“THE CHRISTMAS PROJECT”
The lights on Coca Cola road that Christmas were provided by hurricane lamps. Hundreds of them adorned shops selling petty items, yellow orbs blinking in the night, particles of gold dust still visible in the crisp air as harmattan settled in for the season. The shops, ramshackle containers made from abandoned material, wood cleaved onto metal were lopsided, clustered together. They flanked the shadowy street, dully gleaming, winding into the distance.
Coca Cola road, so called for the bottling company that dominated a street otherwise populated by dingy shops and seedy motels, was where Michael, and so too Lara, had decided to spend their Christmas Eve. Last year they spent days with children at an orphanage in Ikotun. The year before that they helped clean bloody newborns at a maternity hospital in Keffi. This time they were here for the lost women that slid like phantoms between the buildings, selling their bodies.
Lara’s mother had liked to go for evening drives; it was on one of these jaunts that at age 11 she discovered the secret of Coca Cola road. Her curiosity had been intense but felt dirty, the way she felt when she wanted to pee so bad it started to feel good. She would sit in the car beside her mother and try not to stare too wantonly as they drove past on their way back to suburbia. She knew what the women did and yet she didn’t understand it, and she wanted to. Ten years later when Michael had been looking for a new Christmas project she got the idea that brought her back to the town of her birth, in her new guise, to get answers to unasked questions from the past.
The moment they had driven into town, when the welcome sign peeking out of the bushes flew past, a ceiling in her brain developed cracks and the memories started to flood in. She grew despondent. Michael didn’t seem to notice. His body was rigid, eyes focused, jaw set. He may not be the comforting type but he was soothing to look at, she imagined he was like a statue that the ancients worshipped, they never moved or gave answers, but directing prayers to their Masonic forms, frozen in gallant piousness did wonders for the soul. She tried to dismiss the thoughts coming to her this way, by letting her eyes dance unobserved over his face, to linger on the set jaw of her fiancé while thinking of their mission.
She was sixteen, Michael twenty-two, when they met. Lara fell through the invisible cracks in her family, her community and landed right onto Michael’s path. When she was little her mother had lived with this unshakeable awe and belief in her father’s superior intelligence. It dominated their lives. Her mother would say, in a breathless reverential tone, “It’s almost like he is psychic.” One day when she was five, her father had looked at her over the rim of his glasses as he sat cross legged reading a newspaper, and solemnly pronounced that she was “rebellious”. She remembered the word, found out the meaning in a dictionary years later, and felt its full impact only when she walked away from home into Michael’s arms.
Lara didn’t feel rebellious now. She understood that words take their meaning more from context than etymology; they can therefore both be true and false simultaneously. With Michael she felt harmonious. At peace. On a discernible path. In her former chaotic life her attempts to gravitate towards this peace, to satisfy her innate curiosity had condemned her. She didn’t have to feel alone anymore. She was home, in her heart.
It was Michael’s idea to come in on a Saturday evening, so they could begin their work on a Sunday. They had gotten blessings from their Pastor in Lagos. Lara’s friend Tumobi was a pharmacist and he gave them a decent supply of Azithromycin and anti fungal creams. They also had some sexual health pamphlets and complimentary cards for women’s shelters across the country. Tumobi had offered contraceptive pills but Michael had turned them down. They had Bibles, to read from and hand out.
On their first night Lara discovered that the women were hostile. They would see Michael and get salacious, crowding him. He would beam at them in return, pull out his Bible and the insults would start. One woman even brought out a razor blade and threatened to “fix” Michael. The next day they paid some of the boys in the area to accompany them. All through that second night her mind repeated the word prostituta, like that, in Spanish, as though a demon had taken residence in her head.
“Na your bobo be dat?” a woman asked on night three, tilting her head in Michael’s direction. Like the rest of them you couldn’t place her age. There were too many masks welded unto her true face. And then there was the makeup on top of that. Lara considered lying or evading the question. But she realised you buy acceptance easier with honesty.
“Yes.” her pidgin was terrible so she didn’t use it. Ditto her Yoruba. She tried to keep her voice clear and the words few and enunciated.
“So na man you follow come this place?” the woman said with a snort. Lara decided not to take the bait
“He followed me” she chastised herself; she would have sounded friendlier in pidgin,
Lara tried to change the subject. “What’s your name?”
“Make you tell me ya own first”
“La-ra” the woman repeated, rolling the syllables around like dice. She frowned, pointed a finger “Na Yoruba you be?”
“Lara na Bible name? Abi your name na Clara?”
“No bi Muslim name be dat?”
“It’s a name for girls born on Wednesday.”
“Na Muslim you be?!” the woman panted like a bloodhound on a trail
“I gave my life to Christ 5 years ago, and since then I have known peace. You can do the same.”
Lara and the woman stared at each other like rival cowboys in a Western. Lara cringed internally. That line was too feeble, droopy, overcooked spaghetti. The woman’s eyes, filled with mischief seemed younger now, a couple of masks slid off, and a tremor passed through Lara’s body.
“Wetin you get for me?”
Lara jerked as though she had been under a spell and quickly handed over a small leather bound K JV bible. The woman looked disapprovingly at the contents of Lara’s tremulous hands. She looked back at her face. Lara dug her hands into her bag. She gave her the pamphlets, the drugs. The woman remained unimpressed. The evening deepened about them; the hurricane lamps of Coca Cola road steadily came on with the delicacy of softly trilling bells. Lara was tired, disillusioned. Orphans were greedy for the love she had to offer, tired nurses and matrons welcomed the helping hand, these women, these hard, obnoxious colourful women did not want to be saved. It couldn’t be done in three days anyway.
“What’s your name?” Lara asked again, firmly this time, making strong eye contact
“I want to help you.”
“With Bible and medicine na im you wan use hep me? You tink say I never read Bible before? Or na condom I no fit use?”
“Do you want to go home?”
“Which home be dat?”
“Where you are from”
The woman paused and looked at Lara closely. She was short and fair skinned in a chemically enhanced way, her belly a bubble of flesh straining against a black lace blouse. Maybe this woman had had a baby, maybe she drank a lot of Stout, or maybe it was lack of non-sexual exercise. But her eyes were clear, searching and, to Lara’s surprise, tearing up.
“Na home be dis”
On her Lara’s left wrist was a memento she had worn for 10 years. It was a Patek Philippe Calatrava watch, leather straps, 18 carat white gold face, a birthday gift two weeks before she ran away. It was all that remained of home and her relationship with her father. She unfastened it. She looked at the woman.
Lara had made many trade-offs in her life, given up definiteness for the unknown, given up her earthly father for a heavenly one. That Christmas Eve, in the midst of all those hurricane lights, she let the Spirit move her again.
Hey everyone, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (in advance).
In the spirit of letting go of the past and stepping with confidence into the future, my gift for the next writer is a ‘nice-to-meet-you card and a tulip. Here’s to hoping the future is bright, kind and fulfilling for ya!