The harsh harmattan wind clawed at my nose and cheeks as I made another attempt to cover my face with the scarf while trying to keep up with brother Fidelis. The flapping sound of his slippers on the dusty road cut into my deep thoughts as we journeyed through the foggy air.
He stopped suddenly and turned around to ask if I remembered what he told me. I was not sure what he meant and told him so to which he spat out the remnants of his chewing stick on the ground and lifted his hand to hit me. I ducked, barely missing.
I knelt down on the dusty road and apologized.
“Get up! Are you crazy? Do you want a car to hit you?” He pulled me up just as a rickety Peugeot 504 raced by, blasting its horn. Pointing at the disappearing car engulfed by the fog, he said, “You see now? That stupid driver did not even turn on headlights.” He turned back to me and pulled on his ear.
“Your mother thinks you are going for a job interview to get an office job.”
“Do not make the mistake of telling her anything else.”
“OK, let’s go.”
We walked in silence again, this time, my eyes fixed on his tall frame. Brother Fidelis is my mother’s stepbrother and today, he is taking me to Lagos where he worked as a businessman for as long as I can remember. He lives in Lagos. He’s been living there for almost ten years, and he made an appointment for me to see his business partner. Maybe I will be lucky and get a contract; I need it. My family needs the money.
The fog was beginning to clear, and I could see the bus terminal.
“You stay here. I will go and get a bus to take us to Oshodi.”
He walked past the shiny luxurious buses to the danfo buses painted yellow with black stripes across them like a zebra. It seemed they had all suffered some level of collateral damage from accidents and were missing parts. One had no headlights for its entire bonnet was gone, exposing the engine to the elements. Some had no doors. Some had huge dents and looked fragile sitting on the weight of suspicious tires. Thick smoke gushed from blackened exhaust pipes, and eager commuters waited to get in.
“Oshodi straight! Oshodi straight!”
The gruff voice of this particular bus conductor overshadowed the others. He paused to clear his throat, spat out phlegm, and resumed his announcement. The crowd pushed toward his danfo. I moved closer, my eyes fixed on brother’s back as he haggled with the bus conductor. Bodies pushed against mine. I pushed back. Sweat built up in my arm pits though the harmattan wind continued to suck up any moisture left on my skin.
That is when I saw her.
“Mariamu? Na you?”
I gasped and pulled the scarf tighter around my face. A plump woman in a bubu stretched tautly over her voluptuous body approached. A large bag was perched on her head. I knelt down to greet her.
“Good morning Iya Teslim.”
She pouted her brightly painted lips when she told me to get up from the ground.
“Wetin? You wan pour sand for my garri? My name na Tawa for Lasgidi, abi no be there you dey go?” She asked and glanced at the nylon bag under my arm. I searched for brother. He was still arguing with the conductor, while pulling out his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers. Iya Teslim had a basket mouth; she was infamous for her inability to keep a secret in our small town. To everyone’s relief, she left for Lagos some years ago, but recently resumed her visits at Christmas.
She asked if I had a job there. Who was going to look after Mama and my child? Her eyes narrowed when I remained quiet. I pulled my scarf closer around my face and told her I was just going for an appointment. She shook her head sadly.
“School cert holder like you; no be you get the highest mark for your class? You for done find job since!”
“Last chance! Last chance!” The bus conductor called out.
“The bus dey comot!” Iya Teslim shouted and grabbed my hand, pulling me towards the revving vehicle. I reached up and grabbed the bag falling off her head and set it back in balance.
“Excuse jare! Excuse!” she shouted, using her bottom to push aside the other waiting commuters until she reached the bus conductor. She smiled and pressed her chest into his dirty brown singlet.
“Bros,” she said, parting her red lips in a smile.
“Tawa, how now?” he grinned. “Time don reach?”
She batted her eyes at him.
“Yes now. You know say Christmas holiday don finish, I for don return since. You know say I be secretary for big company for Lagos.”
He puffed smoke rings from his lips and winked.
“I know now. The same company I come meet you for night last month abi?”
“Make you sharrap!” She giggled and hit him playfully on the chest.
I coughed and covered my nose. The conductor turned to look at me.
“Who be this?” He asked.
Someone cleared a throat in the front passenger seat. A head turned around.
“Let her in!” Brother shouted.
The bus conductor’s eyes widened
“Oh!” He hit the side of his head and inhaled deeply from his wrap. “Come!” He pointed to me and said, “Make you perch for the back seat there. You hear?”
I climbed in and made my way to the back row where he had pointed. I sat between an old man and a girl who looked about my age with a baby on her lap. I lifted my eyes in time to see Iya Teslim rush to the front passenger side of the danfo.
“Fidelis! Na you be dat?” She grabbed him by his shirt collar. “I warn you say make you no show face for dis our town again! You wan finish another girl life abi?”
She screamed and hit him repeatedly. Brother covered his face with his arms but said nothing. The bus conductor jumped in and hung on the side.
“Make we go driver!” he shouted and hit the top. The danfo revved and took off.
Iya Teslim ran after us.
“Conductor you dey leave me? Wetin I do you make you mess me up like dis?” Tawa screamed.
We watched from the danfo as she ran after us with her bag, raining curses. Some passengers laughed, waking up others who had fallen asleep. The old man beside me stirred.
“We don reach?” he asked. Passengers turned around in their seats and chuckled. “Papa you don reach London come back?” The conductor asked. Everyone settled into a comfortable silence as we left our small town behind for the glittering, beckoning lights of Lagos.
The baby’s cries woke me up. I tried to shift my leg in the cramped space and felt her weight before looking down in my lap. Her head was in my lap, while the rest of her was in her mother’s limp arms. She sucked angrily on her thumb, her chubby cheeks drenched with tears. I gulped as my hands cradled her head. She reminded me of my baby. Her mother jerked awake when she started crying again. Her sleepy yellow eyes pleaded with me as she picked up her child.
“Sorry my sista,” she mumbled.
The Christmas music from the radio could barely be heard from where I sat. A large woman in the front row had taken up two seats. She had a large bag in her lap that blocked the view of the people who sat behind her in the bus. Each time the bus hit a pothole, the bag hit the side of the man next to her. We rode on in silence for an hour, interrupted by snores, and snippets of conversations and my rumbling stomach, but no one seemed to notice me.
When the driver called the bus conductor’s name fro the front, he patted his trouser pocket, looked up and pointed to the man beside the large woman.
“Oga! Oga! Yes, you wey dey look me with koro-koro eye!”
“Wetin?” the man asked
“You tink say I forget you owe me twenty naira. Oya, bring am!”
“I no get bros. I no get,” he said and scratched his bald head.
The bus conductor hissed, leaned forward and grabbed his t-shirt. The large woman screamed and pulled her bag to her chest.
“We don cross into Lagos and you say you no get money! I go push you for road now!” the bus conductor screamed. His yellow eyes flashed.
The man rubbed his hands and looked at our faces. “Abeg, somebody help me,” he whimpered and raised his two hands up.
The large woman dug into her large bosom and handed the conductor some notes. He released the man and counted the money.
“Better thank this woman well-well. You for find yourself for roadside today!”
Moved by her act of giving, the man bent his head to thank her, hitting his head on the bag. She responded that he should bring enough money for his transportation next time. The rest of the journey was quiet. In a few hours, the conductor interrupted with shouts of “Oshodi! Oshodi!” He thrust his head and upper torso through the open window as the danfo stopped behind several identical buses. We got out one at a time. When my feet hit the pavement, I saw brother waving at me.
He flagged down a small vehicle with three wheels – we did not have them in our town. We boarded and sat in silence as the driver weaved through streets and bodies who were unafraid of the moving vehicle, horning to pass through. Eventually, the vehicle stopped at the beginning of an unpaved street. The sign said Sumonu Street. We dodged potholes and climbed mini hills as we walked by run down houses. Some of the houses in our town looked better than these, I thought. Women of all shapes, sizes and complexion, all dressed up stood in front of the houses and called out to brother who smiled and waved, reminding me of a king who waved to his subjects. As though he suddenly remembered I was there, he turned around and shouted at me to hurry up.
The house was at the end of the street; green moss and fern covered it. A girl about twenty-years-old in skin-tight jeans shorts and a cropped top stood at the front door chewing on a gum. The noise from a generator made it difficult to hear what she said. When we got closer we could hear her – her voice was deep.
“Bros, how you dey? Who be dis fine gal?”
“I dey. I brought my niece. Can I see madam?”
Her eyes fell on me.
“Ehn! Your own blood. You really serious o!”
She moved aside and Brother took my hand and entered the house.
It was dark in the hallway. There were at least six closed doors. Brother took me down to the end and knocked on the door. A female voice shouted to come in. The overhead fluorescent light flickered in the room, doing little to illuminate the face of the woman sitting on a chair holding a phone. Behind her was a neatly made bed. A large black night gown hung over the mirror of the dresser pushed against the wall.
She smiled widely and threw her arms out.
“Fidelis!” she shouted.
He chuckled and rushed to hug her. His hands went to her neck and kissed it repeatedly and she responded with giggles and playful slaps on his back. After a few minutes of watching their affectionate display, Brother straightened and looked at me.
“This is Mariamu. She fine abi?”
The woman’s thick lashes moved up and down.
“Take off the scarf on your head,” Brother said. I did, pulling the scarf round my shoulders.
“God try small for this one. You say she be your sister daughter?”
“Yes now! I lie Mariamu?”
“No, he’s my uncle.”
She studied me.
“You go school?”
“Yes. I finished secondary school three years ago.”
“Me too. I finish secondary school, but see me now.” She rearranged her sequined top.
“Everybody call me Madam for here. Your uncle tell you wetin we do here?”
“And you ready?”
“She ready o! She has baby and mama she has to take care of,” Brother said.
The woman got up and told me to follow her to the room I would be sharing with others. We followed her out to the hallway and down two doors and then knocked.
“Who be that?”
The voice sounded like the one we had left behind at the bus terminal.
“Open door! No be me pay for room?” Madam shouted.
It opened immediately. Iya Teslim stood there dressed in the same attire we had seen her that morning. Her mouth fell open. She crossed her arms and pointed at Brother.
“So you deceive this poor girl too? You bring her here to finish her life!”
Madam raised her hand and struck Iya Teslim’s face.
“E be like say the Christmas break for your town make you craze! Who you dey talk to like that? My man?”
Iya Teslim knelt on the floor holding her face.
“Sorry madam. Sorry.”
Madam stepped back, her chest heaving. She turned to me and said. “Go in.”
I glanced at brother. He waved me away
“Go now!” he shouted impatiently.
I flung my arms around him, and held on tight.
“Fidelis, I thought you said this girl was ready?” Madam asked, surprised.
Brother pulled my hands from around his waist.
“Mariamu, what? Come on, you’re a big girl, Tawa will show you around.”
He pushed me into the room and walked away with Madam. I could hear them chuckling as I pulled my scarf tighter around my shoulders, hiding my arms.
Tawa whispered that I should close the door. I did. Two women, fully dressed, with make up still on their faces were sleeping on mats. When she saw me looking at them, she said they worked late the night before. She sat on the only mattress in the room and I followed. We sat in silence for a few seconds, and then I turned to her.
“So this your Lagos Iya Teslim?”
“So this na your appointment Mariamu,” she said. “Wetin you dey do with this useless Brother Fidelis?
I shrugged. “He brought me to work.”
She eyed me and hissed.
“You know the kind of work we dey do? Abi he lie to you like he lie to me?”
“No, he told me what I would be doing.”
“And you still come?”
I shook my head, and whispered that we go outside. Her eyes narrowed but she agreed. She pointed towards the back of the house and I followed. When we made our way through the overgrown weeds about twenty feet from the house, overlooking the back of the house of the next street, we turned to each other.
“Wetin Mariamu? Wetin you dey do here?” she asked, angry.
“Iya Teslim, I need your help.”
“My boyfriend, Bode, my baby’s father lives in in Isale Eko, and I need to get there tonight, when everyone is asleep.”
Her mouth began to widen.
“I, I have money,” I said and pulled up my wrapper, exposing my jeans underneath. I pulled out the bundle of naira notes, and a brown wallet – Brother’s.
“Mariamu where you get all this?”
I stared at her, not sure if to trust this woman.
“From the people at the bus terminal, and on the bus I rode.”
I had used every brush and bump to my advantage. Bode had taught me well. We had met in school and known earlier on that we were cut from the same mold. He had to steal to put food on the table for his widowed mother and siblings; I did it because I couldn’t help it. I felt compelled to take from others even when I didn’t need to. Bode was the professional. He had helped to hone my craft – spending hours at the markets and bus terminals watching and selecting our victims and at the end of the day return with our spoils. He said my innocent face and petite stature were my greatest assets in this business.
Three years ago, after I became pregnant right after our school certificate exam, he decided to move to Lagos to make better money for us. But then I became tired of him telling me to wait to join him. He had moved into the bigger leagues and I wanted to be part of it.
Iya Teslim stood, shocked for almost ten seconds after I finished speaking, and then began to laugh, first in little spurts and then harder. The tears streamed down her face. She held her stomach, and grew quiet. The girl at the front entrance earlier ran out to the yard, her eyes questioning. Iya Teslim told her she was fine and waved her away. When she left, Iya Teslim straightened her shoulders and smiled at me.
“You be sharrrrp girl!” She patted me hard on the back and took me further back into the yard to discuss.
Image by Samella Sanders Lewis via African Digital Art
About the Author:
Nike Campbell-Fatoki is a writer and author of the historical fiction novel Thread of Gold Beads published in 2012 and adapted into a play in 2014 in the Washington DC area. She has just completed a collection of short stories, “The Appointment” being one of them. She lives and writes in the Washington DC area.