The Cellar(6)By: Minette Walters
The house was searched a second time, far more thoroughly, and Ebuka and Yetunde were taken away for several hours to be questioned elsewhere. While they were gone, the white brought a Hausa speaker to question Muna. She was a woman of Yetunde’s age who spoke impatiently and stared hard at the girl as she translated the white’s words, adding phrases of her own.
This officer’s name is Inspector Jordan, she said. Look up when you speak to her. Answer freely. You’ve no need to be nervous. There’s nothing to fear if you tell the truth.
Muna doubted that. She had seen how viciously Ebuka had beaten Olubayo for bringing dishonour on the family with his lies. What if this Hausa speaker was a friend of Yetunde’s and refused to repeat what Muna said about the Songolis stealing her from an orphanage? The white – Inspector Jordan – would learn nothing and this woman would tell Yetunde of Muna’s ingratitude afterwards. And Muna dreaded to think of the punishment she would receive.
Life was better as the Songolis’ disabled daughter. With a police liaison officer in the house, Muna no longer had to clean and cook from morning to night, sleep in the dark cellar or dress in a servant’s clothes. Instead she was allowed to wear the same sort of pretty dresses that Yetunde wore, go to bed in a room with windows and electric light and sit with the family each evening, watching and listening as the search for Abiola continued.
Some of Inspector Jordan’s questions were easy, needing simple yes or no answers. Do you love Abiola? Yes. Did you see him leave for school that morning? Yes. Did he come back after Olubayo abandoned him? No. Do you think Olubayo would have harmed his brother? No. Do you think your father might have harmed him? No.
Some were harder because Yetunde had told such ill-considered lies at the start. What is the name of the woman who comes to teach you each day? There is no woman. Why did your mother say there was? She was afraid. Of what? That you’d make me go to school. Don’t you want to learn? My parents teach me. They are kind about my slowness. Wouldn’t you rather go to class as your brothers do? Not if I’m teased.
The most dangerous questions concerned what Muna had been doing on the day that Abiola disappeared. Had she stayed in the house after Mrs Songoli left to meet her friend? What did she do to occupy her time? Muna told the truth. I cleaned and tidied for Mamma. Why didn’t you notice that Abiola hadn’t come home at his usual time? I can’t tell the time. Weren’t you worried when Olubayo came back alone? I didn’t know he was alone. Why not? I didn’t see him. I was in Mamma’s room, trying on her gold necklaces.
The conversation seemed interminable, but when it ended the translator turned to Inspector Jordan and said she didn’t believe Muna was lying. ‘She’s too unsophisticated to fabricate stories. She has trouble speaking at all so I imagine it was the left side of her brain that was damaged. The words she uses are very simple but her mouth finds even those hard to form.’
‘But she sits so still and shows so little expression. Every instinct I have says something’s wrong. She’s small for fourteen … and her skin’s a lot paler than her parents’. She doesn’t smile … doesn’t frown … barely reacts to anything, in fact.’
‘I doubt she goes out much. You’ll have to ask her mother. It may be that the motor function in the muscles of her face are impaired.’
‘Her eyes work well enough. Why won’t she look at me?’
‘She leads a closeted life. Strangers frighten her.’ The Hausa speaker studied Muna’s bent head. ‘She comes from a different culture. You may not be reading her correctly.’
‘Except I had the strong impression she was afraid of her mother that first night. I’m certain she knows more than she’s telling us.’
‘Do you really think Mr and Mrs Songoli are involved in their son’s disappearance?’
‘It depends if Abiola ever left the house that morning. There are several witnesses who remember seeing Olubayo in the road but none who remember his brother.’
‘What about the woman who saw a black boy being put in a car?’
‘The description she gave doesn’t match Abiola’s.’