Sophia and Rugged came to the police station in the morning. The officer had asked her to call someone and she had only thought of Sophia and no one else. She was happy that she showed up but she kept quiet when she was called out of the cell and didn’t acknowledge her.
She was told to say her side of the story and before she could finish she was soaked in tears. Rugged listened carefully without fretting; Sophia moved closer and hugged Martha. When she finished, Rugged said they should excuse him, so they left and stood outside of the new officer’s office, awkward silence falling between them.
They stood apart and Sophia folded her hands over her chest. She was quiet and watching. Martha expected she would say another word – that she would advise her like she used to do, that she would correct her where she had gone wrong, but she was placid, watching, just watching her. Martha stared at the floor before her toes. She was wrong to have left Sophia, but she had needed her freedom from the house. Before she decided to leave, Sophia had asked her to pay half of the house rent and that was it. Martha thought of having another place where she would pay definitely but have her freedom.
‘Thank you,’ she said, still looking at the floor. She felt ashamed. She had been admitted into Sophia’s house for free for the first couple of days, free food and she got her first pair of trousers. She had paid her back poorly. She wanted to say sorry but she cast her eyes at Sophia and saw her eyes were still peering at her. Martha kept quiet and said thank you so softly that she could barely hear the words come out of her own mouth.
Sophia said nothing but Martha noticed what seemed like a nod. She looked at the office, the counter, the police van through the window, the ‘bail is free’ tag attached to the wall.
Rugged came out some minutes later, the new police officer following behind. The police officer ordered another officer to return Martha’s belonging, her bag. Two minutes later they were driving out of the police station.
‘How did it go?’ Sophia asked and Martha almost say thank you again for asking.
‘Well, it was set up. She fell into a trap. The officer who arrested her and those boys know about. I call one of their bosses from another branch and fix it. Gave them something for the weekend,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ Martha said.
Rugged nodded and turned at Sophia, ‘thank her,’ he said.
‘Thank you’ she repeated softly.
They drove in silence afterwards and Sophia alighted along the road. Rugged asked Martha to follow him to meet the officer who made her release quick. They were going to show appreciation. So they drove to another police station, where an officer saluted Rugged amusingly and asked them into an office.
It was a clean office, the room occupied by a small plasma television, an office desk, two cushions, a centre table, the flag of Nigeria, the coat of arm, the picture of the state commissioner. There was a picture on the wall showing a bearded man in uniform, a bearded man who seemed to be as old as Rugged. The office owner came in after them and exchanged pleasantries with Rugged. They laughed and hugged and clasped their palms together as if in one fist, then they grinned again. They disengaged and stared at each other and talked for some minutes and hugged and laughed all over.
‘Meet my friend,’ Rugged said, ‘Uchenna, he is now a police officer.’ He added. They were now sitting on the couch. Martha smiled and felt she was the unpaired soul in the room. She had been through a lot in the past 12 hours and she realized she hadn’t had her bath since the time with those boys, she hadn’t eaten anything either. Her hair must be unkempt and her face a jumbled colour. She had been too occupied with her desire for freedom to care about it. She smiled and when the man extended his hand, she took it briefly and released it and looked at his chest and not his face.
Uchenna was the D.P.O of the branch they came to. He had taken the position after he got lucky, ran through the promotion process like an aggressive bulldog. He was younger than the position no doubt but he was powered by personalities that control the police forces – the kind of thing which is possible if he knew someone who knew someone at the top of the government. He was well-built, tall, dark and spoke as if he measured each word before saying them, in that soft manner of an actor following a script. He could have been an actor, by the way, and his features could have sold well in the movie industry.
‘You were telling me about your girl?’ Officer Uchenna asked, ‘what happened?’
Rugged narrated how Sophia had called him, and then he turned to Martha to narrate her own part of the story. She did and when she was close to the finish, she was sniffing.
‘I’m very sorry,’ Officer Uchenna said, ‘you are unlucky. The way things work here, you just have to give them something. But now that you are here, you can call me anytime. You don’t have to worry. I will be your shield,’ he said and smile.
Martha smiled. Suddenly, it was easier to smile after all she had been through. She stared around the office – the portrait of the president, Goodluck Jonathan, the coat of arm and the minister of police. She smiled at it all. She was given Officer Uchenna’s number and she settled to a cup of juice a female officer offered her, watching as the two friends talked about football, politics and why they haven’t married.
It was four days later when she met Uchenna at a shopping mall in Ikoyi. She had just returned from the barber’s shop, her haircut well-trimmed and neat. She was wearing a blue gown that hugged her waist tight and the shape of her curves were revealing. She wore a necklace and a brown watch to match it. When she saw him and she said, ‘officer Uchenna,’ he froze beside the grocery shelves, turned to her, his hand still holding a basket. He put the basket down and frowned. Martha smiled and said ‘good afternoon.’
He said, ‘Martha, right?’
His mouth curved to an ‘O’ and she watched as he fought to find his word. He stared at her from head to toes. ‘Waoh!’ he said eventually and Martha laughed. He walked closer and said, ‘let’s do your shopping.’ Then he picked the basket and they walked and talked, picking one item and another.
‘So you also buy things here?’ he asked.
‘Yes, she said. I didn’t know I was going to meet someone like you here,’ she said.
‘I wanted to grab a few things for the weekend. But don’t worry, I can come back for it,’ he said. ‘Do you mind if I take you for lunch?’ he asked. Martha stared at him and then her wristwatch. ‘We won’t stay long,’ he quickly added. She agreed and they bought her things and walked out of the supermarket. He drove to an expensive restaurant in town. Martha watched him carefully. His face had a strange admiration, which seems like if he wasn’t smart enough Martha would turn into the wind and disappear. It was a pleasure to see a man who would treat her this way; this seemed like a genuine impulse, like a father celebrating her daughter. He was older than a man she believed she could date, older than a man who should act like this towards her. He was around his mid-thirties like Rugged. Martha was just eighteen.
When they sat by the table, he asked her to make her order and not to feel shy. That was difficult. He was a police officer, not those kinds of men who come to the club, Rendezvous, he was handsome and so Martha found it difficult not to feel shy. She stared at the menu for too long and then at her fingers as if she was noticing, newly, the nails and the lines on them.
‘I could believe you were the one,’ he said. His smile was like a white sheet of paper. Martha glanced at his face and his head and imagined him in police uniform, the black cap on his head. ‘You look really different.’
‘I was in a mess the other day and that didn’t help my look,’ she said.
They ended their lunch on that day and he drove her home. He didn’t leave on the without asking for another date, ‘I want one which you really planned for,’ he said and Martha nodded and the next day was fixed for it. She had thought she would be going to the Rendezvous the following day, but she had gotten more groceries than she could afford and she was ready to take a day off again and this man was so cool. So she said yes to another date. That night when she shut her eyes to sleep, even before she became unconscious to sleep, she dreamed of being in his hand, her head on his wide chest and muscular arms and he was smiling and she was giggling, even giggling as she dreamt.
On the next day, she spent hours being finicky on a million of dresses before she limited her option to three, then she took photos of the dress and asked for her friends’ (the other strippers at the club) permission. She finally chose a red gown with a rose design on its chest side. It exposed her cleavage and she spent a good time applying the right amount of cream on her body especially her cleavage. She ate biscuits that afternoon to feel light and by night she ate another few biscuits before Officer Uchenna drove her to another restaurant. He didn’t freeze like he did the previous day. He didn’t look into her eyes like he was seeing stars. He had smiled broadly and gave her flowers when she had opened the door for him.
The restaurant was another classic one on the mainland. There was a touch of gold colours on the cushion, the table, the wallpaper, the artwork of a woman pounding yam.
The waiter brought their orders – fruit wine and chickens and fried rice and fish pepper soups and vodka. Martha had sipped a little wine and glanced at the couple at the side of their table. They seemed like a father and a daughter, except that their laughter was wide like a girl flirting with her father’s friend. She hoped Uchenna and herself didn’t look that way and if they did, this is Lagos, it is done. She hoped however that she would look older than she was actually as people as often said of her at the Rendezvous.
‘I use to come here when I was a sergeant,’ he said. ‘My Oga used to bring me here. You know, he took a special likeness for me. Because my father was connected. Pops know a man who was close to the commissioner. I was the commissioner’s son after all.’ he laughed and Martha only giggled briefly and began to eat her fried rice. He was eating his fish.
‘That was how you became a D.P.O at a young age right?’
He nodded and smiled, ‘but it didn’t happen overnight. I’ve been in the service for some time and I was responsible. My boss got transferred and the order came that I should be the next boss.’
Martha thought of what he meant by responsible, she had checked his finger many times to know he wasn’t married, and the other day, he and Rugged had teased each other for not getting married. Responsible, she thought, can a police officer be responsible. He was different though, perhaps because he was the boss and he wasn’t at the roadblocks and among those who waved cars down and asked for their papers. What they want is a tip and the drivers could go to hell with their incomplete driving documents.
‘I’m not that young by the way,’ he said.
‘I don’t know. But… Anyway, I’m the younger one. Can you guess my age?’
He shook his head as if making calculations, ‘eighteen… nineteen.’
‘Yeah, you are. You are truly a police officer. I thought I looked older than that.’
‘Not to me,’ he said. ‘I just could tell. I could guess people’s secret. It’s part of my job.’ He winked.
‘I know some of your secrets. You sleep late. Past one at times. You are still chatting and uploading on Facebook.’
Martha laughed. She felt warm and calm to laugh this way while he was looking at her closely. She stared at the plate of rice and fed another spoon to her mouth.
‘You must be keeping eyes on me,’ she said. ‘Am I safe?’
‘No. Until I know everything about you. So tell me all your secrets.’ He leaned closer to her mockingly but spoke loud enough that those around could have heard the discussion.
She laughed and thought of what she could call a secret in her life, her mind wandering round the scenes that she had kept away from anyone else, scenes of her foster father climbing over her bed, scenes where she had done stupid and shameful things as a stripper at Rendezvous. Men had asked for strange things. There was a time two women had asked for a private dance in their home. She hadn’t told anyone about but it came freshly to her mind now – how the two women had surrounded her and used her as a human toy. Her faces grew sullen suddenly. The pay was good but she would never do it again. What if the pay could sponsor you through medical school? She shook her head briefly, so short she thought that the man before her wouldn’t have noticed.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ she said, brushing a hand through her hair, hurriedly putting a spoon of fried rice into her mouth and chewing it slowly afterwards.
‘I’m not a dangerous guy if that’s what you are thinking. I just want to know you. Just to want to spend a lot of time with you,’ he said.
‘No, no, no, I wasn’t thinking about you as a bad guy. You are nice, a very nice person to me.’
‘I’m blushing,’ he said and they smiled.
‘So tell me, what tribe are you?’ ‘You are Martha. That doesn’t say it.’
She chewed another spoon of rice and said, ‘I’m Yoruba,’ although she didn’t believe it either. His face was expressionless. It wasn’t a lie. Her foster father had named her ‘Toluwani,’ (this is God’s own). She was raised by Yoruba parents but her real parent could have been any tribe in the country.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘I thought you are Igbo. My instinct deceived me on that one,’ he added.
Martha wished she could tell him that she had thought herself to be Igbo or Urhobo, that she was just living with Yoruba parents. This was the truth about her life – that her true identity had been exchanged, gone or dead; perhaps it was just missing and would be that way till the end of her life. This was her real mother’s fault or the fault of the ones scared of raising her up. When she told Sophia how she hated to have been thrown on the refuse dump as a baby, and to have landed in the hands of her foster father and to have been tormented every night, Sophia had told her to be grateful instead; some mothers would have had other worse plans.
She drank some wine, sipping it slowly, waited, and then sipped more slowly. All the while Uchenna was watching her like a bar of magnet that could disconnect from him any moment. She smiled at him and he smiled back, chewing his soup of fish. Looking at his bearded face as he smiled, she wished she could reach for his beard and touch it if possible put her head on his muscular arms and let it soothe her to sleep. She drank more wine and waited and drank more and waited for the best day to ask the questions on her mind.
She preferred Sundays nights for their outings although he always wanted Saturdays; it was the best days for Martha to earn well at Rendezvous, a weekend, the hall would be filled and there were usually many offers. As the outing persisted, some questions began to come up in her mind like stubborn weeds. Why would a senior police officer be interested in her when he knows she works as a stripper? In the clubhouse operated by his friend, Rugged? He even knew she was young, very young. What would become of their relationship and dreams if she asked for her hands in marriage? It seemed stupid question – the man would not be stupid to tarnish his own image, but two weeks, they hadn’t shared more than a hug and gifts and her patience was getting slimmer by the day.
So one day when they were eating, she popped a question at him ‘can we go home now?’ He looked up from his plate and glanced at the half-empty wine accusingly. When Martha remained quiet, he said alright.
‘To your house,’ she added quickly. The skin of his head crisped. He glanced at her face as if he had heard wrong. She had thought of the absurdity of this request and had cancelled it out once. She had thought that she could have waited and let him do the invite, but there was a silent voice in her saying she should say it to surprise him. She noticed the sudden pause in his reaction and how he carried on immediately as if he was not surprised. She had meant to surprise him anyway, to see what he would say. He said nothing, dried his mouth with the serviette and said alright. They drove through the night and he was more talkative, talking about the great things the government was doing in Lagos and his life as a student in Unilag, which reminded Martha of her own fantasy degree in medicine. Martha was quiet; absorbed in the thought of what his house would look like and what his behaviour would be once they are in his home and the door shut against the world. Her worry was cut short when he received a call on the way about some emergencies and he had to turn around and take her home.
It was relieving and painful like a delicious meal with too much pepper and Martha did not know how to react. It meant her questions would wait and her curiosity would be stronger. Her mind conjured thoughts of them together in a happy mood as they made a turn towards his office and then she thought how long it would be to have answers to her questions.