The lorry park was just stirring awake when Nnedi got to the center of the town. She looked around her furtively in the semi-darkness to make sure no one had followed her from Ihenacho’s compound. She quickly located a lorry going to Onitsha and as she was the first passenger, she secured a seat in front beside the driver. Other passengers would take their places at the back of the lorry on wooden benches that had been constructed for the purpose. It didn’t take long for the bus to fill up because traders from Umuaku usually travelled to Onitsha regularly to buy goods for their shops. Nnedi had heard stories about the big, dusty commercial town called Onitsha but she had never travelled outside her hometown of Umuaku.
The bus took off in a cloud of smoke just as the sun peeked from behind Eastern clouds. As the bus zoomed off, Nnedi sighed wistfully at the thought that she was leaving everything she knew behind and venturing out into the unknown. She was now an outcast in her hometown, a thing of scorn. She wondered if she would ever come back to Umuaku. She thought of her parents and the shame and disgrace they would be subjected to by Ihenacho’s family. She thought about Chidi whose surgery date was close at hand and how she was going to miss seeing him getting well and back on his feet. A silent tear rolled down her left cheek, followed by another one on the right; soon she was blinded by hot tears as they streamed down her face uncontrollably.
“Hope no problem?” asked the driver of the truck as he cast her a sideways glance
“It is nothing”, she replied hastily drying her face with the back of her hands
The driver took in her single wrapper and dusty feet. She looked rather unkempt he thought to himself. He wondered what would make a young girl of eighteen by his estimation get on a bus to Onitsha so early in the morning then break down in tears barely halfway into the journey. He wondered what her story was, but then he had seen quite a lot since he first started as a lorry conductor when he was fourteen and now as a driver for a lorry company in Onitsha. He had seen married women running off to Onitsha to see their lovers without the knowledge of their husbands or families, young men in search of greener pastures with only a dream in their heads and empty pockets, young girls desirous of the good life in Onitsha only to be lured into prostitution rings.
“What is your name?” asked the driver
“Nnedi”, she replied
She noticed that the driver wasn’t so much older that herself. He definitely was in his early twenties. He wore dirty shorts and a crumpled button-down shirt with a comb stuck in his bushy hair. Why someone would have a comb stuck in their hair and not use it beat Nnedi’s imagination.
“Why were you crying?” he asked
She looked at him again. Could she trust him?
“It is a long story”, she replied wearily
“You have the entire journey to tell me”, he said smiling
“You can call me Ikechukwu, Ik for short” he continued
Nnedi managed a weak smile in return.
The search party led by Ihenacho’s younger brother, Nwafor returned late that night. They headed straight to Okoye’s house and broke the news of their inability to find Nnedi.
Okoye was livid with rage. He had played in his head a thousand times over how Nnedi would be dragged into his compound, her head hung in shame. He had relished the thought of how she would be made to sleep with Ihenacho’s corpse the night before the burial and how her hair would be shaved completely.
He had planned how he was going to sequester her from the rest of the wives during the customary three months of mourning and make sure she didn’t set foot outside her room. And if it happened that she absolutely had to venture into the streets, he would force her to rub charcoal on her head as a sign of mourning.
He ground his teeth in frustration.
Nnedi told Ik her story amidst more tears and sniffing. By the time she was done, they had just entered the town of Onitsha.
“Don’t worry”, he said patting her on the shoulder
“Things will get better. But I must warn you that life in Onitsha is not easy”
Nnedi’s heart sank in despair at Ik’s words
“Do you have a place to stay?” Ik asked as he braked to a halt in the lorry park
“Yes”, she replied clutching her small bag of possessions to her chest
From the side-mirror, Nnedi could see the passengers at the back of the lorry as they alighted. Soon she and Ik were the only ones left in the lorry.
“Where?” he prodded
A look of irritation crossed Nnedi’s face. She couldn’t understand why this boy would not let her be. She had planned to get lodging at an affordable hotel to spend the night and possibly plan her next move.
“How is that your business?” she asked as she released the latch of the door and hopped out
She turned and saw him staring at her with an odd look on his face that she couldn’t place. She wanted to hop back on the lorry and tell this strange, sweet boy that she had nowhere to stay and that she needed his help. Instead she squared her shoulders and resumed her exit out of the lorry park.
Nnedi had never seen so many people in one place in her entire life. Huge crowds of people milled around her. No one paid her any attention as she clutched her bag even tighter to her chest this time and moved with the crowd under the midday sun.
Soon she came upon a signboard for a hotel and hurried towards it. Her entire savings were not enough to get her a night in their establishment the people had told her. When she stepped out of the hotel, the sun seemed hotter.
By sundown, Nnedi was still traipsing in and out of hotels. It was the same story everywhere; she couldn’t afford them. She was tired and hungry. She couldn’t afford to spend any money on food for fear of reducing her already inadequate resources. She started to panic as nightfall approached. What would she do if she couldn’t find where to sleep? She thought about Ik and wished she had listened to him. Maybe he would have helped her.
Just then she spied a sun-bleached signboard and her face lit up with renewed hope.
Nnedi thought the place looked seedy as she entered but she couldn’t care less. A bubble-gum chewing receptionist told her what the room rates were and surprisingly she had enough money for one night and a little extra for some food. She was shown to her room by a porter who handed her a small bar of scented toilet soap and a roll of toilet paper.
Nnedi quickly deposited her bag on the bed with its threadbare sheets and went out in search of food. She returned with some bread and akara which she bought a few meters from the front of the hotel. As she walked back, she noticed a couple of scantily dressed girls of about her age standing along the road. Nnedi wondered why they were standing there as if they had no home. Surely their mothers would be looking for them now just the way her mother used to send Chidi to look for her whenever she got carried away at her friend Nma’s house. She couldn’t wait to get back to her room and the bed, feeling grateful that she finally had a place to lay her head.
She heard a soft knock on the door. She wondered who would be up and about at this ungodly hour. She heard more footsteps in the corridor, then a female voice. Apparently, the occupants of the hotel kept late nights.
The knock came again. This time louder
“Who is it?”
“Customer”, replied a male voice
“Customer?” she wondered
How can anyone’s name be customer?
“I don’t know anybody by that name. Try the next room”, she yelled and snuggled into the bed miffed at the intruder who dared to disturb her sleep. Soon she heard retreating footsteps and closed her eyes
Her eyes flew open as she heard more footsteps approaching the door. She jumped up and grabbed her blouse, putting it on in one fluid motion and securing her wrapper around her waist. She shoved what was left of her money inside her bra just as the door burst open
“What is wrong with you”, shouted the bubble-gum chewing receptionist
Nnedi stared back in confusion which quickly gave way to anger when she realized that the surly receptionist had just intruded on her privacy. She eyed the receptionist cautiously
“Why are you here”, she asked the receptionist who looked as if barging into people’s rooms in the middle of the night was an everyday occurrence for her
The receptionist responded with a question, “Why did you send the customer away?”
“What customer?” asked Nnedi
That was when she noticed the wiry, middle-aged man standing at the door. He had been silently watching the scene unfolding before him.
As if on cue, he addressed the receptionist gruffly, “Look I don’t have all night”.
The receptionist glared at Nnedi
“Why do you think this hotel is cheap?”
“You think you can stay in this fine hotel in Onitsha for next to nothing?”
Nnedi almost let out a sarcastic laugh when the receptionist mentioned that the hotel was fine. She bit the inside of her mouth and willed herself to speak evenly
“I think there has been a mistake”, Nnedi ventured
“There is no mistake here. The customer has come and you must service him”
With that the churlish receptionist turned on her heels and stormed out locking the door from outside.
The wiry man crossed the length of the room very quickly making his way towards her
Nnedi got on her knees.
“Sir, please don’t do this”, she begged
“I’m not going to hurt you. I just need a good time with a girl”, he said in broken English
“I will pay you well”, he continued tapping his trouser pocket
Nnedi tried to stand up and run for the door but he grabbed her and threw her on the bed. His sinewy arms held her down as his beard grazed her breasts. Hot tears ran down her cheek at the realization of what was about to happen to her.
“You’re not even sweet” the man fumed as he flung some currency notes at her afterwards
Nnedi scooped them up and ran to the bathroom. She stayed there until she was sure he had left the room. Then she came out and quickly packed her things.
The man and the receptionist were nowhere in sight when she emerged from her room. She left the hotel and walked briskly until she got to the place where the scantily clad girls stood earlier. Only one girl was left.
“No customer?” she teased
Nnedi nodded even though she didn’t know why she was nodding
“Let us go home”, said the girl beckoning to Nnedi