Inspired by Dicken's Oliver Twist and edited....
It was futile, his attempts to flee but that was the only solution he could come up with because no sooner had his trembling fingers wrapped around the soft, warm flesh of the mango that the fat, sweaty seller looked away from her neighbour with whom she was exchanging meaningless gossip with and settled on the boy. Even if he had let the fruit go, she would not have let the action go and both reacted in reflex. She raised a cry and he turned on his heel and ran.
He ran, quite oddly, weaving blindly past bodies as he tried to make his getaway, all the while mindful of the cars zipping past the street.
"Ole! Ole!! Ole!!!" The woman cried as she tried to maneuver her bulk after him in pursuit. She knew she would not catch him but she hoped that her cries would motivate someone to do so. Her voice carried over the din of car horns, haggling traders, screaming bus conductors and loud conversations to somehow capture the attention of people around. That, and the fact that as the boy ran, he bumped into people, knocking both he and them off balance and they in turn rewarded him with a few shoves here and there, laced with a generous dose of curses in whatever language they proudly called their mother tongue. That also meant he was slowed down.
Slowed down so that as he whipped past a conductor who had come off his bus to loudly call out his bus' destination in a medley of bus stop name, all the man had to do was reach out his right hand and bring the panicked boy to an abrupt halt with one well placed blow.
The boy went down. Before he could draw a breath, a crowd was upon him. The bus conductor had forgotten his passengers, other traders had forgotten their wares, students - some returning from school and others who though had on uniforms had not been to school in weeks- merged with the excited crowd and swelled its numbers, buyers forgot their budgeting and bargaining and within seconds, the boy was being jostled this way and that with the crowd's cries switching from inquiry as to the hulla-balloo to blood thirst as they called for him, the little boy, the little thief to be drawn and quartered.
He was quite small. There seemed to be very little of him but what there was received a generous dosage of slaps and knocks. It was not long before the old and threadbare checkered shirt that had covered his dry skin was ripped off his shoulders and he was relieved of his shorts under which he wore no underwear so that as these angry men and women metted out their justice, he was clad only in the sickly looking fabric that was his skin under which jutted the frame that made up his skeleton.
"Look at him. Nonsense!!"
"Ehen, yes, that is good."
"Beat him well well. Never in his life..."
"Where are his useless parents."
"Aww and he is just a boy o"
The cries mingled as one. Maybe only one or two bore the sentiment of the last statement. All had suddenly crossed that thin divide between man and animal and for that afternoon, the boy had become prey for the heated and hungry crowd. The little boy could not make out what people were saying. He did not see that the mango seller had managed to jostle her way to the front and was explaining in a loud voice to all and any that bothered to ask what he had done.
"Omo oloroburuku, oniranu ikeji aja, ole lasan lasan yii, lo ji mi nigba..." she informed. For those that did not speak her language, you did not have to be told that her information was laced with curses and insults. Some on the boy and some on his mother. The mango which had dropped when he had been hit had since rolled on the street and under a moving car. The boy had tried to plead when he had been first lifted off the ground and had since stopped. Like the sun bearing down intensely on Lagos that afternoon, there was no mercy around.
Mojere rested her chin on her hand which was rested on the car door. Beside her, Labake her best friend chatted on incessantly,
"Ah, can you imagine the colours of the lace they wanted to select? I was so disgusted. That is how you know when money misses road. Can you just imagine? They left me to go and pick out that? God forbid, I am not wearing that useless, cheap nonsense."
Apparently from what Mojere had pieced together between tuning out her friend's chatter and watching traffic was that one of their friends had chosen not to purchase fabric for aso ebi to be worn during her father inlaw's funeral reception. Thus Labake was miffed to no end.
Thud! A body slammed into the side of the car on Mojere's side. Both women including the driver who had been listening silently on the conversation, jumped. The culprit had sprinted off. It was a young man, one of those people who sold their wares in traffic and he was in an awful hurry to get down the road. It was then that Mojere realised that the car was at a standstill and so was everyone around them.
"Jesus!!!" Labake exclaimed, "Did you see that?"
Mojere was tempted to tell her no, that she had not, that she just felt like being frightened out of her skin.
"Mr. Lawal, ki ni yen?" (What is that?)
Mr. Lawal was rattled. He knew he was going to be blamed. Had he been actually paying attention, he might have had a better answer for his madam.
"Madam, awon oloshi ni yen ni madam...." he began as he started to come down. Because he was already half out of the car, Mojere could not caution him about his language. She hated when he spoke like that and she had warned him many times before.
"These useless boys. I don't know what they are doing here." Labake continued, "they should all be in school. Hen-en, just imagine...we thank God o that it is not more than this. Is the car okay?"
Mojere was more concerned if the boy was okay. Before he disappeared from her sight, she had seen him stumble a bit after the collision before he righted himself and made away. Mr Lawal had come around to her side so she rolled down the glass.
"Ko si problem ma." he told her (There is no problem) "O kan gba moto legbe but ko se e lese." (He only hit the car but there is no damage.)
"What on earth was he in a hurry for?" Mojere wondered aloud.
Labake hissed her response,
"Those vagabonds. What else? Running after cars without a care for if they got hit or something."
Mojere ignored her. Mr Lawal was looking ahead. There seemed to be some commotion.
"What is it?" Mojere asked him.
"I don't know ma." he replied, "let me go and check"
"No," Mojere replied, suddenly getting out of the car. She needed to get some air and over forty five minutes cooped up in the same space, albeit air conditioned with Labake and she was about to loose her mind. "You stay here and watch the car. I will be back."
She got out and began to move towards the excited crowd just a few feet away before either he or her friend could say a word.
Maybe it was the charged air or the worries that had been on her mind all day, or Labake's unimportant and longwided, one sided conversation but the next thing Mojere knew, she had made her way to the crowd and was jostling her way to the front.
When she made her way to the front small clearing, she was stopped in her tracks not just because there was no where else to go and those around were not budging but also because she could not understand why there was blood on the street.
In the middle of the clearing, bearing the brunt of an over zealous and possibly psychotic crowd, a short and skinny man was bring beaten. Although he was being held upright by the those beating him, it was obvious to anyone who cared to observe that he was unconscious and yet, still was being hit. Mojere was immediately sickened. She only became horrified when she realised that the person was not a short man but a little boy. Her gasp was lost in the chatter of the crowd.
What happened next unfolded like a scene set in slow motion. Because no sooner had she made her realisation that from the corner of her eye she saw two people making their way through the crowd holding a jerry can of what she instantly knew was petrol and she turned in silent horror to behold the jeering crowd, the men who held him and most of all the unconscious boy. Later, if you asked her, she would not have been able to explain what she did next.
In less than five strides, Mojere had broken free of the crowd and dashed forward. In the same motion, the man carrying the container opened it and lifted it up, tilted to empty its contents. The men holding the bloodied boy up raised a cry of hurray at the sight and the knowledge of its intent. They did not see Mojere coming. They did not see her swing her little fists, knocking the man on the boy's right and loosening his grip. Mojere could not think. She almsot could not breathe. The second she threw her arms around the boy, she felt the splash and strong stench as the petrol was poured on her body.
She had refused to let go. Somehow, the one who had agreed to light the match did not. Somehow, the enraged crowd had not touched her. It was as if in one swell move, the sight of a young woman in a suit, holding on to this small and frail boy lifted a veil off the eyes of the crowd. Someone cried "wait" and then another and another and another and then you had people asking questions.
"Who is he?
"Who is she?
"What did he steal sef?"
The mango seller who previously had been the center of sympathetic attention suddenly found herself on the end of ridicule.
"Haba! Madam! can you not see that he was hungry? A mango, and you want to burn him alive. What would you then do to the politicians?"
"Why have you no mercy?"
"The lord said we should forgive"
Stunned at the sudden change, the woman blustered and stammered her explanations. A policeman suddenly appeared. It was his first day on the job manning the junction down the street. He was not in the mood or even trained for the sight he beheld. Blood, fuel, a trembling woman and an unconscious child, bus conductors who looked high as kites and a mob throwing explanations in more than one language.
"Heys you! Madam, what is going on?" he asked of Mojere.
She did not answer. She did not hear him. All she could hear was the faint beating heart against the pounding of hers and the small, shallow breathing against her skin. The smell of blood and petrol she could not smell. The heat of the sun burning mercilessly through the fuel, she could not feel. The sounds of frustrated drivers blasting their horns as if it would make a difference did not exist. All she knew was that she had been just in time.
Just in time.