The Cellar

By: Minette Walters


Muna’s fortunes changed for the better on the day that Mr and Mrs Songoli’s younger son failed to come home from school. Not immediately. Immediately, she felt great fear as Yetunde Songoli wailed and screamed and beat her with a rod because the ten-year-old wasn’t in his room. It was Mr Songoli who put a stop to the punishment. Be sensible, he ordered his wife. The police will ask questions if they see bruises on her arms.

Shortly afterwards, Yetunde moved Muna to a room with a bed and a window. She pulled a brightly coloured dress over the girl’s head and bound matching ribbons into her hair, hissing at her all the while for being a witch and a demon. Muna must have brought a curse on them. Why else had Abiola not come home?

Left alone, Muna stared at her reflection in the mirror on the wall. Was this what Mr Songoli had meant by being ‘sensible’? To make Muna look pretty? It was very confusing. After a long time, she heard the sound of cars drawing up outside, the doorbell ringing and unknown voices speaking in the hall. She would have retreated to a darkened corner to squat on her haunches if Yetunde hadn’t ordered her to sit on the bed. It was uncomfortable – her back began to hurt with the strain of staying upright – but she didn’t move. Immobility had become a friend over the years. It allowed her to go unnoticed.

She was beginning to hope she’d been forgotten until she heard footsteps on the stairs. She recognised Yetunde Songoli’s heavy tread but not the lighter one that followed behind. She stared impassively at the door, watching it open to reveal Yetunde’s great, bloated body and a slim white woman, dressed in a shirt and trousers. Muna would have taken her for a man if her voice, when she spoke, hadn’t been soft.

Yetunde lowered herself to the bed and put an affectionate arm around Muna’s waist. She was so heavy that the mattress dipped beneath her weight and Muna could do nothing but lean against her. She was too small and thin to resist the woman’s pull. Don’t show fear, Yetunde warned in Hausa. Smile when this policewoman smiles at you, and speak in answer to the questions I ask you. It won’t matter what you say. She’s white English and doesn’t understand Hausa.

Smile. Muna did her best to ape the soft curve of the white’s lips but it was a long time since she’d done anything so unnatural. Speak. She opened her mouth and moved her tongue but nothing came out. She was too afraid to voice aloud what she practised in whispers to herself each night. Yetunde would know for certain she had demons if she said something in English.

‘How old is she?’ the white asked.

Yetunde stroked Muna’s hand. ‘Fourteen. She’s my first-born but her brain was damaged at birth and she finds it hard to learn.’ Tears dripped down the bloated cheeks. ‘Was this not tragedy enough? Must my precious Abiola be another?’

‘There’s no reason to think the worst yet, Mrs Songoli. It’s not unusual for ten-year-old boys to truant from time to time. I expect he’s at a friend’s house.’

‘He’s never truanted before. The school should have called my husband at work when they didn’t get me. We pay them enough. It’s irresponsible to leave a message on an answerphone.’

The white crouched down to put herself on the same level as Muna. ‘You say you’ve been out all day, but what about your daughter? Where was she?’

‘Here. We have permission to teach her at home. A Hausa speaker comes to tutor her each morning.’ Yetunde’s bejewelled fingers moved from caressing Muna’s hand to stroking her cheek. ‘Children can be so cruel. My husband wouldn’t want her teased for her disability.’

‘Does she have any English?’

‘None. She struggles even to speak Hausa.’

‘Why didn’t her tutor answer the phone when the school rang?’

‘It’s not her job. She wouldn’t take a call intended for someone else.’ Yetunde pressed a tissue to her eyes. ‘It’s so rare for me to go out. Any other day I would have been here.’

‘You said the first you knew that something was wrong was when you returned at six o’clock and listened to your messages.’ The crouching white examined Muna’s face. ‘Yet it must have worried your daughter that Abiola didn’t come home at his usual time. Will you ask her why she didn’t tell you as soon as you opened the door?’

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