Contributor: Ayo Awoyungbo
Illustrator: Femi Adetunji
She must have been about 50 years of age, short and stout the way only Yoruba women can be. Her prominent lips were raw, chapped at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and in stark contrast to her yellow-brown complexion. With her big framed glasses and gravity defying head-tie she looked as inconspicuous as the Hare Krishna in orange robes that jingled and chanted down Oxford Street. Standing outside HMV, clutching a large and garishly sequined shoulder bag, the Saturday morning throng swirled about her like water around a rock. Something in the way she seemed frozen to the pavement gave me the impression that she had been standing there for a long time, and would be there for a long time to come. There was an air of permanence about her, of solid immovability; or maybe it was just hopeful resignation. How could she be so calm, so casual, with a mere seven shopping days left until Christmas?
I only noticed her, because, being a Nigerian, I have an insatiable curiosity about the personal circumstances of my compatriots. As soon as I spot other Nigerians, my mind races: Do I know them? What part of the country do they come from? Why are they here? Holiday, student, or economic refugee? All these questions jostle for space and I speculate endlessly, as I am sure some of them do about me. I looked at this woman, struck by how inappropriately she was dressed. A thick cardigan over lace iro and buba would neither protect her from the elements nor keep her warm. And open toed sandals.... please! I shook my head as I went into the shop thinking that she was dressed for a church outing in Lagos rather than a day?s shopping in London.
I shouldered my way towards the jazz section in the basement, promptly putting her out of my mind. I don?t know about you but whenever I?m close to compact discs I retreat into a private world of intense longing tempered only by financial constraints. I had ?10 - two ?5 notes - and I checked out the pre-Christmas sale, determined to get myself a present. I wanted something reduced to ?9.99. Considering that this bargain would have to be something that I liked, something that I didn?t already have, something that I was actually prepared to part with money for, I knew that I didn?t stand much of a chance. Have you noticed the way that the reduced stock is stuff that no one in their right mind would even steal, let alone buy? On principle, I rarely buy my music in any of the chain stores. I consider myself too hip to pay ridiculous prices for brand new compact discs. For me, the fun of music buying is rooting around in second hand shops for rare collectors items and obscure compilations. The buzz that I get when I unearth something I?ve always wanted at half its regular price is almost better than sex. But I digress.....
I was at the listening point when I sensed a presence behind me. I half turned and there she was, the woman I had seen earlier. The fluorescent light glinted off her glasses and I saw that she had been crying. The kohl around her eyes had run, leaving black smudges. We stared for a few seconds, sizing each other up. Then she spoke: ?My Son, are you a Nigerian?? A rhetorical question if I ever heard one.
?Yes? I replied, wondering what tale of woe was about to follow.
?What part of the country are you from??
?I am from Akure?. I suppose she thought that the geographical proximity of our respective states of origin made it alright to speak to me. She paused, then seemed to gather herself. I knew she was going to ask me for money.
?My Son, I have a problem. This is my first time in London. I arrive last night and the people supposed to meet me didn?t come to the airport. I have tried telephoning them since morning but no answer. I know that they live in Reading but no answer and I have no money to go there.....? She broke off, eyes filling.
I was silent. She pronounced ?Reading? as in book. Her sing-song accent reminded me of my mother. I didn?t know whether she was lying or not. Could this be some new scam? I?m naturally suspicious of Nigerians, you know what they are like. Where was her luggage if she?d only arrived last night? I knew it was about ?5 by train to Reading and I had only ?10, my CD money. Why did she have to approach me?
I looked at her and something in the set of her shoulders, dejected yet proud, decided me. She was someone?s mother. She could be my mother. It was the Christmas season, goodwill to all men and all that. If she was lying, she was lying and would die a lingering death.
I smiled ?It?s not easy asking strangers for help is it??
?No my Son, but God will bless your efforts if you can help me with ?5. They told me in the station that it costs ?5 to travel to Reading and that I need to go to Paddington Station.?
?Do you have money to get to Paddington??
?I have a ticket? she said, brandishing a one day travel card.
I reached for my wallet. What if she got to Reading and couldn?t find the people she was supposed to meet? Where would she sleep? They could have moved away. Why weren?t they answering their phone? Suddenly I realised that I believed her and I was actually concerned about her. Then I thought: Don?t get involved. Give her the ?5 and be done with it. She was someone?s mother. But not my mother.
I gave her the money. She clutched my hand in gratitude and with tears in her eyes promised me a prosperous new year. She blessed my parents for sending me to London and assured me of God?s guidance in all my endeavours. She promised that I would pass all my examinations and get a good job. I didn?t have the heart to tell that I left school a long time ago. Other shoppers stared. Embarrassed, I told her how to get to Paddington and still thanking me, she left the shop.
My enthusiasm for browsing had disappeared. With only ?5, what was the point? After five minutes I left also. As I walked towards Oxford Circus I spied her ahead. I reduced speed immediately. She walked slowly, with the wide legged gait of a sailor on a rolling deck. All around, people hurried by with bulging shopping bags, intent on snaring one more bargain, desperate to find that elusive Christmas present. Soon, all I could see was her head tie, floating like a kite. Then I lost sight of her completely, swallowed by the greedy crowd. Somehow, the CD that I failed to buy didn?t seem important anymore. There were seven shopping days left until Christmas so maybe if I received my next dole money on time I could come back......
Thursday morning, three days before Christmas I was back at HMV. As I shouldered my way in I noticed a woman standing outside the shop. She was a clutching a large and garishly sequined shoulder bag. The Thursday morning throng swirled around her like water around a rock. Something in the way she seemed frozen to the pavement created the impression that she had been standing there for a long time and would be there for a long time to come. There was an air of permanence about her, of solid immovability. She was must have been about 50 years of age, short and stout, the way only Yoruba woman can be. Her prominent lips were raw, chapped at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and in stark contrast to her yellow-brown complexion. With her big framed glasses and gravity defying headtie she was not inconspicuous. Our eyes met, and she looked away.