It was chaotic at best; several cars honking wildly as if in a struggle to display their unique sounds for an unsupervised contest. The stench of urine was stronger than the almost natural scent of alcohol mixed with cigarette in the shambolic motor park.
“Abuja! Keffi”! Screamed Rotimi , cursing and spitting unconsciously at those who left his car to board the other vehicles. He was sweating profusely; his very dark skin glistened under the intense rays of the scorching sun.
I could almost swear that he was stinking as much as he was sweating. It was an odour I had unconsciously come to know. I pitied her, his wife as he took another long gulp at that drink and exhaled, exposing smoke browned teeth. I was sure that her scarred body will tell the unpleasant tale of that much beer before dawn.
I looked away from him for a while and caught the unruly sight of Ugochukwu, who as usual had a collar in between his fists. “Idiot!. Make una see this aboki”, he screamed. It was not new so no one batted an eyelid. It had become common place, he fought over the slightest things.
Shaking my head, I averted my gaze and just in time saw Aisha in her veil running after the speeding vehicle, “oga come buy grannot for your banana” she said. She was not alone, so many other children were fast on her heels, they ran like throngs of eager sprinters all in the bid to sell groundnuts to a man in the vehicle eating what seemed like bunch of sumptuous ripe bananas. Funny enough, the man in question didn’t look the least bit bothered; in fact he barely looked their way.
I knew I was supposed join them but for some reason I just didn’t feel like it. Four years had gone by or rather scowled by and I still felt like a complete outsider in my world. To my fourteen year old self, life still felt strange, like a horrible dream with haunting grotesque faces of unprecedented tragedy and with every passing day I longed to awaken.
Living in my supposed nightmare, it was normal to wake up each morning to stare at my school uniform, hoping yet knowing I wouldn’t wear it. It was a souvenir from a past not so far away but felt like centuries ago, a painful reminder of the swift and fickle nature of life.
The happy days of wearing them were over, those days when I topped my class in all the subjects, when I had that naughty but innocent chip on my shoulder when life looked like a story in progress, open to be manipulated to suit the desires of the writer. When teachers spoke of me with unchastened pride and parents looked on me with utter admiration.
It was crystal clear, as clear as daylight the events of the past years that left me standing here in this open disgusting space of laffia Motor Park with a tray of fried groundnuts on my head looking lost and forlorn in these rags that substituted for clothes with no shoes.
It had been on the twenty fifth day of September that year, everything looked the same nothing felt out of the ordinary. I returned from school that afternoon, tugging at the torn seams of my uniform, which apparently had gone a few feet upward, exposing a set of bony dark knees. I was undeniably too tall for an eight year old and the growth cells in me didn’t seem to mind, they kept working conscientiously with little regard to what the world thought about their host.
But before dusk that day, I realised that the torn seams of my dress, which had been my uppermost concern, were in actuality the very least of them. I walked in on my weeping mother and irate father. “Please don’t go, please…..”, my mother wailed. “I cannot bring her up alone o, ejo” she kept begging walking the entire house with her knees. My father, the man I’d come to love and respect didn’t flinch, he worked mechanically at what he was doing.
Taking a closer look, I realized that he was packing a bag, he was packing to leave. Nothing seemed to add up, my father was highly devoted to his family he loved my mother to the envy of other women. Till that very moment he treated her like an egg likely to break at any moment. On impulse I went down on my knees too and begged him not to walk out on us. It felt like pouring water into a basket, he picked up his bags looked me in the eye for a few fleeting seconds and walked out. That brief eye contact still send chills down my spine because in those eyes had been a sickening emptiness and a destructive determination, that was plain uncharacteristic of my devoted father.
“Onyinyechi wetin you de think sef, no be your mates dey hussle to sell their market, u dey there dey look, comot for road I won pass”. With those words I forcefully banged the door to my reminiscence. “Oh uncle Rotimi, sorry I was lost in thoughts” I muttered. Abeg commot na english u dey speak, he retorted harshly, drawling slightly. I knew how wise it was to ignore him; the alcohol was gradually kicking in. I stepped away to a safe distance and watched as he staggered towards the edge of the fence to ease himself.
Rotimi, my uncle, my mother’s younger brother was described by many as a pathetic excuse for a man. Well having lived with him for four years I would say they weren’t far from the truth. My father never liked him; he always visited to ask for money and always grumbled his thanks when he got it and returned when he had exhausted it. I can still remember how much my father hated him. “Meddlesome beggar with choice”, he always said. Nevertheless, each time he returned, he still gave him for the sake of my mother, which still puzzles me since he left us.
After my mother’s tragic death, I left Aba to travel seven hours down to laffia to live with my uncle and his wife Hassana, who sized me up the moment I alighted from my uncle’s taxi. That night she grumbled and cursed till dawn. I knew I was the reason for the woman’s discomfort, but I didn’t understand her words since she spoke in Hausa.
My uncle was Yoruba just as my mother but had married the first Hausa woman he met on his foremost visit to the north. My father never approved of the union, he was Igbo and very tribal which is a surprise since he married my mother. It caused a ruckus in those days my father told me. His parents had all refused to attend the wedding, but he still went ahead with it. “Your mother is very special”, he said at the end of the story with a skittish smile tugging the corners of his mouth. I understood then, the woman’s gestures clearly, especially that of sending me to sleep on the hard cold floor of the passage, where rats and cockroaches scurried past massively and with ease.
The next morning, I found myself serving beer and cigarettes in her bar, where bawdy men spent all their life’s earnings drinking and smoking while engaging in other forms of licentiousness. It was an almost instant transformation for me. For years, I lived under the protective shield of my parents. Up until then, I’d had little interaction with older people; I had been restricted to seeing only cartoons and played with children my own age. It felt like a whole new world. I could hear my mother’s voice clearly in my head saying they were all going to hell.
I wondered why Anty Hassana smiled and batted her eyelid each time she spoke to her customers, and why they took turns to smack her lightly on her bottom, she must have done something to them to deserve the smack. But then again they didn’t seem angry, in fact they smiled sheepishly each time they did that and so did she. Sometimes she went in with them into the store and each time I came towards the store to get some plates, I always heard her make muffled sounds I couldn’t place.
It became my routine to wake up each morning to tend to the bar. Soon I was accustomed to drinks of all sorts and their brands. I knew that each time that ugly policeman with awry lips walked in, I was supposed to serve him harp, not gulder or star just plain harp with a packet of St. Moris cigarette.
Uncle Rotimi had no children so I had to clean the house and tend to the bar. He promised to send me back to school, but I had to earn my keep he said, so every day I scrubbed so hard and endured so much so I would “earn my keep”. But the harder I worked the more difficult it became to keep that promise. Weeks stretched into months, and soon a full year was gone, but I still kept hoping.
So much were my experiences in that bar and every day I thank God am hardly ever there, but how much could I thank God for while looking around the premises of this motor park.
Abuja! Keffi! It was my uncle’s voice again, he had returned to his car and was now screaming at the top of his voice. Twa! He spat, emitting a chunk of mucus carelessly without caring where it dropped. Anything else felt better than that bar which held horrid memories I fought so hard to repress.
I could never forget even if I wanted to, that night anty Hassana had asked me to clean up. I checked the clock, it read two am, I had been sleeping but her slap and its familiar sting warned me it was time to clean up. She left hastily that night, leaving the store to me. I cleaned hurriedly, the night was so dark, the air so cool, and the silence so eerie. The bar seemed to be the only open place at that ungodly hour. I was almost done when I heard it, the soft steps on the smooth floor. My heart skipped a beat, soon I was shivering, and my teeth chattered audibly, not from the cold but from something else, fear.
“Anty…” I called softly, my voice barely audible. The steps became louder and felt nearer, but it wasn’t her, the almost melted candle reflected dimly on his face and I knew immediately that my worst nightmare had come to life. It was him the policeman with the crooked lips, he was looking at me with those bloodshot eyes, and it was an eager look, a hungry look. I felt it again down to the pit of my stomach repulsion, I could taste it, it was like bile.
“Onyinye! Ha!” said the voice that startled me out of my scary thoughts, “oh God keno” I screamed clutching my chest and exhaling as I did. “I have warned you not to sneak up on me like that” I said feigning annoyance. Heavens knew I wasn’t as angry as I looked in fact I was relived, I had been treading on thin ice and I knew it. A few more steps into memory lane and I could have lost it again.
“Sorry, but you looked so lost, what in the world were you thinking about, I hope it’s not your principal again?” he said
“No o I don’t have time for that” I replied. “No one would blame you if you did, it’s not easy to forget the woman who stole your father” he blurted out, adjusting the tray on his head. “How many times do I have to tell you that, my father left okay, he is not a child that can be stolen, he is a grown man and as far as am concerned he is dead” I retorted. “You don’t have to hate him so much remember it’s possible she used juju on him”, he said. “Mama Grace said so” he added defensively. “It’s enough” I said curtly.
“Okay o” keno said raising his hands in mock surrender. He was hurt I could sense it, but I had no interest in making amends. Sometimes I wish he was less sensitive, I wish he could stop talking about my former school principal who is said to be married to my father. Didn’t he get it, I don’t care. Keno was as far as I could tell the only real person I’ve met in four years. In the sea of insensitive and uncultured human beings that I’ve come to know he was the only exception. Just like me, he sold fried groundnuts on the mean streets and motor parks of laffia, but unlike me he lived with his parents. He knew the street better than anyone, why not? He’s been treading them since he could recognize the Naira. Keno knew firsthand what it meant to be poor. He had lived and dined with poverty that he would know it’s footprints if he saw them. In fact he had tasted no other life and hardly ever complained. He was a necessary temperance to my habitual bitterness.
He lived in one dingy bedroom with his parents and eight sisters. His father was a commercial cyclist who used all his earnings for the maintenance of his cherished motorcycle. His mother was a professional gossip, who knew what was in the news before it ever saw limelight. She did nothing else other than sit around the squalid compound to discuss people with jobs. All her children hawked except for six months old Roseline. “They have to learn to fend for themselves” she always said in a weak defense.
Despite the rusty dish with which life served him his meals, he is still best soul I have ever known. The thoughts of him smuggling out breakfast for me, the tiny balls of akara so greasy they often stained the pockets of his worn out trousers. I hate to see the stain, they were the only trousers he had, I know because he has never worn anything else. I owe him so much I would never pay him off, am certain of it. That very first day, a year ago when the strange red liquid trickled down my legs to stain my shabby dress, he was the one who ran home to get me his sister’s old clothes. He also brought some other things, pieces of cloth from the tailor near his house, which I folded to contain the four day flowing liquid that threatened to shame me. “I know all about this”, he had said with a smile, while I prayed for mother earth to consume me. He was my best friend, the only one I could talk to, and he knew it.
He was the only one I could tell the horror I went home to everyday. As I watched uncle Rotimi empty what was left of the big green bottle into his mouth, fear gripped me. Keno as usual was watching me, I could tell because I saw his tiny eyes underneath the heavy brows from the tail of my eyes.
“Are you okay? He asked, “I wish you could sleep somewhere else am sure they wouldn’t care”, he said with a hiss. I would be fine I said, but I lied. Am sure he knew it was a lie, but there was nothing he could do, his situation wasn’t exactly better. It was of no good, he can’t save me from the loud rants of my uncle’s drunk self or from the sound of his fist striking against Anty Hasana’s body night after night. It was pure horror, my father never did that to my mother, I wonder why I still think about him, but yes he never did.
The very few nights when he is sober, I don’t get any sleep either. I hear it, the loud squeaking noise of the spring bed and the muffled sounds so strange but yet so familiar from both of them, sending me the same taste of repulsion the bar induced, making my skin crawl. Each night I tossed and turned getting little sleep, at the same time fighting off the rats and cockroaches that struggled to exert a solid claim on the sordid apartment.
“Come on Isa is about to offload, the passengers will buy Audu’s bananas, so they’ll need groundnut” Keno said. We walked closer to the vehicle that had just arrived, while I kept watching the pretty girl in the back reading “Chike and the river” I recognized the book the moment I laid eyes on its worn back. It was one of the first books I read as a child, yes as a child because at fourteen I felt all grown up.
“Come down o we don reach”, the driver yelled at her, u dey read book mtchew….. he hissed. I knew that feeling, the feeling of opening a book and never wanting to put it down. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I almost didn’t see it happen, even though I still wish I didn’t. It was Aisha again speeding towards the approaching vehicle, while Isa’s tires hurriedly skidded off into the tracks. It was too late, Aisha body’s was already mid air her veil floating dramatically while her tray of groundnuts clattered hard against the sun baked earth. She landed with a thud emitting a pool of red seemingly healthy blood.
Keno dragged me out before the wails rose or rather before I went into another panic attack. Aisha’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood in that Motor Park was not the first of its kind, there had been many more before her, and I feared she wouldn’t be the last. I might be the next; no one was too young to die especially in my world. If the streets didn’t take you, something else might, I remember Mariam the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen, lying unconsciously behind the fence after an almost fatal attempt to terminate a pregnancy. Osase’s tragic story was not farfetched, he left his house for the streets to hawk popcorn as usual and never returned. His mutilated body was found some days later by a dumpsite. Oh how much I’ve seen in just four years is a mystery. I have amassed a wealth of devastating knowledge, a knowledge it might take some lucky girls a lifetime to acquire.
We walked in total silence, both of us wildly aware of each other but didn’t think it wise to speak. To speak at the moment felt intrusive and oddly unnatural, the silence soothed the numbness in our hearts. I saw flashes of it, flashes of Aisha’s temporarily tattooed hand lying limply by her side. Her heavily penciled brows sitting calmly next to her shut eyes. It was purely unbelievable.
“I think I’ll just go home”, I said to keno, “it’s already late. My Anty wants me home before eight, she wants me to grind beans, she plans on making mai mai”.
That was partly a lie because she wouldn’t be happy to see me home before eight, but it was true, I had to make mai mai for breakfast tomorrow. “Ok then”, keno said, “be safe” he added as usual.
I hurried away, I couldn’t stand being around that environment, nausea shook me just as I was out of keno’s sight, I retched my throat out but I didn’t produce anything . How could I? I hadn’t eaten anything all afternoon. Soon I was thoroughly exhausted from my futile exercise. I staggered home thinking of Aisha, terror gripped me when I thought I heard footsteps behind my back. It had become suddenly dark, I couldn’t attest to any form of gradual transition resulting to this pitch darkness. I walked faster as fast as my fatigued legs could handle, I could clearly hear the shuffling sound of my slippers. Suddenly it wasn’t just mine, someone was following me. Why would keno follow me so closely without calling out to me? I thought.
The air became instantly chilly while goose bumps spread all over me. My first instinct was to run, just like that night in the bar when I stood staring into the cold eager eyes of that policeman. And just like that night, I ran with the little strength left inside of me. But I didn’t get too far before the cruel hands of a drunk caught and pierced my arm. I had an instant epiphany history was repeating itself, just like I feel the distinct pain of his piercing nails, I had also felt it in the bar that night. Dapo had grabbed me with the same cruelty. That was his name, the police officer that featured in all my nightmares.
“Where you think say you dey go”, the drunk fellow asked, he reeked of alcohol and urine. I could see his face now, they were scarred, several hideous lines ran across his gruesome face. His lips were very dark just like his skin, I am in no position to judge, my skin was hardly different it bore the same sun dried blackness. His eyes were red and mean. I thought that was what a wolf would look like.
“Leave me alone”, I shrieked panting and shivering uncontrollably. “Shut up” he said striking my cheek. I saw them tiny bright stars escaping from my eyes, I was defenseless. He tore the weak fabric of my dress, just like the policeman had done, and I could feel it in between my legs the pain the searing pain, I screamed gritting my teeth as I did, I expected to see aunty Hassana behind the counter, saying “ Dapo e don do, I don change my mind, na small pikin take your money”.
Just like in the bar that night. But there was no Anty hassana, just a cold emptiness in the night sky. I writhed beneath him, but it did nothing to allay the mortifying expression on his face. My hands searched the floor for anything and for once fate was on my side. I caught hold of the broken bottle lying very close to me, and used it. Soon I was standing over him, clutching his chest with that broken piece of bottle buried inside it, I saw blood for the second time in one day, it pooled around his chest gumming his clothes. I saw him cry and beg and for once I felt powerful, like justice had finally been served. He kicked furiously, screaming as he did, but I couldn’t allow that, I tied his mouth with my torn dress while I watched him grow weak and mute.
I waited for a while watching his face grow pallid. He was no longer like the wolf I pictured but like a sacrificial lamb at my mercy. I wiped my crimson palms on my torn dress, clutching my breasts, I ran.
The night air blew cruelly against my bare skin, as I ran towards keno’s house strange memories came flooding back, it had to be the blood, it always did that to me. I saw my mother languishing in misery day after day waiting for my father to return, she cried more than she lived, until that day when I returned from being sent away from school for not paying my school fees only to see our house crowded with people who so desperately worked to untie her dangling body from her room’s ceiling fan.
Keno would understand this helpless transition, am not a murderer, he has to, I said to myself still running.
Good Luck Ogbonna Adanna !
Good use of English!
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