I was still hanging my handbag on my shoulder, as I came into our family compound. The sun was very harsh, beating down on my unprotected head as I walked up from the bus station; and I was glad to come under the shed of a huge canopy someone has considered wise to set up in the compound.
The group of women sitting in small units, all turned to look at my entering and called out greetings to me. Some called out my name, while others were reaching out to touch my hand by way of greeting. The excitement was infectious and I feel like some VIP that has come from the government.
I looked around at the faces of the women. Some, I could recognize and attach a name; others were vaguely familiar, while others were just smiling faces to me.
‘’Patty, come and sit here,” a voice said. I looked and saw Biobelemo, waving to me, and shifting to make room for me on the bench she was sitting on.
“Ah! Bio, Tubara?,” I waved back with my free hand, trying to extricate myself from the arms that were reaching out to me, and moved across the little space toward her.
In front of each group of the women were a heap of periwinkle shells and a basin containing the extracted meat.
Biobelemo is a cousin and was just about my age, 34. Her checks were showing a slight wrinkle, but her eyes were sparkling, a determination to pursue life to its fullest. I do not know why that thought came to me. I smiled at her and sat down at the space she had made for me. I noticed some black spot on her face, from the mud of the periwinkle she had been picking.
I looked around to see that everybody was so stained from the dirt of the periwinkle. I also noticed a bottle of ogogoro - locally brewed gin - on the table with a small tumbler. There were some crates of assorted soft drink and a couple of packets of cabin biscuit under the table. These, I knew, must have been presented by relatives of the deceased, as entertainment to the women, encouraging them to work on.
“Patty, you’re looking gorgeous every time you come home, what’s the secret?”
“Thank you, my sister, it’s God at work,” I looked around at the heap of periwinkle shell they have gathered so far. “You girls must have started early with the periwinkle picking. You’ve almost finished and it’s not up to 10 ‘O’ clock.”
“You should realize that this is a community thing. All the women in the town came early this morning to start the work. Some have already left to attend to the cooking.”
I can feel the smoke from the burning woods in my breath and my eyes felt sore from that effect. From the distance, I can hear the beating of drums and the sound of songs faintly floating into the compound.
“This is going to be a very big burial ceremony. I saw a lot of people at the motor park in Yenagoa, coming to Nembe, and I believe they were all coming here to attend the burial.
“Don’t you know that Aunty Eunice was a very popular woman in her lifetime,” she said laughing and throwing up her arms.
“And you have not seen anything yet, my girl.” Tarindogiyo volunteered, breaking into our discussion.
“Ah! Mama, good morning,” I greeted her. Aunty Tarindogiyo is my mother’s younger sister, the last born of a family of two men and two women. She is about 56, fair, tall. Some people have said I am in closer resemblance with her than even with my mother.
I stared at her. She tucked her wrapper between her legs which she stretched out in front, the basket of periwinkle and the basin by her right-hand side.
Aunty Tarin, that was what we used to call her as kids, would always ask me to sit down like a woman. That, women, do not sit with their knees held up, exposing their underwears.
“But, what about Numonyo, and Yanaowei?”I would argue. “They always sit with their knees held high.”
“Those are boys, your elder brothers. You know that men are always wearing trousers and shorts,” she would lecture me in the presence of my mother, who was always seemed to be very busy cooking our meals to feed our very large family.
We had a very big family of six boys and the only daughter, who is I. We also always have at least two or three other children staying with us.
I was the Tommy boy in the house, playing with the others, that a casual observer would not even know that I am a girl.
I stole a look at the women that were sitting here. About half of them were wearing tightly fitting trousers. So much about women not wearing men’s dressing.
“Hey! What are you smiling at?” Biobelemo nudged my arm with her elbow.
“You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
“Where you in town to go with the women to pick the periwinkle, and cutting the firewood?”
“Patty! That was why I always ask you to be coming home regularly,” she turned and looked at the women. “We don’t go in groups these days to the swamps to pick periwinkle. Somebody in the family of the deceased with money would volunteer to hire people to go and cut the firewood for any burial ceremony, while some women would still volunteer to go and pick the periwinkle. You can still hire people to do that for you also.”
She looked at me for a moment. “But, is that the reason you were smiling to yourself a while ago?”
“So all we do these days is just to sit in the family compound to pick periwinkle, cook, eat and drink?” My eyes roved over the drinks and stayed briefly.
“That’s called entrepreneurship, splashed with a good measure of entertainment,” another lady, sitting to my far right put in. I turned to see a familiar face smiling at me.
“Oh! Madeline. Excuse me Bio,” I stood up and walked up to embrace her. “What was I thinking or looking at? I did not see you when I came in a short while ago.”
“How could you, when you got yourself snatched away by your friend, Bio.” She threw a jealous look at Biobelemo.
She was wearing a tightly fitting jeans trousers and an equally tight polo shirt. Her hair was braided and tied up into a ponytail.
Madeline has been my very close friend in our years of our rascality at school. She still looks radiant in that dressing. I could faintly perceive the deodorant coming out from her, overpowering the thick smell of the fire hanging over the compound.
“How’s our husband?” she whispered into my ears.
“I’ll break your neck if you get to within one foot of Tony," I whispered back at her with a smile.
She would not change, I said to myself. All of sudden, the years started rolling back to the days when we were in school.
Tony, my boyfriend then, came to visit me in our school, Government Girls Secondary School, Nembe Bassambiri. My heart would skip a beat whenever I see him then, and still does.
Handsome in his all white trademark dressing, with sharp intelligent eyes; his afro hair brushed backward, hidden under a white velvet face cap: He was a toast to the entire hostel, but somehow, he found in me an appealing spirit. Though I do not know his reason for picking on me then, but later, he told me that my spirit appeals to him, whatever that meant, I never tried to find out.
Though this was our last year in school, I have always looked forward to those visits, which were far in between, as he has just secured an admission into the university.
On that occasion, we were sitting in the school’s cafeteria sipping coke together, when my girlfriend, Madeline showed up. For some reason, Tony had asked her to join us, an offer she gladly obliged.
I did not know then if I should be angry at the intrusion, for Madeline tried her best to dominate this intimate meeting I was having with my boyfriend, her eyes, like a diamond, glittering and fastened on Tony, asking all the irrelevant questions.
Later that evening, she found me lying down on my bed and came to me with the weirdest of all proposition I have ever heard in my life.
She took my hand in hers, and her tone merely above a whisper,” Patty, can I get him for just a five minutes contract?”
“What do you mean? Get who for what contract?” I withdrew my hands from her.
“Tony, your boyfriend of course; can you give him to me for just a five minutes contract? She was not pushing it, neither was she smiling about it, but said it so matter of 'factly', as if it is just a normal thing.
It was then I knew what treasure I have in Tony. I could see the dimple in his cheek when he smiles, and I can also hear his laughter and the silky voice. I closed my eyes and I could feel his presence all over me. Then, I knew that I will not let him go, no, not if I can control it.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I asked her, my voice betraying my anxiety.
“I am, Patty, but I am not taking him from you. He’s just a nice sweet guy, any girl’s delight. Any lady would give anything to be with him, and baby, that’s what I’m offering to you; my pride bottled up and sold out to you, to have time to be with Tony.” She looked into my eye and smiled at me.
I sat up on the bed, took her arm in mine, “Madeline, I will tell him when he comes here tomorrow, and then you will have to ask him yourself.”
“It’s a deal, then?”
“It sure is.” I leaned toward her and hug her.
She stood up, walked up to the door, turned to stare at me briefly, waved, then sauntered out of the room whistling the soundtrack of Tammy Whynette's, “Stand by your man.”
The years have not changed her outlook on life, still reaching to the best thing life could offer to her. At 35, I am aware that she has two lovely kids out of wedlock; but then, one would not expect all of us to get married.
I looked at her sitting on that long wooden bench with her hands filled with periwinkle shells, and dirt, regarding me intensely.
“Are you still willing to give him that contract?” I said laughing. Over the years, any time we are together, we would take that joke as a friendly code that brings back darkly guarded life we shared.
“Tah! I can’t make a contract with a father of three boys and a girl. The contract he turned down years ago, making me felt like a jerk.”
“Tony didn’t give you a cold hand on that issue when you asked him to take that contract. The way I remembered it, it brought the two of you closer and he was treating you then, like his younger sister. He gave you back your pride.”
“What else could he have done, with you breathing down his neck, and all your antennas raised high, monitoring every move I made toward him? And by the way, I was not asking for a younger sister status.” She burst out laughing.
“It was a cool thing I did then, though; I would have lost Tony to all the predators like you that were swimming around him,”
From her seat, I noticed Bio raised her eyebrow at us. I winked back with a knowing smile and looked back at Madeline.