The day Common Entrance came I hated him because it meant smaller space to sleep in, for the five of us living with Big Broda. And lesser food. And more noise.
Season by Season and I had come back later that day. He had finished selling the cooked groundnuts for the day and had even gone to settle accounts with his madam. He had come back to wait for me. It was a week day and I cannot remember which in particular. The bread I was selling in the late evening traffic refused to finish. It meant I couldn’t go home too. When I finally sold the last one to a woman with too much red on her lips in a car that was in harmattan season when I stretched my hand in through the window, I went to wake Season by Season where he had fallen asleep watching me Chase cars. He was on a big table in front of a closed shop. I counted the money from my sales and after I got to six thousand Naira, which was what my oga expected, I tied it in a black nylon. I hid it in my pant because of the boys that did not work but ate two times a day at the bustop. The extra money, which I did not count, I folded and put in my front pocket. It did not make it swell. I had made this extra money by selling some bread at fifty naira extra and some by not giving customers their change before their vehicles moved off when traffic suddenly cleared.
Season by Season asked me how much I had made. I could not talk with my mouth. So I did not say anything. He understood that I did not want to tell him so he kept quite. He helped me carry the empty bread basket when we headed home. Season by Season kept telling me about his day until we entered our compound that has no gate and no fence. He told me about some boys that ate his groundnut to taste it and later refused to buy. He told me that his madam would probably give him mango to hawk next because it will be in season soon.
I listened to him until we got to the end of the passage of rooms facing each other that led to our one room that was a guard house built in the wrong place; at the back of the house instead of the front, and also for the wrong purpose; to be rented out to tenants instead of for a guard to live in. It stood there, separate from the rest of the house. Dark. Alone. Small.
I entered the door first and I saw four people instead of three. I did not pause in shock. I knew it was not Big Broda because it was dark and Big Broda had never allowed them to put on candles unless he or I was around. Because the children were careless and can burn down our house if you give them chance. I tapped the first person my hand reached, it was Primary Three, the only girl that lived with us.
Primary Three told us welcome and asked if I wanted her to put on the light. I grunted something that she knew was a yes. When the light finally came on, I saw the new comer that had come to take some more space in the house. Eat some of our food. Increase the noise. I hated him. Nothing special. Just the way the first wife hates the second wife and she the third wife and she the fourth wife and …
When I could see him well. I saw he could be as old as I am and I got angrier. I hoped Big Broda had told this new comer that I was Small Broda.
I nodded towards him, asking him to tell me who he was. He didn’t understand yet and Season by Season helped me.
“Traffic says who are you?”
The new comer either is stupid or is he is like me, because he just sat there opening and closing his mouth and not saying anything.
“His name is Common Entrance” Cook said. I wanted to slap Cook for answering for new comer but I decided not to because he could add too much pepper in my food when he dished it later this night. But I gave him ‘the look’.
Common Entrance finally said his name and I was happy he was not like me. I don’t remember it now because it is impossible to go back to your proper name after a nickname is given, it becomes the proper name. Since we were all waiting for Broda before Cook can start cooking, I pointed to Season by Season to do the introductions.
He started with himself:
“Me, I am Season by Season, this is Small Broda, his name is Traffic. That is Primary Three she is the only girl, Cook is this one with sharp mouth and the smallest here is Collins, he is the only one we don’t have a nickname for.”
Common Entrance nodded and then shook hands with him. I shook his hands when he offered them to me too. But I shook it the way Big Broda had shaken the hand of one man who came almost a year ago and said he worked for an Hen Gee Ho. Hard. Almost too short. Almost too long. Cold. No smile.
Season by Season asked Common Entrance where he came from. He said he came to do common entrance examinations. I looked at Season by Season first before I looked at Common Entrance. I thought he did not hear the question well. Season by Season repeated it again. He answered again. Then seeing that his answer was confusing us he explained what a common entrance examination was; you write it to enter Secondary School and you need to be in Secondary School to be a doctor because it is what you went to Universe-Tea to do, to become a doctor or engineer or lawyer. Common Entrance said you went to Universe-Tea to become any of those three things and cannot enter it without going to Secondary School and you have to write common entrance examinations to go.
I saw how Cook got the idea of the name. I wondered why he did not add Examination to the name. Then I realized that it would be very long for people who speak to call him Common Entrance Examination, unlike me, it would not be much of a trouble to touch him when I wanted his attention or grunt. Season by Season told him that we didn’t go to school and he wouldn’t be allowed to go. Common Entrance said his mother had told Big Broda to allow him go to school and he had agreed. Primary Three was on Season by Season side in the argument. Collins was nodding to the song of sleep by my side. I was listening to the argument. Cook was biting his fingernails and was on Primary Three’s side who was on Season by Season’s side who was against Common Entrance.
Big Broda came back when Collins was already sleeping. Cook seemed to have finished eating his nails. Common Entrance was ready to cry. Season by Season and Primary Three were arguing about who made more money; his madam the season fruit seller or her madam the tailor. I was thinking of the next day.
He came back like he just went outside to piss. Without saying why he came back so late. Without taking off his shoe. We all said welcome except Collins who was sleeping and I that grunted mine. He entered and fell on the bed that Season by Season quickly pulled down from where it had been standing by the wall. Less space for the children. Another reason to hate Common Entrance. Nothing special. The same way indigenes hate strangers. He asked Cook to go and cook food; yam porridge.
The next morning Big Broda, Common Entrance and I went to see my Oga. I pulled out the money in my pant. I checked the one in my pocket. It was still there. We walked there. It was not very far but Common Entrance told me it was when my Oga and Big Broda were talking. I was happy that I could trek farther than him. One less reason to hate him. Nothing special. The same way a phone hates another one less when its screen is all cracked. When Big Broda and my Oga came out of the house, my Oga asked for the money I sold last night and I gave him the six thousand naira. He gave Big Broda two-thousand five hundred naira and told me to come back in the evening with him, he was pointing at Common Entrance. Big Broda did not go back home with us, he gave me five hundred naira for food. “You and Common Entrance” he said. I wondered how he had quickly adopted the name too.
We went back home. To the one room that stood separate from the main house of rooms facing rooms. The one room that was a guard house built for the wrong reason and at the wrong place. The one room that stood alone. Bright in the sun. Small.
Only Season by Season was in. Primary Three was gone to her tailor-madam shop. Collins to the barber’s shop where he was an apprentice. Cook to his madam’s shop where he sold food and didn’t get any to eat, at least not unless he stole it. Season by Season asked if Common Entrance would be joining me in selling in traffic. I nodded. Common Entrance looked like he was afraid. That was good. Another reason to hate him less. Nothing special.
Will his name be Small Traffic now? I shook my head and gave Season by Season ‘the look’. He became quiet and after sometime, he picked the children’s bucket: a black pail made from what seem like plenty plastic folded into one to make it thicker than normal, heavier, and he began to remove his clothes.
Common Entrance asked me why none of us went to school but he was looking at Season by Season who now had his naked back to us and was searching for the soap and sponge. I did not reply because I could not talk and I did not know why none of us went to school. Season by Season left the room with the empty bucket and soap and sponge and my voice. I just looked at Common Entrance in reply and he kept silent. He told me that he would ask Big Broda to allow him write his common entrance examinations. I looked at him and when I saw that he was serious I told him no. He asked me why and I shook my head again. Big Broda? He asked me and I nodded. I saw he was like the rest of the children.
Each of them always came with an idea of what this place was until they learned, very fast, that it was nothing like they thought. Collins had thought Big Broda was his father. He had spent two days call him daddy and refused starting an apprenticeship. On the third day, Big Broda flogged him with his belt, drew maps of unknown countries across his back and dragged him to the Barber’s shop. Primary Three had thought Big Broda was carrying her to a new school and she kept telling us what her new class, ‘primary three’, would be like. Unlike Collins she did not need to be beaten before she understood that being an apprentice at her tailor madam’s shop was her new life. Season by Season had run away twice after he was brought here. He still carried the mark on his forehead where Big Broda had hit him with the heel of his shoe. Cook had known what he was coming to face. He had been willing to come because home was now a desert where his stepfather tried fruitlessly to plant seeds that refused to grow. His mother had handed him over to Big Broda before his stepfather killed him out of frustration at his own failing to produce his own child.
Common Entrance asked me when we would pick up the bread for the day’s trade. I told him to be patient with my palms turned downwards. Season by Season came inside naked and wet. Soap collected behind his neck and in his ears. I laughed silently and shook my head when Common Entrance wanted to show him. We sat in silence and watched Season by Season wear the same clothes he wore yesterday and had slept in. Some soap had move down his back in a curved line. When he was done, he looked at Common Entrance and then at me. I gave him Fifty Naira from the extra money I made yesterday. He asked me if he should come and meet me when he finished today. I saw how he looked at Common Entrance when he asked this. I wondered if he hated him a bit more. I wanted him to hate him. I shook my head and pointed at Common Entrance and then at myself, we will come home together. He left without saying anything.
After some silence Common Entrance asked if it was time to pick up the bread and I told him to keep quiet. I unrolled the mat and lay down. I stared at the ceiling that was missing. The wood holding the roof slates from crashing on us made cross signs, there were no animals in sight that morning. I remembered the railway tracks and the red cross signs that warned people. I heard Common Entrance crawl beside me and lay down too. I listened to him tell me about how some people in Secondary Schools wore big ugly uniforms and how he didn’t like it. I listened to him tell me how teachers flogged some people in Secondary Schools and how he would not cry if they flogged him a hundred time. I listened and did not reply until I heard his breathing change when he fell asleep.
When I woke up, the sun was hotter than it had been. Common Entrance was sweating. I shook him awake and asked him to go take his bath. He looked around confused and I shook him again and repeated the motion. He finally stood up and removed his clothes. He picked the children’s bucket and the soap and sponge and the voice of the room. Alone in the room, I removed my clothes and picked the Broda bucket; a purple bucket with green stripes and less plastic that made it less thick,less heavy, than the children’s bucket. While I waited for Common Entrance to return with the voice of the room, I counted the money I had with me; nine hundred and fifty Naira with the five hundred Naira that brother had given me for Common Entrance and I.
Two women were talking loudly when Common Entrance came back into the room. Only one had responded to his greeting. I took the wrapper that was nearly torn in half and wrapped it around my waist as I went out the door. The sun was still very hot. The well was deep and the water was cold. The two women had both smiled at me when I passed them. They had smiled at me like I was a helpless baby and they wanted to carry me in their arms. I hated them as I drew water from the well. I hated them a bit more when I came out of the bathroom half naked and wet. Nothing special. The way the poor hates the rich when they say they want to help them but want to actually help their conscience.
Common Entrance asked if we were going to pick the bread now. I was tired of shaking my head so I nodded. He smiled. He was happy. I didn’t know if to hate him more or less for being happy to chase cars in traffic weighted down by bread. I decided not to hate him more or less. Nothing special. The same way you didn’t hate or like a car testing its horn uselessly in traffic.
I slammed the padlock shut when we finished dressing and left the house. I wore the same trousers I wore yesterday with a shirt I wore three days ago that still carried the smell of sweat and exhaust smoke and curse of people who had change that I ran away with. I took my empty bread basket with me.
Common Entrance wore a shirt that the writing on it had faded and a short that crossed his knees. I went to Collins’ Oga’s shop that was not far from our one room that was built for the wrong purpose and in the wrong location. I dropped the key with him and smiled at his boss who smiled back. He smiled like those two women. He smiled at me like I was a baby that he wanted to carry in his arms. I hated him a bit more when we left the shop. Nothing special. Just the same way a child hates an adult’s fake baby voice.
I took Common Entrance to Cook’s Madam’s shop and I asked Cook to serve us. His Madam asked him to put extra beans for us and when I told him to bring eighty Naira bread, she asked him to make it hundred Naira. I did not smile. Common Entrance did. I hated her like I hated the women in the house and like I hated Collins’ Barber Oga too. We ate quickly. I had to wait for Common Entrance to finish. I didn’t check the time because I didn’t have a watch and if I did, I wouldn’t know what it said. The sun was still very hot.
My oga was still sleeping when we got to his house. His wife told us to wait. We sat outside and Common Entrance told me about common entrance examinations and secondary school and universe-tea and doctors and lawyers and engineers. I was happy when my Oga finally came out. His beards were plenty. It made his mouth look small when he was not talking. He was going with us to the bakery. He said, to tell them who he is, he pointed at Common Entrance. I didn’t say anything because I could not talk. Common Entrance didn’t say anything because he didn’t know what to say. The three of us went together to the bakery, my Oga in front, Common Entrance and I behind. He was telling me about common entrance examinations and secondary school and universe-tea and …
He learned fast. Common Entrance. I showed him how to put the bread in people’s face and force them to buy. I showed him how to be quick with change so that the bus will not carry the people away with his bread without them paying. I showed him how to waste time with change when he was holding the money so that the bus will take the people away. I showed him how to dodge cars. I showed him. He learned fast. He sold all his twelve and I sold all my twenty four.
It was late again when we headed home. I showed him the boys who did not do any work but ate twice a day at the bustop and told him to stay away from them. He learned fast.
That night, Season by Season did not speak to us, Common Entrance and I. He hated him a bit more.
The next day was Sunday. Church. Sunday was the only day we all didn’t go to work, only Collins who his oga said he should be coming on Sundays but only in the evening. Big Broda wanted us to be close to God, that is what he had said. So we went to church on Sundays. I helped Common Entrance hide his money with mine. His three thousand Naira with my Six thousand Naira. And the extra we both made.
Common Entrance read the name of the church to us when we got there, Revival Pentecostal Ministry of The Lord Jesus, Mount of Olive. We all laughed. Big Broda went into adult church. We went into children church. We were late. The Sunday School teacher looked at us one after the other as we found seats.
She was teaching about Samuel. Then she started teaching about school. Not Sunday School. Primary School and secondary school. Not universe-tea. Common Entrance was smiling and when she asked if anybody had a question he raised his hand fast fast.
He asked if someone was not allowed to write common entrance examinations to enter secondary school and universe-tea and become a doctor, what can the person do? We; Season by Season, I, Primary Three and Collins opened our mouth in surprise but did not say anything.
The Sunday School teacher said there is NGO and that is their work. I wanted to ask if Hen Gee Ho and NGO were the same thing but I could not talk. Season by Season who has my voice will not look at me since yesterday. She said NGO took care of children who were not well taken care of at home. She said especially if something bad happens to a child, NGO will force the father and mother and parents to give up the child and siblings to them to allow them train them. She said she can get NGO to help any child. Big church was closing so children church will have to close too.
All through the next week, Common Entrance kept talking about common entrance examinations and the Sunday School teacher and NGO. When we came back at night and Big Broda was not back he would say he prayed something bad happens to one of us so that NGO will force Big Broda to give us up. Once, Collins cried when he heard that Big Broda would give us up and Primary Three told Common Entrance to shut up or she would report him to Big Broda.
On Saturday before another church another Sunday School. We were resting from chasing cars in traffic. It was getting darker but not very dark. The traffic was tight and horns were flying in the air. Drivers were cursing. Eating any little space they found. I looked ahead and saw the traffic start clearing up. I told Common Entrance that we should resume our selling. He picked four bread and I too picked four. Two in each hand. We ran for the safe sidelines of the road. The traffic in front of us suddenly cleared. The drivers were cursing. Eating up any little space. There was a large space in front of us. I shoved Common Entrance into it and a car that was trying to eat the space ate him instead. I watched the bread fly in different directions. I dropped the ones I was holding. The driver of the car opened his door and saw Common Entrance lying in front of his car. Blood was coming out of his mouth and ears and nose and eyes. He quickly carried him inside his car and I entered too. People had stopped to look. We drove through the traffic. The driver was cursing and begging and eating up any little space he saw. I looked in the back and saw blood. Common Entrance’s blood. I prayed that something bad will happen to him so that the Sunday School teacher will call NGO, not Hen Gee Ho that could not do anything a year ago. So that NGO will force Big Broda to give us up. So that we can go to school because I wanted to write common entrance examinations and go to secondary school and go to universe-tea and become a doctor or a lawyer or engineer. I knew I would not mind if they gave me big ugly uniforms. I looked in the back and saw Common Entrance. He was not talking. I hated him less. Nothing special. Just the way a child hates a dead child less.