Niniola was chopping water leaves when her step-father came into the sitting room and took off his damp singlet.
“I’m hungry. Get me something to eat.” He said.
Afraid to explain that the food would take some time to get ready she replied, “Yes sir,” and got up to hurry to the backyard where the stew was cooking.
“What are you cooking?” he asked gruffly.
“Eba and efo riro.”
“Isn’t that what you cooked yesterday?”
“Yes sir.” Niniola couldn’t explain that it was all that they had, that they had received no financial help from him in days.
“So why are you cooking the same thing?”
“Sorry sir.” She replied and promptly bowed her head.
“Call your mother for me.”
Niniola knew there was trouble. She fingered her skirt pocket for her phone as she went in search of her mother.
“Niniola when are you coming back here?” Mama Eli said angrily.
“I’m sorry ma, there are some things I just want to sort out before I come back. My mother is still weak…”
“Your mother has always been weak! Look, I’ve been patient enough. It’s been more than one week. Is your mother the first woman to give birth?”
Niniola was listening to her aunt half-heartedly, her mind was on her mother’s safety with her step-father. Overwhelmed, she hung up on her aunt who was still yapping away and called the kind woman with the NGO.
“Ma? Please when are you coming, he’ll soon start to beat my mother again, and she’s just given birth…”
“Calm down we’re on our way…”
“When?” as she asked this she heard her mother being slapped. Blind with fury and tired of waiting for someone else to intervene she grabbed a long stick which was lying by her feet.
Mrs Thompson had heard the exasperation in the girl’s voice and hoped that they wouldn’t be too late.
“Lekan, drive faster.” She said to the young driver.
“We’re already there ma.”
Niniola dashed into the house and screamed.
“Leave my mother alone!”
Her step-father was surprised at the girl’s audacity and took a moment to evaluate the situation, she did look angry but how dare she speak to him in such a rude manner?
“Leave her alone!” she said again.
He laughed. “So because you went to Ibadan to stay with your aunt you’ve become bolder, not so?” he left her mother and headed towards her.
“Niniola please apologize to him, he’s your father.” her mother pleaded.
“No he’s not my father, he’s a lazy man who does nothing but drink and beat up innocent people. I wish you had never married him. You have made us all suffer because you were afraid of being alone. I’m tired of it.” She said bitterly.
Comfort could not believe her daughter’s boldness. What had come over her?
“Niniola…” she was flabbergasted.
Her husband laughed and clapped his hands together. “Okay, I can see that Rhoda has been teaching you how to talk. Well, when I finish with you today, you will never be able to talk with that mouth. I swear it!”
He dashed off into the house and Niniola’s mother rose from the floor.
“What have you done? What has come over you…?”
“I came to save you!” Niniola said surprised.
“Did I ask for your help?” her mother spat at her.
Before Niniola could respond to her mother’s astounding question. Her step-father returned from the bedroom with a blade in his hand.
“Run!” her mother screamed.
Niniola stood her ground and held the long stick even closer.
“No, I will kill him first. Somebody must save my brothers and sisters.”
Her step-father lunged for her and Niniola shot the stick out in defense. He grabbed it, pulled it away from her and struck her head with it.
“No!” she heard her mother scream as her step-father grabbed her and forced her to the ground.
“No, leave her alone!” her mother screamed. “Help me! Somebody help me!”
Niniola fought hard but slowly gave in to the punches and slaps as her step-father pinned her to the ground and lifted the blade in his hand. She looked in his eyes and saw something there, pure, unadulterated hatred and evil. There was a demon in this man, his brute strength was bloodcurdling.
“You will never speak to me in that manner again.” He said and made to strike her lips with them. Comfort bit his back hard so that he missed his target by a few inches. Still he was able to inflict some damage on the girl’s lips. He swung his strong arm at his wife and struck her head, she fell.
“Maami!”Niniola screamed through her pain and the blood that was gathering in her mouth.
“Freeze!” she heard someone say as her step-father made to strike her lips with the blade again. “I said freeze!” the voice said again and her step-father went limp.
Mama Eli was eating at the restaurant again when the middle-aged man who had been helpful to her the other day stood in front of her.
“Oh!” she said recognizing him and spilling some ewedu soup on her ankara buba. “Oh!”
“Sorry! I’m so sorry! I distracted you.” the man said amused and handed her a serviette.
“Are you laughing at me?” Mama Eli asked irritably, snatching it from his hand and wiping her dress with it. She was grateful that the material was dark green.
“No I’m not… I’m sorry. You just amuse me… you always amuse me.”
Mama Eli didn’t know what to make of this. “Thank you for your help the other day, I tried to thank you in person but I couldn’t find you.”
“Well, you’re welcome. May I join you?” he asked politely.
“Join me?” she looked around. “Ah, I’m a married woman o! I don’t want people peddling rumors about me.”
“I’m not doing anything. We’re not doing anything, we’re just eating.”
“Ah… I don’t know o!”
The man sat down anyway. “My name is Oladapo Famuyiwa.” He said with a smile as a waiter appeared by his side.
“Give me my usual, and bring some fish pepper soup for Madam here.”
“Yes sir.” The waiter said and disappeared just as swiftly as he had appeared.
“Why do they treat you with so much respect in this place?”
“They know a good customer,” he replied vaguely.
Soon a steaming bowl of fish pepper soup was set before Mama Eli who devoured it expertly, pregnancy was making her crave spicy food.
They ate for a while, with Oladapo stealing glances at the woman who intrigued him to no end.
“I like the way you eat.”
“The way I eat?” Mama Eli wiped her mouth subconsciously, unaware of some soup on her buba.
“Yes, you have a way of eating that makes me want to eat.”
“Ah…” she replied lamely, not knowing how to respond to this. She was about to ask him what he wanted when her phone rang.
“Hello?” she replied, sniffing noisily.
“Is this Mrs Rhoda Afonja?”
“My name is Kemi Thompson, your sister has had an accident.”
“Which accident? Which sister?”
“What about Niniola?”
“Please calm down ma…”
“Where is she?” She demanded, immediately dipping her hand into the bowl of water that was beside her. Lunch was over.
When Rhoda saw her sister lying unconsciously on the bed, she broke down in tears. Placing her hands on her head and bawling hysterically.
“Madam please calm down.”
“Ah! Comfort! You waited until he finished you!”
“She’s alive madam…”
“But she can’t hear me!”
“I told you she’s in a coma. She will hear you in due time. Please calm down.”
“She’s in the next ward. She’ll be up on her feet in no time.”
When they got to the next ward Niniola was staring into space. Her mouth was bandaged and her face was terribly swollen.
“Niniola!” Rhoda called.
Niniola looked hard at her and turned away.
“You’re angry with me? I apologize, I didn’t know the situation…”
“Where are my siblings?” she managed to ask.
“They’re with us.” Mrs Thompson replied. “They’re fine, everything is alright. You can rest now.”
“Please don’t send them back! That man is possessed!” She said with fearful tears in her eyes.
“We won’t. Everything is alright now.”
Sensing that the girl had little love for her aunt, she led Rhoda out.
“Why didn’t you help your sister?” Mrs Thompson couldn’t help but ask.
“I tried, but she wouldn’t listen to me. She didn’t see any other way out. She was afraid of being alone. It’s why I couldn’t stand her! She was too weak for my liking!”
“But did you make any attempt to help her, did you involve yourself…”
“Madam, look I have my own problems too but I’m telling you, I tried! The only reason she accepted your help…”
“She didn’t accept my help as such. It was Niniola who called me. Why couldn’t she call you?”
Rhoda had no response to that.
“You could have tried to call an NGO…”
She listened to the woman but couldn’t explain that sometimes it’s difficult to offer help when you’re seen as an impostor. She couldn’t explain that sometimes the things that go on between a man and a woman are beyond reason and explanation.
Still, she couldn’t help feeling that she could have done more.