Beatrice passed a hand over the face of the fat pot bellied man on her small narrow bed. When there was no reaction from the man, she placed her hand on each side of her hips and pushed off the bed, her eyes still on the man. The tattered faux brocade on the window was flapping with the force of the evening breeze that had suddenly descended on the city. The skies glowered darkly at the earth in promise of an imminent rainfall. Beatrice watched as the few roadside hawkers outside the dilapidated bungalow that housed her and a dozen other women rushed around, trying to get their ways out of the way of the impending rain.
A quick perusal of the chaotic scene outside her window showed a dirty neighbourhood with a long stretch of untarred road, spirogyra lined bungalows, wide open gutters with green algae swimming on stagnant water, half naked children running around in circles on the road and a young couple screaming in each other’s faces. Casting one look again at the man behind her, Beatrice raised her diminutive five foot three inches frame on a tip toe and scanned the horizon for the friend that was taking forever to come.
“Where is this girl?” Beatrice mused silently, moving her head left to right like a restless cobra. “It is getting late and she has still not come.”
Lowering herself back to the balls of her feet, Beatrice considered a lot of scenarios. Had something bad happened to Roseline? Would the rain prevent her from coming before night arrived?
“I can’t wait to leave this place.” Beatrice muttered to herself, a slight tremor passing through her hands, and then she sighed and resumed her look out.
As she waited in that dingy bedroom with the drunk man sprawled on her bed, Beatrice began to remember her life in Warri. It was the eve of her graduation from secondary school when tragedy struck. She was returning home with the white shirt of her uniform torn in several places and farewell messages scrawled in the different handwriting as was the tradition with those who finish their final examinations, when the crowd at the front of her house stopped her cold. Beatrice had always had an uncanny ability to know when something had gone wrong. It was all in her dreams. Her mother had always told her that it was a bad gift. Evil eye was what her mother called it.
That evening, Beatrice had approached the gate with tentative steps, remembering the dream of the previous night and looking wistfully at the path that brought her home as if she could go back to avoid the bad news that laid ahead of her. Like the red sea before the children of Israel, the crowd parted at her advancement. She heard the fevered whispers. She could not make sense of them but she knew the people were talking about her. Finally, she found herself standing before her nightmare. Her mother was sitting on the ground, her yellow beaded blouse hanging limpy off her right shoulder, her face, a twisted mask of anguish just the way Beatrice had seen it in her dreams. The three fat women holding her mother moved back to create space for her.
Beatrice stared into the eyes glazed over with sorrow and immediately knew what had happened. It was hope or perhaps wishful thinking that made her ask,
“Where is papa?”
The answer was in the raw cry that broke past her mother’s throat. Beatrice found herself on the ground beside her mother, stunned beyond belief and unable to understand why her dreams were so accurate. It was the third time that happened. First had been the dream about her only sister who drowned in the well in her school. The second was about her mother’s brother who died in a car accident. Now her father.
No one told her then. Not the crowd. Not the fat women. It would be three weeks later before she eventually heard the full story. Her father, a fairly successful transporter who rode one of his three buses had been stopped at a police checkpoint and asked for his vehicle particulars. An educated marine biologist who fell on hard times, Beatrice’s father believed in the rightness of obeying the law and always made sure to have his vehicle documents safely stowed away in the pidgeon hole compartment of his car. However, the police had wanted more than his vehicle particulars, and after a disagreement over the payment of money for “chop”, a bullet was discharged from the chamber of the rusty AK47 the policemen brandished before the face of Beatrice’s father. The passengers who had witnessed the whole exchange tried their best to save the life of Beatrice’s father, but the private hospital in Ogunu refused to treat him without a police report. An irony considering the fact that the police had played a role in his shooting. There were other hospitals and they demanded the same police report. It wasn’t long before life seeped from his veins and Beatrice’s father gave up the ghost.
The burial was two weeks later and Beatrice remembered nothing of it. She was dazed from the suddenness of it all. Her life had changed without warning. The carefully planned course to the university thwarted by the cold unkind hands of death. Faced with the grim reality of a life without a breadwinner, Beatrice’s mother who was a housewife until her husband’s death took a loan from the community bank in the neighbourhood to start a restaurant business, but the customers were chased away by the stories. There were many of them. Some said that Beatrice’s mother had a hand in her husband’s death. They spoke of witchcraft meetings and a vow that had to be honoured. They said that she was a fearsome witch, one that was to be avoided.
Every day Beatrice sat with her mother inside the blue painted building where a few benches sat before wide wooden tables and watched with growing hopelessness as people walked past their restaurant to Mama Sunday, the obese woman whose thriving restaurant sat beside their own. Every night Beatrice and her mother locked up the restaurant with the pots of stew and vegetable soup that customers did not turn up to eat. Beatrice watched the hope dim from her mother’s eyes and she began to talk about giving up on the restaurant.
It was on one of those bleak days that Aunty Theresa stepped from the sheets of rain water falling down from the corrugated zinc roof of the restaurant into their lives as the sky growled in the distance and emptied its waters on the tired earth. The surprise of seeing the long lost aunt that was part of her mother’s childhood was a pleasant one. The fact that her aunty had turned up decked in expensive jewelry, red painted lips, long curly plastic hair that was the rave of the moment and a white bag that glittered with stones gave Beatrice more reason to court hope.
“I will help you.”
Those four words spoken in the chill of the empty restaurant was the lifeline that Aunty Theresa threw at Beatrice and her mother. Like drowning passengers of a sinking boat, they grabbed at it and held on for life.
“I will take Beatrice with me to Lagos.”
Lagos. That beautiful city from where all the handsome sons of the women in the neighbourhood lived. Lagos, where Alfred, the first man that took her virginity with sweet words of promise lived in a big mansion with television so wide it took the entire length of a wall. Beatrice had been beside herself with excitement.
“I will put her in school.”
Two days later, her small old brown suitcase in hand, Beatrice had hugged her mother goodbye under the dark morning skies while Aunty Theresa waited in the shadows. They boarded the bus at Effurun and started their journey to Lagos. Cramped between a woman with two children standing between her legs and her aunty, Beatrice had fantasized about Lagos. She only entertained a moment of doubt when the dream of the previous night came to her, but she shrugged it off and tried to focus on the promise of a new life ahead of her. Then as the bus drew nearer to Lagos, the fantasy began to wear off slowly. Beatrice was shocked by the sea of humans, the dizzying pace at which they moved and the dirt lined streets.
“This is Ijora,” her aunty told her when they disembarked from the rickety yellow and black bus that had brought them from the park at Mile 12 to the bridge where people plied their trade by the gutters and tall dark men with fearsome scars on their faces gathered around a smallish looking woman holding a bucket of dry gin in bottles.
“My house is not far from this place.”
Aunty Theresa was right. Her house, the bungalow sitting on a street where prostitutes and their clients battled for space was only a stone throw from the bridge. Reality had set in by nightfall and after a dinner of noodles, two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of coca-cola, Beatrice had realized that her dream had come to pass, once again. She had seen this place, the depravity, the poverty, it had been shown to her that night in her bedroom in Warri. Her life as a prostitute under the guidance of Aunty Theresa who demanded a cut of every amount the men that visited Beatrice gave to her had just begun.
The promise of education and meeting Alfred in his big mansion gone, Beatrice tried to come to terms with her new life. A year passed and she managed to save enough to pay the landlord for the room where a prostitute died after a long protracted illness some people said was AIDS.
It was already her second year in the bungalow, and only three months ago the dreams had come back. One after the other, they warned of a fire. After the first dream, Beatrice took her new friend Roseline to the corner and begged her to open an account for her with the money she had saved under the threadbare rug of her room. Roseline, a fairly educated prostitute whose friendship Beatrice sought after eavesdropping on her conversation with her next door neighbour. Beatrice had been surprised by her near perfect diction, the poise that belied her profession and the open friendly way she interacted with everybody in the compound where cat fights were a normal occurrence. The best part for Beatrice had been the fact that Roseline lived in another neighbourhood far from her own. They had stuck to each other like two peas in a pod. Beatrice had taken Roseline into her confidence and shared her story with her. Roseline’s story had been no different. Like Beatrice, she had been promised a better life in Lagos when a family friend visited her poor parents with tales of a lavish lifestyle in Lagos and promises to help her secure a better future.
“I came to Lagos and found out that it was all a lie.”
Beatrice had nodded in agreement as she listened to her new friend recount her own experience.
“The same thing happened to me.”
The bonding between Beatrice and Roseline had not gone down well with Aunty Theresa who by then had become increasingly hostile to Beatrice over the stream of customers that preferred to line up in front of Beatrice’s termite eaten door than her own door. When Beatricce gave the money to Roseline, she had taken it to one of the new generation banks in her neighbourhood and opened an account for Beatrice. The ATM card she brought back with the small slip of paper bearing her account details was still in the black bag that hung from the wall beside one of Beatrice’s windows.
“Whenever I need the money, you can help me withdraw it.”
Beatrice knew her aunty monitored her movements with the help of the girl who stayed next door to Beatrice’s room, so Roseline remained the link that connected her to her bank account. Every time she needed money, it was Roseline that helped her. The transactions were a secret, and they were careful to avoid Aunty Theresa’s spying.
That evening as Beatrice waited for her friend, she held on to the rusting iron bars covering her window and prayed that Roseline made it back before the rain and the fire. The man on the bed let out a loud grunt and began to scratch the scraggly beard on his face. Beatrice turned towards him and prayed that he returned back to sleep. Her prayers were soon answered as the man turned on his side and resumed his snoring. He was the sixth person she had used the sleeping pills on and hopefully, he would be the last. Beatrice had taken to drugging the men that visited her bed when she could no longer put up with the torment of selling her body to men. This meant that she made less money from the trade, but it was a small sacrifice to pay for her sanity.
The winds were now beginning to gather strength and soon windows began to swing from their hinges. Beatrice watched a small whirlwind begin to spin at the beginning of the road. A mother dragged her child from the path of the whirlwind and hurried with the child inside a small shack made of corrugated iron sheets. When the wind settled, Beatrice saw a familiar figure in black jeans trouser and a red lycra top hurrying up the small hill to the bungalow.
Clutching the iron bars until the skin on her knuckles stretched taut, Beatrice was beside herself with relief. She watched as Roseline threw her head backwards to look at the dark sky before quickening her steps towards the bungalow. Beatrice walked to the door and turned the key in the lock, and just then, the yellow light in the cheap bulb hanging above her bed flickered and died as the electricity supply was cut off. Roseline soon crept into the room, the smile on her face visible to Beatrice. As soon as she opened her mouth, Beatrice held up her forefinger against her lips, inclining her head towards the bed. Roseline clamped her mouth shut and leaned closer to Beatrice so that she stood nose to nose with her.
“There was a long queue at the bank, the ATM machines were not working,” Roseline said in a small whisper.
Beatrice nodded, closed the door after her friend and extended her right hand out. Her eyes moving to the bed, Beatrice tilted to the left, threw her right leg forward and dug into the pocket of her jeans for something. Soon, she brought out a thick wad of Naira notes and placed it in Beatrice’s hand. As Beatrice counted the money, she leaned towards her again,
“So he has been sleeping since then?”
Her eyes on the money in her hand, Beatrice managed a small nod.
“Those tablets the chemist man gave us must be strong.”
Roseline walked to the bed and picked up the glass holding dark brown liquid from the small stool with a cracked top beside the bed. Raising it to her nose, she sniffed at it and wrinkled her nose. Returning the glass back to the table, she walked back to meet Beatrice.
“How many tablets did you put inside it?” She asked, pointing back at the glass behind her.
“I don’t know,” Beatrice said with a shrug. “Maybe three.”
Roseline nodded and crossed her arms against her chest as she waited for Beatrice to flip through the last few Naira notes caught between the ring finger and middle finger of her left hand. It was over in a few seconds. With a satisfied nod, Beatrice walked to her already packed suitcase leaning against the sturdy wooden legs of the bed and unzipped it slowly. She pushed the money under the heap of neatly folded clothes and stood up with a smile. Beatrice could not help feeling a sense of freedom for the first time in two years.
“What if the dream does not come true?”
Beatrice shook her head at Roseline and assured her that the fire would happen that evening. A look of sadness in her eyes, Roseline took her hand and squeezed it.
“I will miss you.”
The two friends stood in the silence of the room and weighed on the coming separation.
“You will be in touch?”
Beatrice smiled and nodded at her friend. “I will be in touch.”
The day grew steadily dark and as soon as the loud patter patter of rain falling on the ground outside ceased completely, Roseline gave her friend one last hug and crept away under the cover of darkness. It would be another hour until the drunk woke up and demanded to know in a groggy voice what happened to him. Beatrice sat in a corner of the dark room and watched the man drag himself out of her bed and struggle into his discarded shirt lying at the foot of the bed. Still muttering under his breath about bad services, the man stumbled towards the door and out of the room. The last of her customers gone, Beaatrice closed her eyes, took a deep breath and exhaled.
There would be no more hours of enduring restless dirt lined fingernails searching out the hidden places of her body. There would be no more days of breathing in the fetid breath of drunks who filled themselves with the dry gin that was a staple with the men in the neighbourhood. There would no more weeks of surrendering her body to the sore encrusted bodies of the street urchins who made her their favourite. Beatrice felt a small tear escape the corner of her eyes and she quickly wiped the tear away. What had been done, had been done. She would not allow herself give in to self pity. Standing up from her chair, Beatrice made her way slowly around the room, making sure she had packed every one of her belonging in the brown suitcase. Ten minutes later, she returned back to the chair, certain that nothing had been left behind. She was bone weary but like an initiate preparing for a rite of passage, she would not go near anything that was tainted with the memory of the life she was leaving behind. So Beatrice slapped away an unrepentant mosquito and told herself,
“I will just sit in this chair for the remaining hours.”
She did just that. She passed the next two hours nodding in sleep, starting and bringing herself back to the chair when she swayed off it. It was at her sixth nod that the candle the woman in the next room had forgotten to put out before climbing into bed with a customer, fell off the small empty bottle of dry gin where it had been mounted and began burning the stack of soft sell magazines on the floor. Before the woman had woken up to sound the cry of alarm that would send many of her neighbours fleeing their beds, the fire had spread with the help of the powerful evening breeze to the othe rooms. By then, Beatrice was prepared. Dragging her suitcase from the room as the women in their varying colours and textures of nightgowns ran helter skelter, half naked men close on their heels in their bid to escape the fire. The pandemonium was her cover and Beatrice was happy to get lost in the crowd of sympathizers already gathering outside the bungalow.
Beatrice found the commercial motorcyclist that would take her to Ijora bridge at the end of the street. The man, a dark young man with lisp, warned her that the bridge was too dangerous at that time of the morning. Beatrice accepted his offer of dropping her at the next bus stop which was safer and already brimming with human activities. It was there that she found the bus that would take her to Mile 12 where she boarded a bus back home.
The journey back to Warri was different from the one she had experienced on her way to Lagos. Now Beatrice was older, wiser and had the extra cash to pay for a comfortable seat beside the window. Excitement kept her awake and she held on to the face of her mother in her mind as the bus sped towards home. When Beatrice finally arrived Warri, it was almost nightfall and people were preparing to retire into their homes. Beatrice soon found herself in her old neighbourhood but a few people seemed to recognize her. The ones who did expressed surprise at her grown up look. Where had she been? How was Lagos? Was she back for good? Beatrice answered all of these questions with her eyes on the small red gate of her mother’s home.
The tears were plenty when mother and daughter finally met. The warm embrace of her mother was the soothing balm that calmed Beatrice’s spirit. The two of them would sit through the night, reliving the horror of the past two years. There were sighs of regret.
“If I had known, I would never had allowed you to go with Theresa.”
“It was not your fault, mama.”
Beatrice showed her mother the money. They would start a new life. The restaurant needed a salesgirl. There were more customers now that Mama Sunday had passed away as a result of tuberculosis. The customers were few, but new ones were trickling in. There was hope. Aunty Theresa called her mother one week later to tell her that Beatrice had died in a fire that started in the hostel of the school she had sent her to study. With a voice trembling with emotion, she had spoken of the heroic efforts of other students to save her.
“Nothing could be saved. Not even a pin from her belongings.”
Beatrice had watched as her mother told her cousin in a calm voice. “Thank you very much, but my Beatrice is not dead. She is here with me. I know everything.”
The final click of the phone was the last sound they would hear from Theresa. There was nothing more to say. The fire had exposed her lies.
“The evil eye saved you this time,” Beatrice would hear her mother say one week later as they sat in the verandah of their home. Beatrice told her mother that the dreams had stopped coming. For some reason, she knew that they would no longer return. Beatrice was right. The fire would be the last vision of evil she would see, but there were other dreams.
There were dreams of talking long walks with her father as he reminded her of his struggles while alive to see her gain an education. There were dreams of a man that walked with a confident gait and had a smile that warmed her heart. There were dreams of a big house sitting on a hill with mango trees surrounding it, and children that laughed with gleeful abandon. There were dreams of her mother overseeing the running of a restaurant where sales girls wore smart red and green uniforms. Those were the dreams that propelled her towards a new path. So, with some of the money she got from her life at Ijora, Beatrice had bought a university entrance form, written and passed the entrance examinations. After five years of studying law, she met Daniel, a young ambitious man who worked in Shell and lived in the estate owned by the oil company right there in Ogunu, the same one she had grown up wishing she lived in. The same one the neighbours said was different from their own world when you crossed the high fence that separated it from the ordinary inhabitants of Ogunu. Beatrice would see the stark difference only when she stood at the other side of the fence, but it was now her world. Blessed Heart Restaurant was built G.R.A and her mother had plenty of sales girls in red and green uniforms to attend to hungry customers.
Beatrice lived her dreams.