I’m dead on my feet. I am not sure what time it is, but it’s certainly Sun o’clock. I’ve always wondered if there’s really a God if he never answers my prayers to cover the sun for a few hours. I look over to where my mother’s getting the next tray of goods ready, and the intense desire to run away is everywhere within and I struggle to breathe. The cars continue their journey on the expressway, oblivious, I imagine, to the thoughts of a 16-year-old who runs after them to sell all kinds of nuts. I soon hear my name and I stand.
If I told you that this wasn’t the life I envisaged for myself, would you believe me? Death stopped the heart of my Dad months before my 15th birthday, and school was the first privilege to go. When feeding my two siblings and me became almost impossible for my mother, the both of us turned to this life. The ends still don’t meet, but my sister and brother can eat twice a day and get to still have a primary education, so, close enough.
I am not naive, or, rather, I like to think I’m not. I’ve seen myself in the glass windows of some of the shinier cars that almost certainly have air-conditioning, and I know that I am becoming a woman. I hear stories of how men give wads of money to girls like me, rent, if you may, for our bodies, and the thought occurs to me whether such money would be enough for a year’s school fees. Just the thought.
The car stops. Unusual, because we usually have run after the cars and hope to conclude our transactions before the mild traffic lets up. As my sweaty, panting face appears at the window, I take the driver in within a second and go:
‘How many, Sir?’
He smiles. I have half a mind to turn my back on him; I can see a bus full of passengers coming closer. And then he says, ‘Everything’.
I’m not sure I hear him correctly, so I respond, ‘Sir?’.
‘How much is everything?’ he says. I’m lost for words for a minute, and his smile broadens.
‘Uhmm…’ I do a quick calculation and ‘…N4,400, Sir’.
The only idea I had of money prior to that encounter was that it always came the way I had always received it: dirty and sometimes torn. The ones he handed to me were crisp and cold.
‘This is 10,000, Sir’.
‘I know. Use the change to buy something for yourself’.
I’m still staring at him.
‘Won’t you pack the groundnuts for me?’
I bend down in a haze, put everything on my tray into one of my bigger nylons, and hand it to him.
‘There’s more where that came from, you know?’
‘Aha, there it is’, I think.
His smile has turned lecherous – thinking about it now, it always was – and he holds my gaze, perhaps to be sure I understand the meaning behind his words.
I feign ignorance and plant a look of bewilderment at him. My mother yells my name at this point.
I can see him fast become uncomfortable when he realises his words don’t seem to sink in quickly, and I wonder if he’ll ask for the change he didn’t want moments ago. He turns away from me in apparent frustration as the window glass rolls up, and the car pulls away from the curb.
I’m still a bit stunned when the dust settles. On the one hand, I just made more than I ever had in a day, and on the other, money for sex was no longer a story I heard. It almost became one I lived.
I hand the money over to my mother and pick up another tray.