By Nike Campbell Fatoki
“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.
Nike Campbell Fatoki is the 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