The Cellar(3)By: Minette Walters
The picture Yetunde and Ebuka painted in their answers was not one that Muna recognised. They described Abiola as a popular boy who walked to class with his brother each morning, keen to begin his lessons. They made no mention that he wet his bed most nights and slapped and kicked his mother if she asked him to do something he didn’t like. He had to be bribed with sugary foods to go to school, fed to him in titbits from Yetunde’s fingers. It was why mother and son were as fat and bloated as each other. For every sticky sweet Yetunde gave Abiola, she took one herself.
This trouble had come upon them, Muna thought, because Mr Songoli had cancelled the car that had driven the boys to class each morning and brought them back each afternoon. He was angered at how spoilt they’d become and told them they must learn to want their education as strongly as the bush children in Africa. Now Olubayo told terrible lies about the happenings that morning, swearing hand on heart that he had walked Abiola to the school gates. Yet Muna knew this couldn’t be true. Olubayo had so much hatred for Abiola, and Abiola so much hatred for him, that they never did anything together.
Perhaps the white didn’t believe the story either for she asked Yetunde if she’d seen the boys leave. And of course Yetunde said she had. She would never admit to her husband that she’d been sitting before her mirror, massaging expensive bleaching cream into her skin. Such wasteful extravagance annoyed Ebuka.
‘I’d like to ask your daughter the same question, Mrs Songoli. Will you put it to her?’
Yetunde raised her voice. Look up, Muna. This woman is asking if you saw Olubayo and Abiola leave this morning. Nod your head and say something. She expects you to speak.
Muna did as she was asked. Yes, Princess. No, Princess. Is there something I can do for you, Princess? But even as she whispered in Hausa she longed for the courage to say the words she practised to herself each night.
‘Please help me. My name is Muna. Mr and Mrs Songoli stole me when I was eight years old. I would like to go home but I don’t know who my parents are or where I come from.’
The only adults Muna could recall from her childhood were nuns and priests with shiny white skin. The years had blurred their features and muddled their names but she thought she’d been happy during the time she spent with them. She found it easier to remember the beaming black faces of the children. There was more to recognise in people she resembled. She dreamed sometimes of playing games in the dust of a sun-drenched schoolyard, full of colour and brightness, but where that was and why she had been there, she didn’t know.
The life she lived now had begun the day Yetunde came to claim her. The woman, tall and magnificently dressed in a bright blue kaba with a matching gele on her head and gold necklaces around her neck, had documents to prove her entitlement to the child. With a happy laugh, she had claimed Muna as her niece, hugging and kissing her and telling her how pretty she was, and Muna had smiled into the woman’s eyes as if she knew her. No priest would question the love he saw between them, particularly when Yetunde Songoli produced a legal writ giving her guardianship of her dead sister’s eight-year-old daughter.
Had Muna been suspicious? No. Her only feeling had been awe to discover she belonged to someone as rich and beautiful as Aunt Yetunde. If an explanation had been offered for why she had ever been placed in the care of nuns or why Yetunde Songoli had thought to look for her there, she didn’t remember. Her strongest recollection of the day was skipping through the schoolyard gates at her aunt’s side without a backward glance at the place she’d called home.
Now, all these years later – five, six, seven? – Muna wished her memories of it were stronger. Reason told her it must have been an orphanage and that her surname, if she’d ever had one, wasn’t known to the priest. Or perhaps he was as wicked as Yetunde Songoli? Perhaps he posed as a priest to make money from selling motherless girls to well-dressed women with documents? Muna didn’t want to believe that. She longed to think white people had more kindness than black ones, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t true. She had seen the cold and unfriendly way they passed each other in the street outside this house where she lived, not caring to exchange a greeting or even smile.