This story is dedicated to the victims of terrorism all round the globe. I wrote it about 10 years ago and after the recent attacks in Manchester and London thought to publish the whole story – republished from the Anthology – ‘Wiping Halima’s tears and other stories’ by Naija Stories.
Sandra wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes as she sat wedged between a large woman who sat fanning herself and another woman with a baby that wouldn’t stop crying. Then, a sharp pain bit into her side and her eyes flew open.
It was the large woman next to her, prodding at her with her thick okra like fingers.
“What number are you?” Sandra’s eyes swept over the woman in her tomato red suit with blinding fake diamante, down to the cracked nails poking out of her expensive leather pumps. Surely she could have gone for a pedicure and maybe gone a size up on the suit. Class is something money really can’t buy, she thought, giving her a fake smile in reply. “It is 55 Madam.”
Sandra closed her eyes and continued planning.
If she could get to London everything would be ok. She would pay off all her debts and her family wouldn’t suffer any more.
Getting to England had always been her goal.
As a child, her favourite book was one with the picture of a big house on a green hill in England. Her mother had said that she was six when she announced to the world that she was going to see the Queen. The women in the yard had laughed and nicknamed her ‘Princess Sandra.’ The name had stuck and her passport read Sandra Princess Adeyemi. Those closest to her called her Princess.
Although her family had struggled to send her to University, she learnt to carry herself with poise and confidence. Men found her attractive but she would only date those who treated her like a lady. At the University, young men would ask her out and she would size them up and shake her head, knowing even then that she was destined for the kind of man that could take her places.
“Who do you think you are?” Men would ask in derisive tones.
“Someone who is too good for you.” She would reply in a heartbeat.
Then, in her third year, she met her Prince. Felix wasn’t particularly handsome or rich but he had something that made him stand out from all the men she had ever known – he understood her need to be better than everyone else and did not try to squash it. After they graduated, they moved to Lagos to find work. Felix was an Architect who didn’t know any prominent people to give him any contracts, and they survived on what she brought in as a secondary school teacher. The constant struggles they faced had made her start thinking about England again.
Sandra cared for Felix but realised that someday soon, the practical matters of finance would kill any kind of feelings she had for him – so England seemed like a good option. Many people had made a good life over there- the big men who threw money around like water talked of the place as if it was the back of their compound.
Once she got a job and made some money, she would send for Felix. She hadn’t spent all these weeks praying and fasting for nothing. Praying for God to forgive her sins and touch the stony hearts of the white people at the British High Commission so they could grant her a six-month visa.
Then, she could go over there, start working and disappear into the ever-swelling abyss; the underpaid underworld that did the jobs the British wouldn’t do. She didn’t care if it was smelly manual labour; she wasn’t afraid of hard work. She was more afraid of remaining in this city and watching her age mates succeed in life, while she remained in poverty.
It was 2004 and some people said that England was at risk from terrorists since the invasion of Iraq, but couldn’t that happen anywhere? Safety now had no geographical home. It was an illusion of hope and would always remain so, no matter what any government said. Even the Americans with all their money could not protect themselves anymore. She might as well pursue her dreams and put her trust in God.
She had her letter from her cousin in London who had ‘promised’ to pay her fees. She was going to be a student. Armed with a letter offering her admission to college somewhere in Peckham, and her cousins bank statement bulging with the money he had borrowed from a few friends – she hoped to convince the officials at the British High Commission in Lagos that she was not going to need any money from the great people of Britain.
She wiped her brow. The fan was on full blast but it didn’t matter, she was strung up. She checked her folder of documents. Her School Certificates, her University degree…testimonials, references from her employers and the money for her visa application that smouldered in her purse.
A month ago she had gone to Allen Avenue and got herself picked up by a rich businessman who had paid her well for her reluctant favours. Afterwards she had stumbled onto a bus, got home, stayed in the bathroom pouring hot water over herself as she scrubbed herself raw. She spent the night curled up on the sofa watching Felix sleeping like an innocent baby.
The next morning she got up at five and prayed like a mad woman for forgiveness to come and take away the guilt and disgust that, like a troublesome mother-in-law, had refused to leave.
She went to work and spoke to her colleague Pat who assured her that it was no big deal.
“Look at our colleagues,” Pat had laughed, flicking her long artificial hair away from her face. “Even our snooty Headmistress – she has a boyfriend who is helping her. How do you think she bought that new car – on our meagre salaries? You must be kidding!”
She had known Pat since they were in Form One. They had gone their separate ways afterwards but ended up working in the same school. The first time she saw her again, she had marvelled at how Patricia, whose body used to be tattooed with eczema, had now metamorphosed into this sophisticated beauty. She wore the latest clothes and had a rich Banker boyfriend who according to him, was unhappily married, with two children.
She had asked whether his wife minded.
Pat had just laughed. “How long have you been living in Lagos?”
“About six months.”
“Stick around. You will soon understand what life is about.”
The man had properties abroad and had given her a car. He had promised to give her enough to open a supermarket so that she could leave this ‘stupid’ teaching job. Her middle aged lover wanted a young girlfriend and she wanted his money so she could have the finer things in life; elementary supply and demand.
It had taken three years of being Pat’s friend to convince Sandra that Allen Avenue was her only way to realise her dream. Pat said that if she was wise, Felix never needed to know about what had happened.
“Even when you are alone together like this,” she held her hands together like she was praying. “You mustn’t tell him. You know how men are about such things. Did you tell him that I agreed to lend you the money?”
Sandra dared not allow her mind to dwell on what Felix would do if he knew the truth. She was just glad she had been careful and protected herself.
Pat laughed. “He should even be glad that you are prepared to stay with a small boy like him when his mates are riding Lexus and living in the posh suburbs of the city. I’ve always thought you deserve more – you are a beautiful girl – my boyfriend knows some really cool guys with money. I could introduce you.” She had given her a long look and wagged one long crimson claw at her. “We are just the same when it comes down to it. We both know how to use our bodies to get what we want.”
So when she told Felix that Pat had decided to lend her money for the visa, her voice was steady and sure. Felix had stood like a stone staring at her, the only thing moving were the muscles in his neck. “I don’t want you to take anything from that woman!”
She had touched his cheek and let her eyes promise the world. “Look, I know you don’t like her but she is a good person. It’s just a loan and I will pay it back.”
He just shook his head. “She doesn’t have a heart. It was replaced by a calculator long time ago.” His eyes had never left hers. “You will pay it back alright. I hope you don’t lose your soul in the process.”
She tried to lighten the air by cooking his favourite meal and all the while she kept asking herself. Does he know? Did he see it in a dream?
The days stretched into a month and when the thoughts invaded her peace, she would think of the opportunities and the new life that they would have, and feel better. She would show the Big Men – the lawyers, Bank Managers and politicians who thought that because they had money – they could buy her soul. The money she earned would buy her a new life, a new destiny and hope. One day, she would return from England with enough money to buy a mansion and several expensive cars and these same men would look at her with respect and call her ’Madam’.
A few days later, during a tender moment, Felix had kissed her hard and long and called her his little princess. His eyes had gone all funny like the way men’s faces did when they wanted a woman, and guilt had flooded her soul. Felix was good and patient and kind. The man she had gone with was cruel; his lip curled in contempt as he flung the wad of money at her and drove off in his expensive car.
Once they approved the visa, she would make it up to him by being the best wife ever. She would never let him down again.
I had no choice. She told herself. It was the only thing to do.
The pressure of family commitments had forced her into it. Her widowed mother was old and demanding. “Your brother’s school fees need to be paid. The University is threatening to kick him out but I know God will provide this money.”
Princess felt if that was the case, Mama could go and tell Him and not disturb her regularly with these problems. She sighed. “Don’t worry Mama – I will sort something out.” She always did. Somehow, sha. Princess would sort something out.
Felix had told her she was a slave to her family. “He is nineteen years old! At his age, I was working and supporting myself!”
She had said nothing because she knew he was right. She couldn’t wait till her brother would just graduate and take care of Mama.
But where did her family think she would get the money? Did they know or care? What would they say if they knew about Allen Avenue or would they just assume the ignorance of the dead as long as they got what they wanted, like so many others did, living off the money their children earned from living very much below their potential in some foreign countries. Yet, she was willing to risk everything to do exactly the same thing in England.
Sandra watched people leave the interview room. Some danced with joy while some wept openly, their hands on their heads. They all had one thing in common. Rich or poor, Madam or pepper seller, clerk, student or Doctor – they wanted to get to England whether it was for business, a family occasion, their education or health. The dream of going to England was in her grasp. It was a place where having three square meals a day, getting to work in one piece and constant supply of electricity and water were not just preserves of the rich and corrupt. It was a place where she could build a new life.
She would work hard and pay for Felix to join her. He would get a good job as an Architect. She would study nursing and they would have three lovely children who would speak perfect English as if they were relatives of the Queen of England. She and Felix would be so successful, that Pat would see that she hadn’t made a mistake by marrying the man she loved.
Then, she saw Felix coming back from the Gents. It was so nice he had taken a day off work to stay with her while she waited for her interview. He had been offered a job as an Office Manager in an Oil company a few days ago and she was happy for him – at least he wouldn’t starve when she went to London.
He sat down in the now vacant seat beside her. When he spoke, his tone was resolute. “You don’t need to do this anymore. I don’t want you to go. I am not going to let you prostitute yourself in England for me.”
She stared at him. Did he know about Allen Avenue? “Who said anything about prostituting myself? I’m going there to work. After all the plans we have made together, why are you coming out with all this nonsense?”
Felix eyes were red. “I have just thought about this. I have a new job here with good money and there are lots of opportunities here for both of us. I have a friend who works in an International school in town and he says there are vacancies for teachers. I know about the UK and how people have to work two three jobs so that their relatives can survive here. I do not want to live like that – it is bad enough here. God help me – I love you woman! I want to look after you and give you the best life here – if you will let me.” Felix threw his hands in the air.
Sandra whispered through clenched teeth. “We have already discussed this – why on earth are you changing your mind now?” She could hear someone on the queue chuckle and another louder voice advising them to take their business outside. She looked around at the businesswoman in the red dress who had jabbed her in the ribs earlier. The woman was shaking her head and in a posh voice, maybe influenced by the fact that she was in the British Embassy, said loudly, “It is not good to put all this dirty linen out for the public to see like this.”
Sandra flashed her warning glance. “You had better mind your own load Madam. What concerns the meat seller with the price of fish, eh?”
There were more laughs from the queue, as some people were obviously glad for this diversion from hours of just sitting and worrying. A white woman came out of the inner office and walked towards them shaking her head. “I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave or I will be forced to call security.”
“See now…you are forcing them to call security!” Sandra threw her hands up. “See what you’ve caused! See how people are looking at us!”
Felix was unmoved. “I have fought with my whole family just to be with you and I won’t stand by and let you leave me. Going to England is your dream – it is not mine. The whole thing is beginning to consume you and you don’t even know it! He wrenched the folder with her documents from her and they struggled. He was stronger and got them away from her and ran out.
She stood rooted to the spot not really believing that he had just walked out with her precious documents. “Felix! Come back…are you totally crazy?” she shouted. She had been in the queue since morning and knew he could make her lose her place by going to look for him. She hoped she could find him in time. He was probably sulking downstairs in the lobby.
“I’m coming back. I have my ticket number,” she said to the woman behind her. Pushing past the looks of derision and the shaking heads of those on the queue, she ran down the stairs. If he couldn’t support her dream, he did not deserve to be part of her future.
She was on the ground floor looking around for him when she heard a loud boom and the world exploded into bits around her. She was picked up and slammed against the cold hard floor, debris of wood, glass and metal swirled around her; into her mouth and eyes. She could see part of the front desk sticking out of a man’s chest and in a drowsy sense of horror, she watched the blood trickle out of his mouth as her hopes for her future shattered into little pieces around her and she lost consciousness.
Felix was standing outside the British High Commission trying to tear up the documents in the folder, when he heard an unearthly bang. Then the whole place shook and flames sprouted from the windows. His first thoughts were for the girl he left inside hanging to her ticket and yelling at him. He ran back but the flames and smoke stopped him.
A man was screaming, blood pouring out from his eyes. “We didn’t bomb any one! We didn’t invade anyone’s country! Why are they bringing their wahala to Africa eh?”
It couldn’t happen here, could it? Felix put his hands on his head in horror, as he watched flames leaping out of the windows of the British High Commission building.
Felix heard a scream tear into the air followed by more shouts, then a woman’s cry, shattering the silence of those who would never laugh, hope, love or go to England to make money. Those were the preoccupations of the living. A man was saying that some people were alive. Blood-stained and limping, they were led out and he prayed she might be one of them.
Then he saw her, this blood stained girl staggering out – and he ran over to catch her before she fell.
“Felix….what happened? There is fire everywhere…. what about all those people on the 2nd floor?” Sandra looked with horror at the inferno. The woman with the baby…the fat woman in the red diamante skirt suit? The white woman who was going to call security?
Security guards ran around shouting. Everyone was either shouting or crying. Even Felix was crying as he held her close. “Princess, my Princess. I’m so glad. I thought I had lost you.”
They held each other tight. Sandra closed her eyes.
They were still alive and so were her dreams and hopes. Maybe this was why God had spared her life so that when this madness had passed and Blair and Bush – the terrible twins – declared the war on terror over, they would come back and try again, after all England would always be there and so would her dreams and hopes.
“Where is my folder…my documents?” Her voice was shrill.
He had dropped them on the floor and watched in a dull sense of realisation as she bent over slowly, using his arm as a lever and picked up the folder. She held it to her chest, like a woman who had been reunited with a lost child, opening the folder and s going through the papers, checking for any damage.
He did not know the time his legs started moving towards the gate, away from Princess and her crazy dreams into the smoke, screams and destruction.