It was a windy Tuesday evening, and the traffic jam in Ikeja GRA was choking.
I decided to get out of the car of filmmaker Mahmood Ali-Balogun in which I had been for the past hour or so.
Rain clouds were on high, and suddenly my phone rang.
The voice of my neighbour’s wife was straight to the point. “Come home, your house is on fire!”
I asked if any of my kids was caught up in the inferno, but the lady just insisted that I should get home immediately.
A message from another neighbour, the artist Morgan Nwanguma, flashed on my phone: “Mr. Maxim there was fire in your house but put out now. Morgan.”
It was just past 6.30 pm. I hailed an okada, but the bike rider was a clumsy fellow who took an eternity to get his bearing.
In the end, I was at my home, and mercifully the kids were all okay, but my library was gone. The fire was stopped from getting to the bedroom and the children’s room but parts of the roofing were affected.
Water used in quenching the fire was being scooped out of the rooms by my banker niece and her younger brother with further help by some other neighbours.
I was more concerned with knowing if anybody was hurt than finding out the cause of the fire.
It was much later that I learnt that my son, Makanna, who was yet to be six then had gone to the room with a matchbox to do some firing!
The damage done to my many books, journals, newspapers, files and manuscripts was quite immense.
I had promised Odia Ofeimun that I would undertake a thorough re-proofing of the already launched anthology of poems, Lagos of the Poets, that he edited, and I was actually done, having cross-checked the published poems with some of the titles of the poets in my library.
Poor me, I left the corrected version on the cane couch in my library, and it was right there that the fire started, burning to ashes all the work that I had done.
It was my lecturer at Ife, Kole Omotoso, who qualified one of his plays, Shadows in the Horizon, with the subtitle “the combustibility of private property”.
Books can indeed be combustible.
Looking around the charred remains of my library, I saw Uche Nduka’s Second Act from which Odia had selected the poem “Allen Avenue” with burnt black edges as though it had been used to light an akara woman’s fire.
All the poems I had consulted in my labour of love, that is, preparing a second edition of Odia’s anthology, literally passed through the fire.
Nduka Otiono’s Voices in the Rainbow was charred like the burnt roadside dodo that he was so fond of before relocating to Canada.
The fire punished Ogaga Ifowodo’s collection in the manner that the angry poet had asked God to punish Lord Lugard!
Lola Shoneyin’s collection saw hot fire such that one could make meaning of the poet sitting on an egg!
Not even my closest friends knew that I had a car, let alone a car that came with its manual in an age when they were all using second-hand manual-less tokunbo cars. Well, the manual of the Chevrolet Epica car felt the fire I had denied the engine of the car.
In short, I saw all the signs and wonders germane to the new wonder churches in the confusing moments at my library that evening.
My electric typewriter was burnt out like the modern day leper that it now represents!
All the newspapers stored in the library could aptly be described as a bonfire of the vanities.
The grandee laptop I inherited from Adewale Maja-Pearce went with the inferno, together with all the manuscripts of novels, plays and poems stored therein. It’s even impossible thinking of retrieving the poems I had planned to publish as I did not have longhand versions of the works.
What is worse, I do not memorize my poems, as I happen not to be a fan of my own writing, a fact I had revealed to Bilikisu Labaran of the BBC at Bush House, London when she could not get me to remember any lines of my love poems while she was interviewing me!
I needed to go back to rewrite the poems from scratch as I could not remember any of the lines I had penned before.
The spirits up there have since told me it served me right for treating poetry with levity!
But then, I cannot complain much, for immediately Odia Ofeimun learnt of my burnt library he instantly donated two cartons of books to me.
I count myself as being blessed despite the losses.
Now, many moons later, I feel poised to reissue the burnt books and manuscripts.
The literary life must perforce be back on track no matter the torrid fumes of fire.