The air was clotted with the dizzying smells of refined petroleum, she struggled to breathe. Ghana’s sticky humidity of a Wednesday morning enhanced its overpowering stench.
Nothing had changed: the air was perennially impregnated with this thick, stifling, repulsive heaviness. But today (mmm, as for today) the smell was rotten. The smell kicked about making hastened languid goads at her open pores, colluding with her sweat, like a foetus in a sack. Squeezing her face and her skin feeling instantaneously polluted by the heavy air, Lucia looked around and decided that today would be the last time she allowed something so foul to fill up her nostrils, again.
She inhaled deeply and with her finely manicured nails pinched her button nose as she began to enter the building. The possibility of leaving the station’s foul smell stirred her insides. Her instinct chirred. The chirring gradually evolved into a growl, reminding her, fiercely, that she was above. Above this. This, the crude petroleum station where she worked. This, a closed off space where her liquid movements were curtailed. This, being him.
She clocked in.
Slipping her card into the clocking machine she felt the gentle thud and successive click before it was released, and thought, hungrily, about his taste. Fitting the netted cap over her hair did not have its prescribed restrictiveness: usually its elasticity would barely stretch around her head’s circumference let alone allow her space to stuff the wig’s abundant locks within. She would find that the tightness of the netted cap left her with headaches and an indented forehead, temple and earlobes. She recounted a time when a man she met in the local bar mistook the indelible ridge across her forehead as tribal marks. ‘What does tribal mean anyway?’ she had asked in mild irritation after telling him the less than impressive truth of the ridge’s origins. His response was an upturned lip, slight nod of the head before he sauntered off in complete dismissal of her, as if to punish her for being inquisitive, curious and intelligent. She shrugged and continued to sip her Merlot. Today, however, it seemed Lucia had the upper hand; the netted cap’s elastic was looser, her head felt light and, to her incredulity, there was space!
She had a gut feeling that this newfound space was a titillating glimpse of freedom, a titillation which had arrived at an appointed time. But still, the clotted air smelt.
She wore the stained yellow t-shirt and red snap-back over the netted cap, turned, and bumped into an unsuspecting body.
“Kafra!” Lucia apologised before fumbling to straighten out the red snap-back. “I didn’t see you.”
“Lucia, you are late again.”
Startled by the deep baritone voice, she immediately looked up beyond the cap’s beak to identify a full face the voice belonged to. The nerves in her spine pricked and her knees fell faint. She was surprised by him, this man, this man she didn’t even like. Ah, but today (mmm) there was something in his mellifluous voice that shot salacious electricity through her.
“That’s not true,” she smiled playfully all the while feeling her thighs sweat. “I have a perfect track record for punctuality with very minor exceptions.” Her eyes stared hard into his knowing ‘very minor’ was a gross misrepresentation of her casual strolling into the workplace late everyday. On other, usual, unsuspecting days, conversations like this would not have gone beyond a casual ‘good morning’, but there was something daring about today that made her want to play – even her journey into work this morning involved alacritous skipping from the trotro despite her late arrival.
As a consequence of the past few weeks, today, she was renewed. Her spirit was light and her attitude self-righteous.
“Lucia, abeg. Don’t bring asem for me in this place – your bravery may result in a public purging. No doubt.” Pausing for a brief moment he scrutinised the young curvaceous woman facing him. An urge surged and he fought the desire to step closer. “Lucia, you somehow look a little…different.”
Ben lifted his right hand and shook it from side to side whilst he said ‘different’. A quizzical expression spread on his face, a similar look the ‘tribal marks’ man in the bar had given her. She wondered whether she oozed a mystique vibe. Last week he would not have noticed or even spoken to her as she hid behind the obstruction of the snap-back cap and stained yellow t-shirt baking in the sun. His usual evasive attitude did not phase her, she acknowledged him daily with a scowl.
Lucia loathed Ben. Ben the manager. Ben who seldom enforced the safety policies in the Universal Petroleum workplace. Ben who womanised, sexualised, sodomised. When asked, ‘Ben which do you prefer?’ he’d respond, ‘God made man in his own image, and I’m a lover of God.’ But of course everyone knew which he preferred, it was as evident as the tyre tracks in the sand. Today Ben noticed something amiss with Lucia. This was the longest he had ever stared at her.
“Lucia,” resisting the habit of licking his lips he felt an urgency rising and, in fast succession, images flickered through his mind like a montage. He could not focus. “Have you…err…” he gulped, darted shifty glances, and imaged her taste. “Have you…chopped your hair?”
Then she remembered life before this.
Her hopeful quest of finding something greater culminated with the rather depressing realisation that she was not in ownership of herself. She had traded in her body, mind and emotional intelligence to the men who traipsed in and out of her life. As per trade, she was harvested and consumed like cassava.
Accra’s harsh soil germinated her awakening and its ground neutralised the pain that came with evolving from a crackling seed into a fully-fledged cassava. Her spritely green leaves shot up wide, sensuous to the new world around her and blossomed bountifully. While her roots, thickly swollen with starch, grew reaching beyond the permissible. So she grew, and grew until she outgrew the grounds which tried to constrain her; consequently, this led to her rudimentary uprooting from Accra to Tema. Once removed from Accra’s familial comfort, Lucia’s cassava roots were now at the service of men whose palates varied: hard, grated, fried, boiled, dried and stewed. To be delectable meant survival and she was a tasty delight.
Tema seemed to offer a life of independence for Lucia that Accra could not. Tema’s shifting landscape had cast its spell on her as the main road metamorphosed from the coast’s rocky shore into the dense forest and mountain tops; passing the industrial sites, isolated grandiose mansions, the serene roads meandering into convoluted streets of locals hawking, selling and mud hut houses. Tema’s moving vibrancy welcomed her stay and she knew then that she would stay for a while. And whilst she decided to stay, she endeavoured to make it lucrative; working by day at Universal Petroleum, yet, on chosen nights, worked as an escort — never a prostitute. Prostitute: her taste buds numb whenever the word attempts to cosy in her mouth. Prostitution gave the impression, she felt, of wilful incarceration. But this choice gave her interminable access to a freedom she could afford on her own terms and in her own time with a growing clientele she handpicked from Facebook. Living alone as a recluse enabled her to manage the two jobs efficiently and to save, lay low and assimilate. Her attitude to money was the same as it was to men: aloof.
Until he came.
He was unmoved by her feminine sexual idiosyncrasies. Despite her coquette efforts in pinching his interest, Hanif simply flinched and stuck. It wasn’t his mere rejection of her, but his determination to remain in her presence without wanting to taste a serving of cassava’s finest. She hoped his stubborn resistance would soon liquefy into fluid thrusting desire. But he would not budge. Annoyance emanated from her rigid posture as he stood preaching celibacy with self-righteous inflections rolling off his tongue’s tip, where she, the harlot, glared. Celibacy was bullshit. That was wilful incarceration. The way she saw it, she was doing him a favour, a favour which would release and quench him, a favour deserving reverence. What man does not want to pump? She remembered how stunned he seemed when she initially asked.
“Ah, come on now. You’re telling me you don’t like a good pump?” Her balled fist pumped up and down against her groin to indicate what she was suggesting.
Hanif stood there in silence examining her, a curious look on his face. He did not seem phased by her open profanity, conversely, her confidence piqued his charge in bringing her to the glory of the Lord. She would make a great ambassador with her story — Bad Girl Gone Holy — he pictured her sermons, bestselling books and mentorship bringing lost girls and women to the light, they needn’t hide in the dark any longer, they needn’t take part in such depravity. To him she was every bit a saint as she was a sinner.
“Well,” he began. “I never think about it. I’m saving myself.”
Failing to hide both her exasperation and disbelief, Lucia shook her head and arms fervently across her chest. “I don’t believe you for a second! You are telling me you have never touched yourself or let another woman touch you? Or,” she continued with a stealthy smirk, “are you gay?”
Completely disregarding her question and obvious attempt to discredit his faith, he asked. “Are you English?”
Staggered by how his question could instantly asunder her confidence of impeccably adopting Ghanaian dialect and attitudes, she froze. Gaping at Hanif’s ability to lacerate her conceivably impenetrable, ostentatious layer of Ghanaianness that concealed her timid, roving Englishness.
Laid bare in front of him she acquiesced and pieced together, through recollection, her parents’ abandoning her at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport while Uncle and Aunty So-and-So waited at Arrivals to collect and send her to boarding school four years ago. The boarding school they dumped her in was the hub of invaluable educational and traditional home training, with daily accusations of being un-lady, un-Ghanaian, un-Christian, coupled by her deplorable Western behaviour (Don’t bring your white ways here!) because London had spoilt her, made her iniquitous, she had forgotten how to respect, how to be amenable, and until there was behavioural improvement her passport remained in Uncle and Aunty So-and-So’s possession. She was coerced to stay with the god-knows-how-distant-and-totally-not-related Uncle and Aunty So-and-So, to go to boarding school, to do well, no, to do exceedingly well (why else would her parents pay such high tuition fees if she was to achieve the same standard of grades back in the UK?), and, without fully appreciating its gravity, she was expected to come back home. Which, when the opportunity of returning home presented itself, she refused and in vengeance ran to Tema, to immerse herself in the way she wanted.
Hanif listened patiently to Lucia’s recounting spiel, this was the first time she had spoken at length. He was most struck by the image of a seventeen-year old Lucia in boarding school with a tiny afro, an odd comparison to what was standing in front of him – a long luscious weave.
“I’d like to see that.” He said.
“Me with my natural hair? Never!” She rebuffed.
“But why? I love natural beauty. Make-up just misconfigures the beauty God has given each and every one of us.”
Rolling her eyes, she could not help but find his sentiment endearing. Well, she thought, maybe on the day he surrenders I may just show him how to pump my natural beauty.
She smiled at Hanif.
Wednesday nights were when they used to meet, coincidence turned into intentionally scheduled liaisons. Lucia had fostered the habit of detaching herself from familiar ground, a characteristic sharpened painfully after being bluntly aborted from London.
Yet she struggled to compress the swelling conflict of desires: abiding comfortably in Hanif’s presence thrashing against the angst to abscond. She ultimately welcomed the desire to remain.
In these meetings a warm comfort consumed her weakening resistance and there she fell captive in the clutches of these brief, encapsulating moments. Warmth and electricity zipped through her whenever she saw Hanif approach the junction behind the Pentecostal church where he attended his bible study classes. The junction was their spot. He was thirty-one, she twenty. Around 9.30 at night, when prayers are rounding up, she would hear the pastor belting through the speakers calling sinners into repentance and the congregation, responsive as ever to the pastor’s call, raise its collective anguished cries. Lucia would irreverently wait behind the church where her regular clients came to pick her up at 10pm. Arriving earlier at the junction meant booming prayer residual (Sinners repent!) while she leaned against the wall fencing the church’s back compound, grimacing at the steadfastness of the bible study group. It was on such a night that she met Hanif, accidentally, six Wednesdays ago, and began to especially reserve those precious thirty minutes for him before her clients would drive towards them in either the Mercedes Benz E-Class Coupé, Range Rover Evoque or Porsche Cayenne with blaring headlights.
Within the month that they had first met, Hanif brought a freshness to her reality that originally started as unpredictable fun but had now developed an acrimonious aftertaste. Her reality was not like the ideal she envisioned. The men, her clients, wealthy, were unaffected by her disinterest and she, the proprietor, managing, was disinterested by their continual demand. She could not supply anymore. She grew increasingly bored. Her clients began to develop a peculiar possessiveness of her vagina; this, one claimed, was God’s gift to him. Another stated he would buy her a two-bedroom townhouse in Cantonments, Accra (rental rates going at GH₵14,000 per month) if Lucia agreed not make her available to anyone else, anymore. However, and this was a delicious (mmm) however, it was Hanif’s impromptu announcement of flying back to Nairobi, Kenya, last week that she decided to renew her resolve, her life, to take ownership of it again.
She slid her fingers across the red snap-back’s beak and pinched her tiny afro underneath, remembering how the scissors fiercely traversed around her head’s round shape last night. Lucia looked at Ben and laughed. Taken aback, Ben stared at her with curiosity.
“Yes Ben, I chopped my hair. I didn’t think you’d notice.”
“Why? I mean, you look nice, but you look very different.”
“Ben was it not you who said I am running late?” She teased. “I need to go and pump petrol.” She smirked as she turned towards the door.
“Lucia, wait, I wanted to as—”
And she walked off.
Ben hid his disappointment with difficulty. Aware that he was watching she deliberately swung her hips while her buttocks bounced rhythmically in her skin-tight jeans. His breathing desire for her hung as heavily as the clotted smell of petroleum, and she couldn’t blame him, she desired herself too.
She had decided that tonight she’d catch the Tema trotro to East Legon, Accra, pick up her passport from Uncle and Aunty So-and-So’s house, before grabbing the taxi to Kotoka International Airport and fly out to Nairobi, Kenya to see Hanif. Then she’d lay it on him real good so he would see exactly what he was missing. She smiled, thanking the Yaa Asantewaa warrior in her for reviving her tepid spirit. London can wait.
Lucia then opened the door to begin her shift, an hour late. Her growling instinct roared.
Marcelle Mateki Akita (@) is an African-Arab writer, reader, researcher and co-founder of Afrikult. (a literary platform that discusses, explores and celebrates the diversity of African literature). Her work has appeared in National Theatre’s News Views, University of Hull’s CultureNet: Writer of the Moment, Adinkra Magazine and Ain’t I a Woman Collective, and is currently working on a collection of short stories and essays scheduled to be published in 2016.
Related country: Ghana