by Joseph Olamide Babalola
All the disciples cut and ran. [But] A young man was
following along. All he had on was a bedsheet. Some of
the men [soldiers] grabbed him but he got away, running
off naked, leaving them holding the sheet.
– Mark 14:50-52 (MSG)
He shakes his head in sympathy and rewraps the bedsheet thrown about his body. So, Jay has been arrested for real? Everything about this evening seems to happen so fast he cannot handle its reality. He is dazed by the wild crowd of mostly young men holding broken things in the air, chanting ‘Jay is a fraud’ and marching behind four armed soldiers who drag along a cuffed man.
No, this can’t be real.
As he walks closer to the mob, his mind is filled with enough questions to last him a decade of head-scratching. But why? Why is this happening today of all bad days? Why would the soldiers arrest a harmless suspect, and not cops? He tries discouraging himself from probing further since he is sure the right answers won’t come at the moment. The thought of it unsettles him in his already apprehensive state.
He wishes something has prepared him for this. But no, nothing hinted to him about a pregnant trouble in labor. Not even the sticky note on his bedroom wall that reminded him of returning from work, to shower first before taking some nap. Not even the water that stopped running as he began to shower off another stressful day at work. Until minutes ago, he has had no clue.
Now it all feels more undeserving whenever he thinks of how he has been hampered in tie and suit all day, sitting behind the customer care desk of a prison-like bank, playing the savior and lavishing customers with the satisfaction he himself was not getting. And it hits differently as he considers how when the water stopped running he has had to abruptly tie his towel and descend the stairs to fetch a bucket of water from the well—but why would Landlord forget to operate the pumping machine, again?
And moments ago, when his day seemed couldn’t get any rougher, he was caught unaware. After a soothing shower he planned to take some nap, and unlike other days, he decided to rest bare, with no clothes whatsoever—he christened it Absolute Rest. Just as the nap was starting to feel like his long-awaited fatigue antidote, noises streamed in from the street. A mob, out of nowhere. But why? Why must they interrupt his rest?
Thou shall remain calm and not open thine eyes, he has recited many times to calm his curiosity, as though it were the new Psalms 23 in town. He promised not to allow the inquisitive lion in him to roar this time. But as the noises sounded closer and livelier, anxiety, desperation and something else he couldn’t decipher crept in and held him by the throat. How would he bear to be left out on the once-in-a-rainy-sun uproar alive on his street? So he reached a compromise: he would pick his bedsheet, wrap it around his naked frame, walk to the balcony, peek into the streets and simply return to bed, all in two minutes. Sane people should be sensitive to the dynamics of their surroundings, he concluded, and got out of bed.
At the balcony, he has done enough peeking before calling on a neighbor downstairs to ask about the mob. The gist was simple: a popular man called Jay has been finally arrested. ‘Jay? You said Jay?’ The neighbor replied yes. From that moment onward, something was pulling him into the streets so strongly. And before the mob could go beyond reach, he descended the stairs in haste and launched into the streets, not caring to change into anything outdoor-worthy than a bedsheet and a pair of slippers.
And here he is, trailing after the mob. He is certainly not here for the spectacle nor to cheer the high-spirited crowd on. While curiosity has dragged him out of bed, he is only walking the streets to ascertain if the arrested man is the same Jay whose teachings he has longed to sit under again, ever before the #JayIsAFraud started trending online months ago. He doesn’t care about his legs dragging over the tar in fatigue. He doesn’t care about his apartment door being left open while he rushed to the streets. All he wants is to see Jay for the second time, if at all it would be his last.
The unwholesome scene here is personal for him, more so it happens right here on his street. He wonders why the soldiers decided to drag Jay three streets down to the police station when they could have easily used one of their trucks and save the ridicule for another day. But this is Nigeria, he reminds himself, where nothing comes as a total shock. But again, if shame is part of the scheme Jay’s rivals have cooked up, he believes Jay hasn’t done anything to deserve it.
He contemplates whether or not to move closer for a better view of Jay. He follows the mob more miles in before concluding that he might just walk up to the front and disguise himself as a mere passerby. It feels right, so he increases his pace and struggles his way to the front ranks of the mob. He soon detaches himself from the crowd by a few steps, moving sideways to the edge of the road to avoid direct contact with the soldiers.
But in a sudden twist, one of the soldiers notices him, points fingers at him and shouts something indistinct. Wh-What? In a flash, he remembers the sad joke about how an angry Nigerian soldier could beat twenty years out of your lifespan in few minutes, and at the instant, his knees knock and tremble. He clutches his bedsheet as a rush of dread covers him. He raises his voice at the instant, ‘Wait, no, no, I’m not one of his—! I’m just—’
The soldier closes in on him. While he is sharp enough to turn back in good time, he is not flexible enough to avoid the soldier’s grasp. In the space of a second or two, he has to choose between his safety and his nakedness, between escaping the impending punishment and standing with Jay no matter the consequence. He chooses the former in a blink, flings off his slippers, unwraps himself from the bedsheet and breaks free. Then he sprints off in all might.
The soldier’s voice trails him, ‘Stop, stop, or I’ll shoot.’ But nothing will stop him now, not even the jeers from the mob who seem to find this entertaining, as though it were Temple Run.
His eyes blur with each step and the world spins around him. His legs feel like iron, the earth becoming a giant magnet under his feet, pulling him. He misses a step, then another. He trips and strains his left ankle. In no second, he springs up and limps ahead.
Baba God, save your pikin.
If he forgets everything about this evening, it is definitely not how, in a few seconds, he has transformed from an innocent onlooker to a culpable accomplice worthy of being shot. How on God’s green earth could that be?He may find it easier to believe naira is now equal to pounds, but this? Nah.
There are three houses, two provision stores, a beer parlor and a canteen to cover before he reaches his house—and that too, stark naked. To his bewilderment, early evening drunks pick on him as he streaks by. Eyes and mouths identify him on the go. ‘Kai, look, no be dat big-head banker wey dey live at…?’ he hears one say to the laughter of the others. But he cannot halt to hear how the sentence ends.
PastIya Wumi canteen, he overhears another person saying with raised voice, ‘Se dis guy don run mad ni? Ah, aye le o.’ He shuts his ears. All he wants is to reach his house in one piece. But all of these—the derogatory remarks, unnecessary sneers, baseless conclusions—would later haunt him in the dead of the night.
On reaching the gate of his house, he is faced by an assembly of his neighbors. Some gawk at him, some wear bewilderment like makeup on their faces, others resist the urge to burst into laughter—they must have assembled to check on the streets. One is offering him a jacket, but he brushes past all of them and rushes through the stairs to his rent apartment. He collapses on the floor the moment he bolts his door behind.
What have I just done to myself?
He is disillusioned for a moment and disconcerted the next. He hates the terrible feeling nudging him towards regrets. And yes, he can’t be sorrier for himself.
As the evening darkens into night, he laments. He should have stayed indoors and blocked his ears to the world’s noise. But now he has to worry about what his neighbors think of him. He has to decide on which face he would walk with in his own neighborhood—the big-head banker’s or the naked madman’s? Or maybe he needs to relocate somewhere else, for how would he explain everything to everyone? What if someone already got him on camera? What if he sees himself on Twitter the next day with an infuriating caption?
His endless questions birth endless regrets. But beyond all these, he feels like a betrayer deep down. Why couldn’t he share in Jay’s suffering when he was convinced that Jay’s crime is only saying the truth about God’s dealings this century? Yes, he could have let them torture him together with Jay, and maybe he could have lived the reality of If we suffer with him, we shall be glorified together. But here he is… he hates to think Joseph left his garment behind for the fear of God and he just left his own bedsheet behind for the fear of man.
His guilt multiplies as he remembers conversing with a Christian colleague during lunch break two weeks ago. The conversation had drifted from corruption-in-the-high-places to the ugly cloud gathering around Jay’s world. They discussed how Jay’s deeds proved he served God’s purpose against all odds, which in turn continually attracted trouble to him; how the signs and wonders Jay performed felt like a ridicule to some clergymen who believed he was not certified nor licensed to do so; how the Nigerian church was riddled with unprogressive titleholders who believed God must either do exploits through them or by nobody else; how some conservative clergymen who felt personally attacked by Jay’s gospel tagged him a blasphemer and then paid off some Twitter influencers to trend the hashtag #JayIsAFraud for months; how through the backing of politicians they could do anything to Jay—which has now played out as feared.
At first, he was skeptical about believing there could be so much conspiracies against Jay, the harmless non-attention-seeking man in his early thirties. But now he knows better, and it hurts like live coal on raw flesh. Who knows if this is the ploy that would crush Jay forever?
He heaves a sigh and staggers to bed. His head pounds for a while before calming into a minor headache. As he pulls the duvet over his head, he regrets in greater degree his flight from partaking in what seems would be the least of Jay’s trials. There are violent flashes in his head, scenes he doesn’t want to believe have just happened. And sadly, this would hijack his world and torment him until midnight sleep arrests him.
Despite the turbulence in his soul, he decides to check on Jay tomorrow, wherever they must have locked him, and maybe by then he could give himself away and not withhold. But who knows if the dawn of such an opportunity would ever break?
Joseph Olamide Babalola is a writer and poet whose heartfelt love for literary creativity is unending. Shortlisted for the 2021 K&L African Prize and African Writers Award, his creative pieces have appeared in Agape Review, 101words, Poetica, Kreative Diadem, Praxis Magazine, WordFest’19 among others. He lives in Southwestern Nigeria where he daily engages with creative arts and nature.