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The boli seller wiped her forehead with the corner of her wrapper and turned over the plantains roasting over the coal fire. The plantains were hot, but the calluses on her hands did a good job of protecting her from the heat. She wondered where all her customers were today. It was getting to evening and she had sold less than half of her stock for the day. And it wasn’t even a rainy day.
She thought of Tamuno, who was staying with her mother in Diobu for a few days. At that very moment they would be at Mile I park, at the stall where her mother sold local gin and ‘man power’. Tamuno would be helping his grandmother serve the touts and bus drivers that frequented the stall. Mama Tamuno frowned. She didn’t like her son mixing with those kinds of people, didn’t want them influencing his five-year-old mind. She needed her customers to show up so she could make enough money for him to start school next session. His mates were ahead of him as it was. She would have been able to send Tamuno to school last year if his no-good father hadn’t kept stealing all the money she’d been making and spending it on gin and prostitutes. As if that wasn’t enough, he would come home drunk and try out his favourite boxing moves on her. Sometimes he would force himself on her, bathing her face with saliva and stale gin breath; but that only happened when he’d run out of her money so he couldn’t afford even the most desperate of prostitutes. She sighed. Her mother would be returning Tamuno tomorrow, and along with him she would bring the condemnation and I-told-you-so look she had worn ever since things had started to go exactly as she had predicted, after a pregnant Mama Tamuno had married the father of her child.
Mama Tamuno heard footsteps and looked up to see an answer to her prayer. She smiled a welcome at her favourite customer. Mummy Soji wasn’t carrying any bags today, like she usually did when she brought old clothes and toys for Tamuno, but she didn’t mind. Mummy Soji never haggled, and she always let Mama Tamuno keep the change. And when there was no change would just give her extra money, saying, “This one na tip.” Always with a smile. Mama Tamuno watched as she ran to her stand, admiring her in her jeans and T-shirt and no make up.
“Ah, Mummy Soji. Welcome o. Long time. Which one you want?”
Mummy Soji chose four large plantains and a few pieces of yam, and Mama Tamuno started to scrape the blackened parts off the yam with her trusty knife.
“He’s fine. He dey for car. School don close so I get to carry am go market because nobody dey house.”
She looked up from the yams to glance at the car. She wasn’t bothered that the car looked empty from where she stood. Maybe Soji was playing with something on the floor of the car.
“Papa Soji nko?”
Mummy Soji started to answer and Mama Tamuno was still smiling when she saw, from the corner of her eyes, a tipper, loaded with red sand, start to run off the road at full speed. The smile died on her face. It was headed straight for her customer’s car, parked across the road from them. She screamed just as the tipper crashed into Mummy Soji’s car from behind, crushing it into a lump of red metal and shimmering glass, spilling red sand everywhere. Mummy Soji spun around to investigate. In the few seconds that followed, the world—or George Street, at least—was still. Legs were leaden, hands and mouths hung limp, eyes watered, hearts stopped. Mama Tamuno did not look at the people who had stopped in their tracks on the street and now stood staring at the crash. She looked at Mummy Soji’s back and waited for it. When Mummy Soji flew up in the air Mama Tamuno was almost quick enough to catch her. Almost. She hit the floor with a force that made Mama Tamuno wince, but she knew Mummy Soji wouldn’t feel any pain, at least not from the fall. It had been the same for her when she’d lost her second child.
The erstwhile immobile watchers were eventually able to move again; some shuffled away, shaking their heads but going about the business they were about before, others moved to the crash site to have a closer look. A few stood around, staring at the grieving mother and making sympathetic noises. Mama Tamuno struggled to get a hold of the hysterical woman rolling in the sand and screaming unintelligible sounds, but Mummy Soji’s energy seemed boundless. It was while she was looking around, about to ask for help to restrain her customer, that she saw the smiling boy run across the street and toward her stand. His hands were raised in the air and she could make out something pink in them.
Mama Tamuno managed to grip Mummy Soji’s shoulders, and she shook her hard. Then she used all her energy to raise the uncooperative body into a sitting position. Using her body to hold Mummy Soji up, she pointed towards the boy.
“See Soji! See am for there! See am!”
She screamed this over and over, and Mummy Soji must have finally heard her because she grew quiet and followed her pointing hand. Mama Soji felt the tension drain out of her customer’s body as the realization came to her; felt the smile she gave through her tears; heard the collective sigh of relief of the watchers. She smiled, too, as Soji came closer. She saw the painted chick in his hands, but she didn’t bother to wonder.