Episode 1: The Fire that Brought Our New Neighbors
It all started with fire.
The fire that burnt our neighbor’s house started in the middle of the day, the time when most people are at work. But there are those whose place of employment is the home, and thanks to one of such people, a major disaster was averted.
The first person to see smoke billowing from the visitor’s bedroom on the ground floor was the house help next door. The house that caught fire was between two houses: our house was on the left, and the house where this house help lived was on the right.
It was this house help, according to another neighbor, Mrs. Hassan, a retiree who lived further down the street, who began to shout:
“Fire! Fire! Somebody house dey burn o! Make una bring water!”
A flurry of security guards, gatemen, meyguards, houseboys from the neighboring houses, and other people who happened to be at home, pumped with adrenaline, scaled the fence on the side of the alarm-raising house help’s house, which thankfully did not have any barbed wire on it, and attacked the fire with a water hose and buckets of water.
Before they began, one of them had the sense to remove the “cut-out” for the house, turning off the electricity.
This, they later discovered, was a wise move, because the fire was caused by a faulty electronic appliance.
By the time they quenched the fire, it had already destroyed the visitor’s bedroom. However, the flames did not reach the kitchen, which had two large gas cylinders. A real blessing.
My family came home to hear the good news: the fire did not spread to our house. Even better, Mr. Martins, the unfortunate neighbor, and his family would be moving out of the damaged house permanently.
Their moving out brought an end to the nightmare that was Mr. Martins.
You see, while others were busy with family devotion at 5:00am in the morning, this man decided that reggae music was the best way to start his own day. And he would play it at eardrum-bursting levels. Neighbors had called meetings, begged him, and some had even threatened him to no avail.
“For the amount of money I pay as rent in this house, I can play anything I like, whenever I like.” That was his defense.
So when Mr. Martins and his family left our neighborhood, we celebrated. But if we had known who was coming in his stead, we might have been less jubilant.
For months, the house remained vacant and no effort was made to repair the damage.
However, one Saturday morning, we woke up to the noise of a bull-dozer knocking down the entire structure. As we later learned, someone was interested in that property, but that someone did not like the architecture of the house as it stood.
So, the house was knocked to the ground, and a new, ultra-modern, more-pleasing-to-the-eye structure was erected in its place.
One month after its completion, the new owners moved in.
It was the boy I saw first, a smallish, big-headed, weak-looking thing who was probably 9 years old. His name was Tokunbo, and I remember silently making another vow to myself never to marry a short man.
He was the first to climb out of the car, followed by his sister, who was taller than him but was far younger. Her name was Omoyele, and even then, I thought she was beautiful.
Lastly their mother stepped out of the car, but her voice had travelled ahead of her body as she harshly scolded the children for rushing out of the car before her. She climbed out of the passenger seat on the other side, while the driver waited in the car. We did not know they were the new owners until suitcases followed a few minutes later.
It was then we knew they had come to stay.
The owner of the house was Mrs. Kofoworola Williams, a successful business woman, but more so, a trouble maker who was used to getting what she wanted.
Ever the social climber, she was the sort of woman whose feet rarely stayed at home.
Once we became aware of these facts, it came as no surprise to us to learn that within a week of moving into our neighborhood, this woman had joined a local Pentecostal church two streets away.
Not too long afterwards, all sorts of reports, gist really, began to reach our ears about Mrs. Williams and the dust she was raising in her church.
To be clear, the gist first reached the ears of Rosemary our house help, who then fed the gist in juicy bite-sized morsels to my mother whose appetite for local gossip was legendary.
While they were seasoning the chicken for lunch on Sunday afternoon, Rosemary launched into a detailed account of the latest thing Mrs. Williams had done in church that very morning.
Apparently, after the church service, Mrs. Williams had marched to the Media Ministry’s booth at the back of the spacious church auditorium, and demanded to know why the camera man did not focus on her face, for even one minute, during the two-hour service.
Facing Mr. Lasisi, the head of the ministry, who happened to be the only person available at the time she arrived, she said:
“I pay my tithes and offerings here. So, why didn’t you show me on the telly?”
“I don’t understand Madam,” said Mr. Lasisi, clearly confused. “Is that what you’re here for? Didn’t you come to worship God?”
Waving away his questions, she said:
“Look at me well well.”
Mr. Lasisi who was already looking at her well well nodded his head and said:
Then, she twirled around slowly, and repeated herself.
“Look at me well well.”
This time, Mr. Lasisi said nothing, but just stared. She continued.
“You see me so? Am I not fine?”
Mr. Lasisi was dumbfounded. Sensing that this was no ordinary church member, he decided to take a calmer approach.
Lowering his voice by several decibels, he swallowed a bit, and said:
“See, Madam, we are not here for–”
“Oga, I said check me well well. Am I not fine?”
At this point, Mr. Lasisi realized she was not trying to get an actual answer from him, but wanted him to listen to her.
“Okay, Madam. I am hearing you.”
A smile spread on her lips and then she said:
“God bless you. Now, as I was saying, I am a fine woman. I don’t need anybody to tell me that. If you look me up and down–” and here, she tilted the well-manicured hand clutching the fuchsia purse at an angle and slowly swiped the air upwards and then downwards, to match the words “up and down,” before proceeding.
“–You can see for yourself. See my dress. Is it not fine?” she asked, referring to the sleeveless shiny gray dress she wore, with its slight V-neck. It stopped slightly above the knee, showing off her long, toned legs.
“Yes, Madam. It’s fine,” said Mr. Lasisi, his eyes appreciating first God’s creation, and then acknowledging the elegance of her dress. He had figured out that she didn’t want him to argue with her. Just listen. The sooner he did, the faster she could finish and eventually, leave.
“Good. You get me,” she said with a smile before continuing. “Now, those people you show on the telly … or TV screen … Whatever you want to call it. Is their cloth finer than my own?”
Without waiting for a response from her only audience, she responded with a booming, “No.”
Then, she said:
“I bought this hat –” she began, pointing with her clutch-wielding hand towards the elaborate fuchsia, wide-brimmed Sinamay hat elegantly placed on her head, “–from London, this shoe–” and here, she pointed again at the matching, pointed-toe, pink leather sling backs that adorned her dainty feet, “–from Italy, and this dress from Paris. You know what? That makes me international. I-n-t-e-r-n-a-t-i-o-n-a-l.”
“So–” here she reverted to a little Yoruba for help, not caring whether or not the man who stood before he spoke or even understood a lick of Yoruba, “–e jowo, e dakun, show me on the telly. God bless you.”
Mr. Lasisi who thought he had seen it all, but apparently hadn’t, responded with:
“We will do our best, Madam. God bless you too.”
That was the story Rosemary told my mother that afternoon, and by the time she finished relating what Mrs. Williams said to other people that same day, the pressure pot containing the seasoned chicken was hissing, signaling that the chicken was cooked and ready for stage two: frying. Stage three, of course, was stewing.
By the time we sat down to lunch that afternoon, I decided one thing: I did not like Mrs. Williams, and I wanted nothing to do with her or her children.