The Danfo hurtles towards them; undeterred by its flatulent tires, a streak of yellow. Cars swerve to avoid a collision with the tin-looking rectangular bus. The Danfo exercises no such caution. It sports its many scratches and dents as war marks.
There is the possibility that the bus will not stop. It does not seem to be slowing down. But at the last moment, it veers to the left, forcing the SUV behind it to slam on its brakes. The Conductor – a man the length and span of a basketball player – leans out of the gaping mouth of the bus and stands, balancing on the platform. He roars their destination again and again, as though all his potential passengers were hard of hearing, and then, as the bus slows, he leaps down unto the cement. That is their cue to enter.
Anu steps out of the crowd of moving sweaty bodies.
“This is the one,” she tells her friends. Dami nods her understanding, but Ruth’s eyes widen and she bats her long eyelashes as she glances at the white buses that are also stopping for passengers. These buses are newer. No dents, scratches or graffiti. Their doors look sturdy and their bodies are slightly bigger. Anu can definitely see the appeal.
“I didn’t know there were any yellow buses left in Lagos...” Ruth states quietly. Anu is about to point out that none of the white buses are going their way but Dami jumps in.
“That’s what makes this so cool. It is a historic experience. A last ride before they are completely phased out.”
In front of them is a woman carrying a Ghana Must Go bag, large enough to fit a body. The Conductor eyes the woman.
“Not you,” he tells the bag lady.
“Wetin you talk?” she asks.
“Not you,” the Conductor tells her again.
“You are going to my place na,” the woman points out, as she looks around to see if anyone is witness to the Conductor’s behaviour. But only Anu is looking her way, and Anu’s expression does not change.
“Why? Why won’t you allow me enter?” she asks him in a whiny, high-pitched voice.
He does not answer her question. He waits for her to carry her load and go. There is a moment, a pause that stretches out as the bag lady considers whether she will fight the long man. She chooses to walk away. There will be other buses coming.
Anu’s friends get on first. Dami expertly jumps on to the platform as though it were not in fact her first time on a Danfo. Then she turns and offers a hand to the petite Ruth. She fails to offer Anu a hand. As Anu steps unto the metal steps and tries to hoist herself up, she feels the weight of her body pulling her towards the center of the earth. She does not like this reminder that she is not a wisp of a woman. She holds on to a chair to give herself balance. The chair is oily, and thick with grime. Her skin crawls away from it.
It is dim inside the bus. She follows the backs of her friends deeper into the darkness. A woman coughs and retches. Each time she coughs her wig shifts backwards and forwards. The man seated beside her gives her half-hearted pats on the back. Since there is not enough space in the aisle for Anu to twist her whole body away from the coughing woman, she turns her face.
She can hear the whisper of conversation between her two friends. They marvel at the minuteness of the bus. The Danfo isn’t high enough for them to stand upright so they bow their heads as they squeeze their way to the back. There aren’t many seats left, so they continue walking. They pass a decrepit old man muttering to himself, he stops his chatter to stare at her with pale red eyes. There is a strong odor emanating from him and she cannot understand how the young man sitting next to him can bear it. The younger man wears an ill-fitting pinstriped suit, and his nose is flat, and wide – not so different from the nose of the man with the red eyes.
She keeps moving. They are almost there. Looking at the Danfo from the outside, she wouldn’t have imagined it would take more than two steps to get to the other end; perhaps space was relative in the bus.
Her bum is slapped. She does not turn to see who the hand belongs to.
“Did someone just touch you?” asks Dami. She has twisted her neck back and is looking right into Anu’s eyes, encouraging her to tell the truth. In the darkness, Dami’s golden eyes are like two pebbles in a pile of rocks.
“Touch me ke? They no fit.”
Satisfied, Dami turns back and slips in beside the now-seated Ruth. This is typical behavior for them. She is the third wheel, the hanger-on in almost every respect. Ruth immediately sticks her head out of the window and lets out the breath she had been holding. Anu envies her. The bus is dense with the fog of body odor and she is afraid to breathe too deeply, lest she inhale it in.
A boy squeezes past her, chasing after a ball of red twine that is rolling across the stained, sandy floor. The curve of Dami’s seat digs into her hip.
“Excuse you,” says Dami to the boy. If he hears her, he is not humbled by her tone. He grabs the twine and muscles his way back to his seat in the second row.
There is a lone seat remaining, placed to the left of the bus. The seat only accommodates three quarters of Anu’s bum and her knees press up against the back of Dami’s chair. She has access to a quarter of Ruth’s window. The bus begins to move again and her heartbeat triples in pace.
She stares at her hands. When she was 12 or 13, a classmate ran her finger along the lines on her palm and told Anu she would live to a grand old age – old enough to see her grandchildren, maybe even great grandchildren. The lines blur now as she gazes at them through a silent waterfall. She swallows.
“Isn’t the Conductor meant to come and collect our fare or something?” asks Dami. She is right of course; even though her knowledge of Danfo buses is limited to seeing them through the window of her Honda Accord.
“He will come,” she answers.
“What’s your name?” asks a man across the aisle; though calling it an aisle is stretching it, he could touch her without exerting himself. She presses her thighs together, and folds her arms across her breasts. She wonders if he was the one that smacked her. In the window seat next to him is a woman who is fast asleep. Her head is thrown back, and a fly dances in and out of her open mouth. If she had to guess, she would say the woman was in her seventies. She is wearing a T-shirt that, once upon a time, may have been white, and she has tied a green wrapper around her chest and lower body. On her lap are several bags that look far too heavy for a woman of her age to carry. “What is your name?” he continues directing her attention back to him, “I want to be your friend.”
She will give him a name. At times like this, she becomes Angela. Angela is married with a child at home. Angela misplaced her ring at the beach six months ago. Angela will smile and joke with him and he will not be offended. She stares at the boil that is threatening to burst on the bridge of his nose. Above it are three tribal marks carved into his folding skin.
“She doesn’t want to be your friend,” replies Dami the defender, though Anu did not ask for her help. Ruth doesn’t say anything, she is fiddling with her skirt, avoiding conflict.
The man grins. “I can be your friend too,” he tells Dami.
He does not stop smiling, even after all three of them have turned from him and are facing different directions. But she can still feel the heat from the gaze of his bruised teeth. The bus rolls over a pothole, making it so she has to dig her heels into the floor, to prevent herself from slipping out of her seat.
“Are you ok?” asks Ruth. She has twisted her body and is giving Anu her best sympathetic look – wide eyes, pursed lips, furrowed brows.
“You look like you are about to throw up.”
“Maybe the suya we bought was off?”
“I feel fine.” Anu shrugs. She really wants to tell Ruth that she is not the only one who can have a sensitive stomach. But before she has a chance to say anything, her friend gives her a soft smile and pats her shoulder. “Ndo. We will be home soon, and you can rest.” Anu’s stomach quails in response.
With nothing else to do, she takes stock of the people in the bus with them. In the near darkness, all their faces are leering. She focuses on a man wearing a shirt of many colors; like Ruth, he faces the window. She can see the pockmarks on his forehead and the tribal marks on his cheek. He is frowning.
“Joseph, you will like her,” says the woman beside him. Her gele is brushing the ceiling of the bus. She angles her head to avoid the friction. “She is not like all these Lagos women. She will be easy to teach.”
“And who will teach her?” asks Joseph, without turning. “You?”
“Yes na. I will show her how to be a good wife to my son.”
“What about Juliet?”
She responds by hissing. “Over my dead body.”
Joseph’s mother does not notice how he pushes his lips and nose together, so that they almost kiss. She fails to sense her son’s fury, even though Anu can tell he burns from where she sits.
She stares at the back of the driver’s head. She has not yet seen his face. She is beginning to suspect that he does not have one. He is a receding hairline supported by a back, with hands for turning the wheel. The Conductor is the eyes, the mouth and the intention. One could not exist without the other. She does not look at the Conductor, but she knows exactly where he is, seated at the lone seat by the entrance and exit to the bus. One side of his face is not in agreement with the other side: his lips are thick and protruding and his voice sounds muffled if he does not completely open his mouth.
Something trickles down her neck, making her jump. Her friends look up startled. “What is it?”
She touches the back of her neck and stares at her two fingers. It is only water. The roof of the bus is leaking just above her. She laughs at herself. Just a leaking roof, to add to the torn fabric on the seats, the stiff windows and the faulty doors.
She looks up in time to see the man who wants to be friends give the Conductor a thumbs up. The Conductor catches her watching them and she spins her head away.
“Have you missed road?” the woman with the cough asks. “Why are we climbing Third Mainland Bridge?”
There is a rumble of movement and whispering. Yes, the bus is going in the wrong way. Yes, they have turned towards Third Mainland Bridge: the opposite direction. Her hands are clammy and cold. A part of her had hoped she had it all wrong, and the bus would deliver them to their stop without any surprises. Someone cries out to God.
“Conductor, where are you taking us?” demands Dami, because she is still under the impression that she can exert control over the situation; unlike the woman with the cough, who has already begun to cry. The coughing lady understands that they are well and truly fucked.
The Conductor does not answer Dami’s question. His back is to them and never has a back looked so threatening. He does not even stir.
“Drop us off here,” Dami says, “We are OK here.”
There is no answer and the bus keeps lurching along. Other voices are added to Dami’s. The man in an ill-fitting suit stands up abruptly, stopping the movement just in time to avoid hitting his head against the roof.
“Stop this bus now!” he shouts. The red eyed man beside him sighs. Anu is close enough to see the glint of metal. And the jerk of the red-eyed man’s elbow.
“Uncle?” asks the man in the ill-fitting suit, before he crumples. She cannot see the blood from where she is, but she can imagine its fingers are stretching longer, spreading.
There is a whimper, the woman beside her has woken up, and she has the look of an animal backed into a corner. She is staring at the dying man, and then she takes in her surroundings as if seeing it all for the first time. Anu envies her, her ignorance.
She throws up on the floor as the passengers erupt beside her. There is shouting and crying. Throwing up has always made her feel better. It gives her clarity. She looks out the window. Surely someone will help. She bangs on the window as car after car zooms past them. Her friends note her efforts and join in. There is enough chaos that their own actions may go unnoticed.
“We need to get off this bus!” cries Dami. Her voice strengthens their resolve.
A woman eventually turns her head from the inside of a G Wagon, and their eyes meet. Anu feels a sense of relief. Finally, someone has seen them. Someone will help. But then the woman turns her head and the car zooms off. She had not noticed that the bus windows were tinted. No, they aren’t tinted. Nobody is going to help them. They are on their own. It is unreal that this could happen in broad daylight. She can feel the warmth of the sun in her armpits, on the back of her neck, in her soul.
“Sharrap!” The Conductor is standing again, bending at the waist to avoid brushing against the ceiling of the bus. His voice is raspy, but it brings about the desired effect. The noise reduces to a hum. “Take off your shoes, and bring out your phones and wallets.”
Anu kicks off her shoes. They all do.
“You.” The Conductor says, pointing at her. She turns around to see if he could be talking to anyone else but all heads are bowed and she has already met his eyes with hers. “Collect everyone’s shoes. And their phones and wallets.”
“Be careful,” Ruth whispers, as if they aren’t all doomed anyway.
She goes to the front, and he hands her a black bag. Their fingers touch. He is human, but that is not the comfort it should be. She thinks of the experience she had intended to book in the months to come: jumping out of a plane. For many nights, she had wondered what it would feel like falling through the air. This. This is what it must feel like. The fear has gripped even the littlest of her toes.
There is blood on her shoes. No one is helping the man in the ill-fitting suit. He is not moving. His uncle is chewing on sugarcane. He spits the remnants on the ground and stares at her, daring her to speak. She hovers beside him, unsure of whether she is meant to collect his wallet and phone, and what it will mean for her if she doesn’t.
“Can...can I have your phone...please?”
He gives her a slow dry smile, but he hands her two phones.
Next is a man shaped like a bodybuilder, beside him the boy who rudely pushed past them. He loops the twine into knot after knot. Instead of a mobile phone, the bodybuilder shows her three tribal marks on his arm. “Move along, woman.”
She complies. Everyone else hands over their phone easily enough. She holds the bag in front of Dami and Ruth. Dami is furiously texting on hers. She doesn’t raise her head.
“You don’t have to collect ours. Just pretend you did.”
She feels faint, but she stands her ground. “What if he counts the phones and he realises I didn’t take all of them?”
“Are you willing to take that risk?” asks Ruth as she drops her phone into the bag “Didn’t you see how they just killed that man?”
Dami sighs, “You’re right.” She drops her phone into the bag too. She delivers the phones to the Conductor. He tosses them on to the floor without counting them. She waits for him to tell her to return to her seat, but after a few moments of being ignored, she goes back herself.
The blood of the man in the suit is drip, drip, dripping. She wishes they would stop the vehicle, and drop the body. To be in such close quarters with a corpse felt like Death itself was breathing down her neck.
“Please, I have a baby at home and I am pregnant. Please release me,” cries the coughing woman in the front of the bus.
The rest of them watch to see if the plea will move the Conductor as they consider what they could say to incite some sort of sympathy from their captors. The Conductor smiles, he is missing three of his front teeth. The passengers share a collective shudder. He dips his hand into his pocket and whips out an object shaped like a lollipop stick. Anu squints to make it out. “Pee on it,” he tells the woman.
“Pee. On. It.”
The woman turns to the man beside her. But he is looking at his hands. You can see the bald spot on his head. “Oga. There is no toilet here…”
His short answers do not invite discussion. The woman starts to cry again, but she takes the stick from him.
Anu tries not to hear the rustle of fabric as the woman adjusts, as she squats, and squeezes drops of pee unto the stick. She focuses on her hands to give the woman privacy. She wonders what will happen if the woman is not pregnant. And what will happen if she is. She looks up in time to see the Conductor staring at the test in his hand. Does he smile? Does he frown? “You brought a pregnant woman here?” he asks the man beside the coughing weeping pregnant woman.
“Sir. I… I… no…I no know,” he squeaks. He looks sideways at the woman.
The woman opens and shuts her mouth. Her coughing has ceased.
“Is it...my own?” he asks.
“I was going to tell you tonight,” she whispers eventually.
The Conductor pats her on the head gently. And then he hands her a knife. “I am giving you one chance to live,” the Conductor tells her.
The woman stares at the knife, her hand is shaking. Her lover begins to beg. “Yetunde, joh. Please. You know I love you. They used jazz to scatter my brain.” he looks up at the Conductor, “Please. I did what you…” Yetunde stabs him before he has a chance to say another word.
Her actions have a ripple effect. The bodybuilder breaks the neck of the young boy and his red twine drops to the floor again. The friendly smiling man clamps his hand over the mouth of the 70-year-old woman. As her body jerks, Anu wonders if the fly made its escape, or if it has made the woman’s mouth its grave. The bodybuilder is weeping. Joseph’s mother is already dead. When did Joseph make his move? Through the window, she can see that they are approaching the end of Third Mainland Bridge.
Dami and Ruth are still banging on the windows. It is amazing that they haven’t realized yet. She thinks of the first time she met the two women and how their destinies had brought them to this moment, when their blood would be on her hands. She closes her eyes, and then opens them.
“Guys,” she says softly. But there is something in her voice that makes them stop screaming and banging. They believe that she has a solution, and she does. She opens the palm of her hands and shows them two pills. They could be candy.
Dami understands first.
“Why do you have those?”
“I don’t want to hurt you. This will make it easy. Painless, almost.”
For a moment, there is quiet. And she is focused on her two best friends. The loves of her life. The women who saved her and will save her again.
“You bitch.” but Dami’s voice is small now.
“I…I don’t understand,” adds Ruth.
She wants to tell them that the threat of death makes it apparent all the things one hadn’t done. It does not seem right that it should take her. Her friends were born with silver spoons in their mouth. They have the latest phones. Dami was promoted three times in the past year and Ruth’s boyfriend had proposed after only a couple of months together. Hadn’t life been kind to them? She, on the other hand, was fired two months ago and her love life was underwhelming at best. Besides as the youngest of the three, a full year younger, didn’t it make sense that they would do this for her?
Ruth looks around her at the carnage, and then she takes the pill from Anu’s palm. Her hand is soft and damp. Dami starts to cry.
“We can survive this,” but she isn’t including Anu in the “we,” she is just talking to Ruth. They have always treated her like an after-thought.
Ruth sits down and puts the pill in her mouth. She closes her eyes. Her lips are moving quickly and quietly. Dami raises herself to her full height, as much as she can in the cramped Danfo.
“I’m not going down like that.” She shoves Anu, and the pill falls out of her hand, rolling away. Dami pulls her hair, and bites her. Anu’s back slams across the curve of a chair. Dami is fighting for her life and it hurts. She fights fair, but Anu has a knife.
When it is over, Anu sits on the floor and weeps. She does not immediately notice when the Danfo comes to a stop. But as soon as she realises that they have reached their destination, she rolls up her sleeve and checks if the tribal marks on her arm are gone. They should be gone. But, there they are clear as day.
She scuttles to the Conductor and grabs the hem of his trousers.
“You said when I did this, I would be free!”
He kicks her off.
The man who offered her friendship laughs, “See you again next month.”
Oyinkan Braithwaite is the author of My Sister the Serial Killer which won the 2020 British Book Awards for Crime & Thriller Book of the Year, was shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and long-listed for the 2019 Booker Prize. She has also written a number of short stories: The Last Tattoo, The Scold’s Bridle and Treasure, amongst others.
If you enjoyed this short horror story, Oyin recommends you try Lagos Noir edited by Chris Abani, Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.