Sandra wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes as she sat wedged between a large woman who sat fanning herself and another woman with a baby that wouldn’t stop crying. She was walking down the hills to a little cottage and there was this apple tree just ahead. It was so near that she could already feel the sweet bitterness brand her tongue as she bit into it and then sharp pain bit into her side and her eyes flew open. It was the older woman next to her prodding at her with her thick stub like fingers.
“What number are you? “ Sandra’s eyes swept over the woman in the blinding red suit screaming with fake diamante and down to the cracked nails peeking out of her expensive leather pumps. If the woman had the money to buy the suit surely she could have gone for a pedicure and maybe gone a size up on the suit. Class is something money really can’t buy. . She flashed a fake smile in reply. “Its 120, Madam.”
Sandra closed her eyes again and went back to the green meadow that she had dreamed of since she had seen it in her picture books as a child. Her mother had said that she was six when she announced to the world that she was going to see the Queen. The women in the yard had laughed and nicknamed her ‘Princess Sandra’ after that. The name had stuck and her passport read Sandra Princess Adeyemi. Those closest to her called her Princess.
Even though her family had struggled to send her to school and University she had learnt to carry herself with poise and confidence. Her clothes might not be from the top boutiques or from abroad but she learnt how to look good with the little she had. . Men found her attractive and she was never short of male admirers but would only go out with those who treated her like a lady. At University young men would ask her out and she would size them up and shake her head, knowing even then that she was destined for the kind of man that could take her places.
“Who do you think you are?” they would ask in scorn.
“Someone who is too good for you.” was her quick reply.
Then she met her Prince. He wasn’t particularly handsome or rich but he had something that made him stand out from all the men she had ever known- he understood her need to be better than everyone and did not try to squash it. After they graduated they moved to Lagos to find work but Felix was an Architect who didn’t know any prominent people to give him any contracts and they were managing on what she brought in as a secondary school teacher. She had not been paid for months and the constant struggles they faced had made her start thinking about England again.
Sandra loved Felix but he was young and had no money and she knew that these prolonged financial struggles would kill any kind of respect she had for him – so England seemed like a good option. Many people had made a good life over there- these same big men that threw money around like water talked of the place as if it was next door.
If she could get a job and make some money she would send for him. She hadn’t spent all these weeks praying and fasting for nothing. Praying for God to forgive her sins and touch the stony hearts of the people at the consulate so they could grant her a six-month visa.
Then she could come over, start working and join the ever-swelling ranks of the underpaid underworld that did the jobs the British wouldn’t do. She didn’t care if it was smelly hard manual labour; she wasn’t afraid of hard work. She was afraid of remaining in this city and watching her mates pass her by in their swanky cars on the way to their mansions. Some people said that England was at risk from terrorists since the invasion of Iraq but couldn’t that happen anywhere?
She had her letter from her cousin in London who had ‘promised’ to pay her fees. She was going to be a student. She had a letter with an offer of admission. That letter and his bank statement bulging with the money he had borrowed from a few friends would do nicely and convince them that she was not going to need any money from the great people of Britain. She had never accepted handouts from anyone all her life.
Then one night she had decided to do something about making her dream reality.
She wiped her brow. The fan was on full blast but it didn’t matter. She checked her folder of documents. Her School Certificates, her University degree…testimonials, references from her employers, the money for her visa application.
A month ago she had gone to City Avenue and got picked up by a rich businessman who had paid her well for her reluctant favours. Afterwards she had stumbled onto a bus, got home and stayed in the bathroom pouring hot water over herself as she scrubbed herself raw. Getting back to the little room she had watched Felix sleeping on the sofa like an innocent baby, and left the food he had prepared untouched.
Next morning she was up at five, praying like a mad woman for forgiveness to come and take away the guilt and disgust that refused to leave like a troublesome mother in law. Her whole idea of what was right and wrong was shifting like a boat caught in a devastating tide and she could not understand why. After all it wasn’t any big deal- everyone did it according to Pat.
“Look at our colleagues” Pat had laughed flicking her long artificial hair off her face. “Even our snooty Headmistress – she has a man friend who is helping her. How do you think she brought that new car – on our meagre salaries? You must be kidding!”
So when Felix woke up and she told him how Pat had decided to lend her money for the visa, her voice was steady and sure.
Felix stood like a stone staring at her, the only thing moving the muscles in his neck. “I don’t want you to take anything from that woman!”
She touched his cheek and let her eyes promise the world. “Look, I know you don’t like her but she is a good person. It’s just a loan and I will pay it back.”
He hissed. “She doesn’t have a heart. It was replaced by a calculator long time ago.” His eyes never left hers. “You will pay it back alright. I hope you don’t lose your soul in the process.”
She followed him and tried to lighten the air by cooking his favourite meal and all the while she kept asking herself. Does he know? Did he see it in a dream?
Felix must never know. He would blame it on Pat but it hadn’t been her gone to City Avenue with her own legs and let a man pick her up for money.
A few days later during a tender moment Felix had kissed her hard and long and called her his little princess. His eyes had gone all funny like the way men do when they want a woman and she had run off to vomit in the back yard. If he knew what she had let that beast do to her he would never forgive her. Felix was good and patient and kind. The man she had gone with was cruel, his lip curling in contempt as he flung the wad of money at her and drove off in his 4 by 4.
These Big Men – they thought they owned the world and one day she would show all of them. She would take this money and go to England and make it Big – so Big that when she came back to Lagos with enough money to buy a mansion and several 4 by 4s. As for Felix – he was going to do well too- he had no choice.
Felix stood with her as her stomach twisted around like a barber’s chair.
“Princess ….are you alright?” He handed her a damp towel to wipe her face.
Once they approved this visa she would make it up to him by being the best wife ever. She wouldn’t argue with him or try and make him do what he didn’t want to do. She would never let him down again. She sighed. “Thank God – it’s not a baby – it must have been something I ate.” She closed her eyes.
Felix had shrugged, “If the baby had come God would provide somehow but since that is not the case – no harm done. “. Uncomplicated – that was Felix. Everything was black or white but she knew that life had shades of grey sometimes. She was seeing this grey haze when she went to City Avenue.
It wasn’t just getting to England that had made her go with that man. She also had Family Commitments. Two of them.
Her widowed mother was old and demanding. “Your brother’s school fees need to be paid. The University are threatening to kick them out but I know God will provide this money.” Princess felt if that was the case why didn’t Mama go and tell Him and not phone her every day with these problems. She sighed. “Don’t worry Mama – I will sort something out.”
Felix had told her she was a slave to her family and she feared he might be right.
“They are men in their twenties – by their age I was working and supporting myself!” She had said nothing because she knew he was right. Let them just graduate and take care of Mama.
Where did her family think she would get this money? Did they know or care? What would they say if they knew about City Avenue or would they just assume the ignorance of the dead as long as they got what they wanted like so many others did living off the money their children earned from living very much below their potential in some far flung land for peanuts.
Some days later she phoned Pat and told her about how she was wrestling with what she had done and been told to grow up and get over it. She merely sold what she had to get to get what she wanted – and her family were better off for it.
She had known Pat since they were in Form One. They had gone their separate ways afterwards and then ended up working in the same school. It was amazing – Pat whose body used to be tattooed with eczema transformed into this sophisticated beauty who was now dating a rich married financier.
“ What about his wife?” she had asked.
Pat had just laughed. “How long have you been living in Lagos?”
“About a year.”
“Stick around. You will soon understand what life is about.”
The man was rich, had properties abroad and had given her a car. He had promised to give her enough to open a supermarket so that she could leave this ‘stupid’ teaching job. Pat an Economics graduate lived what she had been taught. Life was about demand and supply. She wanted money and the luxuries that he could provide and he wanted a young woman to be his ‘second’ wife.
Pat said that if she was wise Felix never needed to know about City Avenue. She had to be clever and keep her mouth shut.
“Even when you are alone together like this “she held her hands together like she was praying. “ You mustn’t tell him. You know how men are about such things. Did you tell him that I agreed to lend you the money?”
Sandra dare not think about what Felix would do if he knew the truth. She was just glad she had been careful and protected herself, and him. It would never ever happen again. She would swear on her Fathers grave if necessary.
Pat laughed. “He should even be glad that you are prepared to stay with a small boy like him when his mates are riding Lexus and living in the posh suburbs of the city. I’ve always thought you deserve more – you are a beautiful girl – my boyfriend knows some really cool guys with money- I could introduce you.” She gave her a long look and wagged her bejewelled crimson nail at her. “We are just the same when it comes down to it. We both know how to use our bodies to get what we want if the price is right and you need to sell your self to the highest bidder.”
When she got back from work and saw that her clothes had been washed, ironed and neatly stacked on the bed and that Felix had prepared a pot of chicken stew she realised how blessed she was to have a man who loved her and how close she had come to throwing it all away. Pat had never met a man like him and if she had she wouldn’t stay with that old man no matter how rich he was.
What’s done was done and in the future she would never ever have to go back to such sordid ways of sorting out her personal finances. Felix was a decent man and had proved it by ignoring his family and sticking with her even though she was from another tribe and he deserved a good wife and she would not disappoint him.
Sandra watched people come and go from the interview room. Some danced with joy while some put their hands on their heads and wept. They all had one thing in common. Rich or poor. Madam or Pepper seller. Clerk or houseboy – they wanted to get to England whether it was for business, a family occasion, their education or health . The England of her dreams was a green and pleasant land embroidered with flowers of every name and colour imaginable on emerald hills that surrounded churches and famous buildings of pomp and pageantry that stood in colonial majesty. Of a place where having three square meals a day, getting to work and constant supplies of electricity and water weren’t just preserves of the rich and corrupt.
She would work hard and pay for Felix to come over. He would get a good Architects job and they would get married and have 3 children who would speak perfect English as if they were relatives of the Queen of England. She and Felix would be so successful so that Pat would see that she hadn’t made a mistake by marrying the man she loved.
Then she saw Felix coming back from the Gents. It was so nice he had taken a day off work to stay with her while she waited for her interview. He had had a job offer a few days ago and she was happy for him – at least he wouldn’t starve when she went to London. He came over and held her hands and started speaking and she stared at him in horror. Then she was shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She could hear herself shouting ugly hurtful words and heard his voice pleading with her to stop, to reconsider. He wasn’t going to let her prostitute herself in England for him.
“Who said anything about prostituting myself? “ Did he know about City Avenue? “I’m going there to work. After all the plans we had made together …you are coming out with this crap!”
Felix eyes were red. “I don’t want you to go! I have just got a new job here with good money and there are lots of opportunities here for both of us. I have a friend who works in an International school in town and he says there are vacancies for teachers. I know about the UK and how people have to work two three jobs so that their relations can survive here. I don’t want to live like that – its bad enough here. God help me I love you woman! I want to look after you and give you the best life here – if you will let me.” Felix threw his hands in the air.
Sandra whispered through her teeth. “We have already discussed this – why on earth are you changing your mind now?” She could hear someone on the queue chuckle and another louder voice advising them to take their business outside. She looked around at the businesswoman who she had spoken with earlier on the queue.
Miss Sparkly was shaking her head and putting on a posh tone, maybe fuelled by the fact that she was in the British Embassy. “It is not good to put all this dirty linen out for the public to see like this. “
Sandra eyes flashed in her direction. “You had better mind your own load Madam. What concerns the meat seller with the price of fish eh? Mind your own business.” She hissed.
There were more laughs from the queue glad of this diversion to take away the hours of just sitting and worrying. A white woman came out of the inner office and walked towards them shaking her head. “I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave or I will call security…”
“See now…” Sandra threw her hands up in Felix’s direction. “See what you’ve caused! See how people are looking at us.””
Felix was shouting now. “I have fought with my whole family just to be with you and I won’t stand by and let you dictate my future to me! This is your dream and it beginning to change you into something else.…” He wrenched the folder with her documents from her and they struggled. He was stronger and got them away from her and ran out.
She stood routed to the spot not really believing that he had just walked out with her precious documents. “Felix! Come back…are you totally crazy?” she shouted. ” She had been in the queue since morning and knew he could make her lose her place going to look for him. She hoped she could find him in time. He was probably sulking downstairs in the lobby.
“I’m coming back. I have my ticket number,” she said to the woman behind her ignoring the looks of derision and the shaking heads of those on the queue she pushed past them and ran down the stairs. If he couldn’t support her dream he did not deserve to be part of her future.
She was on the ground floor looking around for him when the world exploded into bits around her.
Something picked her up and slammed her against the cold hard floor, debris of wood, glass; metal swirled around her; into her mouth, her eyes. She could see part of the front desk sticking out of a man’s chest and in fascination she watched the blood trickle out of his mouth as her green and pleasant dream shattered into little pieces.
Felix was standing outside the consulate when he heard an unearthly bang. Then the whole place shook and flames sprouted from the windows. His first thoughts were for the girl he left inside hanging onto to her ticket and yelling at him. He rang back but the flames and smoke stopped him.
A man was screaming blood pouring out from his eyes. “We didn’t bomb any one!”
It couldn’t happen here could it? Felix put his hands on his head in total defeat as she watched flames springing out of the consulate.
A scream tore the air. Then more shouts followed a woman’s crying, shattering the silence of those who would never laugh, love or go to England to make money. People like the girl he loved. A man was saying that some people were alive. Bloodstained and limping they were led out and he prayed she might be one of them.
Then he saw this blood stained girl limping out and ran over to catch her before she fell.
“Felix…. what happened? There is fire everywhere…. what about all those people in there on the 2nd floor.” Sandra looked with horror at the inferno. The woman with the baby…the fat woman in the red diamante skirt suit?
He gathered her close and wept. “Princess. My Princess. I’m so glad. I thought I had lost you.”
They held each other tight. Sandra closed her eyes.
They were still alive and saw was her dream. Maybe this was why God had spared her life so that when this madness was past and the two big men declared the war on terror over …she and Felix would come back and try again, after all England would always be there…Green, pleasant and peaceful.