The Cellar(2)

By: Minette Walters



Yetunde pinched Muna’s waist. She’s talking about Abiola. Look at me and pretend concern. Say something.

Muna turned her head and whispered the only words she was permitted to use. Yes, Princess. No, Princess. Is there something I can do for you, Princess?

Yetunde dabbed at her eyes again. ‘She says she thought he was with our older son, Olubayo. He takes his little brother to the park sometimes.’ A great sigh issued from her chest. ‘I should have been here. So much time has been wasted.’

Muna wondered if the white would believe such a lie, and kept her gaze lowered for fear the blue eyes would read in hers that Yetunde was being deceitful. Muna’s life was less painful for being thought too simple to learn any language but Hausa.

‘You realise we need to search the house and garden, Mrs Songoli?’ said the white, rising to her feet. ‘It’s standard procedure when a child goes missing. Abiola may have hidden himself away rather than go to school. We’ll make it as easy on you as we can but I suggest you take your daughter downstairs so that your family can sit together in one room.’

If Muna had known how to see humour in a situation, she might have laughed to hear Yetunde order Olubayo to treat her as his sister. But humour and laughter were as alien to her as smiling and speaking. Instead she thought of the kicks and slaps Olubayo would give her once the whites had left. He was big for a thirteen-year-old, and Muna feared for herself when he changed from boy to man. So many times recently she’d looked up from her work to find him staring at her and rubbing his groin against the door frame.

From beneath lowered lids, she watched the expressions on Mr and Mrs Songoli’s faces. How anxious they were, she thought, but was it Abiola’s disappearance that was worrying them or having police in their house? As Yetunde had brought her downstairs, Muna had seen that the door to the cellar was open. A bulb now glowed in the overhead light at the top of the steps, banishing the darkness she’d lived in and showing her that her mattress and small bag of possessions had been removed from the stone floor at the bottom.

She thought how harmless her prison looked, brightly lit and with nothing to show that anyone had slept there, and it gave her a small hope that whites were kinder than blacks. Why would the Songolis hide the truth about her otherwise? Just once, Muna shifted her glance fractionally to look at the woman in trousers. She was asking Olubayo about Abiola’s friends, and Muna felt a shock of fear to find the blue eyes staring at her and not at the boy. They seemed clever and wise and Muna trembled to think this person knew she understood what was being said.

Would she guess that Muna had listened to the message being left on the answerphone and had known all day that Abiola had not arrived at his school?

The searchers returned, shaking their heads and saying there was no sign of the child although they’d found a mobile telephone on charge in his room. Yetunde identified it as Abiola’s and began to wail again because her son hadn’t had it with him. She rocked to and fro issuing high ululations from her mouth, while her husband strode angrily about the carpet, cursing the day he’d brought his family to this godforsaken country. He bunched his fists and thrust his blood-infused face into the white woman’s, demanding to know what the police were doing.

Muna would have cowered before such ferocity, but not the white. She took Ebuka calmly by the arm and returned him to his chair to weep for his beloved son. She seemed to have great power over men. Where Yetunde stamped and raged to get what she wanted, the white gave quiet orders that were obeyed. She used the telephone to request a child-protection officer to examine Abiola’s computer and smartphone. She asked Yetunde and Ebuka for photographs and videos of the boy. Bags containing his clothes, toothbrush and comb were taken away. Sandwiches and pizzas were brought in.

All the while she asked questions of the family. Had Abiola been unhappy recently? Was he bullied? Did he shut himself in his room, spending long hours on the internet? Was he a boy of secrets? How much did his parents know about his friends? Did he run with a gang? Was he taken to school each morning or did he make his own way? Who had seen him off that morning?

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