A Dame To Deal For
There was a mild storm raging outside on that joyless day in April, the panes of my window shattered among themselves like cold-wrapped teeth, the howling noise that came forth shook the locals out of their consciousness and everyone retreated to the comfort of their homes, even the irritating animals picked their feet as fast as they could to avoid being swept away by the wind. In the middle of the chaos, lightning tore through the sky like a pair of scissors through linen. And every now and then the sky was sent to pieces by the sound of thunder. The sun had gone missing for days, and now we knew why. My hostel mates were thrilled, they let go of their childhood inhibitions and made shrill cries atop their voices along the corridor, some danced and others made sounds of terror while mimicking Sango (the Yoruba god of thunder). I was in my room, in my chair staring at a notebook, trying to make sense of what was written in it while also weathering the storm that ran its course in my stomach. I was hungry beyond description, there was barely enough money left to afford me a decent meal and cover my transport expenses to school for a week, and my bank account was in the toilet. And since I loathed cooking, it was never an option. I had rung my Dad’s cellphone throughout the past week until the old man had begun to ignore my calls. All of these gave vent to a mule-some anger that expressed itself as a frown on my face. The thunder cracked again and I winced. Beautiful! What a beautiful way for the world to end. With nothing in my stomach!
There was a knock at the door, I answered it and saw a lady with a yellow scarf over her head trying to grin at me. She was failing, badly. I raised an eyebrow, “Wow, must be my lucky day. You braved a storm just to see me?”. She smiled and revealed a near-perfect set of teeth. “Good afternoon, please am I speaking with Kayode? Wura sent me.” “Yes you are,” I answered and waved her in. From the light that came in through the window, her features became more visible. She wasn’t a true beauty by any stretch of the imagination, I could think of several other girls who would give her at least a hundred miles of beauty to catch up with in the same outfit but she cut a clean picture of an attractive and easy-going person who spoke with megatons of grace and courtesy. She had a high-pitched voice and she landed her consonants with great oomph. She took off her scarf and revealed a special kind of braids that met at the middle of her head, dividing it into two equal halves. Her white blouse was loosely-fitted, her black skirt was neatly pressed, her sandals were simple but utilitarian. She sat on my chair and placed her small grey purse on the table, and I flopped on the bed with my back against the wall, my stomach rumbling. After an awkward moment of staring at ourselves, I put her out of her unease, “This is the part where you introduce yourself and tell me why you are here”. Then she started, “My name is Moji, I am a 200L student of Biochemistry. And I need your help”, she was suddenly passionless. “Of course you do. After all you did not come here to offer me gifts from my fairy godmother”, I retorted. The sound of rain drops beating the earth like a billion drumsticks playing at once could be heard, the familiar smell of wet sand and dust burrowed into my nostrils, it reminded me of my childhood and my stomach churned. As if on cue, she continued, “For some days now I have noticed a guy following me every where I go. I see him at school, church, even in the market”. I replied, “Maybe he is an admirer who is just shy to approach you, maybe he is your guardian angel trying to ward off evil. Since he has kept the distance, I wouldn’t be too keen on getting rid of him”. She was not buying any of it, with a vigorous shake of her head she replied, “No, he is not. I know who he is”. That caught my attention like a spiderweb traps flies, I could see my attention struggling to get free now. I asked her to tell me everything I needed to know. She began, “It all started when my cousin borrowed some money to fund a project of his. At the time, I did not know the source, and it wasn’t until he came to me for help when the deadline was very near and he couldn’t meet up with the payment and the interest that I found out who lent him the money. It was one Michael from COLFHEC, the same guy who is following me . We approached him to beg for more time, and he gave us on the condition that the interest would be doubled. Eventually we paid him off, every kobo we owned was used to settle him. Now I don’t know why he is still following me”.
The story was doubtless half-true because the premise was too faultless, it looked crisp and clean, made-up and furnished; I needed facts to work with and it seemed she wasn’t going to give me all for free, at least for now. I played along, “Michael must be a trouble maker then. Just where in this picture do I come in? Because if Wura thinks that I beat up people then she can add her name to the list. Somebody needs to beat some sense into her head because you should be talking to the police or the CSO and not some scrawny, loudmouthed student with two chips on one shoulder and an incurable ulcer in his nerves”. She immediately fell to her knees and began to plead, there were tears running out fast from her eyes, she was unmistakably scared. I pulled her up and placed her back on the chair, giving her a tissue to clean her eyes with, absolutely shaken to the root of my spine by her sudden act. I hoped it was real, otherwise she would make an extraordinary actress. “I cannot tell the police or the CSO because my cousin and I would be dragged into it”, she said in between sniffs, “And I don’t want it. Please, Wura said you could help. Please..”. I couldn’t bear the sight of it anymore, the slightest drop of sentimentality muddles my head up, I had no choice but to accept, “Okay, okay. I would see what I can do. Two questions though. What is your cousin’s name and how exactly do I benefit from helping you out with this little problem? Because in case Wura failed to mention, I don’t help people out of the abundance of my heart. There isn’t that much abundance left to go round helping people”. “His name is Taiwo”, she answered. She reached for her purse and I stopped her, “We are not going to do money. I feel bad enough demanding something in return for the service, let’s do something else. Do you cook well?”.
Somebody once told me I walked as though my feet were made of gold and I replied him by saying he spoke as though his head was made of cheap lead. I had long ago stopped thinking about what people thought of me, whether it was how I walked, how I talked or how I behaved. If God allowed me to breathe everyday without flinging questions at my face about my attitude, then no mortal had the right to question me, like they don’t have their own issues, some of them infinitely worse and sordid in every possible way. So when the library attendant asked me why I walked with my hands forming a bracket at my sides, I said nothing but gave her a look that would unboil an egg, and walked away to greet the stacks of bookshelves in the hallway. It had been three days since my meeting with Moji, and I had made good progress on my investigation. It turned out Michael was a student of the department of HSM, he always moved around with a gang and was, to all intents and purposes, their leader. It would be tactless to approach him upfront, people like him would rather eat their ears than listen to me bargain the freedom of a prey he has his eyes on unless I gain some bit of leverage. Which was what brought me to the Nimbe Adedipe complex, the school library. It was a massive structure that enjoyed a panoramic view of the school as far as the eye could see, but I scorned it because it stood aloof from my college and the school staff who worked there were snobs who had several layers of superiority complex to deal with. I had a contact who knew Michael as an acquaintance, and I arranged for him to get Michael into the school library in order for me to gain access into his school bag which was required to be submitted in a room before entering the library. I waited some moments after he went in before I approached the security outpost, I took my bag into the room, spotted his bag and opened it. There was a ball point pen, a bottle of coke, a diary, and a hardback notebook. There was a nylon that contained an obscene amount of paracetamol tablets, I opened the notebook and saw a list of names, dates, and places. It appeared he was a middle man who delivered something to a large number of people, mostly students. I put one sachet of paracetamol into my pocket and I was about to return the book when a name caught my attention, and then several other names. I transferred it into my bag. If I had no wit, no whisper of sense, no cell of reasoning in my body, I still would have been able to connect the dots and arrive at the same conclusion that kept bubbling up and down my mind as I sat in a corner on the first floor of the library. Michael was having a conversation with Femi, my contact, and whatever the subject was it seemed to have ensnared his interest. I caught Femi’s attention to tell him I was done. Then I left the library. The horse-faced woman with the snooty attitude was nowhere to be found.
The Sun’s rays fanned out over the entire landscape and the sensation on the skin was welcome. It was one of the very rare days when the weather was perfect and one would not mind taking the sun home with them in a bag. Students milled about like cattle, kicking dust or hanging around in groups to chat about the day’s activities. A101 was as raucous and rowdy as ever, the rabble talked in unhushed voices that shook the walls around us. It was scandalizing watching people open their mouths, dribbling spit everywhere with no restraint or a shave of feeling that pretended to care that perhaps courtesy should be employed. Moji sat beside me in one of the seats at the back of the class, she was smiling from ear to ear, and I was looking poker-faced. “You lied to me. You told me only what you felt I needed to hear, not all of it. Taiwo was doing drugs, and Michael was his supplier. Maybe he bit on more than he could chew and he couldn’t pay up. So Michael threatened him, and you got involved somehow. And now you’ve come to meet me to bail you out. I like that you care enough to protect your cousin – if he is your cousin- but I don’t like you lying to me. I could commit murder for being lied to”. She sent her smile to the grave and her eyes turned milky with sorrow. She held my arm with both hands and started to confess, saying she was sorry. This was the second time in a matter of days that the same dame would go teary-eyed because of me, she was trouble, no doubt, but I felt intrigued. And intrigue is my opium. I calmed her down and asked her for the second time to tell me all, and now she left nothing unsaid. Taiwo was her boyfriend who had a lethal dependence on drugs to keep his depression at bay. Why a young lad at school would go through depression of such scale, she did not say. He owed Michael a mammoth amount in bills for the drugs he collected, packaged in paracetamol tablets, and when he defaulted on the payment she stepped in to save his hide by offsetting the bills. But Michael would have none of it, he threatened to have his scalp and his girlfriend’s unless they paid extra. The couple were not gullible, they changed hostels and Taiwo severed his drug ties, choosing to live with his demons, and a girlfriend. Each tablet of the drug contained Codeine and a generous dose of Ibuprofen, both painkillers and narcotics. It was produced with paracetamol inscriptions to provide cover. When she left that day, I knew I could no longer dodge meeting Michael in person and honestly I wasn’t too crazy about it.
The MPO1 lecture hall isn’t one of my favourite spots on campus, and it isn’t difficult to figure out why. It is almost always overcrowded, and I am not a fan of crowds. Michael and his gang walked into the building complex, turned right and snaked their way into the toilet, I followed them in. His three comrades were not as big and terrifying as I made them out to be from afar, but they had discipline. While Michael had disappeared into one of the rooms, the other three spread out at the entrance to form an arc. I walked to the end of the hall and busied myself with nothing until I heard him finish, I turned round and called out loud as he came out, “Michael!”. The ruffian closest to me turned his head and was about to speak when I raised a finger for silence, approached with steady steps and stopped just out of arm’s reach of any of the three bloodhounds. I hoped none of them heard the rapidity of my heartbeat, things were beginning to get messy down there. I was planning on making it as short and unpleasant as possible, “I know you are looking for a stash of drugs and a book of yours where you have a list of clients who owe you money and who you have to deliver goods to, I know you are a middle man, a foot soldier for small-scale drug dealers who have huge investments in the school and who would pick you clean, limb from limb, with a fork if their business went south. I know you make a handful of cash for your trouble, plus you get to have your own twenty-four hour security. You are a big dog, Michael, that is not in doubt. But I don’t know if you are willing to dance with the CSO or the police if somehow that book falls into their laps just because you refuse to keep away from a certain girl and her boyfriend, a cretin who doesn’t deserve the girl he is with”. Maybe I was too fast, or maybe it was the stench of the toilet, or maybe it was a little bit of both, but Michael and his goons were speechless for what seemed to last forever. I helped him out by coughing out loud, then he asked, “So you are the one that took it! Who are you? Shey this one dey mad ni? Abi you wan die? You dey threaten me with Police, abi you dey craze ni?”, One more second was all that separated me from being beaten into a bloody paste of bones and wit, his boys had started to advance towards me. I had to be smart, “If I don’t leave here in one piece, then I cannot stop that book from falling into the wrong hands. If I don’t call my friend within the next five minutes, you can be sure your glory days are over. So tell your dogs to back off!”. He wanted to call my bluff, he wanted to have me beaten, but he also wanted to stay away from the hooks of the police so he hung on every word I said, and his comrades drew back. He tried to sound tough, “You think you are smart ehn, that stupid girl sent you to do her housecleaning and you did, you are a dog!”. I had rattled him already and I knew I was in charge. I allowed myself to smile, “Actually I don’t think I’m smart at all. If I was smart I would say a walnut has heavier content than your head, I would say you are a death-dealer with a death mark on his soulless life. You deplete people’s lives for money, you don’t know what is coming your way. You have no idea. But I’m not smart, plus I’m a dog so don’t mind me”. One of his boys tried to bite, “Why should we believe anything you say?”, his voice boomed with terror and for a moment I was afraid. “You don’t have to, but I take it your book is still missing. You can believe that. And is your downfall really worth the price? Moji says you have been settled already, why don’t you leave them alone?”. He then started to smile, the type of smile that could earn someone an Academy Award, “You don’t know abi? Maybe he did not tell her”, I asked “About what?”. He retained his composure quicker than I imagined, he spoke with ease, “Even after settling me, Taiwo came to me for help. And I helped him several times, he still came last week”. I was seething, “It doesn’t matter if you give him a crate of drugs with two litres of your blood everyday, just stay away from her. And the next time he comes throw him out on his ears. Our meeting is over, this place stinks”. I walked to the main door and heard him say, “For your mind now you don win shey?.” I answered back, “At all bro, if I wanted to win I would make you sniff every little gram of drug you’ve sold with your anus,” and I left.
The mango tree behind the MP building complex was the next place we met. It was after lecture hours and I was not hungry. It had been a very long time since that last happened. There was no mango on the tree and the insects instead had me for lunch, while my eyes feasted on the joyful display of electricity in Moji’s eyes and the unhurried steps she took as she walked to the mango tree. She was wearing a skirt again, with a pair of fancy slippers, a black shirt and her hair had been undone so it was rough but she paid no notice. Her face was a minefield of emotion, those teeth she showed shone like nuggets of white gold, I was amazed at how she could be simple, warm and captivating at the same time. She held a big brown paper bag and her school bag was strapped behind her, as she took her seat among the concrete seats I started to speak, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is Michael would never disturb you again, he practically doesn’t have enough teeth in his mouth to hold on to freedom and to hold on to you at the same time, which means you have no need to always watch your back henceforth. The bad news is since the matter has been solved, our little deal is off and you wouldn’t have to cook for me anymore.” She exploded with joy and she hugged me, I grew red with shame and surprise, call it shurprise. “So he won’t disturb me again. Thank God, thank you Kayode. Thank you for everything. Wait first, how did you do it gan?.” “Honey, can’t tell you. You don’t pay me enough for that, no one does.” I added, “And one more thing. Why do you have to put up with someone who likes to play with fire even after getting burned? You are too good for Taiwo, you should know that. Get over him and do it quickly. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, don’t let someone drag you down. Love yourself fiercely and put those white teeth of yours to good use. Who knows, you could be first lady.” I was sermonizing, and I could hardly believe it. She laughed carelessly, “Yes sir. I don hear,” She brought out a plate of food from the paper bag, gave it to me and said, “Take, I baked this for you. And don’t worry about the food part. I’m always happy to cook for you.” I smiled, opened the package and saw several slices of cakes and pancakes. I felt like I died and went to heaven. She rubbed her stomach vigorously, “I feel like taking garri, and I don’t have any left.” I answered, “Garri is all I have.” We left together, her right hand cuffed around my left and walked down to the park.
This one is for you, Mojisola. Taiwo is still a nutjob, Wura is getting fat, and I’m still without a girlfriend. By the way, how is the sunset from over there?