Yemi had long given up struggling against the currents and had succumbed to its mighty waves allowing to be sucked down and under. She’d long lost the zest for living-already hitting rock bottom where life couldn’t get any worse.
Ten years back she’d lost Fidelis, and had thought his death an absolute end to a long-time misery. But she was unprepared for the next blow life had dealt when suddenly, the supposed ‘end’ had, in fact, turned a beginning to an even worse fate.
No thanks to Fidelis’ family, she had crashed right ground bottom, a place she had thought she would never return. But there she was anonymous and walking the streets of Lagos in ill-fit faded clothes and worn sandals that splattered mud on her feet with every step. Worse, they’d cut only moments back.
Yemi watched the cobbler settle beside the gigantic drainage to work on her slippers. She was only just considering herself lucky to have found a mallam early Saturday morning, when a vehicle suddenly sped past, splattering muddy rainwater over her. She let out a horrendous shriek and cursed heavily at the fast zooming driver. The mallam did the same in distinct Hausa, wiping the mud off himself with the rag he’d placed beneath her slippers to keep contact with his three-quarter shorts. Mud had splattered on him the most, and Yemi watched disgustedly as he spat into the drainage beside him, wiped whatever visible stains off himself, before returning to work, with the rag again playing cover cloth for his short.
Yemi snorted in deep disgust and hailed for a hawker from whom she purchased a sachet water to wash her feet with when her slipper was done. She had refused the slipper offered by the mallam and had put her heel to the ground instead. She could only imagine the tons of legs that had slid into them.
The mallam sewed diligently, with white thread that posed a contrast to her brown sandal. He’d run out of black thread, he’d said, but at the same time had quickly assured a decent job. He would polish the white threads with brown kiwi polish he promised and even bragged of a wonderful outcome. What choice did Yemi have in the matter, unless to hope for something solid to take her to her destination and back. Her slippers needed a replacement.
When Yemi was little, she and her sister Olaide had prayed out of penury into wealth. That dream had turned reality when Olaide had married into the great Alonge family at Abeokuta and she-Fidelis, a well prominent man in the state. Their dreams had materialized as they had both prayed, and to a large extent, both were accomplished. Perhaps if either had glimpsed the future, they might have prayed to remain even longer in it. Except for Olaide of course, who now was at an even better place.
Though Laide had met misfortune in the hands of her husband, Yemi had met even greater one in the hand of a monster, whose family was quick to discard her on his demise.
Fidelis’ family was as mean as him. They’d seemed like vicious prey silently lying in wait until a perfect moment which had shown on Fidelis’ sudden death. The strike had been so sudden; Yemi had barely had time to grab as little as a pin out of her matrimonial home. She’d been left poor and clueless except for some little savings at the bank.
But even that was nothing compared to Fidelis’ mysterious son appeared from nowhere with the family. If the boy didn’t look so much as Fidelis with those exact set of mean eyes boring into her, Yemi might have argued it. The reality of flesh and blood, doubtlessly Fidelis’ had left her shaken. He’d shown with his mother and his family to claim what was his.
Every now and then, Yemi still hurt at the knowledge of it. It was that sort of wound that time could never heal, not when it stared her in the face every morning, sneering. Yemi cursed Fidelis, her life, her senseless sacrifices for him and her sole dependence on him which she still suffered from. Perhaps life would have been better if she’d given her life some meaning other than staying the ‘diligent’ housewife whose entirety only revolved around Fidelis. If she could, she would turn back the hands of time, and be her own woman; be independent. Yemi had learnt, except too late. And for all of his hurt, she wished him a lifetime in hell.
The cobbler finished with Yemi’s slipper just then, and it fit when she tried it on. It was a pretty neat job and barely showed white threads as promised. But Yemi wasn’t dumb. It was only a matter of time till the brown polish wore off it and its true colour was revealed.
She dug into her worn leather wallet in a desperate search for a twenty naira note she’d saved in it. Finding it was pertinent because the slightest scrape from her calculated fare and she might have to trek part of the way or beg her way through with the hope of assistance from a Good Samaritan which was uncertain. The harsh economy was terribly weighing on the unsmiling faces on the street.
Yemi sighed in relief after a thorough search through her bag and since the cobbler was engaged in a somewhat heated telephone conversation, she took a moment drifting to noise from a drop-off vehicle. The just alighted passenger was laughing and waving at other passengers, all except a cute sulking child cramped in the back seat between two fat women. Yemi’s heart reached to the detached boy who wouldn’t smile back at her but looked away on a deepened scowl. The boy never looked her way again, though entirely aware of her stare. And as the car pulled into the road, Yemi felt pity for him, wondering what could possibly be the bother for him. If she could, she’d implore him to enjoy his childhood years before adulthood dawned. Being a kid was much easier; no worries, no thoughts, no regrets. Sometimes, even she longed for the good old days, far gone and never to be retrieved.
The mallam’s cheap mobile jangled noisily again as the call ended, and ticked, he killed it. Yemi was more than glad to be rid of the annoyingly sound. She rather kept an affordable Nokia as opposed to a cheap substandard gadget cramped with poor applications copying a superior one. Once, she’d been classy and owned only the best of luxuries and since she could no longer afford that, she’d rather stick to simple, but never inferior.
Yemi squeezed some twenty naira into the cobbler’s hand, unsurprised by his adamancy, but when meeting an unagreeable end, she switched tactic and plead instead. He finally took it, shoving it into his pocket somewhat furiously and mumbling his displeasure as he stormed off, leaving Yemi focused on catching a bus at the rowdy bus station. She missed the first two buses, as they were claimed by agile youngsters. Of course, fuel scarcity had resulted in the shortage of transport and an inflated fare, obeying the demand and supply rule. Thus, claiming a spot on any of the buses was of competition and even regarded a thing of luck. And so Yemi braced for it as another beat-up dingy yellow and black striped bus slowed with a raggedly looking conductor yelling for passenger’s and announcing the fare rate in that legendary deep weed croaked voice attributed to Lagos conductors and drivers.
Yemi was swift, and this time slotted in amidst the bout, momentarily getting knocked by a man who barely even noticed. She barely had any chance for words but mumbled a curse as she strained for balance and claimed the last vacant slot by the entrance where the conductor hung. The conductor smelt of cheap gin as he clambered up the open entrance and tapped on the bus, signaling the driver into motion. The bus jerked into a start and like a faulty grinder, the carburetor magnified noisily as they sped down the clear asphalt with violent jerks and heavy screeches at every pulled brake. Yemi clung for her dear life. She particularly hated sitting by the open door where the breeze fanned through accompanying with it the conductor’s sweaty foul smell, where she couldn’t sit comfortably with her back rested and she’d have to be disturbed by every alighting passenger.
Moments later, when the conductor crouched into the moving vehicle arrogantly charging his fare with an alcohol reeking mouth -spluttering saliva near her face, Yemi shouted him into caution, having had enough of it. The aggressive man barely offered her audience, but at least was fair enough to stop yelling over her head. And when they pulled into the next station relieving some passengers and carrying on new ones, Yemi was overjoyed to be out of the man’s breath and his armpit stretched overhead to receive his fare. The seat soon filled again with other passengers, but what caught Yemi’s attention was the burly man who had just entered almost resembling Fidelis. Very gruffly he asked that she shift. She moved, though it made no difference on the cramped wooden seat.
Yemi turned out the window, allowing the cool May air fan her face but soon felt tears pool in her eyes as she watched a sport car roll past with a woman at its wheel. Once she’d known such comfort, along with a driver to take her wherever. But all of it had vanished with Fidelis’ sudden heart attack. But the loss of all was nothing compared to her freedom now which she’d never trade for anything. With Fidelis, she’d felt boxed. The pain was yet so great in her mind, she wished for amnesia to get rid of it.
Yemi tired of memories of how she’d lived in endurance for him, how for his sake, she had broken morals and yet nothing had stopped him from having a child out of wedlock.
She’d led a terrible life, but her deepest regret so far was watching Pelumi get stripped of her innocence. How could she have sat and let him do those things to her? How could she have revered his threats over the child’s welfare? Yemi cringed at the memory. She couldn’t despise herself any more than she did already. She’d been greedy and scared, the voice in her head accused. She should have given it all up a long time ago and saved the child. But she hadn’t and when Karma paid, all she’d waited to have, she’d lost in the long run.
Through every night of fourteen years, Yemi was haunted by it and constantly she wondered if she could have done things differently. If Fidelis had not had her by the tail with such blackmail, would she have changed things still? As always, the answer stood glaring before her. Facts remained that she was forever cursed with the child’s piercing cries and screams. Yemi sniffed tears. She’d failed everyone; herself, the kids and most of all Olaide. She envisioned her sister’s hateful glare from world’s away.
Life, however, had been good to the child. For all her woes, she’d been compensated by making something of herself. Yemi was proud and would always be thankful that Pelumi had left. She remembered many years back when the child had fled. She had experienced a mixed feeling of some sort; happiness that she was out of Fidelis’ reach but a sickening fear for her survival in the world. She’d turned to prayers and in fact now would like to think it part of what had sustained Pelumi and assured her success. Even now, she still prayed for her. Yemi earnestly loved Pelumi. The child’s ignorance of it didn’t matter.
Through the ride, Yemi let her mind trail back to the first moment she’d seen Pelumi’s article in the paper. The name was just as she’d remembered, and had prodded a twinge. Yemi in subsequent weeks and years had diligently followed the article, hoping it was her. Until one day when luck had smiled her way and the article’s writer was hosted on TV. That face had immediately struck recognition. It almost was as if she was seeing Olaide in the screen except of course a dark version. She knew immediately who she beheld, and in course to emotion, Yemi had given to tears.
However joyful she was, Yemi had intended to keep her distance till her last breath and maintain anonymousity from children whose forgiveness she knew she could never acquire. She would have attained just that if not for the ghastly motor accident as seen on TV. At that, damning every consequence, she knew she needed to see them and finally summoned the courage to two weeks back when she’d shown for her first visit. The welcome was nothing like she’d expected. There on the bed, picturesque of vulnerability was Pelumi with deep unrecognizing eyes searching her out. For a moment, she’d feared Pelumi’s lash, expected it even, and when it hadn’t come, her conscience had made up for it even after news of Pelumi’s amnesia. Seeing Pelumi again had torn open scar tissues and days after had even brought daunting nightmares.
Now over three weeks since her last visit, Yemi had decided on another visit percipient to what major advantage amnesia could turn out. It posed another chance at reconnecting, which she admitted was a rare one, and fiercely resolved wouldn’t let pass.
Finally the bus hit her destination. As she alighted her heart began an instinctive thump, escalating as she began the short trek to the hospital. With every step, Yemi’s heart raced agitatedly as questions crossed her head. What if Pelumi recognized her this time, or worse, was already cured of Amnesia? From her last visit, she remembered Pelumi’s smooth recovery as mentioned by one of the doctors. She probably should have stayed home like her intuitions had adviced. It scared Yemi not knowing what to expect, but yet she willed her legs into extra agility. She would see the woman-face whatever consequences if there were any! Besides, what did she have at stake? She had lost it all.
As Yemi drifted into the hospital, Tobi sprang into her thoughts and she shuddered. It was Saturday morning, chances were that he wouldn’t be there. But what if he were? The elder sibling was one whom she really dreaded seeing. In over a decade, both paths had not crossed. And frankly, Yemi wasn’t looking forward to seeing him. Tobi’s icy glare and hate from years had not been dimmed by time. She recollected his distraught at having lost his sister. And while he’d piled all blame on her, she’d said nothing. When he’d called her incompetent and careless, he’d been right and no absolution in the world could ever really rid her guilt.
But now, most importantly not knowing Tobi’sknowledge of Pelumi’s past was scary. Even if he knew, how much of it did he know? She simply couldn’t see Tobi. One face already did enough to make her feel guilty. She didn’t need another.
Yemi stopped at the huge oak desk and returned a nervous greeting to the reception’s warm ones. She mentioned her object of visit and waited anxiously as the lady behind the desk scanned through her book for Pelumi. Soon giving a detailed description of the ward, Yemi realized it was still the same one as she had visited. Thanking the lady, she went her way, noting the death of a rosy reception.
Slowly, she took the stairs up the third floor praying Tobi and his wife absent. When almost at ward twenty-four down the hall, Yemi slowed puzzled by the built man with stern studying eyes at what seemed like Pelumi’s ward. She must have missed the nurses’ description, she thought as she drew up to the end of the hall unsurprised at the number boldly engravened on the door. Then, Yemi allowed her eyes to meet the perusing astute ones of the man with such a surface steeliness that sure didn’t equal the inwards. The rigid man was not loitering the hallway. He was there to stay, she dissolved.
Yemi started forward unsure whether to seek his assistance when his domineering stance moved over obstructing the doorway. “How may I help you ma?” His eyes were unsmiling.
She withdrew as if suddenly struck. She would have asked his right on that but figured the key probability of his role in seeing Pelumi.
“I’m here to see my niece, Pelumi Longe.” She supplied clipped, and hating his suspicious run over her. She was no thief or lawbreaker, except perhaps maybe a long distant time in her life.
“I’m sorry, you can’t see her.”
“Why?” Yemi asked even more puzzled.
Yemi panicked a moment. She had not come this far to get turned away. Besides the nurse at the reception would have informed her of it if it were true. On second thought, she realized the woman thought her family, which in some way she was. “Is she with anyone?”
Yemi sobered then, realizing how great her fate depended on the man. She’d better play by his rules. “Please, I need to see her. It’s so urgent.” She plead, frantically delving into her bag, and retrieving some pictures. And under the man’s cool, brazen glare, she drifted through shots, showing each to him with such nervous desperation that she was oblivious to. They were childhood pictures of Tobi and Pelumi with her and Laide, happier moments meant to appeal to the man’s humanity. But at the end, Yemi’s heart sank at Tijani’s impassive glare.
Tijani was unfazed to her plea. He’d been warned specifically of her visit and had known she would show again. Granting a quick sweep over the woman and her faded iro and buba, Tijani was forced to wonder her possible relationship with the prestigious family. She must have ticked them off wrongly. Why else would they watch her rot in obvious penury, he thought.
Tijani killed his ears to her plea but found that the more he did, the more incessant they grew. At some point when they’d become too unbearable, he issued a threat. And despite the flash of fear in her eyes, Yemi kept her stand. Tijani applauded her persistence, and glaring at her, for the first time in ages tried to feel a pang for a human, but couldn’t. His conscience was long dead behind shadows of his own. It would take more than a weeping woman to rouse it.
Quietly, he watched Yemi’s theatrics, standing his grounds and yet deluding a relaxed form with his back against the wall and his arms severely folded when in reality his sinews pounded with strength and alertness. “Just go home woman and stop wasting your time.”
Her aggrandized tears ticked even more, and Tijani already was tempted to use force when the door suddenly opened and both directed to it. Tijani in spite of his composure pushed reflexively off the wall, strung with surprise. Pelumi in the past days had barely uttered more than a word or two, talk less of making an appearance.
“What’s happening Tijani?” Pelumi’s eyes darted first from the guard to the teary-eyed woman and in a flash, Pelumi’s expression turned granite.
Yemisi felt a chill then from her niece’s glare which only cut deeper the longer those large eyes stayed on her.
“How are you?” Yemisi managed, nervously swallowing at the steely bland woman. She’d expected some reaction, but certainly not daggers.
Yemi froze as the lady started maliciously with darkening eyes. Anger, hatred and despise burned in them alongside a striking certainty that spoke undeniable recognition. She could never be prepared for what followed.“Aunt Yemi.”Pelumi growled with such hatefulness that stopped Yemi’s world and sent it crashing about her.
“Aunt Yemi!’ She charged again with such fierceness that shook Yemi to her core. Instinctively, Yemi backed from the fury possessed woman.
“You allowed him to put his hands on me! You were there!” Pelumi spat, eyes blazing fury and biting on every word trance-like.
Yemi backed farther until colliding with Tijani’s rock hard form behind her. Spooked, she passed frantically from one face to the other, feeling wedged between the devil and the deep blue sea.
“You watched, but you never did anything, you never said anything, you never helped!” Pelumi’s deep voice rang furiously in the corridor, her tone matching the fire in her.
Tijani was shock struck himself. In all three weeks of working with the Longe’s, not once had Pelumi been this crazed. Her eyes now flashed danger, he knew to arbitrate or steer the older woman out of Pelumi’s reach. But not yet, he said to himself. Pelumi had been too passive in the past days, if spitting rage was what it took to bring her out of her shell, he would allow it for as long as it was manageable.
“You made it seem it was my fault. For years, you made me feel guilty. You never said anything, you never cared!” Pelumi screamed. Her voice a horrendous cry that seared through Yemi and got her trembling.
“You-y-o-u don’t understand” Yemi stuttered.
“What’s there to understand?” The now crazed Pelumi said between clenched teeth, baring down at the woman only a breath away.“That your husband molested me over and over. That he hurt me and had me traumatized for years, that you knew and never tried to stop it, or that you pretended you didn’t know it was happening?”
“Get out!” Pelumi whispered in apparent contempt, and fist tightly clenched beside her. Oblivious to the growing party at the passage, she visibly fought strained emotions. Tijani knew he should intervene.
“Get out!” Pelumi screamed this time with every ounce that had Tijani spring to the quavering woman’s rescue. And fearful for Yemi, he steered the numb woman into departure.
“Go! And don’t ever show your face in your miserable life, because I never want to see you!”
Yemi cringed at Pelumi’s lash, working her wobbly feet through the crowd, under strong hands -which if not for, her legs might have given way. She was shaking as she scrambled past the forms in ‘white’ alone, and down the stairs followed by Pelumi’s hysteric yell. She tripped once, and a second time, blinded by tears. Pelumi had never before spoken harshly to her. Once, Pelumi had been the little girl who adored her. But all of that in the face of reality was long forgotten. Knowing she deserved it didn’t make it any bearable.
Now out in the sun, Yemi let off an uncontrollable sob, acquitted as much from the past as much as the present. It was as much as about her sins as the woman’s life she had ruined. For in those moments she’d glimpsed Pelumi’s soul. Her niece was far gone, far from the bright-eyed innocent child she’d known to an entirely unrecognizable being; an extremely bitter person.