Blooms Among Thorns

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Chapter 9

The taxi driver took Tara into the central environs of Ikeja. They asked for directions from two pedestrians along the way before turning into a bumpy dirt road with a dangling street sign that read ‘Shaibu Street’. The street was littered with run down kiosks that looked ready to collapse from the slightest impact. There were one or two residential buildings with the paint peeling off the walls from years of neglect. The driver stopped in front of a grey building beside a mallam’s kiosk and parked the taxi at the side of the road.

‘What did you come here to find?’ he asked, looking around. ‘Dis side of town, very dangerous!’

‘But its broad daylight,’ Tara responded.

‘Ehn, but dis area; full of hooligans!’ he added. ‘Dey pick your pocket, dey throw things at you.’

Tara exhaled, not sure if that was what she needed to hear right now. She just needed to find Helen and get out of there quickly. Pulling out some money from her purse, she paid him for his services and got down, but turned round on second thoughts, his remarks still fresh in her ears.

‘Could you wait for me?’ she asked him. ‘I won’t be too long. You will take me back to the office.’

‘Aunty, hurry up o!’ he warned.

‘Okay, okay. I said I won’t be long.’

She entered the building. It had a row of flats on either side of the dark narrow corridor arranged in a ‘Face me, I face you style’. The left row had the odd-numbered flats while the right row was marked with even numbers. She strolled on until she got to the door marked Number 4. She rapped on the door with her knuckles and waited. When there was no reply, she knocked again and leaned towards the closed door to listen for any movements that might shows signs of life inside the flat. After a few seconds, she heard someone coming and inhaled deeply, expecting to see Helen at the other end to the door.

An elderly woman opened the door, holding a tray of black-eyed red beans. It was obvious she was getting ready to prepare a meal. She was slightly bent over and her two front teeth were missing. She had only a patterned wrapper tied under her armpit which she adjusted with her free hand as she surveyed Tara.

‘Good evening ma’ Tara greeted and curtsied slightly.

‘Hm. Ow ah you?’ the woman replied, her words mumbled.

‘I am fine. Ma, I am looking for Helen.’

‘Ehn? E-leen?’

‘Yes. A lady named Helen. I believe she lives here, at number 4.’

‘Dis iz nomba 4’ the woman affirmed ‘E- leen?’

A young man came out of the opposite apartment, marked number 3 and locked his door. He heard the two women struggling to communicate with one another and came to the rescue.

‘Are you looking for someone?’ he asked.

‘Yes sir. I am trying to find a young lady. Her name is Helen. She said this is where she lives.’

The man turned to the old woman who had placed the tray of beans on a nearby stool beside the door and was waiting to understand the mission of her visitor.

‘Mama,’ he addressed her in a native tongue ‘She says she is looking for one Helen.’

They spoke for about two minutes in a language Tara did not understand then the young man turned to face her.

‘There is no one here by that name.’

‘This is Plot 16 Shaibu Street right?’ Tara asked ‘The lady I am looking for is fair in complexion, a little shorter than I am but slightly chubby. She had on some curly braids the last time I saw her.’

The man shook his head slowly, looking pensive. ‘There is no one in this building that fits that description. Mama lives in this flat with her two grandsons who are both in secondary school. There is no young lady. Maybe you could try the next building.’

Tara thanked him. She curtsied once more to the old woman and bade her goodbye. The second building was directly across the road from the one she had just exited. It was similar to the first one but looked slightly older. Towards the opposite end of the corridor, three guys stood together, talking loudly amongst themselves and smoking cigarettes. They looked young; in their late teenage years. She observed them for a minute and instinctively clutched her bag closer to her. If they were residents here, it would be easier to ask for their help rather than knocking randomly on another stranger’s door. But if they were among the gang of pickpockets the driver spoke about, she wouldn’t want to get close. Two girls walked by carrying buckets of water on their heads, and the boys began whistling and making catcalls to them until they slipped into one of the flats. Tara took advantage of the distraction to barge into their conversation. She walked quickly to the boys hoping they would not start whistling at her as well. They saw her approaching and quieted down. She stated her mission. The boys seemed eager to help.

‘But you have to drop something first,’ they told her.

‘Drop what?’

‘You know now, you drop something for us, we find Helen for you.’

‘Oh, is that the way it works around here? Do you even know the Helen I am talking about?’

‘You say she is fair and a bit fat?’ the oldest of the boys asked, puffing smoke into her face. Tara coughed and nodded in affirmation.

‘It must be Chime’s sister,’ he said. ‘They live at flat 6.’

Helen had indicated flat 4 on her resume, but Tara was hopeful. The boys seemed to know somebody’s sister who fitted her description.

‘It is Chime’s sister’ the oldest boy repeated again. ‘Give us something and we will go and call her.’

Tara sighed. This mission was costing her more than she anticipated. As she opened her purse, one of the boys inched closer to try and see exactly how much she had. Tara used one hand to shield the contents from him, stepping back slightly as she did so. She brought out a note and gave it to him.

‘Add to it,’ he instructed.

Impatiently, she shook her head. ‘That’s all I can afford,’ she said. ‘Please find Helen for me.’

He shoved the note into his pocket and nudged the youngest boy who dashed out immediately. Tara moved aside to allow the other two guys continue their conversation while she waited. She paced up and down the length of the corridor impatiently.

Moments later, she heard voices and the sound of footsteps approaching. The teenage boy was returning and bringing a lady with him. He came in through the door and rejoined his friends. Tara looked past the fair skinned, chubby young lady who came in after him as she braced herself for a confrontation. Helen had better have a good reason for doing what she had done and even if her explanation was plausible, Tara would still have some strong words for her. The lady came up to her.

‘They say you are finding me,’ she said to her in broken English.

‘No, no. It’s not you.’ Tara replied in exasperation

‘This is not your Helen?’ the boy who had brought her asked.

‘No! I am looking for someone else. Isn’t there any other Helen here?’ she motioned to the girl. ‘Another lady, she is a bit older than you?’

The girl shook her head much to Tara’s disappointment. The boys had seemed so sure of themselves. The youngest of the boys apologized to the girl for bringing her all that way for nothing, she shrugged in return.

‘So is that it?’ Tara cut in, as the boys began teasing the girl who seemed in no hurry to return back to where they had fetched her from.

‘We thought you meant Chime’s sister,’ the oldest boy explained.

‘So where is my money?’

‘Which money?’

‘The money I gave you, you didn’t find the person I am looking for.’

He snickered. ‘Aunty, that money is gone o! We found one Helen for you, you said no. If you want us to find anoda Helen, you drop anoda money!’

Tara stared at him. These boys must be high on something, she concluded. She had better leave before those cigarettes made them crazier. It was three against one and this was their turf. With a shake of her head, she hurried outside the building and stood on the sidewalk, contemplating what to do next. She didn’t want to go back and tell Imade she hadn’t been able to locate Helen. From the side of the road, the taxi driver began honking impatiently and threatened to drive off and leave her in this foreboding alley if she did not hurry up.

‘Wait, please,’ she tried to plead with him.

‘Wait for what?’ he thundered. ‘I will leave you o!’

‘Go, then!’ Tara fired back. She was irritated. What was wrong with him anyway? Wasn’t it customers like her who paid for his daily bread?

The driver shouted some invectives at her for wasting his time, turned around and sped off, his screeching tires sending clouds of dust into the air. Tara stood alone on the sidewalk and looked around in frustration. What a day it had been! And where on earth was Helen?

Honestly, I am going to kill this girl when I find her, she thought to herself. For what she is putting me through!

~~~~

The persistent ticking of the clock was a harsh reminder of the impending humiliation which the celebrant would face when her guests arrived. As soon as Imade got to the events center, she was confronted by a furious woman who gave her a piece of her mind, letting her know that she didn’t take kindly to being neglected this way. She shoved a sheet of paper into Imade’s hands. It was a Pro-Touch receipt which confirmed that payment had been made for their services. The handwriting was unmistakably Helen’s. Imade looked around and knew there wasn’t much she could do before the party started. The hall was quite large and she didn’t have her decoration materials with her. Besides, it would be practically impossible to get across to the workers she usually hired on a part time basis to do the decorating. They wouldn’t make it to the venue before noon. She tried her best to maintain her composure.

‘I’ll save the explanations for later,’ she said. ‘The only thing we can do right now, is to try and make this place look as decent as possible.’

By the time she got back to the office in the evening, Imade was drained. She had done her best to sort out the aggrieved customer, even going down on her knees with a bucket of soapy water and a mop to at least ensure the hall was clean. To add insult to the injury, she had to bite her tongue through the whole ordeal, as the woman berated her. Back in her safe haven, away from the woman’s slurs, she sank into a chair and tried to figure out where she had gone wrong. As she drank in the tranquility of the office, Tara walked in looking spent.

‘I couldn’t find Helen,’ she announced. ‘The address on her resume is false. It’s only an old woman living there, she spoke in a native tongue I couldn’t understand.’

Imade stared at her angrily. ‘Tara, we need to talk,’ she said.

Tara nodded. She expected Imade to be upset. It would be difficult to accept that Helen had made away with her money. ‘Who really is this Helen and where did she come from?’

‘I told you,’ Tara replied. ‘I chose her from a pool of applicants who responded to my vacancy announcement.’

Imade got up and faced her squarely. ‘The numbers just don’t add up. I came back from my trip to meet this strange girl, who you claim is your assistant. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you gave her access to our finances, something you ought to have handled yourself.’

‘I thought you would be happy that I took the initiative!’ Tara exclaimed defensively.

‘Happy? Tara, I have a crisis on my hands. The woman from the events center has demanded a full refund of her money along with payment for damages. While I was still trying to sort her out, someone else called me to lodge a similar complaint about how we collected money from them and left them high and dry.’ She placed her hands on her hips. ‘Look at my knees; I’ve been washing floors and walls all morning. How could you trifle with my business this way?’

Tara shrank back at her tone. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. ‘This is an honest mistake. I’ve been through a lot myself. I ran into a bunch of hoodlums who tried to extort money from me....’

Imade wasn’t interested in her troubles. ‘Why did you bring Helen here while I was away?’ she demanded, cutting her off. ‘Are you sure the two of you didn’t plan this together?’

Tara’s cheeks grew hot as she slowly deciphered what Imade was insinuating. ‘Are you accusing me of stealing from you?’

Imade nodded, her mind travelling back to their previous encounters together. This was the same woman who had snatched her man right under her nose and later connived with him to steal away her son. It wasn’t beneath her to siphon office funds.

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.

The thought came to her but she quickly brushed it away. For all she knew, Tara could have lied about her new found faith in Christ. She was convinced that underneath all that meek appearance and perfectly worn make up, lay a shrewd schemer.

‘Yes,’ she replied, her eyes cold. ‘You have stolen from me; and in more ways than one.’

Without another word, she turned round and stepped out of the office to seek Uncle Marcus’ advice, leaving Tara totally perturbed.

~~~~

The tears that Tara struggled to hold back flowed freely as soon as she got home. Imade had bluntly accused her of theft and demanded that she stay away from the office until things were sorted out.

‘Vindicate me, O Lord.’ She whispered silently. As a young believer, her faith wasn’t so strong; but she knew when it was time to pray for help.

She narrated the whole story to Dapo when he got home. ‘Imade is convinced I brought Helen in to do my dirty work,’ she concluded in between sobs.

‘I knew it,’ he fumed. ‘I never wanted you to work there in the first place. You should have listened to me from the start.’

Tara did not reply and Dapo’s heart softened as he watched her cry. She had been through so much already and this was not the time to apportion blame. He put his arm around her comfortingly.

‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’

Tara leaned into him, drawing comfort from his embrace. At least her husband believed her.

‘I want this Helen girl found,’ he declared, ‘if only to prove your innocence.’ He called Imade immediately. ‘You’ve treated Tara unfairly,’ he told her. ‘She didn’t have anything to do with it.’

‘I doubt that very much,’ Imade replied. ‘In fact, I’ve already filed a complaint with the police.’

‘Well, we’ll be conducting investigations of our own. I won’t have you dragging my wife’s name in the mud.’

‘Pro-Touch’s entire reputation is already in jeopardy,’ Imade answered bitterly. ‘I have damages to cover. Please tell Tara, she’ll have to pay back some of the money that was stolen.’

Dapo frowned. Agreeing to pay would mean they were admitting Tara’s guilt. ‘Where would she find the money to do that, especially since you asked her not to return to the job?’ He shook his head. ‘We must catch the thief and make her pay.’

‘Well, we could catch her easily if your wife tells us where she has hidden her.’

‘Your accusations are baseless, Imade. Tara isn’t a thief.’

‘Are you sure?’ Imade snickered. ‘Face it Dapo. She planned this whole thing from day one.’

‘My wife didn’t steal anything,’ Dapo objected. ‘She’s not paying back a dime.’

He hung up and Imade sighed heavily. ‘It’s all my fault,’ she said to herself. ‘I should never have let her get close.’

~~~~

The tension at the orphan-care meeting was thick. With Tara seated just a few seats away, Imade fidgeted uneasily as she tried to concentrate on what Ottie was saying. She had forgotten Tara would be here. Seeing her now brought back the pain of her losses.

Ottie saw her afterwards. ‘Tara told me everything,’ she said. ‘She’s very upset and insists she’s innocent.’

‘I don’t believe her,’ Imade replied. ‘She’s cried wolf too many times.’

Ottie sighed. ‘Listen, Tara is a young believer and her soul is precious to the Lord. You had a part in bringing her into the faith, don’t push her away.’

It was true. The way their paths had crossed left little doubt in Imade’s mind that it was divinely orchestrated, but at what cost? Tara had almost run her out of business. Pro-Touch was on shaky grounds. Having lost a lot of her customers to Helen’s scam, business was scarce. Determined not to accept any charities, Imade was using whatever profits she made from the few remaining jobs to pay back what Helen had stolen, just to keep the clients off her neck.

Her day to day operations were also suffering. With Tara gone, the management of Pro-Touch rested solely on Imade’s shoulders. The previous week, she had turned down two potential clients. Although she needed the money, the workload would have been too much for her to handle. Yet, she had been bitten once and was reluctant to hire any help. Who could she trust? She sighed bitterly, feeling caught between the chariots of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. Had it been a mistake to repay wrong with good?

‘God can still part that sea,’ Ottie encouraged gently, squeezing her shoulder. ‘There’s no mess too big for him to handle.’

Imade stiffened under her touch when she saw Tara coming towards where they were standing. ‘Good day ladies,’ Tara greeted. She noticed that Imade had lost some weight and looked stressed. The challenges of Pro-Touch were telling on her. ‘How are you Imade?’ she asked, trying to be cordial.

‘I’m doing pretty well under the circumstances. But I’m not resting on my oars until I turn over every stone concerning this matter and get the truth out.’

Tara shifted uneasily and turned to look at Ottie. ‘Maybe I should stay away until we clear this up. I don’t want you guys feeling uncomfortable in your own church.’

Imade frowned. She had already judged Tara to be an impostor in God’s house, but her leaving didn’t sit well in her heart. Ottie’s words rang through her mind. Don’t push her away.

‘The church is open to whosoever wants to come,’ Ottie put in, before Imade could respond. ‘You have as much right to be here as we do.’

‘Good,’ Tara replied with all seriousness. ‘I would hate to go back to being a party freak.’

Imade laughed dryly and excused herself. Ottie nudged Tara, as she quickly searched through her purse.

‘Listen, I tried to give Imade some money to pay off part of her debts, but she won’t take it. She’s insisting that you should be the one to pay. I know you don’t have the cash to do so, so please accept this and use it to pay her.’

Tara looked at the signed cheque, but didn’t take it. ‘Dapo insists that the thief must be found first.’

‘But that’s not fair. Imade has to pay back those debts whether we find Helen or not. Please, take the money and give it to her.’

‘I can’t do it without my husband’s consent,’ Tara insisted. She smiled faintly and walked away, leaving Ottie at her wits’ end. She couldn’t understand why neither one of them would accept her money. Half their problems would be solved if they did.

‘Lord,’ she prayed quietly. ‘It’s beyond me now. Help us to see your way out of this mess.’

~~~~

Mama Folu was a valued customer at Pro-Touch, but much more, she was Imade’s dear friend and mentor. A dealer in building materials, she came to supply floor tiles one morning to Uncle Marcus when the Pro-Touch sign caught her attention. She took to Imade immediately. A typical high society lady, she had already hired Pro-Touch services twice that year, being one of the lucky few not to fall victim to Helen’s schemes. When she arrived that afternoon, she took a quick look round the office. ‘It must be pretty lonely here without others to help you.’

‘It’s okay ma,’ Imade replied. ‘I’m doing just fine.’

‘At the rate you’re going, you’ll soon breakdown,’ she warned. ‘Life wasn’t designed to be handled alone.’

She leaned forward, her voice falling to a slight whisper. ‘Guess what? That girl Helen is on the prowl again.’

Imade sat up, alert. ‘You know where she is?’

‘Oh yes,’ Mama Folu rested her back into the chair. ‘My friend Mrs. Aigbe, who runs a provision store at Ijiwoye market, ran into her recently. Mrs. Aigbe has been planning her housewarming party and somehow the news got out. People have been trying to sell her all sorts of services; Helen included. Would you believe she claims to still work for you? She even has some of your receipts.’

‘Really?’ Imade exclaimed, her eyes widening.

‘Thankfully, I had told Mrs. Aigbe about your ordeal. As soon as Helen walked into her shop and started talking, she knew it was her.’

‘So, what did Mrs. Aigbe do?’

‘Oh, she played along; even promised Helen a down payment just to keep her interested. Helen got really excited and promised to come for the money this week.’

Imade laughed. ‘She’s not very smart, is she?’

‘Her greed got the better of her,’ Mama Folu said thoughtfully. ‘I think she grew desperate. She must have used up the money she stole from you and now needs some more. We can arrange a surprise meeting if you want.’

Imade sprang to her feet. ‘Let’s do so immediately. I can’t wait to see Helen again.’

~~~~

It was two o’clock in the afternoon and trading at Ijiwoye market was at its peak. Shoppers defied the scorching sun, as they moved about busily, trying to get the best value for their money. On the left wing of the market, Mrs. Aigbe stood outside her shop, haggling with a customer while her two assistants loaded provisions into a minivan.

Helen emerged from a distance, clutching a polythene bag and walking swiftly through the narrow spaces that separated the shops. She slowed down as she approached Mrs. Aigbe and muttered a greeting. They talked for a minute, while the first customer stepped aside to inspect the goods she was about to buy.

‘Why don’t you wait for me inside?’ Mrs. Aigbe suggested. ‘I’ll join you as soon as I’ve finished with my customer.’

Helen nodded in consent. But as soon as she stepped into the dimly lit store, she knew her luck had run out. Imade and Ottie were waiting with Mama Folu and two police officers in mufti. In unconcealed shock, she turned around and made a dash for the exit. But she didn’t get far before one of the police officers nabbed her.

Holding her tightly by the arm, he took the polythene bag and emptied its contents on the floor. A purse, some writing materials and a receipt booklet tumbled out. Imade bent down, pushed the other items aside and picked up the booklet. It was one of hers, with several branded pages ripped out.

‘Helen, why?’ she demanded. ‘I trusted you.’

‘I never meant to cause trouble,’ Helen pleaded.

The women sneered. ‘It’s too late for regrets now.’

‘Who put you up to this?’

They were all speaking at once and the policeman had to calm them down. Sternly, he asked Helen what she did with all the stolen money. Helen looked imploringly from one woman to the other, her hands clasped together in a silent plea. They looked ready to pounce on her. Resigned, she asked them to follow her home.

Within her humble abode, Helen was living large on other people’s hard earned money. The flat was lavishly furnished with an array of impressive electronic devices to provide much comfort and relaxation. Apparently there were many others who got caught in her trap.

‘Helen, you live here?’ Imade asked, looking round at the brand new appliances which even she couldn’t afford.

A shuffle inside the room revealed they were not alone. The crew looked questioningly towards the bedroom door as a man emerged and surveyed the group, startled by the unexpected company.

‘Gaius!’ Imade exclaimed. ‘What are you doing here?’

Gaius, Uncle Marcus’ admin manager, looked around; slightly disoriented. The noise coming from the living room had just woken him up.

‘The game is over,’ Helen told him. ‘We’ve been discovered.’ She turned back to the crew. ‘He lives here. We moved in together not long after I resumed at Pro-Touch.’

Imade looked questioningly at Gaius, who was still trying to shake himself awake. ‘You’ve been keeping Helen here all this while?’ she chided. ‘And you never said anything?’

‘Gaius is the mastermind behind it all,’ Helen put in. Her tone grew accusing. ‘What else do you expect when he hasn’t been paid for months? How else is he supposed to keep body and soul together? Maybe Uncle Marcus would do better at business if he wasn’t so tight-fisted.’

‘I don’t know what she’s talking about,’ Gaius interjected quickly. ‘Helen is just crazy.’

Imade was too grim to respond. As the police officers attempted to question Gaius, she nudged Ottie. ‘I owe Tara an apology, don’t I?’ she said soberly.

Ottie nodded. ‘You were rather rash with her.’

‘I feel terrible. How could I have been so hasty in my judgment?’

‘There’s no point blaming yourself now. I suggest you go and see her right away.’

~~~~

‘Imade was here yesterday,’ Tara said. ‘She wants me to come back to Pro-Touch.’

Ottie had just dropped her off. They had been to see the matron at Haven, who was telling Tara about her adoption options.

‘Will you go?’

Tara was silent. So much had gone under the bridge between herself and Imade. It had been humiliating being branded as a crook. She was only grateful that the real culprits had been found or else Imade would never have believed she was innocent.

‘She told me how Helen played right back into her hands. Do you think maybe God was fighting on my behalf?’

Ottie couldn’t help smiling as she recalled her own futile attempt to remedy the crisis. She realized now that the money she offered Tara might have settled the debts but would have left behind a tangled web of unresolved rivalry and distrust.

‘He did fight for you,’ she affirmed. ‘In a way no one else could. A believer’s life isn’t free from troubles, but God promises to deliver us from every one.’ She paused and added thoughtfully. ‘Promise me you won’t blank the possibility of returning to Pro-Touch completely out of your mind.’

Tara nodded. ‘I’ll give it some thought.’

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