Tunbi plucks the hair in my armpit and I nearly expire from pleasure. Each plucked hair resonates in the tips of my toes which curl, digging into the unyielding floor tiles. The ceiling fan spins, the gilded blades a golden blur.
“Just a few more,” says Tunbi.
I feel a trickle of urine drip from within me. I squeeze my thighs together to stop the flow. This is a thing one rarely gives any thought, stopping urine. But under Tunbi’s nimble fingers, it proves too much of an effort. I grind down on my teeth. I swallow the saliva that would have dribbled out from my slack-jawed face, focusing on the movement up and down of my gullet, on Tunbi’s honey-coloured eyes, her warm breath on my skin, the tight cropped curls on the nape of her neck.
“There,” she says. “All done,” she rolls the boil gingerly between forefinger and thumb. I almost cry out. “It should burst tomorrow, next tomorrow tops.”
“Thank you, Tunbi,” I get off the floor leaving behind an outline of my back which fades rapidly as it dries. My left armpit feels hot against the underside of my forearm. I have stopped using deodorant per the doctor’s orders and in spite of the fan, the sweat flows down the side of my body, soaking my striped cotton dress. I notice it flows all around the boil, avoiding the deforested, reddened, almost-tip.
“Remember to check it first thing in the morning and last thing before you go to bed. And collect all the pus that comes out. Every single drop, even if there is blood. You hear me?”
“I hear you. What do I owe you?” I ask, bracing my hand on my hip to stop the boil from being squashed.
“Owe me ke? Don’t worry jo. You help me, I help you. What are friends for?” She flicks sweat off her face with the crook of a thumb. “Let me go and cook before I faint from hungry.” And she waddles off, stroking her enormous belly and whistling one of her made-up tunes.
I do as Tunbi has instructed. Morning and night without fail. Still, the boil bursts in the middle of the next night. There is a power outage, but nobody has turned on the generator because it is too late for the earth-shattering noise. The sticky, wet heat pulls me from my sleep. I run for the bathroom. I strike a match and light the candle standing in its own wax on the white sink. The darkness around my reflection deepens. Candlelight bounces off the white tiles and the white of the sink and my nightgown. I shut the door and raise my left arm.
My nightgown is stained in a yellowish, wavy, semi-circle. The act of raising my arm causes the skin to tauten and push out more of the gunk. It beads like a diseased tear on the remaining armpit hair. I abandon all thoughts of removing the garment and reach for the cough syrup bottle I had placed behind the emergency water drum instead. I do not even need to squeeze. A gentle pressure from the rim of the bottle and the pus is flowing, flowing like white latex from the allamanda shrubs lining the front of my father’s house.
I present my bottle of sap to Tunbi and she collects it with relish.
“You say he is coming tomorrow?” she asks.
Tunbi rubs her hands together with the bottle still between them. The pus is thicker now, sluggish. It clings to the sides of the bottle even after she stops moving it. “It is better when it is fresh, but it will still work otherwise. Don’t worry, I will take care of everything.”
I am not worried. Tunbi will take care of everything. She always does. But I still feel I should add:
“He’s not going to die right? I don’t want to kill anybody.”
Tunbi hisses through her teeth. “Have I told you that I kill people? He won’t die. He will only wish he did.”
Let me tell you why I am not worried. Tunbi was not always the madam she is now. I mean, I know she does not act like a madam, but that is because she is humble. Inside – and not even very deeply – everyone can see Tunbi is still a village girl. But does she care? No. She wears her expensive buba and iro to accompany her husband, Chief, to his events. However, when she is at home it is plain Ankara for her. Not even modern Ankara like Woodin or Da Viva but good old Vlisco “Hollandis” prints.
And Tunbi cares about people, she really does. I had no friends when she moved in next door, being home-schooled all my life. Despite Tunbi being five years older and living enough for two lifetimes, she treated me as if we were the same age. I guess her caring nature comes from being the first of eight siblings and having a fixer for a mother. Chief came to see Tunbi’s mother for magun to ensure the fidelity of one city chikito he was going to marry as a fourth wife, but her mother talked him into marrying her daughter instead. Convinced him a half-blind girl with no formal education was good luck. Her mother is very persuasive.
Tunbi has yet to disappoint. In her six years of marriage to Chief, she has borne him three sets of twins; first two boys, then two girls, then a boy and a girl. And now in her seventh year of marriage, she is pregnant with twins yet again.
“This one is good luck times hundred. You will see,” she would say whenever I looked at her heaving, grunting form with anything close to pity. I’d say nothing. It is hard to say anything to someone like Tunbi who is happy, irreverent, and most importantly, does not give a damn. But that is not the reason I am not worried.
I am not worried because when Mrs Adegoke on Road 9 lost her son, it was Tunbi that helped her get over the loss. Now, Mrs Adegoke had not been particularly nice to her in the past. She may or may not have been part of the posse that tried to run her off on behalf of Chief’s other wives – women who lived in other parts of Lagos and whom said posse did not even get along with. Turn her out on principle, you see. She wasn’t the right class. Mrs Adegoke may or may not have tried to humiliate her when she showed up at Lagos Country Club, without going through the proper channels.
Tunbi put that all aside. She went to where the woman was crying and throwing herself on the floor, soiling her lace iro and buba. She touched her on the shoulder and asked her,
“What do you want to happen?”
And Mrs Adegoke had presumably told her. Because from what people who were there said, Tunbi brought out a bottle and collected the woman’s tears and some snot from her nose and went away. It only took a week. A week before the Arab who had thrown Mrs Adegoke’s son from the top of a skyscraper was a splotch on the curb, in the exact same spot her son had landed.
After that nobody talked ill of Tunbi. Mrs Adegoke and her cohorts treated Tunbi as if she, with barely any education, was better than the rest of them were with their foreign degrees. They came to her with their ailments. Their husbands behaved. Their children thrived in school. She brushed off all the attention, much in the same way she had brushed off their outrage over her arrival.
“Do you want us to go to the country club now?” I asked Tunbi, knowing that her way was now clear of humiliating obstacles.
“No jo. I only went before because they said I couldn’t go. Abeg put Africa Magic, let’s watch.”
I ring Tunbi’s mobile as soon as he arrives.
“Okay. I am coming,” she says.
I know she is only across the fence and would be over shortly, but I pace and bite my nails, refusing to go downstairs until I see her approach our gate. The maigadi opens the pedestrian entrance for her. He is older than she, but he prostrates before her in greeting.
Tunbi has a basket covered in a garish tea towel. She waves up at me and I wave back even though I know that she cannot see me.
I am not sure what had made me tell Tunbi. I am not sure what we were even talking about, but suddenly like acid reflux, the words came blazing out. She turned her eyes on me.
“Chinkata? You mean your Oga teacher?”
“Yes.” With any other person I might have got a lecture but Tunbi merely shrugged.
“The way a man and a woman can be together is a beautiful thing. If a man wants a woman and she wants him back, then it should work out. Did something happen to make this not so?”
I kept quiet. Tunbi kept quiet, too. I knew she could do it for longer than I. I had often seen her just sitting, in the calm after lunch. Just sitting and staring off into the distance even when there was no distance to stare off into.
“Sometimes I am just afraid of this thing. You know, what if…” I trailed off, hoping that she would complete my sentence for me. Help was not forthcoming.
“What if,” I started again, “My uncle—what if I cannot be with anyone? He said I liked it, my body told him so.”
Tunbi said nothing.
“What if it is true, Tunbi? What if there is something wrong with me and that is why I cannot do this thing with Chinkata? Maybe with no one.”
“Mm.” Tunbi rubbed her palms together. “So,” she said finally. “What do you want to happen?”
My uncle is finishing up his bowl of pepper soup, talking a mile a minute to Tunbi when I walk into the living room.
“Ah, this woman. Thank God for you. You are just the parable of the Good Samaritan personified. Ah-ahn!” He licks his fingers theatrically. James, my father’s chef-cum-steward looks offended as he clears away the dishes.
“James is annoyed,” my father says, chuckling. “I wouldn’t eat his food for the next few days if I were you. Just to be safe.”
“It’s a good thing I will be gone in the morning, then. I’ll buy breakfast on my way.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle,” Tunbi says. “I will bring you fresh ogi and akara balls for your breakfast tomorrow, no problem.”
“See? I am saved! Praise the Lord!” Uncle beams. He is pleased that Tunbi remembers his favourite dishes.
I clear my throat unnecessarily. I know he had felt me enter.
“There she is,” he says upon seeing me. “Where have you been hiding? Come and greet me properly.”
As a child, this was the part I dreaded the most. Sitting on Uncle’s knee while he fondled my bottom as my overworked, widower father dropped off to sleep in his favourite armchair. But now, especially with Tunbi there, I am unafraid. My stomach only churns slightly as I greet him and sit on the floor next to my father.
“Still a daddy’s girl, eh?” Uncle laughs. “Better buy a gun, brother. One of these young-young boys will breach your security soon to pluck her from your grasp.”
It is the word “pluck” more than anything that makes me start to shake. The roll of that pink tongue on the L. I remember it stuffing my mouth like overcooked catfish. The taste of warm spit, bitter from kolanuts. The CK is the sound of my uncle cracking his knuckles afterwards, talking fast and furiously, and coercing my silence.
“Daddy, I am very tired,” I say. “Please excuse me. Good night, Uncle.”
“I must be going too,” says Tunbi as my uncle is about to protest. “I must go and soak beans for your akara tomorrow.”
When I get to my room, I bolt the door. And even though nothing has happened for many years, I place my heavy reading chair under the handle.
Déjà vu. My uncle is tucking into his breakfast when I come down the next morning. The ogi is so thick you can stand a spoon in it. The akara is steaming hot. I can smell the chilli peppers wafting from it, tickling my nostrils, begging for a sneeze.
“I don’t know how you can eat all that,” says my father, sipping black coffee.
My uncle does not bother to share his bounty. He just eats and eats and eats.
“All that ogi. You are going to piss a river today.” My father goes back to reading his paper.
Uncle bites into an akara ball, blowing as he chews. A piece of onion hangs limply on his lower lip. He flicks it up into his mouth with his tongue.
“How do you never put on any weight?” asks my father, shaking his head behind the paper.
“The Lord keeps me poor. The least he can do is give me a good physique to show for my servitude.” Uncle removes his dog collar and undoes the top two buttons of his shirt. He carries on eating until every scrap of food is finished. Then he picks up his bag and drives away in his white Peugeot 504.
“What did you do with it?” I ask Tunbi after my father leaves for work.
“Me? Nothing-o. But maybe you should ask your uncle. He’s the one that’s just eaten it.” And she smiles.
I wasn’t there for this part. This is the way my uncle’s wife tells it. She says my uncle was in high spirits when he returned to Enugu. He went back to his vicarage, back to his duties, until the third day when he complained of aches in his groin. My aunt says he developed a fever. Then pustules on his penis. The church paid for him to go to the Teaching Hospital.
The doctors put my uncle on antibiotics. They drew tubes of blood for tests. More antibiotics. His penis got worse. It grew inflamed until it was as big as a toddler’s arm. They took samples from the pustules, sent them to Lagos and Abuja. My father paid for him to be seen by specialists in London. But the airlines refused to fly him there because he could not wear trousers and having such an unpredictable, uncontrollable penis would surely cause problems with other passengers. My aunt got tired of all the shrugging and baffled looks. When blood started to come out of his penis, dark like engine oil, she wheeled him to church.
“He is not going to die, is he?” I asked Tunbi as she plaited my hair, ridges of plaits forming a Mohawk in the popular patewo style.
She hissed. “I don’t kill people, I told you. If they want to die, they kill themselves.”
Nowadays my uncle practically lives in his chair. We went to visit him, my father and I. He doesn’t talk a lot anymore. His penis still will not stop growing. Nobody can explain it. He smelled of rotting leaves. No amount of Izal disinfectant added to his sponge-cleaning water could get rid of that odour.
Maybe it was seeing Uncle like that or maybe it was just chemistry. All I remember is one minute Chinkata talking about anhydrous copper II oxide in his usual excited manner and the next feeling heat pool in my loins. This time, I did not hesitate to surrender myself to it; quickly before anyone came to check on us.
It takes me a while to realise that Tunbi is asking me a question.
“Pardon? Sorry, my mind was somewhere else.”
Tunbi smiles. “I said how come Oga Teacher don’ come again? Have you finished schooling?”
“No,” I scratch my armpit. There is an itchy hole left behind, about the size a toothpick would make. I know it is scabbing over, but it also wouldn’t hurt to have a bath. I cannot seem to rouse myself to do so. “He had to go home to bury his mother,” I say.
But I cannot help thinking of all the unanswered calls I made. Of purported missed calls that never showed up on my phone and disconnected calls due to “poor service”. Texts that could not be delivered. I cannot stop myself. My lip trembles. Tunbi has that way with people. I tell her about the money; monies I lent Chinkata which I know now I will never get back.
“Okay,” she says when I finish. “What do you want to happen?”