Anya loved it best when the shop was swamped with customers calling out orders, when tables were all taken and there wasn’t a spot to sit, when she was all up to her ears with work and there wasn’t a moment to take a break. Those were her best moments, the steady bustle of business and rapid emptying of trays. And it wasn’t because she made her biggest profits in those times.
Well, that was part of the reason. A good part of it as she was a business woman, but it was not all of it.
She loved to bake, more than she loved a customer-swamped shop. And a long line of customers coming and going meant a lot of people were satisfied, and thoroughly so, with her baked goods. That was the joy of it, the pleasure she revelled in was the satisfaction people had in what she made in her kitchen.
And because of that pleasure, it was never any hardship giving out two fish pies to a customer who couldn’t afford more than a doughnut to split between her twins.
“Hey, Onyi and Agili, how about you try out the fish pies?” She lowered a polythene to the boys standing beside their mother. “I decided to try my hand on them this morning and want your opinion on them.”
“You’re always too generous, Anya,” Amara said, beaming a grateful smile before she chided her boys. “What are you waiting for to say a big thank-you to Aunty Anya?”
“Thank you, Aunty Anya,” they chorused in unison, their very alike faces alight with delight.
“You’re so welcome. Be sure to let me know what you thought of it next time,” she said, gave a wave, and turned her smile on the next customer in line. This customer gave her insides a jump, which was another pleasure for her. “Hello, Saz. What are you looking to get today?”
“The fish pies which are new on the menu. Two, and a malt drink,” he named his brand, and remarked with a smile. “It’s a busy day, I see.”
His smiles never lit up his eyes, but she liked the way they came on like a bulb reluctant to shine. “It is. Every now and again, we have a busy Saturday like this.” She packed his order and set it on before him on the counter. “That’s six-fifty.”
“Okay.” He handed over a thousand. “Not going to add an extra for me? I saw you slip a buns to the young girl who ordered a sponge cake, a doughnut to the boy who flirted outrageously with you, and two fish pies to the chubby-faced twins. I figured it was giveaway Saturday.”
Anya chuckled, enjoying his humour. “If it is, then maybe I should have you pay for more things I’ll be giving away.”
“In that case, here’s another thousand.” He passed a single bill and took his order. “So, changed your mind about being my companion?”
“I didn’t know you were asking me to fill in the spot.”
“Well, Nkechi’s unavailable, so I guess I am. What do you say?”
She wanted to say yes. But that was because the glint in his eyes made her feel reckless. “No. That’s what I say. Now, have a nice day, Saz.”
“I don’t want to accept no is your answer. But you’ve got work and I’ve got to get off the line, so we let it be the answer for now.” He shot a wink before he turned. “See you, Anya.”
It took some effort to tear her gaze off him and focus on the next customer in line. “Good afternoon, what can I get you?”
“If we spend fifteen minutes chatting with every customer, imagine the kind of crowd and chaos we’ll have here,” Nkechi grumbled when they both hit the fridge at the same time to get drinks.
“We barely chatted for seven minutes,” Anya retorted, completed that sale and turned attention to another customer. “And stop being grumpy and smile at customers. It’s called customer service.”
“Swift service and not keeping customers waiting are also part of customer service. You remember that when next he swaggers over.”
“He doesn’t swagger. If he did though, he would still be good looking.” Anya grinned and gave her an elbow jab. “You do notice he’s good looking, don’t you? A good looking man who was kind enough to drop one thousand three hundred and fifty naira to fund a couple of giveaways.”
Nkechi snorted. “Anyone can give out some change when they want something, it doesn’t mean they’re being kind.”
“Well, I think it’s kind. I think he’s good looking. And I think your customer is waiting for you.”
Nkechi muttered something.
But Anya didn’t bother to wonder what it was she said, or if she was truly irritable, because she knew she wasn’t. She was only worried for her, because she didn’t want her hurt by a man most likely looking for fun.
Which was true of Saz, he only wanted a woman to have fun with. And that was fine with her.
But she wasn’t in a fun mood when she made her way to the quarters where Okey lived with his uncle and his family.
It didn’t surprise her to find the boy peeling cassava alone at the back of the house. Sweat streamed down the sides of the small, lean face and Anya figured he’d come back from the farm and gone straight into peeling the cassava tubers.
She was glad she’d brought him a drink and some snacks, and while Okwudili would frown at the gifts, she didn’t hesitate to uncork the chilled bottle of Sprite and hold it out to the boy.
“I came bearing your favourites, and I suggest you begin with this.”
“Aunty Anya, you startled me, for I didn’t notice you.” But he snatched the bottle out of her hand, and took a long gulp. Then he belched and shot her a grin. “Sorry. I was so thirsty. Good evening, Aunty. How was the shop today, very busy?”
His eyes were always thoughtful and interested, Anya thought, wishing she could take him somewhere he wouldn’t have to grow up too fast.
“Busier than it was two Saturdays ago. We didn’t have a moment’s break until past four. We had at least a dozen people who came in from Ubulu. Let’s not even count the ones from Azagba and Ibusa.” To amuse him, she let out a dramatic sigh and rolled her eyes. “I will be glad with slow days for the next week.”
“No, you won’t. After you rest tomorrow, you will want the shop busy again on Monday,” he said sagely.
“That is true, I want the shop always busy. Anyway, where’s everyone?”
“Afam and Emma went to the field to play ball, Precious went to church for her choir practice and Aunty went to buy potash from Mama Ogoli.”
The other children were out to do whatever they pleased, while he stayed home to do the chores. If the boy could say it without any ill feelings, she shouldn’t feel any sense of unfairness.
But she did. And it tossed off any uneasiness she felt having to interfere again in family matters. She would interfere until something changed.
“Well, while I wait for Okwudili, I will help you peel the cassava. Where can I get another knife?”
“You don’t have to help. I’m almost done.”
Indeed he was given the couple of cassava tubers lying around. “I will assist with washing then.” She didn’t wait for another objection, but grabbed a bucket, filled it with water and poured into the basin with peeled cassava. “I suspect it’s for soaking given the smooth way you peeled them.”
“Yes, it is. Uncle doesn’t like eating eba, so we always make sure to have fufu at home.”
If Uncle didn’t like eating eba, it was the duty of his wife to see to preparation of his preference, not that of a nine year old boy. The caustic thought only served to make Anya more determined to have a talk with Okwudili. And it wasn’t going to be quiet appeals only this time.
“Anya, what are you doing?”
Anya jolted, noted that Okey did too, and that his small face creased with worry even though he didn’t glance up from his work.
Biting back a sarcastic retort, she lifted her head, offered a cool smile. “Helping Okey wash the cassava he has to soak.”
“Did he complain that he couldn’t do it on his own?” Okwudili, slim as a model in spite of having had three children and very beautiful, advanced with a displeased expression on her face. “Is it this small heap of cassava that you can’t peel and wash, Okey?”
“He didn’t say he couldn’t handle it. As a matter of fact, he has single handedly done so, I’m just lending a late and clearly unneeded hand.” She continued to wash and dump cassava tubers into the plastic drum close by, determined to finish. “I actually came to see you, Okwudili.”
“Did you? I see you brought a drink for Okey. When are you going to learn that sweet drinks are not good for children?”
“You mean you don’t give sweet drinks to Precious and her brothers?” Anya countered, shooting her a baffled stare. “Because Precious had a bottle of Mirinda at my shop yesterday when she came over with some of her friends after school.
“And on Tuesday and Wednesday, Emma and Afam both shared one bottle of Fanta at the kiosk in school during break. Not to talk of the bottles of La Casera their father got them when he brought them into the shop on Thursday evening.”
“So, you saw my children have a few drinks and decided to bring Okey one?” Okwudili hissed. “I hope you’re ready to treat him when he gets sick.”
“Hand him over to me and I will do more than treat him.”
Their eyes held, hers challenged and Okwudili’s turned defiant. Defiant and malicious.
Anya balked. This wasn’t the way. It wouldn’t help Okey in any way if she antagonised Okwudili…well, more than she had already.
So, she offered a smile, made sure it was soft and friendly. “Let’s not knock heads together when we’re both looking out for his wellbeing.” She took a step back from the basin. “Okey, you can finish up, can’t you?”
“Definitely, Aunty. Thank you for your help.”
Anya saw his worried smile, tried to reassure him with her own. “Thank you for letting me help when you didn’t need my help. Here.” She held out a polythene bag to him. “I brought him a snack, Okwudili. Brought some for the other kids too. I hope you will allow them all have theirs.”
Of course, Okwudili understood her question, and her eyes streaked with guilt before she grumbled, “How can I stop them if you’ve already brought the snacks? Anyway, I’m going inside. Okey, finish that thing and light the stove, we have to begin cooking evening food.”
“I will follow you inside, Okwudili, as I want to speak with you.”
Her response was a grunt Anya decided was as good as an invitation to enter, so she followed her into the comfortable living room. She might not like Okwudili, but one had to admire her taste in simple, pretty furniture.
“What has Okey complained about again that you want to discuss?” She asked as she waved to a chair and sat down herself.
“You and I know that little boy rarely complains, Okwudili. Something has to hurt him deeply for him to speak out.” Anya chose to begin quietly. “And he made no complaints to me. I saw him going to school late a few days back and wanted to speak to you about having him leave for school on time.”
“I don’t stop him from leaving for school on time if he finishes his chores on time. Everyone has their specific chores in this house…”
Anya repeated the question in same quiet voice, “Do the other children have chores as Okey does, and in the same number?” She noted the flare of anger and added before Okwudili could snap, “I don’t have children, and I have no right to tell you how to order your home, but he’s just nine, and today he’s gone to farm…”
“He didn’t go to farm alone. He went with Iloba.”
“Came back with a heap of cassava, peeled them alone and is right now going to soak them,” Anya went on like she hadn’t interrupted. “Then he will light the stove to assist you in making dinner.”
“What will you have me do, leave him to loiter around because he’s just nine?” Okwudili demanded with a hiss. “I was seven when I started following my mother to the farm. I peeled cassava too, and was processing garri by the time I was ten. He’s not the only child who has to do these things.”
“Does Precious do any of these chores? She’s twelve, isn’t she? How about Afam and Emma, they are eight and seven, what chores do they do at home?”
“Whatever chores I deem suitable for them. This is their father’s house, and in their father’s house they don’t have to pay for their upkeep. That is their right.”
“But Okey, he has to pay. He’s nine and he has to earn his keep.”
“If he’s going to live in my house, then yes, he has to earn his keep, for I won’t tolerate a freeloader. It’s all right for you to play the Good Samaritan, going about town feeding old people and little children. But I don’t see you, or your family, take anyone into your home and take care of them day in, day out.”
“You know that is a pitiful lie, Okwudili. My family has housed and taken care of a number of children. We have when people let us.” Anya paused and softened her voice. “We will if you let us take Okey. We can take him off your hands.”
“We cannot entrust him to strangers. How many times do I need to tell you this? And before you start the old argument that you’re not a stranger, let me tell you that I won’t approve of any woman who has no child of her own to take up the upbringing of another person’s child. You have no experience in this area.”
“But you do and this is the way you treat him.”
“House chores never killed any child, Anya, and they won’t kill Okey. He will thank me in future for the training I’m giving him.”
“Then your children will have little to thank you for, for you’re depriving them of same training.”
“If this talk is the only reason you’re here, then I say I’ve heard enough. And I won’t again tolerate your interfering in my family’s matters.”
Okwudili got up and gave her a pointed stare that indicated she should do the same. “Instead of wasting your time pretending to be better than every woman in this town, why don’t you see if you can convince a man to take you into his home? There must be one among the lot you sneak into their beds who can give you that honour, right?”
“That’s a cheap insult, one you know very well is underserved.”
“I hear you, St. Anya,” Okwudili sneered. “Well, you have overstayed your welcome, so take your sainthood and go back to your father’s house. Thank you for the snacks. As we’ve never heard of any child having stomach ache after eating your food, I’ll be at ease giving it to my children.”
Anya snorted a laugh and shook her head. “You don’t know what he will become, Okwudili. You don’t know if he’s a blessing you’re throwing away.”
“I have three of my own blessings and don’t need anybody’s. That is the burden of childless women.” She jerked her head. “Go on. I have work to do.”
“Fine.” Anya turned and started towards the door. Then she stopped and cast a glance behind her. “One day he will be free of you. He will be old enough to go out on his own, and he will make something of himself.”
“I can’t wait for that day to come, for today, he’s a burden on me.”
Anya didn’t respond. There wasn’t anything else to say. She had failed again, and Okey will continue to suffer the ill conditions he lived under.
And it wasn’t just him. There were others in different homes were they were considered burdens.