The Cellar(5)By: Minette Walters
‘Did you look to see if Abiola entered the gates after you?’ the white asked Olubayo.
‘No. I ran to join my own friends.’ Olubayo gave a sudden wail as if he knew he should show grief.
‘Do you blame my son for this?’ Ebuka Songoli demanded angrily.
‘Of course not, sir, but we’ll require the names of everyone he remembers at the gates when he arrived. We have a team searching the school premises in case Abiola met with an accident, but if he never went in, a parent or child may have seen what happened to him.’ She paused. ‘We need to establish if he left on his own or in the company of someone else.’
‘A stranger has taken him. This is a terrible country. Such things would never happen in ours.’
‘It’s more likely to be someone he knew, Mr Songoli. The area was too crowded and too well covered by CCTV for a stranger abduction. One of my team is going through this morning’s footage with the caretaker but any names Olubayo can give me will help. Tomorrow’s Friday. It gives us little time to find witnesses before the students leave for the weekend.’
Muna sensed Olubayo’s nervousness on the seat beside her as he stammered out those he remembered. She thought him foolish to do it. Did he think no one would have noticed that he arrived alone? On each of the four days since the car had been cancelled, he had taken to his heels as soon as he and Abiola were hidden from Yetunde’s view by the wall surrounding the garden. Muna, whose first job every morning was to tidy the boys’ attic bedrooms, had watched it happen. While Olubayo ran away laughing, his fat brother waddled and wept in a furious rage behind him.
It hadn’t occurred to her to speak of it to Yetunde for Olubayo would have kicked her and slapped her if she had. Nor did she want to be beaten with the rod for pausing in her duties to tell Princess things she didn’t want to hear. Muna’s task was to wash Abiola’s sheets, not care if he was abandoned in the road. She had no liking for him. He was a lazy, dirty boy who soiled his bed because Muna was there to clean it for him. Sometimes he smeared faeces on the linen to make the task of bleaching it harder.
Laziness had made him stupid and for that Muna could thank him. He had found it so hard to learn English that Mr Songoli had paid for him to be taught in the house. Since Yetunde wasn’t interested in listening, the lessons had taken place in the dining room; and since Muna wasn’t allowed to be seen by strangers, she was ordered to stay in the kitchen while the teacher was there. She had often wondered why Yetunde hadn’t realised she would be able to hear what was said through the hatchway that linked the two rooms.
Perhaps Yetunde believed what she always said, that Muna was too feeble-minded to make her own way in the world. Be grateful for my protection, she would say as she struck with the rod whenever Muna displeased her. Without a place in the Songoli home, you would be nothing.
Muna was forbidden to watch television or listen to a radio, but even squatting in her place in the corner of the kitchen, she could hear what the family heard because they turned the volume so high. At first, she had only understood the language of Olubayo and Abiola’s children’s programmes, but as the years passed she absorbed the vocabulary of the daytime chat shows that Yetunde loved. And when Ebuka came home in the evening, she listened to the language of current affairs as she prepared the evening meals.
War … murder … rape … violence … hatred … intolerance … cruelty …
Muna could speak whole sentences in her head but she struggled to make her mouth say them. And more often than not she wondered if it was worth trying. From everything she heard, the world outside was as terrible and frightening as Yetunde and Ebuka Songoli described it.
A week passed. Abiola’s face kept appearing on television, and Mr Songoli raged about journalists and cameramen camped at his gate, pointing their lenses at his windows. The fingerprints of everyone in the house were taken, while others were lifted from the furniture in Abiola’s bedroom. Olubayo was exposed as a liar when the CCTV footage showed that he arrived at school alone, and, worse, that Abiola never arrived at all. A woman in a neighbouring street said she’d seen a black boy being lifted into a car of the same make and colour as Mr Songoli’s.