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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Master’s Wife and Daughter (1)

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The Adventures of Fast Joe

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Joe twisted on the mat on the dirty, dusty floor. He was sleeping in complete darkness in the store. A lamp was not allowed because the room was full of clothing, and a single spark would lead to a conflagration. His sleep was sweaty and restless, because the room was warm most of the night all week, but became bitterly cold towards dawn. The roof was made corrugated iron sheets with no ceiling. It trapped the heat all day, and did not protect against the cold at night.

He twisted again. It was yet to get to midnight, when the room started getting cooler. Before then, it was all heat. Joe had to shut the door and go to bed at eight. His Master’s orders. In any case, the main street was virtually deserted by half past seven because there were no street lights. Electricity was yet to get to Wenchi, and people went home and to bed early, in order to go to work earlier. By seven most of the town would be deserted, with most people off to their farms, leaving the few government organizations such as the bank and the post office.

Joe had been serving as an apprentice for three weeks, and all his visions about dressing up in new clothes had disappeared. His Master was a short, pugnacious, rotund little man called Master Mensah, who seemed to take delight in tormenting Joe. To begin with, the man was poor. He was rich only once a year, that is at Christmas when people invested in new clothes. The rest of the year, they go by in old clothes from preceding years, and wore the Christmas dress on Sundays. Then, again, he was a men’s tailor, and men were notoriously parsimonious about investing in new clothes. Most of the men owned only one pair of suit, which they wore when they had to travel to bigger towns, or for festive occasions like church harvests or wedding. Many men did not own any suit at all, because they had never travelled. Mostly, also, they wore ‘ntoma’ around them like a toga, a single broad piece of highly coloured clothe wrapped around the body and off the right shoulder. Only the few government teachers came in once a while to order a pair of short-sleeved khaki shirts with pants. Apart from that, business was virtually nil.

His Master spent most of his day bitching about passersby to his lazy friends. The passersby were often women, and Joe was nauseated about the course comments from his Master, Mensah. He would comment on the way they looked, which woman was sleeping with which man, whether the man was a husband, a boyfriend or a secret lover behind the husband or boyfriend. 

He was also a drunk. This meant that he was drunk early in the morning on the local distilled spirit, akpeteshie, popularly known as VC 10, which gave him a foul breath all day. Since he liked speaking up close, Joe got the best benefits of the bad breath. And since he was not served his breakfast by his wife till well past eleven in the morning, his mouth was a stench in the morning.

He did not seem to notice or care. His friends, the few lazy men in the town with no farms, did not seem to mind, either.

He was also mean. As an apprentice, Joe was told and had been promised an allowance of twenty pesewas a day. It had seemed like a lot of money at first, since he could feed himself on a pesewa a day. But within days after he had been delivered to his Master, the allowance had dried up. It now only came when a new set of clothes was ordered, which was almost never. Work was few and far between. It meant that during the day, he had to survive on the leftovers of Master Mensah. Since he had no farm, and his wife, a trader, was not about to waste money on him, his only food throughout the day was a few slices of yam or cocoyam with kontomire or garden eggs stew, with slivers of fish. Most of the time, he left Joe with just two pieces of the yam, and often, there was only one left. All the time they ate, the friends kept a greedy eye on them. Joe had been insulted, more than once, that before his arrival, the other drunks shared in the ‘breakfast’. In the evening there was no dinner, and after a few days of this, Joe decided to go back to his uncle’s house, almost a mile out of town, to eat before coming back to sleep. Out of pride, he decided to go to one or other of his uncle’s farms to weed or do some service in payment.

His uncle, seeing this, decided to grant Joe an allowance of fifty pesewas a week. Life began to improve after that, and he started smiling again. Often he had more money in his pocket than his Master.

Whenever he visited the farm on Sunday, he kept back a few tubers of yams or cassava for his Master’s wife, Maame Pokuaah. Joe always wondered how mismatched she was with her husband. She was in her late thirties, whilst her husband was over fifty or probably nearer sixty. She was nearly six feet tall, whilst he was probably five or less. He started out pudgy, and now carried a round little hard belly, the result of cheap palm wine. In contrast, she was lean, the result of perpetual hunger. There was not enough food in the house to feed her, and her brood of six children. Her fights with her husband were legendary in the town. After the sixth child, she had abandoned the matrimonial bed, but not the matrimonial house. She slept with her children, right in their middle. Her drunk husband, who was perpetually horny, at first resisted this, but after being scratched in the face the first time he tried to force her back into his bedroom, he had resorted to nagging. He nagged her in her presence, and nagged her in her absence in his store. He insulted her to patrons, friends, and everybody who would listen. He threatened to send her back to her family. But since her parents were even poorer than him, they resisted and tried to settle the dispute. She remained adamant. She would not concede, and she would not leave the matrimonial home. And she went out after any woman her husband consorted with, with a vengeance. She was really angry with Master Mensah, but nobody could understand exactly why. Rumour had it that the Chief of the town had been her lover in her younger days, until Mensah, fresh in the town with a new Singer sewing machine (at that time as valuable as a vehicle or a cocoa farm) had wooed her from that boyfriend and put her in the family way. The boyfriend had been unemployed at the time. Now, he was the hereditary chief, married to five wives and drove the first car in the town, being also the owner of the single Albion truck converted to a bus that was the only vehicle that traveled from Wenchi to Kumasi once a week. He was corpulent with good living and dreamily rich by local standards, and Maame Pokuaa dreamed and cursed every night against her ill-fortune.

She had lost her smile permanently after her sixth child. Walking home one day, her former lover had stopped his car to greet her as she walked in the dust back home from her husband’s shop, where she had gone to demand money for food. Needless to say the money had not been forthcoming. She had been mortally injured when her former lover had stopped and asked about her health and that of her children. It turned out that he had not forgotten her, five wives later. They had chatted desultorily, she standing by the open window, he sitting on the leather seat behind the shiny steering wheel, as he asked about each child by their names. Then she knew that he still pined for her. But in both eyes, they knew that the past was past and too dead to be revived. And her smile disappeared from her face with the slowness and the permanent features of the dust slowly settling in the wake of his car. That night, she started sleeping with her children. 

Then Joe started his Sunday visits to the farm and began feeding the family with yams, cassava, and cocoyam, bunches of plantain and banana, cocoyam leaves, and once in a while, snails or some small animal. The first Sunday evening, when Joe brought the treasure as night was coming on, she had looked askance at it and asked where he got it. Joe replied honestly that he brought it back from his uncle’s farm, who had plenty to spare.

The next morning, breakfast came much earlier, and Joe had his own serving comparable to his Master’s. Indeed the serving was almost equal, and the Master looked on askance as Joe carried his plate outside to eat.

In the evening, she brought fufu, with soup and portions of meat from the African bush rat he had delivered the night before when the Master was out drinking with friends.

As he ate the food, Joe happened to look at his Master’s face, and suddenly realized that here was a mortal enemy.

To be continued.

(The Daily Searchlight appears every day on the newsstands and for sale 24 hours every day and all week on www.ghananewsstand.com. Visit www.ghananewsstand.com for a wide variety of newspapers published in Ghana and from across the world.)

 

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