With her sandals in one hand and fake Louis Vuitton handbag in the other, Nzage skipped along the waterlogged track. The sun was already bright in the early morning sky. Men and women weaved past in single file; the day-shifters, on their way to the main road to catch the work busses. They stared as she jumped over the puddles like a child. Still drunk from the night before, she couldn’t have cared less.
As she approached her shack, she stopped skipping. The door was half open. She ran over, finding the padlock trampled into the mud, its shank cut clean through. With her heart now in her throat, she pushed the door all the way open. Her clothes were strewn across the ground and the tin containing her savings in was lying in the corner. She slammed the door behind her, ran over and brought the tin across to the bed. Daylight coming in through gaps in the mortar of the brick walls gave her just enough light to see.
‘Please’ she said, looking up, ‘if you’re listening to me, don’t do this, not again.’
The springs of the mattress dug into her as she sat down. With tears blurring her vision she thumbed over the tin’s jagged edge. It dropped with a hollow and empty clang. She got up, tears of rage streaming down her face and kicked the clothes out from under her feet.
‘Fuck this place,’ she shouted, ‘fuck this city!’
Something crunched under her foot and she shot back to the bed screaming in agony. Her toe was bleeding. A shard of glass stuck from it. She pulled the shard out and gripped her toe to stop the blood. An oil lamp poked out from under a sweater, its glass chimney shattered. Exhausted and feeling sick, she tied a stocking around her toe and foot and sank back on the worn mattress.
She awoke in darkness and it her took a while to realise it was night. She fumbled for her bag and got her lighter out. Using its flame she found the broken oil lamp and lit it, careful to avoid the jagged glass. It cast a soft flickering bronze about the room.
Her clothes were all over the floor, glass shards stick into the soil and the sight of the empty tin had her clenching her fists, fighting the need to cry again. She checked the time on her phone, it was after ten. I still have time, she thought. Gathering the clothes on the bed, she trawled quickly through them, throwing the dirtiest back on the ground and laying the cleanest out flat. A full-length mirror stood at the corner of the hut. She undressed in its gaze, looking at herself as she ran her hands over her dark skin, up her slender thighs and flat stomach to her large breasts, cupping them together and pouting her lips.
‘Welcome to Africa,’ she said, and spat on the red soil.
A little later, dressed in a white corset and black mini skirt, with her toe wrapped in another stocking and wedged into her shoe, she was outside pulling the door shut and Refitting the cleaned padlock, lining the shank halves up to make it look new and functional. She made sure that no one was around watching her and began walking.
The narrow track twisted through the slum like a river. Large puddles of stagnant water left much of it submerged. Mosquitoes swarmed in the humid air. She walked close to the adobe walls of the shacks, where the ground was raised and drier, and paid no attention to the noises of life inside them. Her toe was in pain but her mind was numb. She had to get to the bar, that was all.
In the distance a man was singing loudly in a warbling voice, ‘muuuusheeeeeemaaaaaa, ay-ay-ay muuuusheema, ay-ay, muusheema’
Sweat beaded on her forehead. She wiped it dry with the back of her hand. Her stomach rumbled. One foot after the other, avoiding the wet mud in the darkness, she walked on, picking at the lint on her stiff corset.
It was a long walk with her toe aching, but she could see the glow from the main road in the distance. I’ll be there soon, she told herself, and taking a small bottle of water out of her bag, she drank what was left and threw the empty bottle to the side of the path.
She’d heard that until a few years ago there had been no main road. The slum had surrounded the city like a horseshoe from the north coast to the south. When the war came to an end, the government started development. The officials had turned up one day and told the people to move; the next day saw the arrival of the chineses – immigrant labourers sent to the country in exchange for its oil – who flattened everything. Roads, sky-scrapers and residential compounds sprang up everywhere. The slum was forced into smaller areas, leaving the inabitants to fight over the land and what was left behind to build with.
At the track’s end the streetlights towered over the last line of shacks. The bright hue made the tin of the roofs shine like gold. Nzage saw the small stout figure of Mingota at her grill by the corner. The air was thick with smoke around her and Nzage’s eyes stung as she approached. Cars thundered past on the tarmac, a blur of yellow and red lights.
‘Good evening,’ said Mingota. Her rusty tongs turned one of the fish over on the grill.
‘How are you?’ Nzage, watched the oil drip from the fish to the glowing coals.
‘Blessed dear, are you hungry?’
‘Yes,’ said Nzage, relieved to have been asked. ‘I’m starving.’
Mingota scraped the gooey skin from one of the fish, pressing it down on the blackened mesh and peeled a large fillet to hand to Nzage.
She cupped it in her hands and juggled it between them, letting it cool.
Grease ran down her chin as she ate, carefully picking out the spines and stripping them of every bit of flesh before flicking them to her feet. ‘I miss the village,’ she said, her mouth bulging, ‘the sea.’ She thought back to the quiet mornings in Ramiros when she’d sneak from the house as her parents slept to look down at the blue water and the rolling waves. The rising sun warm on her back, cast her long shadow down the hillside.
‘You have the sea here, too,’ said Mingota, arranging the fish on the grill to make space for another.
Nzage remembered waiting on the sand as her father’s boat was pulled from the water, the hull filled with carapau, dourado, linguado.
‘Here,’ said Mingota, holding a napkin up to her.
‘It’s not the same,’ she said, taking the napkin and wiping her chin and hands before throwing it onto a pile of rubbish with a cloud of houseflies buzzing around it. She opened her bag and reached for her purse, dropping her shoulders and putting on her best sad face as she looked inside.
‘You keep that for yourself dear.’ Mingota smiled.
‘Thank you,’ said Nzage, not sure if she had enough money anyway.
‘I was robbed today,’ she added. ‘They cut the padlock and took everything. I have to go out tonight or I won’t have anything for the week.’
‘This is no place for a girl to live on her own.’ Mingota shook her head, ‘and I’ve told you that many times. Find a good church-going man to give you a child and take care of you.’
Nzage saw the blue and white of a Candongueiro speed through the traffic, and ran to the roadside waving at it. Smoke rose from the wheels as it screamed to a stop beside her. The door slid open.
‘Be careful tonight,’ shouted Mingota as the door slammed shut. She took another fish from her basket and filled the empty space on the grill.
The Candongueiro accelerated down the road with black smoke spewing from its exhaust. Nzage squeezed into the front row of the packed cab which stank of body odour and diesel, sandwiching herself between an old man and the driver’s helper. The old man had a small leather bible in his hand.
‘What language is that?’ she asked, nodding at the strange text on its cover.
The helper was counting through a pile of dirty bank notes. He coughed, looking over at her and tapped the money. She found a crumpled 50 Kwanza note in her bag and handed it to him.
The old man opened his book. ‘It’s Polish,’ he said and flicked through its wafer-thin pages, ‘I got it from a foreigner in the Hotel Tivoli.’
‘I see, and are there many foreigners there at the moment?’
‘I have no idea,’ he said closing the book on his lap. ‘This was in nineteen seventy-five.’
The bus swerved, throwing the passengers against each other. Nzage gripped the underside of her seat.
The old man kicked the back of the driver’s seat.
‘Don’t you have any respect?’ he shouted, ‘you could have killed us all, damn it. Don’t you know the rules?’
They had gone through a red light, just missing a car.
The driver stared back through the mirror. The conversation behind them had stopped.
‘There are only two rules here, old man, don’t turn left and don’t stop.’
He burst out laughing and looked to his helper, whose eyes were fixed on the old man. Nobody spoke for the rest of the journey.
They rattled into a busy, dimly-lit square, with the helper sticking his head out the window, beating his hand against the door and shouting the next stop. A crowd chased after the bus as it slowed to the kerbside. They fought each other to get in front of the door. Nzage had to push through to get out.
The square was lined with old colonial buildings and new sky scrapers. Candongueiros came and went. People walked in all directions while cripples sat begging on the pavement. In the corner, a big screen flashed the weather forecast for the coming days. Its images of bright suns, clouds and blue skies bounced off the dark windows of the surrounding buildings.
Nzage headed down a dark side street, passing a group of women with pyramids of oranges and apples on display, baskets of cassava and bread. They shouted half-heartedly to her, trying to get a sale as she went by,
‘fofa, fofinha, preço da igreja.’ (cutie, church price)
Her shoes clicked on the Portuguese mosaics as she walked. Jeeps pulled up at the end of the street and were guided into parking spaces by drunken street men. White men stepped out and disappeared around the corner.
Nzage followed soon after them. She passed a pair of the ragged young men who were cleaning a white Pajero, and ignoring their insults, joined a line of people in front of a pink colonial façade.
A fat white man with a ponytail was standing in front of her, his tight shirt stuck with sweat to his back, it gripped his fleshy folds. Taking a cigarette from the packet of Dunhill’s in her bag, she tapped the man on the shoulder. He was short and as he faced her she noticed his hair had receded leaving a red scalp. He had the bloodshot, sagging eyes of a drunk. She held the cigarette up and smiled.
‘Lovely set of breasts you’ve got there,’ he said, taking a lighter from his pocket.
‘Sorry,’ she said, not understanding, ‘my English bad.’
He gave the lighter a shake then struggled through drunkenness to flick the small blue flame to life. She leaned forward, sucking her cigarette alight, and noticing him staring at her breasts, exhaled the smoke into his face. He smiled.
At the door, the guard ran a metal detector over them and waved them through. She followed the man to a counter at the side of the hall. His thighs rubbed together as he walked, bunching his trousers up at the knees. ‘Two please,’ he said to the attendant, nodding back at Nzage.
They walked over to an old wooden staircase and he gave her the drink token the attendant had given him.
‘Thank you. My Name is Nzage.’
The music got louder as they ascended.
‘You English?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, from Yorkshire,’ he said.
They stepped out onto a crowded terrace and found a space at the bar. Music blared from speakers in every corner. Nzage looked through the railing at the far end and out over the bay. Bright lights from the expensive bars and hotels on the peninsula were shining at her over the swaying masts in the marina.
‘You’re very tall,’ he said, his face was now as red as his scalp from the climb up the stairs.
‘Thank you. what your job?’
‘I work offshore.’
She tried to remember the words. She had heard them from lots of men in the past.
He swirled his finger. ‘You know, out at sea, by helicopter’
‘Ah, you pilot!’
‘Yes,’ He laughed. ‘I’m a pilot.’ He leaned over the bar and tried to get the attention of the staff.
‘Ok, you, me, we fly to Londres.’
‘Anytime,’ he said.
‘Now I go to toilet. Wait here please.’
She pushed through the crowds to the toilets at the back. Inside, she untied her hair and looked at it in the cracked mirror, the long straight extensions gave it the silken look of a white woman’s. Pulling her corset low, she made sure her breasts were only just covered, and after dabbing her lips with gloss and putting on more mascara, she went back onto the terrace.
The man was at the same spot, leaning on the bar, glass in hand. Two mixed race girls had jumped onto a small platform and were dancing together, bodies entwined.
Sweat trickled down his face as he watched them. Nzage walked up to his side and ran her hand down his hairy arm. A grin creased on his drunken face, unsheathing a set of stumpy yellow teeth.
‘Look at you,’ he said, ‘muito bonita.’
The smell of alcohol and tobacco on his breath made her turn her nose away.
‘Obrigada.’ She brushed her hair over her shoulder.
The glass in his hand tipped and was spilling on the floor. She took it and laid it on the bar, pushing her breasts against him as she did it. She didn’t want him too drunk.
‘You like dance?’ she asked and took his hands to pull him from the bar. He was unsteady on his feet. She passed his hands around to the small of her back and swayed her hips from side to side. He lowered his palms to grip her curves. She wanted to pull away then and walk out, but business was business.
He squeezed her and pressed his stiffening crotch against her. The first real touch was always the most disgusting part of it all but she needed the money. She kissed the sweat-drenched chicken skin of his neck. He grabbed her head too tightly and shouted in her ear over the noise of the music. ‘How much?’
She tried to think of a price, noticing the mixed race girls on the stage; they could get whatever they wanted. Most favoured them over the darker skinned girls like herself, but she was very pretty, and young.
‘How much for tonight?’ he shouted again.
‘One hundred dollars,’ she said in a panic.
‘Come on then.’ He took her wrist and pulled her towards the door.
‘Calma,’ she said, standing firm. She twisted her wrist free of his painful grip.
‘I want to it now,’ he said. ‘Or I’ll have another.’
She looked around the bar, regretting not having asked for more, hoping there may be a better option. There wasn’t a man without a girl and it was already late. He took her hand and she let him lead her down the stairs and out to his car.
They drove around the bay and over the bridge to a small apartment block on the peninsula. He locked the car and took her through the garden, into the building.
He pushed her through the door, down a hallway and into a large bedroom. She slipped to her knees on the ceramic floor tiles and he picked her up as if she were a bag of garbage.
‘Come on then you slut,’ he said, pulling her towards the bed.
He worked at her skirt and corset and she tried to help, but he swatted her hands away, muttering in anger before hauling everything off and turning her face down on the bed.
‘Dirty little whore,’ he muttered as he put a condom on and climbed on top of her. ‘Dirty little street girl.’ With his shirt pulled up over his hairy stomach, he pinned her down and grabbed her hair in both fists. She gripped the sheets in her hands and tried not to think as she guided him inside her. Sweat started to drip onto her back. The bed creaked, his full weight collapsed on top of her and his mouth was at her ear talking and biting but she couldn’t understand and could barely breathe, and then it was over.
She lay awake for what felt like hours, the man beside her, face down and snoring. Her body felt raw where the coarse hair of his gut had rubbed. She wanted to wash away the feeling of his stubble on her cheek, the smell of his cologne and body odour. With the light of dawn she rose as quietly as she could, grabbed her clothes and bag and got dressed.
She picked up the man’s trousers and went through the pockets. Inside were two mobile phones and a wallet. She dropped them into her bag. On a small wooden cabinet, next to a photo of what must have been his wife and grown up children, was a digital camera and a silver watch. She dropped them into her bag. Taking a last look at him lying on the bed, the shirt now unbuttoned, his sagging pink flesh glistening with sweat, she closed the door and left.
She hurried through the garden down to the road by the beach, where a group of fishermen were launching a boat into the blue water. The air was filled with the smell of the sea.
She waved down an empty candongueiro headed in the direction of the mainland and took a seat at the back by the window.
As it crossed the bridge from the peninsula to the mainland, she opened her bag to check how much money was in the wallet, she knew by its thickness there would be a lot – hopefully in dollars. The sun appeared between the sky scrapers, catching the watch strap in its glare. It flashed a memory in her tired eyes, and she shouted forward to the driver.
‘Where can I buy a new padlock?’