Sewa and her neighbour, Simbi sat side by side in the small overcrowded hall. There were about a hundred women listening to the matronly woman who was holding a small pamphlet. Behind her, three other women and a man sat fanning themselves with hand fans made out of raffia. They looked disinterested and irritable, the heat in the room was overwhelming.
“So, we must clean our environment, no stagnant water or dirty gutters, because mosquitoes live in them. And when mosquitoes bite your young children what happens?”
“Malaria!!!” the women chorused.
“So the man wanted to sleep with you?” Simbi said.
“Yes,” Sewa said sighing, “I wish I had known that that was his intention. I wouldn’t have gone to his office.”
Simbi faced her. “But I didn’t know that you were interested in my business.”
“What business?” Sewa asked confused.
“What other business are we talking about? This catering business of course!”
“But that’s what I’ve been telling you! I’m not interested in this business, it’s my husband who is encouraging me to do it. I am only interested in buying and selling goods.”
“So why did you go to the man’s office if you weren’t interested?”
Sewa felt like she was being interrogated. “Have you not been listening to all I’ve been saying? We need money! Ever since my shop was burgled, things have been really hard.”
Simbi bowed her head. “I know, I’m just saying that if you weren’t really interested in the business, then maybe you shouldn’t have gone to the man’s office, but I think I understand you now.”
Sewa looked at her in confusion. “I thought you would even be concerned for me, or even angry at what I just told you.”
“I am o! I am, I was just trying to understand why you went there. This catering business is more complicated than it looks.”
Sewa pursed her lips. “I was so surprised!”
“Have you told your husband?”
“No,” Sewa shook her head. “I couldn’t tell him, who knows how he will take it?”
“So has the man given someone else the contract?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. He can do whatever he likes.”
Simbi smiled falteringly.
Toye looked around the spacious living room. He noted the new, yellow and brown striped armchairs and the shiny, polished, wooden table in the middle of the room. The curtains were made out of a silky yellow fabric and a white lacy material that fringed the hems. There was a standing fan close to the radio, and a black wall clock on the cream painted walls.
Doyin walked in with a tray, bearing two steaming hot plates of rice and a bowl filed with beef stew. He placed it on the table in front of Toye.
“I’ll be right back.”
Toye stared at the inviting meal and wondered how his friend was able to live like this.
Doyin returned shortly with another tray and placed it beside the first one. Toye saw the thick slices of plantain in a flat plate and two big cups of water.
“Doyin,” he said, baffled.
His friend laughed and sat beside him. “Eat your food and stop looking so surprised!”
They dug into the food, scooping the stew onto the rice, stirring it around and then shoveling it into their mouths. Soon, they began to sweat and Doyin rose to turn on the standing fan. Toye stared at it for a while and then continued to eat. When he was done, he leaned back in the chair and watched his friend eat the last spoons of his rice and piece of meat.
He waited for him to drink some water and wipe his mouth and then said, “Doyin, what is going on? How did you get all this?”
“I have a generous uncle.”
Toye stared at him for a while, wondering whether to believe him or not, and then he said. “I wish I had such an uncle. Where does he live? Let’s go and see him together, perhaps he might give me a little something because I’m your friend.”
Doyin laughed. “You play too much!”
“I’m serious, please take me to this uncle.”
“All right, I’ll take you there someday. He’s a very busy man, so I can’t go to his house without an invitation. You know how these rich people are…”
Toye’s mind had wandered to the day he would meet this uncle and how his life would change when he did.
“Toye! Where is your mind?”
Doyin laughed. “So what’s the update concerning the armed robbery case in Alafia?”
“There’s nothing much to say.” For some reason, Toye was hesitant to talk about his conversation with Mama Abeni.
“What about your trip to see the old woman?”
“It wasn’t productive. I want to go back and talk to the people in the neighbourhood again.”
“All right, let’s go together. There are too many people to talk too.”
“No problem, in the meantime, do you still have more of this delicious food?”
Doyin laughed. “Go and help yourself.”
Sewa noticed Simbi and two other women coming out of her flat with big food warmers, from her window. They loaded them into a waiting truck and she heard Simbi say to the driver, “Let me make sure that we are not forgetting anything, you know we are going to the Ministry of Works, it’s too far away from here for us to forget anything.”
Sewa’s breath caught in her throat. It couldn’t be! Could Simbi really have gotten the contract in her place? She watched the truck drive out of the compound later and tried to forget about it but she couldn’t. When Simbi returned later that night, she went out to help her to unload the truck.
Simbi was startled and almost dropped the small food basket in her hand. “Ah Sewa!” she said in a shaky voice, “Good evening. I didn’t know that you were behind me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Let me help.”
The two of them unpacked the truck and then Simbi was about to bid her good night.
“It looks like you had a big job today…” Sewa said.
“Yes, one rich woman on Thompson Avenue celebrated her son’s homecoming. The man just returned from London.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it was a very big affair.”
“But I thought you…”
“You thought I did what?”
Sewa nodded her head, clearly remembering Simbi’s conversation with the truck driver. “You told… I want you to tell me the truth, did you go to the Ministry of Works?”
“Didn’t I just tell you where I was coming from?” Simbi snapped at her, her eyes averted.
“You’re coming from the Ministry,” Sewa said emphatically.
“What if I am?! Didn’t you say that you weren’t interested in the business?”
“So you slept with that man?”
“That’s none of your business.” Simbi stepped into her house and shut the door.
Becky waited for Mama Abegunde to take her evening stroll before she asked her husband for the money for her business. He was lying on the bed, reading a newspaper.
Toye laughed. “You need twenty naira? Why don’t you ask me for hundred naira?”
Becky sighed, knowing that it would turn out this way. “I’m tired of asking you for money so often.”
“Is that so?” He asked. “And what do you know about running a business? What has happened to all the money I give you to buy food in this house? It is never enough, yet you want me to give you twenty naira to start… what business do you want to start?”
“I want to sell foodstuff, rice, beans, and melon, in small quantities.”
“I don’t have twenty naira to give to you.”
“So when will you have it?”
“I didn’t say I will give it to you at a later date, did I?”
“You’re saying that you won’t give it to me at all?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Becky was offended. “But if that woman asked you, you would give it to her.”
“What woman?” Toye sat up.
“The one who keeps you out late at night.”
He stared at her for a while and then said. “You’re right, if she asked me, I would give it to her if I can lay my hands on it. She knows what to do with money.”
Becky had had her suspicions about Toye’s recent behaviour but to hear him admit it without any remorse was heartrending. She held on to her chest as tears pooled into her large brown eyes.
“You’re seeing another woman?”
“Yes, a peaceful, beautiful woman who can cook properly. A woman who is neat and doesn’t smell like something that has been in the dustbin.”
Becky staggered backwards at the impact of his words. “Toye…”
“Uncle Toye! Would you dare to call me by name if I didn’t stoop to your level? Am I not old enough to be your father’s younger brother? A few more years, and I could have given birth to you.” he said, rising up, and getting dressed.
Mama Abegunde returned just as he was walking out of the room.
“I’m going out mother.”
“Again, can’t you spend the night with us?
“I have some business to discuss with my colleague.”
“All right my son,” she said sadly as he walked out of the room. She turned to see Becky whimpering silently.
“Becky, what is it? Why are you crying?”
“He’s seeing another woman.”
“How do you know that?”
“He told me, just now. He said he would give her money, but he wouldn’t give it to me. He said I smell like something that has been in the dustbin.”
Mama Abegunde sat down on the chair. “I will talk to him, stop crying.”
Babatunde was sawing off a piece of wood when Simbi walked up to him.
“Good day,” she greeted.
“Good day, how’s the family?”
“We’re all doing well. I came to see if you’ve finished making my stool.”
“Yes, I have. Let me bring it.”
Simbi watched him walk into his makeshift stall and studied his strong muscles and well-framed body. He was the most caring and peaceful man in the compound. Her husband, Mr. Harrison was a deacon, but everyone knew how loudly he prayed at night and how difficult it was to coax any amount of money from him. She wondered why her husband could not be kind and caring like Babatunde was to his wife. He returned with a neatly carved stool and handed it to her.
“Thank you, I will send my son to bring the money very soon.
Babatunde was disappointed but he smiled and said. “All right.”
He picked up his saw to resume his work when he noticed Simbi lingering on.
“I hope there’s no problem?” he asked.
Simbi was momentarily lost in the twinkle of his eyes and his warm smile. “I want to tell you something, but I hope that it won’t cause problems for you.”
“Problem? Why don’t you tell me what it is?”
“I’m just worried for Sewa, she seems different these days. She was trying to tell me something about one man, he works in one of these Ministries. I think he wants to set up a business for her, but she told me that she’s not interested in him. But you know how you men can be, he really likes her. Please don’t tell her that I told you, I just thought you should know.”
“Hmm,” Babatunde picked up his saw.
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you, you’ll think she’s cheating on you.”
“Thank you, there’s no problem.”
“All right, thank you for the stool.”
Simbi saw the tightening of his jaw and the hard look in his eyes before she walked away from him.
Toye’s mother was waiting for him when he returned from Doyin house early the next morning.
“Have you found another wife?” she simply asked when he settled into the chair. Becky was sleeping soundly on the bed. Toye shook his head and took off his shoes.
“Mother, I’m too tired for this kind of conversation. It’s too early in the day.”
“Toye… I didn’t raise you this way.”
“Listen to me. I know she’s not perfect…”
“She’s far from perfect! In fact, I don’t know what you’re doing for me in this house! I thought you would come here and talk some sense into her but you’ve only taken over her responsibilities…”
“And so, is she the first woman who would be pregnant? I remember when you were pregnant with my siblings, you were never lazy.”
“I was a woman, she’s a child.”
“She should grow up.”
“No, Toye, you’re the one who should stop behaving as if you have no fault in this. You brought this upon yourself! How can you marry a child and expect her to behave like an adult.”
“So now you’re taking sides with her.”
“Do you think I enjoy living in this little, stuffed room, where I have to take care of people who should be taking care of me? Do you think I enjoy the noise? I’m doing this because of you. Toye what is the matter with you, since when did you start night crawling, beating women, and talking back at your mother?”
“I’ve found another wife,” he said calmly.
“Another wife?” she said incredulously with her hands on her waist. “Another wife? And what will happen to this one you have?”
“She will have her child and leave my house.”
Before his mother could respond, Becky stirred in her sleep, turned and rose from the bed.
“You’re back, welcome. What do you want to eat?”
Toye took one look at her disheveled appearance, hissed and went out of the room with his towel and soap case.
“Mama, what have I done again?” the girl asked innocently.
“Don’t worry,” the old woman said without conviction. She had just realized that her son’s greatest problem was not the girl who lay in bed but the woman who was outside.