‘Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!’ the blaring sound of a megaphone woke me from sleep. I had grown accustomed to hearing the voice of that particular anonymous preacher along my street, every 5.00am, that waking up around that time became a reflex action for me.
The morning routine at number 15, Bale Street where I lived commenced with its regular activities characterized by the long queue to use the convenience; which resulted in most times in one form of dispute or the other, the rustling of buckets to fetch water from the well, and a host of others. The kitchen stood at the extreme part of the building, with several partitions serving all twelve tenants.
As I walked in to warm my soup that morning, an aroma of fried chicken greeted me at the doorway. Julie was at it again with her usual mouth-watering cuisines! A few minutes later, our landlord’s son, Segun, strolled into the kitchen. As soon as he drew closer to me, I felt the tension. ‘Nena, I’m sorry for my bad manners yesterday,’ he whispered. Sorry? I muttered in my mind.
If that vehicle had not broken down, I wonder what the bastard would have done to me. ‘Please say something.’ Before I could utter a word, one of the girls in the kitchen wriggled her waist towards our direction, like a model on a runway. ‘Nnenna, please can I borrow your matchbox?’ she turned her head from side to side. ‘I’m sorry; I just used the last stick, go and ask Julie.’ ‘Okay,’ she smiled with a fixed gaze on the young man. ‘Brother Segun, haba, didn’t you see my new hairstyle?’ ‘Oh that’s true,’ he paused to look at it, ‘you look like one of those witches in Yoruba films…’
The girl’s fair complexion turned red instantly and as she was about to leave, the young man pulled her gently and planted a kiss on her forehead. ‘I was only teasing you…’ She pulled away angrily and left. ‘Like I was saying, Nena,’ the young man continued in a hushed tone, ‘I guess it must have been the effect of the alcohol…you’re kind of different from other girls…’ ‘Brother Segun,’ Julie intruded a few seconds later carrying a bowl of fried chicken, ‘it’s quite unlike you not to taste my food today…’ ‘I’ve tasted you severally and I’m fed-up already, it’s about time I try another product’ ‘Oh, I see,’ she shot him a sly look, ‘and how are you sure that this product hasn’t been tried by some other persons…’
I was lost in their code words. ‘Trust me, Julie, I know a brand new product when I see one, this product here hadn’t been tried by anyone…she’s still naive…’ My God! A cold chill ran through my spine. My mind quickly assembled all the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle into a single picture. The guy wants to sleep with me like he did to several…’ ‘Nnenna!’ mama’s voice jolted me from my reverie, ‘how long would it take you to warm the soup an hour ago?’
Papa’s mood that morning was anything but cheerful. Staring blankly at the ceiling, he finally blurted out in despair. ‘Life is unfair! Who would have thought that by now, I, Livinus Okorocha, the recipient of last year’s best staff award, would be out of the job so soon?’
‘Livinus, you’re just killing yourself over nothing,’ mama sighed, ‘white-collar job is not the only means of survival… you can still get…’ ‘Keep quiet Cynthia; I’m not asking for your opinion in this matter… ‘I have been quiet for the past six months!’ mama cried out, ‘I’m fed up with having to shoulder…shoulder all the family’s responsibilities…’ ‘Mama,’ Kelechi sauntered in with her younger sibling set for school. ‘What is it?’ she snapped angrily, ‘you girls had better be off to school; you’re late already.’
The timid girl hesitated and then nudged her younger one. ‘Mama, the mama,’ Chioma, sat on mama’s lap, ‘our teacher asked us to bring two thousand naira for excursion…’ ‘Excursion, my foot!’ papa roared like an angry lion, ‘did I send you to school to be travelling around? Before I count from one to three, disappear!’ The two girls dashed with the speed of light. ‘Livinus, why did you frighten them?’ ‘You’re an ungrateful woman, Cynthia, rather than appreciating how I’ve helped you to cut cost, you’re there talking trash.’ After a long silence, mama hissed and retired into the room. ‘Women are simply a bunch of…’ He paused at the sound of a loud knock at our door. ‘Please come in!’
The door screeched open and the guest stuck in his head in a familiar gesture before entering. ‘Good morning sir,’ I greeted. ‘Good morning Nnenna, how are you?’ ‘I’m fine sir.’ ‘Old soldier, never die,’ papa stood to receive his friend, Mr Bassey, ‘what a surprise visit!’ ‘Livinus Okorocha himself!’ he gave papa a side hug, ‘good to see you again.’ Mama entered and after the exchange of pleasantries returned to the room and I followed suit immediately.
The one-day mourning declared for the Iyaloja of the market where mama’s shop was situated, gave her ample time to complete the set of bead jewellery she had left pending for a while. As I studied the zeal on her face, I quickly did a mental calculation of how much she would realize from the craft to take care of our pressing needs as well as meeting the deadline for the purchase of my JAMB form… ‘Nnenna is becoming prettier by the day…’ Mr Bassey’s husky voice turned my attention to their conversation. ‘She looked so much like Alice, your younger sister…’ Papa sighed. ‘Please, don’t mention that name…’
Puzzled, I glanced at mama, but the unresponsive expression on her oval face confirmed that she already knew about it. ‘But why do you say so Livinus?’ Mr Bassey’s tone fell, ‘if I’m not mistaken, she is the baby of the house…’ ‘Alice is the only girl in the family and of all my other siblings; she was the only one that showed interest in furthering her education…’ he hissed.
‘Then the standard of living was considerably better; so, it wasn’t a burden sending her to study medicine…somehow, in her second year, she got pregnant and that was how she terminated her education and also refused to continue after the delivery of her baby…now she goes about telling whoever cares to listen that I ruined her education…where have I gone wrong? Because of that useless girl, I wasn’t able to go beyond the secondary school certificate qualification…its painful. Bassey, please tell me what you would have done if you were in my shoes…?’ ‘It’s one of those things my friend…that’s why you’re the big brother.’ ‘Big brother my foot! My investment on that girl was a complete waste and because of that, my investment on my girls would not go beyond secondary education…’
My heart skipped. Mama smiled and shook her head. ‘Please my friend, reconsider your harsh decision…women empowerment comes with many dividends these days.’ ‘I’m not moved,’ papa persisted, ‘power becomes polluted in the hands of a woman…’ I felt a hard lump in my throat; mama noticed my fallen countenance but merely stroked my back. ‘I would rather die,’ papa continued, ‘than be under the employment of a woman…’
‘Please be careful of your utterance…’ ‘I meant every word…’ ‘Mama,’ I muttered, ‘where did you meet this man in the first place?’ She merely smiled and resumed her work. As the men continued their discussion, I heard an unfamiliar voice in their midst. ‘Sir, I’m from The New Millennium Energy Company, and I have a letter for Mr Livinus Okorocha…’
‘Yes, I’m the one…’ papa answered… ‘Wow!’ papa exclaimed a minute later. ‘Wow! Wow!! Wow!!!’ Mama and I dashed in straightaway. ‘My company has recalled me to work,’ he announced, clutching mama’s waist in ecstasy. ‘Thank God!’ mama heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Congratulations, my friend,’ Bassey beamed, ‘that tells you that my visit today is a fruitful one.’
‘Sir, you need to sign on my copy,’ the dispatch man emphasized. ‘I knew this was going to happen,’ papa smiled as he signed the document, ‘I knew Chief Olawale was going to do something about my case.’ ‘Chief Olawale is no longer the MD.’ ‘Then it must be either Alonge or Timi…’ ‘None of those gentlemen…’ ‘Who then?’ ‘Chief handed over to his daughter, Miss Titilayo…’ ‘A woman?’ Papa stared at the document as though he has just signed his death warrant.