Rose emptied a tin of tomatoes into a black plastic bag and handed it to the small boy holding a kite.
“Tell your mother to pay up the debt she owes me, otherwise things will get messy. Do you hear me?” she held the boy’s ear for emphasis.
“Yes!” he whimpered as Rose slapped a mosquito on her thick arm.
Becky watched her from inside the shop where she was sitting. Her mother looked older and haggard, her short hair stuck out all over head, her lips were chaffed and her skin was scaly. She waddled into the shop and sat heavily on the stool opposite her, as her youngest sibling stirred on the mat in the corner.
“Foolish people, always buying things and not paying. Do I look like a rich woman?”
Becky scratched her leg where an ant had stung her, and belched. The moin-moin she had eaten that morning seemed to have settled in her chest.
“So what were you saying?” her mother asked.
“He’s not home yet. I passed the night alone again. I don’t think going to report him at work was a good thing.”
“Don’t say that again! It is good that you went to report him. Now he would think twice before raising his hands to you again.”
“But he’s only beaten me once…”
“So you’re waiting for him to beat you to death? The moment a man starts threatening to beat a woman, she should let everyone know. How could he say that he would beat you and no one would come to your aid because he’s a policeman? You did the right thing.”
Becky thought about her mother’s words, she saw the sense in what she said but the emptiness she felt seemed like such a huge price to pay.
“What I now want you to do when he returns is to tell him to set up a business for you. You need your own money.”
“My own business? What about the baby, what would happen when it is born?”
“Don’t worry about that, you will sort it out when the time comes. Take it one day at a time.”
Becky sighed and stared at the floor littered with decomposing pepper and vegetables. “How much do you think I should ask for?”
“Ask for twenty naira. Start with what you can and make sure that you do not spend the money on family matters.”
“Twenty naira! I don’t know if he can afford it now. I’m still trying to get money for the baby’s things…”
“Don’t ever say that again!” Rose slapped her thigh in agitation. “He’s a policeman, they always have money.”
“You are so naïve! Don’t they know rich men who always give them something?”
Becky was uncertain of this information.
“Go home and ask him for money. Look, I want you to get all the money you can from him before…”
The little girl who had been sleeping in the corner suddenly started to whimper. “Mama…Mama…!”
Inspector Toye and his mother stood in front of his room in Pa Jinadu’s house. It was early in the afternoon and the coolness of the dark passageway gave them some respite from the heat outside. Both of them were parched and famished, the old woman was especially looking forward to lying down and getting some rest, the journey had been more exhausting than she had expected.
“Where is she?” Toye muttered.
“Maybe she went to ease herself,” his mother said.
“Come and sit outside please. Let me go and look for her around the house.”
After settling her on Pa Jinadu’s bench, he went round to the back of the house and found Mama Adio spreading out pieces of dried yam on a sack. As usual she was adorned in a wrapper, and held on to her chest where the wrapper was threatening to come undone.
She turned to face him. “Ah Inspector! You’re home in the afternoon, hope there’s no problem?”
“No, I travelled, I just got back. Do you know where this girl is please?”
“You mean your wife, Becky?” the woman asked mockingly. “No o, you know I mind my own business, so I don’t know where she is.”
Toye ignored her sarcasm and wiped his damp forehead. “Have you seen her at all today?”
“I think I saw her this morning after everyone had gone out to work. She was just coming out to take her bath. Her pregnancy is truly extraordinary, never have I seen it weigh a woman down so much. You must have put something really big in there!”
Toye regretted talking to the woman, because now he was miffed. “Thank you…”
Back at the front of the house, Toye’s mother was now sweating profusely, she had taken off her headtie and was now using it to agitate the air. Toye sat beside her and began to tap his foot impatiently.
“Let us be patient.”
Becky was eating a boiled corn as she walked home. She thought about all that her mother had said and decided that she was going to ask Toye for the money to start a business of her own. As she approached home, she decided to go straight to the back of the house to pack some of the clothes she had managed to wash the previous day.
When she got into the room, she undressed and lay on the bed, thinking about what business she could do. She slept for an hour and then woke up to go and move her bowels, when she heard Toye greeting someone outside the house. She wondered why he hadn’t come to knock on the floor and walked towards the sound of his voice.
She heard Mr Alfred, the English teacher who lived in the room opposite them. “But your wife is here!”
“So you’ve been inside that room since morning?” Toye rose and instantly raised up his hand to strike her when his mother shot to her feet.
“Toye! Do you want to beat up a pregnant woman, and you wife, in my presence?”
Mama Abegunde looked at the young girl that her son had married and sighed inwardly. Her plump body was covered in a faded wrapper that had palm oil stains on it. Her face was riddled with tiny pimples and her hair, unplaited, covered her round head like a thick black woolen hat. She had raised her arm up to shield herself from Toye and she saw the brown hair that filled her armpit. Her large brown eyes were opened wide in terror. The girl was really just a child with a big stomach and once again, Mama Abegunde wished that she had followed her instincts and forced an Igba girl on her son.
“Let us go inside,” the old woman said, still looking at the girl.
Becky was left alone with her mother-in-law later in the evening. Toye told them that he had a meeting with his colleague. The woman sat quietly on the couch with her hands folded in her laps and faced her. Becky noted her long neck and gentle eyes, her firm jaw and her pink, wide lips. She observed her slender frame and her fresh skin. She couldn’t believe that this woman lived in the village.
“I brought some yams, plantains, palm oil, melon and dried fish,” the old woman said.
“Thank you,” Becky replied, curtseying awkwardly.
“What do you plan to cook for the evening meal? Let me help you…” Mama Abegunde got up from the chair.
“You want us to start cooking now? It’s just past five…”
The old woman looked at her in surprise. “So when do you normally cook?”
“Seven, any time after seven.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit late? By then you should be cleaning up for the night.”
Becky smiled amused. “That’s the time we cook here in Abowu. You know this isn’t the village.”
Mama sat down slowly and stared at the wall opposite her.
Toye sat at the entrance to Annabelle’s house and hoped that things were not going too bad at home. He had tried to appeal to his mother, to prevent her from coming to Abowu and seeing the kind of life he was living, but it was hard to convince Mama Abegunde otherwise once her mind was set on a thing. He tapped his foot on the ground as his thoughts strayed towards his conversation with Mama Abeni, he thought about her fear of being attacked in Abowu and wondered who had threatened her. He concluded that it was someone who was living close to her son’s house and made a mental note to go to Afonja Elewe’s house the next day. He also needed to go to Sewa Olaiya’s house and ask her more questions. But first, he needed to see Annabelle.
She showed up half an hour later, a green plastic bag in one hand and a brown leather bag in the other. She stopped and looked at him in surprise.
“Yes,” he answered rising up. “How are you?”
Toye took in her blue and yellow flower patterned gown that was firm from the shoulders to the waist and then flared down to her knees. The V-neckline had been decorated with a cream lace and it blended beautifully with her fair supple skin. His eyes travelled up to her neck, her thick black hair neatly pulled into a bun, and her full red lips. His heart started to race.
“I missed you,” he said.
She walked past him and said over her shoulder. “You should be at home with your wife.”
He followed her like a sheep following a shepherd into her tidy little room, it smelt of her pomade. He let her drop her bag on the small wooden table decorated with magazines and then held her waist and breathed in the smell of her hair.
“I missed you,” he said again.
“You should be at home with your wife.”
“I’m sorry we fought but you have to understand, there was no way I could get that money. Do you think I wouldn’t have given it to you if I had it?”
She smiled. “It’s all right.”
Toye pulled her away gently, puzzled by her response.
“It is all right, I am no longer angry with you.”
He sighed and drew her into an embrace, “I missed you.”
“Why don’t you sit down, while I prepare some rice and fresh fish stew?”
Sewa was seated in Mr. Olasehinde’s office in the Ministry of Works. It was the first time she would be in such an office with its soft chairs, plush carpet, and mahogany table. A ceiling fan above her cooled the room sufficiently. Mr. Olasehinde was on the phone with someone.
“All right, I will let you know what we have decided… hmm? … Don’t worry, all will go well … Bye.”
He hung up the telephone and smiled at her. “Mrs. Olaiya! The woman with the gift of the spoon.”
She smiled and averted her eyes, uncomfortable with his praises. She was still trying to accept that this might be a business. As far as she was concerned, trading goods was the ultimate business.
“So!” he slapped his thick hand on the table and rubbed his eyes. “We are planning a small get-together for some of our guests from Harbour State who are coming in the next two weeks. We want jollof rice, pounded yam and vegetable soup with a lot of fish and meat, fried chicken, stewed beef, fresh fish, pepper soup and…” he glanced at a notepad on his desk, “Yam porridge! Not the plain one, the one with prawns, fish, red pepper and vegetable leaves.”
“No problem sir, I can cook everything deliciously.” Sewa said enthusiastically.
Mr. Olasehinde laughed. “I’m sure you can. We are also prepared to pay you two hundred naira for this job.”
“Sir?” Sewa sat up and stared at him.
“Yes,” he smiled. “We are prepared to pay you two hundred naira, and that is apart from the money you’ll use to buy foodstuff.”
Sewa’s mind went to her small shop in Alafia and the amount of goods she could buy, she thought about her children and their pending school fees and she thought of Babatunde being free from the carpentry job. His hands would no longer be callused, and he wouldn’t have to work all the time.
“We are also prepared to give you half of your money before the event, and the remaining half upon completion.”
“Thank you sir,” she said feverishly, unable to contain her excitement.
Mr. Olasehinde got up and went to the window. “There are so many people in this town now, see how busy the roads are. And they’re all just looking for money to eat.”
Sewa smiled sadly. “You are very correct sir, we are all just looking for our daily bread…”
“And opportunities. Opportunities to stop looking for the money for the daily bread.”
“You are right sir,” she replied as the man came over and sat on the table.
He looked at her so intently that she had to look away.
“I see you as an enterprising woman. I believe that with the right opportunity, you can become very wealthy. Would you like to be wealthy Sewa?”
“Yes sir,” she replied as cheerfully as possible, trying not to be distracted by the fact that he had called her by her first name.
“Many times, God sends us people to help us along our journey, but very few people recognize them. I can never forget the person who helped me, Alhaji Owokoniwon. A very good man!” he smiled warmly. “Anyway, I would very much love to be the one who helps you.”
“Ehn?” she cried and fell to her knees. “Thank you very much sir!”
“Don’t mention it!” he said, reaching low and lifting her up by her shoulders.
As soon as she was on her feet, Sewa tried to pull back but Mr. Olasehinde was quick. He kissed her fully on the mouth and locked her in a tight embrace. Sewa pounded his chest and pulled fiercely away from him before slapping his cheek. In a swift movement, she grabbed her black leather purse and stepped away from him.
“God punish you! It will never be well with you! So this is how you want to help me?”
“Stop behaving like a child. If you want to make it in this town, you must be brave.”
“I don’t want this kind of bravery.”
He laughed mockingly. “In that case, I will make sure that you suffer in this town. Anytime your name is mentioned in my presence, I will give you a bad reputation.”
Sewa looked into his eyes and saw that he meant every word.