Someone spoke to her. “Anti”
She burst into frustrated tears. “I came here to learn Yoruba ways and work here!”
The man switched to English as easily as someone might strip off a glove and toss it aside. “Are you unwell?”
“No. I’m unemployed. I’m looking for work.” She apologized and wiped her face. The man standing in front of her looked to be in his seventies. He wore and expensive suit and leaned heavily on a cane.
“I’ve been out walking. Do you mind if I sit?”
“No, of course not.” She moved to give him room, wondering if he expected her to leave.
“I passed a house with a sign in the window in Yoruba and English.” He sank gratefully onto the bench. Lifting his cane, he pointed. “If you go up that way three to four streets, I think you’ll find the house.”
Thanking him, she began a search that took her the rest of the afternoon. Just as she was about to give up, she saw the sign in the window of a three story house. No chipped paint here, and the caves had been painted red. She heard muted laughter when she approached the front door. Brushing down her skirt and pushing the straggling damp tendrils of hair back from her face, she said a quick and desperate prayer before rapping the door knocker. Clasping her hands in front of her, she forced a smile as she waited, hoping she looked presentable and not like some worn down, bedraggled waif who had been walking up and down the mountain all afternoon.
Someone spoke Yoruba behind her. Sapphire jumped as a man reached past her and opened the door. “Excuse me?”
He spoke English this time. “Just go in. They won’t hear you out here. They’re already serving.”
Sapphire entered behind him. “Would you please tell the owner I’m here to answer the sign in the window?”
He walked quickly down the hall and disappeared into another room.
Smells inside the house made Sapphire’s stomach growl with hunger, she hadn’t eaten since early morning, and then, only a small bowl of garri. Men’s laughter swelled, sterling her. She heard mumbles, conversations and more laughter, less loud this time.
A young and attractive dark-haired woman came into the hallway. She wore a high necked, long sleeved blue dress covered with a white apron that accentuated her advanced pregnancy. Cheeks flushed, she dabbed her forehead with the back of her hand as she came toward Sapphire. “You are?”
“Sapphire, Madame.” She dipped in a bow. “I’ve come to apply for a position.” She scrambled for her documents.
“I’m serving dinner now.” She spoke fluent English, glancing back over her shoulder as someone called out.
“I can help you now, if you’ll allow. I worked in the kitchen of Hotel Relish. We can talk about the position later?
” Adupe! Just leave your things there by the door. We have a room full of hungry lions to feed.”
The room had a long table, its straight-backed chairs filled with men on both sides, most hound and professional by their look of their clothing. The room reverberated with loud talk, laughter, the clink of glass cups, and the call for beer being passed in a large basket. Pitchers of wine moved from hand to hand.
“Rebecca!” the handsome man at the head of the table called out. Rebecca went to him and put her arm around his shoulder, whispering in his ear. He looked at Sapphire and nodded.
Rebecca clapped her hands. The men around the table fell silent. She waved her hand toward Sapphire while speaking their rapid conversations. Rebecca pointed to a large tureen at the end of the table; Sapphire hastened to it and tried to pick up the heavy bowl. “No dear” Rebecca protested quickly. “Too heavy. Let them pass their bowls to you.”
Sapphire filled each with thick, delicious-smelling stew, her stomach cramping with hunger. The tureen held just enough for each man to receive one full bowl. She followed Rebecca into the kitchen and set the empty bowl on the worktable. Rebecca sank onto a stool. “You did well! Not a drop spilled.” Lifting her apron, she dabbed beads of sweat from her forehead. “God be praised you came when you did. Those men…….” She laughed and shook her head. “They eat like horses.”
Sapphire’s stomach growled loudly. Rebecca raised her brows. Murmuring in Yoruba, she crossed the room, opened a cupboard, and took out a soup bowl. She dished amala in it. “Eat now. We have a few minutes before they start shouting for more.” She rubbed her back as she sat on the stool again.
“This is wonderful, Madame….?”
“Adio, Abiodun,Abiade, and my husband adebamgbe were the men sitting at the end of the table.”
Sapphire quickly finished her stew, mopping up the last bit of juice with a piece of bread. Setting the bowl in the washbasin, she took the pitcher on the stove. “Shall I refill the tureen?”
Rebecca nodded. “I need someone to help me clean house, change the linens, do laundry, and work in the kitchen.”
Sapphire poured thick stew. “I need room, board, and twenty five thousand a month.” As soon as the words came out, sapphire held her breath. Perhaps she had spoken too quickly and asked too much.
“You are a girl who knows her mind and is willing to work.” She planted her hands on her thighs and stood. “Done. How soon can you come?”
“All I need to do is move the knapsack in left in the foyer upstairs.”
“Do all of those men live here, Madam Rebecca?”
“Call me sister, she smiled brightly. ” And I will call you Sapphire. ” She put more bread in a basket. “Only twelve live here. The others come for dinner when they are in town on business. A friend invites them the first time and they keep coming back. Sometimes we have to turn them away. Not enough room.” Laughter made the walls shake “They are noisy, shebi? She laughed when a man called out loudly. And my husband has the loudest voice of all.” She tossed the last few pieces of bread in the tray.
“He doesn’t speak Igbo. Do you speak any Yoruba?
“No, but I’m eager to learn.”
“Ìyen ò le, mó lè kó e.” Smiling, she pushed the door open and held it so Sapphire could follow her with the filled tureen.
Sapphire wrote to Precious.
At last, I will learn Yoruba. I have found a position in a lodge full of bachelors. The house is run but a lovely couple, Adebamgbe and Rebecca. Madame Rebecca insists I call her Sister. She speaks Yoruba, but she understands little urhobo. She also speaks Igbo and little Hausa. She is a fine cook. I will need to learn Yoruba quickly if I am to be any help to her. She is enceinte. The baby will come the middle of January.
Sapphire sent Mama the name’ address and asked how she and Jane fared.
I am pleased you have found a better situation. Mrs Okeke is a woman to be pitied not despised. We never know what another person suffers in this life. Do not worry so much about Jane. She helps me in the shop. She does all the cutting now. My cousin Sharon came for a visit. She lost her husband last year, and is very lonely. I took you to their house when you were a little girl. You loved their dogs. Do you remember? God never blessed them with children. If anything happens to me. Precious will go and live with her. This is her address..….
Sapphire wrote back immediately.
How ill are you Mama? Should I come home?
Mama’s handwriting had changed. The perfectly formed letters now showed signs of a tremor.
Do not be afraid for me, my child. I am in God’s hands, as are you. Remember what we talked about on the mountain before you left. Fly Sapphire. I fly with you. Do not forsake the gathering of believers, Sapphire. It is the love of brothers and sisters that had strengthened me over the years. We are one in Christ Jesus. Let it be so for you, too. You are precious to me. I love you. Wherever you go, know my heart goes with you.
Sapphire wrote to Precious.
I’m afraid for Mama. Her last letter made believe she’s dying, but she tells me to fly. Have you seen Jane?
Each day, Sapphire got up before dawn and started fire with the kitchen stove. She cooks and cleans the dishes. By the time Rebecca came downstairs, Sapphire had everything set out on the sideboard for breakfast. Sapphire poured her a cup of tea and they sat on two stools in the kitchen.
“I’ve had more rest in the last month than I’ve had in over a year. You will have to cook all the meals when the baby comes.
” I have some wonderful recipes from my former place of work, and I know how to make them well.”
“My husband doesn’t like Igbo food. I will share my best recipes.” Rebecca winked as she sipped the hot tea. “More to write in that book you carry.”
Sapphire patted her apron pocket. “Esé mà.”
“You are learning Yoruba fast although we will have to work harder on your accent.” She gave a teasing grimace.
A letter arrived from precious.
I have gone to your house three times this week. I met your mother’s cousin. I didn’t see Jane. Your mother made no excuses this time. She said Jane doesn’t want to see anyone. Your brother attended Church last Sunday. I asked about your mother and sister; he said Jane had stayed home to look after your mother. He and your father are going leaving town. Things cannot be too bad if they feel they can leave….
Sapphire felt the tension mount inside her. She wanted desperately to go home and see Mama and Jane for herself, but Rebecca’s baby could come any hour. Sapphire could not leave her alone with a lodge full of residents. Torn between fear and guilt, she prayed for God’s mercy.
Each day that Adebamgbe came with a mail, Sapphire waited tensely.
“Kòsí nkan kán fún o loni, anti.”
Each day, she heard the same words. Nothing for her today. The silence filled her with fear.