Fridays were the worst. The crowd at the joint would be double the usual number, and the men would stay longer and leave drunker. The Friday men were the same as with every other day: maruwa riders and artisans, ready to drown their sorrows in smelly beer before going home to face the inevitable bashing by their wives, who may or may not end up being bashed themselves; professional touts come to blow off their week’s collections on one or two skirts they picked up along the way; mallams who toiled all day and ate only at night; bankers and corporate workers who came after nine and were too lazy to cook or maybe didn’t know how to cook at all.
First they would order the food and nurse little green bottles of native bitters while previewing the coming weekend’s soccer fixtures, or arguing about who was the greater evil – APC or PDP. Drinks were a sure thing; her people from NBC, Guiness and Heineken would always deliver, and her five fridges would always be stocked. It was the food that daily sapped her life force. Market in the late morning for that food item that was running out of stock (something was always running out of stock), the boiling of the meat for the most part of the afternoon (oh my God, the boiling of the meat!) and then evening would come. There were plantains and fish to fry, eggs to boil, the tomatoes to be made into stew, plates and mugs and cutlery to wash and dry.
Then, the time would come for her to turn on the blue-and-yellow Star Lite fluorescent-lit logo above her store that symbolized to her customers that she was open for business. The men would flock to the store in no time, fireflies attracted to the light. Dada was the first to use that analogy. Don’t you know, he’d tell her, that’s how they “talk”? When you see fireflies flashing their lights, they’re talking to each other. That’s like what we’re doing. Our light is saying, “Come, come.”
She would lay out the plastic tables and chairs in front of her stall and her neighbour’s. The space by the second stall wasn’t hers; she paid a quarter of her neighbor’s rent to him, under the counter, just so she could lay her tables there after he had closed, in order to accommodate her ever-growing customer count. The chairs and tables would be wiped and the coasters distributed. Welcome not-so-gentlemen and ladies to Mammy Dada’s hotspot of Iponri.
As the night wore on, the men would become less interested in the food and more in the drinks. Dada would turn on raunchy afro-pop and hip-hop music, and the beat would inspire more orders and attract more fireflies. They would argue over the volume of the music, some of the more drunk ones would stand and dance, while others would sit and pretend not to be drunk. Many would smoke, mostly weed. For throwing up, which happened every other night, a gutter ran in front of the complex.
It was only in the moments after these that Mammy could find a slice of peace. She could find some time to eat and silently ponder why Dada had to share in her suffering when he deserved better; why he had to be out here waiting tables for her when she could simply get a helper to do that, and let him go on and do what his mates at YabaTech were doing these days. He was the future; her future. He wasn’t going to amount to anything proper in the white-collar world he was destined for if he kept coming back to soil himself in the filth of this lowlife crowd.
She was halfway through closing, turning off the Star Lite logo when her Tecno rang. It shrilled in the quiet of the wee morning, every stall in the complex having since closed and all her customers retired. She extracted it from her apron pocket and peered at the screen. Hameed.
“Hameed, how things?” She spoke in Yoruba as always, but Hameed mostly replied in pidgin, slowly kicking his roots after too much time in the Delta. Her voice felt distant and throaty after all the evening’s screaming.
“Mama. Thank God say I catch you this kain time. I suspect say you go just dey close. How work?”
She sighed her response. “God dey.”
“Amin,” he placated.
“Any good news?” she asked, expectant.
“Hm, Mama, the thing no be beans o.”
“I understand.” But I’m paying you, she didn’t say.
“These days, to fine pessin no easy at all.”
She nodded and grunted and let him go on. He switched to Yoruba:
“Most of these men now, they just prefer to marry their young daughters out. For older girls, their eyes are sharp these days. It’s easier for them to get jobs serving or cooking at Chicken Republic or at a cleaning or laundry service than to serve a madam. They’re expensive now.”
He paused and when she said nothing, continued:
“Same thing with the boys. They can clean and cook for big companies in Lagos, so why bother with a madam? They want big money. They want to make music albums and be like Starboy or Pasuma. Nobody wants to work for a madam.”
Mammy followed his explanation with an occasional grunt of understanding and a heart laden with building resignation.
“So,” she finally asked, “you’re saying you can’t find somebody for me?”
“Well…” Hameed seemed hesitant. “I’ve had this one boy for a while sha, but no one has asked for him yet. He’s from Ilesha. You can have him if you want. He’s not necessarily what you want, but he can do all the work you need a helper for.”
“So why didn’t you tell me since? Bring him for me! Abi he’s expensive?”
“Oh no, he’s not,” Hameed replied, his tone like a salesperson pushing a product. “He’s strong and cheap to maintain, though his case is, well…” He shrugged it off. “I’ll gist you the details when we see. Nothing you can’t handle sha, I’m sure.”
“No problem. When can I see him?”
“I brought him from Osun last week. I can bring him to your place after daybreak.”
Hameed kept gesticulating in her front yard, but she’d stopped listening to him quite a while back. Her eyes were instead fixed on the young boy standing behind him, head bowed and hands tucked away at his back.
He could’ve been around nine, maybe ten years old. He wore an oversized t-shirt that was once yellow but was now an artist’s palette, over a blue jumper that was his size maybe five years ago, but now no longer. He stood tall for his age, real scrawny and clearly underfed. His small tummy sported a jutting rotund navel, one of only two protrusions existing on his whole frame, the other being an ogo that graced his clean shaven head. His eyes hid far inside their sockets, his face pockmarked from some childhood disease and his cheekbones were high and sharp; a hollow being in more ways than one.
Hameed gave his speech, but Mammy wasn’t listening, because she knew the tone. It was the same one she used when convincing her customers that her four-day-old fried fish was not in fact four days old and that she hadn’t re-fried the plantain either. No sir, na the kain fish, that’s all. Na so the plantain be, that’s all.
Of course, he had the sweet tongue. He did this on a daily and fed himself smooth and fresh with it. He had contacts in most parts of the country. Like the fellow businesswoman who introduced him to her, when he presented that one with a helper, a tender teenage girl from up north. Mammy thought him despicable then, never dreamed she would require his services. But here he was now, talking about how hardworking this boy was, how his family came from a long line of hard workers, how his parents had promised a refund if he didn’t live up to the potential…
It was all moot. She had made her decision from the moment she set eyes on the boy. The memory that had come with the sighting was too strong to swat aside.
“Take him back,” she cut Hameed mid-speech.
Hameed’s spotless, black face fell flat. “Ma?”
“This is not what I asked for,” she said in Yoruba. “Take him back and find another one.”
“Ah, Mama,” Hameed replied in the same tongue. “To bring this one self was hard. I won’t be able to find another one for you o.”
“Then return my money!” She stacked one BagCo sack inside the other vehemently. She was late for the market.
“Ah, Mama, take it easy now. “ Hameed had confusion written all over his face. “I tried my best.”
“Then try better, or I’ll hire someone else. I don’t want to see this child near me again.”
She locked the front door and left him standing in the yard with the boy, perplexed. She didn’t look back, couldn’t bear to. It would only make the memory more painful.
It was the year of the big All-Africa Games, when the Surulere stadium was built. Yakubu Gowon was still Head of State. Those, she could vividly remember, because it was Taiwo who had told her about them. She and Taiwo had been around the boy’s age, ten or less, she wasn’t sure. She would’ve been if she could count at the time, but the war had sapped her parents so much that teaching their children to count was the least thing on their minds at the time. Eating and living until the next day were more important. A floor to sleep on and water that wouldn’t kill them were next on the list. Everything else came after.
They only had each other, Taiwo her TaiTai and she her sister’s Kenide (because Taiwo could never get the pronunciation of Kehinde right since childhood, and it stuck even after that had changed). Only children. Mummy went at childbirth. Baba followed the next year via alcohol overdose and diabetes. It was Uncle Pelumi and his wife that took them in and dried their eyes and fed them and gave them a false sense of security.
One day, a man like Hameed had come and spoken with Uncle Pelumi for long hours. Her little girl antennas were prickled by the hushed conversation and the large laughter over beers after. Uncle smiled and shook the man when he left, so her fears were somewhat eased and that was the big mistake she made.
The next day, her TaiTai was gone. No Bye-Bye Kenide, nothing.
For the next three years. Then, forever.
Uncle Pelu gave TaiTai to the Hameed-like man.
He let the man take her TaiTai away from their low-roofed half-mud/half-cement passage house in Gbongan to a duplex in Lagos. She went and became a helper to some woman Kehinde later came to know as Gbemi. Madam Gbemi ran a big provisions store out of the front of her house in a big estate in Surulere, so TaiTai stayed at the shop when she and her husband went to work and the kids went to school.
Madam Gbemi had a nephew who came by during breaks at the Polytechnic. Gbenga was bigger than most; broad shoulders, thick calves and a plastered snarl. Kehinde had seen photos, never met him. It was better that way. She didn’t trust herself to maintain control and not commit murder if they did meet.
When Gbemi was out and Gbenga was in on vacation, he would come by and play with TaiTai. They were great friends. Well, in everyone’s eyes, they were. Great friends.
One weekend, Madam Gbemi noticed bloodstains on some sheets on the clothesline. They turned out to be the ones TaiTai slept on. After a proper inquest that was not short of major threats on Gbemi’s part, Taiwo finally let rip.
The play between Gbenga and her initially involved only her breasts. He said he was trying to educate her. That she possessed insufficient information. Then with time, the lectures graduated and move downwards to her more private parts. He said he would be her mentor, he would teach her things. He would help her understand how her body worked and he would help her become a woman fast. Taiwo wanted to become a woman quickly; she wanted to go back grown so she could take care of her Kenide. She let him.
But it hurt and it felt wrong, felt really really wrong, and she felt really really dirty. Even when he wasn’t there, she would still feel his hands on her, still feel his fingers inside her.
She asked him to stop, it made her sick. He was furious, said he would kill her; she had to let him, and if she didn’t let him he would make sure she let no one else. He warned her not to tell. That she would be dead the minute she opened her mouth. Oh, if you tell, you’ll die. I’ve put a charm on you that’ll kill you if you tell. Think it’s a lie? Tell and see. Just tell and see if you’ll live to see what happens.
So she kept her mouth shut. Even when she started to bleed at nights, she kept her mouth shut. The bleeding stopped, and it made it even easier to keep her mouth shut.
Madam Gbemi was a highly spiritual woman. She wouldn’t take that nonsense in her home. All that evil couldn’t live in the same house with her. She summoned Gbenga back from school and employed two neighbours to beat the evil spirit out of him. She invited his parents, her brother and sister-in-law. She called Uncle Pelumi and his wife. The Hameed-like man had been there too. They all went to the delivery service where a Pastor jumped and romped and sweated in tongues. Gbenga had rolled on the floor and the others snapped fingers and mimicked the pastor’s incomprehensibles.
When all finally became still, Gbenga cried and blamed the devil for putting the evil thoughts in his head. He begged for forgiveness. The pastor urged them to forgive! For Jesus says in Matthew five verse forty-four, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you! One by one, they were all called forward to declare their forgiveness; even her TaiTai was made to say what her heart did not feel. They thanked the Pastor and went home their various ways and returned to life as usual.
Well, they tried.
Three weeks after the deliverance, Gbenga returned to the shop at Surulere on a hot Wednesday and met Taiwo alone there. He’d hoped to. That was the only way he could hold her down, gag her mouth to prevent any screaming, and pour the acid in her vagina.
Dada did not make it to the shop on Thursday. He usually called beforehand in times like these, so Mammy waited until the late call came in. When it did, it was far from what she expected.
“I went to the hospital,” he explained in Yoruba. “I broke my leg on the football pitch in the morning.”
“Shut up,” Mammy replied in the same language. “How many times will I tell you to stop speaking what I speak or doing what I do? Speak your English.”
“Sorry ma,” Dada said in English.
Mammy paused. “Is it bad?”
There was silence before the reply came: “Bad. I’m using crutches.”
She sighed. “Fine. Don’t disturb yourself. Just rest. I’ll handle the shop.”
“No,” she said, tired. “But I’ll cope. It’ll be fine.”
For a whole week, she ran the joint alone. It was hell. Customers grumbled about late deliveries. Some stopped coming by the week after. One of her premium customers, the banker who lived in Maximillian, that estate at the end of the street, was beginning to complain about having to stand for too long in the company of second-hand cigarette smoke and lowlifes simply to get supper.
By the second week’s end, Dada was still in crutches. The other guy she hired to get her a helper still hadn’t called, and he wasn’t exactly reachable either.
Another bar suddenly opened up at the intersection near Maximillian. It was a classy bar, a toned-down version of the types that sprung up in malls on the fringes of the island. High-powered generator, forty-two-inch flatscreen constantly displaying soccer highlights and afro-pop videos even raunchier than hers. They served beer in traditional thick mugs and ethnic coasters and customers sat in wooden upholstered chairs and round tables.
Mammy made eight drink sales the whole week.
Sitting under the Star Lite logo after dark, waiting for someone, anyone to kick off the joint for the fourth week in a row, Mammy stared at her Tecno, unsure if it was the bright backlight causing the tears that gathered in her eyes and slipped out the sides, slow like the night; or the heavy weight of desperation chipping away at her ethos.
Her new guy still had not called. Her tables were empty. Dada had bills for checkup.
Head pounding from exhaustion and ankles aching from too many hours on her feet, Mammy dialled a number.
“Hameed, how things?”
“What’s your name, smallie?” she asked in Yoruba.
The boy was hesitant to answer. He was shy, as expected with most kids around his age. He maintained the same posture as when she had first seen him: head bowed, hands tucked away behind him. His clothes had changed, but not much by way of state.
“Don’t worry,” she said to him. “I’m your aunty, oh? I’ll take care of you.”
He stared at her and said nothing. His eyes bulged in the hollow of his face.
Fine, she thought. Won’t talk, might as well work.
“Go turn on the light,” she told him in Yoruba, pointing to the switch for the Star Lite fluorescent logo. “Customers are coming.”
That one he understood, and went on his way to do. The customers approaching were the usual floor openers on Friday nights: artisans.
“Mama!” one called out. “E don set?”
She smiled. “Yessah. Everything dey ground.”
The logo above her flickered, once, twice. Like a firefly.
Mammy’s smile widened as she saw two silhouettes sitting in the distance look up at the light, rise, then start to make their way over. She smiled, but she knew. She knew her heart was not in it. That image of the little boy in the corner of the shop, calling out with the light; it would never leave her. That crushing weight of guilt she’d hoped to swat aside; it would never go away. It would forever maintain a choke hold on her.
Dada’s speech about the fireflies played in her head, but in place of his voice, it was ten-year-old TaiTai’s. Don’t you know that’s how they “talk”?
The light is saying, Come.
About the author
Suyi Davies is a Suspense and SF/Fantasy writer. Some of his works appear on Jungle Jim and The Kalahari Review. He was runner up at The Naked Convos ‘The Writer’ Season III competition, and was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction in 2014. He lives on the web at www.suyidavies.wordpress.com.
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