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Jan/Feb 2011 Fiction

The New Girl Making Calls

by Obodo Dike


My auntie hated that black woh-woh thing that sits opposite her across the street. That's what she used to call her. Woh-woh means ugly, but the girl was not ugly. She told me... actually she didn't tell me, I heard her telling someone else. She makes calls, my auntie. She has a small green canopy with a table and plastic chairs for her customers. Every morning she sets them up in the street outside our hostel and waits for people who want to make a call. That black woh-woh thing across the street also makes calls.

My auntie is a student. Her name is Ogechi. She completed her diploma program and is waiting to be admitted for a degree in Sociology. People have already been admitted this year, but my auntie was not admitted. She paid someone a lot of money to arrange the admission for her, but he came back telling stories. He said she should wait, that her name would be in the second batch. She said, ok, no problem, but when he left there was a problem. She was cursing and calling him an anus, and calling me an imbecile for wasting her kerosene.

We stay off-campus, me and my auntie. Accommodation on campus is hard to get, so many students rent single rooms in the surrounding communities. Some rooms are self-contained, with a small kitchen and bathroom attached. That's how my auntie's room is. It is expensive, but it is better than staying in the hostel, she told me. She said that girls in the hostel squeeze up to nine in a room, like sardines in a tin. She used to be the only person making calls on the street, but now they are two; her and "that woh-woh thing."

When I first came to her room, she was still doing her diploma program. She didn't go to school every weekday, but when she did, she left me to take care of her business. So I would sit outside and wait for people who wanted to make calls or buy recharge cards, until she came back. In those days we were the only ones doing phone call business.

"How much?"

"Twenty-five naira per minute."

"Twenty-five naira? Why, where is your madam?"

"She went to school."

Loud hiss. "These people." He looked at me. "Why twenty-five naira? Don't you know phone call is twenty naira at school gate?"

My auntie taught me how to answer people like this. She can be very funny, my auntie. I answer them. I giggle and smile with my clean white teeth. She says I have beautiful teeth. That I am very beautiful when I smile.

He stopped frowning. "What is your name?"

"Dabere."

He held out his hand, and I gave him the phone. Twenty-five naira per minute. "These Ibo people," he murmured.

We used to sell a 400 naira recharge card at 420 naira, 200 naira cards for 220 naira, and 110 naira for one hundred naira cards. Ten naira is small money. Egg rolls cost twenty naira. Ten naira can only buy the very small buns, the ones with no egg. But yet people used to complain.

Ah-aah, four twenty? Say wetin happen?

Two hundred and twenty naira for what? She wants to buy car with the extra twenty naira, abi?"

Tell your aunty she likes money.

My aunty likes money. When she came back from school, the first thing she would do was take the bag from me and count the money I had earned that day. She would compare the figure with the call records on the phone later in the night. If any amount was missing, I would cry that night. My auntie could be very wicked sometimes.

It was one Tuesday morning that Ogechi and I came out to find that someone had put a canopy and chairs across the street, just like ours, but yellow. There was no one there, the chairs around the canopy empty. Ogechi stared without a word, half a smile on her lips. Then she laughed: a short, coughing sound.

"Hmmm! Business done change for this estate-o!"

It was Clarke. He was our neighbor, a year-three engineering student. Clarke was a Warri boy; we had many of them in the area. Warri boys had names like Clarke and Jack.

"Ogechi?"

Ogechi smiled but didn't say anything.

"Ogechi?"

"Clarke what is it?" she laughed.

"Ogechi, I say business done change for this estate."

"Who owns the canopy?"

Clark shrugged with much exaggeration. "I don't know, but I will make call in the evening. I dey come."

Not many people make calls in the morning. Most of the people living on our street are students, and are usually in the school area till afternoon. But many young people live on our street who aren't full-time students. Some are "Part-time." They spend a small part of their time in school, but most of it in their rooms. Some, like Ogechi, are waiting for supplementary lists and second batches and slim chances to squeeze their way into a full time degree program. They sometimes come to sit down with us and pass the time.

"Somebody is making call in Maroon Lodge?"

Maroon Lodge is the hostel opposite ours, which was called Kels Palace. The yellow canopy and chairs were right at the gates of Maroon lodge.

"Who?"

Ogechi shook her head. The person asking the questions was Adimai. She was a degree student, not one of those awaiting admission. But if she didn't tell you, you wouldn't know. She rarely went to class, but she loved to go out a lot in the evenings, looking hot as Ogechi would say. She liked to come out in the morning and gist with Ogechi. Some mornings she made calls, sometimes she didn't. Mostly she bought recharge vouchers and made her calls on her own phone.

We sat outside for close to an hour before someone appeared at the new canopy. She was dark-skinned, about twenty-one years-old, with thin, neatly made braids. She smiled and waved.

"Una good morning o!"

"Good morning. Is that your canopy?"

"Yes o. I want to join my aunty and make money."

None of us recognized her. We had never seen her on the street or around Maroon Lodge.

"You moved in newly?" Adimai asked.

"Yes, two days ago."

"And she done already open shop to collect our twenty-twenty naira. Na war?" Adimai murmured to Ogechi, who suppressed a chuckle. "She didn't even come out for us to see her face first."

She turned back to the new tenant. "You are welcome. You will bring the package later, abi?"

The other girl laughed. "Ok."

Adimai faced us, whispering excitedly. "Ogechi, trouble o. She is a fine girl. That means all the trousers and three legs on this street will now be making calls there."

Ogechi didn't say anything. She had a smile on her face, but I knew that smile. She was thinking hard. She was thinking of the truth in what Ahimai had said—all the boys in the area would be falling over this new girl. She never admitted that the girl was prettier than her, but at that time, it was not the serious quarrel it would become later when she would call her that stupid, black, woh-woh thing. In the beginning it was just a stiff smile.

There are many hostels on our street. The largest of them is Princewill Villa. It is a three-story block of self-contained rooms, about forty rooms in all. Ogechi often sent me there to deliver recharge cards to people who had sent for them. I'd go to the room number she'd sent me to and knock. They would ask who, and I would tell them, "Recharge card." She told me not to be afraid of anybody, that no one would do anything to me on our street. But she wouldn't send me to deliver recharge cards after dark. At night, if any customer called for cards from any of the hostels on the street, she would tell them it was late and that they should come and get it. Sometimes bad things happen at night on our street.

I used to be afraid to go and deliver recharge cards at first. Some memories made me afraid to be alone at night. It had been some years and I had grown older, and he had always told me when I grew older I would understand, when I grow older I would enjoy it more, but I still didn't understand. I didn't enjoy it. It made me afraid, when he greased his thing with his spit and pushed it against my privates, shushing me when I winced at the pain. I could tell he was doing something wrong from the way he would sweat profusely and cast furtive glances about. His armpit was smelly and his penis was hard, and his fingers were tight around my mouth, and he would beg me and promise me and threaten me.

I don't know how my mother found out. She must have noticed that I was afraid of him, or the way he looked at me. I didn't tell her because I was ashamed. I couldn't tell her I was no longer a virgin because I had been unable to resist a useless, unemployed layabout. She wouldn't want to hear my excuses. She wouldn't want to hear about his threats. She would've flogged me like a beast.

Of course when she found out, she went to fight him. Musa won the fight, but the landlord called the police. They locked him up for only one day. I heard someone saying that he knew some policemen, that they had arrangements. He came back to the house and told my mother that she would smell pepper. Nobody called the police when she beat me. I was the one she was beating, but she was crying also. Days later, when Ogechi arrived, mother asked, "Don't they have schools in that place?"

Ogechi looked at me tearfully. "The University has a primary school in their compound."

"Take this useless girl with you. I don't know who next she will allow to violate her." She started crying again.

Most of our good customers live in Princewill Villa. There is only one other multiple story building on our street, all the other hostels being bungalows. Students and tenants pour out of their rooms into the unpaved street every evening, to stroll, visit friends, chase girls, chase boys, or make calls. They used to gather around our canopy, the way flies perch around a chewed mango fruit. Maybe it was because Iya Murimo's shop was right next to our canopy, and people were always buying something or just enjoying the evening breeze.

The first thing that changed after the yellow canopy appeared was that Ogechi began to ask her customers to be patient. She became more polite. Usually a person who wanted to make a call would have to wait if he found someone else already on the phone, and sometimes he would have to wait a long time because it wouldn't be his turn next. But Ogechi didn't usually ask them to be patient. She would just hand the phone to the next caller and continue her conversation. But after the yellow canopy appeared, she became nicer.

"Do you want to make call?"

The boy scratched his head, and his eyes roved across the road to the yellow canopy. The new girl was sitting there with only one other person, her phone lying idle on the table. Ogechi had more people around her canopy.

"Chuks, do you want to make call?"

She knew his name, he was one of our regulars.

"Yeah..."

"Please wait. When she's finished."

The she in question had ambled off with a smile on her face and love in her voice, chatting affectionately into the phone. Chuks was used to making calls with us; he was a good customer, so he didn't cross the street that day.

And it was like that for a while. The new girl sat quietly at her canopy, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or two of her neighbors from her hostel. Some customers went to her, but most still couldn't take their patronage across the street right under our nose. She greeted us every morning when she came out, and Ogechi answered her civilly. Maybe all would have been well if the new girl hadn't put up a small chalkboard beside her canopy. The chalkboard of discord.

Phonecall 20 Naira. Recharge Card, 100, 200, 400 naira available.

She greeted us that morning, but Ogechi simply nodded and turned away, an ugly look on her face. Usually they exchanged light banters: How was your night? Did you sleep well? But on the day of the chalkboard, she simply nodded. The new girl didn't give any sign that she was offended, but I remember that was the last time that she would hail us in her usual neighborly way. Some days she seemingly didn't even notice us to greet us. The cold war had begun.

Ogechi said what really annoyed her was the way she hustled for customers, like an agbero: "As if we are Motor Park touts."

Chuks had been strolling down the street with a friend. Ogechi was chatting distractedly with one of her friendly customers, and I was listening to their banter. Chuks was more to our side of the road, and I will never know, but maybe he was in fact coming to our canopy to make a call when the new girl call out to him.

"Phone call? Bros, phone call?"

The customer went on talking and didn't seem to notice the expression on Ogechi's face, but I saw it. Chuks turned and went over to the new girl. He took her phone and dialed away.

Ogechi pretended not to see, but it soon became clear that anybody who went by along the street and cast even the briefest of glances at the new girl was asked the same question: Phone call?

More often than not, they stopped in their tracks like zombies, turned, and went straight up to her canopy. More often than not, they were the trousers and three legs in the area.

"Can you imagine? So what we are going to be doing on this street is to be dragging customers like Motor Park touts?

Ahimai laughed. "In economics they call this elasticity of supply. In biology they call it the elasticity of the male sex organ. Erection function. You, close your ears!" she snapped at me, and guffawed off at something she thought was funny.

"Does she not have enough customers? People go to her to make calls, why would she now be calling those that she knows are my customers?"

"Your customers? Did they write your name on their forehead?"

"So what I'll now be doing on this street is to follow her and be yelling, 'Phone call?' like someone hawking Gala on the road, is that it? Me I won't do that o."

But one day Chuks was walking back to his hostel, his books in one hand, fez cap in the other, his eyes lowered to the ground, lost in thought. The new girl always said hello to him on his way to school and on his way back, and these days it was a fifty-fifty thing whether he made his calls or bought his cards from her or from us. She was going to say something to him, probably a greeting, but before the words could come out of her mouth, Ogechi spoke up quickly.

"Chuks, welcome. How was class?"

"Stressful. Thanks." He smiled and then turned to the new girl. Before he could say anything, Ogechi made sure.

"Do you want to make call?"

Chuks shook his head and smiled nervously. He quickened his pace away from the canopies. The new girl turned her face in the other direction. Ogechi didn't seem embarrassed.

Mofe was one of our faithful customers. He came out nearly every evening to sit down and gist with us or make calls. He was usually calling girls, swearing he was in love, telling dirty jokes and lies. He would sit down with us and call three different girls, one after the other, and tell them the same lies.

You know there is no one for me except you.

I can't wait for these exams to end. I miss you so much...

My baby, my boo...

Ogechi would shake her head dramatically and tease him. "Casanova!"

"Don't mind them. They won't leave me alone."

"But it's you who is always coming to call them every evening."

"Do you know how many times they flash me in the night?"

Ogechi laughed. Mofe would tell her about his lovers in different schools around the country. He would describe how he did things to them that I still didn't fully understand. "You will enjoy it when you grow up," Musa had said. Mofe clearly enjoyed it very much.

"Why don't you buy them credit? Buy recharge cards for them. I have all networks, MTN, Glo..."

He hissed. "Leave that thing. Woman no dey chop me."

"Woman no dey chop you?"

"Woman no fit chop me o. I don't know if all you girls have planned with all these phone companies to be bleeding us and collecting recharge cards. Me, I'm not a voucher machine. I'm a love machine."

"So all these girls, it's free love that you have been enjoying?"

"When I'm enjoying her, is she not enjoying me? It takes two to wire."

Of course I had long ago come to understand that call credit vouchers were a little like currency on a University campus. Girls demanded them from parents, relatives, friends, and lovers; it was the ammo for their texting and sexting and midnight lovers' calls. Sometimes, when they became unexpectedly broke, students would sell them to us at a discount, usually during dry-seasonal periods when buying salt and cooking oil was more important than the luxury of gossipy phone chat. For some, the pedigree of an applicant boyfriend or lover was soon measurable by the amount and frequency of the credit vouchers he sent.

Mofe turned his street-smart nose up. "My days of slavery are behind me. Before any girl can get recharge cards from me, she must come to this my room first and see what the mattress is like."

He lived in our Lodge, four doors from ours. I never saw him patronize the new girl, even though it would not have surprised me; he was very friendly and often bantered with her. I don't know if he ever noticed the subtle tension between her and us. He had a steady girlfriend, but often we would see him take a strange girl into his room and not come out till late in the evening. I wondered if they ever asked for recharge cards. Ogechi had commented that she would not miss the day his girlfriend would catch him.

He came out one evening and announced, "I want to curse somebody."

Ogechi didn't respond, and neither did I. She watched him with evident amusement as he lifted the mobile phone from the table and dialed a number on it.

"Can you imagine this small girl? She wants to use her father."

"Which small girl, Mofe?"

"One small thing that I invited to come and visit me. She wants me to pay money into her account first, telling all sorts of lies. Me! Pay money?" He hissed.

Ogechi laughed and clapped repeatedly.

"Taxing a grown man, like a prostitute. Meanwhile she told me she is a virgin. Somebody that I have been having phone sex with, like every night. Now when it's time to do the real thing, excuses..."

He held up a finger, and we knew the phone was ringing at the other end. There was no answer.

"What did she tell you the money was for?"

"Bus fare." He was redialing.

"Mofe, won't she transport herself if she is coming to see you? I'm sure she's coming from out of town."

"Must I send the money up front? I've told her when she comes, I will reimburse her the expenses. She said I should send the money first, as if I'm a donkey. Don't you know that is how many of these girls have been chopping boys in this town?"

"Maybe she is broke now and can't afford it."

"That's what she said. How broke can you be that you can't afford 700 naira T-fare?"

He held up his finger again. His call had been connected. "Me too I told her that I am broke."

Ogechi chuckled and clapped her hands again, looking at me, like "Are you hearing what I'm hearing?"

"Hello? Yeah, Dami, it's me... yes, I know, I know. You know what happened? I told you I would try to get some money from my sister. It was not an easy thing o. In fact you should be telling me sorry now, for the insult that I received... When I told her, "Sister, I want to borrow some money." She said what for? I told her for a friend. She said is she your girlfriend? I said not yet. She said you want to borrow money from me so you can send to somebody that is not your girlfriend? I said, sister, it is not like that, Dami is a good girl, she is even a virgin. She said, so she told you that she is a virgin and you, mugu, you believe that. So if you had the money you would have sent it to her? You are very STUPID!"

Ogechi burst out laughing. Mofe spat that last word venomously into the phone. He didn't look amused.

"She said: you are very STUPID! I said ah, no, no, sister, Dami is a good girl, she is still very young, just eighteen. She said, so she told you she is just eighteen and that she is a virgin and therefore you want to start sending her money? Are you not STUPID?! You must be STUPID! Don't you know that that is how girls are chopping boys in this town? Don't be STUPID!"

Suddenly he took the phone away from his ear and smiled. The reason was obvious.

"Stupid girl. She has cut it. She doesn't know I came to this world before her."

Ogechi shook her head. "Mofe you are a character, do you know that?"

He hissed, but he was smiling, very pleased with himself.

"When did your sister say all these things?"

"What sister? You don't know we are all boys in my house? Bo, check how many minutes, let me call better people. I must chop kpomo this night."

I was not sure what kpomo was, but I could imagine.

There were a few other chronic womanizers like Mofe on our street, but most people appeared to have faithful relationships, and more still were plain single. Like George, who also lived in our lodge. George was a quiet boy and never made trouble with anyone, but auntie Ogechi hated him. She always complained about how he would just "breeze" past her in or out of the lodge, without greeting or speaking to anyone unless they spoke to him. She called him a small boy. "All these small boys that their parents send to university before they finished sucking breast, as if the world is about to end. Does he think I'm his mate, he can't greet?"

Personally I think she was bitter that he was so young and already in his final year, ready to graduate, while she was still waiting for an unlikely supplementary admission list.

Sometimes he would be coming to the Lodge from up the road, and Ogechi would look down the road so she wouldn't have to greet him first. Most times he just went past us and in to his room. I liked George, but it was true that he wouldn't greet you or say hello if you didn't greet him. He would just walk by as if you weren't there, or he was thinking—sometimes he would only look me in the eye and wink. One day when I told Ogechi this, she shouted at me: "Don't answer him! Ignore him. Make sure you don't answer that kind of stupid rubbish. Did they tie his mouth?" And so I understood I was to act like she did and look away when I saw him coming.

But all that was before the new girl. Because every time we seemed to ignore him, he conspicuously seemed to prefer buying the new girls vouchers and making calls at her canopy. Ogechi never expressly told me to forget everything she had said about him before, but I knew it was time to be nice. In a short time George came back from class to a warmer reception.

"George, welcome. How was class?"

He would nod his head and smile mischievously, saying nothing. But I knew from that victory smile that he'd read our minds already. He breezed back to his room as he'd breezed out, and Ogechi spewed muffled hisses and curses under her breath in his wake.

There were other boys whom she found more personable than the bookish George, but they were far more dangerous. Sometimes we would hear stories about them in whispers, as if they didn't live with us in our hostels, or walk along our streets, or make calls at our canopies. People whispered about them as if they were wicked spirits. They were not spirits, but sometimes they were wicked. They were cult boys.

Jane, who lived in Milla Lodge down the street, was our most frequent visitor. One day while I was in the kitchen making lunch, she and Ogechi gossiped in the room. I wasn't listening to what they were saying until they suddenly lowered their voices. Jane mentioned a name, Tamuno, and whispered that he was one of them. She said something about a boy he had beaten to a coma on our street, and that he was carrying a gun. That was the day we discovered Tamuno was a cult boy. He lived in our Lodge; he was our customer. Before then we thought he was just an ordinary student.

I soon learned that some of the friendliest students on our street could be some of the most dangerous. There was a boy everybody called Franco who lived in Princewill Villa. Ogechi often sent me to sell him recharge cards, and he would tease me and call me his wife, and the 420 naira was his bride price, so when was I moving in with him? I answered never, but I started thinking about being his wife because he was handsome.

One day I went to sell a voucher in Franco's hostel, and I saw many strange boys in the compound. When I approached his room, I heard a girl weeping, and I heard whipping, slashing sounds, and I knew she was being caned. Franco was standing close by with some other boys I had never seen. He didn't smile at me, and I knew he had told them to flog the girl in his room. I was afraid, and I went back without selling the voucher, and Ogechi was afraid, too.

But we were truly terrorized when suddenly there were cult wars. Gunshots were heard at night, and the streets in the neighborhood became largely deserted. Ogechi would pack up her canopy by 6:30 pm, instead of staying out till 9:00 pm when people usually retired for the day. But even then the estate would be desolate, and the only students out would be walking fast. "Oya lets go inside," she would order pensively. "They are fighting."

People spoke about them only in whispers, even behind a firmly closed door. Every day it seemed there was a new report of someone, or two or more, who had been shot. A regular caller would stop at our canopy, and in between his phone conversations he would give us the latest casualty figures from the battlefield.

"Have you heard? They shot one guy at Pharmacy junction this morning."

"Are you serious?" Ogechi whispered.

"He had just come down from a bike. They were hiding around, just waiting for the guy. The guy was shocked. He tried to use his books to block the gunshot."

"Are you serious?"

"You know, reflex action. When you've seen your death face to face. The guy raised his books and his folder to his face. He was too surprised to run." He hissed.

"Who are the people fighting? I heard it's Black Hatchets and Braveboyz."

"No. It's Black Hatchets and Black Knives."

"But I know somebody who is a Braveboy who has disappeared since last week."

"Ah, when there is a war, even if it is not your people that are fighting, you have to become scarce. Somebody might mistake you for something that you are not. Who is the person you are talking about, that is a Braveboy?"

Ogechi pretended not to hear the question. "So the boy who was shot, which was he?"

The caller shrugged.

"But what was he doing in school? Are they sure he was one of them?"

"Of course."

But we also heard of mistaken identities and accidental victims, of revenge killings carried out on friends and family of targets who couldn't be found while the blood was hot. Sometimes we never knew someone was "one of them" until he was shot. I saw one once, returning from the staff elementary school, just on the inside of the community gate. There was a small crowd around a body with red holes in his head and blood everywhere. I looked at the sky to see if I could see his spirit gliding up for judgement, maybe with an angel, but I didn't see anything. There was not even a bird in the sky. I ran home to tell Ogechi what I had seen.

"So you, this girl, you are not afraid of dead bodies?" She looked shocked.

I shook my head, feeling grown up. I was not afraid. But I would later wish I could erase the mental picture of that dead body. At night, I kept seeing its lifeless head and the red holes in it. It was waiting for me in every darkened room with its eyes open.

The wars stopped as suddenly as they began. I heard Ogechi and Jane from Milla Lodge whispering about the truce. The feuding cults had settled their quarrel and agreed to stop fighting. Slowly life returned to our street, and we went in for the day at our usual time. But the terror didn't exactly end with the wars. Rapists and robbers from the different cults continued to harass and terrify other uninitiated students until a new war began. One day Jane informed us that a girl was raped in her hostel.

"This Milla Lodge here?" Ogechi exclaimed.

"I'm telling you. Day before yesterday. I think she knows the boy who did it. They were in the room together."

"Her boyfriend?"

"Not her boyfriend. The guy came to visit her very late, and she let him in, so she must have known him. Like an hour later, three other boys came to meet him in the room, like something they planned. All of them entered and locked the door." She hissed, shaking her head. "The poor girl was begging them."

"You people didn't go and help her?"

Jane scoffed. "Something is wrong with your head."

"Who is the girl?"

Jane leaned in and whispered the person's name. They didn't want me to know whom.

"What?! She is my customer."

I watched all her female customers closely for the next few days, but I was not sure what to look for. I never discovered who it was.

"Meanwhile, what is happening between you and your neighbor?"

"Which neighbor?"

"The new girl making calls."

"What do you mean, 'What is happening?'"

"She said you never have change when she is looking for change to give her customers."

"She came to ask me for change and I didn't have. Is that an issue? So she is gossiping about me now?"

"Ogechi you are raising your voice. Why are you getting angry?"

"What exactly did she say?"

"You know your behaviour has just confirmed exactly what she said. For your information, she said I should come and beg you, she knows we are friends. That if there is anything she did to you, you should please forgive her. She doesn't know how to quarrel."

"What kind of rubbish is that?"

Jane was quiet for a while. "Listen to yourself. Do you know your face is red right now?"

Ogechi looked away.

"What is going on between you people?"

"Go and tell her that I am not a child. If I have change in my bag, I will give her. I did not have change."

That was a lie. I was holding the bag that day. I knew there were a few ten and twenty naira notes in it. The new girl had walked over to get change for fifty naira, and Ogechi had lied that she had none. I didn't dare disagree.

"So, the cult boys have ended their war, now you want to start your own? Please let me go to my room o, before she will come here and start shooting, and maybe I will die from one stray bullet."

Ogechi laughed, walked Jane to the door, and told me to start preparing dinner. The new girl seemed nice, but I didn't dare to be nice to her, and since Ogechi wouldn't greet her, she also wouldn't greet us, and for that I couldn't blame her. There was nothing that she would do that would not make Ogechi overflow with contempt. If she was wearing a skirt and crossed her legs, Ogechi would hiss and murmur "prostitute." It was true that most of the boys on the street were all going to make calls at her canopy, and even some girls. But it wasn't because she crossed her long, black legs. It was because she was always smiling and greeting people and teasing them. And maybe because she was pretty.

There was a particular boy who would often come and sit with her at her canopy. Everybody who passed by stopped to greet him, or at least nodded respectfully at him, like they would to someone elderly, or someone important. But he looked just like an ordinary student to me. He was not a familiar face on our street. He was sitting with the new girl at her canopy that day she wanted to get change from us for a customer. When she went back to her canopy, she said something to him with a smile, and I noticed that he looked closely at us, first at Ogechi, and then at me for a long time. I looked back at him. He had a big scar under his right eye.

Many days later Ogechi dialed the man to whom she had paid money to arrange her admission to degree. She was already angry when she called. Someone had told her earlier in the day that a new list had gone up on a notice board in school, and it was being rumoured that it would be the last admission list for the year. Ogechi had rushed off to the campus and told me to pack up by seven if she wasn't back by then. When she came back her eyes were swollen. I could only say a limp welcome.

"Make food. MAKE FOOD!"

She took the business phone, but instead of checking the call records, she started dialling a number. She called my mother.

"Sister, can you see that that bastard has collected my money, and he did not do that thing. The final list is out and my name is not there."

They spoke for a while. I stayed in the small kitchen, afraid to leave it.

After that call she dialled another number, but it took a long time. He did not answer his phone.

She lay down on the mattress and didn't answer me when I called her to eat. Most of our neighbours overheard the phone conversation through the thin walls and knew she was not in the mood for the usual late night gossip. I pulled out an exercise book and pretended to do some homework.

I had fallen asleep with my face on my note book. I was awakened by a measured knocking on the door. I would have gone to open it, but I turned and saw that Ogechi was sitting up on the bed with a plate of yam on her lap and an unpleasant look on her face. She didn't ask who was at the door. She just went on chewing silently.

After a pause a male voice said, "Do you know I can see you through your curtain? Please give me voucher. MTN, four hundred naira."

It was Tamuno's voice. Ogechi didn't answer.

"Ogechi?"

"Tamuno, it's late."

"I need to make an important call, you hear? Try."

"It is late. I have gone to bed."

"Ogechi, open this door."

That was not a plea. Ogechi stood up but instead went to the light switch. She turned it off.

I listened for his footsteps in the hallway. He didn't move for a long time and didn't say anything more, but after a while he walked slowly off. Ogechi went on eating in the dark.

The following afternoon Tamuno made a bee line to our canopy.

"Ogechi, are you trying me? Are you trying me?"

Ogechi didn't answer. She looked away.

"Am I not talking to you?" He snatched the mobile phone from off the table. "Look at this girl. Do you know me? Do you know who I am?"

"Give me my phone please."

"Are you mad? You want me to fuck you up?"

"Tamuno, I don't want trouble. Give me my phone please."

"Are you mad? Are you trying me?"

"Won't I close my business? Will I not sleep in peace in this house? Please give me my phone."

"What phone? This phone?"

With that he smashed the handset on the ground. It splintered like a rotted stick.

Ogechi was speechless, but her breath was racing, her chest heaving. She looked at him, and at the phone, and back at him, and all she could do was breathe heavily. Her eyes watered as she went on her knees to gather the pieces of her business. People on the street stopped to stare, but nobody said anything. They knew who he was. Seemingly satisfied, the bully turned and swaggered back to his room.

"You want to buy recharge card by ten o'clock in the night, but have you paid me for all the ones you collected on credit?!"

Tamuno turned and walked steadily back to the front of the Lodge, accepting the invitation for a fight.

"Am I your slave? I don't blame you!"

"You are sharpening your mouth for me?"

"How much are you owing me? Have you paid me for the ones you collected?"

He came forward and tried to slap her, but she pushed his hand away. She was sobbing now.

"Okay, you think I will fight you, right? I will flog you under this hot sun, just watch."

He pulled out his cell phone and dialled a number on it as he made his way back to his room. Ogechi detached the small canopy from the table and carried both of them into the Lodge. She told me to bring the chairs. People still gawked around uselessly, too scared to interfere. Nobody wanted trouble with a cult boy. As I struggled with the plastic chairs, I caught a glimpse of the new girl. She was pacing around her canopy, talking to someone on the phone.

Ogechi locked her room door and went into the bathroom to wash her face. She was still there when I heard footsteps outside the door and someone trying to open it.

"Open the door."

I didn't need to be told. I sat tight, and my heart began to pound, faster.

"Ogechi if I break down this door, you will cry times two. You will chop fifty plus fifty lashes. I swear."

Ogechi didn't say anything, and I heard a brief, muted deliberation in the corridor. Only Tamuno's voice sounded familiar. He had called some of his cult members.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, and the door shook. I jumped up from the bed and ran to the kitchen. I told her I was scared, but she told me to stay there and close the door. She dried her eyes and went to the room to wait for the people breaking in.

After two more loud thumps, I heard the hinges of the door creak as it yielded, and I heard his voice more clearly. Too scared to be alone, I crept out of the kitchen to find her sitting on the bed and three tall boys, including Tamuno, holding canes and a belt, standing in front of her.

"You don't want to fight again? Repeat all that rubbish you were saying outside."

"Tamuno, sorry. I'm sorry please." She went on her knees. Tears were streaming down her face.

"No, not yet. We have not yet lashed you. First say everything you said before, then after your hundred strokes you will be sorry."

"Sorry, please. Sorry."

"Oya lie down, lie down lie down lie down..." he snapped the cane around in front of him so that it made a whipping sound. His fellow goons had positioned themselves in two adjacent corners of the room. I clung to the wall and shivered.

"Please..."

"Lie doooown, lie down, don't waste time."

She was still pleading with him when someone came into the room and Tamuno stopped talking. It was the boy who often sat with the new girl at her canopy, the one with a scar under his right eye. No one spoke, not even Ogechi. Then the scarred boy smiled.

"Wetin she do?"

"Bros, this girl dey talk anyhow. She dey hold my shirt, she wan" fight me. No respect!"

"Oya, fall outside first. Fall outside."

Tamuno and his gang quietly left the room.

"Stand up," he said. She stood up. "What happened," he asked. She began to narrate her side of the story, and it made her sob some more. He would look at me often while she spoke, but he didn't interrupt her till she finished.

"Don't worry, he won't flog you. How much does he owe you?"

She told him, and he took out and counted enough money to cover the debt. He handed the money to her.

"Don't talk to him anyhow. You have to be respectful all the time, you don't know who is who. Do you know who he is?"

She nodded.

"Do you know who I am?"

She nodded again.

"Who am I?"

She called him by his nickname.

He came to where I stood and bent down. "Don't be afraid. Did they beat you?"

I shook my head.

"What is your name?"

I opened my mouth to answer, but I was still shaking terribly, and the words just wouldn't come out. I started crying instead.

"Don't cry, don't cry," he said, and he shook me gently on the shoulder.

It was later that evening that the new girl came to our room. She knocked once, entered, and stood near the door silently. Jane had since joined us and was still comforting Ogechi. Ogechi waved at her limply.

"Thank you. Thank you for what you did."

The new girl nodded but said nothing.

"Thank you, my sister," Jane said. "God will bless you. Did you call him on the phone, or he just happened to be around?"

"I called him. He doesn't live very far from here."

"Thank God one of us has a powerful boyfriend, ah. The day I enter trouble, you are the first person I will come and tell."

The new girl smiled. "He's not my boyfriend. We're just friends."

"Just friends?"

She laughed at the doubtful undertone. "Just friends. My ex used to be his Leader."

Jane nodded with understanding. "And him, he is now their leader, abi?"

"He's one of them."

God will bless you, my sister, Jane resounded, and the new girl nodded. She came to where I was seated on the bed, knelt in front of me and pinched my cheek tenderly.

"Dabere, my little angel. I hope they didn't touch you?"

I shook my head. The tears were not yet dry on my face, but I grinned. I was her little angel. She knew my name.

 

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