesturing with his right hand as if asking them to take the whole place in; it was then that he turned and saw them. Tara was smiling with so much pride.
He nodded to acknowledge them but turned to fully end his talk with the people. He shook their hands, each of them, a group of two women and three men, and they left.
Then he turned to them again, and this time he laughed. His laugh was unselfconscious, the sort that eliminated that firm border between the young and the already grown and established. Tara got a tight hug from him, giggling through it all. The Fikesi looked at Bolu with his big laugh dancing in his chest, and Bolu simply could not. She was repulsed.
She stretched out her hand to shake his and planned to add a good nod to be respectful. The way he had looked at them and laughed, without that inhibition, made Bolu think about Father Christmas, dressed up in fake clothes and a big bobbing belly and not wearing his adult manners, so he was constantly pulling up his trousers.
The Fikesi shook her hand, and the laugh in him did not dim, except in his eyes.
‘This is your friend abi, Tara?’ he said. ‘It is very nice to meet you. This is your first time here, right?’
Bolu said, ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Ah, which one is sir? There is no need for that. Tara, you did not tell her about me, ni?’
Tara narrowed her eyes almost playfully at Bolu.
One of the things Tara did not know was how time worked in this story, in this town that she and Bolu had started being absorbed into slowly. Maybe she would have started to run if she had known. She knew of time in the sense that one moment happened after the next; the previous moment happened before this one. She and her friend existed within this moment happening now. But the Fikesi had started his trickery on them. He liked that she thought this way.
Even if she had heard about time happening in a different way – perhaps in a circle of déjà vus, cyclically re-happening – he would still have trapped her in a moment that ran up and up, skipped a few thoughts and instances, and went around and up and down again. That was how he got people.
He said to Bolu, ‘You know that I am like the architect of this whole town. I made everything.’ He said the last sentence like he was singing. ‘But I am still very jovial.’
And then that laugh again.
Bolu quietly shook her head. Tara watched her, unsmiling, from the corner of her eye.
She asked Tara what her uncle meant by that, and Tara was about to reply with something vaguely snippy when the Fikesi saw them talking and asked what was wrong. Bolu answered that she was only asking what kind of architect he was. She said this a little loudly, to further upset Tara, and in that short time she spoke, the Fikesi’s countenance was a stunned one. Like he was surprised she could talk.
But he answered her gently, like she was a well-behaved but inquisitive child.
‘I was getting to that. Definitely, I am an architect. Fully trained and qualified.’ He spoke about some of the work he had done around the town: the bank, another school, and particularly about a building that had been a house owned by a former chief. He wanted the town to repossess it, fix it up and rent it to a telecom company. But it seemed the people were giving him a little trouble at the council house.
‘It will provide people with more jobs, so I don’t understand why they are against it,’ he said.
There was a short silence before he looked to Tara and said, ‘Anyway, you really should have told your friend more about the town before coming, especially about me. I am not old school at all.
‘This is not like all those former people, please. Me, I know my work, I am inside and outside the government, and I know what I am doing.’
Neither of them could understand why, but that laugh happened again.
And this time, Tara’s face contorted into something, maybe confusion. But as always, Bolu felt it worse. In the days they spent after that, she would remember it like a ringing in her elbows, a zap of electricity in her sternum, like echoing. The days got dimmer and dimmer and stopped happening one after the other.
‘What time is it? It looks like we woke up too early, oh,’ Tara joked.
‘No, that is just how the weather is here,’ the Fikesi said around a mouthful of food, clinking his cutlery on the plate.
It was the morning after they met the Fikesi, and they were in one of the little bungalow lodges on the school’s premises. His mood had changed, they noticed. They looked at each other silently and began to eat.
After a while, he asked, ‘How long will you be staying?’
‘Oh, just a few days,’ Tara answered.
‘Six weeks,’ he said.
They were alarmed. ‘Sir…’ Tara began.
He stopped his eating and cutlery clinking. ‘I said you and your friend should stop calling me sir.’
Then he picked up his spoon and continued, ‘Anyway,’ and he informed them about their plans for the day. He would drop them off at the bank, come back to pick them up in an hour, then take them to spend the rest of their stay with Tara’s aunt, a person she had not visited in years.
‘You can’t stay here with me again. I am busy and pre-occupied with so many things. But you don’t have to worry, she is your dad’s sister, your aunt. You know her, right? Tara?’
‘Good, then finish your food and get dressed so we can start going.’
By the time the girls got to the bank hall, Bolu was still feeling ill, and Tara was remembering how much she hated banks and that she did not know what the Fikesi had even asked her to do there. Time had shattered for them in this moment. All of the pieces that had formed that disc were held up and suspended. Some were closer to the centre, to how it used to be. Some were held further on, different from everything.
But from then, time and presence and existence dazzled, as light does refracted through a kaleidoscope, alternating between a resolute grey and an almost-real, too-colourful dream.
Unlike what Tara believed – or remembered as the things outside of time began to shatter too – it was not when they met the Fikesi outside the bank that she had been gotten, incorporated into the same trickery the Fikesi had suspended the town in. It had started the moment they arrived in the town.
The Fikesi came to the bank with his red, embroidered shirt ringing bright with emblems and frightening symbols. And Tara didn’t know this, but it was not this moment, or his displeasure that she was empty-handed that made the sky overcast, threatening rain.
Because all through the time they were in the town, it never rained. There was a drip-drip heard through the large glass pane of her aunt’s second-floor parlour, but the few days Tara and Bolu spent there, the grey just hung like a threat. Never raining. Bolu’s elbows continued to startle her at odd times.
But Tara’s aunt would ignore their silence and brooding. She would drink from a cup at the kitchen table and talk like all of the other townspeople did about the Fikesi. They loved him; he was doing well for them.
Tara asked her one day, ‘Wouldn’t you earn more as a teacher if you moved to a different town, where you would be more appreciated?’
Her aunt put the cup down.
‘See this thing, if I go to a different town now, all of the extra money that I earn, I will be using it to pay for things that the government already provides me for free. And I will be nobody there, no one will know me. No family or friends, nothing!’
Then she added, ‘This town is working for me. I like it.’
This time, Tara was the one that shook her head. Bolu saw her and placed a hand on hers to get her attention. The silence that had grown between them since they met the Fikesi might have ended here.
Because, out of necessity, they bloomed a rich thought. Textured was their plan. Like an artisan’s clay-wet hands had moulded a fine ceramic flower from a mound that had never been touched or considered before. There they were in that kitchen, with that thought as real and as definite as a thing that had already happened, like a thing that already was.
They devised a means to escape the town, the Fikesi, the grey-and-kaleidoscope dream they were being submerged into.
So, they went to the town’s bus park.
At the park, a yellow flower caught Bolu’s eye. Bolu saw it through the fever of her thoughts, its petals as big as a bed for sleeping, and she needed to sleep. But the glow around it was what struck her; it had a bioluminescence that could only shine in night-time, with those flakes of pollen like stars nested in a cloud.
‘It is night,’ Bolu said as the bus they got into started moving. She said it firmly, like an unshakeable realisation.
Tara said, ‘What?’ but did not wait for an answer. As the bus rounded out of the park, in the middle of a small crowd at the gate, she saw the Fikesi talking and trying to placate the people. She might have locked eyes with him; she hoped not.
She turned back to Bolu and asked her what she had said. Bolu said it again. ‘It is night.’
Then she told Tara about the flower she had seen.
‘I know that flower from my botany textbook – it only opens its petals at night,’ Bolu insisted.
‘So what are you saying? You think that is the source of his power?’
Then they spoke for a while as the bus moved. Dragged inferences together. Tara looked up at the yellow flower Bolu pointed to, like a star in the sky with its own patch of white surrounding it, and seeing this, they concluded. It had indeed been night time, all this while.
In this story, the girls got off that bus, just as the people decided to get off of the Fikesi’s dream, trudge together to the town’s centre to end the man. Except the girls alighted several streets before the one with the building and all of its blue noise and brightness. They simply got down and kept walking backwards, down the street they’d got off. Out of sight to hide, maybe out of existence too.
And as they did, they foiled the Fikesi’s grand work by simply knowing. And by simply spreading that on to the people, like oil that touched one finger moving to the next.
They discovered that his power lay in getting the people to feel comfortable. To be content in the way a moment is fixed to a spot, pampered with certainty and illusions. And to ignore the possibility of progress out of fear, or doubt, or mediocrity. Or, as the Fikesi said in his defence, out of the need to protect pride and heritage, to work for his people.
The girls walked and wove out of the dream. Broke the townspeople out of their sleep and showed them the texture of colours under real light. Under a real star, an equanimity and fairness this story is unwilling to give.
Busayo Akinmoju is a writer and a student. Her work has been published in Popula, the Kalahari review, the Republic among others. She likes to read, and to relax on long walks. You can find more of her work here on her website