I could not hide my surprise, and almost forgot my manners.
“Goo-Good Afternoon, ma,” I said to Mrs. Williams with a slight curtsy. If her presence at our gate was not enough shock for me, Mrs. Williams a.k.a Mama Tokunbo, shocked me even further when she returned my greeting with an exuberant,
“Ah, how are you my dear?” and actually tried to hug me. I took two steps backwards in fright.
Where on earth was the real Mrs. Williams and who was this impostor?
Two questions I would apparently never get answers to just gawking at her by the gate.
You see, Mrs. Williams was the selectively snobbish type. If you greeted her on an exceptionally good day, she might wave at you, manage a smile and go about her business.
On most days, she simply ignored my greeting altogether and pretended to be suffering from a temporary loss of hearing.
I had complained about Mrs. Williams’ bad habit to both parents on several occasions and the advice each parent gave me was unquestionable proof of the profound difference in their personalities.
My mother advised me to stop greeting her because respect was reciprocal and in her words, “it is not by force to greet people.”
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, my mother had suffered the same rubbish treatment from Mrs. Williams and had stopped greeting her. Her decision would be revised if and only if Mrs. Williams happened to greet her first.
That life-changing event was yet to happen.
But my father took a different approach.
“Just continue greeting her. It’s the way we raised you. You don’t want to get used to being disrespectful to your elders.”
“But Daddy, respect is reciprocal,” I protested. “Why should I bother greeting a woman who has no intention of returning my greeting? I might as well greet the broom, the dustpan and the rake in the yard!”
“No, Enitan you can’t do that. She’s older than you. Greeting an elder is not a suggestion. It’s a requirement. Remember you will also grow to be her age one day and you won’t like it if young people withhold their greeting from you.”
I did not argue with my father on the issue anymore, but my prevailing thought at the time was:
“Well, I won’t be a bitter 40-something year old who is too big to open her mouth and respond to the greeting that’s being offered to her.”
Without telling either parent, I took a decision and picked my mother’s advice. I resolved to greet Mrs. Williams, if and only if she greeted me first.
Or at least, until she snapped out of her selective deafness.
I had gotten used to this “Greet today, No answer tomorrow” relationship with this woman, with her lack of response to my greetings forming the majority of my experience.
But that Sunday afternoon was different.
This woman wanted something.
She did not fool me for even one second.
What that something was that had forced her to start acting all familiar, I was determined to find out by hook or crook.
“Mummy and Daddy nko? Are they around?” Mrs. Williams asked in a voice that suggested that like a good detective, she had made sure that whoever she was coming to see was at home and not out visiting or running errands.
But since she asked, I had to answer.
“Yes, ma. They’re both at home.”
“Oh, that’s great! I need to speak with them,” she said, stepping into our compound, and waiting for me to lock the gate before leading her indoors.
From the gate to the sitting room, Mrs. Williams fired questions at me, the kind of questions that adults seem to carry everywhere with them and reserve for anyone they categorize as a child who ought to be in school.
“How is school?”
“Your teachers nko?”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Are you facing your books?”
The last question was uttered in a tone that suggested that while a young girl was in school, she had only one option: face book, or face belle.
In case I doubted her, she made herself clear when she explicitly stated, just before we set foot on the threshold of the house:
“Don’t listen to all these small small boys. Face your books. Girls who don’t face their books will end up pregnant.”
I wondered if Mrs. Williams had offered the same unsolicited piece of advice to her own daughter who as young as she was, had started getting considerable male attention, mostly from the same pre-teen guys in her age group.
To all her questions, I gave her the briefest answers possible, speaking in monotones when I could help it. But nothing could dampen her mood.
Oh, Mrs. Williams was certainly on a mission. A small fry like me was not going to stand in her way.
As soon as I took her to the sitting room, I ran upstairs to inform my parents who were relaxing in their bedroom, that they had a visitor.
My father immediately sprung to action, getting up and wearing his leather slippers as he prepared to go downstairs. My mother, however, who until then had been gisting excitedly with my father, said in a crumpled tone:
“I’m not coming. Baba Yemi, you can go and talk to her.”
“Ahn ahn, Asake, don’t do that! Let’s go together. Whatever she has to say must be very important for her to come and see us like this,” said my father.
“Too bad. That woman doesn’t deserve the courtesy of my presence. She won’t greet or answer my greeting as if they have glued her lips together, but now, she knows how to carry her wogo wogo legs into my house when she needs something, abi? Baba Yemi, please attend to her. I’m not coming,” said my mother firmly.
“Okay. So … so what do I tell her? She knows you’re at home. I’m sure she will ask for you.”
“Tell her I’m sleeping, or don’t people sleep in their houses again?” said my mother, grabbing a magazine and propping herself up on a pillow as she flipped it open.
My father sighed and shook his head sadly before leaving the room.
He went to the sitting room and greeted Mrs. Williams who unsurprisingly returned his greeting. She refused all offers of drinks or any kind of refreshments, saying that she had something important to discuss with him.
While they were exchanging pleasantries, I had slipped out of the house and made my way quietly to the side of the house close to the window of the sitting room. I had brought a single companion with me: an apoti.
It was the same wooden stool my mother always sat on when she was plucking tete and soko. For some odd reason, she always plucked gbure standing on her feet.
With my apoti positioned strategically under the window, I sat on it and listened.
Mrs. Williams cleared her throat and said:
“What about Madam? Isn’t she around?”
“Oh, she’s sleeping,” said my father.
A brief silence followed and then, she went straight to the point.
“It’s Tokunbo I’ve come to see you about, Mr. Ladoja.”
Although I had had no idea why on earth Mrs. Williams would want to pay my parents such an unexpected visit, I was still very shocked when I heard the subject of her discussion with my father: Tokunbo.
What did he have to do with us?
I listened closely knowing the answer was forthcoming.
“Mr. Ladoja, it’s Tokunbo o,” she began in response to my father’s question, “What is it?” As she let out the third deep sigh in a row, I could imagine the strong scent of her perfume – a musky scent – filling our antiquated, yet comfortable sitting room.
As I listened, I heard my father in a low tone encouraging her to speak.
As if she needed any convincing!
However, she took his words to heart and spoke up.
“You know Tokunbo’s father and I are no longer together,” she began in Yoruba. In fact, the entire conversation was rendered mostly in Yoruba, with English playing a minor role.
“Oh, sorry to hear that, Madam. I didn’t know.”
“Ah, it’s okay,” continued Mrs. Williams, in a mournful tone, as if the man had just left her that very afternoon, when in fact, they had been divorced even before she and her children moved to our neighborhood.
I could almost have hissed from where I sat.