Adaku pointed from the taxi window. ‘That’s the one.’
Soon, the white 504 Peugeot came to a halt in front of a black gate. On the wall beside the gate MILAN HOSTEL was printed in white.
‘Is this the place?’ her mother asked.
Her father came down and her mother followed.
Adaku carried her snake-skin hand bag and joined them.
The taxi man said he needed to park well and they stepped aside as he did.
He came down and opened the boot. He carried out her large wood cupboard first. A brand new family-size mattress was tied to the car roof.
Adaku walked to the car. She was about to lift the big bag that contained cooking utensils when her mother waved at her to step away.
‘Nne, hapu— leave it,’ she said.
The taxi man carried the bag out. Pots, plates and spoons jangled as he lowered it to the ground.
The taxi driver and her father were taking out the yam tubers together when two male students; one on a shirt and boxers and the other a singlet and jean trousers came to help.
They were dark, slim and surprisingly of the same height, though they did not share any facial resemblance.
Ada glimpsed on the face they made when they saw the food items: over a dozen yam tubers and still counting, half bag of rice, half bag of garri, beans and cartons of Indomie. It was an expression she recognized, that subtle show of surprise tinged with mocking amusement.
They greeted her parents with lively smiles and lifted her things.
She followed and showed them her block and then her room: Block D, Room 8.
When all was inside, she thanked them.
‘Onoo, choolufa ife nu—find something for them,’ her mother said.
She used Onoo, shortened from Onochie, in situations like this.
Her father dipped into his left pocket and pulled out a bundle of N500 notes. He gave each boy a note and the eager smiles hanging around their faces spread over. They chorused ‘Thank you, Sir’ with a bow and walked away.
‘Nne, there is work here o,’ her mother said, looking round the room and the bags on the floor.
‘I think you and Papa should start going now,’ Ada said. ‘I will take care of this.’
Her mother shook her head. ‘Mbanu, olu ehika— there is so much to be done.’
She stared at her mother. She knew Uchechi. There is so much work to be done, but she’d rather keep announcing it than bend down to touch anything.
She knew she couldn’t wait to get back home. She knew she still wanted to go to the market. She’d complained about why it had to be on an Nkwo, of all days, that she’d be leaving for school.
Her father had asked her to stay if she didn’t want to go, but she shrugged and said, ‘Mbanu, how can I choose market over my own daughter?’
‘Nne, are sure you don’t need help?’ Uchechi asked her again.
‘If you want to help her unpack, then do so!’ her father barked. ‘Stop asking stupid questions!’
Uchechi opened her palms. ‘Do I know where to begin?’
Now she raised a hand. ‘Eh-eh! Papa Adaku, bikokwa, don’t shout at me.’ Her voice dropped to a murmuring. ‘I know you still think you are at home. This is university o.’
‘It’s ok, Papa,’ Adaku said. ‘I will be fine.’
Her father pulled out the bundle of money and gave her.
‘Thank you, Papa.’
Her mother unzipped her yellow purse and brought out four N200 notes. ‘Nne, tikoo— join this too.’
She collected the money and thanked her.
Uchechi leaned toward her and whispered, ‘Okwa I chetalu? Hope you still remember all I told you?’
Her mother nodded too. ‘Good. Once they come, tell them you are married, inu? If they persist, oso ozigbo—run fast! Do you hear?’
‘Good. Don’t even give them chance. You see those two that came to help us take your things inside, don’t think they are your friends o. Don’t give anybody chance. That’s why I asked your father to give them something so that you don’t feel like you owe anybody. You don’t owe them, inu?
Another full nod.
‘Good. We will be leaving now.’
‘Stay well, Ada,’ her father said. He hugged her.
Her mother opened her arms wide and hugged her too. She held on a little longer as if it was a competition and she needed to be sure she won.
She kicked the side of the Indomie carton as she turned. She hissed and twisted her face back to Ada. ‘Nne, are you sure the work won’t be too much for you?’
‘Mama, I will be fine.’
‘Mama Adaku, let’s go!’ Her father had opened the door.
‘Nne, let me run. Your father has started again.’
‘I wonder how he will sleep this night,’ Uchechi was murmuring as she walked through the door. ‘I don’t know between the two of us who carried you in the womb for good nine months that he wants to start shedding…’
Adaku banged the door shut.
She inhaled deeply, leaning her back into the wall. Gently, she slid down till she dropped on the half bag of rice sitting to the wall. She shut her eyes.
A knock on the door jerked her eyes open.
She opened the door and two girls entered.
One wore a blue female singlet and tight lemon-coloured shorts and the other a multi-patterned gown that stopped at her laps.
‘Welcome, newbie!’ the one in gown said.
‘Thank you,’ Adaku said.
‘Welcome,’ the one in shorts said, looking round the room.
‘My name is Candy,’ the one in gown said.
‘I’m Debby,’ the other said.
‘I am Ada.’
‘Ada? Nice,’ Candy said.
Adaku looked at her. From her expression and the brusque manner she’d spoken, she knew the girl didn’t mean what she said.
She didn’t think her name was nice.
Adaku pushed her cupboard to the wall and lifted one Indomie bag on to the top.
It was Nweke that had made it for her. He’d used white wood as she requested.
Candy and Debby exchanged a look as they studied the things in the room.
‘So, A-d-a, don’t you have any other name?’ Candy asked.
‘No.’ Now her no was brusque too.
She did not like the way the slim girl had called her name, almost sounding as the ‘ada’ for ‘fall’, like she was a foreigner who did not know how to call Igbo names.
She also did not like the way she spoke her English…with a fake unidentified accent.
More angering to her was that the girl looked like someone from Nsukka.
Debby tried to smile. ‘Ada my dear, what department are you in?’
‘Zoology,’ Adaku said.
‘What?’ Candy again.
‘Zoology, don’t you know the course?’ Ada said, starting to unzip the bag that contained utensils.
Candy took a step to her. ‘You mean you are in zoology?’
‘Ha. Never seen anybody in that Department before.’
‘What is your own department?’ Adaku asked her.
Debby put up her small smile again. ‘Anyways, Ada, we just came to say hi. We saw you and because you are pretty, we want you to be in our clique before the other girls come to steal you off.’ Her face flushed with pride. ‘Our clique is the classiest on campus.’
Ada was staring at her, no clear emotion on her face.
‘You should see it as a favour,’ Candy added.
‘Thank you,’ Ada said, finally.
‘We’ll leave you to get settled now,’ Debby said. ‘We will come back for you later.’
She nodded—a nod that meant more than agreement.
‘Bye, sis,’ Candy said, following Debby.
At the door, she heard Candy murmur to her friend, ‘There is so much work to be done here.’
Ada wondered if the slim girl was referring to the bags in her room or her.
The next day, the boys left back to Lekki very early in the morning.
On the way, Obinna concluded he was going strip Chief naked and sit on his big stomach while Ahanna counted the money he’d given back to them to be sure it was complete.
Ahanna knew better. He had told him at home that there was no need coming back, that they weren’t going to meet anybody.
Obinna had insisted. ‘Will he run with his house?’ he asked Ahanna.
Ahanna only shook his head, exhausted.
Obinna struck the gate again now. He swallowed hard and waited.
He looked at Ahanna. He was quiet, just looking.
He raised a hand to pound the gate again.
A voice came from inside.
‘Who is that?’ A square hole opened in the gate to reveal two eyes. ‘Yes? Who are you?’
Obinna stared back at the eyes. ‘Don’t you recognize us? We were here two days ago to meet Chief.’
The eyes blinked. ‘Chief? Which chief?’
‘Chief Adebayo na. Is this not Chief’s Adebayo’s house?’
‘Is this not Adebayo Street?’
‘This is Adebayo Street.’
Obinna bent further to the hole. ‘Number 11?’
‘Yes, Number 11, but I don’t know any Chief Adebayo.’
Obinna looked over the gate, as if looking for a way to climb it, or push it off so that they could enter. ‘Chief Adebayo is the owner of this house and street. We met with him here two days ago. He collected our money and gave us fake product.’
‘My friend, go away! The owner of this place lives in Abuja. Even, I have not met him in person since I started working here last year.’
‘Listen to me, your master is a criminal. A big thief! Two days ago, he collected one hundred and sixty thousand naira from us, one hundred and sixty thousand, only to supply us with fake goods!’
‘My friend, go and look for the person you gave your money. This is not a residential home!’
‘What do you mean this is not a residential home?’
‘This is a rental property. People come here and hold vacations, meetings or anything they want.’
Ahanna only stared, silent and distracted, as though only waiting for him to finish so that they’d go home.
Obinna pounded the gate. ‘Open this gate!’
Now Ahanna pointed.
Obinna followed his finger and saw on the wall – JUSTICE ADEBAYO HOMES AND RESORT.
Obinna was sure they hadn’t seen it there the first time they came.
Or had they?
‘Let’s go,’ Ahanna said to him. His voice was low.
On the bus ride back home, Ahanna did not say a single word. He kept his eyes out of the window the entire time.
It was only when they got down at Oshodi that he shook his head and muttered, ‘Chai.’
Obinna patted his back.
At home, they walked into their room quietly.
Ahanna barely responded to Shege’s greeting. The young man had shouted ‘Papilo!’ the way he often did to greet him, but Ahanna did not call him ‘Shege-Shege!’ the way he usually responded.
He merely raised his hand in a half-done wave and passed through the corridor.
Inside the room, he sat on the bed and pulled into the wall, legs crossed.
‘But, Nwanne, this is not fair o,’ Ahanna started to say. ‘This is not fair at all. Okey na my padi na. He was my brother. Will you ever do this kind of thing to me? Will you betray me like this?’
Obinna said nothing.
‘You won’t, I know. You are my brother. Is this what a brother should do to a brother?’
‘When is Baba Sule coming back?’ Obinna asked him instead.
Baba Sule was the landlord’s name. He needed to slap some reality back into Ahanna.
It appeared to have worked because Ahanna stopped lamenting and turned to him.
But he only stared and said nothing.
Obinna walked to the pot and dished him some Jollof rice.
He was eating when he walked outside to Kowepe’s kiosk and got him a chilled bottle of Coke.
When he finished the meal and coke, he lay down on the mattress.
He woke up hours later all sweaty.
He took off his shirt and picked the bucket.
From outside, Obinna heard him whistling to Fela’s ‘I No Be Gentleman At All’ as he drew up water from the well.
Afterwards, he carried the filled bucket to the back of the house to have his bath.
Baba Jude’s wife was at the other end, washing clothes when Ahanna pulled down his boxers.
The woman did not mind. She kept on with her washing and her humming, occasionally nudging the crying baby on her back.
Obinna has never seen the baby quiet before. He’d concluded the baby must have been inflicted with a strange crying disease.
In the evening, they went to Okey’s ‘yard’ in Isolo and discovered he had left. The neighbours said he never even lived there. It had been his cousin’s room.
On their way back, Ahanna stopped at Kowepe’s and bought two bottles of Star Lager.
In their room, as they drank the beer, he called Obinna a fool, laughing.
‘Nnaa, nwanne, you no be am o!’ he said. ‘You no be am at all. I come village carry you because I no say my brain no complete from day one make you for help me dey reason, you still come allow this nonsense people carry our money waka.’
He was smiling.
Obinna was smiling too, but within he wasn’t entirely amused. Guilt pricked him. He believed Ahanna was right.
He’d really acted stupidly.
He shouldn’t have kept quiet, should never have tossed his reservations about the shady deal aside in the beginning.
Baba Sule came the next day, looking really mean in the face. The tribal marks on his cheeks appeared to have enlarged in the anger on his face.
He didn’t respond to their greeting. He was already on the phone as Ahanna tried to explain what ordeal that had befallen them.
Soon, three men stormed into the compound. Baba Sule showed them their room and in a matter of minutes, all they had were scattered outside the compound.
They knelt down, begging, but Baba Sule never did as though he saw them. He was so different, mean, cold and stiff.
The other tenants stood by, watching in silence. They had dull expressions of pity on their faces, but none of them interfered.
For the first time since he came into the compound, Obinna saw Baba Jude’s baby quiet.
He found some satisfaction in that and inhaled cool air.
They slept in Ore’s room that night.