The Scarcity of Common Goods by Molara Wood

 

 

I heard a dissonance in the testy harmony of hymn and tears. We were singing Abide With Me. The only one with a hymn book was the pastor, an ashen faced man whose hair was white at the edges and jet black in the middle. From the blue, leather-bound hymnal he read out succeeding lines in the fleeting pauses between our singing. The pastor did not notice the disturbance behind us, beyond the immediate cluster of people, but the mourners did. Some were beginning to drop the notes as their mouths stayed wonderingly open. Others, catching hold of themselves, shook off their curiosity and picked up the hymn again. On and on the stanzas went, rising and falling like a wave over the grave.

 

I looked around, trying to find the source of the spreading distraction. But the wall of people prevented me from seeing further out into the cemetery. I was twelve then, and this was the second funeral I had ever attended. The first was for a man I never met. My parents paid for his funeral, because Mother said she and the dead man’s wife were sisters.

 

That first funeral had been a humble rite for a lowly man. No more than ten recognised mourners. They buried the man by the river that claimed his life, as custom demanded. The widow wore one of my mother’s dark clothes. Her two daughters were in my hand-me-downs. Local load-carriers had come to pay respects to the dead man, who in life had been numbered among their ranks. They kept their distance, as if mindful not to sully us with their poverty. About twenty of them lined the top of the bridge, looking down at us. A more wretched guard of honour I have never seen.

 

Now Father was dead and Mother was giving him a funeral befitting his stature, as someone whose cement distribution business employed staff across three states. A man of timbre and calibre, as the king’s envoys praised him, when they offered him a chieftaincy title. Considering himself too young, and still flush with the egalitarianism of his student union days, Father declined the title, a gesture that further elevated him in people’s eyes. With his round glasses and pinched nose he reminded people of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the great ‘Awo’, Premier of Nigeria’s old Western Region. He would later shave off his goatee to encourage the comparison. Everything was taken care of for Father’s funeral, except this disturbance.

 

Mother was oblivious to the faltering tune, the heads turning round. Her eyes stayed glued to the solid mahogany casket in the grave. The sun was high overhead, and the stunted shadows of mourners thickened on the red earth heaped around the opening.

 

When other helpers fail and comforts flee...’ the gathering sang. There were no tears from Mother’s narrowed eyes, but her mouth was slightly parted as if in soundless weeping. Women held on to every bit of her. They propped her up, comforting her, telling her, Be strong, Mrs. Falode...

 

The same things people said to Aduke, the load-carrier’s wife, when they first brought her, shattered, into our home. They supported her as she walked on what seemed like jellied feet into our parlour. Her headscarf had fallen off, and one man held it out with both hands as if in supplication, his face twisted with concern. The crying woman’s corn-rowed hair was done in the Kolese, the ‘Legless’ style. Her head flopped from side to side, her hands splayed at awkward angles like a broken doll. Her cries made our walls shudder.

 

Mother ran in, a wrapper hastily draped round her chest, her bra straps exposed to strange men’s eyes. “Ah, my sister!” She rushed at the weeping woman. Aduke, the aunt I had never met, whose name I’d only heard in the furtive whispers of the extended family, who I never truly believed was real.

 

“My long lost sister!” Mother said again.

 

“Yeee! My husband!” The woman crumbled into a sofa, both hands gripping her head. Mother consoled her as sympathisers spoke of the husband’s death that afternoon. When it was finally unravelled, and I heard how it happened, I nearly laughed.

 

“You!” Mother barked at me, “out!” I skulked out to the inner courtyard and crouched by an open louvered window where I could still hear. They said it over and over, as if bent on spinning a legend. Aduke’s husband was a load-carrier in the next town, cheaper to rent than a donkey or a cart. He was carrying a hefty sack of rice across the bridge for a rich woman when he tumbled into the river below. He could not swim, but when rescuers jumped in after him, he splashed away from them, shouting, “Save the rice, don’t save me!” The river showed some kind of mercy and quickly took him. The sympathisers repeated the dead man’s words again and again, struggling to believe he valued rice over his own life.

 

When they were gone and I had been readmitted into the parlour and mother had put a buba top on, and her wrapper relegated to its proper place from the waist downwards, she pulled up a chair and sat facing her sister. I was ordered to get a bottle of iced water from the fridge in the pantry. I poured out a glassful for Aduke, but now the glass and bottle stood sweating on the tray.

 

Mother touched her sister’s knee. “But Aduke, why did your husband prefer them to save the rice instead of him?”

 

Aduke did not answer, just kept staring at the ceiling, shaking her head at some deep thought now and then, one shoe-less foot tapping a bafflingly indignant beat on the floor. I was asked to make her some tea. Then I brought bottles of Fanta and Coke and a packet of Nice biscuits. All sat on the tray. The tea lost its steam and the Fanta and Coke sweated along with the water. She readjusted herself into a self-flagellating posture on the sofa and looked past the goodies on the table, her mouth stretched thin in self pity, her eyes swollen and drained of tears.

 

Ehn, Aduke?” Mother touched the knee again. “Why would your husband say such a thing? Who ever heard of such? Why give his life for a staple food, rice of all things?”

 

Aduke sat up, breathed heavily and dramatically, and reached for the water. She downed it in one go. Mother snapped her fingers and I rushed to do a refill, bending beside the woman who held the glass as the liquid gurgled out of the bottle. She set the replenished glass down on the tray and fixed her eyes on my mother.

 

“You didn’t know my husband, did you, Sister?”

 

Mother’s shoulders went up and down and she turned her palms upwards, perplexed.

 

“Well, did you?”

 

“Ah, no. I didn’t know him,” was my Mother’s otiose reply. “Where would I meet your husband, when I haven’t seen you in, what now, fifteen years?”

 

“Well, Sister, I thought so. Because if you knew him, you would not wonder.”

 

“You mean, you understand the bizarre behaviour?”

 

“Yes ke!” Aduke gave Mother a defiant look. “Why would I not understand? Am I not his wife? You would have understood too, if you knew the kind of penury to which I have been condemned in all my years with him.” She looked with envious contempt around our parlour at the furnishings, the sound system, the television, the video, the White Horse Scotch Whisky and Gordon’s Dry Gin on the cabinet. I wondered if I’d have to fetch her a shot glass for stronger stuff, but she only rolled her eyes and turned back to Mother.

 

“Well, Sister, I don’t blame you. You wouldn’t know; how could you? You see, my husband was a mere load-carrier. He knew about scarcity.” She started to weep again, speaking in a high, tremulous voice. “Where would my husband have found the money to repay the owner for her ruined sack of rice? He had no money. No money!”

 

I wished Mother would let it go, but she persisted. “So, he preferred to die because of the cost of ordinary, common rice?” She caught herself as Father walked in.

 

Aduke stood up and wiped her tears. She snatched her headscarf from the arm of the sofa and tied it, concealing her corn-rows. She tugged at her buba to ensure it sat well, that the neckline settled right, then she looked down at my seated mother and addressed her coldly.

 

“I don’t blame you. After all, you were educated by our parents. They gave you a chance. You married a rich husband and so you don’t know about the harshness of life.” One hand gesticulated conveniently in my father’s direction, but her eyes never strayed from my mother’s face. “And me? They put me to work early, married me off to a load-carrier, condemned me to a life of destitution, spent everything on you. So how would you know about the scarcity of common goods like rice? I don’t blame you.”

 

The woman kissed her teeth, hissing loudly in my mother’s fallen face. Father sat himself down in a corner. He’d heard enough for vicarious guilt to be written all over him.

 

That was my first introduction to my mother’s sister. After her husband’s funeral she came from the next town twice a week. Mother danced around her, as if trying to make up for the lost years, the potential denied. Always, Aduke came lamenting about how her poor husband had left her in greater penury than before. Always, the scarcity of common goods.

*

‘In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.’ Wa Ba Mi Gbe ended, for we had indeed sung the hymn in Yoruba. Then I heard a forgotten refrain, lilting in the still air of the cemetery.

 

“Kerosene is now cocaine!

 

Mother lifted her eyes from Father’s coffin. She must have heard it too. She must have remembered, like me, that someone used to say that, once.

 

“Ah, don’t you know? Kerosene is now cocaine,” Aduke would lament, “so expensive, dearer than eyes.” She had never seen cocaine, but she was sure of its prohibitive cost. Mother would bring out her gallon of kerosene from the pantry and, using a funnel, she’d fill up a keg for her sister. If she bought cocoyam from the market she saved some for Aduke’s next visit. Same with gaari and yam. Same with palm-oil and rice. And still the talk of scarcity. My mother’s guilt-induced generosity could not lift Aduke out of poverty.

 

One day Aduke watched my father drive off and she talked about another scarcity. “Men. All the good ones taken. And here I am still young, more children still to issue from my womb. I need a man to take me out of this hole that life has thrown me in. Ah, Sister, all this scarcity!”

 

Mother said she had no gaari or rice at home to share with Aduke that day. But when I went into the pantry I saw that it was stocked full of gaari, rice, bunches of ripe plantain; and there was a full gallon of kerosene in a corner. Aduke left empty handed. The next week I was admitted into hospital with malaria and mother stayed with me. Aduke visited us once, but when we returned home we heard that she had called on Father daily. And when next Aduke arrived talking about the scarcity of common goods, my mother grabbed a broom.

 

“Out! Out!” she shrieked. “Goods may be scarce but so are husbands. I don’t want to see you in my house ever again!”

 

Mother swept the floor behind Aduke, sending dust flying after her feet, all the way to the veranda, as if to erase every trace.

 

“You chase me like a foraging hen from your house now, but remember, I am your sister.”

 

“Who is your sister?” Mother scowled.

 

Neighbours came onto their house-fronts to witness the disgrace of the woman who told everyone kerosene was cocaine. Alhaja fussed with her wrapper as she emerged from her storey-house, the Petesi next door. A chewing stick was being chomped busily in her mouth, though it was rather late in the day for cleaning teeth. She removed the chewing stick and with a hissing sound, sent a projectile of saliva shooting straight into the narrow gutter beyond her veranda. She stuck the pako back in her mouth. We called her Mrs. Gbeborun behind her back, because she was a terrible gossip, always poking her nose into everyone’s business. She had let slip to Mother on our return from hospital that her sister had visited Father; that he’d filled his car boot with our foodstuffs and drove her back where she came, instead of leaving her to catch a bus from the motor garage. Now Alhaja rested both elbows on her white-painted, patterned redbrick fence and smiled toothily. She loved fights. “Cinema,” she called them.

 

“I say, who is your sister?” Mother demanded again of Aduke. “Were you not the fatherless child of my parents’ housemaid? Oh-oh, I see that our lifelong courtesy of not calling you by your true name has really gone to your head.”

 

“Ah!” Aduke covered her mouth with both hands. Tears raced down her cheeks. “Sister, you open your mouth to utter this terrible thing, in front of all your neighbours?!”

 

Ehn-ehn? Why not if not? Answer me, were you not the bastard born to my mother’s maid?”

 

Alhaja clapped slowly in mock-applause and laughed conspiratorially in my mother’s direction. “What’s that proverb again, Mrs. Falode? Ah, I’ve got it: ‘When we count our slaves, the slaves are saddened.’ Not so? Truth is bitter, truly.”

 

“Can you imagine,” my mother laughed too, “when all we have ever shown this ungrateful idiot is kindness. Getting above her station, fraternising with my husband. Nonsense and ingredients!”

 

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Molara Wood

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© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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