Below the yellow street light poles, the city was still a beehive of activity. There were hawkers, pedestrians, cars of all kinds and lights still shining through the windows of buildings that lined the streets. Among them all walking on the pavement was the figure of a lady. She hobbled in between throngs of people, tripping where concrete slabs gaped out. Her hair a mound of hills pointing in different directions, her lipstick pasted rather than applied and her eyes red and glaring.
Even though her facial appearance was a collusion of mistakes she still looked beautiful. Every now and then she bent over to pull down the lower edges of her mini skirt as if to cover the exposed thighs it had failed to cover. Frequently she stopped at rubbish bins to vomit air and sometimes mutter. Then like a vulnerable puppy, she would pull the collar of her fur coat and tightly press them on her chest with both hands to fight off the numbing cold.
Sometimes her sharp stilettos could not bear her walking pace and she would trip on her own feet. Several times she leaned against a wall so she could adjust them.
The throng of people did not seem to notice her. Most of the time blank stares were hurled in her direction only to be pulled away to their own concerns. The hawkers continued selling, the shopkeepers served their customers wallowed in their own pursuits, the cars drove past hooting and polluting the air; no one even stretched a hand to aid the helpless figure. She walked faster as she approached a pub with a sign at the top that read “PARADISE SANDS”.
She pushed the bouncers out of her way and walked through the revellers on the floor occasionally stepping on a foot, but never turning to respond to the curses hurled at her. Finally she reached the bar, pulled out a metallic stool, sat on it and collapsed on the counter top.
She was dozing when a tall bulky middle-aged man came by and banged on the counter. Startled, she woke up looking in every direction until her eyes settled on the man’s middle, and then slowly moved up to see who had disturbed her sleep.
“Well that was fast!” said the man as he drew a stool and sat next to her.
“I am tired and ex….hausted…humph…can’t do…”she retorted weakly her voice drowned by the loud music and the noise from the revellers.
After many attempts to listen to what she was saying, the man’s patience ran out. He grabbed her by her left elbow and pulled her to the back of the stage. Then they went through the dressing room to a narrow corridor that led to a door with a sign that read “OFFICE”.
“What did you just tell me …that you…you are tired…something, speak up!” he said banging the door behind him.
“All my clients have been served and now it’s late and I am tired.”
“Young lady, if you are not accustomed to being tired this is not the job for you, if you want good money you must be willing to work overtime,” he snarled.
She looked at him hoping against hope that he did not have another assignment for her at that hour. She had just been to the motel at the centre of the town where a group of Chinese men speaking mandarin were waiting for her. She had found two girls seated patiently on a bed waiting for her so that they could serve the Asians and get it over with. Once the men were through with them, they paid the girls and sent them away. Tessa felt like her soul was being pinched, bit by bit, away from her.
“Don’t tell me I have to go have sex with another horny man at this hour!” She whimpered. It was just a few minutes past three in the morning and she had not had any sleep.
“Yes, they are two mzungu men, waiting for you at the lodge across the street in room thirty two. Serve them well and you will get your rest… well maybe tomorrow,” the manager said with a tone of finality. He never liked contradictions, and that meant his decisions were final and could not be questioned, especially not by a prostitute whom he broke his back protecting from the police and the city council everyday.
He walked to his desk, opened the drawer and retrieved a pair of keys and threw them to her. Then he sat heavily onto the easy chair behind the desk.
“And remember Tessa , if they offer you more money to stay a while longer, accept it,” he leant over the desk, fixing his eyes on her eyes then added, “They are all old men, so act like you don’t notice and make them feel superior. Now now do hurry.”
She picked up the keys from the floor, briefly glared at the manager and then got out slamming the door behind her. She ran to the toilet and wept. As she reached for her handkerchief in her bosom she saw her reflection on the toilet mirror. Her face was all pale; her hair was a mess, not to mention her wrinkly clothes which hang on her like dry hide. She looked like she had just survived a stampede.
Quickly, she rushed to her dressing room put on the lights and sat down in front of her dressing mirror. Frantically, she perused through her purse to find her make up set but could not find it. She quickly drew the cupboard drawer under the mirror and something fell out of it and landed on her lap. It was a piece of paper, a triangular piece of paper. Probably Tina’s note to remind me of the money I owe her, she thought.
When she touched the paper, it felt quite hard, not exactly the texture of common paper. She flipped the other side of the paper and saw that it was a photograph. Since she was tired and her eyes were blinking a lot, she could not see the characters on the photo clearly. So she climbed the stool and got hold of the light bulb on the ceiling by the strap, and used it to illuminate the photograph. Feelings of shock and excitement engulfed her when she saw that it was her family photo.
Her handsome father was standing with his left arm around her mother’s shoulders, while Tessa, her two younger sisters and brother stood at the front. Her father was wearing his trademark coat, it was all black with thin white stripes, a light blue shirt and brown pants . Her mother had a cloth tied on her head and a blue shiny dress that reached her ankles. Tessa remembered that her mother wore the dress only on special occasions like, a meeting with the church committee or the monthly ‘women group’ meetings. Her two younger sisters clung to their mother’s dress and her brother held fast to a half eaten tomato. Oh, the little thing loved tomatoes so much, she thought as she wiped off a tear bead from her left eye.
Old memories though distant and blurred came flooding back. She remembered the day her uncle, Tim, had brought home a box full of tomatoes and had kept them in the kitchen. Little did she know that little Nelson had crept unnoticed into the kitchen. When they came back from their daily chores, they were greeted by a half empty carton of tomatoes. Nelson had denied any wrong doing until they found a tomato with tooth marks under his bed.
The beating he bore that day was unforgettable but not enough to make him give up tomatoes.
“The little man was hooked,” she thought loudly, wiping the tears from her eyes and soaking up depression with memories of the past.
She opened her drawer wider and noticed her journal with a picture gaping out of it. It was long before she had written anything on it. She could not remember putting any picture in it. She pulled out the picture. The picture was of a tall good-looking man, he wore a white t-shirt and brown trousers. His left arm was wrapped around the waist of a beautiful girl modestly dressed.
The girl was Tessa, when she was still innocent and ignorant of the ‘ways of the world’ as her father would have put it. He was her boyfriend then, a young educated and energetic village boy.
They were the talk of the whole village. However, as much as she loved him, she could never marry him because to her he was not capable of giving her the kind of life she wanted. A life of affluence, so that she could travel and shop as she pleased, study abroad, get a good job an even live in a mansion. So she eloped and ran to the city with a man called Mike, a spendthrift who had promised her heaven out of the money he had inherited.
Their ‘rich’ lifestyle did not last because her opportunistic partner got bankrupt. Out of desperation, Tessa took a job as a toilet cleaner at a media office. One day she went home and found Mike gone. Until then, he had been the one staying home as she worked. That day after working until midnight she went home and found that he had parked his things and gone. The letter he had left behind said that he could no longer eat vegetables anymore so he had decided to go and live with his wealthy aunt. His aunt had made him promise not to drag a wretched fiancé into her house, so he decided to go alone.
Tessa could not bear it. Thoughts of suicide trailed her mind everyday as she went to work. Soon she faced the threat of being thrown out of her house because of rent. Eventually one of her friends informed her of a pimp who only hooked up his prostitutes with foreign men, especially wealthy ones. Tessa jumped onto his bandwagon and lost all the shreds of dignity she had left.
“You do not know how I feel when I see you look at that picture that way!”
She quickly turned around; knowing the voice but wanting to make sure she was not mistaken. It was her long lost love, Tobias, whom she had left for Mike. He was casually dressed, his hair cut just the right size, was clean shaven and a healthy smile that exaggerated his good looks crossed his face. She quickly realised that it had been him who placed the photographs in her drawer. She looked at him and tried to talk as tears welled in her eyes. Tobias moved closer and pressed his finger across her lips.
“Shhh…you don’t have to say anything. Just nod your head when I ask to come with me!” He said looking straight into her eyes.
She could see sincerity written in his eyes, his lips pursed expecting a nod from her. How did he expect her to leave everything behind all over again? The brothel had become somewhat a home to her. Since she had run away from home, she had never communicated with her parents and that was five years ago. Leaving with Tobias would mean seeing her parents again and what would she tell them? Would she divulge to them how she had quickies with men twice her age, would she even dare reveal how she had consented to a lesbian client? Moreover, she had had so many sexual escapades; even though she used protection she was not really sure whether she was safe.
Furthermore, how could she take off with a man she had not seen for so many years?
“Give me a chance to prove to you how much I love you. All my relationships have not been like the one I had with you. I had to find you, when I saw your picture in a brothel advertisement, I had to get here…,” he begged.
“ What about my pa…rents…mom and dad, do they know?”
“ They know, they want you back, Nelson is all grown and wants to see his elder sister. He told me to tell you he loves you!” added Tobias.
Where would she hide her face, she knew everything would not just fall in place. Her parents may no longer hold her in high esteem like they used to.
But what kind of life was she living anyway ? The shame was too much to bear. She feared going home once, when Mike got broke and ran away. So she landed herself into prostitution. Then, she was too ashamed to go home empty -handed, down-trodden by life. How could she face her parents and society now?
She did not think of it all when she chose prostitution and now she was not going to allow herself to think twice about going back home. Tears streamed down her cheeks, Tobias wiped them with his hands and helped her to her feet. He started to speak but she put her finger across his lips.
“Shhhh. You do not have to say anything. Let’s go…let’s…go!” she said holding his hands. Then she threw the keys on the stool.
“ What are those ?” asked Tobias.
“ They are keys to my skeleton cabinet; I don’t think I will need them anymore. Come let’s RUN!” she said excitement written all over her face.
Once outside she looked up at the office on the third floor, she knew its occupant would not be happy when he found out she was gone.
Tobias waved down a taxi and they drove off into the future. The streetlights were still on; the cars were still moving, the hawkers still sold, the pedestrians walked and the other side of the leaf had just been turned.
Ochieng Rodgers Nyabola is a student at Masinde Muliro university of science and technology.