At first, she never had any problem with the man. She never for once laughed at the size of his head or lent her voice when the other cleaners were talking about his stomach and how it looked like that of a woman who was seven months pregnant. She had never liked him really, but she had never disliked him either. To her, he’d just existed. Just like the man she had seen on her way to work that morning with the expensive-looking suit waiting for his turn to use the ATM. Or the madman whom she had avoided while trying to cross to the other side of the road.
She had her own problems to take care of. And if you were to ask her right then she would tell you that she had lots of those problems. Problems that just didn’t go away no matter how much you try to solve them. They kept coming back, like pimples in the wake of puberty. But when he began complaining about her attitude, she then decided to add him to the list of her worries.
It started from the day Angela had called her out of the cleaner’s room so the others wouldn’t hear what she wanted to say. They were done cleaning the school environment that morning and were resting.
‘Principal say you no greet am this morning when you enter his office,’ Angela had said to her after they had walked a distance away from the administrative block. ‘Why?’
Her face became rumpled as she asked Angela if that was the reason she had dragged her away from the administrative block and all the way down to the back of the multipurpose hall?
‘Which kind of question you de ask me this morning Angela?’ she said.
Angela could see the changes made on her expression and immediately apologised. ‘Sorry o. I was just concerned that’s why I come ask you. I hear when him been de tell Mrs. Nache.”
Angela was telling the truth, she knew. She was truly concerned. She was always concerned. If it had been Peculiar who had heard it from the principal’s mouth then it would have been a different story.
‘Okay wait,’ she quickly said to Angela as she was about to leave. ‘No be say I no greet am. I greet am, maybe him no hear me.’ It was a lie. She’d had a lot going on in her head and she forgot to say ‘good morning’ when she’d walked into his office. But she had to tell it anyway, if not, Angela would keep on pressing. She would want to know about those things going on in her head that made her not say good morning to Mr. Madu, the principal.
Those were her problems and she wouldn’t want even Angela to be concerned about her. She hated it when she looked weak. She was a strong woman. Despite all she had been through, yet here she was, still standing with her head high, her feet planted on the ground. She had told herself over and over again that she would keep on fighting until she’d won. Even though most nights all she did was weep and wished her life had turned out differently.
She was a young girl once. She had dreams and a purpose. She was beautiful and she had figure eight. Her buttocks were original, follow-come, and not all those attachments and plastics girls of nowadays put on that don’t shake no matter how hard they try. Some even had to go through surgery just to have what she had.
She was intelligent too. And one of her life’s ambitions was to become a teacher. She loved children. And those days in the village, before her aunt whisked her away from her dad with the promise of a better future, she would gather her younger ones and begin to tell them stories. But she also wanted to get married to a man of her dreams and have kids, five of them, three boys and two girls. And so, when Benji proposed for her to be his girlfriend she didn’t hesitate.
Benji was the man she thought God had packaged and sent to earth specially for her. Benji was dark and handsome. Benji was tall, even down below, between his waist. And he knew how to use it properly. Benji loved to smile and laugh even at things she never thought funny. But Benji was very ambitious. He would always tell her that they would one day leave the country together. They would travel to a better country where there was milk and honey flowing like a river.
She believed him. It didn’t matter that he was a barber and she was a hairdresser. She became a hairdresser after she finished secondary school and was saving her earnings so she would go to a college of education. But even if she were to bring all of those savings and Benji brought his, it still wouldn’t get close enough to take them to a faraway country. Maybe it would take them to Ghana, but definitely not to America or Canada. But she believed him.
On a Friday morning, she had woken up with a headache. The headache had been as a result of the banging on her door. She knew who it was so she just sighed. She stood up from the bed and walked quietly to the door and opened it.
‘Abeg Madam Cash I go try bring the money today. Abeg,’ she pleaded after Madam Cash had finally lowered her voice that had threatened to bring down the ceiling of her room.
But Madam Cash could hear none of it. She had given her more days than she was supposed to. Her own peace too was threatened. Because if the chairlady got to find out that some loans had not been paid off as at when due, then there would be a problem. She was the secretary. ‘Abeg Madam Goro, make the money no pass today,’ she managed to say, swallowing the rest of the ugly words she had planned on spewing before she got there. But she didn’t fail to remind her of the consequences if the money exceeded that day. ‘I go carry boys come your room come carry your property,’ she said.
‘No problem Madam Cash. The money no go pass today.’
She needed to do what needed to be done. And what needed to be done was to ask to be paid some money from her salary. She already had the form. She had photocopied and had kept some of it so she wouldn’t have to keep asking the Vice Principal to give it to her.
She quickly took her bath when it was her turn. She would use the toilet at school because there were more people waiting in line to make use of the toilet in her compound.
At school she came inside the building and walked straight to the cleaner’s room to pick a broom, a bucket and a mopping stick. She didn’t wait a bit to have a chitchat with Angela about what Peculiar said that Jonathan, one of the security men had told her about what had happened in the girl’s room at the hostel the night before.
‘Good morning, sir,’ she greeted after she walked into the principal’s office. She was assigned to be the one to clean the office and some of the classes upstairs.
When the former principal was here, he would stand up and leave the office while she cleaned it. But the new principal never did that. He would instead shift his chair or walk from one end to another. It annoyed her.
And if she were to tell herself the truth, everything about the man annoyed her, even before he started complaining about her attitude. Though, she never admitted it to herself until she was given a reason to. And it started from the first day the man stepped foot into the school and was introduced as the new principal.
There was something about the way he smiled that she didn’t like. And he laughed too often. She felt she could see through him. She felt she knew things about him that nobody else knew. She had met such before and she would never again be enchanted by it.
The man responded to her greeting with a smile which made her feel disgusted. It was a feeling she didn’t expect. It just came. And she justified the feeling by reminding herself that it was the same man who had gone and complained to the Bursar the other day that she didn’t greet him. If Mrs. Nache had not been her friend, then maybe her job would have been threatened.
She masked her disgust and forced a smile of her own. She had other worries. The principal was a lesser devil and right then she could easily seduce him. But Madam Cash was repellent to whatever kind of seduction. At that moment she was the kind of devil one had to flee from.
‘How can I help you Madam Goro,’ he asked. She was done cleaning the office and had returned after she went to drop the cleaning materials.
She was standing in front of him holding a sheet of paper with both hands. He had never seen her so humble. She even smiled. A quality he never knew she possessed. But he knew the game very well. Women had tricks. They could be as cunning as a green snake hidden under a green grass.
In front of him stood a woman who had always threatened his peace of mind with her attitude ever since he stepped foot inside the school. He didn’t know what he did wrong to make the woman always behave the way she did. And despite that, he still tried to be nice to her. His attitude towards her was enough to make her rest assured that he wasn’t her enemy but yet…
So, this was his moment. Whatever amount she was about to ask to be given from her salary, he was going to refuse it. He had granted more than one of such requests with open minds, but at the end everything still went back to the way it was. Sometimes she would even walk into his office and would find it very difficult to say a ‘good morning’ to him. Other times she would murmur her greeting. He would remain silent and expect her to repeat it but she wouldn’t. The woman had bitten more than she could chew. He had to show her some part of him that he had left all those years before he became a changed man, before he said goodbye to his former life. It was a risk he was willing to take. And even if not for anything, but to put the woman to order and let her know that there was something called ‘respect’ and ‘hierarchy’ in a place of work. And they went hand-in-hand.
‘Sir, please I need you to sign this form for me. I want to collect some money from my salary,’ she said. She had moved closer to where he was seated.
‘I can’t sign the form madam. I’m sorry,’ he replied.
‘Sir please I need the money to solve problems. It is very important,’ she pleaded. He could sense it from her voice that she was sober. This particular problem sounded more important than the others.
‘Madam please,’ he said with his right hand in the air. ‘I just told you I can’t sign the form. Please, just leave my office.’ He dropped his hand and went back to what he was doing.
Immediately she went on her knees, he instantly felt a rush of disgust and yelled for her to stand up. ‘Madam please stop embarrassing me!’ he blurted out ‘Even if you crawl on the floor, I will never sign that form!’
That was when she bolted. Inside him he felt a sense of accomplishment. She yelled back at him and called him a wicked man. ‘I know say all these your smile and laugh na pretending,’ she said. ‘I know your type. I don see them tire. Wicked and selfish man!’
The front of his office became crowded. Both students and teachers stood watching her call him all kinds of names. Some that were true before he became a changed man. Like when she called him an unreasonable man. That one was true. She also called him a pretender, but that one wasn’t true. He was never a pretender. He was never one to easily mask his emotions and pretend like he’d felt nothing. And that was what had gotten his wife killed. His Dumebi. The love of his life he had murdered because he was unable to control himself.
He could have just walked away like always. But that day he had gotten enough of her attitude. She was always complaining. Things had become tough for them and the money wasn’t coming in as it used to. She was a sweet woman, but financial challenges took the best of her. But could he blame her?
He was unreasonable. He could have endured and believed that things would soon turn around for the better. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t making it easy for him. But what did he do? He instead took to drinking. And whatever little money he had, he used it to drink himself to stupor. And it was on one of those nights after he had gotten himself drunk that she came to him and held his trousers asking him for money to feed his daughter; that she was hungry. He pushed her and she fell and hit her head on the glass table. She was unable to survive the blow, the doctor had said.
His daughter left him and vowed never to set eyes on him again. He lost everything. But few years later, he was able to regain his feet through the help of some friends. He tried to get in touch with his daughter but it was all in vain. Not even through his wife’s best friend who was her Godmother. She’d claimed that she didn’t know his daughter’s whereabouts and that the last time she saw her was when she packed her things and left her apartment. She never gave her the address of where she was going. Neither did she give her any phone number to call her with.
He knew it was all a lie and so he pressed. He never gave up. And he was still pressing. Even if it was the last thing he did before he died, he must make sure he reconciled with his daughter. She was their only child. They never had another. He still visited his wife’s grave. He still went there to ask for forgiveness and pray that she finds it in her heart to forgive him and help speak to their daughter so she would return to him.
Madam Goro was dragged away from the principal’s office by Mrs. Nache. Her veins became conspicuous on her dark skin. Everyone was staring at her. Even the students. But she didn’t mind. She had finally given him a piece of her mind and she cared less about the consequences. They were worth it. If only she had been able to discover Benji’s true colours in time she would have saved herself the heartbreak and her hard-earned money. Benji had taken all her savings and ran away, to a faraway country.
It happened on a Wednesday evening. Everywhere was calm as always. It didn’t rain so the road was dry. Vehicles moved freely as there was no traffic. Even at the market that morning when she had gone to buy items she would use to make Banga Stew, there were not many people. But it was always so on weekdays. She was happy she was able to buy the items without having to make contact with people. One Saturday an old man had touched her buttocks and when she confronted him, he’d claimed it was a mistake. He’d asked her if she didn’t see that the market was crowded. She’d even bought the palm-kernel at a cheaper rate because there weren’t many customers. But other things like úgwú leaf, ogiri, round-about, liver, and so on, were bought at the normal price.
After she left the market, she went home and cooked the stew. She didn’t eat. She would eat when she gets to work. She cooked it for Benji because he always returned home in the afternoon to eat if there weren’t many customers at his salon.
But when she came back home in the evening, she checked the pot and realized that the stew was still untouched. It meant that Benji didn’t return home to eat. So, she waited for him so they would eat together.
Night came and Benji was not yet home. She decided to go take her bath. Maybe there were many customers at the salon. It was on the eve of Salah celebration and it was Eid-el-Fitr. She undressed and opened the wardrobe to hang her clothes but noticed that it was empty, except for the few clothes she had brought from her aunt’s place from where she came.
She looked around the room and couldn’t find any of his things. She panicked and went down to the salon. It was there that she was told by one of Benji’s apprentices that he had travelled to Canada. That he had gone through the help of one of their customers who came every week to cut his hair. They went together. The apprentice thought she knew about it and wondered why Benji never told her. Everybody knew them to be lovebirds. It was when she returned home that she found out that her wooden piggy bank had been broken and all her savings removed.
The following week the principal was not in school. She asked around to know what happened but none of the cleaners knew. Even Peculiar the BBC of Ambassador’s Missionary School didn’t know. After what happened the other day, she’d felt bad and wanted to apologize. She had overreacted and had said some stupid things. It wasn’t who she was. She told herself that she was going to ask Mrs. Nache. The Bursar would surely have an idea.
After Benji left, she discovered that she was pregnant for him. She was still working in the salon as a hairdresser; even after she gave birth, until Goro finished secondary school. It was when he passed his WAEC that she remembered the vow that she had made to herself on the day she gave birth to him. She would make sure that he was going to be a university graduate.
‘But where is the money for that,’ she’d told Mrs. Nache who had come to get her hair done. ‘Customers no de too plenty again because wig don full everywhere. Different types. Anyone you want e de.’
‘My school get vacancy if you de interested. Na cleaning job and the pay is okay. At least you fit use am support your salon work then train your boy for school,’ Mrs. Nache had replied. She knew what it meant to be a single mother. It wasn’t easy for her either. Even though she had a degree and was working with a big private school in Abuja. She had even helped pay for Goro’s acceptance fee after he gained admission into a polytechnic.
‘Principal travel?’ she asked after she walked into Mrs. Nache’s office, after they’d exchanged greetings. ‘Him no come school today.’
Mrs. Nache smiled. And she wondered why? ‘You and this your principal Madam Goro. You wan go give the man headache again?’
‘Ah! Mrs. Nache. Abeg o. I just say make I ask because I no see am.’
Mrs. Nache looked at her in a funny way. Her glasses were below her eyes. ‘Him travel. Him daughter do wedding.’
‘Wow!’ she exclaimed. Congratulations to him. This one na better news.’
She walked out of Mrs. Nache’s office with a smile still plastered on her face. She imagined a day when Goro would get married and she would have someone to call a daughter.
She told Angela the news and she too was happy for the man. They both agreed that when he returned, they would go to his office and congratulate him together. It was Angela’s suggestion because she could be shy sometimes. But she had gone along with it because she wouldn’t want to go alone either.
Two weeks later the principal returned. He kept receiving words of congratulations and kept giving out his thanks. He felt like the happiest man on earth. His daughter’s Godmother had finally returned his calls. She’d given the phone to his daughter who’d told him she was sorry for leaving him when he needed her the most. He said he was sorry too for not being strong enough for her. He’d understood what it would have been like for her. She was sixteen years old when she left. And it has been over seven years now. They had a lot of catching up to do.
The cleaners came in twos and threes into his office, including the woman. She had come too, with her friend Angela. They were both smiling when they walked into his office. He’d felt bad. She had been more mature than he was. He was still busy nursing his anger, like a child. The least he could do was to ask her how she managed to solve her money problem.
‘I ask some friends and they give me,’ she replied after he asked her when she had come to clean his office.
‘Okay. That’s very good to hear,’ he said. ‘That day there was not enough money in the school purse,’ he lied. ‘I’m sorry about the way I spoke to you.’
‘I’m sorry too sir,’ she said.
She was about to leave when he called her back and said he needed a request. He had asked around for someone who would help him cook because his daughter was visiting him for the first time after being gone for many years and he wanted someone to prepare one of her favorite meals. She loved Banga stew a lot as a child and he needed someone who would prepare a very delicious one. He had asked Mrs. Nache earlier and Mrs. Nache had referred her to him. Mrs. Nache had told him that she was the one in charge of the dishes whenever the school had an occasion.
‘No problem, sir,’ she replied.
They agreed on the day and time but she didn’t say anything about payment.
After she was done cooking and arranging the dishes on the dining table, she was about to leave when he asked her to wait. He brought out some money and wanted to give it to her but she refused to take it.
‘It’s just as a show of appreciation,’ he said. ‘I’m not paying for your service.’
‘No sir, don’t bother,’ she replied smiling. ‘I have a son too that I’ve always prayed to visit me one day with his wife. See you at work tomorrow sir.’
She opened the door and was about to leave when he quickly asked her if she could stay a while.
She stood in front of the door and thought about it for a few seconds.
Image: Republica via Pixabay remixed