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It’s easy to judge people who know of something like murder and yet do nothing. They should go to the police or at least send an anonymous tip, right? Please. I’m not doing the Nigerian Police any favours, nor would I stir up trouble for someone I care about because some creep got what he deserved. Certainly not when that someone, unlike everyone else, bothered to find out my name, rather than just calling me Mata Honda — as if a tag that merely reports my gender and the brand of my car has any chance of ever being cool. Besides, a good deal of my business at the River Run Plate depends on never hearing or caring what my customers say or do. Which isn’t what I had in mind when I first thought of the place.
I’d been dreaming of starting the River Run Plate since ‘92 when the River Niger overflowed its banks and flooded the town of Lokoja where I’d gone to visit an aunt. The water didn’t recede for days and stuck as I was in a tree, I ended up fighting monkeys for unripe fruit when no help came. The apes were fierce and determined to retain what they obviously considered theirs, but my stomach burned with a violent hunger, so I kicked and shrieked until they gave up.
Three days of combating the violated monkeys left me imagining a wildlife-themed restaurant that served exotic fare like rare bush fowl with frangipani topping; roasted antelope with curry leaves; marinated and stir-fried snails garnished with steamed onions, chilli, and blood-red tomatoes. Maybe all that also had something to do with being seventeen at the time, still struggling to get into university, and fantasising about being irritatingly rich and living in places like Las Vegas, Paris, and Kama Sutra, which I mistook for some glamorous Asian city for a while.
In the harmattan of 2010 when the River Run Plate eventually opened, it bore little resemblance to my original idea. My thirty-something year-old self knew a bit more about running a business than the teenager who held on to a name because it sounded cool. People wanted normal food; rice, spaghetti, moi moi — those tasty soft cakes made from beans — and regular tomato stew with beef, goat, fish, or chicken. At least that’s what the business consultants I paid good money to told me.
A month after I opened the River Run Plate in Abuja’s Zone 4 district, I didn’t need any consultant to tell me what men wanted. They wanted an ambient place with tall windows where they could pretend to have a drink while they checked out the girls perambulating on the street before tipping my doorman to beckon whichever girl they liked. Quite a good number of the men wanted me too, always staring at my full breasts and offering crazy money, but even though I sometimes served that dish, it’s not on the menu today.
As for girls like Hugo Lush and Tiny, they wanted the ease of hustling without being harassed by the police every five minutes. After realising this, all I printed on the menu at the River Run Plate were overpriced pies and rolls—tuna lettuce pie, turkey spinach pie, sausage cabbage rolls, and my special combo roll made with ground beef and a sprinkling of marijuana disguised with ginger, ginseng, and green peas. I charged a premium for bottled water and soft drinks while my service charge topped everything because nobody needed telling that whatever they said or did in the River Run Plate stayed in the River Run Plate. Which is how I got to know about the freak that got himself killed.
Even though I never smiled and hid away in the corner, the girls warmed up to me pretty fast. Perhaps that was because I let them do more than powder their slutty noses in the rest room, so long as they kept things quiet, and they made their Johns leave a big tip when they left. My favourite, Hugo Lush, wiggled a bum so big and sensuous that I suspected she got some tricks to shoot their load by just giving them a peep. And she flaunted a tough-girl act that made me long for a crack at her.
One night, after Hugo Lush exited the restroom with a deflated-looking loser, I grabbed her arm.
“Don’t you think you’re putting too much weight on your big ass?”
“Hey,” she wrenched her arm free, “how my life take concern you?”
“Babe, you don’t fool me with the Pidgin. Get your brain to carry some of the weight.”
“See me see trouble,” she gave me the once over, eyes bulging. I caught something lurking behind the hard glare with which she masked her eyes. “You be my mama?”
“If I was your mother, I would beat you to bits for underrating your worth.”
“Is that so? Come and try it, bloody bagger!”
I flinched. “What did you call me?”
“Bloody bagger,” she thrust her chin up at my face. “Do your worst.”
I exhaled. Only a barracks pikin like myself would have the confidence to ‘bagger’ me.
“Bloody bagger yourself,” I said. “Where did your father serve?”
“Eighty-second Division,” she stepped back, offering a hint of a smile. “You nko?”
“First Division. Number one for life!”
“Eighty-second never lose!”
We snapped to attention, gave ourselves army salutes and went our separate ways. Having a soldier-father and living in the barracks conditioned you in a way that someone who hadn’t lived in a military formation would never understand.
I took a greater interest in Hugo Lush after that night, quietly observing her from my corner. Although she exhibited I-don’t-care toughness with almost comic persistence, she was clearly protective of Tiny, butting in whenever it seemed the smaller girl was being pestered by a man. And when Hugo Lush’s hand brushed against my thigh days later, I didn’t need to be told that men were just work for her.
“Why do they call you Hugo Lush?”
She shrugged her thick shoulders and I pictured her as a kid, wrestling down her brothers as they rough-housed. Now over twenty, she squared up like a sergeant major out of uniform. But her eyes. Those eyes had a coated hardness to them. Something hid behind.
“I been joke about meeting Hugo Boss,” she said.
“Some stupid girl say, ‘don’t you mean Hugo Lush?’ and the name come stick.”
I chuckled and patted her bum. Later that night, after locking up, I stopped beside Hugo Lush at the corner of Constantine and Ladi Kwali. I rolled down my window and lowered my head to her. She glided into the passenger seat and I took her home.
In the morning Hugo Lush gifted me the most genuine smile I had ever seen on the face of a barracks pikin. For once, her eyes weren’t shielding something. They glowed with a warm softness.
“You better tell me your name,” she said, “I no go call you Mata Honda again.”
“Alice. And don’t say any nonsense about Wonderland. What’s your own name?”
“No worry, just call me Hugo Lush. I like am.”
I liked it too, and I pulled her voluptuous body over mine that morning, feeling like I’d found heaven. But Hugo Lush refused to move in even though I had a spare room. She wouldn’t quit hustling or smoking either.
“Stop disturbing like man,” she said. “Make we enjoy as we dey. I like independence.”
I didn’t have a comeback to undercut her so I shrugged and kissed her. Just enjoying what we had, I learned Hugo Lush once studied biochemistry at a southern university.
“Why didn’t you finish?”
“One stupid lecturer give me wahala.”
I shook my head and patted hers. Some lecturers had hit on me too when I was a student.
She shrugged and muttered something about a rendezvous at a motel that went sour, broken bedside lamps, somebody ending up in hospital, maimed, and suspensions handed out to both parties. I’d seen all of Hugo Lush and she didn’t have a scratch on her, well, nothing too unusual for a rugged barracks pikin anyway. So, between her and the lecturer, it wasn’t much of a mystery who’d ended up in hospital. She wouldn’t say how the leap from suspension to not finishing the course happened, and again, I didn’t push it.
At the River Run Plate, Hugo Lush relaxed a bit more around me as she realised a university degree didn’t mean I’d forsaken my barracks code of loyalty. Even with her game face on, the pain and longing that lurked behind her street-hard stare never fully faded from me. Eventually I learned about the hidden baton and how it connected with the lecturer’s midsection, making sure he’d never prey on another student again. And I learned about the monster that ceased to exist.
Hugo Lush liked to lean on the dark side of a closed kiosk on Constantine. One night during the Christmas holidays, she was there, savouring a cigarette when an old widow selling dates nearby said, “Goot evenin’, sah,” to a man in embroidered dashiki. The man glared at the woman as if his eyes might actually burn her head off.
Along with the butt of her cigarette, Hugo Lush tossed the scene out of her mind. Men didn’t like banter when they were out looking for something to poke on. She swung her hips down the street in heels way too high for her plus-size figure, thinking how a Friday night at Christmastime held great prospects and how a little pain only made sweeter the gain.
The man in the embroidered dashiki ambled after Hugo Lush, right into the vibrant heart of Zone 4. The environmental contractors had been at work earlier and the scent of freshly cut grass heightened that festive air peculiar to the season. Hawkers peddling Christmas whatnots choked the area with noel chimes, and even the university girls, part-timers in the Zone, joined the regulars in prancing along the kerbs in panty-revealing minis as if they were all competing in a Miss Call Girl beauty pageant.
At the corner of Herbert Macaulay and Ladi Kwali, the man swaggered up to Hugo Lush. She switched her capacious bag from his viewing side, stuck her breasts out, and struck a pose that further accentuated her already ample behind.
“Fine man,” she flashed him her come-let’s-get-down-to-it smile while assessing his getup. “Make I go with you?”
The man grinned, revealing uneven, gleaming teeth. He held up a laminated card, which meant nothing to Hugo Lush as she had no intention of examining any ID. Still, the idea that he was anything other than a prospective patron erased her smile.
“What?” She scanned for the ubiquitous pickup truck which the police used for raids.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man’s eyes shone. “I’m a CUI. A Condom Use Inspector.”
Hugo Lush sneered. “A condom what?”
The CUI repeated his title. “I’m to make sure you use condoms properly when you’re with your customers. It’s part of government’s new HIV prevention strategy.”
Hugo Lush sneered. “You wan’ start that nonsense with me?” she asked. “Thunder fire you!” She hissed and click-clacked away on her high heels.
The CUI moved on and flashed his card at Tiny, who in turn flashed the dagger she kept tucked in her skimpy jeans. Tiny eventually discerned that the man meant every word and she howled as if her favourite stand-up comedian was performing exclusively for her.
Within minutes, all the girls in the Zone had heard of ‘that yeye man’ and the Condom Use Inspector had been condemned to the dustbin of nonsensical people. But Hugo Lush, glimpsing a business opportunity, had a rethink.
“How much you go pay?” she asked the CUI.
He caressed his thick beard while considering the question.
“Pay five thousand,” Hugo Lush prompted.
“Two thousand,” the CUI offered.
“Gimme three, I go let you watch.”
The CUI nodded.
Hugo Lush stretched out her hand. “Pay, then go wait until I edge customer.” She motioned that she and the customer would fade into the restroom of the River Run Plate. “Then doorman go show you where to stand and look.”
When Hugo Lush briefed the doorman, he gave her the evil glare.
“You done craze,” he said, tapping his bony temple. “Me, I never craze.”
Hugo Lush frowned and cracked her knuckles. “Him go only look.”
The doorman scoffed, made an ineffectual point of brushing dust from his dashiki uniform and gazed into space.
“Give him five hundred naira,” Hugo Lush prodded the CUI.
The CUI stroked his beard like a sinister warlord and spoke to the doorman in Hausa. The doorman spat back a rapid-fire reply laced with dan iska and banza, Hausa terms that Hugo Lush understood to mean ‘mad man’ and ‘bastard’ respectively. After the tirade, the CUI handed over a one-thousand naira note. The two men shook hands and laughed.
Hugo Lush gaped. “World people go kill me with surprise.”
She bounced back to Ladi Kwali to wait for patrons.
“So what happened?” Tiny asked.
Hugo Lush shook her head. “The yeye man no gree pay,” she said with a straight face.
Tiny hissed. “That perfume he poured all over his body smells like rotten fish. Shows how useless he is.”
Hugo Lush conceded the point and sashayed towards a man who was stealing furtive glances at her from the corner of Constantine and Ladi Kwali.
“Customer,” she beamed at him as if he were someone as beloved to her as the pop star, D’banj, “long time I no see your handsome face.”
The man recoiled, muttered something unintelligible, and pulled out a small whisky bottle from his pocket. He struggled to uncork the drink.
Hugo Lush snatched the bottle from him and deftly wrung the cap off. “Pay ten thousand for short time,” she whispered, thrusting the whiskey in the man’s left hand while she seized his right wrist so firmly that he winced.
Again, the man mumbled nonsense with which Hugo Lush didn’t bother. She squeezed her prey and led him along until he wriggled his wrist in discomfort.
“Okay, pay seven-five,” she coaxed.
The sheepish man gulped his whiskey and finally spoke up. “Four thousand.”
“You no see fuel scarcity?” Hugo Lush asked. “Price of everything done increase.”
The man caved in and Hugo Lush relaxed her hold on him. They retreated to the restroom of the River Run Plate. After they went inside, the doorman took the CUI around the back and pointed at the observation post. While Hugo Lush and her customer conducted their business, the CUI watched and busied his hands within the folds of his dashiki.
Meanwhile, the doorman returned to his post and whistled into the night.
Almost immediately, Tiny appeared next to the doorman with a customer.
“I wan’ use restroom,” she said.
“Somebody dey there. Wait small.”
Hugo Lush soon emerged. She squeezed some money into the doorman’s hand.
“Tiny,” the doorman beckoned. “Na your turn.”
Tiny had her turn as did a number of other girls as the night wore on. All the while, the CUI observed condom use from his vantage point.
Two nights later, at about nine o’clock, some masked men in a police-type pickup truck raided Zone 4. They said they were a special anti-prostitution squad and they herded Hugo Lush, Tiny, and a gaggle of other girls to the primary school along Constantine Street. There, the girls were dispossessed of their cash and abused without the benefit of condoms.
By midnight, most of the girls had recovered enough to return to work. The restroom at the River Run Plate got busy and the CUI resurfaced.
“I think I smelled him among those masked men,” Tiny whispered to Hugo Lush.
“You sure?” Hugo Lush asked.
Tiny wasn’t sure. She shook her head. Nonetheless, Hugo Lush wanted a change in the arrangement she had with the CUI.
“You go pay double,” she said.
The CUI glowered. “No.”
“No more deal,” Hugo Lush warned the doorman before she stomped away.
Several days later, right after Tiny had exited the restroom with a customer, Hugo Lush and a new patron were going at it when a peculiar perfume wafted in through the back window and assailed her nostrils. She came out and charged at the doorman.
“How much the yeye man pay you?” she asked. “Where my share of the money?”
The doorman, who had bought himself a shiny new dashiki uniform, said Hugo Lush had to negotiate matters for herself. As for him, he had to get paid if the banza wanted to inspect condom use in the restroom of the River Run Plate. Hugo Lush stormed off to the corner of Constantine and Ladi Kwali where Tiny stood flaunting her straight legs.
“What’s biting you?” Tiny asked.
“Na that yeye man,” Hugo Lush began, still huffing.
She unburdened herself. Tiny seethed and fingered her dagger. Hugo Lush barely finished before she dug into a zipped compartment of her bag, fetched a small, tightly corked bottle, and the girls set off in search of the CUI.
Weeks after the holidays, the environmental contractors were clearing the bushes at the back of Zone 4 when they found the remains of a man with a disfigured face and whose decomposed body reeked of pus. His tongue hung out like he’d been strangled and his face had burn marks as if acid had been thrown at his chin and cheeks. His torso had several stab wounds that oozed fat maggots.
The police came but they wouldn’t use their pickup to remove the corpse. Eventually, a garbage disposal team hauled it away with their truck. That evening, outside the door of the River Run Plate, the doorman asked the girls if they’d seen his friend the CUI.
Tiny giggled. “I saw him buying second-hand clothes for his children at Wuse Market.”
Hugo Lush blew a bubble with her chewing gum. “Him dey come my house well-well,” she said, implying that the CUI had become her boyfriend. “We even dey together for Wonderland Amusement Park on Sunday. I go bring the pictures later.”
She never did.