Omovo was emerging from a long dry season. When he looked at his face in the mirror, and saw that his hair needed cutting, he didn’t know that he was emerging from a long dry season. The barber’s shed was next door and when he went there an apprentice told him that the master had gone home to Abeokuta for a few days. Omovo asked whether he could still have his hair cut and the apprentice replied enthusiastically:
“What kind of question is dat? I have cut about five heads today. I cut them well.”
Omovo dozed off during the haircut. When he woke up he found himself looking like a newly recruited policeman. He told the apprentice to cut his hair shorter. And as his hair got progressively shorter he thought he looked progressively worse. Exasperated, he told the apprentice to shave off the whole damn thing. When the barber had finished, his head looked bony and angular in the large mirror. At first he was disconcerted. Then gradually the freshness of the experience grew on him. After paying the apprentice he gathered up the dark masses of his hair that were scattered on the floor, tied them in a cellophane wrapping, and went home amidst taunts of “Afaricorodo, shine-shine head” from the children around.
The next morning he went for one of his walks through the ghetto of Alaba. He had only gone a few hundred yards from home when an unexpected fine shower of rain started to fall. The flesh of his head tingled. He resolved not to run for cover and went on walking. He passed a building that had been burnt down in a fire the night before. Not far from the building some men were cutting down branches of a withered tree to use for firewood. Near the tree poorly dressed children were hitting a goat with sticks. He stopped and stared at the children and at the same time felt a shiver, which started from his head, run through his being. Something froze and then flashed within him. Something shimmered in the sky. He suddenly shouted: “Leave the goat alone!”
The children stopped. They stared at his bony angular head. The goat they had been hitting trotted towards the tree. The men looked at one another: one of them threw down a branch with dead leaves and the other one shouted: “What’s wrong?”
Omovo felt awkward. He couldn’t explain. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Then he rushed home, brought out his drawing sheets, and began to sketch furiously. He worked and re-worked the lines, curves and shadings a hundred times. And then he hit upon the idea of using charcoal. He felt he was capturing something more strange and real than the actual event, and he was joyful.
When he finished the drawing, he put down the charcoal and went down the corridor into the backyard. As he walked past the twin strips of bungalows that made up the compound, the airless trapped heat, the stuffy smells and the bustling noises crowded his senses. The cement floor was gray, dirty, and full of potholes. Above, the sky could be seen through the corrugated eaves.
In the backyard the compound men were having an argument about something in the newspapers. Their nostrils flared angrily, arms were flung about, voices clashed. When Omovo went past, one of the men detached himself from the argument and called to him.
“Hey, painter boy . . .”
Omovo replied irritably. “I beg, don’t call me ‘painter boy.’ ”
“Okay, Omovo . . .” “Yes?”
“I see you have begun to draw again.” Omovo’s face brightened. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
The man nodded and stared at his shining head. Omovo went into the communal bathroom. The stench was overpowering. While he urinated he gazed at the scum that had collected around the drain. As soon as he had flushed he hurried out.
On his way back he again passed the men who were arguing. The argument had become more intense, as if it had been whipped up by something other than the heat. He knew what they were arguing about. It had been in all the headlines. He didn’t want to get directly involved. He had to keep his emotions intact.
A few people had gathered in front of the balcony where he had been working. They stared at the drawing and whispered amongst themselves. Omovo paused. As he stood there, uncertain, one of the compound men walked past, stopped, came back, and tapped him on the shoulder. It was Tuwo. He was very black, robust, on the squat side, and good-looking in a fortyish way. He spoke with an affected English accent. It was something he had worked on for God knows how long. It gave him distinction and, added to the other things he was infamous for, confirmed his notoriety. “It is good to see you arting again. Honestly. That’s a strange piece, honestly. Reminds me of the war.” He paused. “Good work,” he continued and then added, “but be careful about the girls. Especially the married ones.”
He smiled and his hairy nostrils flared. As Omovo watched Tuwo’s nostrils, a flicker in one of the windows caught his eye. He guessed it was his father’s wife. Tuwo shifted his gaze to the parted curtains and his face imperceptibly brightened. Without seeming aware of it, he stuck a hand deep into his pocket, and scratched discreetly. Then he went outside to the front of the compound to chat with some of the young girls who had come to buy water. As he went, the curtains dropped and the folds resumed their old stillness.
Omovo stood before the drawing. He drew back step by step, slowly, to view it from a changing distance. Then he stumbled over a stool. When he regained his balance he squinted at the figures he had painstakingly worked on. It was a drawing of children playing around a tree. The tree was thick-bodied, permanent. Its branches had been unnaturally amputated close to the trunk. The children were naked, curved, and had protuberant stomachs. Their legs were wiry. The sky above the tree and rooftops was defined by clouds of charcoal shadings that resembled a bundle of dead bodies. The drawing was stark and basic. It had in it something quaveringly, inherently, cruel.
He thought to himself: “Yes. Yes. Strange.”
He reached up and touched his head, feeling again the surprising clamminess of his palm. He spoke quietly to the drawing: “I have never seen you before. But it is wonderful that you are here.”
And then he became aware of the argument his work had been generating.
“Omovo, what’s that you draw?” asked one of the compound boys.
“It’s a tree,” said another. “It’s not a tree.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s like a big mushroom.” “It’s not like a big mushroom.”
When Omovo looked around at the many, sweaty, intent faces, a certain panic rose inside him. “Look,” he said loudly. “Why don’t you people just go away and leave me alone!”
There was a hush, but no response. The faces still hung around. Then an unfamiliar voice in the crowd asked Omovo whether he wanted to sell the drawing. The boy said he knew some “Europeans’ who would pay as much as twenty Naira for some works if they were properly framed. Omovo studied the boy’s ravaged face. It was lean and prematurely wrinkled. The eyes glittered like freshly minted coins. He had seen those eyes around a lot, but these seemed just fresh on the path to independence.
“Say sometin’ now,” the boy said irritably. He was taller than Omovo, dark, slim and cocky. He had on faded jeans and a white crew-neck shirt with a Yamaha sign printed in red.
Omovo shook his head. “There’s nothing to say.”
There was a slight tension as the boy glared at Omovo with such bleary ferocity that a fight seemed imminent. But then he grinned absurdly, shrugged, and said: “I’m jus playing.”
The next moment he turned round, made his way through the crowd, and disappeared. Omovo picked up a pencil. He signed his name at the bottom of the drawing and then he wrote: “Related losses.”
He drew back. He felt wonderfully clear inside. He knew it would not last. He went into the apartment, taking the drawing with him. He barely noticed his father, who sat expectantly at the dining table.
His room oppressed him. There was a phantom presence on the bed and a shadow hung over the table as if it were writing a secret poem in a hurry. His two brothers. The shadow made a fluttering gesture and the phantom raised its head.
He put on the light. There was a slight depression on the bed and an open notebook on the table. Everything was just as he had left it. His mind had been filling out the spaces. The room had once been too small for all three of them, and now that they had gone it was still occasionally overcrowded.
He carefully, almost reverently, placed the drawing board amidst the clutter on the table. And then he made the board stand against the wall. He stood thinking to himself: “I can’t stay in this room now. There are too many things here.”
The dark spaces and half substances redefined themselves when he put out the lights. He left the room. His father was now eating yam and stew at the table. Blackie, who sat opposite, watched him and made intimate comments and laughed at his replies. The sight of them in such apparent rapport deepened Omovo’s detachment. He walked through the sitting room as fast as he could.
He sat on the wall in front of their apartment and watched the men arguing. The sight fascinated him. The assistant chief bachelor of the compound said something about a massive bag of worms. Tuwo in his affected accent said something about corruption being the new morality. And one of the men Omovo could not see shouted: “They are pissing on our heads. We are like gutters.”
They teased and chaffed one another and made theatrical gestures. They were comic and at the same time they were serious. Then they dispersed, bit by bit, till one of the men suggested that the rest all come to his room and get drunk. There was applause and they crowded into the man’s room, being comic and serious as they went.
As the men crowded away Omovo experienced a feeling of impermanence. In the backyard the children played and ran errands. The women plaited one another’s hair, or washed clothes near the well. At the compound front little girls made imitation soup in empty tomato cans, over mock fires. Two men went past balancing buckets of water on their heads. Omovo’s feeling of impermanence passed into an awareness that familiar things were becoming new images within him.
The joy which he had felt was now dissipated. He jumped down from the wall and went to the compound front and set out on another of his walks.
The walk would subtly change his life.