Amara opened her eyes and looked at the retreating figure of the swaggering man who pushed her. Light from the green electric bulbs showed the slight stagger in his steps, from little or no sleep and all-night drinking. She blew a breath out and pushed herself up, disregarding the pain from the part of her bum that hit the ground. Dusting off the back of her cotton gown and her hands, she walked through the hallway towards the exit after him.
Arms and legs swinging to give her acceleration, she marched out of the building and straight to the gate, looking left and right for the assailant. She spotted him staggering in the rumpled suit he wore from the night before.
Amara looked around for her boys and made out Alpha and Romeo’s silhouettes standing at the alert. The sun was still taking a bath, but they stood in the gutter outside the uncompleted building they lived in, waiting for her signal. She nodded to them and walked towards the man.
The customer staggered along, unaware of the swift, light steps gaining momentum from behind. He passed women setting up for the morning trade; children receiving morning baths from their mothers; people hurrying to work.
She caught up to him without effort and kicked his right leg. He went down in a slump. On one knee, he turned around to look at her, mouth wide. Amara, now flanked by her boys, kept him down with her hands on his shoulders.
“You think you can come to my room, do whatever you want and leave? Do you know where you are? Did nobody tell you about Wilderness? Today’s lesson is happening now, and I hope you never forget it. Boys hold him.” She said, as she pushed him down to a kneeling position.
The man fought, trying to break out of her hold, as the area boys encircled him. He looked up at her with wide eyes, her strength shocking him. His nose widened, as he opened his mouth to shout, when Alpha struck him on the neck, and he fell to the ground, groaning.
Amara noted the attention they attracted; she did not need it. People had gathered, and some whispered her name. As the boys held the man down on the ground, she knelt next to him and looked him in the eyes. “This is Wilderness. Whatever happens here stays here. Do you want to live?”
The man nodded in fear, looking at her eyes as he sought pity. He found none.
“Do you have your phone?”
He nodded again.
Amara motioned to her boys to let him up. “Go to your bank app and make a transfer to the account. I will call it out now.”
Nodding, he brought out his phone and logged into his bank app with no hesitation, waiting for Amara’s details. She listed out her data and doubled the amount he owed. He did not say a word. Once the transfer went through, Amara got an alert and removed her phone from her bra and checked the text message.
She took his hand and helped him up, then dusted him off. When she finished, Amara lifted his face to hers with her finger, and looked him in the eye. “Stay in your little world with your little wife and be happy. Never cross the boundary into Wilderness again, or I will cut off your penis,” she said and gripped the part under threat, “and use it as a sacrifice to the gods. Understand?” She asked and held on to his chin, waiting for his response.
His head bobbed up and down. “I will never come here again. Sorry, Madam.”
She let him scramble away, her boys standing by her side. A crowd gathered around them, entertained by the morning drama. Some were recording the event, and camera lights flashed from every corner. When he realised a crowd followed to see his face better, the man covered it with his hands and ran.
“Snake, what happened?” Alpha asked her.
Amara turned to him and smiled. People looked at his scarred face and stepped away in fear; she stood confident and secure in his protection. “Boys, don’t mind the fool. He paid for breakfast.”
Amara fed the boys and transferred money to Alpha’s account for the rest of the group who were not in attendance. She walked back to the brothel, her back to the rising sun, and nodded to herself. They handled the banker well. The man would never come back to Wilderness and try to rip off another prostitute.
She strode into the old bungalow, which housed fifteen women. Solo, Madam’s man, stood in the hallway, right in front of her room, as if blocking her from entering.
“Madam would like a word.” He said, not looking at her.
Amara always wondered when he would stand before her, looking her eye to eye. From the day she started working for Madam, he avoided her like she was death. She looked him up and down, smiling at the way he turned his face away. It gave her a sense of power that mighty Solo, as he was called, king of the Wilderness Area Boys Association, could not meet her eye.
“Solo, use your eyes,” she said, splaying her hand over her cropped short dress. “I am not ready for the day. Please tell Madam I will be with her after a quick bath.”
“The bath will not be necessary. Madam wants you in her house now.” He said and walked away. Amara stood on the spot, head bowed and cursed. She needed to sleep and could not stand any more harassment, and the pain on her bum would not go away. The brothel vibrated with morning life. Girls dressed in next to nothing walked up and down the corridor. Some greeted her, and some did not. It did not matter to her.
A dark-skinned young lady walked with purpose towards her, and Amara smiled at her approach. Nkoli always elicited warmth from her. From the way she tied her long cloth around herself, to how she avoided the other girls, amused Amara. She believed it would take Nkoli longer than most to fit into her new life.
“Amara, good morning. Did a customer give you a hard time this early? Didn’t he ask questions before asking for you?”
Amara continued to smile at Nkoli, her mentee. The girl thought she was a warrior or something. “Nkoli, no, he did not ask, and if he did, not to the right people. I am going to Madam’s. Please help me clean my room.”
Amara withdrew the keys from her bra, handed them over, and walked away. Madam Meg would have nothing good to say and she preferred to be clean at least before entering the den of a buffalo.
Stepping into Madam Meg’s quarters, Amara readied herself for the question-and-answer session, as she focused on the new china vase on the center table. It looked real and imported. Madam Meg made good money from prostitution and furnished her apartment well; too well for Amara’s taste.
The living room had an electronic store look. No space remained for comfort, making the area look small and tight. Madam Meg sat on the purple velvet sofa, adorned in glory, with her fashionable flowing gown and face, beat up by make-up. She smiled as Amara walked in, gesturing for her to sit. Amara declined, thinking it better to keep alert.
“Amara, what happened this morning? Did you know the man before today?”
Amara smiled at her. “Haba madam, no. I have never seen him before, but do not worry, I handled it. City boys come here for fun and out of curiosity. The man wobbled after two glasses of our concoction and emptied his gullet about the bet with his friends. He assumed he would beat the docile girl he slept with into submission and get off without paying. He suffered for it. I bet his face is on every social media platform as we speak.” She said, finishing her report with a smile.
Madam nodded, thoughtful. “You don’t attend to mosquitoes. You should have handed the customer over to Nkoli. Why did you take him on?”
The crux of the meeting. Madam always stood for her interests.
“You are correct, but he chose me. I pushed Nkoli his way and Nma tried her luck, but he insisted, and we couldn’t let a customer leave without making him happy.”
Madam Meg nodded again at the house rules, looking at the floor as if some information she needed remained unearthed. She looked into her eyes after a while. “You may not sit in the lounge. Since you insist on working for this Love woman, you will only attend to your old customers and any customers who come looking for you. The reason I remained silent is that you are one of the best at your work, and you can train the younger ones, unlike Nma. Train Nkoli and you will leave here. Am I understood?”
“You may leave.”
Amara walked out, searching for Nkoli. She reminded herself she did not have time for play. Madam Meg didn’t need to tell her; she knew she was done with prostitution on such a small scale. Her next level in the game would be the movement level.
She collected her keys from Nkoli, who was helping her wash her clothes in the backyard, and entered her room. Amara blessed the girl in her heart for the careful cleaning she had done. She looked around and smiled at the neatness, a sharp contrast from the hallway. The scent of vanilla from the lighted candles filled the room, and Amara inhaled a huge whiff of it. A good life awaited her outside the brothel.
Her bed looked inviting with new sheets. Nkoli also organised her writing table and chair, keeping them out of the way in the small space, her one bulb shining with intensity. The sun glowed like fire from the small window by the bed, further lightening the room.
Amara removed the gown she had been wearing since morning, thinking about Madam Meg and her threats. Smiling, she removed her underwear, tossing the dirty clothes into the washing basket. With no idea where Madam Meg got information about her meetings with Madam Love, she knew one thing with absolute clarity: someone was tailing her and the blabber had it coming, for him or her.
She walked past her wooden wardrobe, one of the few pieces of furniture she made for herself, and pushed back the curtain separating the living area from the kitchen. She opted for a golden-brown lace curtain to hide dirt with ease. Nkoli tidied up in the kitchen as well, cleaning the camping gas and washing dirty plates.
Smiling, Amara went to her bed and sat, analysing the events of the morning. Her bum still ached from her early morning struggle with the banker; it hurt a lot.
Prostitutes faced the risk of violence daily from their customers, a reason the right-thinking ones left the profession for good. She did not want her daughter to see all the marks on her body when they started living together. Amara smiled at the thought of living with Alexandria, her five-year-old, as she massaged the aching part of her body. The responsibility pressed like a rock on her, and Amara shook herself, sitting upright. There was nobody else to care for them; no angel or knight in a shining Benz was available. She had to keep going for herself and Alex.
“I am not a coward. No one else will care for Alex. I will raise her right and make her strong.” She spoke the daily anthem out loud, and it strengthened her resolve.
At 3 pm on the same day, Amara walked to her parent’s house: situated two streets from the brothel. She wanted to visit Alex after school. Without knocking, Amara walked into the house through the open kitchen door, at the back of the house.
Her parents rented the 2-bedroom bungalow before she was born. Their continual lack of funds and disappointments had given them no reason to take care of it. The landlord cared neither. It was falling apart in various places, from the external roof to the broken tiles on the floor of some rooms, especially the kitchen.
Seeing no one there, Amara moved to the sitting room, which doubled as Alex’s sleeping space. The girl sat on the floor, writing on a piece of paper. Amara moved with light steps, bent, and pressed a kiss on her daughter’s chubby cheeks from behind.
Alexandria gasped and then smiled at her mother’s unmistakable scent. She turned and hugged her neck. Amara taught her not to call out a greeting whenever they met; not to disturb her parents. She required as little association with them as possible until she took Alex away. They received monthly payments for the child’s upkeep and school fees at the start of every term without fail. It always shut up them up.
She held Alex’s hand as they walked to the back of the house.
“Mama, how are you?”
Amara smiled. Her little girl worried about her: “Mama is fine, Lexy. How is my angel doing today?”
Are we going to the fun place?
Amara laughed. “Well, it depends. Until you do your homework, I can’t be sure.”
Alex nodded, smiling back at her mother, confident. “When mama?”
“This Saturday. We will check out your work at the Shawarma place, and if I am satisfied you’ve done well; I’ll take you to the fun place after that. Deal?”
Alex shook Amara’s left hand with hers. Laughing, Amara corrected her using the right hand.
“Mama, what is a prostitute?”
Amara’s heart stopped, and her smile dropped. She looked at Alex with wide eyes. “What did…did you say?” Amara asked.
“The girl asked you what prostitute means?” Her mother said, walking out of the kitchen and standing with folded arms, waiting.
Unlike before, her mother’s eyes and manner were devoid of condemnation. There was only pity left.
Turning back to Alex, Amara asked. “Where did you hear such a word?”
Alex hesitated, as she looked from her mother to her grand-mother, knowing she said the wrong thing.
Amara hugged her and asked her again. “Where, baby?”
“The boys in my class called Funmi a prostitute, and the teacher punished them.” Alex said, the excitement in her voice gone.
Amara hesitated. She didn’t know what to say with her mother listening. “We consider some people prostitutes because of their work.”
“What kind of work?”
“Selling their bodies for money.” Amara’s mother said and walked away.
Amara wanted to respond to her mother but thought better of it; what would she say? She would speak with the old lady later.
“Mama, how do you sell your body?”
Amara knelt on the sandy ground and looked her daughter in the eye. “Listen to me, Alex, calling someone a prostitute is bad, and it will hurt their feelings. You must promise mama never to speak the word again, do you understand?”
“Yes, mama. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Is that why the teacher punished the boys in my class?”
“Yes, darling. Promise me you will not repeat words you do not understand?”
Amara smiled and hugged her, then turned in the direction her mother went. “Is your grandpa in the house?”
“No, mama. He went to the bar.”
“Let’s go look for grandma. I am leaving for my workplace.”
“Mama, can I come to your workplace?”
Amara stopped walking. Alex asked the year before, and Amara dealt with it, or so she thought. “Lexy, we discussed this. I told you they allow only adults.”
“Yes, mama, but James went to his father’s workplace after school when his mama traveled, and it’s also an adult place.”
Amara sighed. “Yes, some adult places allow children, but mine doesn’t. If you go there, they will punish me. Do you want that?”
Alex cast her head down. “No, mama. I won’t go to your workplace.”
Amara, seeing her mother at the neighbour’s house, turned the child to face her. “Lexy, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
Alex forced a smile and shook her head, worrying Amara more.
“Well…” Amara said, scratching her head, “I hope you are okay. Your grandma is at Iyare’s house. Hug mama and go be with her?”
They hugged and parted ways. Amara followed the child’s progress with her eyes until Alex snuggled into her grandma’s arms and turned to leave. She walked back to the brothel, realizing she did not consider Alex’s fast maturity. The child’s thought process developed a little more each time Amara visited, and the questions kept coming every time they met. This was further confirmation that she needed to engage the exit plan soon.
Alex dragged Amara forward by the hand.
“Alex, where are you taking me?” Amara asked, struggling with the child.
Alex turned to her, smiling. “To the one you loved before, Mama.”
Amara scoffed. “Loved? Where are we going?”
“Wait, you’ll see.” Alex didn’t bother to turn as she continued on her way.
They walked for a while, but Amara fretted because the road appeared deserted and the night approached fast. It was unlike the roads in Wilderness. They were the only ones walking; there was no house in sight.
Amara’s heart beat faster with every step they took. “Lexy, why is it taking so long?”
Alex laughed and stopped, turning to her. “Is that what you think? Look, we are here.” She said, pointing.
Amara turned to see what Alex referred to and realised they stood in front of the Pentecostal church, The Transformation Place. She looked back at Alex. “Why are we here?”
Alex took her hand and held it. “The one you loved before asked me to bring you. He told me he never stopped loving you. He said he has a better plan than the one you have for us. Please, listen to him. He is good, I know.”
Amara’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Who is it, and where did you meet this person?” She knew the pastor of the church and he was nothing like God and she didn’t remember having a relationship with a man in the Church.
Alex faded away, still holding her hand. “Remember how you loved Him when you were a little girl?”
Amara tried to hold on to the child. “Alex! Alex, come back!”
Amara woke up, hands stretched out. It was a dream; she heaved a sigh, got up and walked to the kitchen area; took a bottle of water and bent her head as the tears fell down her face. She didn’t understand why she cried, shedding tears for him was a thing of years ago. Leaning on the kitchen table, she wiped her tears. “Leave me alone. I am fine on my own; I don’t need you anymore.” She said and went back to bed.
He called himself the lover of her soul, but she hadn’t felt his love for years, even when she yearned for it. When he left her after the mistake, she couldn’t believe it. He just walked away. No, she couldn’t trust such love, no matter how many times he came to her in dreams or spoke through others.