The arrangement was that Mama Joy would complete all her chores during the day and return to her home at the end of every day. Since her home was a walkable distance from Mrs. Phillips’ house, she had no need for transport fare. So, she came every day, cooked and cleaned for Mrs. Phillips, ran errands, and went back home at around 7 pm. Everything ran smoothly for one whole month.
Mama Joy had not exaggerated her cooking skills. She was an excellent cook, and during her stay, Mrs. Phillips sampled dishes from not just Nigeria, but also Ghana, as Mama Joy had spent two years living in that country. Mama Joy was also very enterprising. In fact, that turned out to be her downfall.
You see, she told Mrs. Phillips that having worked in a supermarket, she had learned first-hand, how foolish it was to buy non-perishable food items in small quantities. Retail prices were rip-offs and Mama Joy had the perfect solution: buy in bulk. That way, Mrs. Phillips would barely feel the pinch of constantly fluctuating prices of goods.
Mrs. Phillips, who was not blessed with the gift of shrewdness, saw Mama Joy’s solution was a God-send, and immediately gave her approval. Over the next few days, Mama Joy, who knew Lagos like the back of her hand, went to buy tins of milk, quaker oats, corn flakes, sardines, corned beef, toilet paper, bathing soap, and many other imported items that are banned, but are sold in open view in Lagos supermarkets. They were all kept in one of the rooms in Mrs. Phillips’ expansive five bedroom duplex.
Coincidentally, around this time, Mrs. Phillips became actively involved in three ministries in her church: the women’s ministry, the beautification ministry and the children’s ministry. Her involvement translated into long hours away from the house as she was on several planning committees. With Mama Joy in charge, she returned home to a well-maintained house, hot meals and absolutely nothing to worry about. It seemed like she had finally hit the house help jackpot! And then a curious thing happened.
The room where the purchased items were stored was always locked. It was Mama Joy’s suggestion that it be kept that way, to ensure that nothing was stolen by the few visitors or workmen who came around the house. Having suffered from theft in the past, Mrs. Phillips thought this was a brilliant idea. She entrusted the key of that store room to Mama Joy. Madam barely went there to check on the supplies, and since Mama Joy hardly asked for money to buy anything, save the perishable food items, she did not worry about it.
One day, her committee meeting closed rather early, and Mrs. Phillips decided to return home hoping to take a cold shower, eat a delicious meal and maybe score an extensive nap. Unfortunately, her car, which had serious engine problems, refused to start. She abandoned it at the church premises, which was in a safe neighborhood, with the intention of getting a mechanic to return the next day and fix the problem. In the meantime, she took a taxi and went home.
On arriving at her home, Mama Joy was nowhere to be found. Mrs. Phillips did not see anything wrong with this. She just assumed that the woman had gone to run some errands and would be back shortly. Just before she went into the bathroom, she remembered that she was out of bathing soap and went to fetch a new bar from the supply room. On her way to the room, she suddenly remembered that it would be locked, and the one person with the key was not at home.
“Good thing I keep spare keys in my room,” she said to herself, as she hunted down the spare key to that particular room and went to open it.
As soon as she opened the door, she almost collapsed in shock. Save for two rolls of toilet paper and one tin of sardine, the room was empty! Just the week before, the room had been packed full of so many supplies that Mama Joy had voiced her concern over the fast disappearing storage space. They might need to convert another room to a storage room, Mama Joy had said in a serious tone. Now, the same room was almost empty. Mrs. Phillips was confused. How on earth had everything been decimated within such a short period of time?
The answer lay with the only person who had unfettered access to the room: Mama Joy. And she had not yet returned. Boiling with anger, Mrs. Phillips returned to her room, awaiting the return of the woman.
Thirty minutes later, Mama Joy had still not returned. Just as Mrs. Phillips was beginning to wonder, there was a knock on the door. She rushed to open it, ready with a barrage of unkind words for the woman, but was surprised to see a young boy standing at her door. He could not have been more than seven years old.
“Good afternoon, Madam. I came to buy Corned Beef. My mother said that I should buy four for her.”
“But I don’t sell–”
Mrs. Phillips’ voice trailed off as the truth suddenly struck her. Mama Joy had been selling the items stored in that room, and had turned her house into a supermarket. This poor boy was one of her customers.
Unable to control herself, she shouted at the boy that her house was not a market and sent him away with tears in his eyes. She slammed the door behind her and was actively plotting her next move, when Mama Joy walked in, a basket full of vegetables and beef weighing down one hand.
Of course she was shocked to see Mrs. Phillips home so early, but tried to conceal her surprise.
“Emmm … Good Afternoon, Madam. You no go church today?” she started.
“You thief! You conniving, crooked, worthless thief!” Mrs. Phillips yelled. The dam had broken and waves of abuse fell unrestrained on Mama Joy’s head. When Mrs. Phillips had finished speaking her mind, she said to Mama Joy:
“Since you’ve stolen from me, you won’t be getting any salary. And if you ever come back to this house, I will make sure you rot in jail. You’re fired!”
That was how Mama Joy too was terminated.
For weeks thereafter, Mrs. Phillips nursed the wounds inflicted on her by these housemaids who she had trusted and had betrayed her. She decided never to hire any housemaids again. But her children urged her to give it another chance. She agreed reluctantly with a stern warning: if the next house help did anything to offend her, more so if that thing was a crime, she would waste no time in firing that person and have him or her arrested. And she would never get another house help.
Following the advice of her children and friends, she decided to hire a boy, this time around. That was how Dotun came to live with Mrs. Phillips. He was Number 7.
– to be continued –