The market was even more crowded than normal. I elbowed my way through, irritated.
“Nne-nne,” a man called.
I stopped. “What?”
Many times later in life I would wonder why I stopped. I never stopped. Not when men tried to guess at my name, calling out ‘Ada!’ or ‘Chi-chi!’ or ‘Ngozi!’ or ‘Ifeoma!’ and held my wrists so tightly that my watch snapped or my bracelets bit into my skin. Perhaps that was it – he didn’t touch me. Maybe it was that he did not do that annoying hissing thing that Nigerian men do when they want to get your attention anywhere. Or else it was the way he stood, like he had expected me to stop. Maybe it was Juju.
I hesitated, annoyed with myself and made to continue. The man walked up to me, dabbing his face with an overly-white handkerchief which nearly blinded me in the sun. Green and red dots swam in my vision when I looked away.
“What do you want?” I snapped with more venom than was required.
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Nothing, just to look at your beautiful face.” He pronounced it ‘bitiful’. I thought ‘Kill me, now’.
“I am going,” I said. Traders hung about, watching this exchange and it made me uneasy. I swatted a fly that buzzed around my ear. My chandelier earring swung. It got caught in my hair.
“Barrow, barrow!” A barrow boy bellowed, looking for a customer. He bore down on me as I stood in the middle of the path, struggling with my earring-hair ornament. The man reached out a hand and moved me to the side.
“The barrow was rusty. It might have cut your beautiful legs,” he said when I glared at him for touching my waist.
Ballow. Lusty. Bitiful. I abandoned struggling with my earring as my irritation – against myself, against him – mounted. The man couldn’t even speak English! Why had I stopped? I was making a spectacle of myself. My right earlobe hurt from being twisted upwards. He moved again and before I could slap his hand away, he had untangled my earring from my hair.
“Thank you,” I said frostily, walking away.
“Mummy, wait now.”
Immediately my stomach roiled. I detested men who used ‘Mummy’ as a term of endearment. I found it exceptionally unimaginative.
“My name is not mummy,” I snapped back. “Am I your mother?” I carried on walking, cursing my heels, my ill-fortune at having to enter the market on that day. I hated the market. Noisy and smelly and grabby and spitty. Had I not come straight from the office, I would have sent Chekwube or Okey, two of the fastest, most resourceful kids in my compound to get me what I needed. They always brought back correct change and didn’t dally. But tomorrow was Independence Day and markets would be closed all over the country. I had run out of cabin biscuits and wouldn’t survive the night.
“Nne what is your nem then?” he asked from behind me, undeterred.
My name? I thought. As if. I was jostled and jostled others in turn. The loose sand conspired against me. My thighs burned. A woman with a basket of broken tomatoes as wide as her hips brushed past me, dripping reddish water down the elbows she put behind her head to support her load.
“Easy now, ah-ahn!” I yelled.
She eyed me with uninterested eyes, walking away. “Sorry Aunty,” she said.
“Are you going to pay for my clothes?” I shouted behind her. She didn’t answer. She flicked some more of the tomato water from her forehead. I examined my clothes. There was a watery-red stain on the front of my cream shell camisole.
“I will, if you tell me your nem,” suddenly the man was in front of me. He smiled, showing a gap between his teeth. “My name is Calestous. But my guys call me Cali.”
Calestous. Of course. Right up there with Pius, John-Mary and Titus. I stopped for a man called Calestous – ‘Cali to his guys’ – and I would have to live with that decision for the rest of my life.
I looked at him. At his smiling, dabbing, Bright Chimezie self and knew this was not a man to give up easily. It would help if I just gave him my name. That way he would leave me alone.
“Chielozona,” I said. The fight went out of me like wind.
“Chielozona,” he repeated, nodding. “Bitiful.”