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Letter to my Son: A Short Story by Joy Isi Bewaji

Under the dongoyaro tree, there I sold oranges loved by men; oranges they claimed were as sweet as sex.

I had arrived at my spot one morning, only to see the felled tree by the side of the road. I sighed, knowing that my day would be glum as I religiously went in search of a new dwelling for my business. I walked under the blistering sun, my feet burned as my lean slippers slapped the earth. I cried out to my customers still; my voice called out to them to come have a taste of my sweet oranges, those ones as sweet as sex. They hollered back – conductors, trailer drivers, shoe makers, vendors. They caressed my arm and pinched my buttocks…they were my customers, the regular ones. I remember once I sold oranges to a rich man in a fine car. I was trekking home, my tray placed expertly on my head with only a few oranges dancing on the tray, when I heard his car whistled. I rushed to his side. His window slowly came down, and I inhaled plush air. He picked four ripe ones, dug his teeth in one and sucked on it like a hungry baby sucking on its mother’s breast. He smelled of alcohol, the very expensive type, nothing offensive like ogogoro. He was saying something about trying to kill the stench so his wife wouldn’t be offended. I do not see his kind often. I thanked him profusely, not because of the oranges he bought; my regulars buy more. I don’t know why I thanked him, I think I was overwhelmed in some way by his glaring opulence. His aura smelled like roses. Not that I’d seen any my whole life, but aren’t roses reminiscent of sweet-smell, enchanting in its breath? I walked away with the small change he refused to collect, feeling grateful.

When I finally found a building adjacent to a major street with extended roofing by the side, I sighed again; this time out of relief. It had an instruction on the side of the wall, ‘N.O L.O.I.T.E.R.I.N.G’. I didn’t understand what that meant. I looked at the signage in front of the building, it read ‘Paccho Micro finance’. I sat under the ‘no loitering’ command, singing in my heart, and rewarding myself with an orange for this beautiful find. It was short-lived as a brusque intruder marched to where I was.

Your father. He had on brown khaki shorts and an off-white shirt with a ridiculous tie on his neck like a garrotte. I chuckled and he took offence. ‘Stand up,’ he ordered. I rose carefully. I knew his kind, the very spiteful ones who hated their jobs, hated their bosses, and hated the world for making them lesser beings. I knew his kind. ‘What is your responsibility here?’

That was the grammar he spoke. I was illiterate. 17 years old and only knew my A-B-C as alphabets but could not coin them into words to make meaningful sentences. He spoke the grammar again.

‘I say what responsibility is yours here?’

I was impressed. Seriously. Everyone around me conversed in pidgin or Yoruba or Ibo. I have the semblance of a Yoruba woman with my light skin and protruding behind. Yoruba women are aptly blessed with large buttocks; an exaggeration of human assets as some would say, but I was glad I had it despite the fact that I was Ibo and our women came with proportionate bums.

I kept my mouth wide opened. I didn’t utter any words. He was holding a club and his fist got tighter, I was afraid he’d hit me with it.

‘Oya, get away from here,’ he ordered, shouting to impress passers-by; some of them turned to enjoy the scene. I hated him immediately. I picked up my tray and was only adjusting my wrapper, buying time, hoping he would change his mind or ask for a bribe of some oranges and let me be, when his hands pushed me away, back into the burning sun. An orange rolled out of my tray, he picked it up, tore the flesh and sucked on it, and walked away like a hero.

I felt exhausted by the blinding sun, tons of pedestrians scurrying around, shouts from conductors, blaring horns, and angry voices. How was I to make it out here in the jungle of life all by myself? As I contemplated my next move, I sighted a building on the opposite lane. It was a primary school, and its roofing was as extended as Paccho’s. I held my breath as I walked towards the building. The maiguard was nowhere around. I could still feel the grammar man’s eyes, your father, poking holes behind me. I raced to the side of the building, and immediately the maiguard appeared.

‘a-beg,’ I pleaded with a silly smile on my face.

He shrugged, ‘I no wan hia nonsense shout por hia,’ he wriggled his middle finger, warning me.

I nodded, and then he left me. I leaned my back on the wall, peeling my oranges.

At a distance, your father stood at the entrance of the bank, his tiny legs pacing to and fro, hitting his club casually on his knee; tearing off the insides of the orange and licking his lips like a child relishing stolen meat from a pot of soup.

When the rains came, I was left to suck on my oranges as pedestrians dashed for safety, leaving the wet sands behind and getting shelter in their homes and offices. I got drenched at the side of the school walls. I wrung my wrapper continuously to get out excess water that made my clothes stick to my body, driving the cold in. The maiguard hid in his cubicle like a crumpled biscuit in a carton. He didn’t invite me in, I knew not to ask.

It was on the third day of the down pour that your father called me. I had stubbornly refused to stay at the place I called home and would trek through the mud out to sell, hoping the rain would hide its anger that day but it never did. I was shivering at the corner, holding the edges of my wrapper up to my knees and neglecting the oranges which by now were covered in wet sand. I looked his way and saw his hands signalling to me. I wasted no time; I ran to where he was.

‘Your oranges, nko?’

I shook my head, my lips unable to bear any words.

He had a post by the side of Paccho micro-finance bank. He ordered me in.

‘Cover yourself with my blazers.’

I didn’t know what blazers were so I sat and waited as he ran across the street, with an umbrella over his head, to get my tray of oranges which were now looking like rotten pears.

He placed it at the other end of the building on the cemented ground allowing the rains to beat the smudge off them.

He dragged a dirty coat underneath the chair I was sitting on and placed it over my shoulders.

‘I can see you meticulously refuse to consent to my phrase. Have you learnt the impeccable reason behind why you should not hawk?’

That was what he said. And I marvelled.

‘Have you learnt your lessons now?’

‘Sir?’ was all I could mumble.

‘Your bushness is common but I shall bequeath you with sophistication.’

I swear that was the grammar he spoke. If I lie you can ask him.

When the time clocked 5 in the evening, and the rains had stopped; the day was chilly and darkness arrived sooner. Erosion leaked the earth, potholes formed ponds on every road, and drivers were stuck in bad traffic that seemed endless. The conductors weren’t shouting loud enough, and gloom settled on pedestrians as they trekked home in a rush trying to beat another downpour if it were to occur.

Your father said I should come with him and I did. I carried my tray and we walked for over an hour. It was a clear evening. We talked little as there was no clear way of communication since he had refused to lower himself to speak the common street language.

He continued in his jargons.

‘I plea that the government does something magnanimously to the equation of this country, our turbulence is caricatured.’ He spoke verbosely about the politicking in government like he had a seat at the Assembly.

I watched his lips form those words. It sounded exotic like something the big man in that big car would say – the one who drank expensive alcohol, whose car smelled like roses.

We arrived at his place. It was a mansion, extremely large with many windows and air-conditioners shooting out from the walls. My mouth dropped; I hadn’t seen anything as beautiful as that.

Your father saw my expression and shook my shoulders.

‘What are you looking at?’ he queried. ‘The abode surprise you, right? Leaving you incapacitated and demonized.’

His hands were flying around. ‘I say I am a part of this success,’ he beamed, ‘because it is only two esteemed men that can come together to live under one roof.’

His own roof was a tiny hut by the corner of the mansion. I sighed.

He noticed my disappointment and slapped me hard across the cheek.
‘You are a useless one; I can see it in your eyes.’

I rubbed the spot and frowned. I said nothing as he pushed me into the hut.

It was just as small as his post at the bank; unable to occupy more than two people conveniently. He continued boasting about his accomplishments; he talked about the owner of the house, his bosses in the office…he talked about them as if he drank beer with them at beer parlours; as if he played golf, travelled on first-class flight, flirted with elegant women, spent evenings in hotel pent house, just like them.

Yet even in his verbosity, I knew who he was. I knew his kind.

That night, as I lay beside him on a mat in the suffocating hut, I felt his hand rummaging my wrapper. My cloth was still damp and I slept in it because he had nothing for me to change into. His clothes comprised two uniforms to work, and one ankara blouse and trouser. He tied the only wrapper he had around his waist after brandishing his tiny penis all over the room, moving up and down so that the thing danced like a frightened animal.

The crickets sang too loud and mosquitoes fed on us freely in that dark and stuffy room, while his lantern soaked on a newspaper close to the head of his lean mattress as we laid like sardines in a can.

I pushed his hand aside and he slapped me. This time I turned around and slapped him back.

‘What is wrong with you?’ I said in my language. ‘Ogini?’

He slapped me again, pushed me towards the wall and climbed on top of me. I kicked his knee, and he reached for my breast and bit it. It hurt. He forced his way in and rode gallantly on top of me while I suffocated beneath his weight. Within seconds he was out and was panting by my side.

I used my wet cloth to clean traces of semen and closed my eyes to catch some sleep.

‘Weak,’ I muttered.

I didn’t see another slap coming as little stars bopped before my eyes. He was panting and sweating by my side.

‘What did you just say?’

‘What did you hear?’ I spat.

He grabbed my hair and was sending blows to my back. I freed myself and seized the leaking lantern threatening to hit it on his head.

He let me be, but only for a while until the sun came up and he was grabbing my breasts again and pinching my buttocks like my customers do. It lasted a little longer this time, and he whistled triumphantly around the hut, humming like a heroic leader as he prepared for work.

‘Er, it will be pleasurable for you to occupy the position beside my abode in my office, you know…’ he was saying but I wasn’t listening.

I was thinking of my oranges, and the area I needed to comb if I was going to make any sales. The weather was brighter today and it seemed the sun would stay longer.
I picked up my tray and headed out.

‘Wait!’ he called; I flung my hands indicating he should get lost.

A month later I would return to him at Paccho.

‘I get belle,’ I announced dismissively.

He took me to his mother’s house in Wilmer. The old woman looked at me and asked, ‘na boy?’

I chose to stare at my feet instead.

‘I say na boy?!’ she shouted this time.

I looked at her and saw her wrinkles fold, forming lump-like flesh. She was serious.

‘Yes ma.’

Was that not what the old woman wanted to hear? That her son was manly enough to bestow her with a boy as her first grandchild?

She said something in Yoruba, then shooed me away.

‘Go and join the others outside.’

She was referring to the girls who sold akara for her in front of the compound.

There was no ceremony to usher me into their lives as a wife. I stayed with mama at Wilmer and sold her akara. It was a shack near the compound. It served as the neighbourhood kitchen for all the students, bachelors, lazy mothers, and whoring spinsters. She was making enough money to take care of herself and the young girls who lived with her. We shared a room – Bisi, Tayo, Bidemi and I, while mama kept another to herself. They spoke mostly in Yoruba and I pretended I didn’t understand a word of it.

Tayo was planning to run away with Baba Shile – the caretaker of the compound we lived in. He was a man with two wives and six sons; he promised her a better life in his village where he planned to set up a farm. Bidemi had asked her about the other wives and their children, if they all would be coming along. Tayo frowned, no answer. Bisi grumbled about mama and some money she owed her.

‘I don live with this woman tay – ten years now; surely I am entitled to some kind of compensation.’ And she was planning to give the money to Sule, her fiancée, an okada rider, as an investment for the new pure water business he was about to start. ‘Then we will get married,’ she added, hoping it would make the other girls green with envy.

Bidemi was being wooed by Iya calabar, the proprietress of Shalamar Inn, two streets away from ours. Shalamar Inn was a brothel, a very popular one. The girls wore lycra skirts with slit riding up to their private parts. It was a feast of stretch marks and flabby thighs. They drank too much, and partied hard. But they were well paid by Iya Calabar; their customers were men of a better class.

Iya Calabar started off as a mistress to a soldier. He was one of the big boys in the political camp back then. He had a temper; he would tie her up and beat her silly, but he gave her money, the kind she had never seen before. She saved all she could, and then stole a bundle from him one night and zapped. He came after her but she had cleverly started sleeping with a ‘bigger’ soldier who stood as a barrier to his intentions. She picked up a few girls and started multiplying her money with the services they rendered to randy men.

Your father continued manning the doors of the bank, visiting mama’s place every other weekend. He was earning five thousand naira every month. The bank paid fifteen thousand naira and the security company took over 75% of the money. On many occasions, mama made more than his whole salary in a day, but she spent a fortune on ogogoro and was on the most part beleaguered and worn by its effect. The rest of it she spent buying the latest lace that she tied around her chest. She was always positioned on the balcony, chewing on a chewing stick and screaming towards our direction, instructing us on what to do and who deserved an extra ball of akara for their relentless patronage. Mama had terrible mood swings and threw tantrums at the slightest provocation. I mean plates flung in the air when she was upset or irritated; and the girls knew not to come close; they hung about in neighbours’ rooms, visited a boyfriend until her anger weaned. Bidemi lingered at Shalamar Inn when mama spat venom. She had a few friends there from whom she could get clothes they weren’t interested in wearing for free; okrika cost a fortune in the market. Iya Calabar liked her and would give her some food whenever she visited.

It was on the day of your arrival that Bidemi finally moved in to Shalamar. Later she would come around to visit wearing shiny lace like the ones mama wore to brag in front of the house. She had them sewn in lovely skirts and blouses; mama would chase her with a broom and a bowl of hot palm oil threatening to destroy her cloth along with her ‘ugly skin’.

She was my friend and I always tried to see her against mama’s wish. I knew I had no future there with mama. Your father wasn’t making enough money and he stopped visiting regularly. I needed to provide for myself and for you my son, Oluwadurotemilehin. I wanted to go back to my life, selling oranges and being able to buy little things like soap and pomade. Mama never shared her money with anyone. I was only entitled to eat from the trade– two akara everyday, and no more. She hated the idea of a working woman, hated young girls looking beautiful in expensive attires. I wanted my independence from her, and I had stayed long enough to know it wouldn’t be easy getting it.

During my pregnancy, I vomited everyday, the smell of her ogogoro… I hated it. I hated her; and I hated the toilet roll your father brought every other weekend too.
‘What is this for?’ I asked him one day, while I rocked you at the courtyard of the compound.

‘It is for you and the kid.’ He called you like you were some goat.

‘Are we supposed to eat it?’ I hissed, looking into his eyeballs if there were any signs of manliness, or shame.

‘Clean his mess with it,’ he spat ‘what is it; don’t mama feed you here?’

‘Do you give her any money to take care of us?’

‘You cook akara everyday, lucky you; I have to hold doors from morning till night,’ he said.

‘You need to get a job.’

‘I have a job,’ and walked off. I knew he’d be gone for another month.

Mama was chanting ‘ashewo’ when you clocked 6 months and I was dragging my bag out of her house.

‘You have finally grown a penis,’ she spat. I strapped you behind my back and she clapped heatedly. ‘Take your bastard away!’ she cursed. She was drunk as usual.

We trekked a long distance; when you cried, I sat down on my luggage under a bridge and fed you from my breasts. I got to your father’s hut at dusk, you were fast asleep and my feet burned. His door was ajar. There were empty bottles of alcohol littered on the brink of the door. He was snoring aloud. I pushed his arm with my foot; he slapped my foot away like it was a mosquito and turned to face the wall. I pushed him again, and called him, ‘daddy Duro’.

He looked up, stood up carefully cleaning traces of saliva on the side of his cheeks. ‘What happened?’ he asked

I told him I wanted to do my own thing. He shrugged and went back to sleep.

There was a mango tree in front of the house where the rich man lived, where our hut kissed his mansion, there I resumed selling my oranges; those oranges that were as sweet as sex.

© Joy Isi Bewaji

Joy Isi Bewaji
Joy Isi Bewaji
Joy Isi Bewaji is the author of Eko Dialogue.

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