Being a sensitive is difficult to explain. There is no omen at birth, no weather phenomenon, no annunciation to herald my arrival. I am a normal child by all accounts, with five fingers and toes, nappy rash, and cradle cap.
The first time I find something I’m eight or nine years old, skipping along our street, trying to get home before it’s dark. Even though it’s Lagos, my neighbourhood is safe for kids. I get a sudden urge to investigate a garbage can. I don’t know why. When I open it there’s a baby, a girl. She is bloody, surrounded by trash, but alive, awake, and calm. She looks at me and blinks. I lift her out. I am fascinated by her size and the way her hands move, almost like an experiment, and the way her whole body responds with a startle every few minutes.
I plan to take her home and keep her. I have no siblings and to my childish mind this is the solution to everything. I carry her along, but an adult stops me, a woman wearing a wrapper and head tie.
‘Whose child is that?’ she says, accusation heavy in her voice.
‘She’s my sister,’ I say. At this point the baby starts to sniffle.
‘This one is your sister?’
Seeing as the baby looks nothing like me and is filthy the woman’s suspicions are understandable, but not to me at eight.
‘Yes. I’m taking her home.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘She’s your sister and you can’t remember her name?’
‘Give that baby to me.’
The baby starts crying at this, attracting a small crowd. Someone blows a whistle. In Lagos the whistle is a tool of a Community Watch. One blast of the whistle at midnight means all is well. A sustained note at any time of day or night means there is trouble and the blower needs help. People come running faster than a flash mob.
The woman takes the baby from me and cradles her. Soon the police arrive. When I protest they scuff me behind the head.
I shout, ‘She’s my sister! She’s mine, she’s mine!’ until my mother comes to get me. She assumes that I must have heard the baby crying. She is not angry with me, however. Her eyes are soft and moist as she orders me to take a bath. Later I find out that a house girl a few streets away had become pregnant, hidden her swollen belly, delivered, and thrown the baby and placenta into the bin. This is the first time I hear the word ‘placenta’ and I am disgusted when I look it up.
Time passes, I grow a bit.
School is uneventful. I don’t hate it or love it; I don’t distinguish myself in any way. I’m neither sporty nor brainy nor cool. I stay out of trouble. At home I see very little of my father, who works all the time. My mother and I drift apart emotionally over time, not that there is hate, but more like we are going through the motions of being parent and child. Memory is always distorted by time, but I think this distance starts with the baby girl whom I find but cannot keep.
I’m seventeen. I get a vacation job in a paper factory while considering university. It’s boring and clerical. I am the youngest person in the entire complex, and everyone is bemused by my presence. I make enough money to pay for my travel and lunch, but nothing else. I am surrounded by old, uninteresting people. There is a guy in my office who is forty years old!
One day I am looking for a taxi in Lagos, at a bus stop on Ikorodu Road, late for work, about to spend money that I do not have, when I get this feeling. It is like déjà vu, almost remembered from when I was eight, but not quite. It is like knowing two plus two is four without having to learn it. It is a certainty, not just a conviction, the way believing in God is a conviction, but believing in gravity is a certainty.
My body seems to know it faster than my mind, because I leave the bus stop. I walk along Ikorodu Road for seven minutes. I stop and wait for seventy seconds, just as a taxi disgorges a gaggle of students. I get in and give the driver a destination I have never heard of and have no intention of reaching. I am calm when I do all this.
I tell the taxi driver to stop after he has driven for fifteen minutes and eight seconds. I pay him and exit the vehicle. I pause and turn around. There are street traders and face-to-face bungalows. The road is untarred but, strangely, lacks pot holes. Each car raises a cloud of dust when it passes. There are no storefronts or street lights.
I am in the middle of a street, so I start to walk north. I arrive at a t-junction. Kehinde Street, perpendicular to Ago Street. I wait. Nobody stares at me or wonders why I am standing still, neither do I feel uncomfortable.
When they write about this kind of thing or when they make movies about it, they always make it seem like a seer will hear voices or see visions, but I now know they are wrong. There are no voices, no visions. There is only knowledge.
Then people start to turn up and stand next to me, odd, disharmonious individuals with whom I would not ordinarily be seen. I am dressed for work in a white shirt and black trousers, with a tie, and two pens in my pocket, one blue, one red. The first to appear is an old man, completely bald, bespectacled, about four feet tall, face lined and cracked. He stands to my right, leaning on a walking stick. I know his name is Korede though I’ve never met him. He is followed by a slender girl, maybe four or five years older than me, sweating in her cotton blouse and out of breath, although not because of exertion but because of some condition, perhaps sickle cell disease. She has a long face and the whites of her eyes are discoloured, a tinge of yellow. She smells of pineapples and tobacco. This girl stands in front of me, blocking my view of the road, but I am not angry. Her name is Seline.
Another joins, then another, then another. Despite the fact that I have never met them, I do not feel unfamiliarity. This is sometimes called jamais vu. I know that they know me, too, these people. I wonder what we are all waiting for.
‘A truck,’ says Korede, although I did not speak aloud. ‘Or a bus.’
‘Van,’ says Seline.
I know Seline is right, but then so is Korede, even though he is wrong. The van pulls up, trailing a gigantic dust cloud. We all get in, but the van does not start moving.
‘One more,’ says the driver, and this is right, I think. Seline looks at me, puzzled.
‘It’s his first time,’ says Korede. ‘He does not know.’
‘He’s the youngest,’ says Seline.
‘Omo t’oba m’owo we, a b’agba jeun,’ says Korede. The child who knows how to wash his hands will eat with the elders.
And what is so great about eating with the elders? They speak about matters of which I know nothing, and some of them smell. I think this to myself, but Korede picks it up and scowls briefly. His fist tightens on his stick.
Nobody says anything and I am on the verge of asking a question, when the door to the van slides open and a portly man enters. His name is Iyanda. The van continues on and I lose track of the winding paths it traverses. The hand never gets lost on the way to the mouth, says someone. Or perhaps they think it, I do not know, but it is meant to comfort me.
After about forty minutes the van swirls round a roundabout in a town called Esho, unfamiliar to me. We come to a stop in front of the most prominent structure, a clock tower with no clock. There is a painted-on clock face.
‘It’s odd here,’ says Korede. ‘Every hour someone climbs the belfry and paints the correct time. There is no bell in the belfry, but a rod with a loop of wrought iron marks the spot where one might have hung. There is a strict rota for this adhered to quite rigidly by the townsfolk.’
Old people know shit and like to share. I’m just not fond of listening.
The van parks directly under the painted clock and the ground is spattered with old and new paint. I find this more interesting than the clock itself. It is like an art installation, a living explosion of myriad colours rioting in the early afternoon sun. We all pile out and orient ourselves.
The Esho townsfolk ignore us, by and large. Footprints lead over and away from the paint puddle. Hundreds, maybe thousands of shoeprints, some fresh, some faded, some mere ghosts of impressions of the living and the dead. I know that Iyanda has a brief notion to buy the town a new hall and clock that works, but I also know that the town is not poor. I can see that there are cars, that the Mercedes count is high enough, that there are no beggars in the town square. That people are dressed well enough suggests affluence. No, this painting behaviour is there by design. This is tradition.
The building might be a town hall, might have been a chapel in the past, but I know it does not matter. There is a man waiting outside the double doors, which are open. Inside there is a coffin. I disembark with the others from the van and as one we all avoid the paint. Iyanda is idly doing sums in his head about the cost of paint over a one year period multiplied by the probability of falls. Seline wishes he would stop seeing things in monetary value all the time. ‘We are here for our fallen brother,’ says Korede. ‘We should focus on him.’
We surround the casket and I know who the dead man was. I have seen dead bodies before, even of family members, but none affects me as much as this man whom I have never seen before but who is not a stranger. He is bearded, with scattered grey and white hair. His face is scarred as if he ran through an entire warehouse of razor blades. His eyes are sutured shut, although the thread is small and I only see it because I am interested in such things. There is perfume, but also the faint whiff of formaldehyde underneath it all. I feel deep sorrow and surprise myself by being on the verge of tears.
Korede sidles up to me.
‘You don’t always use your cane,’ I say.
‘I’m all right for short distances,’ he says. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Upset. Why do I feel I know him when we’ve never met? Why do I feel sad?’
Korede sighs. ‘You’re upset because you feel the absence of a person like you, different from others, but not in a visible way. You feel like you know him because people like us are always aware of each other, but not in a conscious way. It’s like breathing. Most of the time you don’t know you’re doing it, but try holding your breath and I bet you’ll miss it.’ He laughs, a short bark. This close I can see all of his pores. I cannot believe this will happen to me some day.
‘Who are we?’
‘We are people who know,’ says Korede, as if that explains it.
I look at the corpse. ‘It feels like he’s not dead.’
‘That’s because he isn’t. His spirit is in the air somewhere. This man was a homeless vagrant. The one we mourn only took refuge in this body. He has moved on.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘You will. I saw him once, you know. It was the most frightening day of my life. Pray you never encounter him.’
Before I can ask what he means Korede drifts away.
There is no eulogy and no blood relatives attend. There are drinks, there is music and dancing, and none of this seems odd to me. At some point during the revelry, while I become slightly tipsy, Seline corners me and tells me I am a finder.
‘Nothing will be lost, and nothing will be hidden from you.’
Like Korede she does not explain, neither does she need to. I know. I see the world differently. The physical objects are all the same, the cheap finish on the casket, the linoleum floor of the room, the dingy chandeliers, the cheap booze, the music, the body odour of some of the people with me, and the sensation of fan-generated air on my forearm skin. But there is more now, as if an organ or gland that was closed off is now functioning and I can sense an extra dimension. It’s like one of those console games where items of value glow when the player comes into proximity.
I am pondering this when the homeless man is buried. Even though the body goes into the ground I can feel him somewhere out there, in the air as Korede says.
It’s dark when we all enter the van and return to the junction of Kehinde and Ago. Each person goes their own way, and I never see them again. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it is virtually true. Almost true.
By the time I get home a lot of the knowledge is gone, as if being together in the same place with Korede and Seline enhanced whatever was nascent in me. It seems like a dream by the time I slink into my room, avoiding my mother.
Because I am curious, I look up Esho on Nimbus, trying to find out about the painted clock. I find out that Esho is the Anglicisation of the old name ‘Eso’, and that the clock painting tradition has been going on for centuries. In the late 1700s the village is under threat from marauders, mixed Portuguese and Zanzibar slavers, although the accounts vary. A white priest called Father Marinementus, who plies his trade in Eso, comes up with the idea of building a fake clock tower in order to fool the marauders into believing that the village is already an outpost of some European empire. As the village is never attacked the people of Eso think it has worked and keep doing it.
All those years, painting fake time to fool scouts bearing telescopes, faking time to stay alive.
From that day I begin to find things for people. It is an obsession, compulsively done, with a strange erotic need for completion. I find car keys, memories, heirloom brooches, squirreled away money, PINs, mobile phones, photographs of loved ones, mathematical formulae, and spouses. There are always women looking for errant husbands, and cuckolds locating wives. This does not end in violence as often as could be imagined.
I do not plan to become a thief. It just happens naturally. I go with my parents to my uncle’s house and the valuables burn like coals in my mind. It’s irritating and drawing my attention while we converse and sip Star beer and eat pepper soup. I cannot concentrate and I make excuses—not completely false, I do need the toilet.
After I empty my bladder I wander into my aunt’s room. I find her gold and diamonds in a box under the carpet in a false floor. I know the key is on her dresser hiding in plain sight. I know my uncle has thousands of dollars in cash in the ceiling space. I also know they have a vermin problem and that he is worried about rats eating the cash. I take an indeterminate wad of cash and stick it in my waist band, then I take a golden crucifix from the jewellery stash. I know, in the same transcendental way, when my cousin Eliza is about to come looking for me. I know when and where to hide from her to avoid discovery. Eliza is puzzled when I get back to the main party before her. She would later die in a horrific car crash at Ore with four of her school friends.
That night, in my room, under the covers and with a torch, I stare at my swag, rotating the cross so that it catches the light and counting the money. I feel powerful, and not because of my emergence as a sensitive, which I do not even recognise, but because I can buy things without having to ask or justify to my parents. I would like to say that I used my power for good, dispensing gifts and food to the poor and living happily ever after, but that would be untrue. I use my purchasing power for junk food, premium pornography, alcohol, lap dances, drugs, alcohol, clothes, shoes, alcohol, and other dissipations. And alcohol.
Stealing is unlike anything else I ever experience. Our people say stolen meat is twice as sweet. I say, stolen anything is a hundred times as sweet and fulfilling.
Until you get caught.
For one year I am the Rat, the Termite, the Eater of Wealth, the Still One, the Quiet. We live in a nice area where there is a low incidence of robbery and families know each other for up to three generations. Things consistently go missing and nobody can explain it. Some say there is a spirit, and there is some historical precedent of emere assisting the possessed person to find items of value. Pentecostals pray and cast out demons to no avail. Some preach with fog horns stating how it’s Biblical to kill thieves according to Exodus twenty-two, and it’s true that in many parts of Nigeria we tend to go Old Testament on those caught stealing. Thieves are generally beaten within an inch of their lives and sometimes necklaced. No thief ever believes this is their destiny until there is a tyre around their neck and the petrol is wetting their hair, fumes choking their ability to cry out for mercy. Babalawo cast spells, leave curses, and lay fetishes. I am immune to all this but afraid in the forty percent of my mind that might believe in the supernatural.
I can’t stop, though. I have a lifestyle now, and I tell my parents with absolute credibility that my holiday job and gifts from grateful people funds my parties and clothes and nightlife. My father snorts with wavering credulity. My mother is the first to put it together, finding and stealing. If you can find anything, will you have the moral fortitude to stay honest? My mother looks at me and thinks not.
The day I am caught a specific song plays on the radio, Fela Kuti’s Mr Follow-Follow, a song I cannot hear without nausea anymore. It rings through the house on the primitive Hi-Fi my father insists on. I have a sort-of girlfriend called Fadeke who is the epitome of materialistic Lagos. She is bought and paid for from her extensions to her stilettos, a razor blade sisi eko trophy. She is the woman who asks for money without irony or shame. She is coming over and I don’t quite have anything for her because I spent everything the night before. I am slightly hung over, but I have a strong sense of cash in the neighbourhood which I know about because it is the end of the month and people have their paychecks.
The strange thing is I do not steal from my parents normally. I know where the house valuables are, of course. My intention is to borrow from my mother’s stash and return it when I have done some scavenging. She puts some of her money in the bank, some sewn into some out-of-fashion clothes deep in the recesses of her wardrobe. I have a switchblade now, I carry it for this very purpose since many people do what my mother has done. Nigerians do not really trust the whole digital money, Bitcoin, cash-you-can’t-see palaver. I’m slicing and dicing when I hear her.
‘What are you doing?’ says my mother.
There is no explanation that makes sense so I just stand there with her ripped clothing in one hand and a knife in the other. I can feel the weight of the cash, the exact weight of the truth. In my pocket my phone vibrates and I know it’s Fadeke. My brain freezes, and not only can I not think of a lie, I cannot think anything. I am afraid that I have been damaged by my actions or a curse or the hand of God. You hear about that kind of thing happening to those who deserve it.
My mother’s entire face scolds me in that combination of surrendering the curve of her mouth to gravity and her eyes to moisture. She spreads out her arms and looks up at heaven and says, ‘aiye me re,’ which means ‘this is my life.’
‘Mummy—’ I start.
‘Do you know why you are my only child?’ she asks.
‘No, Ma,’ I say, using the more respectful form to try and butter her up. I put the jacket with the ruined lining down.
‘When you came out of me you ripped so many blood vessels that I bled and bled. They took me to Igbobi and transfused and sewed, but nothing helped. At one point my blood stopped clotting. The surgeons had no choice but to take my womb out.’
Her voice is calm and I don’t like that. I want histrionics, but this emotionless delivery bothers me. She is usually incontinent of anger and distress.
‘No more children after that, of course. But your father and I, we lavished all our love on you. He did not take another wife, though he could have. Maybe he has other children outside, I don’t know, but he has never paraded it in front of my face. You were everything to me.’
She sits on the edge of the bed, two feet or so from me.
‘I love you, but you are a thief, and I didn’t bring up my child to steal. You cannot be my child.’
This is good. Melodrama I can deal with. I am about to launch an explanation when I see her hand go to the whistle that every family in the neighbourhood has.
‘Mummy, what are you doing?’
‘Ole! Thief!’ she screams. She blows the whistle and I vomit with fear and disbelief.
I run, out of the room, down the stairs, out the front door, into the gathering crowd. They do not seize me because they think I am fleeing from whatever the danger is. I am halfway down the street, passing a startled Fadeke, by the time my mother has updated the vigilantes.
Because they hear her shout my name the mob turns on Fadeke.
What I’d like to say is that I was able to straighten things out with my mother, Fadeke escaped with some bruises, and I became a virtuous person, using my powers for good, but this is not a fairy tale. That’s not what happens.
I escape, but the mob kills Fadeke. I don’t return home, and I don’t stop stealing. I am never caught, and I do not learn any lessons.
Once, during a fuel crisis, I see the baby again. I know her from a mental imprint of some kind. She is grown and seated in the back of a jeep, while her adoptive parents sweat in the queue. I stare at her and she stares back, but does not recognise me.
Then I climb into the cab of the petrol tanker I’m there to steal, and drive away.