Pariah

Pariah

One would have thought that by now I would be used to being alone. But you never really get used to the loneliness: you just live with it.

Another long Friday evening. I wondered what to do with the hours left in the day. It was only eight. Very few choices. I checked Genesis Cinema’s website and found that there was a showing of the new Star Trek film at 8:30PM and 11:30PM. I couldn’t make the 8:30, besides what would I do after the film ended. The 11:30 sounded more like it. I read a chapter of Getty’s biography, took a bath, got dressed and headed out into the night.

For a Friday on the Island, the streets were strangely quiet. I was at the mall sooner than I expected. I bought a ticket but then had to wait for about 40 minutes outside the hall. I spent part of the time “people-watching” the couples exiting the various screening rooms (some films had just ended).

I was the third person into the hall. I didn’t expect a lot of people anyway – not at that time of the night. The three younger couples (triple dating?) who had been hanging out outside soon came in. They were a boisterous lot. I hoped they would quiet down once the film starting which they more or less did.

I enjoyed the film. As usual, I stayed until after the credit roll. I was the last one out of the hall. It was raining heavily outside. There were a few people there as well waiting for the rain to subside a little so they could dash to their cars. Some friends talked about going club hopping. They soon went to their cars which were parked close to the entrance and were on their way. I waited a little more. At some point there was a lull in the rain, but it didn’t really stop. I moved as quickly as I could without splashing water all over my trousers and hopped into my car.

Ignition on, AC on, headlights on, radio on. I drove out slowly. I wasn’t rushing anywhere. The rain picked up again.

Just as I expected, the friendly policemen usually manning the main junction had given up and gone away. The roads were even less busy than when I had set out earlier. I pulled unto the express way and made good time to the Eko hotel roundabout. I realized I was going too fast as I came to the roundabout. I slowed down a little but there was almost no traffic at all.

My tires spun the water away from the surface of the road. I really didn’t see her until I was literally passing by, otherwise I would have slowed down even more and moved to the inner lane. I saw out of the corner of my eyes as she hopped back a little. Which didn’t help her much. The water from the road rose up and she got a full drenching. I saw her gasp as the water ran down her face and her dress. She held on to her umbrella and clutched an over-sized handbag in her other hand. Her dress which was too short appeared to have shrunk even more and her heels were too high: which was when I realized who she was or what she did for a profession and why she was there at that time of the night or morning.

Even as I stopped and pulled over, I remembered some tweet I had seen earlier that evening on my Twitter feed: “Regret is for wimps and the back-mirror is for losers”. I guess I shouldn’t have looked back: I shouldn’t have stopped.

But I had done enough harm in the past for which I couldn’t do anything about and what I felt at that point must have been pity for her on many levels: why she was outside in that weather; how uncomfortable it must be for her even without my dousing her with water from the road; and her chances of earning any income now that she was absolutely soaked.

I reversed slowly until I was level with her. She came to look in at the passenger’s side window.

“Hi.” she says, trying to smile.

“Hi. I am so sorry. I didn’t see you.”

“It’s OK. I guess I shouldn’t have been standing so close to the road anyway.”

“Hum. Hmmn.” Now that I had apologized, I wasn’t sure what to do next. The thought came to me that I was going home to a warm bed, while she would probably still stay there in the rain all wet and cold.

“Can I give you a lift anywhere?”

“Not really. I need to stay here you know.”

I knew. She was “working.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. She smiled. She had a pretty smile despite the mascara running down her face. She looked quite young as well.

I am sometimes impulsive. Some decisions in the past got me into my current situation: roaming the streets of Lagos alone.

“Well, you can get in for a while. Maybe until the rain stops or eases up a little.”

“Thank you. ” she said as she opened the door and got into the car. I tried not to look. The damp one piece dress had ridden up even more. I remembered my never-used gym bag was in the back. There was a little towel in there. Instead of going round the round-about, I drove straight into one of the side-streets adjoining it. The thought came to my mind that if not for the rain, I could expect police trouble. But then if not for the rain, I would probably be home alone already.

I pulled up in front of one of the banks. I got up and reached back over the seat and grabbed the gym bag. I fished out the towel and handed it over to her.

“Here. Please use that to dry up a little.”

“No. It will become dirty.”

“Don’t worry. I can always wash it when I get home. I am sure you are not too comfortable as you are.”

I reduced the AC as much as possible.

She took the towel hesitantly. She wiped her face, hair, arms, and then rubbed it down the front of her dress. I fiddled with the knobs on the radio because there was nothing else to do. She bent down and rubbed her legs as well. I noticed she was light-skinned. But she was probably toning as well. There was a white sheen to her looks which I could see even in the poor light.

She placed the towel in her laps.

“Thank you.”  She said.

“You are welcome.”

There was an uncomfortable silence.

I was trying hard to think of what to do or say next. I couldn’t help thinking about what would happen if some acquaintance sees me in my current position. The rumours that would follow. The shame. Thankfully, it was unlikely due to the time, the place, and the rain. Then I felt ashamed.  Whatever she did for a living, that was a person sitting next to me. A person I had chosen to help if only because I had caused her present predicament. A person with desires, hopes and aspirations just like mine. A person who for reasons I do not know chose to stand semi-clad by the side of the road in the cold and wet Lagos night while I had gone to watch a film at the cinemas.

I looked over at her. She must have noticed because she looked away from the windscreen and smiled as well. I tried to force a smile. My lips twitched but I didn’t think I actually smiled: probably a grimace.

We couldn’t sit there forever.

“Would you go home if I offered you some money?” I asked.

“Oh Ok. Where do you live?” she asked.

I wondered why she asked me that question but then it dawned on me that she had misinterpreted my question.

“Oh no. That’s not what I meant!” even I felt embarrassed by the speed and urgency with which I responded as if she was some sort of pariah!

“Oh OK.” her shoulders literally slumped.

“No. I didn’t mean it like that.” I apologized.

“Look. I am going home. I thought you know, if you have some money for the weekend, you can go home – to your own house. So you don’t have to work tonight.” It was actually early morning. The clock on the dashboard said 2:05AM.

“Thank you.” Silence. She fidgeted a little with the towel on her laps.

“We don’t have to go to your house. If you like, we can do it here. What do you like?”

There was an earnestness in her face that squeezed at my heart.

“No. No. It’s OK. I don’t really want anything.” I think I have said too many “Nos” for one hour.

“I just meant you shouldn’t be out in this weather. You might catch a cold or something.” It sounded lame to even me.

“Oh Ok.”

Silence. The DJ put on a popular track from one of the well-known musicians. She perked up a little and started mouthing some of the lines.

“How much do you charge?” I couldn’t tell if it was because I wanted to give her the exact amount or if it was just my curiosity that got the better of me. Probably the latter.

She told me.

“Is that per night or per … service?” my unease must have been visible.

She smiled and said “No. That is per service as you called it. It is a little more per night.” She reached out and touched my arm.

I don’t know if it was the suddenness of it or if it was something else, but I jumped violently.

She hastily withdrew her hand. There was a mix of confusion, and sadness on her face. Then I could see she was fighting the tears.

I sighed. Time to apologise again. What sort of person was I.

“I am sorry. It’s not like that. I just wasn’t expecting it.” Lame excuse. It wasn’t like she reached out a diseased hand or something.

“It is OK. It is alright.” She said.

I told her to put back her hand on my arm. She refused. Just kept saying it is alright. I took her hand and put it on my arm.

Silence. After a while she withdrew it.

I thought of how much I had spent at the cinema, and on what?

“Ok. Well, let’s say I pay you for tonight and tomorrow night. You can go home for the weekend right?”

Her yes was non-committal. I thought I knew what that meant.

The rain still hadn’t let up. We both looked through the windscreen at nothing.

I had suggested she stayed until the rains let up, and I just couldn’t ask her to get out now. Besides my curiosity was starting to really get the better of me.

“If you won’t be offended. Why do you do this?”

Silence. I guess she must have been offended.

“I am sorry. You don’t have to say anything.”

“It is OK.”

Silence.

“My father died a long time ago. I didn’t even know him. There were 5 of us children. I am the eldest. We were poor. My mother sold dried fish. We couldn’t go to school. We had to help her by hawking the fish as well. We didn’t do so well. The fishes were small and few. We were told it was because the rivers were polluted with oil.”

Silence.

“When I was fifteen. An Uncle came to our house and offered to take me to Lagos to take care of his children. I would live with him and his wife. And maybe I would be able to go to school.”

My mother was happy. For the first time in a long time, I saw her smile. That weekend she didn’t beat any of us. No screaming. No crying. No stories about when or if my father had been alive. It made me happy as well.

The journey took a long time. That was my first time outside our village. When we reached Lagos, I had never seen so many people in my life. He lived in Okokomaiko. He and his 3 children and his wife lived in one room. It was hot. Our mud-house in the village had more space than that room. In fact, there were 4 rooms in it. The children and myself, we slept on mats on the floor. He and his wife slept on the only bed in the room. There were plenty of other rooms in the house with other people living in them. There was always shouting and fighting. Over everything. To fetch water. To sweep. To greet. Everyday, fight, fight, fight. It seems they were all angry all the time. I don’t know which one was better. In the village, a lot of people were sad all the time. In that house, they were always angry. I tried to stay out of the way but it was impossible. I had to bathe the children, which meant I had to fetch water. There were more fights at the tap than at anywhere else. Some of the people living in the house were trying to get to work so there was always argument about who got to the tap first and how much water to fetch before allowing the next person.

Nothing happened the first few months. Then my Uncle started getting very friendly. He would buy me little things whenever he came home. I didn’t realize it then, but he only gave me those things when his wife wasn’t around. And if it was edible he would say I should eat it before the rest of the family gets back. I thought he just wanted me to enjoy more of it than having to share it with his three children.

The mention of food reminded me of my “dinner.” I had bought a thousand Naira worth of Suya (peppered roasted meat), a loaf of sliced bread and some soft-drinks on my way to the cinema. I found the food and offered her some. She first said no, but I pressed her a little more. We both ate slowly. I wondered if I had made a mistake by breaking her flow, but then she continued.

“Then the touching started. First it was hugs. Then patting. Then pinching. Then grabbing. I was confused. I told my best friend Angela who lived a few houses away. She laughed and said my uncle wanted sex. I said I wasn’t sure. That I had never done it before. She asked if he had been buying me things. I said yes. She said it was good. That I should give in. I asked about pregnancy. She told me about contraceptives. In fact, she gave me some pills which I hid in my bag.

But still I wasn’t sure. Then one day after the children were at school and my aunty had gone to the market, he suddenly returned home. He said he had forgotten something. He rummaged around the room. Then he put on the TV and sat on the bed. He increased the volume until it was very loud. Then he told me to come and watch the TV with him. I sat at the edge of the bed. He said I should sit properly or I would fall down. So I sat closer to him.

Well, his hand first went over my shoulder. Then his other hand went into the front of my blouse. All the while he was smiling and saying something into my ear. My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t hear what he said. I wanted to get away but it was like something tied me to the bed. That was the first time. When he got on top of me he was quite heavy. I just laid there. There was some blood, but apart from my skirt it didn’t stain anything else. He told me to throw the skirt away that he would buy me another one.”

I have been told I frown a lot. I have been told my face has that discreet fatherly look that can at times put even people who rarely know me at ease – maybe it was true, otherwise I wondered why she would feel completely at ease telling me all these: or maybe she just needed an ear.

“I didn’t enjoy it that first time. And the next few times. But after that I didn’t resist him at all. Sometimes I even looked forward to it. But I should have known we would be caught sooner or later. One day aunty returned home unexpectedly and caught both of us on the bed. We were naked. She took one look and started screaming like a mad woman. Fortunately her attention was mostly directed at Uncle. I quickly got into my gown and ran for the door. I think I would have been dead if she had caught me that day. Fortunately I was quicker than her and she was also on the other side of the bed berating her husband. She dashed after me but I was out the door before she could get to me.

I ran all the way up the street. I wasn’t sure where I was going. I didn’t even have my slippers on my feet. The street was pretty deserted at that time of the day, so not many people were about. The only place that came to my mind was my friend Angela’s apartment about two streets away. She had a single room and I was sure she would be in because she usually is around during the day.

I knocked on her door. She took some time opening it. I was still panting so she asked what the issue was. She already knew about my Uncle and I, so all I just needed to tell her was what happened that morning. Even though I was crying she couldn’t help laughing. She said I could stay with her. I ended up staying there for about two weeks. I didn’t go back home. But somehow my aunty had found out I was staying with Angela whom she knew slightly. Fortunately for me, the day she came with the big pestle, the front door of the building was locked. So she stood in front of the house on the road and started shouting both my name and Angela’s. Calling us Ashawo*. Husband-snatcher. Ungrateful village ingrate. We peeped out of the window but despite the crowd gathering around her, she didn’t look like she was going to stop or go away. Someone in the crowd suggested that we were still in the house. I knew sooner or later she would gain entry into the house. Some occupant was bound to return and open the door. It was also fortunate no one had yet suggested the back door. People were always eager to witness a showdown. I told Angela I had to go. She said I should stay. That we will just keep the door of the room locked. I wasn’t sure how long we could stay there. What if she decides to wait us out? I didn’t really have any possession except a few items of clothing Angela had given me. She had lots of fancy cloths. But most of them were flashy. She had told me during the two weeks exactly what she did even though I had been suspicious long before. She was a little older than me. She suggested I go to stay with one of her friends, Bimpe, in Ikeja who I knew quite well because she was frequently in Angela’s house. The girl was very friendly. Angela called her on her phone and told her I would be coming around, that she should put me up for a while as I had family troubles. The way Bimpe giggled at the other end of the line, I guessed she must already know part of my story.

I put the cloths in a plastic bag, peeped out the window to be sure my aunty was still out in front then made my way quietly down the stairs. I went out the back door and crossed the threshold to the back of the next house which had a small door that opened into the next street in its fence. From there I was soon on the main road. I joined a bus to Ikeja. Angela had given me Bimpe’s address.

It was a little difficult to find as there was no motorable road to the house itself. But the house wasn’t bad at all. And her single room was so comfortable. I couldn’t believe how neat and tidy it was. She even had an AC. She was very friendly. Even more than when I had met her at Angela’s place. You would think we were long-lost friends.

But that was only for a short while. You see, she went out every night and slept a lot during the day. She didn’t hide what she was doing from me. In fact, once she was awake, all she wanted to talk about was the men she spent the previous night with. She went into graphic details about what each one was capable of and the ones that couldn’t even perform – she collected her money anyway.

She started gently encouraging me to go along with her. I was scared. Not that I was very religious, but I went to church regularly so I knew what she did was not right. Also, she came home once and she was all bruised and a little bloody. One of her customers had become aggressive. That really scared me.

I started thinking of what I could do, and the only thing I could think of was trading. But Bimpe wouldn’t stand for it. She demanded I either start going along with her, or pack out of her house. That where did I think I was going to be keeping my tray of small items. By this time I had been with her for almost two months. She didn’t stop at that. Why did I believe I was better than her? I don’t mind eating her food that she worked hard to be able to afford. I didn’t mind wearing the cloths she bought for me. Angela soon joined her. I was shocked. I wanted to move out. But I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t go back to the village. I could only imagine what my aunt would have told the whole village about me. Also, I couldn’t imagine going back to live there.

I finally gave in and decided to follow them one night. It’s as if that was the magic word. They both became very friendly again. They even took me shopping for new clothes. That first night I was so scared. If they hadn’t been holding my hands, I think I would have run away! They gave me a couple of tablets that they said would help me relax.  It worked.

There was a popular street where they stood by the road side. I was so ashamed. The skirt was too short. The blouse was so small, I might as well have taken it off. I just stood there like a statue but they were very brave. Any car that slowed down even a little, they were practically at the side-window asking what the occupants wanted. After a while, one of Angela’s customers showed up and she left. Asking Bimpe to take good care of me.

Bimpe said she had to find me a customer she knew very well since it was my first time. One of her regulars showed up and he was eager to go with me. She pretended to be annoyed with him, but he said he would add something on top for her. He was gentle. I never saw him again but I can still remember him. He smiled a lot. He told me a lot about himself. I think he wanted to talk more than do anything else.”

I thought the same about her. I think she just wanted a listening ear and the money of course, not necessarily a “customer”.

“But it was hard at first. And a lot of things made me confused. The way some of the men behaved afterwards. It was as if they hated me. Yet before they were all smiles and quite chatty. Some couldn’t wait to get away afterwards. But I gradually came to understand why. They were angry with themselves for being with me (a prostitute) or maybe they were scared of getting caught and being disgraced. Angela thinks it is both. It was dangerous also. I regularly came across ladies who had been beaten black and blue by their customers. Bimpe and Angela showed me some signs to watch out for when selecting a customer. They said it can be the difference between making money or ending up in the hospital, or worse. I think I have been fortunate. There was lady that used to be on our street in Ikeja. She was friendly enough but I didn’t really know her that much. Then she suddenly stopped showing up. We learnt later that her body had been found one morning. She was missing several parts. That scared me silly. In fact, the day I heard the news, I didn’t go out at night. I was too scared. By that time I had got my own little apartment. It was a one-room affair but I kept it clean and tidy. I also got a little TV.

But the following evening, I got up enough courage to go. I didn’t see any other choice. I couldn’t very well return to my village. I can’t see myself hawking farm produce or doing the back-breaking work again with very little returns.”

Silence.

“I don’t usually come to the Island. Though the pay is better but sometimes there are no customers. And it is too expensive to take taxis both ways when you are not sure what would happen.”

Silence.

I thought it was a good point at which to call it a night even though there were several questions I wanted to ask her such as where were her “friends”. But I should be moving on to my cold bed. I had pushed my luck far enough. I wasn’t about to pay for what she was selling. As my brother would say, “If you pay once, get ready for a lifetime of addiction.” I wasn’t about to add that to my already unimpressive list of addictions – such as watching Crime & Investigations on DSTV; drinking that two cans of Malta Guinness every evening; eating what’s not good for me. You get the idea. So I was just going to give her a gift – no strings attached.

“Uhmn”. I said.

“The rain has stopped. I should be moving on.”

The rain had stopped for a while but I am ashamed to say I was enjoying her story and her company as a person – not as a prostitute.

“Oh” she said. She couldn’t hide the disappointment.

“The rain has stopped.” She repeated. It was hard to tell if she was truly just noticing it for the first time or just repeating what I had said for nothing better to say.

“Thank you for the money and the food Mr …”

“Kayode” I gave one of the many names on my birth certificate I never use.

“Thank you Mr. Kayode” she said.

“My real name is Rosemary.” And I thought she was Janet.

“OK Rosemary.”

“Maybe some other time.”

“Yeah” I guess not.

“Do you have a business card?”

“No. Sorry. Not on me.” The answer came out of its own volition. Borne of long practice. When I don’t want to give out my card. I felt a pang. Wasn’t this business? Or maybe business of a sort I don’t want so there was no reason why I should feel guilty for my response.

“Hmmn. Ok. Can I put my number on your phone.  In case you need anything.”

That was a first for me. I wanted to say no but then the implication would be obvious. I handed the phone over slowly.

She created a contact for herself and filled in her details. She handed back the phone. For some reason I felt as if the entry had “blighted” the phone somehow. Then I felt guilty at the thought. I made a mental noted to modify the entry later. I would add “roundabout” as the “Address” to her contact. That was hopefully innocuous enough such that any random person who happens to get access to my phone won’t read anything into it, but meaningful enough for me to remember who it represents. I don’t believe I would ever have a reason to call the number.

Silence.

“Bye bye sir.”

“Bye Rosemary.”

She got out of the car, closed the door, smiled and waved through the glass.

I smiled, waved and drove on.

Regret is for wimps and the back-mirror is for losers: maybe not always.

I could see her in the rear-view mirror. She hadn’t moved.

That’s still the picture of her in my head.

One lonely person standing there on the street. On a dark, cold, wet Lagos night.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

*Ashawo – Prostitute

(15/June/2013 – 06/August/2013)

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