The boy, Felix Uzonna, was a quiet boy.
He was nothing like the other Zoo boys that scream and run about the class, telling jokes and calling each other animal names.
There was an ugly boy everyone called Mandrillus leucophaeus. A short round girl called a sea cow and a tiny talky one called a mole rat.
There was also a small aggressive girl called a jackal and a very short boy called Cricetomys gambianus.
Whatever you do or say in class instantly lands you with a Zoo name!
The Zoology lectures were different too. Often, the lecturers joined the students in the jokes and name calling so that classes easily turned noisy, and fun.
Adaku often joined in the jokes too. Not all UNIZIK students might have thought so, but she considered her department the most enjoyable in the entire school.
Because Felix had stood out with his quietness and transparent reading glasses, Ada was quick to notice him.
This attraction was spurred only by curiosity. A Zoo boy that behaved nothing like a Zoo boy.
She’d sat with him in the same seat at the induction meeting. That was her first encounter with him.
She had said hi as he shifted for her to sit and he returned it.
But it was when the class went frenzy after the lecturer announced that all new students would wear red to the induction that Adaku turned to really look at the boy.
While the other boys laughed and made jokes about the unusualness of the color red for such an event, Felix’s eyes, framed by his transparent glasses, remained on the open text book in his front: Integrated Principles of Zoology.
It didn’t surprise Ada so much that he seemed to be the only one that had bought the big textbook.
When she’d asked Mary what textbooks she would advise they buy, Mary had hissed in unconcern and said, ‘Which textbook? My dear, the most important thing is the hand-outs and past questions. They are all you need to pass.’
Because her father had already given her money for the books, she went to the bookshop near Royal Sound and bought Advanced Biology.
‘What do you think?’ she asked Felix.
The boy glanced at her. ‘What about?’
‘Wearing red to the induction.’
‘The lecturer said it signifies blood hence life.’
‘So you are okay with it?’
‘I’m more concerned about the significance.’
‘I don’t get.’
‘If I’m asked to represent life with a color, red is the last thing I’d use.’
Adaku’s lips remained open longer than she intended. ‘What color would you rather use? Green?’
‘Green is envy, red is passion. I’ll use blue.’
Adaku’s face twisted slightly in surprise. ‘Blue?’
Her eyes remained on him for some time. ‘What is your name?’
‘Ada, are you an ada?’
‘Yes.’ She somehow liked the sound of that, might be the way he’d said it. He spoke English like a Professor who an evil witch somehow magically turned back into a student.
‘Nice to meet you, Ada,’ Felix said.
He closed his textbook and stood. ‘Let me get to the library.’
Adaku nodded. Her eyes remained on him till he disappeared out of the class.
Back in the hostel, she was peeling yam in the tiny space in her room that was designated for cooking when she heard a knock on the door. ‘Who is that?’
She opened the door and it was Debby.
‘Please give me two packs of Indomie,’ she said. ‘I will buy and give you back when Mama Onyinye opens.’
Ada stared at her. She wondered if it was hunger that had made her eyes look swollen. ‘Have you been sleeping?’ she asked.
‘Did you go to school at all?’
‘No. Please give me the Indomie first.’
She opened her cupboard and brought out two yellow noodle packs. ‘I’m making yam porridge,’ she said, extending the packs.
‘Wow, cool!’ Debby took the packs hurriedly from her. ‘Let me hold my stomach with the Indomie first.’
As she hurried out of the room, Adaku wondered if classy girls ate Indomie too.
And what was the stupid story about Mama Onyinye’s shop not being open. Even if one came out by midnight, that woman would still be in her shop ready to sell.
That same night she was reading—flipping through the pages of her Advanced Biology, searching for interesting coloured pictures— when a knock came on the door.
The door whined and went back, letting in Candy and Debby.
Surprisingly, she did not feel the slight discomfort she usually felt when they come into her room. She found herself nearly pleased they’d come.
They sat on the bed and she dished out the porridge she’d prepared on separate plates for them.
Candy requested for a fork instead of the spoon she brought the food with.
Ada watched the way she held the fork upright, taking the yam in tiny bits, as though it was something more sophisticated than yam she was eating. The slow movement of the fork, her sluggish chewing, all did not show she was eating yam, ordinary yam porridge.
‘Babe, you really can cook o,’ Debby said, her voice low from chewing.
Adaku smiled. At least, unlike Candy, she ate normally, with spoon and life.
She did not like that she’d called her babe though. The name made her feel different, as though she’d become like them, the girls who regularly missed lectures, wore bum shorts to the road and kept numerous boyfriends.
Candy dropped her plate; more than half the food was still on it. She took the sachet of water in a plate nearby and drank from it.
She drank so little, as though it hadn’t been yam she ate. ‘Ada, we have found a name for you,’ she said, casually, like Ada had known all along that they’d been searching for a name for her.
‘A name?’ Ada said, slight confusion and one other emotion on her face.
‘Yes, something befitting of our class.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Debby dropped her own plate and said, ‘Ada, I think you will like the name’, and then, ‘Thanks for the food’.
‘Which name? My name is Ada.’
‘You can keep Ada for your village people,’ Candy said. ‘From now on, your name is Berry.’
Adaku burst into laughter.
Surprise came over the two girls.
The laughter lowered and then she restarted it again.
Finally she halted, clutching her chest. ‘Wait, did you just say my new name is Berry? Berry, isn’t that the name of a fruit?’
Candy crossed her legs. ‘The fruitier the better, my dear.’
‘Don’t you like the name?’ Debby asked.
‘Please, if the problem is English, I have an English baptismal name.’
Candy rolled her eyes. ‘Which is?’
Now it was the girls’ turn to laugh and they really did.
Then Candy suddenly got rid of her smiles and turned serious in the face. ‘From now on your name is Berry, take it or leave it.’
Adaku wondered if that was an order.
‘Now let’s move on to your mode of dressing,’ Candy went on.
Adaku looked over herself. ‘What about the way I dress?’
‘Nothing is wrong with it,’ Debby said. ‘But, Ada—’
‘Berry!’ Candy screamed.
‘Yes, Berry, dear,’ Debby corrected. ‘You need improvement. Your dresses are all so loose and long and full of space.’
‘I like the way I dress,’ Ada said.
‘We know you do, but society don’t,’ Debby said, tone now advisory.
‘Who is society?’
‘Ada, this is higher institution.’
‘What is wrong with this girl sef?’ Candy said. She uncrossed and crossed back her legs.
Adaku wondered if she was now angry, if it was now time to hold her by her thin shoulders and push her out of her room.
‘Ada, listen to Candy,’ Debby said. ‘It’s for your own good.’
Now Adaku confirmed it. Debby hadn’t always been like this. She was converted. There might have been a time she came to the hostel, fresh and natural, before they had her brain twisted.
‘Thanks to both of you but I think I can take care of myself,’ she said.
‘Fine!’ Candy stood. ‘Fine! Debby, let’s go, biko! Ana agwo mgbada ibi o na eto afor.’
Adaku’s eyes flew wide.
Didn’t she say it at the beginning that this girl must have come from Nsukka!
They left the room and she went back to her book.
She couldn’t read still and now even the pictures seemed to have lost their appeal. She slapped the big text book closed and fell to her mattress.
The next morning, she wore her jean trousers out, the one that hugged her curvy frame tight and caused nearly every man to turn to stare.
As she stepped out of her room, the bucket nearly fell from Debby’s hand.
She dropped the bucket and stood still there, staring at her as she sashayed away.
The boys got to Ojuelegba Under Bridge in the evening.
The area was as busy and noisy as always.
Shops were sandwiched in-between shops.
Bike men and tricycles struggled for passage with bigger-bodied cars and buses.
Hawkers screamed out whatever products arranged on their trays.
Conductors hanging on yellow buses screamed too: ‘Ikeja-Palmgrove!’
Ahanna dropped his Nike sports bag to retie his shoe lace. He checked and saw that one of the soles was starting to come off again. The four-year-old piece might not survive another cobbler visit.
‘Follow me,’ he said to Obinna, lifting his bag again.
Obinna hugged his own Ghana-must-go tighter as they waded through the crowd.
Ahanna had told him Ojuelegba was better than Oshodi but to him, Ojuelegba was just like Oshodi, if not worse.
But what Ahanna had meant was that it was easier to live under Ojuelegba flyover than under the one in Oshodi where the boys would keep harassing you for months till you blend in.
He followed Ahanna by the steps. He seemed to know his way around.
Underneath the massive overpass, they walked to the foot and put their bags in the corner.
They then covered them with dirty cloth. When the evil-eyed boys come, they would mistake it for a mad man’s trash and walk away.
They hung around waiting for the city to quieten.
Ahanna bought two sachets of ‘pure water’ and a loaf of Agege and they shared.
From where they sat at a corner near one of the flyover piers, Obinna heard a woman scream, ‘Barrow! Wheel barrow!’
He ran to the woman and lifted her big basket before any of the barrow boys already running towards them could come close enough.
The woman pointed when she got to her shop space. ‘Gentle!’ she said as Obinna bent to lower the basket to the ground.
Probably it was because of how gentle he’d handled the basket that the woman gave him N200 and asked him to go with the N50 change.
‘Nwanne-Nwanne!’ Ahanna called him with a smile when he returned.
Lagos must have been tagged the city that never sleeps because of Ojuelegba. At past 10, everywhere still looked alive and bustling.
In fact, it appeared to Obinna that the area got busier with each hour that passed. There were shops that seemed formerly closed that were open now.
Or maybe it was because of the bright lights now shining from them.
Headlights of commercial buses scrawled the entire area with yellow.
They passed time by walking around, sitting on raised platforms in front of shops and calling hawkers over and pretending to buy.
Finally, it was past 12 and everywhere was calm.
Most of the shops were closed now, yellow bulbs hanging from their tops still shining.
The road was freer now too. Now there was an interval after one car passed before another would come.
A few people still sauntered around.
Obinna needed not ask Ahanna to know that most them were people like them, people without homes.
They walked to where their bags were. They spread wrappers on the ground and used their bags as pillows.
In a short while, Ahanna was already snoring beside him.
Obinna could not sleep.
He tried all he could but his eyes still always found a way to open, more active than they had earlier been.
He wished he could just develop wings and fly back to Anambra now, to the comfort of the spring bed in his room.
Not utterly exquisite so saying, but quite very relaxing.
His mother would have made a delicious soup.
He pictured himself on the slanting back chair in the backyard veranda, awaiting her with the tray.
He would hear a noise from the kitchen, a crinkling of the zinc door or the knocking sound of a spoon dropping, and quickly washed his hands.
Like his father when he was alive, he moulded fufu like it was art.
His forefinger worked together with the thumb to carve out just the right size, and then with the other fingers it is rolled into a smooth round ball, very easy to swallow.
He clapped around his ear to drive a mosquito. He turned to face up, his eyes wide open at the darkness.
Back into his mind, he thought about what he would do after a nice evening meal like that.
He would wash his hands well. He would use Dettol the soap to wash his hands, and the liquid to have his bath.
Inside his room, he would press a tiny amount of Close-Up into his mouth and spray his armpits and groin area with Brut.
He would wear clean boxers.
‘Mama, I’m coming,’ he would say, dashing off before his mother could look up to ask him where he was going smelling like a bride.
Since they were small, the avocado tree at the back of her house had always been their meeting place.
Most times, Ada didn’t come on time and he had to whistle.
She intentionally did so, making him to wait, testing to see how long he could wait.
Once, she’d come to the edge of their wall and in feigned male voice, growled, ‘Who is there?’
Obinna ran away.
There was a day she deliberately shut her ears to the whistles and did not come.
He whistled and whistled, but she did not come.
When he got home, he lay on his bed and folded himself.
He thought about her, briefly about why she did not come and then what would have happened if she had.
Slowly, the veins of his organ filled with blood and it rose, steadily, till it was almost pushing off the single button of his boxers.
He slipped his hand in and pulled the fit organ out. He thought deeply of her, the past moments they’ve shared together and freed himself.
But now, under the mighty Ojuelegba Overpass, as he thought of her, his organ did not rise.
He only wished she would somehow appear magically beside him so that he would hold her firm to himself and sleep with his head resting on her bouncy breasts.
That must be the only way his eyes could ever close in sleep in a place like this.
Far into the silent night, his earlier thoughts metamorphosed into pictures in his mind and he did not know when he pulled Ahanna close and held him tight.
Ahanna’s snores quietened and then died out.
He came awake and slapped him on the head. ‘Nwokem, face the other way,’ he said. ‘This is not Ore’s room.’
In the morning, as he searched for his toothbrush, he saw something in his bag.