By Treena Kwenta
HI Readers! Hurrah! At last I’m on vacation, and I’m penning these lines outside the country. My place in Lagos is virtually empty as nanny has gone to her village in Togo for a week. Seb who’s also over here with Belinda told Robert, his Togolese steward, to go spend the nights at my place with our guard until we get back.
Yes, Seb and his lady are in England and we travelled out the same day but at different times. He had booked me on a morning flight while they took a night flight.
I felt sorry for the children who had to come meet me at the airport in the evening, and then return there in the morning to meet their flight. Luckily it was a Saturday, so, at least they didn’t miss work.
My! The newly-weds were looking so radiant and happy together; hardly able to keep their hands off each other. Honeymoon forever, Lord! That gladdened my heart. Nanny had told me that she had dreamt that Heather was expecting a baby, and that I should find out if it’s true. I merely nodded, not wanting to remind her that I had told her that we should relax about pregnancy and babies. I mean, there’s no way I’m going to ask my daughter if she’s pregnant. What if she isn’t? Wouldn’t that make her feel bad that she’s unable to conceive immediately, or, start being on the defensive, saying that they didn’t want a baby this early, or such stuff, whereas they do?
I’m eager to become a grandmother myself, but it isn’t something I can force to happen, is it? Heather looked pretty and ‘fresh’, if you know what I mean, but I put that down to a happy marital life. I didn’t want to raise my hopes, and then have them dashed to pieces.
Robert was beginning to look well-fed and cared for. He hadn’t put on weight, rather, he looked settled and contented. May that last forever, Lord! Milwan, on the other hand, was looking a bit tired and drawn. I asked him what the matter was, and he said he was missing having his sister around at his place.
“Mum, I have had to look after myself one hundred percent since she left,” he told me. “I now have to shop, cook and clean for myself. I hardly knew where anything was before. She laid out things for me and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It’s all such a strain now, I’m still trying to get used to not having her around to wait on me hand and foot. Is the tiredness obvious, mum?”
“Well, not really. It’s just that you’re not sparkling as usual.” I told him. “Serves him right for allowing my wife to slave away for him all the while,” said Robert, giving him a playful punch. “I was like that once when my younger brother was studying here. He ran the house and I did nothing. Luckily, when he left, I had my darling here to come organize me to look after myself. You should have allowed her to organize you, Milwan boy.”
“That’s not what we do in the family. I can’t be doing all those chores while a younger sister is around. Mind your tongue, now, otherwise she’ll have to return to look after her brother.”
We all had a good laugh at that and joked all the way to Ameena’s place where I was going to stay. Seb and his lady would stay at Milwan’s.
“Don’t worry, Milwan dear, ” I told him as they were leaving, Belinda is a good cook and house-keeper, so, you’ll be well-looked after.”
“Thanks, mum. But ‘no, thank you’ to having auntie Belinda wait on me. That wouldn’t speak well of the training you and dad gave us, would it, mum?”
“Well, maybe not, but this is not Nigeria, and you go to work, so, excuses could be made.” “True, mum, but with dad around in the flat too, it’s best not to allow it. I’’ll take Robert’s advice and learn to look after myself.” “Or, get married as soon as possible, so, that you’’ll have a committed person to wait on you,” joked Robert. “Ah, those days are over,” said Heather. “Many wives these days want the chores split. Milwan is okay. He’s a good cook and everything. It’s just that he didn’t get the chance to do much. I spoilt him silly and for a purpose too.”
“What purpose?” the three of us asked her in unison. “So that he would miss me badly when I leave. Ha! Ha! It’s worked, hasn’t it? That makes me feel important in his life. I’’ll always be number one with him, won’t I?”
“Until he gets married and you’re upstaged, little madam!” I teased her. “Oh, I won’t mind that. I’ve enjoyed looking after him. Milwan is the best brother in the world.” “Thank you, sis.” Milwan said soberly. “Robert is lucky to have you. I’’ll begin to think seriously of getting a soul-mate.” “When?” I asked.
“Mum, not just yet. Let Heather settle into her marriage first, and I’ll see if that step is worth it.”
I kept silent. It seemed Seb is not going to get that heir I know he’s longing for, just yet. I sighed.
I felt a bit lonely when they had all left. Ameena has been feeling poorly for many months now, and anxious about her living by herself in her house, they have this temporary arrangement whereby they take it in turns to have her with them.
She was in Manchester at her married eldest daughter’s place. When her health improves, and the doctor agrees, she would return to her house and to her business. She turned over her two stalls at the Shepherd Bush market to a couple to run for her in her absence and that’s become a source of worry for her.
“Treena dear, my heart bleeds for my business,” she told me on the phone. “Those two will ruin my business for me. They say they’re not making any sales. I don’t believe them. I’m certain they’re stealing my money. I don’t trust them. They had a stall once in that market, but it folded up when they went into debts. They wouldn’t pay their suppliers, and they were taken to court. They lost everything.”
“Coz, why did you choose such people to run your business?” I asked.
“I couldn’t get anyone else.”she said in a dejected voice. “Very few people want to sit around in a market waiting to sell wares. They’’d rather take jobs in a factory. If selling is not in your blood, it can be boring. This husband/wife team are market people whose business collapsed.”
I felt sorry for her and I asked her if I could help in any way. That was a mistake. I wasn’t really thinking straight when I asked. I was unprepared for her response.
“Oh, my darling darling Treena.” she gushed. “You’re a life line. Please could you go monitor sales at my stalls? I don’t believe they’re not making any sales. Oh, if only I could feel stronger and my doctor would allow me to return to London and my business! I feel so helpless here. With this help you’re going to give me, I can have peace of mind. Those rogues should be closely monitored. Those stalls are my life savings, Treena dear.”
I went silent, not knowing what to tell her. The last thing I wanted to do was to go spend my short vacation in a stall in the market. Yes, I’ve helped her and her late husband out there before in the past. I enjoyed it then because my holidays were long and I got bored being alone in the house, or shopping endlessly. But I’m years older now, and I’m better at managing my spare time. Selling in the market doesn’t hold any attraction for me any longer.
Besides, in this case, I’m supposed to go spy on the couple she’s put in charge. How could I do that? Äm I supposed to ask to look over their books to determine if they’’ve been making sales? To my best knowledge giving receipts at Shepherd’s Bush market is not the norm, unless you ask.
“Treena dear,” said Ameena. “You won’t need to do that at all. What I want, coz, is for you to go stay with them all day for some days, and see for yourself if they’’re really selling nothing. That’s all.”
“Yes, but they don’t know me. I can’t just walk in there, take a seat and tell them you’re my cousin, and I’ve come to stay with them. They’’ll call in the Police. You’re in Manchester, so, you can’t come vouch for my identity.” “I’’ll speak to them on the phone, and all you need do is to show them some form of identification. Your passport should do. Also, they can come confirm that you’re staying in my house.”
I sighed helplessly. I was in a fix. I was Ameena’s guest, staying in her house. Should I refuse to help her? ‘But the help she wants is unreasonable, and could be dangerous for you, Treena,’ an inner voice told me.
What to do? I had the sense, however, to tell her that I would think about the request.
I didn’t sleep soundly that first night in her house. I kept tossing and turning, thinking of a way out.
I kept the problem to myself in order not to ruin my children’s weekend. They may even decide that I should go stay with Heather and Robert. Now, that would hurt Ameena very much, because we’re close friends, and she would assume that I felt it’s because I was staying at her place that she made that request. I took a long walk in the morning to clear my head, do some window shopping and put myself in a good mood.
When I returned to the house at noon, I found Seb and Belinda, hovering around, apparently waiting for me. I don’t know why, but I’’d never been so glad to see Seb, or rather, both of them. I must have been feeling pretty miserable. Seb, of course, knew at once that all wasn’t rosy in my world, so, after the hugs and greetings, when we got into the house, he asked me what was amiss. I told him straightaway. He too looked perplexed.
“Hm! What a way to start a vacation,” he said at last. “The task is a dirty one, I must say. It was thoughtless of Ameena to ask for such a thing. Look, dial her number and let me speak with her.”
“What will you tell her?” I asked with some anxiety. “She should just lock up her stalls; that’s all. I don’t know the terms under which she employed the couple, but she must be paying them something. Since they’re not making sales, she calls it quits with them. Period.” “No,” said Belinda. “She may not take kindly to such an order/advice from another person. Er, may I come in on this, Treena?” “Certainly.” I told her.
“It’s not advisable to tell her to lock up her stalls. Let all three of us here go to observe the couple for a day. You’ll ring Ameena up now, pay your respects , ask after her health, etc. When she mentions the stalls, tell her to ring up the couple to tell them that we would be paying a visit tomorrow, the three of us, to the stalls.”
Taking kindly to intrusions
“The three of us? What good would that do? Besides, we were going to spend tomorrow in Essex with Simon and his family.”
“I know. We can postpone that for a day and deal with this first.” “I see. What result do we expect?” “The couple will not take kindly to such intrusion, and they will tell that they’re leaving.” “Are you sure that will happen?” Belinda nodded. “And then?”
“She would plead with them to stay, and with us not to go there. I believe that the couple are probably not making as much sales as Ameena expects. I’m sure they’re on commission on what they sell. So, if they had not been selling anything, they would have left on their own. That’s my reasoning.”
I dialled Ameena’s number and Seb spoke with her to ask after her health and family. She’s good friends with Seb, so she unburdened herself to him immediately. He told her not to worry and that the three of us would go spend Monday with the couple at the market, monitoring what’s going on. He told her to inform the couple immediately. With much excitement, she thanked him and said she would get back to us.
She did within five minutes. In a resigned voice, she thanked Seb for the offer, and said that the couple threatened to abandon the stalls totally if she sends anyone there to monitor the sales. They said our presence would insult their dignity.
“Er, Seb dear, half a loaf of bread is better than none. I think we’ll leave them alone. I know what I left in the stalls so, they can’’t really steal them, even though they may be declaring less than the actual money they got for the goods they sell. Hm! I’ll just have to trust them. They’re not bad, it’s just that sales are very slow.”
It was with much humility that I thanked Belinda for the rescue. Please remind me of this her kind gesture when next I call her ‘odious.’
Achebe: Exit of a literary giant