He was in the living room, staring at the television with what he imagined conveyed the appropriate level of despondency, when she came out of the bedroom. The him that had loved her for four years until last month would have felt his breath catch in his throat, as if seeing her for the first time. It was a simple dress, but it hugged her perfect figure, letting any hot-blooded male within visual range know what time it was. Her perfume was just the right level of cloying, and her make-up highlighted her round eyes and full lips. Her weave ran down the sides of her head like a silk veil. The way she clutched her purse suggested a vulnerability that would make any man she was seeing tonight want to go out of his way to bask in her presence.
The him that had come up with this outrageous, degrading plan now hated it all the more for the fact that there was no turning back now. And, that it would succeed for her, but not for him.
“So, you’re going now?” he said, flatly.
“Yes,” she said, matching his resignation.
He returned his gaze to the television. He sensed her walk past her to the door, and wait.
“Ade, it is not too late to get ready now,” she said. “I will tell him that you are my brother, and I know he will hook you up with someone.”
He fought back the harsh reminder she obviously needed; that they both acquire British partners before their student visas had expired had been his suggestion in the first place. Her suggestion to spend their savings on a lawyer to tell them what they already knew for free about the immediate future of their immigration status, had left barely enough for the plane tickets back to Nigeria.
It had been his plan, and Bukola was going to succeed at it despite initially resisting it. He had done the bars and clubs, and for some reason, the world seemed to have suddenly run out of English slappers looking for some BBC. Someone had suggested Zimbabwean girls, they were said to be crazy about Nigerian boys. But not crazy enough to marry one right away so he could stay in the country. Not when there already was an adequate supply of Nigerian boys with British passports.
He would get kicked out of England, and she would stay. Maybe she would remember him and send him money. After all, he had sacrificed everything he had for the plane tickets and initial tuition fees to get them here in the first place. But, she had only come because he had said their future was together in England. Now, a month ago, he had told her they had no option but for each to make their own way. Maybe if she had stayed on in Lagos, he could have supported her to set something up for him to return to. There were too many maybes.
“Maybe, when you know this guy a bit better, we can see if he can help,” Ade said, his gaze still on the TV.
She felt the wall he was putting up. With a sigh of defeat, Bukola left the flat. Ade looked up at the closed door. She was really going for this plan now, he reflected. After the teary protestations, the foot-stamping declarations in Jesus’ name against it, she seemed not just resigned to her fate, but looking forward to it. He, on the other hand, was feeling the tight claw of time closing in on him like news of a terminal illness.
The TV said it was 7pm. It would be dark outside. Ade was desperate, but not yet so as to not care if people saw him propositioning one of those prostitutes who staggered in a meth-fuelled stupor up and down Union Street. Maybe next week, when he had less than six weeks before his visa expired. But for now, there was still that little bit of shame left. A week’s worth of shame. A man could go a long way with a week’s worth of shame.
Outside, the cold bit into him, a reminder of the harsh brutality of the land he intended to conquer. He turned into Parliament Road. Even on a winter’s evening, it was a hive of activity, with people, mostly Romanian or Kurdish men, milling about in groups outside shops owned by members of their communities. There were a few Nigerian businesses in this part of Middlesbrough, but the last thing Ade needed to see right now was another Nigerian. A week’s sense of shame was worth that much.
At Tesco’s, he withdrew twenty pounds from the ATM and proceeded down Parliament Road. He turned into Union Street, and upped his pace, while trying not to look around like someone looking for something. Traffic, both human and pedestrian, was light. His heart lurched when a police car passed, but it did not stop.
With the social club to his left, he was now approaching the neighbourhood where homes had recently been demolished. There were plans to build nice new houses. If he managed to hire a prostitute for much more than a quickie, he would be around to see that happen.
Happy hunting, Ade.
She slowed down, so he slowed down too. The street lighting could be better, but he could make her out. A nondescript English woman, probably in her thirties, the sort you saw around here and did not give a second glance. Even in the cold, she wore flimsy leggings and a short jacket, her brown hair pulled back with a scrunchie. She did not look like she was on drugs.
“Are you after business at all, darling?” she asked. Her voice sounded sober, hopeful.
“How much?” he asked, curtly.
“Twenty?” she said, the hope in her voice heightened.
“OK, let’s go to my place,” he said, turning to head back up the road. “Where do you live?”
“North Ormesby,” she said, falling in beside him. He reached out and put his arm around her waist. When there was no resistance, he let his arm fall gently till his hand felt the curve of soft yet firm flesh and clenched possessively. It was then that he felt a stirring in his pants. She leaned against him.
“I bet you got a big one in there, darling!” she said, her voice a sultry purr, with a faint hint of tobacco that was by no means unpleasant. “I have to be honest; I am sometimes afraid of you Black guys. The last one, I thought he was going to split me right in the middle!” She laughed, pleased at her own bold remark to a complete stranger.
“Well, there is only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Ade said. “If you treat me right, baby girl, we can make this a permanent arrangement,” he said.
“What, like a relationship?” She looked genuinely surprised.
“Why not?” he said, marvelling at how easy those words came out. His heart fluttered. “That way, you wouldn’t have to be out on the streets like this, and I won’t be so lonely.”
“So, you want to be my knight in shining armour?” There was a touch of cynicism and mockery that Ade strongly thought stood in the way of progress. “You don’t have some gorgeous, educated African princess tucked away somewhere that your family will approve of? You look like a gentleman; you don’t want some scruffy lass you found on the street!”
Of course, why would she believe him? She didn’t know that she had a very good bargaining chip here; her Britishness. A man in Ade’s circumstances could overlook the fact that when he met her, she had probably spent the previous ten minutes gobbling off a chap who had subsisted on benefits all his life, and had never read anything more intricate than the signs on the walls of the Job Centre. Ade could make her the wife of a holder of a Master’s degree in Engineering, while she made him a British resident. They could leave this town and start afresh. Even leave for Canada or Australia.
He had his hand in her leggings now. “Your hand is warm!” she noted. Ade pulled her closer, his hand circumnavigating till his fingers tingled as they found the down of her crotch. God, he wanted her so badly now. He had probably seen her a hundred times in this neighbourhood, and ignored her. But, tonight, he knew he wanted to love her. He did not care anymore if anyone saw. “How much would you charge me if you spent the night?”
“Fifty pounds, darling,” she said, without hesitation.
“OK, let me get some more at the ATM,” he said. They were turning into Parliament Road now. He held her hand as they crossed the road to the other side, where Tesco was situated. He withdrew another thirty pounds. That would leave him with a little over a hundred and fifty, until the next payday.
“Right, let’s go,” he said, stretching out his hand to pull her close to him. “Do you want anything from the shop before we go?”
“Pack of fags?” she said, hopefully.
They walked in. She obtained her cigarettes and a packet of crisps. He paid using his card, and they stepped out. He could not help noticing the guard’s look as they passed him. Don’t worry, my new love, Ade thought, when you’re an engineer’s wife, everyone will respect you! They will only know you as a lady. He put his arm around her.
She stopped abruptly, and seemed to be straining to make out a noise in the distance. “I’m on Parliament Road, near the shop!” she yelled.
“What is it?” Ade asked.
“My friend, Libby, calling me,” she said. “Look, I just need to tell her I am going home with you, OK? She needs to know I am safe. Us working girls look out for each other, you know.”
She darted off across the road, and disappeared into Outram Street. The police car drove past again. It must do frequent circuits of what was one of Middlesbrough’s crime spots, but you never heard of any arrests or anything.
The cold prompted Ade to step back into Tesco’s. The guard barely glanced at him. Nothing like not having a prostitute on your arm to bring you back into respectable society again. It occurred to him that if she came back, she wouldn’t know he had gone into Tesco’s and wouldn’t wait for him. So, he stepped back out.
Of course, she would wait, he told himself. She needed the money. He patted his pocket.
His wallet was gone.
With a start, he patted his other pockets. He looked up and down the street searchingly. It would not take a clairvoyant to tell him that she was quite gone too. By now, it was possible she had taken liberties with his debit card too. Courtesy of the Covid Lockdown of about a year ago, it had a maximum of a hundred and thirty pounds of contactless transactions in a day before it required the user to enter a PIN. When the bank sent him notification of this facility, it had boasted that this was just one of the many ways it was making the lives of its customers easier.
He thought of Bukola. She was probably reeling in her English chap right now with that cultivated balance between alluring mystery and a slight vulnerability, the feminism folded away neatly. And he had just lost more of all he had left.
Glumly, he made his way back home. As he turned into his street, he had the strange feeling he was being watched. He glanced around. There was an old man walking his dog on the other side of the street. Further up, a couple entered their house, the wife seemingly impatient with her husband’s fumbling with the keys.
He reached the door to the flat. It didn’t look like ‘Kola was home yet. He checked his phone. There were three missed calls from the agency, and twenty-three text messages. Good, they had work for him tomorrow. God knew, he needed it. If they could get him a few days this week, today’s losses would be mitigated, and there would be hope that things could turn around.
He called back. It rang for about a minute, then diverted to whoever was on call. When it was finally answered at last, he recognised Gina’s voice. She held the agency’s fort outside business hours.
“Ade, where are you right now?!” She sounded frantic.
“I just got home, what is…?”
“Home Office has been!” she said.
The dreaded name of that ancient department of her Majesty’s Government hit him with such force that he almost fell to the ground. But, he had to hear more.
“Someone shopped us that we use foreign students for more than ten hours a week!” said Gina. “They went through our files!”
He did not want to hear more. But, he had to. “When was this?” he asked.
“About an hour ago. They have everybody’s details!”
“OK, I am getting out of here, I will be in touch!” he said, and hung up. He would go to Leeds that very night. He could lie low in Chapelwhite, and then make a next move. His cousin’s wife’s brother lived there.
With a sinking realisation, he remembered that he had no means to access what little money he had left. He should have linked his account to his phone when he bought it a week ago! Then, like a flash from a distant star, he remembered Bukola. He began to scroll down the phone history till he found her number. There was no answer. Either negotiations for a marriage of convenience had already taken a horizontal dimension, or she was now the unhappy passenger of one of those white vans with IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT emblazoned boldly on every side for the reassurance of a public that no longer believed Britain’s borders were being vigorously protected by the powers that be.
He turned, and began to walk briskly towards Ayresome Road. It was cold, and he wished he had brought gloves.
Image: Cdd20 Pixabay remix