Note from the author: The excerpt below is not from Héléna and the Missing Papaya. This is adult Héléna reminiscing about events from her childhood.
In the summer of my ninth year, something very strange happened in Bonakombo, the small neighborhood in Cameroon where my family lived. Back then, most people knew me as Héléna the Detective, the kid who took her notepad everywhere and was always hunting for clues to some quest. I knew everything, or so I thought, and the things I did not know or understand, I sought to find out. I recovered and returned many a missing bauble to its rightful owner, and figured out what had become of vanished fruits and pets. But none of those adventures prepared me for what would happen that summer, and although I did not know it then, I would never be the same again.
Maman was one to scream at the slightest thing. At the sight of a cockroach strutting to hide behind a pot, she would go “Waaah!” before taking off her sandals to attempt to flatten the creature. With mice or rats behind the cupboard, the scream was more vigorous, “Arghhhhhhh!” She would jump up and down as if trying to hover so the horrible rodent could not run over her feet with its disgusting little paws, and would grab whoever was closest to her at the time and command: “Find the broom, and catch it!” So I had heard plenty of Maman’s screams growing up. But on the day when my fateful investigation began, Maman’s scream was one I had never heard before, tinged with equal parts sorrow and anger. It ascended in the noontime silence, disturbing the torpor that usually enveloped Bonakombo around naptime:
It came from the sewing shop. I rose from the raphia mat on which I had been trying to nap, and ran towards one of the small rooms that adjoined the family home. We were Bamilekes, a tribe reputed for the ability to make Nkap, money. Papa had built three small shops at the back of the family house. He rented out two of them, and Maman’s sewing shop was the third.
Just as I was entering Maman’s shop, I bumped into Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi, the two ladies who lived across the street from our house. They had arrived to the shop fast. Those two were the main operators of the neighborhood’s gossip mill. They took neither leave nor vacation, and their enterprise flourished, constantly churning out bits about other people’s lives.
In the shop, Maman was kneeling on the floor, amidst a pile of various garments. In her hand, she held a bright red dress made of wax print fabric. She was turning the dress upside down and inside out, as if to solve a puzzle that only she could see.
“What is it, non, Mma Tagne?” Mma Ngassa asked Maman.
“Look! See for yourself! Wickedness! Someone destroyed my customers’ orders! My reputation is ruined,” Maman replied, throwing the red dress with the rest of the clothing on the floor, gathering a rough pile, and thrusting it towards Mma Ngassa.
The latter exchanged a quick glance with Mma Noumssi, before reaching for the pile from which what looked like a black suit jacket had fallen.
At that moment, General Essè, who rented one of the shops next to Maman’s sewing shop, walked into the room.
“Et c’est…. What is this in the middle of the heat?” He asked no one in particular.
“Chu chu chu…” He added, looking at Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi and mimicking their incessant chatter. “You’re adding heat with all that breath…What happened here?”
The two women turned their faces away, embarrassed. General Essè was the only one in the neighborhood who could lambast them to their faces for their talebearings. He was a retired army man. Everyone called him General. Sometimes the older men joked about his “retirement” as though someone else had “retired” him. He operated an electronics repair shop for transistors, television sets, and portable players.
Maman grabbed the edge of her cutting table and propped herself up.
“General, thank God you’re here,” she said with a quiver in her voice. Sadness had overtaken anger, and a tear rolled down her left cheek.
“Et c’est…Mma Tagne, sit down, non. Tell me, what happened,” the General said as he led Maman to the wooden chair that stood behind her sewing machine. She was one of the few people who could make him let go of his gruff demeanor. They were good pals, like father and daughter. The General’s children had moved hundreds of miles away, and Maman was the one who helped the old man care for little but essential things like lunch.
“Take this to General Essè,” she would say every weekday at lunchtime, handing a generous plate of food to either my older brother Patou or me. The messenger would click his or her tongue, and exclaim:
“Eh, Maman! You gave him plenty oh!”
Maman would invariably shoo the person away, as she mumbled about the virtues of sharing.
Mma Ngassa passed along to General Essè what remained of the bundle of clothing she had received from Maman. He grabbed the pile, and laid all the items side by side on the cutting table. They were a pair of men’s slacks and a suit jacket, two black dresses, and the red wax print fabric dress.
Breaking the sacrosanct rule in African households that children should remain out of the way when adults are engaged in serious matters, I wriggled my way between Mma Noumssi and Mma Ngassa and leaned against the cutting table, one of its corners poking against my chest. Large gashes ran across the garments. The edges along the lacerations were smooth in some areas, and jagged in others. The culprit had not cut along thread lines or zippers. There was no doubt that it would take a miracle to salvage the clothes before their owners arrived to pick them up.
I writhed my way under the table, pulled out my notepad, and wrote down: “In a hurry? Shaky hands?” I then emerged from my retreat, just as Mma Noumssi asked, pointing at the suit jacket:
“Wait, this is Pa’ Jacques’s suit, non?” Jacques Noumssi was her husband.
Another tear rolled down Maman’s cheek, and she stood up, clasped her hands, and implored Mma Noumssi:
“Please, please, I will do everything to make this right. I won’t sleep until it’s repaired. You know how I value my customers’ satisfaction.”
Mma Noumssi’s face dropped, and she placed both palms over her head.
“Jacques is going to Yaoundé tonight,” she cried. “He has a big job interview at the Ministry of Education. Where is his suit?!” She still had her hands over her head, and her bottom lip was now quivering.
“You know Pa’ Jacques just lost his job,” she said, her voice breaking. “You know we need to feed the children and pay our bills. How could you be so careless? Is that how you protect your clients’ property?”
Mma Ngassa pulled on Mma Noumssi’s arm, steering her towards the front door.
“Let’s go Mma, let’s go!” she repeated. At the entrance, she glanced over her left shoulder and mouthed to Maman: