A Story by Ronke Luke
“What are you writing? The Epistle from Luke?” Mr. Campbell snorted as he snatched up my test. I had no time to raise my pen.
I recovered after a moment of stunned silence to reply in wide-eyed shock, “Uhmm. I was answering the questions.”
Mr. Campbell towered over me.
“Answering? You’re writing a book,” he retorted looking at my test, flipping the pages over the stapled edge.
I caught a glimpse of the page where my writing veered suddenly into a sharp-angled blue ink scratch to the edge of the page. Evidence of the snatch.
“I had reached the second to last page,” I offered looking up at Mr. Campbell. His erect bearing, courtesy of a stint in the British army, suggested he wasn’t a man to trifle with.
“I didn’t use all the space for the questions I answered.”
“Ehhhh,” Mr. Campbell replied, waving the sheaf of papers, “You’re writing too much. Look at this question about the traffic signs,” he said poking the paper with his right index finger, “you’ve written so much.”
“I answered the question for each sign.”
“You should just put Stop Sign. Roundabout. Simple,” Mr. Campbell explained pointing at the question.
“No. You wrote ‘This sign means a roundabout ahead’”
Mr. Campbell recognized my confusion as he stared down at me.
“All are sentences,” he clarified. “I don’t have time to read all that.”
I was even more confused.
There was no way at eighteen I would take a government test and not write in sentences. Nothing in my schooling or my parents’ expectations had prepared me to be so audacious. Now my sentences had annoyed the man who held sway over my fate.
I rubbed the left side of my forehead, eyes squint, nose wrinkled. It was a tricky moment. My swirling mind managed to organize one thought.
“Okay. I’ll finish the rest without sentences,” I blurted.
“Finish?” Mr. Campbell looked at this watch. “I don’t have time for that. Let’s go.” He bent, picked up a brown wrapped package leaning against the leg of his desk and headed for the door.
My watch showed it was just before 9:45 am.
I scurried after him.
Mr. Campbell stopped in the parking lot. “Which one is yours?” He didn’t look to see if I was behind him.
“The blue one,” I replied catching up.
“Ugh! This tiny car.”
“It’s a mini.”
“I know what it is,” he said shooting me a sharp look. “I need to be comfortable,” he informed me standing ramrod straight.
Best not reply.
I headed for my mini.
This isn’t going so well. First the sentences. Now he hates my car.
I looked around for my driving teacher, Mr. Dumbuya. I’ll be out here he had said as I went in to take my driver's license written test. Now he was nowhere to be seen.
I got into my mini and waited. Mr. Campbell made the mistake I expected. He was tall. Getting into a mini feet first doesn’t work easily for those unaccustomed to the car.
“Uhm. It’s better if you sit and swing your legs in.”
“Just sit, turn and fold yourself in.”
“Fold myself? That’s ridiculous!”
I didn’t reply. He folded himself anyway.
“You have petrol?”
“Err. Yes. A full tank.”
“Good. Let’s go,” Mr. Campbell ordered.
Turn Here! Where?
I left the Vehicle Examiner’s compound and eased the car into traffic on the main road. The mini didn’t have a radio. Conversation was usually the entertainment when I drove with others. But I wasn’t starting any conversation with Mr. Campbell. Silence filled the air between us. We drove for a while.
Fifteen miles per hours.
I shot a glance at Mr. Campbell. He seemed comfortable. Arm bent, elbow out the window. Shades on.
“Faster,” he said.
20 miles per hour.
25 miles per hour.
I couldn’t drive very fast. We were in the East End of Freetown. The narrow streets were flanked by city blocks bursting with activity. Most buildings had retail space at ground level. Some sold goods - food, household wares, clothing, fabric, car parts, building materials and everything else. Others sold fun in bars, arcades and restaurants. In between, from narrow store fronts tailors, cobblers, barbers and hairdressers sold style. Churches and mosques muscled space between the commerce and vice to offer salvation to souls.
Above the stores, living space rose into the sky. Modest buildings had one or two storeys above the retail level. Others towered over their neighbors; three, four or more storeys of apartments or rooms for rent. Many shop owners lived above their stores so they rose early and stayed late or sent family members to man the store.
Everyday, thousands of people poured out of the residential quarters to make or seek a living. More came from other parts of Freetown drawn by the East End’s competitive prices.
Pavements between shop fronts and the streets had long been usurped for commerce. Store owners displayed their wares outside their doors to entice passing customers. Street vendors erected their market stalls higgedly-piggedly, between store walls and the street’s edge. Pedestrians and visitors darted between the road and the pavement as they picked their way through the humanity going about daily life and street vendors who slowed the flow sufficiently to cajole passersby to look.
Traffic was always heavy. I had no idea what the speed limit was. But it didn’t matter. No one was going anywhere fast on the packed narrow streets. Drivers honked often. It was a shorthand way of shouting at pedestrians. The stores were open. The people and sounds of the East End filled the streets. I wasn’t exceeding 40 miles per hour regardless of Mr. Campbell’s command. I’d driven in the East End often enough, but it wasn’t my regular beat. Pedestrians and vehicles were equal hazards to me.
“Turn right here”
We were virtually at the turning, I made a hard right turn at the end of the block, nearly clipping a peanut vendor’s tray.
“Aayyyyy!” the vendor shouted.
“Noh for sell dae,” Mr. Campbell shouted back.
You shouldn’t be selling there.
I shot him a glance. He caught my eye.
“You think you’re a race driver?”
Best not reply. Good thing I’m driving a mini. Larger car and that tray would have gone flying.
Lucky for me no one was crossing as I turned. We didn’t drive very far down the road.
I stopped by a restaurant.
Mr. Campbell put the brown package on the back seat. “Wait for me.”
I sat double parked for a while forcing vehicles to maneuver around me. Out of nowhere locals approached, some banging on the top of my car or sticking a head in the passenger side, to admonish my parking.
“You park bad!”
You’re badly parked!
“Noh park yah!”
Don’t park here!
“Nar for moof oh!”
You should move!
Fearing I’d annoy the locals, I found a parking spot a few doors down. I waited standing by my car facing the restaurant so I wouldn’t miss Mr. Campbell. The morning sun was hot. I was getting annoyed. Finally, nearly 20 minutes after he got out, Mr. Campbell walked back towards me, wiping his hands and mouth with a napkin.
He’d stopped for breakfast!
“Let’s go,” he said as he folded himself back into my car. “Turn, we’re going back the way we came.”
He smelled of fried food. Plantains. Maybe fish? I was irritated.
I could have gone in for a drink. Instead, my car now smells like a fry up.
I did a three point turn, headed back to the main street and eased into traffic. We drove on, making our way down a one way street.
A few blocks down, Mr. Campbell told me to park in front of a blue store. There was no parking. I drove on. As I passed a large parked truck, I noticed there was small space between the truck and a car parked in front of it. I decided to go for it. A quick check in my rear view mirror. Fortune was with me. There was a gap in the following traffic. I braked suddenly, shifted quickly into reverse, steered hard to the right, angled and backed into the space. One sweet move.
We didn't have seat belts. Somewhere after the braking as he lurched and between my angled turn as he recovered Mr. Campbell exclaimed, “what are you doing?”
“Yes. Parking here,” I replied as I slipped my mini into the space. My dad was a rakish driver. My mother matched his speed and skill without the sizzle. I wanted to drive like my parents.
“You think you’re a race car driver?”
“No. Just good at parking,” I quipped, pleased with my slick driving.
“Really! You kids think that because you have cars you can do anything?”
Right there. He’d touched the issue. Teenagers like me getting drivers’ licenses was highly unusual in Sierra Leone. I didn’t know what the legal driving age was. But my mother had decided that my older brother and I should learn to drive. We were happy to oblige. It meant more freedom especially going to parties at night. Maybe having our own transportation after midnight meant more safety and peace of mind for our parents. My brother and I didn’t ask. My mother’s mini was at my disposal once I got my license. Now my fate lay in the hands of a one time army man, who I’d steadily annoyed all morning.
“Uhmm! We’re lucky to get this convenient space so close to where you’re going,” I offered quickly feigning humility suddenly worried my cockiness might annoy him.
“How can I get out? It’s tight,” Mr. Campbell admonished. There wasn’t much space between the passenger door and a street vendor’s stall.
“Moof you pan!” I yelled at the vendor.
Move your tray!
The vendor hissed but cleared a space.
I searched Mr. Campbell's face. Was he annoyed?
“Wait for me,” he said as he squeezed out of the car.
Aren’t there Rules against this?
This time he returned with groceries. Three regular plastic bags of food and personal items that he placed on the back seat next to the wrapped package. “Let’s go,” he ordered. We made three more stops. First to make an appointment. Mr. Campbell didn’t get out. “Just the person I’m coming to see,” he said to a man smoking outside an office. Leaning out of the mini’s window, Mr. Campbell confirmed with the man a meeting for later in the week. Next he dropped off the brown wrapped package.
After the shopping and before the appointment, I realized, I’m his transport for his errands.
Isn’t there some rule against this?
Where else? How much longer? He’s wasting my petrol.
Last stop was for cold drinks. Mr. Campbell didn’t offer me one. I didn’t dare ask.
Along the way I had navigated three- and four-way stops, yielded to traffic, traversed a roundabout, obeyed other road signs, eased in and out of traffic and made left turns.
You want to argue with me?
Finally, we arrived back to the Vehicle Examiner’s compound. I helped carry his shopping bags. Once in the office my annoyance gave way to worry. “Can I finish?” I asked pointing at the written test.
“No. I don’t have time for that.”
“But I didn’t use up the entire allotted time?” I protested.
“You want to argue with me?”
Mr. Campbell set about paperwork. I waited at the desk replaying the morning in my mind. It wasn't good. He disliked everything. My sentences. My car. He didn’t like my parking and doesn’t approve of teenagers driving.
My Epistle that he had snatched away two hours earlier sat by him on the table. I stared at it.
If he reads it he’ll see I know the answers.
Finally, he stood, paused then strode over to me, his bearing erect, my fate in his hands. He handed me a sheet turned face down. We both held on to it for a moment. I hesitated briefly after he let go. My heart had picked up. Heat rose up my chest. I turned the sheet over. Test Results - Passed.
I jumped up. The warmth in my chest exploded like a star burst. Happiness. “I thought you'd fail me.”
Mr. Campbell laughed. “Well, with your moves, reverse parking and everything, you can drive in the East End. So you can drive in the rest of Freetown.” Pointing at my unfinished written test, “I don’t need to read your Epistle.”
“Thank you! Thank you Sir!”
I shook his extended hand.
“Greet your father.”
Huh? He knows my dad? I didn't ask.
"Yes, sir," I replied as I skipped out the door.
My tiny car waited. New freedoms beaconed.
- The End -
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Remember your driver's test?
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.