By Jennifer N. Mbunabo
Monday, March 24, 2014.
You are warm and then cold. Your feathered hair plasters to your temple, and tawny sweat dribbles down your body, clasping your cotton shirt in fancy wrinkles. Your tremulous fingers gyrate at the fierce caress of the chilly breeze that wafts through the cemented hut, intertwined with choking whorls of smoke from the smoldering firewood, upon which the large ceramic pot sits, emitting the spicy aroma of jollof rice.
Your mother stands, half bent, and with frazzled hands gripping the wooden ladle spoon turn the rice, brushing swiftly the inner sides of the pot. She wipes the sweat on her fore head with the edge of her wrapper, occasionally swaying her head away from the singe of the steam. Her eyes are glittering and dreary, strained by many sleepless nights of washing basins of soaked beans, grinding and cooking in wraps of plantain leaves and her dusky skin frayed by many years of hawking moimoi under the sultry sun. If sweat is the water needed to germinate seeds your mother will be the rich owner of a cluster of Oil palms whose vast palm oil produce if sold in those elephantine metal drums in Oyingbo market, would be enough to feed the incessant appetite of Lagosians.
“Well done ma” You say in that lugubrious tone that did not exculpate your mother from the carping of the crooked male elders in red caps and quivering walking sticks that sunk into the mud at their slightest gesticulations. After seven years, this subtle reminder enervates you and the sudden influx of sand on your slippers nibs your toes and you remember so vividly. The memory flashes across your mind like a thunderbolt in the onyx sky, unearthing the poignancy you’d rather left buried with the years.
On a beclouded and sodden morning just as it is now, with the flight of doves flitting across the sky, the rustling of glistening pawpaw leaves announcing the departure of the rain and the sweet, soothing smell of rain on sand hanging in the air, you and your younger sisters, Kamsy and Udo, sat astride a bench in front of your house, guzzling spoons of oil beans and corn-pap. Their constant bickering about who was taking a larger spoon of beans hastened your resolve to leave your portion of the meal for them. No sooner had you left them than the rains began to trickle down again. And you saw from a distance the emerging silhouettes of men, trudging on the wet ground toward your direction. As they came closer their identity was unmistakable.-dressed in velvety shirts and ankara trousers with walking sticks and the lop-sided gait-- it was easy to identify your uncles-your father’s elder brothers. Three scruffy young men whom you suspected to have been recently initiated into the masquerade cult stood beside your uncles. You could discern from the ardor with which they sharpened their matchetes on the paving stone before your doorstep and the glint in their palmwine drunken eyes; the aftermath of their celebration into manhood, suggested they wanted to exhibit their prowess and further impress the cult.
They had come for your mother, you and your sisters.
“A woman with no male child is a man and two men cannot live under the same roof as husband and wife” Your eldest uncle shove his walking stick at the boys motioning them to enter the house. You knew the sequel to this gesture. It was like the scene of a movie been replayed but with different actors. You had witnessed it in the village and had feared that you would be its victim but did not expect it this soon or fathom it this way. At least not after a downpour of malicious rain – the beginning of its kind after the dry season. The fierce boys with vexation inscribed on their lineaments flung your bags of clothes from the door way into the mud. Your uncles cheered them on, ranting praises on their agility. Kamsy and Udo who at that time had abandoned the food they earlier scrambled for fled to your mother’s side and clutched her waist. She sat on the mud, tears flowing down her cheeks but did not give way to speech at the moment, just gentle sobs and running tears. Your sisters whimpered and pulled her wrapper till they hung loose. You stared at the doorway hoping your timorous father would appear. But he did not.
You lowered your gaze to the ground where all your belongings lay strewn across each other, damaged and smeared in mud. You left your father’s house at the age of twelve with two little sisters and a contrite mother who blamed herself for not bearing any male child.
This is the memory that torments you as your mother stands behind that pot and as your toes feel the sand- the sand that you once cried upon. The sand, that forms the bedrock of your new home after been chased from your father’s.
“Mommy well done, Can I help you with that?” You gesture toward her. She raises her head and smiles, the lines on her forehead relaxing.
“Just bring me the cooler, the rice is already done”.
You rinse the cooler and start swooping large spoons of rice from the pot into it in silence. Your sisters will soon be back from school to take the food to Oyingbo market to sell so you decide to avail yourself that opportunity and tell her the reason you are home. She cocks her eyebrow at you expecting you to tell her what weighs heavily on your mind. And you indulge her. The proceeds from the petty trade have seen you this far in the university, but you worry that it would barely take you through another semester, more so now that your sisters are preparing for the university admission.
You think that asking your father or uncles for financial help is an effort in futility because over the years they have refused taking responsibility for your education and welfare. Accepting the job offer from Ugo is the outcome of your musing. Your classmate Ugo has asked you to accompany her to a luncheon. She told you that your size twelve voluptuous body and swarthy face meets the criteria for the ladies needed to usher at an event and a day’s job could fetch you the money you would not get in a month from petty trading. So now you tell your mother about the job, all you have to do and the money involved. She is skeptical, but you assure her that it is a decent work and that many people do it in school.
“So where is this event taking place?” she says covering the cooler.
“In Benin, close to my school.”You do not tell her the event is in Abuja for fear that she might disapprove.
“The world we live in is dangerous, nowhere is safe, and with all the bomb explosions in the North, I would not advice you to go there. I cannot see fire and tell my child to jump into it.” She ties her wrapper firmly across her waist and looks at you intently in that way that mothers do when they get the notion that something is amiss or that there is something their child is not telling. You nod and promise to not take any step without her permission.
Abuja possesses all the glamour that you hear; smooth and clean tarred roads devoid of chuckhole, neatly mowed lawns and towering terrace duplexes with aluminum roofing which you particularly think give the houses a foreign look. Ugo hails a green and white painted taxi and haggles with the taxi driver over the fare, after some time he gestures you to come in and drives you to Ugo’s rented self-contain apartment in Garki.
The austere room is empty when you get there except for a divan bed on the tiled floor, a smudgy picture and a wooden framed mirror on a dressing table. You can almost taste the acrid smell of mold hanging in the air. Ugo tells you that accommodation in this part of town - Garki is expensive and the room which she had not the time to furnish goes for seven hundred thousand naira a year. It comes as a surprise to learn that she can afford the outrageous rent on a place she does not live but you gulp back your surprise and nod instead.
“Please lay the bed and forget about that, the money is nothing when your source is never dry.” She throws the bedspread across and you corroborate her with a slow nod. As you lay the bed, she walks over to the window, slides open the panes and a little fresh air wafts through the room. In an hour you both are done with cleaning and sit eating the chicken and chips she bought from chicken republic across the street. You are smitten by her unwonted generosity and thank her.
“Oma, it’s not a problem, what are friends for. This is nothing, really.”She puckers her lips and intimates you on the details of the luncheon in between soberness and unbridled laughter.
“Senator Buhari’s daughter is launching her fashion magazine the day after tomorrow and all the big men in this country and abroad will come, Oma ,you can’t begin to imagine the amount of naira and foreign currency that will flow. For ordinary magazine these people will put millions as if the magazine will be sold free or the proceeds given to charity.”She says rolling her eyes. You agree to meet with the event manager the next day and lodge in a hotel near the international conference centre where the event will hold. Your stomach tingles and you hardly speak because you are excited. You savor this indescribable feeling that is overwhelming and even though you can’t place a finger on it the unconscious awareness invigorates you.
The cool Jazz crooning in the strung tent lighted hall brings the luncheon to a close. You take in your breath and scurry to the ladies room screeching your shoe heel against the marble floor. You push the door and lean against it then gasp and pace up and down till you lean over the sink, turn the tap knob and splash water over your pallid face. The hazel-eyed man with the silver tinge on his moustache and dark afro hair is the reason you are palpitating. You cast a glance at your reflection that stares in return as you palpate your flushed cheeks. His lecherous gaze on you like a lion examining his prey to devour does not offend you. It is unsettling and intriguing. You do not know if you feel this way because he donated three million naira or because you are attracted to him. You shake your head in an effort to obliterate the thought from your mind and fix your eyes to the door, mumble some pep talk and stroll out of the room, your shoulders high but your innards cower. You scan the crowd for Ugo and on seeing her, wave vigorously. She turns and the man she is standing with turns too and waves at you but you smile halfheartedly, your feet wobbling because he is the man you have been thinking about. Ugo comes over, winks at you and tells you to take a cab home because she won’t be leaving at the moment. You take the hint and leave, thinking that perhaps Ugo wants some privacy with him.
You get to the room and stay up late waiting for Ugo. You remember that she did not mention the particular time she was coming home. You think that soon it would be 2 am and then she would have stayed outside for over seven hours after the event was over. Just as you straighten your duvet to sleep you hear the clanking of keys and you sit up. Ugo opens the door and you let out a sigh of relief. You do not tell her you’ve been worried.
“My handsome and rich friend likes you. He said you’re prettier than me. Can you believe it?” Ugo says, walking into the room, her hands on her hips and a cocky smile across her dimpled oval face. You have always considered her beautiful with her straight legs and honeyed skin. You laugh and tell her it’s not possible, that she is prettier. You prattle on about the event, the feeling of serving elites, the man that got you nervous and how your feet shook when you saw them together. She tells you his name is Richard, he is a business mogul and that he likes you and wants to meet with you. You are thrilled and even more when Ugo unzips her bag, pulls out a bundle of thirty-thousand naira and a hundred dollar note. She thrusts them in your hands telling you the dollar is from Richard and the thirty thousand naira is your payoff for the job. You cannot believe your serendipity. You have never received this much money in a day. You are excited and thank her, you also tell her to thank him. Ugo smiles and brings out from her bag a slim bundle of dollar notes. Your avaricious eyes, is fixed on the money and you ask her if it came from Richard.
“No, his friend gave me.” She pauses. “Oma, I have generous friends.”
“But which friend would dash you all these money just like that, for free?”
“I did not say it is free, nothing in this life is entirely free. This job of serving guests, pouring wine in their glass and so forth actually gives one the opportunity of meeting influential people. If you are nice to them they will be nice in return. I actually met this man through Richard. You know rich men flock together.”
“Oh. Yeah, I see.”Now you understand how she has been surviving without her parents.
“Look, you don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do” She says pulling out an aquamarine silky halter neck gown from the hanger and tossing it on the bed. You ignore her statement and instead rub your hands over the dress. A new world in utopia enlivens you to imagine the opulence you would possess if you took this chance of a life time- a new and classy wardrobe, a cozy apartment, cruising in a black Toyota Camry and then your family, they wouldn’t lack the necessities and luxury of life and your mother wouldn’t have to work so hard. You see your mother’s stern face raise a quizzical eyebrow, telling you that the love of money is the root of all evil, but you dismiss it and focus your attention on this new world unfolding before you.
“What must I do to be like you?”You ask bright-eyed like a child curious about the complexities of life. You do not mind indulging in the sordid things you suspect Ugo is involved with, as long as you have the benefits just like your new role model. Ugo sits down and holds your hands. She has a strange look and you don’t know what to make of It. She tells you to think about it. But you do not want to think about it. You fear that you might change your mind so you seize the moment and tell her you have made your decision.
“Okay” she pauses. “Let me clarify this and prep you up”. She stays standing up and leaning against the wall, her left foot resting on it. You smile and lean closer.
“This is not runs. This is also not prostitution. It is just flirting with the opposite sex. You could call it seduction- make the man want you. Don’t throw yourself at him. Emphasis is on making him want you, so while you pour the wine in the glass, you play your card-make your move.”She walks over to the table and carries a bottle of baileys and a champagne glass and comes back to you holding out the glass and you collect it. She pours the wine slowly, smiles and pulls in her lower lip.
“You don’t have to make your move this way, you may spill his drink, a droplet oh and then you can bend to clean. There are so many things you can do. Just follow your instincts and remember, don’t throw yourself at him. If he likes you, he may see you after the event or give you his complimentary card.”She smacks her lips and grins like a teacher overjoyed after imparting knowledge on a student.
“Sounds quite simple. When do I start?” You ask, anxious to start making quick money.
“This evening. Richard is having a party and he wants you to come. Listen, from the way I see it, if you are nice to him, you may never have to practice my lesson because if he gets to know you and likes you, like I suspect he will, you will forever be taken care of and its only his glass you will pour wine into.” She giggles and enters the bathroom. You giggle too. You are ready for anything as long as you live large like Ugo. She tells you she is meeting with a friend and will be back in the evening for the party.
The dim glow of the sun splashing on your window pane and the boisterous blaring of car horns jolt you into the morning and realization that Ugo did not return last night. You dial her phone number for the umpteenth time and it is still switched off. You do not know who else to call or what to do. You do not want to think that you are unnecessarily worried like you were on the night of the luncheon when Ugo did not come back early. After constant deliberation, you excogitate a way to slacken off by strolling to the bank across the street to deposit your pay off. It is a long and slow walk on the pavement with your head hanging low and your purse tucked under one arm and you do not notice the newly mown lawns or the array of gaudy cars that ride past you or the mirthful zephyr that ululates behind the red petalled ixora hedges. You lumber across the banking hall and your knees wobble at the long queue of customers behind the cashier’s desk. You do not have the stamina to stand in the static queue so you gently tap the last man on the queue and tell him you are behind him. He nods and you mumble an appreciation and plod over to the reception. You flop down into a chair and your eyes dart across the hall till it rests on the television. There is a startling broadcast on channels television but you do not hear the presenter at the moment. Ugo’s picture looms on the screen and now you hear the presenter’s voice. “Her head was thrown outside a moving Infinity Jeep in the early hours of the morning. Investigations are still ongoing…..”You let out a shrill cry and thinking you are a bird you fall to the ground stretching and jerking trying to break free from an imaginary cage that ensnares your plumage. You hear voices and you cringe at their questions. “Do you know the girl? Who is she? Is she your sister? Is she epileptic?”You see faces you don’t recognize, except one – Ugo’s face. You are oblivious of your surroundings but you know that you are warm and cold.
Jennifer N. Mbunabo is a writer and poet. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.