by Frances Ogamba
The clouds hang low like wet laundry, saggy and pale, with thunder murmurs behind them sending occasional sparks of lightning like match sticks that never get lit. I decide to sit on the median that splits Port Harcourt/Aba expressway into two halves. Lowering myself, I use my buttocks to ascertain there are no sharp objects. My tray sits at my knee’s edge. Last month, Mudiame sat on a nail lying on the median. Viki says the nail drove to his insides, into the real thing. I didn’t witness the accident so I cannot say for sure, but he hasn’t come out for sales since that day. The traffic is a bit jammed so the vehicles move with reluctance. The passengers have enough time to run their hands on our wares and complain.
—Haba! This water no cold o.
—This gala don expire.
—Plantain, come. No worry, go. E be like say na yesterday own.
The other sellers are chasing buses; Viki and his carton of gala meat-rolls, Tena and her tray of boiled groundnuts, Uzo and his fat bananas like the eyes of a child battling with jaundice, the two brothers who are new to the check point have their bottles of water and minerals arranged on a crate. I have two wraps of plantain chips remaining on my tray. I want to run around and sell them off, but my back feels stiff like an overworked grinder so I sit instead and watch vehicles swim in and out of the shallow holes dredged on the road by erosion, and their tyres bake the brown sands into long endless ribbons with square-shaped designs at their edges.
An army checkpoint faces the road with lines of sand-filled sacks standing around it. Drums wearing black and yellow paints like waistbands make up the roadblocks on the both sides of the road. A tent that serves as a shelter for the soldiers is covered with tarp sheets, frayed bags of sand stand as the tent walls. A lanky Second Lieutenant is at the entrance of the tent, cupping his right hand above his eyes to protect them from the sun. He is sociable only when his plump superior, Oche, whom we tagged ‘Plump soldier’ is either asleep or absent. He tries the local language with me.
“Ikwerre meka o”
“O wee. Mma mma” I reply. He gives me a cheeky smile and his dark face becomes pitch-black. We do not know his real name so we call him ‘Alika’, a local christening for slim people. His plump superior, the one that eats from our wares and makes us record them on a piece of paper, is older than him. I cannot write, neither can Viki. Tena writes with bad spellings making her records tasking to read out or understand. The two brothers have eyes that glint like car headlights. Maybe they will help us keep record of all the gala, groundnuts, and plantain chips that the soldiers have been gourmandizing from our trays. Harry, the third soldier, whom we fondly call ‘Our Harry’ is reserved, though he often plays with us. He is of medium size, and his face is as unsmiling as the rumpled badge on his chest. He does not owe us anything, unlike Plump soldier who owes everyone something all the time.
With the brothers, we make six sellers at the checkpoint. Large quantities of hair crowded in a small space stand on their heads making them look somewhat sophisticated and different from us. They are fresh from Port Harcourt city. House rent problems had chased their widowed mother to the city outskirts.
Viki is seventeen. His voice is husky and sometimes resonates from under my feet when he speaks. He has a broken front tooth and likes squeezing my shoulders when talking to me. He lives near Oil Mill market, and pays all his bills by himself. He lashes at me often for letting my aunt throw me out to the corridor every night I do not remit complete money for the plantain chips.
I make drawings as I watch Tena measure out groundnuts in a small cup and give it to the hand sticking out of a moving vehicle. She runs after the bus and cannot catch up with it. Viki runs after the bus in her place until a fifty naira note is thrown out of the window. Tena smiles and the dimples on her cheeks sink in as though poked by a finger. Viki rescues our money all the time but his sacrifice for Tena is different. Sometimes after the sun has gone down and the soldiers gone for the day, I catch them in shadows, Tena and Viki, sticking their hands inside each other’s clothes.
The Plump soldier likes Tena too because he always ogles at her and sometimes runs his tongue on his lower lip revealing flesh burnt black by cigar and wee-wee. We often make jokes about Plump Soldier and Viki’s implicit fight over Tena because the Plump soldier’s dislike for Viki is etched in the frown that burrows his forehead when he stares at him, and in the manner he gobbles up his gala without paying. He seems angry at his independence, his confidence, and his attraction to Tena.
Tena and Uzo are both thirteen year olds but Tena is more outspoken and has eyes that know the world. Uzo is very quiet. He laughs all the time, regardless of the bruises and burns around his mouth and nose areas that dry up and get replaced by fresher ones. Our Harry always asks him about them, but he makes up stories of inexistent causes. Whenever Our Harry asks me of the mice bites on my toes and fingers, I always smile and say, Notin’ sir. Na malaria.
“Eze, you don tire?” Viki asks in a breathy voice filling up my nostrils with the smell of his sweat. He sits by me and squeezes my right shoulder. It takes patience for me to not shrug his hand off. He talks loudly, insisting on interrupting my daydreams. He talks about Chelsea and their flop last weekend, spittle leaving his mouth in the excitement and splattering across my face. He keeps pushing his face closer, narrowing my chances of not inhaling the smell of his spittle. He keeps asking, Shebi you get? Whenever he talks about football, the mirrors of his irises glitter. He wants to play for Chelsea or Arsenal someday. He tells me that Chelsea is also a district on the Northern bank of The River Thames while Arsenal means a strong military establishment. His stories stock up in my head like the refuse pile down the road, and then they fade away and I hear nothing else.
“Oh boy! Talk na. You too dey dull person.” He complains when he realizes I am not listening to him.
“Eze!” the Plump soldier’s voice rings out almost immediately. I run toward him in response and stand at attention after a brief salute. Two small breasts are growing on his chest. Their thick nipples nudge his uniform’s breast pocket.
“How much for your chips?”
“Olodo! Bring it,” he says and I run to my tray and fetch one of the remaining chips, pretending not to catch Viki’s warning stares bidding me to disobey the orders. I take it inside the tent. There is a rolled up flat mattress, five old wooden chairs and some cups and plates. A soldier I do not know is sitting inside peering into his phone screen. I run back to the median to resume my position. Viki looks away when the Plump soldier demands for his gala. I nudge him repeatedly until he stands, chewing cud as muscles flash at his cheeks like light sparks. Tena tries to write the wares down but she spells plantain chips as ‘plnten chees’ and spells banana ‘palanie’. Every time we consult the list, the spellings sound like new wares.
I start walking home when I notice a young star swimming in the sky like it was an ocean. Tena and the two brothers left earlier. Uzo and Viki usually stay longer before leaving. I know I am walking home a bit late today because the birds that usually loom in the sky above me seem occupied elsewhere. The sun has retired leaving a lopsided bright yellow trail behind. Above my head, a giant moon seems to be dancing to the rhythm of the reawakened night life of my street where a woman roasts corn and pear while the other one fries yam and plantain. I glide by unnoticed until I get to my aunt’s side of our compound. I knock on the wooden gate and I hear footsteps drag behind it. It is not exactly a gate. It is a door too large and heavy to be referred to as a door. The hinges are old they make musical sounds when they are about to be opened or shut. The other house that often appears to be perching on the other side is…
“Decide whether you go enter my house or not, or whether you go sleep on top that waste bin you leave there since Sunday.” My aunt rasps opening the gate wide enough to let someone my size shuffle in. I walk in trying to evade the faint brush of her breasts against my head or cheeks. I fail as the nipple caresses the middle of my head. Shoes and clothes litter the corridor leading into the kitchen. I know they must have been fighting, my aunt and my uncle. Large bowls of dirty water fill the kitchen sink to the brim. An old iron bucket stands under the sink collecting leaking water. Rotten food that has lost its weight and oil films float on the water surface. My uncle is a six-foot-tall man with broad shoulders and a face made dark by the ugly scar just above his brow. He brushes past me shouting on the phone, telling someone to come and take my aunt away before he kills her. I quickly drop my tray in the kitchen and remit the day’s money to my aunt. She snatches the money and unrolls it like a wrap of wee-wee. Her face lightens up until her mouth wrinkles begin to disappear in her delight. She throws hateful glances at her husband as she wets her finger with saliva and counts the money.
“50, 100, 150, 200, 300, 500, 550, 570, 600, 800, 1300, 2300, 2400… two thousand four hundred? But na fifty pieces I give you. Wetin happen to two?” she grimaces, pulling herself up as though to make me aware of her full size in case I try to lie. I move away a bit.
“Plump soldier, sorry, Officer Oche collect two but him never pay.”
“Which rubbish Oche? Wetin concern Oche come concern my business? I must get my money tomorrow kpaa kpaa!” She says, pointing at me. She hides the money inside her bra and storms away. The house is a one-room flat with a living room, a narrow toilet that serves as a bathroom, and a kitchen. I sleep in the kitchen when she doesn’t make me sleep in the corridor as punishment.
My uncle does not notice that I live with them. The other time my aunt hit me on the head with a pan, he sat watching TV pretending not to notice the blood that ran down my arm and splattered in thin drops on the carpet. My aunt says I should be eternally grateful to her because her husband didn’t want her to take me in when they found me on their corridor. I start washing the utensils littered all over the kitchen. I will arrange the shoes later and maybe sweep the house if she doesn’t throw me out before then. I have to be at the checkpoint by 7.00am tomorrow. The huge rats of our compound scurry past our corridor in quick movements. They expect me to be crouched up against the corridor wall by now. They enjoy chewing my heels when I am fast asleep. My aunt will disappoint them when she tells me to sleep on the kitchen floor instead.
“Oga buy water; Very pure and chilled.” One of the brothers tells a passenger looking out a bus window. It is 10.00am according to Viki’s watch and I have sold out half my tray. Viki’s sales are not so good today so he joins me on the median after twenty minutes of chasing buses.
“Them give news for radio say gala no good again?” he asks me in a serious tone.
“I no hear oh. Why?” I reply with the same tone.
“I dey wonder why I never sell today na. E get one babe wey I dey razzle. I need this money to take show off today,” he complains. I try not to laugh but it is difficult considering his unsmiling expression and his broken tooth that flashes every time he speaks. I burst into a loud bout of mirth until my sides cannot contain the pressure. He just smiles and pokes my ribs.
“Yeye boy, continue to dey laugh me.”
Tena scoops groundnuts into a nylon sachet and runs after a bus. Her skirt is short enough to reveal a pair of smooth legs.
“What of Tena? You no like her again?” I demand when I realize we are both staring at her.
“I wan marry her sef, but I no too understand her pattern,” he says and his eyes dull as a shade of sadness grows in them. I know it will be unfair to laugh at him this time. He likes Tena in a way I cannot relate. The silence begins to weigh in like a water sack.
“Wetin we dey gain from this checkpoint sef?” I ask him, bursting the silence and changing the subject. I know it is a pointless question but I am glad when he starts explaining that it does not make sense to start looking for a new sales point. One of the brothers interrupts our discussion. He says that Plump soldier wants to see us for a brief checkpoint meeting. We keep our wares on the median and troop to the tent. My eyes catch Tena’s brows. Thick black painting is outlined generously on them. I think I see some on her lips too. Plump soldier appears smart and cheerful today. Officers Harry and Alika are behind him. Two other soldiers who work with them periodically are seated inside the tent discussing in low tones. Plump soldier announces that he has found a way we can make more money for ourselves. Uzo’s face lightens up at the announcement. His scars almost melt away.
“Every bus driver wey dey pass here suppose give us 50 naira. Every week, una go dey collect the money turn by turn, then you take twenty percent of the total amount.”
I do not know what pa’cent means, so I do not know whether to be excited at the offer or not. Our Harry explains the mathematics to us using fifty naira per bus for thirty buses. Then he multiplies the total by twenty pa’cent. Uzo worries that the money collection will affect his sales but they tell him that it is in the process of going to a bus to sell that he collects the money from the driver. We all go away arguing in low tones, debating whether we should do it or not. Viki says he does not trust Plump soldier but he trusts Our Harry and it is an extra gain for us. We draw a roster for the next six weeks and submit to them. Uzo is working this week and the job officially opens tomorrow. It is not hard work. The drivers already know they have to submit money. Our job is to collect the money. That’s what Alika says.
Uzo gets two hundred naira after the day’s collection. It is not as much as we expected because the soldiers didn’t tell us that all drivers do not give fifty naira. Some give twenty naira and promise to give more next time. Some drive past when they see a teenager waving them down. Uzo is not bothered; he looks forward at least to a night of no beatings. After Uzo, Tena works and then it is Viki’s turn. Viki hands over to the two brothers and they decide to partner with each other for two weeks. I work last and I make a thousand five hundred in seven days, so I decide to get myself a pair of new sandals and a football club shirt. Viki suggests Chelsea.
My uncle barely lives with us now. He just keeps coming and going like nightfall. I have an album in my memories where he fits in, especially when the sling bag crosses his broad shoulders and he leaves in such haste. The difference in the picture album is that my aunt doesn’t wail or run after him the way my mother wailed and ran after my father. Thereafter, my mother disappeared like an airplane in the clouds and I found myself in a mice-infested corridor. That one is in another album. I haven’t slept at the corridor in months, and my aunt has been friendly. She touches my hair sometimes and comments on the good smell that hover around me these days. With an eyebrow painted black like Tena’s, she fills up the doorway and asks me to walk through. Sometimes she asks me to scratch her dandruff-filled hair or pick the grey hairs while she smiles herself to sleep. I tell Viki about it and he says I am a fool. He says it is a good chance to try a first with an older woman.
It is Uzo’s turn to collect money from buses today but he says he is purging. His eyes are sunken in. Our Harry gives him two capsules of Tetracycline, the one we call ‘33’, to calm his bowel. The two brothers say they are facing their sales squarely this week. I am equally doing the same because I have been going home with more money and more unsold chips. Viki is the only one who can balance his sales and his collection. He decides to stand in for Uzo. It is a bright day except for the clouds folding here and there like the flank of a heavyset man. An unusually large number of buses run by the express today, so Viki’s twenty pa’cent is over one thousand naira by noon. His carton of gala meat-rolls has been sold halfway too.
“Na my luck be that!” Uzo shrieks, emerging from the bush where he had gone to ease himself. Tena starts laughing at him and we join her.
”Go back bush. Na there you belong today,” Alika tells him jokingly. Viki orders bottles of Fanta and Sprite for all of us in his excitement. I pause my sales and sit at my favourite spot on the median to drain my bottle. I have sipped the drink halfway when two buses cross the checkpoint at the same time. Viki catches them on time and collects their dues, then he runs back to hand them over to Harry who is hovering at the entrance of the tent. A fern-green Hilux approaches from the opposite side of the express and Harry suddenly fades away. A soldier as tall as my uncle steps out of the Hilux and moves towards the tent in long strides. Our three soldier friends including Harry step out to salute him profusely. He has the air of a Major all over him.
“Who is this boy collecting money for?” he demands in a voice loud enough for us to hear.
“Which one sir?” Plump soldier asks him, stepping out fully in the sunlight yet looking small beside the man.
“That one!” the man indicates Viki with his forefinger. I want to ask Viki to run but he is not looking. His hand is folded on his chest as if he is probably waiting for a proper introduction where he will be told to shake the superior’s hand. I try to read their gestures. Alika keeps scratching his head. Plump soldier stammers all his answers. It feels like almost half an hour and not even a tricycle has run by the express way.
“We do not know him sir,” Our Harry answers, expressionless. He avoids looking in our direction. Viki is now standing some distance away from the tent.
“If you don’t know him, shoot him,” the Major commands Harry.
Blood rushes to my head as sounds meld into faraway muffled cries of a child. I will my eyes to search the sky for birds but I fail because my eyes do not obey my mind in the first place. I see Harry lift his gun, the one we always touched and argued about its weight. A faint glow of surprise colours Viki’s smile. He is trying to say something to Harry. Maybe if he has the time to, it will be something like “Oga Harry, how far na? wetin be this?” or “Oga Harry, we get Chelsea match to analyze o.”
When Viki sprawls on the ground and writhes like a poisoned snake in the dust, when his fingers make to call me but then fold in instead like a dead bird’s claws, his irises darker than I remember, when his blood though not as red or as thick as I thought it would be snakes along the flinty soil, I know ‘Our Harry’ aimed well.
About the Writer:
Frances Ogamba desires freedom from something she is not quite aware of. She writes to find out. Her stories appear in Afridiaspora and Writivism prize 2016 anthologies, Dwartonline and Ynaija websites. She is a workshop alumnus of Writivism 2016, Ake fiction 2016, and Orchids Without Attached Thighs 2016. She lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.