It started in the middle of the day, when the heat arises like an apparition, descends on mankind, and sheds itself through sweaty armpits and down sinewy backs and hard faces. The community of Olanbe was quiet, animals settled themselves under wide old trees and the children lay on thin mats, exhausted by heat and hunger.
Fatima shoved groundnuts back and forth in the black pan with a small wooden palette, adjusting the burning wood under it from time to time. Two houses away they could hear the swishing and smell the ready nuts. Fatima stopped, her eyes flitted up to the clear blue sky, down to her cracked feet, and up again to the wall opposite her. The senator was smiling, his cheeks bulging beneath his velvety cap. Vote for Change, they had said. She spread the groundnuts in a tray to cool off and stepped inside the house to get the nylons to tie them in.
In the distance Romoke had been watching. Four years old, but she had timed everything perfectly. As soon as her mother disappeared, she shot up and dashed to the tray like a rat. But the child made a costly mistake. She stopped to observe the roasted groundnuts in the sand, snaking her little finger through it like a tiny stream, wondering if the sand was as salty as the nuts. Air was slapped out of her chest, before the stinging pain that spread through her back like egg in hot oil.
“Thief!” her mother yelled, eyes darting around for a slim branch.
Romoke did not wait for her to find it. She ran down the broken road like a chicken, her mother’s threatening voice disappearing with the wind and each span her little feet took. She ran, jogged, and then walked up the road that led to Carter Adebowale Road. Terror forgotten, Romoke gazed at shiny cars and beautiful dresses, food stores and big duplexes. She continued to walk down the road and turned onto a street.
It was a broad street that narrowed as the little girl continued to walk, gazing at the block of flats on either side, lights and music flowing out into the street. Children were playing down the road, and she approached the sound of carefree laughter and happy chatter. There were pink and blue bicycles, stuffed animals, and scooters, things she’d never seen up close. The children stared at her for a moment then continued their fun.
She hung around like a shadow, observing their strange toys, listening to their English. The hunger that had chased her away from home now began to slowly implode in her small stomach. She walked away and sat on the side of the road, nothing was familiar.
“Hello,” a small girl called from above. “Do you want to come and play with me?”
Romoke heard the words “play” and “come” and arose to the invitation. The girl, Nkiru, lived on the middle floor in the block of flats behind her. The door was open, her brothers were playing downstairs with the other children. The living room was painted white, there were red sofas, black throw pillows, and a black carpet on the tiled floor. Romoke stood in front of the LED TV, dumbfounded by the clarity and size of the images.
“That is Robocop Poly. Come and see my room. I have a mermaid doll.”
Again, Romoke heard the word, “come”.
Fatima was in no mood to look for a thieving child, she would come back, she always did. The groundnuts were stuffed in nylons, but they were not nearly enough to make a substantial delivery to the storekeeper up the road. She would have to hawk them around, and hope that the heat would compel people to accompany them with cold garri. She had to make some money, otherwise there would be nothing for her and the children to eat. Juwon had not been home in days, and frankly she hoped that he would remain wherever he had been. She had no strength to fight with him anymore.
But he returned, ball cushioned in the crook of his elbow, sweat streaming down his tired face. She did not acknowledge him; she took off her old wrapper and tied another one. Juwon let his eyes linger on her slim thighs and toned muscles.
“Where are you going?”
“To make money.”
Juwon pursed his lips, wishing he’d not asked the question. Fatima tied a scarf on her head.
“Where is Romoke?”
“Your thief of a child. She ran off, after I caught her stealing again.”
“You should be more patient with her, she is just a little girl.”
The last phrase was the fire she needed to light up the rage within her. “She is the child you forced me to have, my constant sorrow and reminder of you. Always wanting what she cannot have.”
Juwon knew she was talking about his dreams to play football for a European league. He held his head in his hands, thinking that he really should have just stayed at his friend’s place, but what kind of man runs away from his own family?
“Did you come back with any money to feed this greedy child of yours, or the older ones who actually help me?”
Of course he hadn’t. Still he asked, “What do you want me to do Fatima? I am trying to get a manager every day, I am working hard—”
“I want you to go out and make money like a real man, a real man! Forget about this football thing.” She started to cry, slumping onto the tired mattress on the floor. He touched her slender, smooth shoulder, and remembered how things used to be, when it was just them. One touch from him and she would open up like a flower, now she was just cold. Still he brought his lips to her shoulder, imagining that he could resurrect something, no matter how little.
At first she let his mouth roam the curve of her shoulder, and allowed herself to feel that familiar warmth that transported her to breathtaking places. She let his voice murmur her praise and permitted his hands to find her curves. Then her stomach growled. Her heart told her to cast it all aside and be happy, if only for a moment. But her mind and body were seared with all the pain and suffering of his abandonment. She pushed him away and got up.
“I will leave you Juwon, if you don’t start bringing money home. Do whatever your mates are doing and bring money home.”
Chinwe knew that Bode was staring at her. She pouted her lips, watched them squish like an orange, then smacked them and closed the mirror.
She smiled, Bode always knew just what to say, not just to her, but to others. Every day she thanked God that she’d married him, not the man her mother had wanted her to marry. She’d never understood why her mother did not approve of Bode. What was there not to like? His heart is too big, she had said. Seven years and three children later, she still said the same thing.
They were driving towards Carter Adebowale Road. She glanced at him and the receding hair at the top of his head, another thing her mother had turned her nose up about. When she died three years earlier, Chinwe was secretly relieved that she would no longer see that smirk on her mother’s face when her husband walked into the room, her disdain of him had slowly been eating away at their marriage.
“I’m going to stop at BJ’s salon to cut my hair,” he said.
Juwon returned to his friend’s place and found him outside the long tenement building, drinking a sachet of gin. As soon as his friend saw him approaching, he began to laugh.
“I told you to stay here. She chased you away, didn’t she?”
“Look, it’s not even funny.”
“Here,” he passed him the gin, but Juwon refused it. “Take this thing and let it boost your spirit!”
Juwon drank it all.
“Bastard,” his friend said. “Thank God I have another one.”
Juwon’s mind was on his wife. How could he make money that evening? He did not want to spend another night at his friend’s, he had seen a glimpse of his wife’s pain and for once in a long time, he really wanted to make her happy.
A shiny SUV pulled up in front of the building next to them. A young man leaned towards the passenger’s window.
“Good day, I’m looking for a driver.”
The young man was moving and needed a driver for the truck he’d rented. He was one of those upper middle class people always looking for cheap labour. Neither Juwon nor his friend could drive, but there was money to be made. The young man was willing to pay five thousand naira. The friends said seven. The young man agreed. The friends decided to let Juwon drive, on the promise that he would give the other a cut.
“Lucky bastard,” his friend said, taking another swig and wishing he’d not agreed to the deal.
Nkiru was showing Romoke her toys and jumping on her soft bed, and although she was pleased to experience it all, Romoke was terribly hungry. Finally, she decided to sign with her hand and mouth.
“You want to eat?” her friend asked. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”
Romoke heard “eat” and followed her friend down the hall to a spacious room with a tall fridge, glimmering pots and pans, and clean china. Romoke was most fascinated by the white square box that sat next to the fridge, tall as she was and warm on the outside. As she circled it, her sharp eye caught the brownness of something peeking out just behind the mysterious box. It was a piece of meat lying on the floor. The child wondered who would do such a thing–forget a piece of meat on the floor. She’d not seen meat on her plate in months, and even then, her mother had cut it into the tiniest pieces so everyone could have a bite.
She held it out to Nkiru.
“Mummy said I shouldn’t eat it.”
Romoke did not understand anything apart from “mummy”, but she did notice that her new friend shook her head no. Romoke was too hungry to try to reason the whole thing through; she took a bite and smiled. Not even when Nkiru squealed, or when she said, “Mummy said it is for the rat,” did she stop chewing. She ate it all then licked her fingers.
Alone with her thoughts and half of the tray bought, Fatima began to reconsider her day. Perhaps she should have been more patient like Juwon had said, Romoke was only hungry after all. As for her husband, she wished that she had allowed some respite from the fighting, remembering the days before the children came, how he enthralled her with dreams of playing in the big leagues and earning euros. Fatima had dreamt of flashy cars and expensive jewelry, holidays in the most exotic places, and a lavish wedding. There was none of that now, and worse still, things were not right between them.
As Fatima turned off Carter Adebowale Road, she made up her mind to mend things with her husband. Maybe they could agree to some things, maybe he could change, maybe they could be happy again. She thought of his mouth on her skin, his warm hand on her body, and decided that she would like reconciliation very much.
She turned down a broad street that narrowed as she sang, “Groundnuts are here! Buy groundnuts, drink garri!”
Juwon fiddled with the gear stick and the pedals of the truck, breathing in and out like a sumo wrestler. He did not know what he was doing but Fatima had told him to do whatever it took. The SUV drove slowly ahead of him; he’d managed to follow behind with his scanty knowledge of driving. The truck was full of all kinds of electrical devices, ACSs, large screen TVs, sofas, rechargeable standing fans, an oven, a freezer, beds–everything he couldn’t give his own family.
Juwon was weary of trying and failing. He was tired of seeing the disappointment on Fatima’s face, tired of telling his children that he didn’t come home with anything. Lately he’d noticed that even Romoke, as young as she was, knew that he was empty, that he had nothing to offer her or anyone else for that matter. It broke his heart.
The young man ahead of him was about his age; he’d heard someone call him doctor. Doctor What’s-His-Name had the guts to order him to join in the packing and had given him a disgusted look when he’d fumbled with the driving. Juwon resented him. No be your fault, he muttered, turning the wheel roughly on to Carter Adebowale Road.
“I don’t understand why you won’t go to a better salon,” Chinwe said to Bode.
“Chinwe, I’ve known Goke for a long time. I can’t abandon him now because I have money.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s so embarrassing to see you walk into that old shop when there are nicer ones around.”
“Look on the bright side, it’s not as if there’s much hair to cut.”
Chinwe laughed. “Okay, but do you have to go now? Let’s go home, we’ve been in traffic for so long. You can come back later with the boys while I stay with Nkiru.”
“I already promised him, and he’s expecting a little something from me.” He pulled off to the side of the road and kissed her. “Drive carefully.” He kissed her again. “You know I love you.”
“I don’t love you.”
He laughed and stepped out of the car. She watched his bald head go, noticing the bigger folds on his waist.
The SUV was going too fast, and it was hard enough mastering the pedals and the gearshift. Juwon was getting angrier and angrier at the situation, and at Doctor What’s-His-Name who thought he was the big boss. He didn’t even have a family. What right had he to own so much property and to speak to him so condescendingly, as if he understood family life and responsibility?
The traffic light turned red but Juwon did not see it, and he didn’t see the bald man until he’d knocked him off his feet.
Romoke was crying, holding her stomach. Nkiru was asleep on the floor. Why did her stomach hurt so much? She tried to wake her friend but she could only groan. Bile rose to her throat and she expelled some of the meat she’d eaten.
It hurt to even breathe. There was a song on the TV she didn’t know. It was a happy tune. As Romoke gave in to the poison that eroded her intestines, she wondered where her mother was and if she would get into trouble if she fell asleep on the strange floor.
There was a lot of noise on the street. It was growing dark, and Fatima couldn’t imagine what could have happened. People were folding their arms and shaking their heads. Someone had died, she wondered who. One thing was for sure, she would hardly make any sales. She was turning to leave when she heard them talking.
“A little girl, no one knows where she came from.”
“Someone said she wandered down the street, just looking at everyone.”
“Such a pretty girl.”
“You saw her?”
“I did, she had a small mouth and a slim nose like the northerners.”
Fatima turned. Something about the description made her body break out in a chill.
“Please, what happened?”
They told her. The child was still lying in the house. Fatima part walked, part ran to the house, her wares abandoned somewhere between the road and the house. When she came into the house and saw the blue dress Romoke had been wearing, she screamed so much that the whole street ran towards the house.
Fatima and Chinwe sat at opposite ends of the police station, eyes swollen, legs trembling. They’d given their testimonies. Juwon had been arrested. There were others too, explaining what had happened in both places.
Chinwe looked at her bloodied hands, thinking about the way Bode was on the road one second and in the air the next, like dust. I don’t love you. She hadn’t meant it, and she knew that he knew it. Still it was the last thing she’d said to him. She wondered if she had told him she loved him, if he would’ve kissed her one more time and been out of harm’s way. She smeared his blood over her gown, she didn’t want to let him go.
Fatima was trembling so much she could hardly sit. I sent them both away, she said to herself, over and over again.
In a random moment, they stared at one another. Neither could hate the other. They simply looked at each other and wept.
About the Author:
Lola Opatayo’s work has been published in Obsidian, Hot Metal Bridge and is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions, 2020. She is a recipient of the Iceland Writers’ Alumni Award, and a fellowship from MacDowell.