She stared right through the child, holding his hand and letting him gnaw at her knuckles with his toothless gum. The other children sang and danced around the room but she didn’t see them, neither did she hear the radio presenter telling the funny story of the white man whose face turned beet red after eating a Yoruba woman’s meat stew. Babatunde was laughing hysterically, his callused hands bouncing up and down on his stomach as he did. Sewa sat beside him, sewing a button on a shirt, concern etched on her face. It was their cherished Sunday afternoon rest and everyone seemed to be enjoying it but Becky, she was in the room, yet she was not.
Later at night when everyone had gone to bed, Sewa came back out into the sitting room where Becky and her child slept. The young woman was sitting on the floor with her knees up to her chest. She was sniffing.
The room was dark but Sewa found her way to Becky’s position. The moonlight through the slightly drawn curtain somewhat illuminated the room and she could make out Bolutife’s small form on the mat.
“Becky, what is it? What are you crying?”
“I’m not crying ma.”
“Really? So why are you sniffing?”
“I have a cold, I think I have been under a lot of stress.”
Sewa considered her answer. “I noticed you have been quiet lately, is everything alright?”
“I’m fine ma, I’m thinking about my life.”
“What’s there to think about?”
Becky thought fast, “I can’t be here forever ma, but I don’t know what else to do. I want a good life for my child.”
“Am I treating you badly?”
“No, not at all, in fact I am grateful. It’s just that I always wanted to go to school and I don’t know if I still can.”
“Why do you have to go school?”
Becky hesitated, “I want to work in a good place, I want to be a secretary, maybe a nurse, but I want to be like some of the women I see in the foreign magazines.”
Sewa laughed. “You are such a dreamer! You have a child now, how are you going to go to school and take care of him? Where will you get the money to go to school?”
“I don’t know…”
“Forget about going to school, be humble and learn this trade I am in. you don’t know where it might take you. I am not chasing you away from here, you can take care of your child and work with me. And when it is time for him to go to school, we might even be able to pay for him. No one is giving you any trouble here, stop dreaming and face reality.”
Becky considered this and nodded. “I will, thank you ma.”
February came with a heat more intense than the previous months, women ditched their blouses and long wrappers for short wrappers, loosely tied around their chests and short gowns made out of light fabric. Annabelle was approaching the final trimester of her pregnancy, her skin had lightened and glowed even more. She slept lightly and suffered heartburns almost all the time, but she was happy. Toye was making more money than he had ever made and was commanding respect amongst his new colleagues.
She sat in her shop, legs spread out, fighting the temptation to pull up her light maternity gown. The ceiling fan above her was not as effective as she needed it to be. Franca placed a bowl of food on the stool before her and sat beside her.
“I heard this particular vegetable is good for pregnant women. It contains iron and prevents constipation.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it has all the meat and fish in it.” She washed her hands in the small bowl at her feet and started to eat the soup. “It is very delicious, did you cook this?”
“Yes, and when you finish eating it, you will bless me. Perhaps I will get pregnant too.”
Annabelle stopped eating and looked at her friend sadly. “He still doesn’t want a child?”
“He doesn’t and I don’t know why. Am I not good enough to be the mother of his children?”
“Are you sure he’s not impotent?”
“I don’t even know.”
“Why don’t you do what you taught me then? Confront him and give him no peace until he does what you want. It always works for me, Toye and I have moved to the three bedroom flat I told you about.”
“It doesn’t really work that way for every man…”
Annabelle stared at her. “What do you mean? Are you afraid of him? It will work for every man, you taught me that didn’t you?”
Franca sighed and stared blankly at the terrazzo floor. “I’m telling you that it doesn’t work that way for every man… Let’s just forget about it. You wanted to tell me something.”
“Yes, I’m going to meet Toye parents.”
Franca looked at her doubtfully. “Are you sure about that?”
“It’s his parents, not mine. They will do whatever he wants.”
“When? Next weekend.”
“Are you sure it is safe to travel now?”
“Toye says it is.”
“They’re planning a big hit on the bank on St Gregory’s Road.”
“Is that so?”
Bala whispered, scratching his cheek. Toye nodded. They were in a catholic church, crouched in between the pews. The older man was sweating, exerting so much energy to crouch. Toye held his breath and tried to ignore the stale odor of fatigue, garlic and alcohol.
“When is it happening?”
“I don’t know yet, but it is very soon. They’re taking things slow because of last week’s coup, but I will let you know.”
“Will Richard be there?”
“He won’t, but his second-in-command will be there.”
“We will be there to arrest them, and as soon as they start talking, Richard is done for.” He let out a breath of exhilaration. “Yes, this is what I’ve been expecting. Well done!”
“I will let you know what is happening, I have to go now.”
“Alright, do that.”
Toye got up to leave, but Bala put a sweaty hand on his arm. “Be careful.”
“I will sir.”
Becky was washing the plates in Sewa’s kitchen when Babatunde came in.
“There’s a letter for you.”
“I have a letter?” she rinsed her hands and wiped them on her dress.
“Yes, the postman just left here.” Babatunde looked at the letter in his hand. “Who is Yomi Makanjuola?”
Becky’s eyes widened and she smiled. “He’s my friend, he is the one who gave me the books I read.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! He is just my friend. In fact I’m surprised that he is replying my letter. It’s been a while since I heard from him.”
“Be careful,” he warned and handed her the letter.
Becky finished her chores and read the letter when she went to pack the clothes off the line later that day.
I am sorry for my silence, I only just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom. I read your letter with great joy. How are you faring at Mrs Olaiya’s house? How is your son, I cannot remember his name? Do you still read, what about school?
Come and see me at No. 4, Ade Harper Street, GRA. There is much we need to discuss. I have sent you two more books and a little money. Spend it wisely. Come and see me.
Becky let out a ragged breath and thought about Yomi’s invitation. Wondering how she could go to another man’s house after what had happened with Toye? She shuddered as she thought about her experience. It had been about eight weeks since that night and she still felt nauseated whenever she thought about it. The father of her child and husband had attacked her in the most unexpected way, there was no guarantee that an acquaintance wouldn’t do worse. She folded the letter and stuck in between the folds of her wrapper and discarded the thought of seeing him.
At night, she wrote him a letter, warning him not to send any more letters to Sewa’s residence but send them instead to the post office.
Florence walked into the restaurant and looked at the corner where Philomena was waiting for her. She flounced up to her and smiled. Philomena didn’t smile back.
“What is it? You look troubled…”
“I am troubled.”
“What is it? Why are you troubled?”
“What are you doing with Mr. Tunde?”
“Yes, the Mr. Tunde who works with Alpac Limited, the company that sells plumbing and building materials.”
“How did you know I had a meeting with him?”
“I know much more than you can imagine.” She put her elbows on the table and leaned closer to her. “Florence, do you want to get in trouble with my husband?”
“I don’t understand…”
“You can’t sell anything else apart from what we give you to sell in the shop.”
Florence sat back and stared at her friend before bursting out in laughter. “You must be joking!”
The other woman rested her chin in her palm and watched her laughing. The woman didn’t seem to understand who she was dealing with, Uche was ruthless. He wanted complete control over anyone around him.
Florence dabbed her face with a handkerchief and took a sip of her water. “You people must think that I came to this world to serve you. Is it not enough that I am fulfilling my obligations? I give you your part of the profits, I have never defaulted. Do you know how hard I work? I cannot just settle for the little profit that he decided. I want to be rich too, and since you have taught me how to do business. Why can’t I sell other things along with the goods you give me?”
“Alright. If you insist on selling you own goods, will you agree to give him a cut from the profit?”
“What cut? Look don’t get me angry! You people are just sitting down and taking all my money…”
“All your money? Florence, we gave you that shop, with all the goods in it…”
“And I am grateful, but that does not make me your slave. I’m going to do other things, and if he feels uncomfortable with that, tell him that I will sell it in another shop.”
Philomena slammed her fists on the table, startling Florence and the other diners. “Don’t try me Florence, I stood in for you. I told him that you will cooperate. We gave you money and a life that you could never have had without us.”
Florence stared at her, the other woman exhaled.
“We can increase the amount of goods we give you, since your problem is money.”
“I want to do my own thing, it’s not just about money. Are you telling me that I will serve you all the days of my life? If you people want to frustrate my life because of what you’ve given me, then I will leave your shop for you and start my own thing.”
Her friend laughed and clapped her hands. “You don’t know what you’re doing, it will get you into more trouble than you can handle. You are a greedy woman and if you’re not careful, it will kill you.”
“I am greedy? Then what are you? You think I am blind? You think I have forgotten how miserable your life used to be before you people discovered a sudden wealth?” She laughed at her. “You used to come and borrow a tin of garri from me. But all of a sudden you are a madam with chains of businesses and all you knew how to do was clean houses. If you are not greedy, how did you suddenly get wealthy, hmm? You are such a hypocrite.”
She put her bag on the table. “Tell that husband of yours that I am not his wife, he will not tell me what to do with my money. If he won’t agree, I will give you people all that I owe you and start my own shop. I am not your slave.”
Philomena watched her friend walk out of the restaurant in shock.