Pero dialed the number, waiting patiently for it to be picked. At last a husky male voice answered the phone.
â€œHi Joe,â€ Pero said, a fond smile on her face. â€œHow are you doing?â€
There was a low grunt and a cough before the man at the other end answered, â€œgreat, just waking up from sleep.â€
Pero clicked her tongue in sympathy. â€œSorry I woke you up.â€
â€œNo, it is fine.â€ The man told her, his voice clearer now.
Standing before the windowÂ with its blue curtain twisted up into the edge of the one of the many open louvers,Â Pero held on to the phone with her left hand, deftly applying eye shadow under her eyebrows with her right hand. Her face twisted in concentration, Â she moved her attention between the small mirror propped against the window sill and the man on the other end of the phone. â€œI just called to say I missed you.â€
Joe chuckled. â€œWe were together only last night.â€
Pero smiled, adjusted the mirror and pushed the drooping folds of the curtain deeper into the recess between the louvers and the window frame. Light from the mounted halogen lamp in the hostel compound rushed in to flood the room with brightness.
â€œI miss you all the same.â€
â€œThank you Pero. I miss you too.â€
Pero dropped the small black brush into her open make up bag on the table where a high pile of books rested and picked up a small narrow tube from the small bag. She propped the phone against her shoulder and ear as she twisted the small silver cap of the tube.
â€œSo, are you coming today?â€ She asked, pumping the wand that came out of the tube a few times beforeÂ sweeping against her lips. There was a small hesitation before the man answered. â€œI am not too sure.â€
Pero managed to make a face and pout prettily at the same time, leaning closer to the mirror as she did.
â€œNot too sure?â€
â€œI have a few things to attend to on the Island.â€
Pero turned her face to the side and smudged the black line that ran over the top of her eye with her left index finger. â€œHmmm,â€ she said into the phone, repeating the action with the other eye. â€œSo what are you up to?â€
â€œJust about to sleep,â€ Pero turned from the window and picked up a black jean trouser from the bed. â€œI am so tired.â€ Her neck and shoulder held the phone in place as she struggled into the trouser. â€œI have been reading all day.â€
â€œGlad to hear that.â€
â€œMy head hurts from reading so much,â€ Pero said again, winking at Onyinye who was shaking her head at her that moment.
â€œSorry.â€ It was the manâ€™s turn to sound sympathetic now.
â€œGet some rest. We will talk later.â€
â€œAlright Joe,â€ Pero smiled triumphantly, beginning to reach for her gray and white cowl neck top on the bed. â€œI love you.â€
â€œI love you too.â€
Pero tossed the phone on the bed and pulled the top gingerly over her head, sucking in her mouth as she did. She reached for the high black wedge sandals by the side of the iron bunk and sat on Patriciaâ€™s bed. A small sigh escaped her lips as she struggled to buckle the sandals. She stood up with a smile.
â€œGood night roommates.â€ She said to Onyinye in particular as the latter sat crossed legged on her bed watching her. Eno was already asleep on her bed, her right hand flung protectively over a big text book that saidÂ Land LawÂ in green and white letters.
â€œYou just lied to your boyfriend.â€ Onyinye said in a disapproving voice. â€˜What if he finds out?â€
Pero slung her small bag over her shoulder. â€œHe wonâ€™t,â€ she said with a smug smile, walking out of the room with confident steps. Downstairs, Pero was happy to find that the human traffic had reduced considerably. It was two weeks to the examination period and the usually jam packed road wasÂ almost deserted, save for a few students that laughed as they strolled with books in their hands. A red Toyota Camry began to flash its headlights at her as she took to the main road, balancing delicately on her wedges. The car rolled to a stop beside her. The glass on the passenger side of the car rolled down slowly to show a grinning young man with a glittering stone on the lobe of his right ear and a shirt collar that stood stiffly around his face.
â€œWhere are you going?â€
Pero gave him a smile of her own. â€œIkeja.â€
The man shook his head and smiled in regret. â€œNot going that way.â€
â€œOk,â€ Pero said, continuing her journey. The car followed closely on her heels.
â€œI can drop you off at the gate.
Pero stopped, shrugged and reached for the door on the passenger side.
The squash bar of Ikeja country club was filled with loud laughter. Some of the older patrons shook hands and slapped each otherâ€™s back as bets were won. Two players tried to outdo themselves in the glass enclosed court, chasing after the lime green ball that bounced off the wall. Pero held on to small brown bottle Maltina bottle, ignoring the hand that groped her right knee. On the wide flat screen television on the wall, a news reporter stood before an agitated crowd, gesticulating wildly behind him. She watched the news in rapt attention even though she found herself constantly drifting from what the reporter was saying. After a few minutes of pretending to be interested in the news, she looked towards the door at the bar where a young man wearing a black bow tie over white shirt moved around, pouring light brown liquid from a plastic silver cocktail shaker into the two wine glasses that stood before him on the high black semi circular countertop.
â€œSo,â€ the man beside Pero said, bringing his head closer to hers. â€œWhere would you like us to go?â€
Pero looked at the full crown of steel gray hair on the manâ€™s head and tried to imagine that it was a cloud of jet black hair that stared her in the face.
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ she said, sipping from the straw that bobbed from the mouth of the Maltina bottle.
â€œI think you should,â€ the man pressed, his wet pink tongue darting out of his mouth to lick his thick bottom lip. Pero looked away from the blatant invitation, a coy expression on her face. In her mind, she thought,
I canâ€™t wait to be done with him.
Three other women with neon bright make up and colourful jewelry sat at the secluded end of the bar with a group of rowdy patrons. One of the patrons, an elderly man with a full curly moustache was leaning towards one of the women as they engaged in deep conversation, his face so close to her ample chest that he appeared to be practically falling into it.
Pero was about to respond to what her date said when she heard her phone begin to ring in her bag.
â€œSorry,â€ she said reaching for her bag. The number on her screen made her smile. â€œSorry,â€ She told the man beside her again. â€œExcuse me.â€ She stood up and fled the noisy room to the dark stairwell next to it. She pulled the sliding glass that separated the bar from the stairwell shut before she picked the call.
â€œHello sweetheart.â€ She said in a sweet voice, leaning on the white wall with rough gritty texture.
â€œMissing me already?â€
â€œI guess I am.â€ Joe answered with a laugh, â€œI thought you would be asleep by now.â€
Pero almost kicked herself for forgetting to put on an act.
She tried to remedy the situation with a slow drawl in a bid to sound sleepy.
â€œActually, my roommate woke me up.â€ She waved at her older date across the glass door. The man smiled, bringing up the glass of beer with a foamy top to his lips.
â€œSorry about that.â€
Pero turned away from the bar and tried a convincing yawn. â€œIt is fine.â€
â€œSo what are you doing now?â€
Pero scratched her head thoughtfully. â€œMaybe try to sleep again.â€
â€œYeah,â€ Pero gave an enthusiastic nod as if he could see her. â€œI really should go back to sleep.â€
â€œWellâ€¦â€ her boyfriend of one month said. â€œI hope there is light in school.â€
â€œOk great.â€ There was a sound of feet climbing steps. â€œI am glad you are comfortable.â€
â€œYes, me too,â€ Pero did another yawn just for the fun of it.
â€œOkay babe.â€ Joe said in a cheerful voice. â€œCome and open your room door.â€
Pero heard the request from another planet. Her heart froze to a solid block in her chest.
â€œCome and open my room door?â€ She asked, blinking stupidly and hoping she didnâ€™t hear him correctly.
â€œI am in front of your room right now.â€ He informed her, his voice still cheerful. â€œEverywhere is completely dark. No light here at the moment, but maybe there is some light in your room.â€
Pero knew that the lightness of his tone was just as false as her theatrical yawns.
â€œIâ€¦Iâ€¦â€ She stumbled, at loss for words. â€œI donâ€™t believe you.â€
Joeâ€™s voice grew sharp. â€œWhy on earth should I lie to you?â€ He snapped. â€œI am right outside your room door.â€
Pero felt her bladder grow full immediately. â€œJoeâ€¦â€ She whispered helplessly. â€œYou are not joking, are you?â€
Pero heard her new boyfriend sigh. â€œPero, you are not in the room right now, are you?â€
The admission was enough for her boyfriend and he hung up leaving Pero petrified and in shock. With shaky hands, she dialed his number.
â€œHello?â€ His voice was curt when he came on this time.
â€œâ€™I can explain.â€
â€œWhat is the point?â€ Joe asked in a derisive tone. â€œI probably wonâ€™t believe anything you say again.â€
â€œNoâ€¦, I can explain.â€ Pero tried desperately. â€œI just need to see you.â€
A cold silence greeted her but Pero knew he was still at the other end of the phone.
â€œI knew something was wrong the moment I hung up after that call from you, asking if I was coming to see you.â€ He picked his way slowly through his words. â€œYou just proved me right.â€
â€œPlease give me another chance.â€ Pero begged, crossing her hand over her chest to support the other hand that held her phone. A feeling of weakness began to spread all over her. â€œIt is complicated.â€ She turned towards the bar.
Her date was beginning to motion impatiently at her.
â€œFine,â€ Joe said at last. â€œCome to the Island in nothing less than twenty minutes and we will talk.â€ His voice was stern. â€œAnything outside twenty minutes and our relationship is over.â€
Pero looked at the silver wristwatch on her hand. It was almost ten in the night. She ran back into the bar without thinking.
â€œPlease,â€ she said breathlessly to her befuddled date seconds later. â€œI need to go right now.â€ She grabbed her bag beside the man as he turned to the side and began to fumble with the folds of his white agbada. â€œIt is an emergency.â€
â€œI hope everything is alright.â€ The old man asked, his face screwing up in concern. A few of the other patrons turned to look at her in interest as she stood in the middle of the room but Pero was past caring.
â€œNo,â€ Pero said looking at the floor as a tear squeezed past the corner of her left eye. â€œEverything is not alright.â€
The man dug into the brown leather wallet he had retrieved from his flowing attire and handed her a few notes of five hundred. â€œI hope it is nothing serious.â€
â€œIt is,â€ Pero said sniffing. â€œMy auntie just died.â€
The bus grunted and expelled one last dying breath with a loud blast. Pero couldnâ€™t believe what she was hearing. She looked around the silhouetted faces in the bus, wondering why nobody was saying anything. The driver unhooked the crooked iron that held his door in place and jumped out of the bus.
â€œWetin happen now?â€ The fat woman beside Pero asked, moving her mammoth size in the small space till there was barely breathing room for the three other people that shared the plank covered iron chair with her, â€œconductor why we stop for bridge?â€
The conductor jumped away from the edge of the bus with a guilty look, mumbling incoherently as he hitched his sagging jean pants up. A slim woman wearing a bright yellow dress grabbed her heavy long braids and wove it into a ponytail. Her hands were still busy in her hair when she began to shift towards
the open door.
â€œOya conductor, come give me my change.â€ She yelled in an oddly dismembered voice. â€œNight don reach, I no fit wait make una use person change tire on top bridge.â€
Slowly, passengers began to alight from the bus. They soon found the conductor standing at the back of the bus with the driver, a look of confusion on his face as they spoke in low tones. Pero followed numbly, unable to believe her luck. Why was this happening to her? First, it was the motorcycle that broke down at Onipan when she left the taxi that got caught in traffic at Maryland. After struggling with the strong winds and the fear of being mugged by the scary looking touts that hung around the bus stop at Onipan, she had found another motorcycle to Yaba bus stop where she had taken the bus to Obalende as she could not find taxis at the bus stop in the late hour of eleven. Now she was stuck on third mainland bridge, almost two hours after the deadline her boyfriend gave her and closer to midnight with each stroke of the clock. A loud chorus had begun at the back of the bus.
â€œConductor! My money!â€
â€œGive me my money abeg!â€
â€œE fun mi owo mi jare!â€
Pero avoided the melee and walked to the front of the bus, hiding from the revealing glare of the headlamps of speeding cars. The bridge vibrating under her feet and the wild sea breeze whipping her hair forcefully against her face, Pero dialed Joeâ€™s number with a prayer on her lips.
â€œHello?â€ He asked after the third ring. â€œWhat do you want?â€
Pero saw hope disappear before her eyes. â€œI am in the middle of the bridge.â€
â€œPero it is almost midnight and I want to sleep.â€
â€œI am on the bridge!â€ She tried again, almost whimpering as curious faces in some cars spied past the hulking yellow and black metal that was the bus at her crouching figure.
â€œThird Mainland Bridge.â€
â€œGo back to school Pero.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Pero heard him. She was just finding it hard to believe him. She stared down the broken iron rail of the bridge at the forbidding mass of water several feet below.
â€œWhat do you mean go back to school?â€
The line went dead in her hand. Pero stared at her phone with unblinking eyes. Other passengers soon joined her in front of the bus, complaining in loud voices about poorly maintained buses and dishonest drivers. Pero could barely interpret the sounds around her. She continued to hide behind the bus and the backs of passengers in a state of complete shock until help came.
â€œSorry,â€ Eno said, hiding behind the long note in her hand.
â€œI can just imagine what you went through.â€
The room was quiet as Patricia, Eno and Onyinye pondered Peroâ€™s story.
â€œSo when you got to Obalende, you took another bus to
Yaba.â€ Eno confirmed again, enjoying herself tremendously.
â€œYes,â€ Pero said with a heavy sigh. â€œI still canâ€™t believe it is over.â€
â€œJust go to bed,â€ Patricia said, looking up with sad eyes from her phone. â€œIt is already morning anyway.â€
She picked the covers at the foot of her bed and began to spread it over her body. â€œYou have a chance to start afresh when the day breaks.â€ She added philosophically.
Onyinye stirred the cup of coffee in her hand. â€œThe good part of this situation is you woke me up to read,â€ she said to Pero with a small smile. â€œBut donâ€™t worry anyway, you are a survivor.â€ Her smile continued to grow till it touched each ear. â€œThis too shall pass.â€
Pero said nothing, scrubbing at her face viciously with a wet cotton ball. She paused to look at Patriciaâ€™s still form.
â€œWhy is Patricia so quiet?â€ She asked Onyinye and Eno.
â€œMan problem.â€ Eno quipped without delay, â€œseems we are getting enough of them these days.â€
â€œShut up Eno.â€ Onyinye said with a frown. â€œPatricia has had a rough day.â€
â€œI knew Ghana was a mistake.â€ Eno said undeterred by her bunk mateâ€™s admonition. â€œThat secretary of his knew what she was doing.â€
With that, the roommates fell quiet again. The age old ceiling fan above them danced labouriously in loud squeaks, doing very little to dispel the hot air in the room. Minutes rolled into hours until the rustling of paper finally stopped and light stole into the room to reveal four roommates resting from the events of the previous day as they curled in deep sleep.
Umari Ayim is the author of â€œTwilight At Terracotta Indigoâ€ and â€œInside my Headâ€. She blogs at www.umariayim.com/