IF the lizard did not puff up its chest in courage to take the jump from the rooftop, then it would not have the chance to nod its head in pride at its landing.
Her mother used to tell her that when she skulked at corners, twisting her fingers as she scraped up the courage to approach her father for a favour.
She was twisting her fingers now, wringing them around the hem of her blouse and rubbing them hard against the heated satin fabric when her palms became damp with sweat.
The thick curtains that acted as door for the canteen were drawn to the sides, leaving the entranceway widely open. She wouldn’t go through it though. She had no wish to enter the canteen. Someone might notice and call to her and she preferred to escape such notice that would definitely end in questions, unsolicited counsels and then sighs of pity.
No, she would creep by the side to the backyard where the kitchen was and see Udodirim there. Her heart batted though like a drum against her chest as she drew closer. It was clear that recalling her mother’s favourite proverb had not helped her to gather enough courage. She would turn around and go back home, if she had the courage even for that. But what would she tell Adaugo that stopped her from going in search of work today, especially as she had prayed down blessings upon her that morning?
If Udodirim said no again, well, she would, at least, know that she had tried and take her search someplace else. But she should be positive. She should hope for the best. She scrubbed her palms against the skirt that was a gift from Adaugo. They were getting clammier faster and her heart was batting like the hooves of sheep on stampede now.
She avoided the rusty zinc edges that dangled down the roof of the canteen and cornered into the backyard.
Udodirim had a metal plate in hand and was moulding fufu into it. Her large palm worked briskly and expertly, kneading the fufu into an acceptable shape. She was a large woman, big boned and thick fleshed. The size of her often reminded Ndubuisi of the pictures of a rhinoceros her mother used to show her from a book when she was little.
Like the rhinoceros in the picture, Udodirim inspired awe in her by that sheer massive size alone.
“Ndubuisi, you are here again?” She has caught sight of her.
“I am, Udodirim. Good morning.” She hastened forward, sending a smile that was no doubt shaky to Azu who was wielding the pestle in his hand. “I came to see if you could use my assistance today.”
“I do not need another kitchen help, Ndubuisi. I told you that yesterday. Told you the same thing last week.” Udodirim’s voice was deep and crusty. Somewhat like a man’s who smoked. “The kind of work we do here is not for the feeble framed.”
“I am stronger than I look, Udodirim.” Ndubuisi lifted the bowl she was scooping fufu from and held it for her. “I can wash plates, sweep, pound fufu… anything. I am not lazy and I don’t shy away from work.”
“I don’t need another kitchen hand.” Udodirim took the bowl from her and set it back in its place. “I would try you out if I did, but I don’t. Try Akunna’s canteen near the market square. I heard her girl, Ulonma, has left her.”
Akunna had a beef against her because she wanted her younger sister to marry Onyema. But the latter had his attention fixated on her.
“Udodirim, help me. I just need work to feed myself and pay my rent.” Ndubuisi’s eyes filled not because she wanted to garner pity but because she couldn’t stop the tears. “I am alone in this village and have no one to help me. Biko, help me. I will work hard and won’t give you any trouble.”
“Ewo, Ndubuisi, why are you acting like I’m a hard-hearted woman, eh?” Udodirim’s crusty voice chided her now. “I have three girls and one man working for me already, I cannot take another. How much am I making in this business? Ego ne kwanu?” She sighed and set down the plate of fufu she’d finished moulding into a perfect round circle. “Ndu, you should maybe say yes to Onyema. Everyone knows his has his eyes on you. He might not be pleasing to the eyes, but it is your stomach more in need of food here not your eyes.”
“I am not ready for marriage yet.”
Udodirim pushed a snort from her wide brim nose at the excuse. “You are a woman and so, were born ready for marriage. Time passes for a woman oh. And for one who’s not to be found in her father’s house, there are even more limited choices.”
“I will try my luck at other places. There must be work for me somewhere. Thank you, Udodirim.” When criticisms of her not living in her father’s house arose, she often withdrew.
“There are many ways God can open his doors to us, Ndubuisi. We must not fix our eyes in one direction.” The crusty voice carried a note of compassion.
Ndubuisi nodded. “Thank you for the counsel, Udodirim. I’ll be on my way now.”
Another unsuccessful trial. And this one with a clear revelation that Udodirim would never hire her to work in her kitchen. Which way should she head now? Ndubuisi’s steps dragged along the sandy road, her legs heavy underneath her thin frame.
Had leaving her father’s house been a bright idea?
No. She absently gave her head a shake. She would not second-guess her decision. Not now. If she had remained, she’d probably be on the streets now, roaming and stark mad. Leaving had been the wisest, and most courageous, thing she had ever done.
Ndubuisi halted and jerkily turned around. She had been so preoccupied with her thoughts that she had not noticed Onyema. “Onyema.” She did like when he called her ‘Ndu’m’ like she belonged to him. “You startled me. I did not notice you.”
“You seemed deep in thought.” He was a man near his thirties and built like one who walked long distances, lean with thin scraps of muscles strewn along his arms and legs. “I called you twice before you stopped. Where are you coming from?”
“From Udodirim’s.” He was dressed like he always was, in an oversized local fabric sewn trousers and a washed out T-shirt. “I went in search for work. But she does not need another kitchen hand.”
“Ndu’m, but you do not need to seek work in Udodirim’s canteen or in any other woman’s canteen for that matter. If it is canteen business you’re interested in, you tell me and I will open one for you.”
He could too, if she said it was what she wanted. He not only owned the village’s only welding business, he owned the biggest cassava engine in the village.
But at what cost?
“And what will you have me do to earn such graciousness from you, eh, Onyema?”
“What else, but to allow me pay your bride price, Ndu’m?” He drew closer. The strong odour of his sweaty body and not his closeness, made her take an involuntary step back. “Ndu’m, you know how I feel about you. I will fulfil all ceremonies required this instant if you say yes.”
His two front teeth hung over his lower lip. They were more brown than white. “I am not looking for a husband now.” Ndubuisi looked away from his face because uncharitable thoughts were starting to creep in. “What I am interested in is getting work to cater to my needs. But thank you for the offer, Onyema.”
“It is not your thanks I need, Ndu’m. It is your affection and your acceptance.” His face carried a crease of disappointment. “But I will be patient. A journey might be long and the tortoise’s legs short, but with patience and steadiness, he arrives at his destination.” He gave his head a nod and made a gesture with his hand. “So, what will you do now about work? Should I speak to my mother on your behalf? I am sure she will hire you as a sales hand in her stall if I ask.”
“No, don’t do that.” Ndubuisi quickly refused the suggestion. “I am thinking of going to the school. Nkiru is leaving soon and Headmaster might hire me as a replacement.”
“Hmm.” He gave another nod. “Try that. But if Headmaster does not hire you, come to my shop tomorrow and we’ll go speak to my mother together. Okay?”
“Thank you, Onyema.” Ndubuisi gave him a smile. “Let me continue on my way, oh? Have a good day.”
“Take care of yourself, Ndu’m.”
He went one way and she, another.
Maybe her impoverished condition should stop her from being so choosy. Maybe it should blind her eyes to the defects she sees in him. But it did not. She saw clearly what Onyema looked like and was not pleased. More so, she would rather be roaming the streets stark mad than surrender the freedom she’d just gained to another power-crazed woman.
She would try the school and if Headmaster did not hire her, she would seek work elsewhere and never at Ogadinma’s stall.
Ego ne kwanu: How much, eh?