In the coolness of the night, blood-thirsty mosquitoes buzzed in light drones, zigzagging their way through the chaos. The air was heavy with the choking smells of cigarette, alcohol and a whole day’s sweat coupled with the raucous noise of boisterous men and women high on alcohol, shouting above the blaring music and hums of the generator outside.
Anjola held her breath as she passed by tables under the red and blue neon lights that hung from the ceiling to reach the man sitting alone by the side of the door. Like the others, he had ordered for a beer. He did seem like a decent drinker though. Most people ordered more than one drink. Well, it was still too early to decide, she thought.
“Oga, here is your drink,” Anjola announced as she stood beside the man. He was wearing a hat curled up the sides like he was a dancer or someone trying and failing to play the part of sophistication; Anjola wasn’t sure which. But he did not look like he was from around there. The man was lightly tapping his fingers on the table in time to the rhythms coming from the bar, his eyes fixed on his moving fingers.
He didn’t seem to hear or notice her with the loud noise so she gently tapped his shoulder with her free hand. He jumped a little and looked at her with beady eyes before taking the drink.
“Thank you,” he said with a leer as his eyes did a quick trip from her face to her sandal clad feet and back. Anjola saw the look and recognized it. She knew it too well but ignored him. She motioned to the bottle opener on his table and sauntered away, paying no attention to the calls by some of the men who yelled names like, “Fine girl”, “Omo Mummy”, “Baby” at her.
She got back to her place behind the counter and took her book seated on the refrigerator. She flipped through the pages and stopped at the page she had previously dog-eared. Barely had she gone through four lines before she felt a tug on the hem of her jeans. Looking down, she saw Bolu; her baby brother.
“Cayi me!” he whined while attempting to heave his chubby frame up her lap. She smiled and picked him up, cuddling his small body. He smelled of baby powder and milk. She tickled his sides and he giggled, making little noises that dissolved into the din of the bar.
“Anjola! Bring two bottles of Guiness here,” a strong, female voice called from the back of the bar. That was her mother. She stood, lurched Tade on her hip and went to get the drinks.
Her mother was sitting with the man on the hat. As she approached the table, she heard the deep rumble of her mother’s laughter, her head thrown back and her hands playfully swatting the man. Her mother did not know the meaning of shame. She flirted so boldly with her customers that it was no surprise that she had three out of five children from different men.
“The drinks,” Anjola said as graciously as she could manage without letting her annoyance show.
“Thank you, dear,” funny-hat-man said in an accent that sounded like it was copied off years of burying your nose in American movies, except it was so poorly delivered, she resisted the urge to snort. She dropped the bottles and walked away.
Three drinks and counting.
Back at her station, Anjola continued with her book, shutting out the noise around while Bolu sat on her lap and played with her braids, making tiny noises. She immediately got lost in the writer’s imagination; a world where men did not drink beer to become a nuisance to the society while their wives waited at home with hungry babies and where the women did not have to sell their goods for cheap drinks and attention. For years, Anjola had dreamed of escape.
In that dream, she wore a vintage dress, like the one some of the heroines in her book wore on summer days and she was standing in front of a massive building like she imagined Harvard would be. She still remembered the blank look Toke – her cousin – had on her face when she talked about this.
“Vin-tage? Whaz that one?” she asked nodding her head in that way that was not an agreement but was meant to tell you how ridiculous the idea was.
“You know…something…classy…old-fashioned but in a classic way,” Anjola answered as she struggled to explain the idea to her ignorant cousin. How could she explain the enduring appeal, the basic idea of what classic vintage was to her cousin whose understanding of style was a good bargain at a thrift store? (or ‘bend-down-select’)
Toke would come back home on some days after her shift at the factory with a shoe or any clothing and give Anjola a smug smile.
“Oya, guess how much I buy it,” she would say, splaying the prize on the bed all five children and their cousin shared.
Anjola would roll her eyes but play along. “Five hundred naira?”
“No. Guess again.” By now she would be giggling excitedly and Anjola wasn’t sure if she had the strength to play the game.
“I don’t know. Tell me.”
Toke would pause dramatically, close her eyes, open them again and declare, “Hundred naira!” she would clap and laugh as though applauding her own shrewdness. And out of obligation, Anjola would gasp and say, “That’s good.” But Toke was always too caught up in herself to notice the sarcasm in her voice.
Those things didn’t last very long. But then, she would continue, each time drawing Anjola to play the tiring guess game. So, really, there was no way to explain vintage to Toke and in fact all her dreams. For example, Toke also could not understand why Anjola wanted to pursue a university education and in Harvard no less! It made no sense.
“The only thing you need is husband. Husband that is living in fine flat. Your children will now come and take you go America when time have reach,” Toke would say with a dreamy look. This, you see, was her own dream. To marry a husband who lived in a flat (as opposed to the regular one room apartment), could provide food for her and the kids, didn’t turn her to a punching bag when he was drunk and them maybe, one day, her kids would take her to America. That was the dream of every young woman in Aje, the dream her mother wanted but didn’t quite get. So instead of a husband, she got men who didn’t stay long enough to watch their seed mature. And trending, on number four, was Adio – Remi and Bolu’s father.
But Anjola was different. She didn’t know how she turned out as an oddball in the midst of so many round balls but she was. Maybe it was the books she read or a greater force. And maybe it was both, she wasn’t sure. But that something had always made her more serious about her life than the other kids; in school, she pushed hard as she nursed the dream of becoming a lawyer, on the streets she placed a permanent blockade on her ears to the calls of the boys and at home she kept her mind safe from the crippling effect of mediocrity.
And books were her haven, the only place that was right, safe and sane in the world.
* * * *
This is the first episode of “Forgiving God”. I hope you join me as I’ll post subsequent episodes.
Thanks for sticking around. You deserve a hug but I’m awkward with those 🙂