The girl licked the spoon and suddenly caught a glimpse of the older woman watching her. Although the older woman had pretended not to notice the scraping sounds of the spoon against the starving girl’s plate, she could not help but steal glances at the wounded girl sitting in her living room wondering what she would tell her own daughter about her new “guest” when she arrived. Realizing that hunger had stripped her of good manners, Kelechi placed the spoon back on the plate. The plate was empty and looking rather clean except for the trails of palm-oil that moving the beans around on the plate had created. Mama asked her if she wanted some more beans as a matter of fact. Shame of her circumstances had almost made her refuse another mess of beans, but her stomach spoke louder than her shame.
She did not know how long her good fortune would hold. She did not have transportation money to go back to the village to escape poverty in Lagos; it was not that she wanted to return to the village. It was not much better in her village. Her family no longer had any land on which to farm. Their survival had depended on the little she sent to them from her meager earnings and the kind generosity of extended family. Returning to the village would only create another mouth to feed and she did not want to be forced into reclaiming a child that she could not feed. She had previously sent her little boy back to the village to live with the woman who had refused to accept her as a daughter-in-law because her family was too poor not because she would have made a bad wife. She ate this second serving a lot slower. Right now she did not have the energy or the desire to explain her misfortune or to feign hope for her hopeless future to anyone. This time she savored each spoonful making sure not to leave any of the beans behind on the plate.
As if the older woman could read her mind, she had offered her a place to sleep for the time being; a place to rest her head until she could get proper help. Kelechi found herself repeating the words “Thank, ma” over and over again because there was little else she thought appropriate to say. Mama reached for the telephone once she had given the girl fresh clothes to wear and settled her down; as usual the phone was dead. Mama was used to the phone being dead. It had nothing to do with an unpaid bill; it was just the way things worked or rather didn’t work in the country. She put the phone back on its cradle and attended to her daily chores while she waited for her daughter Olufunmilayo who was sure to stop by.
Although her young neighbor had not yet told her what had caused the pitiful condition of her body, Mama had already guessed that it was related to the ruckus she had heard over the wall that divided her house from the Mission house next door. The Mission house was built relatively close to hers and she could clearly see into parts of the compound from her dining room window if she did not have her curtains drawn. She had heard the commotion in the next compound but had not bothered to pull back the blinds since whatever had her neighbors yelling and carrying on seemed to have them simultaneously roaring with laughter.
She had not cared to listen to the details of the many simultaneous conversations that had been going on next door but she could not help but overhear that it involved some theft, God’s punishment or something to that effect. She never did not much care for mobs and was not inclined to stop whatever she was doing to watch public displays of stupidity. So when she had heard peals of laughter amidst all the uproar, and since her dogs had not alerted her to an intruder, she had decided not to interfere in whatever was going on next door. In her opinion, the Mission house which had been left to lay fallow for many years since the expatriate priests who occupied it earlier had returned to their home countries was now filled with loud, inconsiderate vandals who had no sense of what it was to be neighborly.
Kelechi who was resting as comfortably as she could, had now fallen into a deep sleep on the sofa in Mama’s living room. Mama had covered the girl with a clean mustard yellow flat bed sheet. The girl’s body seemed to be swollen and bruised in so many areas from being hit forcefully by some blunt object. Her left thigh and hip area seemed to have swollen enormously; this area was much more swollen than the other parts. Mama was certain that there were definitely bones broken in that area. She went over to the phone again. This time the phone had a dial tone. She breathed a sigh of relief and dialed the private line of her personal doctor.
Dr. Anfani was quick to respond. She recognized the voice immediately and responded brightly. “How are you ma? I hope all is well? Your next appointment is in another fortnight. Are you missing me already?” When she noticed that Mama did not respond right away, she said, “I’m on my way.” Mama simply said, “Broken bones, major lacerations and trauma from the force of a blunt object.” Dr. Anfani called loudly to someone in the background before she hung up the phone, “Ambulance. Emergency! Mama Funlayo’s house. Hurry!” She had not waited to find out if it was Mama who had this chronicle of medical issues or if Mama was attempting to tell her about someone else.
Olufunmilayo, Mama’s only daughter arrived just as Dr. Anfani’s ambulance pulled up in front of her mother’s house. She was petrified. She had warned her mother over and over again about choosing to live a white man’s life in a black man’s country. “Mama this is Nigeria. My father is dead. Old people do not live alone. You are not a gun toting pioneer in the American west. Move in with me and my husband. It isn’t as if we can’t take care of you.” Her mother had refused. “I don’t want anyone telling me when to eat or sleep. I don’t need you children getting under my feet. I have always been my own master and I am not about to abandon that now.”
Olufunmilayo could recite her mother’s response word for word by now; she had heard the same response since her mother celebrated her fiftieth birthday and she had first invited her to move in with her new family in a more affluent part of town. She knew how stubborn her mother could be when she had set her mind to something so she never argued with her. But this had not stopped her from bringing up the subject every opportunity she had. Now it had come to this; an ambulance outside her mother’s house. Perhaps her mother had fallen and hurt herself. Perhaps she had cracked her skull open and was lying there dead. “That old woman will surely be the death of me”, she murmured under her breath.
She nearly dropped the striped plastic bag filled with fresh cat fish as she rushed into the yard, past the sniffing dogs who knew better than to bark at their mistress’s only daughter. As she reached into her handbag to get her keys, she found her mother standing at the door in front of her. “Thank Heaven’s! You are alright” she shouted. “Hush. Don’t make so much noise.” Her mother whispered. ‘Funmilayo as she was sometimes called rolled her large black eyes. If this woman were not her mother, she would have had her killed a very l-o-n-g time ago. The emergency crew from the ambulance was now standing directly behind her at the door almost pushing her aside so they could get inside. ‘Funmilayo stepped to the side and hissed as respectfully as she could, “Mama what is going on?”
The ambulance crew was in the house before she was. Dr. Anfani’s car pulled up behind the ambulance. Funmilayo just stood to the side hands folded under her chest. She had had enough! What was her mother up to this time? One never knew what to expect from the old lady. You just couldn’t get her to behave. She had a knack for embarrassing you when you least expected it. Perhaps the doctor could talk some sense into her. Funmilayo cleared her throat and prepared to use her sweet syrupy voice. “Dr. Anfani. Long time no see. Mama is in there doing her thing as usual. Perhaps you can talk some sense into her. She seems to be okay.” Dr. Anfani bared her teeth at Funmilayo for a split second in an obviously superficial smile. “I am glad your mother is fine. Have you seen her yet?”There was no love lost between the women. They tolerated each other for Mama’s sake.
‘Funmilayo was highly irritated by now. Her syrupy voice usually got her what she wanted but it hadn’t worked with the good doctor. In her opinion, Dr. Anfani was just her mother’s lackey. One day she would come to realize what a drag her mother really was. The old woman just did not know how to live; especially for someone who collected a steady pension from the government. She spent her day visiting other old folk, having tired old conversations when she could be out and about town getting involved with the people that were really happening. She could at least dress up and come along to some of the high class parties that her friends threw in the city. ‘Funmilayo bit her tongue.
She was smart enough not say what she really thought. She had to keep up appearances. No one could say she was not a good daughter. After all she made her daily pilgrimages to her mother’s house. She did not know any of her friends’ mothers who got fresh fish every day. As for doctor know-it-all, she didn’t fool anyone. She was probably there at a moments notice because her business wasn’t thriving. No one in their right mind would leave their clinic to attend to an old woman who did not know how to use this town. They were two of a kind and needed to be together. They could take care of each other for all she cared. It would be less trouble for her to deal with after all. Why waste words on a fool?
She twisted her 22 inch long thick 22 karat gold chain which she had bought on her recent trip to Saudi Arabia by the heavy ornate pendant that dangled from it and stared directly at Dr. Anfani. “Hmph! Myyyyyyyyyyyy mother opened the door herself when I arrived here.” Funmilayo said with her neck craned like a bird about to take flight. The doctor walked in ahead of Funmilayo. The sleeping girl had slowly begun to stir. Mama and the crew were standing over Kelechi examining her and discussing whether to move her into the ambulance. Dr. Anfani strode right over to Mama smiled and hugged her in relief. “I am glad to see that you are not the patient. Who is our young lady on the sofa?” she inquired.
Despite the pain relievers that Mama had dispensed to Kelechi, the throbbing pain that possessed her body never really faded away. She lay really still completely astounded that a doctor and medical crew had actually come there because of her. She could not believe that her insignificant life was important to any one but her own mother and her child. She felt that she owed Mama and the doctor an explanation of how she got to become their burden. She vowed to tell them what had happened as soon as they had settled on her fate. She could not afford a doctor or the hospital. She had to make sure they understood that. She was just grateful that they cared; that people who did not know her cared.
Mama began to speak in a steady firm stream of words. “My precious child, true daughter of Anfani. You do not fail to act as kindly as your father before you. Your name is certainly appropriate to your person and your profession. This child you see is my daughter from next door. She has been wounded and broken, but she did not die. Neither one of us has the money that can pay you. You see us as we are.” Mama stretched out her hands with her empty palms facing upward. Funmilayo groaned and rolled her eyes. Before she could control herself she had remarked, “Only my mother would mistake another man’s daughter for her own. She should have had more children if she wanted others.” All eyes turned to her and the realization of what she had done settled on her. Her words had fallen like a string of beads that had snapped in the market place and lay scattered in a mess in public sight. She could not clean up the mess she had made. She left the room completely embarrassed that her thoughts had betrayed her and escaped without notice as words through her lips.