Central Hotelby Victor Ehikhamenor
I threw my biro high into the air and watched it drift off to the bush behind our exam hall. Pako kissed his biro, flipped it twice between his fingers and dropped it inside his pocket like John Wayne with his pistols. We'd just finished our last West Africa Examination Council paper and we were so excited that there would be no more secondary school for us. We had thought of doing so many things on our last day of school, including deflating the tires of our math teacher's Peugeot 404. That idea was Pako's, my friend who got more punishment than anyone else from this teacher during the five years in school.
I dissuaded Pako because our final result could be withheld if we were caught. I did not want anything to stop me from going to the university, not after our principal had said it was the only door that led out of our dying village. Not that Pako cared: He was headed for the army. He had sworn by his late father's name that nothing would stop him from attending the Nigeria Defense Academy in Kaduna — 'I will become an officer and a gentleman and will not hesitate to deal with any bloody civilian that crosses my path', he'd boast. He already had a soldier's swagger, and his hero was a civil war legend, the merciless Colonel Black Scorpion.
After pocketing his biro, Pako started marching and then burst into a crazy race around the football field with his white uniform wrapped round his head like a Hausa sultan. I ran after him, not that I could catch him in a real race: Pako Okoduwa was the cheetah of our school
"We are free — Pako, no more having to listen to any body. We are men now," I yelled at him.
Pako stopped and gave me a menacing look; I thought he was going to sand me.
"Deboy who told you we are now men? How many girls have kissed you since Josephine in Primary Six — I say how many girls don even reply your love letters wey you dey write every day? Don't be silly my friend. Nonsense and ingredient! You are not a man until you are a man — haven't you heard Jospaco say that?" He spat an imaginary particle at the bamboo goal post he was holding.
Everything Pako heard was from Jospaco, the bicycle repairer who owned a betting shop, a dusty provision store and a photographic studio. His shop at Ughele Road was a beehive of activities and gossip for villagers. Since Pako helped him repair bicycles sometimes, he got to hear all the adult talk.
"Black Scorpion, how do we become men? Let's talk and stop behaving like a civilian," when I wanted Pako's full attention, I addressed him as if he was already in the army.
"To become a man is not a day's job. But Jospaco said if a boy wants to be a man right quick he should visit Central Hotel at Uromi with a few naira in his pockets," he winked at me "you know worram saying?" Pako said in his recently acquired fake American accent.
He had been Michael Corleone for a whole month after we watched The Godfather in Aunty Vero's new VCR. We had played the movie more than one hundred times, even though we were reading for WAEC. Aunty Vero, my father's younger sister who is as beautiful as mamiwater, always left the keys to her house with me whenever she travelled to Benin City for business. Pako who was always begging me to play Idi Amin Dada of Uganda fell in love with The Godfather from the first day we saw it.
"Ok ok, how do we become men — what else did Jospaco say?" I asked him as he was putting his shirt back on.
Pako adjusted an invisible tie and angled his eyes as a hawk; I knew the next words were definitely going to be from The Godfather.
"This weekend we'll go out. We'll go to the city, see a show and have dinner, I promise." Michael Corleone couldn't have said it better. He loved the Godfather's son's decisiveness and the fact that he always took charge in sticky situations. One time I asked him why the Godfather gave Michael so much power, and Pako shot at me, "Nobody gives anybody power, there is power floating everywhere, you just grab as much as you can Deboy." Everything fell into perspective for me like a complicated mathematical equation understood.
"Black Scorpion, be serious abeg. Yarn me more about this Central Hotel." I had heard about it somewhere, my information was very sketchy and I couldn't even remember from whose mouth I heard about the hotel.
Pako in his restlessness was kicking a rotten orange and raising dust in the process. There was a certain anti-climax that came with finishing secondary school, I realized. What do we do now? Who do we play tricks on and how do we sell the remaining pages of naked white women from the Playboy magazine I stole from Uncle Yaya, who visited from America? We had only sold thirtyfive pages to fellow students before the exam timetable came out and boys were no longer interested in things of the flesh. We still had an excess of about a hundred pages of gorgeous shameless oyinbo girls showing everything to the whole world. There was also the magical pen I took from Uncle Yaya's jacket — a pen that revealed a naked white woman inside a liquid when you turn it upside down and suddenly shows her fully dressed when turned again. Our math teacher, who sneaked up on our show behind the library, seized the pen. Pako said the azagbon-azenlimin was enjoying the pen in his house because we were never called to the principal's office to explain where we got the naked pen from. We couldn't have had a good explanation to exonerate us or make Uncle Yaya look good in the principal's eyes, so it was a good loss.
Uncle Yaya, who left home before I was born, suddenly showed up one day in a big American car called Dodge. A chalk-white woman called Mango, who was thinner than over-carved sculpture, accompanied him. The entire village went crazy and welcomed him with different dances as the first one to have gone to America and found his way back to the village. I became the king of boys; even Pako began to behave like a civilian towards me. He carried bags for the chain-smoking white woman and never once complained about Mango, a photographer, who was only interested in taking pictures of wrinkled village women: old women whose faces looked like squeezed black ribbon papers in a typist's waste paper basket. Pako even made sure no village kid jokingly referred to my uncle's white woman as mangoes plucked along farm road. It was one of the bags Uncle Yaya kept in Aunty Vero's room that contained five Playboy magazines. I only took one. While Uncle Yaya was away with Mango in search of wrinkled village women, I was feeding my eyes on young naked white girls. When I told Pako about the treasure the next day, he told me how to pick one from the middle of the pack, stuff it inside my shirt, and bring it to our hideout behind our house.
"White girls, white girls — these white people. You see life? Deboy you see life; see how to live a good life, not this village life where you cannot even tell a girl 'excuse me dance' without been called all kinds of animal's name or spat upon. You see life — Deboy you see life?" Pako kept repeating himself while clenching his legs together. My voice had long gone, dried of saliva, so I couldn't respond to Pako's hollering. My loin was on fire by the time we hid the magazine in the hollow of a dead cocoa tree. I prayed no one noticed the wetness I felt.
When Uncle Yaya and Mango left and he did not raise any alarm about a missing magazine and magical pen, Pako and I went to business. We took the magazine to school and charged between 1 and 5 kobo to view a page depending on the girl's acrobatic pose. But Pako insisted that we charge 50 kobo for the center page called Play Mate of The Month. After all, how much was Lagos Weekend or Drum magazine? To avoid being caught by the principal and reduce our number of wet dreams, we decided to just cannibalize the magazine and sold the pages off, keeping some critical poses for ourselves.
"Jospaco said there are women in Central Hotel as beautiful as the girls in Drum magazines. You don't have to speak big grammar with them; the only language the girls there understand is money. Whether you are old or young, they are willing to be your girlfriend and have good time with you for a short time. As for boys, buy a girl Star beer and a stick of Gold Leaf and she is ready to make you a man," Pako delivered his speech like the day my principal told us about university life.
"Pako, I have some money. Aunty Vero gave me ten naira last week and if you add that to the money we made from our magazine sales, I think we can go and become men this weekend."
"Correct correct — now you are talking good talk, Deboy. We will show them at Central Hotel that we are men not boys," Pako was foaming with excitement, which was rare.
"Are you working at Jospaco's this Saturday?" I asked.
"Dem swear for me? You don ever see who dem put sugar for im mouth e go say na Nivaquin im want? The man no dey even pay me; I just dey go there for the gossip. Jospaco no be serious man, na civilian," Pako denied Jospaco faster than Peter denied Jesus.
I met Aunty Vero visiting from Benin when I got home. She visited every two weeks for a few days and left on Friday afternoons. She had neither husband nor children. She called me her son and showered me with gifts and money, even to the extent of giving me the keys to the four-bedroom flat she built behind my father's house. My mother who objected to everything under the sun did not raise a voice when she said I was the one to throw the last sand on her grave when she joined the ancestors. My mother liked Aunty Vero and I could not say the same for my father, who kept a stern face whenever Aunty Vero was around and making verbal wills. Aunty Vero's beauty was the kind that people attributed to sea creatures. Many village men with nicknames like Ababysugar, Arena, Karaoke, Area Papa, Emilo Lagoon, Krobo and many others would come and drink White Horse whisky, cracking adult jokes and my aunty would laugh till tears came from her eyes. She drank as much whisky as the men and even smoked one or two sticks of St. Moritz.
"Big man, big man!" which was how Aunty Vero called me "you don ready for university now? I hear say you don graduate for grammar school," she gave me a bear hug and her Opium perfume filled my nose as if I was walking in a garden of Queen of the Night flower.
"Yes aunty — today was my last exam. I will be going to Ubiaja for JAMB forms next week," I said.
"Read o — that na the only thing wey I want from you o. Ehen, mentosemenfo o. Just read. I get money to send you to London university if na London you wan go. Mentorsemenfo." She tapped her chest with her open palm vigorously; her gold wristwatch and expensive ivie beads shook "Imen! Me, this Veronica wey you see so, I don see life my pikin. But I get money and I nor dey fear to spend am for my brother pikin head. I know say you go do me better when the good lord say make I come join am. You go give me better burial," she laughed, sounding like a new Suzuki 100 motorcycle before her mild sniffling started.
Aunty Vero wiped her sweaty brow and tears with the tip of her expensive George wrapper. The house was hot because the generator was not on and the fans did not fan. Also covered silently in a corner with multi-colored antimacassar were her TV and VCR that made my father's old Grundig radiogram looked like an early man's toolbox. If the parlor was not swamped tonight, I will watch The Godfather, I needed some of Michael Corleone's swagger before I go to Central Hotel, I thought. I thanked Aunty Vero for her kindness and care. When her sweating continued, I went to the back of the house to start the generator. By the time I came back to the parlor, the KDK standing fan was in full swing and Aunty Vero was already fast asleep on the couch with a soft snore escaping from her parted painted lips as if she had been sleep deprived for days. Staring down on her was Jesus Christ from an old 1982 almanac.
Pako dressed as if he was going for a John Player Gold Leaf disco competition. He had a long multi-coloured polyester shirt with collars the size of cocoyam leaves. His trousers were tight at the waist and flared out at the base. Papingo De Tailor made the labu trousers for him last Christmas. As for his Joseph-in-the-bible coloured shirt, only God knew where Pako pulled it from. The bandana that formed a triangular patch around his neck made him look like a sacrifice headed for Amese shrine. Pako found it difficult to walk with the platform high-heel shoes he wore — he had gummed an extra inch to the already high heels like that of Vasco Degrado, the ex-disco champion that relocated from Lagos to the village. The ex-disco champion's pass time was now to smoke morocco all day long while dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller in his very high heels. Nobody dared stare at Vasco Degrado when he was in his dancing mode, because rumor had it that he was also a karate champion who had broken many jaws like Samson in the Bible. Not even Pako messed with Vasco Degrado, but today Pako dressed almost like the crazy man from Lagos.
"You never ready? Deboy what are you waiting for na — abi you are not going again — and stop staring at me like that, I am not a cinema," Pako said as soon as he settled on Aunty Vero's favorite cushion chair. We had decided to start the journey away from my father's house; we did not want my over-sabi mother asking too many questions. I had already told her we were going to a disco party in the next village where a bunch of students were celebrating their graduation. But with the way Pako was dressed, as if he stepped out of an American movie, we had to even be more careful not to raise eyebrows in a nosy village.
Pako's dressing made it difficult for me to choose what to wear. But I went for a Wrangler jeans and a Crazy Horse blue shirt. I wore Nike sneakers and finished off my dressing with a cap that had Kagool written on it. I turned my cap sideways and became King Grandmaster Flash, I smiled.
"Boy yoyo! Americana! Yankee boy — Now we are ready," Pako raised his two fingers, victory sign for us.
"I look cool man…" I said and sprayed a little bit of Aunty Vero's Opium perfume under my armpit.
"Deboy please give me some of that scent na, is it only you that want to enjoy the sweet mamas? I want to smell good too."
"I don't want us to finish this perfume, she will know. You can rub small from the Saturday Night powder."
"Stop behaving like civilian and give me that perfume. Aunty Vero has enough money to buy a carton of perfume if she want."
I did not feel like wasting any more time so I gave the bottle to Pako, who sprayed it on every part of his body as if he was exorcising he-goat smell from his body.
Under normal circumstance we would have waited for Dingo, the pickup driver that picked passengers from Uwessan village to Uromi, at Jospaco's store front. But today, Pako said we should avoid Jospaco because the man was an uzonta, an effective interrogator. You don't even want to know what he did to his son, Pepeyo, when he got a confession from the boy that he smoked hemp with Vasco Degrado. As Pako narrated it, Jospaco called Pepeyo inside the house and said "This morocco sweet well well" and whipped the boy silly with a bicycle chain. Now the boy's back looked like railway tracks.
We cut through a bush path to the next village, avoiding pig and goat shit along the tiny route. As luck would have it, we met Dingo at the motor park smoking a cigarette from the driver's seat. Okuta, his motor-boy, was eating banana and ground nuts from the tail board of the old rusty pickup. The boy who needed no provocation before a fight had red eyes. Pako was the only boy who had put him in his place in primary school, by feeding him hot sand during an epic fight. So he respected Pako wherever he saw him.
"Pako Nigeria Limited! Where una dey go wey una deck up like American boys?" Okuta asked.
"We wan go greet our friend for Uromi, how far?" Pako lied.
"Man nor die man nor rotten. Una go siddon for front, you nor want make market women spoil this your deckies," Okuta offered us the front seat of the Peugeot 404 pickup, usually reserved for men like Jospaco, Babylove, Ababysugar, Belasco De Hill, Arena and others.
"Correct guy. You are too much Okuta, your own nor go ever spoil," Pako thanked him.
"Oga Deboy, you nor dey greet person — who dress like Americana nor dey know im senior again? Na wa for this world o," Okuta said jokingly before throwing the last bit of groundnuts in his mouth and wiped his hands on his already filthy trousers.
Dingo gave Okuta half of the cigarette he was smoking and the motor-boy broke into a small song, did a small, excited dance and tapped on the tail board. Two women came with their baskets full of smoked fish and Okuta helped them load their wares in the back. Me and Pako greeted Dingo and sat in the front seat.
"You boys smell like Lagos ashawo — where are we off to?" The ex-soldier now turned taxi driver teased us.
"We are going to see one of our school mates at Uromi sir," Pako answered for us, but I was expecting him to quote one of his favorite Michael Corleone's lines: All right. This one time I'll let you ask me about my affairs. I guess Pako did not want anything that would ruin our trip.
"Alright — cowboys. Bha feke le o!" Of course, we knew to be careful.
Things had started getting a bit blurry by the time we came down from Dingo's pickup at Mobil Petro station near Sunday Barber's shop. Pako did not have to ask how to get to Central Hotel because he had somehow extracted that information from Jospaco. So we cut through Mission Road, past St. Camillus Hospital. I did a sign of the cross when we walked past St. Anthony Catholic Church, where the statue of Jesus Christ was watching over all sinners, or those that were about to sin.
"Zenzele zenzele zenzele…kie kie kie…"
The bizarre music sneaked up on us from the left, near a building material shop. It was from the most famous mad woman, Seven Sisters, in Uromi. Her long hair was matted with sand and dust making her head look like she was carrying snakes. Seven Sisters black brassiere was also very dirty, one of the straps had cut off revealing one breast. She had no blouse on but her neck was filled with multiple colourful beads. She was inching near us and I almost wanted to run, but Pako stood his ground and held her stare and my hand — to stay still.
"Brothers, give me money to chop — fine brothers small thing for Seven Sisters to chop," she begged.
"Get away from here — you this witch woman. Azagbon azenlimin! Get out or I will break your witch head!" The owner of the building material cursed her and threatened her with a hammer and she ran away, singing zenzele zenzele and laughing at the same time. And I was shivering at the sudden attack.
Central Hotel was an old building with a few broken louvers and rusty burglary proof. The brown wall painting was peeling at the far right side. A bed of yellow, white and red frangipani surrounded the veranda. The fresh green leaves of an old pumpkin formed a cool shade. On the face board of the bungalow were written in fading red and blue colour CENTR L H TEL UROMI. The A and O had faded away. I looked at Pako, who was now drenched in sweat. I, too, was dripping with sweat.
Before we stepped into the hotel, I noticed Pako had changed his style of walking like Vasco Degrado. The Chinese Capsule effect was wearing off on me, but it seemed Pako popped more than our usual two. He noisily parted the bead curtain in the entrance to the hotel and we found ourselves in a dimly lit bar. The colour of our clothes changed because of the mercury fluorescent tube. The stale smell of beer and cigarette attacked my senses like a dirty slap. I almost held my nose but when I realized Pako was not bothered by the smell at all, but trying to adjust his eyes to the dark bar, I too tried to get a clear picture of the people in the bar. The last person I wanted to see was Sergeant May from our village who was rumored to spend all his pension money in Central. My father said when you stayed long enough in the dark; you begin to see clearly, he was right. A dandy-looking man was seated in one of the low cushion chairs while a girl fed him fried meat and Star beer from his tumbler. Now that is what I am talking about, I thought.
Pako chose a spot so far away in a secluded corner of the bar.
"Why did you choose this position, we can barely see any action from here," I shouted above the loud music of Bob Marley that was pouring out from the speakers behind us.
"Don't behave like a civilian here o, Deboy. Did you not see where Michael Corleone sat when he went to that restaurant?"
I wanted to scream that we were at Uromi in Nigeria not a movie in America. But I was getting knots inside my stomach, so I allowed him to take charge as usual.
"Wetin you go drink?" Pako asked me. Before I could answer, a waiter descended on us, with her enormous self.
"Goodafoon sahs. Una welcome, wetin make I bring?" She was as ugly as sin and the size of the drum we used to collect rainwater.
"Bring us two cold bottles of Star Lager beer and fried goat meat and two sticks of St. Moritz, hurry," Pako responded as if he had rehearsed it all his life or like something he did every Saturday. Meanwhile my heart was trying to force itself out of my mouth.
I looked up to steady myself and I could not tell if it was my eyes or the ceiling fan that was so fast. From the corner of my eyes, the waiter wobbled away and disappeared into another section of the hotel. Why they called it a hotel beats me, it was just a little bigger than Aunty Vero's house, except for the glass cabinet behind the bar man with all kinds of hard drinks.
"Should we be smoking so openly, what if somebody that knows us come in?" I asked Pako, nervously.
"Then that somebody will have to explain himself or herself to us too — we are in the jungle now. No master. No servant. Relax and stop behaving like a bloody civilian," Pako finally loosened the bandana around his neck and began to massage his throat. He wiped his brow with the red bandana, which he stole from Mango, which I am sure the white woman would be missing.
The waiter returned with a tray with the face of General Murtala Mohammed painted on it. In it were two bottles of cold Star shaking and clanging with the who-send-you tumblers. The two pieces of fried goat meat rested on a saucer like dried kola nuts. Before we opened our drinks, a couple appeared through a door — the woman laughing was a bit older than the man following her. They went to the barman who was now smiling like a major fool. The girl that was feeding the man earlier stood up and held the man's hand while they disappeared through the same door; the door of apparent pleasure had a spring so it closed right away.
Pako opened our drinks with his teeth even though there was a bottle opener on the tray. The barman looked at us after the other customers got their wish. Pako stood up and went straight to him; it was like another spirit had possessed him. Now the bar was getting full and Fela was playing Zombie in place of Bob Marley. I could not hear what Pako was discussing with the barman, but I saw Pako removed money from his pocket and placed it in front of the barman who snapped it away like chameleon swallowing a fly. Pako walked back and sat down as if nothing had happened.
"What was that, why did you pay him and don't you dare give me a line from The Godfather or else…" The beer was so cold that it did not only shoot arrows into my upper palate, it went straight to my nerves.
Pako laughed out so loud, a group of four girls who came through the mysterious door looked at our table. " There are negotiations being made that are going to answer all of your questions and solve all of your problems. That's all I can tell you right now." Instead of using the tumbler to drink his beer, Pako held the bottle by its neck and drank it down to the foams. He released a loud belch and took one stick of cigarette, tapped the filter on his thumb and lit it up. He coughed because he dragged it too hard, and his eyes reddened.
"Ok let me be serious. The barman's name is Mr. Bella. Mr. Bella there said I should go to room 5 and you should go to room 6. He will tell the mamas there that we are cowboys from out of town, and we have plenty mula to spend this wonderful Saturday afternoon." Pako words had started to slur, he was getting slightly drunk.
I nodded and stared at my beer as if I was seeing the bottle for the first time. Then I grabbed it too and drained the entire content without using my who-send-you. I lit my cigarette and the gold ring around it shone like a wedding ring.
"Soja soja! Now that is how to be a man. I am sure you are ready for action?"
Though my head had started to spin like a bicycle tire in Jospaco's shop, I was steady enough and ready to be a man at Central Hotel. I told Pako I was more than ready.
"Give me ten naira there, abeg. I don't want any surprise when I go inside."
Reluctantly I gave him ten naira and I was left with twenty naira.
The smell from the corridor was stronger than the one in the bar. It had the pungency of a butcher's shop washed with Izal and the smell of alum was strong. I felt my entire stomach rushing to my mouth. I stopped by door number one or eleven.
I managed to get to door number four, but I forgot which door Pako had allocated to me and he had already disappeared into one of the rooms. So I knocked on the door in front of me and a voice said, "come in if you are handsome and rich." If I was not drunk, I would have said I had heard that voice before.
A well-known sweet smell different from the face-me-i-face-you corridor came in from the door. There was also the music of Rex Lawson coming from the dark room. The woman had her back to the door because she was making up the small Vono bed. I stepped into the tiny room; a red bulb dangled from the low ceiling. As she turned and stared at me fully, she started screaming at the top of her voice. Her cry was sorrowful. The room was too dark for me to really see what the problem was and all I could hear was 'Uwessan Uwessan Uwessan '. The bedlam overwhelmed me, and I closed my eyes and couldn't tell why the voice sounded like Aunty Vero's or why she was screaming the name of our village.
Then the shouting stopped as suddenly as it started, and I felt a woman's hands embracing me, and the strong fresh smell of Opium perfume was unmistakable. I kept my eyes closed and swam in space.