Florence and Philomena were walking down Olusi Street, each carrying a sack. It was early in the morning, and they had just returned from the market where they had gone to purchase cheaper foodstuff directly from the farmers, who had come to the market as early as five-thirty from the villages. The women grunted from the weight of the load as large drops of sweat slid down their faces to their necks and backs.
“I’m so glad that we went early to the market today. We were able to get the best from the farmers.” Florence said, wiping her face.
“Yes we were.” Philomena replied, her thick chest heaving. “But I wish that you had not wasted our time in the market like you did.”
“Wasted our time? How?”
“You kept negotiating with those farmers…”
“Because I wanted to get a good bargain…”
“But the prices most of them gave were fair enough. Even the market women who buy from them would not have bargained at the prices you were insisting on.”
“They can do whatever they like, I know how hard I work for my money, I can’t waste it on greedy farmers who are just trying to rip me off.”
“Have you forgotten that the farmers themselves work hard?”
Florence shook her head disapprovingly. “I know your problem, you have too much money. If your husband wasn’t working with the local government, you wouldn’t be talking this way.”
Philomena laughed. “And how much money do you think he makes?”
“You also work with that rich family.”
“And you think that I also make a lot of money?”
“Wouldn’t you agree that things have been better for you ever since you started working for them? I’ve seen the clothes your children are wearing these days and how plump and shiny their skin has become.”
Philomena smiled. “If you say so.”
Florence wanted to say more, but she decided to be quiet. Philomena had frustrated her negotiation attempts because they didn’t agree on the same prices. She made a mental note not to go with her to the market again. At the junction close to Pa Sina’s provision store, they bade each other farewell and went in different directions.
Inspector Toye was lying in his bed and enjoying his rest, it was a Saturday. From the passageway, he could hear someone playing Nelly Uchendu’s Love Nwantintin and smell the savour of Mama Adio’s palm-oil fried akara coming from the window behind him. Mama Adio, was the boisterous next door neighbour with seven children who perpetually ran around the long building stark naked. Dark-skinned and plump, she was most comfortable tying a bold patterned wrapper on her chest. He knew that she would soon send one of her children to bring him some of the akara and some corn pudding and her husband would later in the evening bring him some fresh palm wine.
Life as a bachelor was good, his time was his and he could do as he pleased. There was no child running around and screaming or any woman nagging him for money for soup. He thought about Becky and her mother and smiled cynically, no one could blackmail him. Especially not an illiterate woman and her opportunistic daughter.
He was eating Mama Adio’s food when there was a loud knock on his door. Frowning, he got up from his bed and opened it. A thickset man with a hardened face stared up at him.
“I am Becky’s father.”
Toye looked at him indecisively, unsure of what to do or say.
“Let me in, I am not here to fight with you.”
Slowly, Toye opened the door and watched the man walk over to the bed, sit down and stare straight at him. Nervous, he stood before him, his hands folded.
“I was told that my daughter is carrying your child.”
“It is alright, I didn’t ask you a question. Like I said, I am not here to fight, all I want is a peaceful resolution. You will marry my daughter, I have enough mouths to feed as it is. I will take whatever amount you have as her bride price. We don’t have to do a big wedding. I will call a few of my brothers and we will do a small ceremony in my room. Then you can take her with you. She has been trained well, she will not bother you or ask for too much.”
He sighed and got up. “This is all I have come to say. I have not come here to fight but I know that you are new at your station, I am sure you do not want me to show up at your office and tell your superiors that you defiled my fifteen year old child.”
The man walked to the door, held the lock and turned towards Toye. “Don’t delay.”
Inspector Doyin was laughing heartily, holding his chest and leaning backwards. Toye was seated beside him, watching him with rising fury. They were in Doyin’s house, a room really, much like his own, but bigger and partitioned into two, one for sleeping and the other that served as a sitting room.
“Do you think I came here for this?” he said.
“I’m sorry!” he said, gasping for breath and trying to hold back his amusement. Toye leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs and shook his head in despair. Doyin stopped laughing and patted his back.
“I’m sorry, but you know you’re stuck.” Doyin said, gulping down the remaining contents of the beer he had bought and setting the bottle on the table opposite them.
“I don’t want to believe that.”
“It’s not a matter of what you believe, it’s a matter of the reality on ground.”
“So you’re saying that I have no choice?”
“I’m saying that it is better to marry this girl than to put your job at risk. Do you want to go back to Igba and tell your mother that you got sacked because you were messing around with a girl young enough to be your kid sister?”
Toye looked at his colleague. “So now you’re the righteous one?”
“No, I’m the one who’s smart enough not to get caught.”
Toye held his head in his hands and sighed. “I don’t want to marry that poor girl. I don’t want to be associated with her family.”
“What do you mean?” Doyin slid down the sofa they were sitting on and patted his flat stomach.
“You should have seen the way her mother looked at me. She was pretending to be angry but I could tell that she was really happy about it. I am in trouble, these people will ruin me!”
“Are you not a man? Are you telling me that you cannot decide what happens under your roof?”
“Doyin, this girl is an agent of darkness, I came here to Abowu to do better than all my family, I came here to make a difference.”
“And you think that you can do that by joining the police? You should have started a business instead!”
“What do you mean? There is a lot I can do as a police officer.”
Doyin laughed again, although not as heartily as before. “You’re new here, you will discover the truth soon enough.”
Sewa stood beside her husband as he sawed off a piece of wood. His dark skin glistened and she watched sweat run down his bare back to his waist and disappear into his trousers. He wore a pair of old striped trousers that billowed around his legs and his feet were bare. Folding her arms, she wished that he would stop working and acknowledge her presence. As if reading her mind, he ceased sawing and wiped the sweat on his brow.
“It’s been a while, my body is not used to this work anymore,” he said.
“When are you going to come in and eat?”
“When I finish this. The customer needs it urgently and she will pay immediately. The money will ensure that we don’t have to spend my salary, so that we can pay up our loan.”
She sighed again. “I wish you didn’t have to do this work again.”
“I know, but we need to do something to make extra money.”
“I know. Should I bring the food here and feed you?”
He looked around the compound where some of their neighbours were seated in clusters.
“In front of everybody…?”
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “I will eat when I finish. I’m almost done with this bench.”
He resumed working and she watched him.
“Do you think any of our friends did it?”
He looked at her meaningfully and down at the wood he was smoothening with sand paper. “Honestly, I don’t want to think about that.”
“I didn’t want to think about it too but everytime the detective comes, he asks me who I suspect.”
“How many people are we going to suspect?”
“That’s what I told him too!” They fell into a companionable silence. “You know, none of my friends have come to see how I am doing ever since the day that they came? Only Deborah came once with a pamphlet about trials and temptations.”
Babatunde shook his head in disappointment.
Sewa sighed. “All our dreams, gone! Just like that!”
“Sewa don’t think like that. We will get back up.”
“How Babatunde? We owe too much and we have very little money coming in. Even if we manage to recover the money we’ve lost, would we be comfortable continuing the business in this area again? In spite of everything that has happened?”
He stopped what he was doing and held her hands. “Everything will be alright Sewa, we cannot give up hope. We will make it in this town, we will, but we must never give up.”
Mrs. Goke, known to Sewa as Mama Layo, was spreading clothes on the line behind her house. A young woman was passing by hawking a tray of peppers and tomatoes on her head, when Sewa walked towards her.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” Mrs Goke said, and put a peg on the wrapper she had just spread. “You heard what happened to me.”
“Yes, I did, the police told me.”
The other woman sighed. “I wonder who we offended.”
“You think someone we know was behind this?”
Mrs Goke laughed humorlessly. “Of course, how else could they have known when to target us?”
Sewa shook her head in confusion.
“Anyway, “Mrs. Goke continued, “I have decided to stick to what I was doing before now. I will focus on my catering business and hope that I make a reasonable profit from that.”
“So you’re going to give up the business?”
“Of course! Who’s to say that this won’t happen again? Are you thinking of continuing your business? I hope not!”
Sewa smiled and asked. “How are your children?”
The town of Igba was asleep when Toye alighted from the truck that brought him from Abowu, with a black polythene bag.
“Thank you!” he said to the driver of the truck as he sped off.
There was no electricity in the small village, and Toye could see the lights from the candles and kerosene lamps that shone from the open windows. He walked past the market square as the smell of decomposing tomatoes and peppers filled his nostrils, he knew that today had been the market day. He passed the water pumps that had been installed by a wealthy indigene who lived in the city and turned left towards the king’s palace. From the house of the dye-maker, he heard a child crying and remembered Becky and her calamitous news. The thought that even though he had only been with her twice, he would be stuck with her for life, weighed heavily on his mind. His mother would not be pleased, he knew this. She had tried several times to get him to marry one of her friend’s daughters who understood their culture and most importantly, someone she approved of but he had refused, wanting to enjoy the freedom of bachelorhood.
A dog growled beside the butcher’s house and he made a metal note to leave the village before sunrise, in order to avoid Lekan, his childhood friend. He continued on his journey and stopped four buildings away, in front of an old mud house, roofed with rusted, corrugated iron sheets. Even though it was dark, he could see the wooden bench, turned over and placed precisely by the door. Nothing else was in front of the house, everything had to be in place, and his mother ensured it.
He knocked on the wooden door tentatively and breathed in and out. No one answered and he knocked again, hoping that someone was still awake.
“Who is there?” he heard the groggy but alert voice of his father.
“It is me, Toye.”
“Toye?! Why are you here at this time of the day?”
The door opened and he saw his father holding up a lantern, his face deformed with alarm and concern.
“Toye? Hope there is no problem?”
“No, my father. Good evening.”
“Come in! Come in!”
He greeted him once more and prostrated.
“Get up, get up! How was your journey?” he led him to a small open room as his mother joined them, a wrapper tied around her chest. She looked older, he could see her collar bones sticking out of her once fair skin. Her short greying hair was woven in cornrows and she scratched it as she stared at him worriedly.
“Toye, hope there is no problem? Why are you here at this time of the day?”
“Good evening, mother.”
“Will you get him something to eat first before you start bombarding him with questions?” his father said.
“No, no, I’m alright.” Toye replied placing the black bag on the floor and pointing at the bench that had been placed against the wall.
“Let us sit, I came to discuss something with you.”
Both parents sat.
Gradually, Toye began to tell his parents about Becky, her pregnancy, and her parent’s wishes. When he was done, his father pursed his lip while his mother shook her legs, trying hard to contain her anger.
“Well, we will do as they wish. Since it’s between getting married to her and keeping your job, we must do what they want…”
“But how could you have been so careless?” His mother interrupted, unable to control her frustration. “How could you have impregnated a girl that’s your sister’s age mate? So this is what you have been doing in Abowu? Sleeping with underage girls and living like someone who has no proper home training?”
“I must say that I am disappointed.” His father said solemnly. “I am upset because it sounds to me as if this girl’s parents want to take advantage of your position as a police officer. They must be poor and they’re looking for someone to shoulder their responsibility. What’s going to happen to the money you send to us? How could you have let a small girl trap you like this?”
“It is the work of the devil…” Toye tried to defend himself.
His mother got up. “I am ashamed of you! The both of you can plan whatever you want to plan. I will not be attending this shameful wedding. Not when you could have married someone more worthy.”
“Wait, where is she from?”
“I’m not sure, but I think she’s from the north central…”
“She’s not even Yoruba?” his mother almost screamed.
As she stomped into the house, Toye’s father shook his head. “You have not done well, you have not done well at all.”