The ceiling fan was making a whirr whirr sound, swaying from side to side in a last desperate attempt to do the work for which it was made; to circulate air. The Power Holding Company had just emasculated it. Mrs Effiong groaned. Her three month old who was sleeping soundly, would soon cry out when he became hot and sweaty. If she had known that PHC was this unreliable in these parts , she would have prevented her husband from paying for this flat in Ijesha. She lay sprawled on the couch, her well worn jeans skirt riding up her thighs, the copy of the church bulletin fanned out before her. She didn’t need this now, not like it was ever needed, but not now. Especially not now. She was expecting the agent to bring a new housegirl for her.
Mrs Effiong was petite and rotund; her stomach still reeling from the expansive effects of pregnancy. Her face was long like a sheep’s; but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of hawk like alertness; she had the quick movements of a bird. The most remarkable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflexion; falling on the ear with a hard monotony; irritating to the nerves like a constant crackling of biscuit wraps in a solemn burial service. She liked to have housegirls; not that she couldn’t do her work herself, but she needed to have the company of someone, preferably someone she could control, since her husband would be at work; having escaped temporarily from her bilious tongue. The heat was already getting unbearable, and their Tiger generator had only recently packed up. After the four housegirls that had been through her hands in the last two months, her instincts were now honed to pick up even latent traits of stupidity; and heat would only serve to deaden those instincts. She had refused her husband’s offer to be present at the interview, because she didn’t need him empathizing with a girl just because she sat there, palms folded in laps, a doe eyed look in her eyes.
Mr Effiong was a Sunday School teacher at the Presbyterian Church in Yaba, and had been since 2007, and after two years of teaching youngsters, his constant refrain was “Honey, small small, no kill small pikin!” He was quiet, almost brooding and one who after three years of marriage to Mrs Effiong had learned that it was more conducive to peace to leave her with the last word or action. Mrs Effiong didn’t think any of those girls were ‘small pikin’ and she showed them by pummelling them promptly, and although she was thirty three, five years younger than her husband, she felt she was wiser than he was in the ways of the world.
“Madam!” someone called. It was Mr Akpan, the agent, hovering at the burglary proof just outside the sitting room, a young lady at his side. Never one to miss the opportunity of cutting someone down to their size or even below it, she said,unlocking the padlock, “Mister Akpan, I have a door. Knock ! No dey shout person name” , her eyes roving all over the girl.
Mrs Effiong had resolved not to accept any girl who looked anything like all the others, and so when she saw this one; with her tapering jeans and white plaid shirt, a pink beret on her head, she smiled to herself. She thought she might be someone who fit . Someone who didn’t look stupid. Of course her judgement was biased; her mind had told her: as long as the girl doesn’t look like anyone your husband would call small pikin, you are fine. The baby’s wail pierced the air from the bedroom, and she hurried to pick it up while showing them to the couch.
“What is your name?” she asked as she returned, her eyes surreptitiously scanning the lady’s sillhouette and this time noticing pink toenails peeking out from pink gladiator sandals. This must have been to match the pink beret, Mrs Effiong thought.
“Monica, Monique for short”, she replied all the time twirling her shoulder length braids. Bits of pink could be seen highlighted in the thick mass of charcoal black braids. She was very conscious of fashion, thought Mrs Effiong. Just then a loud disco tune rent the air. “I go call you later, I dey interview”, Monica said into a phone pulled out from her jeans pocket. Mrs Effiong couldn’t help but notice that it was a well used blackberry.
After a series of questions such as how old she was which was twenty-four and her level of education which she replied, “School Cert” and an expert inquisition into her background, which was directed to Mr Akpan, who all the while had been quiet, a faint look of amusement on his face; keenly observing the exchange between ‘Madam’ and applicant; a verdict was reached. You fit start tomorrow? asked Mrs Effiong, her baby nodding off to sleep again in her arms.
Monica arrived the next morning at 7.00am just when Mr Effiong was preparing to leave for the construction site where he was head foreman. He clutched yesterday’s Punch newspaper in his left hand and a little basket in his right. The basket contained a meal of boiled plantains and fresh fish stew, which Mrs Effiong had woken up at 5.00am to prepare; fleeing not once , but twice to breastfeed her baby, who wailed just when he could no longer feel the warmth of his mother against his skin. At each point, she swore under her breath, cursing the last girl who had just left and simultaneously willing Monica to hurry up. So it was with great anticipation that Monica was expected. Mr Effiong stopped in his tracks when he saw her at the door. What he saw, can best be described as the sight of a plate of jollof rice and chicken to his hungry labourers. Monica was dressed in a red knee length pencil skirt with breasts straining for prominence under a black blouse, and a black beret substituting for the pink beret of the day before. “Did she have them in all the colours?”, Mrs Effiong thought as she came out of her room, when she heard the door open.
“Honey, this is the girl, she said to her husband, who mumbled “this one no be small pikin”, and hurried out to his grey 1996 Datsun to begin the one hour crawl to the site at Apapa.
“Good morning, Ma”, said Monica lugging her fifty pound travelling bag over to the center of the sitting room. Mrs Effiong eyed the bag from the corner of her eye. “You have load oh”, she said intending the question as a rhetorical one to which Monica mumbled something inaudible. Just then the baby cried out and Mrs Effiong hurried away, with Monica following closely at her heels. His diaper was wet, and when Monica, showing great prowess in the process of diaper change, lifting up the baby’s buttocks with care and massaging Vaseline on it with the practised air of someone who had done this before. Not once , but a lot of times, Mrs Effiong was excited , but she kept it to herself. She had made a good choice afterall, and the days of woe as she insisted on calling these times would be behind her for good. “No small pikin and their stupidity” was her private mantra.
The days and the weeks passed with no casualties between Mrs Effiong and her housegirl, the house looking like one with no ‘small pikin’ housegirl, clean, orderly and above all without the familiar wailings and quick dashes to the backyard of a young girl accompanied by Mrs Effiong, hot on her heels, wrapper around her breasts, brandishing a gari stick. It was peaceful, because afterall there was no small pikin. The last girl couldn’t even hold the baby, for her hands shook and her face blanched and bore a resemblance to that of the baby. Of course the baby cried much more when it was carried by Ekaete, for that was her name; seeing that it was being held by one of its kind, howbeit a bigger version.