SHE let the boy play by himself on the floor. He was making tiny sand moulds from the broken earth of the floor. She would sweep it later and pour back the sands into the holes they’d come from. When she could afford a linoleum carpet, she would cover the cement floor with it.

That was her plan.

It was more of a dream. One of the many she had. One of the many, she sometimes, maybe it was many times, feared would never be reality.

How could she make them come true?

She didn’t know. But still, she dreamed and she kept hope in her heart.

“Is that a house you’re building?” She studied with smiling eyes the mould with finger dips on the elevated top.

“Our house.” Ekene nodded, his concentration unwavering from his construction.

“It is beautiful.” It was a shapeless mound in danger of collapse. “Hope you will build one for me.”

“Mmm.” Ekene gave his head another nod.

“Ndu!” Adaugo called even before she reached her door.

“I am inside, Adaugo.” She patted down wrinkles on her dress before opening the door. “You’re set to leave?”

Adaugo had a stall in the market square where she plaited and weaved women’s hair. She had tried to learn the art from her. But it seemed she was cursed with ten thumbs.

“I am even running late today. I was unable to sleep on time, so woke up late. It was that book you caught me reading.” Her laugh was both self-chiding and amused.

Adaugo was the kind of woman people called pretty. Her face was a perfect oval, the features on it, rightly proportioned and her skin, a smooth brownness that reminded one of bournvita mixed with milk. Ndubuisi envied her effortless loveliness and most times, wished she wasn’t so thin, long-legged and i-shaped.

“Did you finish it, at least?” She teased.

“That is why I slept late.” A dimple blinked around her mouth that wore a shade of red paint. “Not going out today?” Adaugo peered past her into the room even as she asked. “I see you won’t be.” That red painted mouth compressed. “You have allowed her once again to foist her responsibility on you.”

“She gave me a piece of yam for my trouble.” Ndubuisi offered the excuse with a lame smile. “Besides, Ekene and I get along very well.”

“She gave you a piece of yam. Would she have done so if she did not want to take advantage of you?”

She shrugged.

Adaugo sighed. “You will have to go out there and get work that will feed you, Ndubuisi.”

“I tried yesterday. The canteen said they had no work.”

“Then try another canteen. Or even the school. They are sure to need a new cleaner there, now that Nkiru is joining her husband in Idemili.” Adaugo’s voice strung with impatience. “Do something, Ndu. Don’t just sit here and accept your fate. Or sit at home to babysit Ekene while his mother goes about her own business.”

“I will try the canteen again tomorrow and the school too.” Because it worried her, she voiced it. “Maybe no one will hire me because I don’t look like strong enough to lift anything bigger than a broom.”

“No one will hire you unless you persist and prove that you are hireable.” Adaugo retorted. Then she sighed again started to retreat. “Let me be going. But look at this place?” She frowned at the muddy earth that has swallowed the early morning puddle of water. “We need to get that greedy old man to cement this frontage. The rains make this place an eyesore.”

“It is you people who should speak. I dare not open my mouth. Not with two months unpaid rent.”

“You can marry Onyema and stop worrying about rent, you know.” Adaugo threw over her shoulder.

“I will rather live under the ukwu-obe in the market square.” Ndubuisi snapped her fingers in rejection of the unacceptable idea.

“He’s a man with the thing men have between his legs, Ndu.” Adaugo laughed. “I will see you in the evening. If I see Obioma, I will bring some of her akara-oka home for you.”

“Thank you.” Ndubuisi called and sighed with a little longing before she closed her door.

Now the entire yard was empty except for her and Ekene. The quietness that was now apparent seemed to have an echo to it. She looked at the boy. He had switched from building sand moulds to scrawling jigsaws on the floor with the chalk he’d brought with him.

She would definitely have to clean the floor after he was gone. That was usually the case anyway.

She took back her place on the mattress, crossing her legs at the ankles as she propped her spine against the wall.

Onyema had pursued her persistently for more than six months now. He had a face that was not pleasing to the eyes and a pair of front teeth that refused to stay within the confines of his mouth.

Those were not irredeemable qualities that any woman could not abide with. But Onyema was still very much tied to his mother’s apron strings. Ogadinma controlled how matters were run in her only son’s life and in his welding business. Any woman who chose to marry Onyema would have to accept that she would never be mistress of her husband’s home as Ogadinma remained head of the Nwokele compound years after her husband had died of a fall that many whispered was prodded by Ogadinma herself.

Ndubuisi wouldn’t have minded all of these much given her placid nature but Ogadinma reminded her too much of her step-mother.

She had only just managed to escape the vicious grip of a cantankerous, controlling woman to put herself under another.

No, Onyema would never do. Work was what she needed and she would, must, get one.

She picked the book Adaugo had lent her last week. She hated to read such novels as they filled her head with romantic unrealities that would never be. But she needed to pass the time, so she might as well do so with fanciful stories as companion.



Ukwu-obe: Under the pear tree

Akara-oka: a delicacy made from blended fried corn.