And now, with only minutes to spare, Monye boarded the bus and looked down the aisle. He spotted Uloma, walked up to her, and pointed to the seat beside her. “Excuse me—is this taken?”
Uloma indicated the bag resting there and shrugged her shoulders. She gestured in the direction of a vacant window seat farther down the aisle.
Monye smiled. “Madam, please, I would prefer sitting by the aisle.”
Uloma sighed and moved her bag of snacks. She exaggerated her annoyance, hoping that the other passengers wouldn’t suspect she and Monye knew each other.
A few minutes later the driver climbed into his seat and revved the engine. A volley of gunshots punctuated the air. The security officer boarded the bus and strode down the aisle. He stumbled on a red-and-blue GHANA MUST GO bag and poked it with the barrel of his gun. “Madam, move dis ting,” he ordered its owner. The woman spread her feet and squeezed the bag between them.
Uloma tugged at Monye’s arm. She bent down, fiddled with the duffel, and whispered, “What took you so long?”
Monye looked over the seat in front of him and said, “Okwudili called.”
Uloma couldn’t match the name with a face. Monye had many friends, but they came to the house late in the evenings, and she never saw them. She prepared the fried meat and pepper soup he requested for their entertainment, but he did the serving. He insisted that she stay in the bedroom whenever his friends visited. While she waited for them to leave, bits of their conversation filtered through to her. Arguments often broke out. Sometimes she picked up a word or two from an angry raised voice, but most of the time she dozed, the sound of garbled voices lulling her into a fitful sleep until Monye came to bed.
“What did he want?” Uloma asked.
Monye pressed a finger to his lips and jerked his thumb toward the aisle.
The security officer stood beside their row. Uloma bent her head and looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
The officer tapped Monye on the shoulder. “You know dis woman?”
Monye shook his head.
“De way you dey lean to am, e be say like you wan know am.”
Monye grinned. “Ah-ah, officer, no be like dat. De bag wey im keep for under, I just dey move am small make my leg fit.”
“Anyway my man, make you no touch am. Na me wey get dis lady.” The officer blinked at Uloma, pursed his lips, and laughed. Monye joined in.
Still chuckling, the officer walked off and continued his inspection of the bus. On his way back he stopped beside Uloma and Monye, slung his automatic over his shoulder, and spread his arms wide. The odor of his body wafted over them. Uloma looked at the dark sweat rings spreading from under his sleeves and held her breath.
“My people, Aba–Onitsha direct!” the officer declared.
“What of Lagos?” a voice from the back of the bus queried.
“Wetin, my friend? I never finish.” The officer cleared his throat and announced, “Aba–Onitsha–Lagos direct!”
Laughter filled the bus.
The driver revved the engine and tooted the horn. The bus jerked forward, and the officer steadied himself against Monye’s seat. Somehow he managed to push his face next to Uloma’s. His lips brushed against her forehead.
“Don’t touch me!” Uloma flung her hand in his face.
The officer backed away and looked at her with mock alarm. “Madam, de madam. No be me wey do am.” He held both palms up, straightened himself, and called out, “Draiva, softly oh! Dis bus don make me do romance.” The officer chuckled and looked around.
A few passengers applauded.
Tears welled up in Uloma’s eyes, and she dabbed them with a tissue. All these people cared about was being entertained. It didn’t matter at whose expense. Monye’s elbow jabbed her waist, and she wiped her eyes. She couldn’t understand why he allowed her to be humiliated, and why he even joined in making fun of her.
The horn sounded again, a grinding of gears set the wheels going, and the Landjet lumbered out of the station. Monye sat back in his seat and flipped through a magazine. Uloma felt a stroke on her thigh. Monye’s fingers circled and lifted the hem of her wrappa. She wanted him to comfort her, not this. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears she felt returning.
“Ulo, don’t cry now,” Monye whispered, and stroked her thigh again.
On the highway, wind rushed through the windows. The bus hummed with conversations. Several passengers dozed. But Uloma was unable to sleep. She leaned against the window and watched the blue of the sky deepen into indigo.
Halfway to Onitsha a voice rang out from the back of the bus: “Brothers, sisters, let us pray.” An itinerant peddler stood in the aisle. He wore a knee-length patchwork jacket of black, red, and white triangles over a pair of baggy white pants. Holding up a worn Bible, he executed the sign of the cross and said, “In the name of Jesus, Jehovah, and all the saints, Professor Bede Nsofor is my name.” When no one responded, the professor strode down the aisle, turned halfway, glared at the people before him, and said, “Repent, brothers and sisters, for the devil is among us tonight.”
Conversation in the bus stalled. Passengers craned their necks and looked at one another, exchanging glances. The unacknowledged tension that had been suppressed in the daylight darted from face to face. Uloma looked out uneasily at the darkening horizon. In an hour, after they passed Asaba, the worst part of the journey would begin. Vague forms flashed by her window while the bus careered over the road, slowing only at bad stretches, when it was forced to carefully navigate the pothole-riddled terrain.
Professor Bede jumped forward and launched into a lengthy prayer. A chorus of voices rose in protest and urged him to hasten to his mission. He responded by waving a tube of toothpaste in the air. Walking back up the aisle, he called out, “Special from India, with full protection from de condition of bad breath, odawise known as halitosis. N’only hundred naira for one.” He did a brisk business, then retired to his seat.