Friday, 6 September 2013

Work in progress 3

Presently, my friend Joké appeared. It was unusual for her to come so early in the day, as if anticipating the drama she relished in her own life - and brought to mine. I had met her soon after I started returning to Nigeria when I dropped in at the National Theatre with some friends. We were on our way to VI for a dinner in honour of our Nobel laureate’s sixtieth birthday just months before the dramatist was chased into exile in fear of his life by the General who drowned baby mice and hanged Saro-Wiwa. She was doing something or other with the National Troupe and tagged along with us. Like me, she had one of those foreign surnames which denoted ‘family’ but things were rough with her. She never had any money and she dressed shabbily and I never did find out what she did for a living. It seems that she was alone in Lagos because her father was dead and her sister was in America, although there was some mystery about her mother, who she claimed was working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia but who eventually turned out to be living in Lagos.
As with Prince, who was now acting as my enforcer in my running battle with my recalcitrant tenants, it was difficult to know what to believe; as with Prince also, one somehow never got to see any papers. I couldn’t even be sure of her age but I guessed that she was in her late thirties or early forties. The only thing I knew for certain was that she had lived in London because she was familiar with my old haunts around the Notting Hill Gate/Ladbroke Grove axis, including The Ship restaurant I used to patronize on giro day when I returned from Canada and was writing never-to-be-published short stories in earnest at the rate of one a day in a purple attic bedsit. She was a good mimic and caught the London Rasta accent beautifully and whenever she did so I had the feeling that she wanted to go back but somehow couldn’t, not necessarily because London would have been easier than Lagos but because it wasn’t here. She herself put it down to ‘spiritual reasons’, i.e. that her enemies were blocking her, a line that would appeal to a great many Nigerians anxious to see evil lurking everywhere.
From the start, she was keen I consider her a sister, which was just as well because I didn’t find her at all attractive. She had a bulky, misshapen body with pendulous breasts and yams for calves, although she also had one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, made more so by her perfect dentition. She was also loud, drank too much and had a habit of sitting with her legs apart, leaving nothing to chance. On the plus side, she was a superb cook and kept me supplied in women, although in this as elsewhere she was inclined to overdo things, another trait she shared with Prince. One weekend, for instance, she brought a nineteen-year-old I had noticed at the Shrine only to bring her mother the next, as she later confessed before revealing that the father and husband was high up in the navy at a time when we were still under military rule. I pointed out that I could have been horsewhipped, at the very least, but she just laughed as if it was a huge joke – ‘You too dey fear,’ she said - and perhaps she was right.
All the same, she couldn’t have come at a better time. The first of the tenants was at long last being evicted and the bailiffs were busy about their work under Prince’s supervision. Just as I was explaining this to her Ngozi, the evictee, emerged from her flat in tears to curse me for being a ‘bastard’ at the same time as the Alhaji, the next in line, came bounding upstairs to insist that I was an impostor and not part of the Pearce family I claimed to belong to. Joké flew out.
‘Shut up your mouth you fucking bitch otherwise I will slap you just now,’ she screamed, hands on hips, her face not two inches from her adversary’s, as pumped up as I’ve ever seen anyone. Even Prince, who had come out to confront the Alhaji, was taken aback.
‘Look at her, bleachy bleachy,’ she sneered, but this was merely rhetorical: Ngozi was naturally yellow, without the disfiguring blotches from the skin-whitening ointments supposedly banned but freely available. Chastened, she retreated to her rapidly emptying flat as Prince quietly ordered the Alhaji back downstairs to await his own turn, which he did with surprising meekness.
‘See as she dey bleach come talk nonsense for my broda,’ Joké continued. ‘Wo, I go beat am, eh? I go beat all de one wey she bleach commot for him face. Useless bitch. Asewo.'
Prince calmed her down and I introduced them. He smiled and nodded and told me to give her money for bread and eggs for the boys, along with enough for another bottle of Chelsea. Joké was delighted. She giggled girlishly as she went about her assignment.
By noon, it was all over. I stood on the front balcony watching a distraught Ngozi, still in her nightdress, wandering about in confusion among her goods piled up in the street. It was hard to credit the amount of stuff she had crammed into her flat and I thought I heard her say something about the ice cream in the freezer melting. Presently, Joké joined me.
‘See her, she never even bath self,’ she said. She was silent for a moment. ‘Na so her toto go dey smell,’ she added laconically before returning to the kitchen, where she was cooking egusi soup. She surpassed herself that day as she giggled and fluttered while ‘Baba’ Prince wolfed down two large helpings before we all retired to the empty flat he was now to occupy.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers.

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