Madam started living in our one bedroom face-me-I-face-you before I started working at Happiness. Sometimes, I forget that. Before Madam, it was just my father and I. He told me, back when it was just the two of us, that there used to be another who lived with us. His wife. My mother. He said that she fed me at her breasts, but I don’t remember her. He said she had come from money; her family had more money than he could imagine – dollars, even. It was one of the few things he bragged about. Even to Madam, he would yell at her when she began insulting him about his misuse of money and ask her if she’d even seen or held real dollars because he had. But he never talked about why it was I was born in this face-me-I-face-you. All he said was that there was a rickety jalopy on a dark night, as was usual when she left her salon for home. It was outside our compound that it happened, he told me. The jalopy didn’t see her, she didn’t see the jalopy. It was my crying that attracted the neighborhood. And that was the first night of many nights that my father started mixing Cowbell milk in warm water and feeding it to me through a plastic bottle when I opened my mouth to cry. I am not sure how he did it, but after the woman that was my mother died, he managed to work in three places and give me some form of attention. He was not a man built for work, though. Which is why I was not surprised when he brought Madam into the house and started sleeping until late in the mornings and spending his days playing ayo with the neighbours.
“L’oruko Jesu!” (In Jesus’ name)
It was Sayida. I opened my eyes and rolled them in her direction. Her hands were up in the air, eyes tightly closed, and her body moved back and forth, but her feet never left the position they were in. Small Sayida, spitting prayers and firing evil in tongues. I wanted to laugh at the joke but everybody else in the circle was taking this seriously. They were clapping and moving up and down, almost mimicking Sayida. Madam was sitting in her chair. Her arms were folded and she nodded her head violently as she opened her mouth to Sayida’s instruction to “Pray! Pray!! Mo ni ke gbadura!!!”
I looked around our square cupboard shop. The brown front and back doors were locked, the only ceiling fan was off and maybe it was the sweat that was dripping down my forehead and into my eyes, but the newly painted blue walls looked like they were sweating. I looked at Kelechi and wondered what was happening with everybody. Kelechi was the first to laugh at any talk about church and prayer. He said that all we did was dash our little money to thief pastors. So for him to keep his eyes closed, his mouth open in prayer, and his hands holding on to the girl next to him, it must have been serious.
Money had misplaced.
It started some months before. I really wished that it started around the time when that tiny cockroach started to come to the shop. But it didn’t. So it would be hard to just blame her. She looks like she would steal money. At first, it was my money. #100 on some days, then #500, and then one day, the #5,000 that I had collected from my private home service the day before disappeared. I had checked my bag just before I left the shop. Everybody else had left and so it was hard to point my finger at anybody in particular. My bag had been in the cupboard where we kept our personal things, so it could not have been someone from outside. It was definitely one of the people that worked in the shop. I tried setting traps. I left money in open places and kept looking to see if anybody would take it. The money always stayed where I left it. That, or somebody always tried to find out who owned the money. I lost money a few more times before the thief left me and moved on to somebody else. By this morning, when Madam started doing accounts and screamed, the thief had completed the rounds and money had been stolen from everybody in the shop. If we all lost money, then who was robbing us?
That was Madam’s conclusion. Sayida agreed. And in moments, we formed a ring, heads were covered with scarves or nylon bags in my case and the Holy Spirit was being forced to reveal the thief and restore our money. “Today!”
The prayer warriors did not seem to be getting tired. I was sure that I had heard at least three customers stand outside the closed shop, wondering why we were closed and walking off. We were losing money and praying for money to come back to us. It was funny.
My laugh at the situation must have escaped from inside my thoughts, because one of the other girls opened of her eyes. I smiled, bowed my head and pretended to close my eyes.
“In Jesus’ Name!” Madam exclaimed with victory, almost immediately after the sound came out of my mouth. Had she heard?
She repeated, “In Jesus’ Name we have prayed!”
There was a loud “Amen” as it sounded like Madam was bringing the prayer session to an end. She stood up, pushing the white plastic chair as she did so. The sound of the chair scraping the ground was louder than expected. There was silence. These people looked like they had used all of their energy to send their prayers to heaven.
“Telema, come,” she pointed at the middle of our prayer ring. I did not feel surprised. I moved quickly to the center and faced her.
“Telema. So it was you,” she stared at me with her hands folded under her breasts. The laughter that I had locked inside during the prayer session all came pouring out. I could not concentrate on the look on her face but it looked like it was something between shock and anger. The others started to murmur. I could not pay attention to what it was they were saying.
“I said it! Like father, like daughter. Telema, you must pay! Ah!” She clapped her hands in that dramatic way. My laughter was dying down when I saw that she was about to attack my back with her famous slap. I bent forward and moved to stand next to her. My leg hit the side of the white plastic chair as I did this and her big, black bag, that was next to the chair on the other side, fell on its side. Before Madam could speak, Kelechi had rushed for the poured contents and picked up two green notes that I had never seen before. They each had 1 written on them.
“Chineke! My dollars! My dollars!!”
He looked at Sayida, showing her the two notes, one in each hand. “Na my dollars be dis! From last week na. The one I been dey find!”
The way we all moved our attention from Kelechi to Madam was like we had planned this scene. She was quiet. She sat herself back into the white plastic chair, shook her head and clapped her hands once in front of her face.
“Kelechi, don’t let devil use you oh.”
He was heaving and looked like he was restraining himself from charging at her with all of his lanky length.
“Which kind thing be this, ehn, iwo Olorun,” she sighed looking up at the chipped, white ceiling. I could see that she was embarrassed. It was nice to see. I had never seen her look like that, not even when she discovered she was in the wrong.
“Kelechi, I was keeping that dollars for the owner. I’ve been forgetting to ask you people. And you didn’t tell me you misplaced money, ehn, Kelechi.” It was difficult for her to have to explain herself to us, I could see that. I believed her. She was not the thief. She was not a thief. I knew my father took her money without telling her. He did this a lot. She knew he was the thief of her money, yet she never stopped screaming at the house each time she was missing some nairas.
“Madam, hmmm,” Sayida’s contribution to the accusation probably came out stronger than she wanted. She looked away and said something to the floor that nobody could make out. I rolled my eyes. It had become normal now for me to roll my eyes every time I heard her voice.
This was bad. How was Madam going to get everybody to believe her.
“Madam let us search your bag, then, if what you’re saying is true.” I felt pity for her. But I was enjoying the drama. There would not be many more moments where I could enjoy Madam be at a loss for what to say and look like she had been slapped hard in the rain.
She was stammering now. I interrupted before she could finish what she was saying, “Madam, just cooperate. Let’s just check.” It was hard for me to wipe the smile on my face and when our eyes met, she saw it glaring at her. As she nodded and surrendered to what we were asking, I knew that once all of this was over, we would all pay immensely for what we were about to do. No matter what the punishment would be, however, I have to say that it was worth the effect of having everybody think that Madam was our notorious thief.
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