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Saturday, 5th July 2014
Bola stood in front of the face-me-I-face-you house she had lived all her life in the Olosha area of Mushin, a lower-class area of Lagos known for its hostile and notorious lifestyle. Everyone lived for himself, whether old or young, male or female. It was like a battle ground where the fittest could only survive and the losers get trodden. This was where she had been lived all the seventeen years of her life trying to make sense of why she existed. Tomorrow, she would be eighteen and she still was yet to find the answer she craved. She sighed sadly as a familiar feeling overwhelmed her.
You are a failure, Bola. You have always been from the moment you were born.
No! I can make it through this.
Really? And how do you intend to do that? You can barely feed yourself and your brother. You had to resort to stealing. You are a complete embarrassment. Just look at how you disgraced yourself today. Now, the whole world knows you as a thief.
Shut up! Shut up! I will survive this.
Really? After seventeen years? You better do what you need to do. Your mother did it too. After all, that was how you came into the world. Laying on your back for some few minutes every day won’t hurt. You got to do what you got to do. Plus, it isn’t like it will be your first time any way.
“Aunty Bola. Are you okay? You look sick.” Seven year old Tomiwa held his half-sister’s hands, looking very bothered. He asked in fluent Yoruba. “Is it the headache again?”
Bola had not noticed her seven year old half-brother walk up to welcome her. She stroked his head. “I am fine, Tomiwa. Just need some rest.” She replied in the native tongue.
Tomiwa’s face lightened up and he grabbed the nylon in his sister’s hand. “Is that food? Where did you get it?” He placed the heavy bag on the floor and rummaged through its contents. “Yeeee! What is this?” He raised a bar of chocolate. “Is it sweet?”
Bola choked back the tears in her eyes. If life had smiled on them from the start, her little brother would not be so much in awe of a simply candy as he was now. He looked like he had seen something so magical. “Let’s go inside. We will share it together.” Then she hesitated. “Is Baba around?”
“No. He went out since morning and has not returned. I am hungry, Aunty. Baba did not give me money for food.”
“Don’t worry. I brought enough food for us. We just have to hide it away from Baba, so it will be enough for us for days, okay?”
Tomiwa nodded in agreement. At such a young age, he already knew life was not fair and was ready to make sure he survived as well, even if it meant hiding food away from his uncaring father. The siblings walked into their one room apartment that could boast of nothing except a tattered mattress on the floor and some plates and pots carefully arranged in a corner. The colourless wall was marked with cracks here and there and the only window to the room was covered with a net that had large holes.
“So where did you get this plenty food?” Tomiwa asked as he settled on the mattress with his sister, his eyes bulging with excitement.
“Well… I um… a kind woman bought them for me.”Bola replied, forcing a smile on her face. She had only been able to pick some candy she had stuffed underneath her cloth, but when her ‘godmother’ had come to her rescue, she had ended up leaving the mall with a full bag instead. The woman had added a lot of things to the stolen items and had paid for everything. That kind act had shaken Bola to the depth of her soul and had got her scared too. No one had ever been generous to her before and she had not known how to react. Instead of showing gratitude, her first instinct had been to be unthankful and to run away as fast as she could. Come to think of it, why would anyone want to show her kindness? In this life, she had learnt not to trust anyone. If someone did you good, be assured that it was because the person wanted something in return. Her father, whom they called ‘Baba’, had proven that over and over again. There was not a single day in that house that he did not mention how kind he was by giving her and her brother a roof over their heads. If not for him, they would be on the street, prostituting and penniless like their mothers. Instead, he had been an ‘honourable’ man and had taken custody of his children from ‘the ashewos’ from the moment they were born. But that was where it stopped. What they would eat was none of his business. So, Bola became responsible for bringing food into the house and feeding them, Baba inclusive. He had provided the house. She was to provide the food. From childhood, she had resorted to begging and doing petty jobs for people to make ends meet. When Tomiwa was brought into the house seven years ago when Bola was just ten, she knew she was not a child anymore. She was now a mother. Taking care of a baby was not something she had bargained for, but with help from older women around, she had succeeded in raising a strong boy. Anytime she looked at him, she felt the pride of a mother, but something still tugged at her heart. She needed to get him out of this violent neighbourhood if he ever could make meaning out of his life. She had been working on that that for seven years and yet, she had not succeeded. Was there something she was doing amiss?
“God bless her so much.” Tomiwa said, taking in a large chunk of the chocolate. “Did you remember to say ‘thank you’?
Deep guilt filled Bola’s heart. “I will when next I see her.” If I see her again.
“Okay. Please tell her I also said ‘thank you’, okay?”
“Eat your food, Tomiwa.” Bola cut him off gently before his next words would pierce her heart even more. The way he rushed the candy made her want to cry. “Eat as much as you can.” I don’t know when next we shall eat food as good as this.
When she had woken up that morning and discovered there was no food to eat in the house and no means of getting money for the weekend, she had resorted to doing one thing she had vowed she would never do again. Stealing. So, she had stood up before 6 am and pocketed the last N100 she had left before embarking on the journey to the Mall, which she had heard so much about. With the N100, she had hoped to get cheap transport that would take her half-way and she would walk the rest. A lot of petty thieves in the area had mentioned how lucrative ‘business’ was in the mall. Perhaps, if she was careful and smart enough, she would be lucky to steal as many things a poly bag could carry. By the time she completed the first lapse of the journey, she was totally exhausted and knew within her that she would not leave that place without getting what she had come for. Unfortunately, luck did not shine on her. She had faced the greatest embarrassment of her life. Thankfully, a kind-hearted woman had come to her rescue. When she walked through the door, Bola thought she had seen an angel, only that she didn’t have wings and when she had declared her a relative, Bola didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. When the guards had asked for her name, she had given a fake name. Tosin Ayoola. How the name jumped out of her lips still puzzled her. One thing she knew, she had been able to cover her tracks well. Anyone looking for a ‘Tosin Ayoola’ would never trace her to a ‘Bola Shotimiu’. One thing, though. She was grateful the woman had come just at the nick of time. Too bad she had not found the grace to say a simple ‘thank you’. Instead, she had been an ingrate. No doubt, the biggest ingrate that ever lived.
“What is this?” Tomiwa delved deeper into the nylon. He shouted excitedly. “See, it is money!” He waved the folded pieces in his hands. “Plenty money!”
Bola grabbed the money off his hands with trembling hands. Her eyes widened with shock as she counted one currency after the other. “N5000!” She jumped to her feet.
She had never held such big money all at once. The last time she held something close to that was when she had lain under a man who had promised to pay her N4,000, but ended up tossing N2,500 at her, asking her to ‘manage’ it and to get the hell out of his room before his wife returned. She had never felt more miserable and as she shamefully picked up the money, she heard the man smirk at her. That was seven months ago when Tomiwa had fallen sick and desperately needed some drugs. Now, in her hands she held N5000? She could not believe the woman would further extend such kindness, after all Bola had put her through. “Maybe she forgot it in the nylon.”
“Maybe she just wanted to give you. And you did not say ‘thank you’ to her.” Tomiwa sounded very accusatory this time. He emptied all the content of the nylon and a paper flew out. He picked the paper and when he could not make out the content, he handed it over to his sister. “What is this?”
When Bola collected the paper and discovered what it was, the shock on her face turned into a frown. She was proven right again. No one in this world showed kindness without expecting something in return. She brought the business card closer to her face. On one side was a name and a phone number. Lola Williams. The name had a good ring to it, but Bola was not deceived. No doubt, the old woman wanted something in return; that was why she had left her card, so Bola could call her. If that was what she wanted, she would have to wait till eternity. Bola turned the paper and on the other side was a simple sentence. A question actually.
Have you got Jesus?
That question nearly made her laugh in disbelief. This rich woman was not only silly, she was also one of those Jesus freaks. No wonder she had been a little self-righteous. Bola flung the card across the room. She wanted nothing to do with people like that. She didn’t need their Jesus to take control of her life. After all, where was He all through the years of suffering? If there was anything she knew she needed to make it in this life, it would be perseverance, not some story about some Man who died thousands of years ago. She doubted if the story was real anyway, just a bunch of lies that were passed from one century to another. She brought out a packed plate of rice and ate hungrily. No, she didn’t need Jesus. What she needed was a regular plate of rice.
Pauline walked up the stairs to their two bedroom flat located in Opebi area of Lagos. Her heart pumped heavily with fear. She had been out of the house since morning and was just returning over eight hours later. She knew her husband would be extremely angry and would not hesitate, in hard terms, to let her know that, but coming back to the house was the last thing on her mind after she left the Mall, so she had decided to stop by her friend’s place in Ojodu-Berger. Ezinne, the only person in the world who knew what she was going through, had provided the kind of comfort she needed, but still that was not enough. She needed a lasting solution. Tonight, in the stillness of their home, she would ask her husband for divorce. Finally, she would take the step that had been inevitable for months now.
But nothing prepared her for what she discovered when she got to the doorstep of her home. At the entrance were different pairs of shoes, indicating her husband was not alone. Happy chatters from inside floated into her ears and her heart quickened more as she recognized one of the voices. Her mother-in-law’s. What was she doing here, uninvited and without formally letting her know she was coming beforehand? New rage boiled within her. This was totally uncalled for. Even her own mother would not have such audacity. Shaking with anger, she placed her hand on knob and tried to open the door, but it was locked from the inside. This was what her life had been degraded to. She had been shut out from the comfort and happiness the home she built should provide and left without in the dark to languish in loneliness. Outsiders were now the lords of her lair and she could only watch from afar as they destroyed what she had nurtured for years. Enough was enough! She banged hard on the door and was rewarded with a sudden silence. Seconds later, the door was unlocked and a lady peeped from inside. She was young, light-skinned and beautiful. Pauline had never seen her before and she wondered who she could be.
The lady frowned at her. “Why did you bang on the door like that?” She had a heavy igbo accent and one could tell she was not well educated.
Pauline resisted the urge to slap her. How dared this ‘small thing’ talk to her like that, challenging her in her own house? She hissed and tried to pass through the door.
The lady blocked the entrance. “Who you be sef?” She looked back into the house. “Mama, please come here. I don’t know who this woman is.”
Pauline’s mother-in-law, a short but dominating plump woman marched towards the door and when she saw Pauline, her smile turned into a deep frown. She hissed loudly, made a sign of the cross, and spoke to the young lady. “Allow her in. It is the Ogbanje.”
“Oh!” The lady stepped back, creating some space for Pauline to walk in, while assessing her in a strange and belittling way.
Pauline ignored her and when she stepped inside, she saw her husband sitting in front of the television and eating food she obviously did not cook. She greeted him, loud enough for him to hear, but if he did hear, he chose to ignore her, focusing more intently on the football match on the screen. She sighed sadly and walked into the kitchen. When she got there, she found the sink filled with unwashed utensils and the floor was stained with dirty water. Puddles from the soup had stained the wall and the gas cooker was filled with milky water. Who could have done this? She thought irritatingly. She dropped the groceries on the cupboard and dashed to the living room where the women had joined her husband, but what shocked her was how the young lady had cuddled into him as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Ermmm… sorry, excuse me…” She didn’t know how to begin. “The kitchen… it’s a mess. What happened there?” She looked from one person to the other.
“If you had come home early enough to cook food for your husband, you will not be asking such stupid question.” Her mother-in-law chided her.
Pauline shut her eyes and tried to hold back the retaliatory words at the tip of her tongue. She was not ready for this, had not expected it, did not want this. She was already physically and emotionally exhausted and having people remind her of her failure was the least thing she needed right now. She caught the scornful look on the girl’s face and watched as her husband gently stroked the girl’s hair. She did not need a soothsayer to know what was going on here. She was being mocked and right at her face.
“Who are you?” Pauline turned to the girl.
“This is the beautiful girl I have brought from the village that will give me a grandson.” Mother-in-law chipped in again. “Since your witchcraft has tied your womb, I can no longer watch my son suffer at your hands anymore. In my family, in all our generations, we always have children upon children and that will not stop with my only son.”
“But, mama, do you know what you are doing?” Pauline challenged her. “You are trying to break up your son’s marriage.” She glanced at her husband, expecting him to say a word, but he kept watching the TV as if she was not even there.
The old woman jumped on her knees. “Which marriage, eh? The one I did not support from the start? I told my son to marry from our tribe, but you bewitched him and he disobeyed me and married you. Now, I am glad he has seen I was right all along.” She pointed a finger at Pauline. “Soon, shame will make you pack your load and leave this house when my girl starts giving me grandchildren; strong boys that will feed at my breasts.”
Pauline turned to her husband. “George, you knew this all along and you did not even inform me?”
George ignored his wife and instead, picked up the remote control and increased the volume of the television. A ball of fury consumed Pauline and she moved to the socket where the television was connected and switched it off. How dared he treat her this way and in front of these people?
George cast her a very annoyed look. “Why did you do that?” He asked in a calm but irritated voice. “Or rather, how dare you do that?”
“I asked you a question, George, and you pretended not to hear me.”
George stood on his feet, his posture very intimidating. At 37, he was a successful banker with a progressing career and one who believed in keeping a united home-front, which was why he always threatened divorce, but would never actually carry it out. He believed it would not only damage his reputation, but would also undermine his authority as a man. “I didn’t answer you because I consider it a foolish question and you decide to disrupt my football? Are you mad? By the way, you told me you were going to the Mall since morning and you are just returning. I guess you went to see your manfriend, right?”
“I don’t have any manfriend.”
“Then where did you go?” He walked slowly towards his wife.
Pauline took some steps backwards. Right now, she did not know what to expect from her husband. One thing, though, he had never laid his hands on her before but from the way he fumed, she doubted he would not do that. “I was at the Mall and when I was returning, there was heavy traffic on the road.” She lied.
“Liar!” Mama shouted. “There was no traffic when we entered Lagos o! Everywhere was free.” She faced the girl. “Abi, Nneka?”
“Yes, mama. You are right.” Nneka replied, sitting more comfortably in the chair.
“Are you lying to me?” George asked his wife.
“No! I am not.” She pleaded with her eyes. “You and I are the ones that live in Lagos and you know how Lagos roads are. Plus today is Saturday. People have weddings and ceremonies. I swear, it was traffic.”
George’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Keep cheating. The day I will catch you will be your last day in this house.”
“Cheat?” Patience was exasperated. How dared he accuse her of an act he himself was guilty of? On so many occasions, she had secretly read through his phone and had seen many incriminating messages, which she had not had the courage to challenge him, and now he was flirting with one right before her eyes and he had the nerve to warn her about cheating? “We both know who is the cheat here, George and it is obviously not me.”
“Well, you cannot blame a man who hardly enjoys sex with his wife not to have something by the side. But as a respectable man, I have tried to be discreet, which is why Nneka is here. She will be living with us and taking over some of your roles. To others, she is a maid who has come in to assist us with our busy life, but among us in this house, she will be more than that.”
“Are you doing this to spite me, George? All these because I am yet to give you a child?”
“Which other reason is there? I am growing older and cannot keep waiting for your womb to be active. I want sons of my own and you should be grateful I will still allow you to stay under this roof and bear my name. At least, with that, you can still retain your respect.”
Pauline’s eyes were filled with tears. In her whole life, she never would have imagined this would be happening to her. She had heard tales of people going through hell in their marriages and had prayed she would never have such experience, and here she was going through the very thing she had feared most. “You should have at least discussed this with me before taking the action, George.” She said amidst tears. “At least, courtesy demanded that.”
“Well, I wanted to discuss it with you this morning, but you were so desperate to go and meet your manfriend.”
I have no manfriend! She wanted to shout at him again, but decided against it. No matter how hard she tried to convince him, he would never believe her. He had made up his mind on this and there was no use fighting a lost battle. Her marriage had failed. Her life was in shambles. Life had finally become empty. There was no need to ask for a divorce anymore. It had already happened. All that remained was to sign across a piece of paper.
She started crying uncontrollably and when her husband tried to move towards her, his mother blocked him. “No. Let her get used to this. Trust me, she will get over it.”
Pauline ran to her room and bolted the door. She flung herself on the bed, wailing like a bereaved widow. Actually, she was bereaved. Bereaved of love, of life, of her humanity.