I finished my first novel – tentatively titled The Conference – in December last year. It took me all of 2012 to write it, and when I tapped the final word on my laptop, I felt a rush of relief, and on its heels, a fired-up zeal to do it again. Not to rewrite the novel oh – God, no! What I wanted was to find another storyline, expand another plot, and start writing again. The completion of my book did not drain me of the energy of producing more words, far from it. Instead, I said to myself: ‘If I could do it one time, surely I can do it again.’
And so, everywhere I looked, potential stories lurked. Characters jumped out at me. Dialogues raged in my head. Friendships were formed and loyalties broken in the murky waters of my imagination. I committed several murders and made lots of love in my first book, so the bloodthirstiness was real and the romance was begging to be indulged again.
I asked myself: ‘What do you want to write about?’ I walked out into the street, and I wondered. Perhaps, there was a story in the scene that played out before me where a bag of rice unhooked itself from the over-laden behind of a commercial bus speeding past, and fell on the expressway. The bus sped on for a few metres, before it began to slow down. The frantic voice of a woman was resonating from inside: “My rice – conductor, my rice don fall!” But you see, the bag of rice was no longer there. Two highway touts had weaved, lightning-fast, through the traffic and snatched it up, disappearing with it into the crowd of pedestrians and bystanders teeming on the roadside.
Or I could begin a story with a prologue detailing another scene I witnessed at a bus-stop where a street urchin nearly lifted, clean off a woman’s handbag, her purse. The purse was leather and looked bulky with promise. A promise the urchin never got to discover, because the owner – this woman – who must have felt a few pounds lighter at the slow departure of her purse, turned, nabbed the little thief, and pounced on him, yanking his ear with such savagery that the skin ripped. There was blood. I didn’t stick around to know how that drama ended.
Perhaps, I could write about the night when, needled by hunger, I went out into the neighbourhood food market to purchase dinner. I had a hankering for Agege bread stuffed with fried eggs, accompanied with Indomie, sautéed with sardine, and washed down with a mug of milk-rich tea. Thinking about the food already had my mouth watering with anticipation. In record time, I was in Abdul’s stall, having my senses assaulted by the chatter of his kinsmen and the spicy scents of sizzling delicacies. I watched his kitchen knives, amongst other utensils, dance and flash against the blue flames of the stove, and I pondered how easily those blades could turn from kitchen equipment to murder weapons, should a tribal war suddenly break out. Perhaps, there was a story there. . .
But while these perceptual creations held promise, I didn’t consider them rich enough to nurture a novel. My plots were fractured and storylines incomplete. Then I went to a good friend’s house, and acting like a sounding board, he dropped a pebble inside the oceanic expanse of my mind, a gem of an idea that sent out ripples and nudged to wakefulness my imaginative instincts.
“Why don’t you write about a serial killer?”
And that was how a deranged man and five unfortunate women adopted an existence in my mind. The killer would be somebody all five of these women knew, an inconspicuous presence in their lives. These women would be friends, have careers and battle complicated relationships.
And then I was at another friend’s place in Aguda, and he observed me working, and he asked me about my new story.
Let me just digress a little here, and put out a disclaimer. To protect this friend’s identity, and our friendship (because he could be reading this), let’s just say his name is…em…er, Chris. And if there are any fellas bearing the name ‘Chris’ reading this, when you are done, abeg do not call your lawyer to file a suit against me oh. Okay? Okay. There, that said, let’s continue with my gist.
So, I was at Chris’ place in Aguda, and he wanted to know what I was writing about. I told him. I told him about these five women, strong, smart and passionate. Some controversial, the others conservative. I told him about the dark presence stalking their lives, loving them and hating them for what he felt was their impurities. He loathed one for kissing men onscreen, another for loving a fellow woman, and a third for leading a secret life as a prostitute –
“Waitaminute!” Chris pulled my narration to a halt. “One of the women is an ashawo?” He had the beginnings of a leer on his face.
“Nothing.” He shrugged and took a swig from the Malt bottle he was drinking. “Something just occurred to me, that’s all.”
“Something like what?”
His vagueness fed my curiosity. “Tell me already nah,” I said impatiently.
“OK, OK, let me ask you something. Do you usually research the facts of your stories before you start writing the fiction?”
I nodded. “Through the internet and asking people who have the right answers.”
“So you’ve never really been a part of your research?”
“And you’re about to write on a character who is a prostitute – how will you know what to write?”
I gave him an affronted look. “I watch films. I read books. And I believe I’m imaginative enough to make my character believable.”
“OK, OK” – he raised his hands placatingly – “No chop me abeg. I’m just saying, if you’re going to write about a prostitute, I can take you where you can get to know about prostitutes.”
My eyes widened. “You mean, like a whorehouse?”
“Where there are prostitutes?” I couldn’t help the stupid question.
Thankfully, Chris is nothing like my other friend, Mayowa, who is famous for his biting sarcasm. He simply answered, “Yes.”
“How do you know about this place?”
“I just know.” He shrugged again. “It’s not far from my house.”
“Do you sleep with ashawo, eh, Chris?” My eyes narrowly watched him.
“What kind of question is that?” He gave a little laugh and lifted his bottle to his lips again.
The kind he didn’t want to answer, obviously, I thought.
“Look, do you want me to take you there or not?”
“Of course, I do,” I said.
I shut down my laptop. He got dressed. I armed myself with just a pen and jotter. Chris shut the door and we were on our way. Two young men on a mission to…em…well, to do some research.
We strolled to an area of Aguda known as Kilo, veered off the bus-stop and into a street on the left. The neighbourhood wasn’t much different from Chris’ – small, 2- and 3-story houses built close together, with a pothole-riddled road that wound before them, and compact cars that had seen better days parked along the curb. It was Saturday, so there was a lot of noisy bustle resonating from the houses and spilling out to the street.
“Juliana!” a raucous voice burst out as we approached a building. “Juliana! Shebi you no go carry your nose comot from my matter, eh? E be like say you never hear abat me for this Lagos. Make una tell am oo! Make una warn this woman!”
I shot Chris a wary look as we turned into the gateway, and walked inside a small courtyard. There were women everywhere, various sizes of them – skinny, voluptuous, slender, curvy, flabby – all of them scantily-clad. Some of them were already dressed to begin the business of the day…er, night, and they all seemed to be talking at the same time. Rising above the hubbub, however, was the screeching of the woman who had a serious problem with Juliana. Both of them stood, facing off each other, one clad in shorts that were so brief it showed off the entire length of stretch marks that had ravaged the backs of her thighs, and the other strapped inside a tight tank top that did nothing for her protuberant tummy.
“Make una warn this woman oo! Next time when I go use this my two eyes see you” – she wagged two fingers from those ‘two eyes’ and jabbed them in the direction of Juliana’s face – “if I venture see you near any of my customers, e go red for two of us oo. I go do you strong –”
“My friend, shettup!” the other woman cut in with an affronted glare. “Na because I no wan talk, na im make your mouth dey run like say e fail break? Who be your customer? Na because say that man make mistake enter your dommot the other day, na im make you dey misyarn? I use my hand drag am come my side? No be wetin eye see wey make am leave you come my side, enh? See, Stella, I take God beg you, if you no want trouble, just comot road for me, otherwise, hmm, your mouth no go fit talk wetin your eyes go see this aftahnoon.”
“Wetin you fit do?” Stella shrieked, clapping her hands together. “Eh, Juliana, I dey ask you. Wetin – you – fit – do?” With each jerky pause, she shoved Juliana.
“Wait oo, you use this ya dirty hand touch my body? Shebi death don dey hungry you? You wan enter matter wey you no go from comot, abi? Try am again, to God” – she touched a finger to her tongue and then pointed it skyward – “e go be me and you this aftahnoon.”
“Oya, do wetin you wan do. I wan see am.” Stella shoved Juliana again, and the woman, without missing a beat, swung her hand forward. The crack of palm against cheek resounded. Stella screamed and pounced.
And that was how the first trouble started.
A scuffle ensued. Some women rushed over to break up the fight, while others went about their business, seemingly oblivious to the madness swelling around them.
“Ah, Chris, Chris, ha far nah.”
At the sound of the female voice, we turned from the drama to see a woman approaching us. She was young, couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or three, but she was old in sin and experience. She had that hardness on her face that could not be disguised by the makeup she was wearing. As she came to stand before us, I caught a whiff of her perfume: the kind of stuff that needed plenty of fresh air to go with it.
She sized me up in a matter of seconds, her eyes calculating how much I would be worth to her as a customer, all the while smiling at my friend. “Ah, customer, long time oo.”
“Who be your customer?” Chris replied, laughing self-consciously.
“You nah. Abi you don follow all these other gehs dey do wetin me and you dey do?” Her tone was light, playful, but her eyes had narrowed with a guardedness that told me that question was anything but playful.
I turned to Chris with my brows raised in question. He noticed my eyes on him and chuckled again, his eyes not quite meeting mine. That awkward moment when your friend confirms that you pay for sex with an ashawo. Tsk, tsk.
“So na new market you carry come for us be this?” The girl returned her scrutiny to me.
“No oo, no be market be this. Na my friend, the guy dey write novel.”
“Ehen? Person wey dey write novel no dey fuck woman?”
Oh my gawd! I died a little death there, just sliver of me withering away from mortification. If I am white, I’d have been blushing beet-red at the time.
Chris laughed uproariously at that, while I studiously contemplated the architecture of the house, and ignored the two of them. They bantered, and the moments passed without incident. In that time, I observed my surroundings. I watched the women as they existed in their natural habitat. The loud, uncultured conversations, the ribald laughter, the belligerent attitudes. I watched the men who strolled in and out; even at this time of the day, there were men who apparently needed afternoon nookies to sustain them for the day. Business was no longer strictly relegated to the night. I observed the building, a soiled two-story concrete structure that had been painted white at some indeterminate time in the past. It stood there with the moroseness of one who had seen and heard too much. If these walls could talk.
I walked away from the two standing beside me to stroll across the compound. Some of the women noticed me and began tossing our bawdy invitations in mock-seriousness.
“Yellow, na me you dey find?”
“This one na correct ajé butter oo. Come this side make I buti you well-well…”
“Fine boy, no mind them. Come, I go show you sugar mummy loving…”
There were lewd winks. One lifted her breasts, thrust them out and jiggled them. Another slapped her buttocks. There was more loud laughter. I laughed right along with them, feeling the heat of my discomfort flood my face, and saying nothing. I walked into the building, into what turned out to be a small, shabby reception. The furniture comprised of a big scarred wooden counter, three white plastic chairs and a small table piled with copies of outdated magazines. Seated on one of the chairs was a young, gum-chewing girl. She flashed me an interested look, stopped chewing, sized me up, dismissed me, re-crossed her legs and resumed chewing.
I took one of the other seats, sat down and began writing, transcribing from memory what I had gleaned so far would be relevant for my character’s life.
“Come oo, wetin you dey write?” the gum-chewer suddenly barked.
I looked up. “A story.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You be journalist, abi?”
“No oo –”
“Na una dey come write nonsense abat us, ehn?”
“No, no, no, I’m just writing a story –”
“Eh, make I see” – she wagged her fingers authoritatively at me – “gimme that your paper sharp-sharp make I see –”
Just then, a piercing wail rent the air. Gum-chewer and I jerked in our seats, and the entire compound was startled into momentary silence.
“I no do again!” a voice screeched from somewhere inside. “Ah! Mogbe! You wan kill me, I no do again oo!” There was the muted sound of a scuffle, and the woman screamed again. “Make una come see oo!”
This time, her scream unlocked the immobility around. Gum-chewer was the first on her feet, darting out of the reception and into the hallway. I heard a rush of feet as those outside started for the inside. Without thinking, I got up and hurried after gum-chewer. The hallway quickly filled up with women, all of them heading for a room in the far corner of the hallway. I waded through the crush of bodies until I got to the open doorway and peeked in.
The room was a clutter of clothes, shoes and all sorts of other feminine knickknackery. The woman standing beside the bed was dark-skinned, short-ish and clad in a negligee that barely covered her big-breasted chest that was heaving with the force of her agitation. On the bed, struggling to conceal his nudity from the intrusive eyes was a tall, lanky man with shriveled features and spindly arms and legs.
Noticing that she now had an audience, the woman shrieked, “Show them! Show them wetin you wan use finish me this aftahnoon!”
“Bisola, no be so –” the man entreated in a voice that was weak with his embarrassment.
“Show them oo!” And she pounced on him, her hands wrenching at his hands which he had over his crotch. He struggled with her.
“Show us oo!” some of the women jeered, clapping their hands in crude delight. One of them joined Bisola in pulling the poor man’s hands away from his crotch, revealing what he was hiding.
My eyes widened in shock.
“Oga, na firewood be that!”
“I hope say you no get wife!”
“Na die get the woman nah!”
The startled exclamations were well-deserved. The man’s thing was ENORMOUS! It was no longer turgid, still it stretched, long, fat and heavily-veined, down his legs, its tip flopping midway down his thigh. I kid you not! That manhood was no blessing to him, it was a curse. When an ashawo is saying ‘she no dey do’, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.
Anyway, nothing eventful happened after that. We didn’t stay long to find out if there was going to be more drama. Chris said his goodbyes, and we left, with my mind spinning from all the things I’d just experienced.
Just another day in Lagos.
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