Story. Pamela Naaki Tetteh
I’m not a gateman, you see, not really, he says with a plaintive look on his face. He is standing in front of the black wrought-iron gate, a tattered copy of Praying Your Way To Success forgotten on the grey plastic chair behind him, in light of the short, light skinned girl with the tray of hardboiled eggs balanced on her head, her gaze turned away from his face. She shifts from one foot to the other, her right hand hovering around the edge of the tray in case it starts to tip, but it doesn’t. He is still talking but she isn’t listening; her mind is far off in the muddy car park a few streets away, where, in a few hours, she will have sold off all her eggs for the day, and will go home with a tired but happy smile on her face, on account of all the naira notes rustling in the front pocket of her apron.
Eager to be in that vision now, she straightens and starts to move away but his hand, startling in its blackness, flies from his side and lands on her arm, stopping her from moving. She stares at the large hand on her arm for a minute, just looking at the hairy knuckles and the black, bitten down nails and then she trails her gaze up the hand, past the FC Barca for Life wristband on his wrist, up his forearm where she can spy the edges of an ugly green tattoo curling out from underneath his sleeve, past his thick neck and finally, onto his face.
It isn’t ugly, not really. It just isn’t the sort of face shewould prefer to have sweating above her on a thin mattress in the pale light of a single candle. It is too thin, the eyes too sunken, the cheeks too pockmarked. So she shrugs his hand off, slowly, and with a hand on her tray to steady it, walks off. He follows her, his voice now a wheedling whine. He tries speaking Pidgin. Any tin wey you want, I go buy am for you, I swear. Dem dey pay me well well for here, I no even be like gateman for dem eye. She continues walking, a slow,
measured stride, ignoring his rising voice and his arms which are starting to flail precariously close to her
“It just isn’t the sort of face she would prefer to have
sweating above her on a thin mattress in the pale light
of a single candle.”
precious tray. He has switched tacks; he is now calling her a public toilet. No be she he just see last week for Baba Ibeji shop, dey shack pami like say na she get the complex? Why she go let that old cargo knack the tin, but she no wan allow him even small one? She fights the urge to shove one of her steaming hot eggs into his eye and instead keeps on walking, her voice shaking just a little as she calls out Buy your eggs! Hot hot egg! They have reached the junction, and a lot more people are milling around there but he is not worried. He knows that a crowd will not gather; it is not unusual to see a gateman trying to toast a hawker, especially a fine babe like this one. But she is starting to move a little
faster through the people, and in a purely desperate act, his hand flies out to clamp her shoulder and stop her from running again. But he has miscalculated.
The force with which his hand moved was too strong, so that instead of landing on her shoulder, it hits her in the back, between her shoulder blades. She had not been expecting this, and her head lolls a bit under the heavy tray. He watches with a growing sense of panic as the tray tips precariously to the left, then to the right, and then one by one, her eggs start to plop plop down onto the muddy, oil streaked ground beneath her feet. She stares at the smashed remnants of her eggs between her feet for a few moments, within which the crowd seems to come alive. They swarm, from all sides, to the both of them, and start to hurl insults as one seething mass at him. He moves closer to her, his eyes begging, trying to placate her. But, suddenly, with the virulence that is only possible of Lagos crowds, they push her out and turn on him.
From her not so vantage point near a stack of tires, she can see arms and sandaled feet flying, and she can hear the thuds when they connect with his flesh. She picks up her tray from where it has fallen in an oily puddle and turns to leave when she hears the broken groans from the battered mass now on the ground. It is the sound of a man almost gone, she thinks, as she pushes her way through the thinning crowd and stretches out her arm to him. He takes it and pulls himself up, mouthing the words I dey sorry at her. But the crowd is not appeased, they have sniffed blood and now they want more.
They start to close in on him when he shouts, sticks his hand into his front pocket and produces two crumpled one thousand Naira notes –far more than the worth of her entire tray of eggs, and sticks them out to her. She takes them and un-crumples them slowly, her eyes widening at this sudden good fortune. Then she smiles up at him, a sunny heartbreaking thing, and the crowd is appeased. They start to cheer and part for both of them to pass. She goes first, her empty tray under her left arm and the two thousand tucked safely under the folds of her blouse.
He follows behind her, watching the seductive sway of her hips with a puzzled look on his face, the way a hung-over man might stare at the bottle of Hennessey still clutched tightly in his hand the morning after. Soon, they reach the wrought iron gate where it all started and part ways. He settles back down in his chair and picks up his book, thinking what a mistake he had just made; she wasn’t even really that pretty for him to have given her all that money. And she turns into the next street, thinking that perhaps his face wasn’t too thin after all, his cheeks weren’t too pockmarked after all.
Originally published June 19, 2018