I had been dining in Ma Mabel’s bar for three months before I saw Bimpe. But nobody spoke about her. They all spoke about Ma Mabel. Yet it seemed no one knew her. Her bar was on Moloney Street, near the police academy. It wasn’t too far from my workplace in Marina. Everyone came to Old Ma Mabel’s bar. Different people, from various walks of life, Lagosians troubled with Lagosian problems – financial worries, overbearing bosses and cheating spouses, not to mention the long lines of traffic that lined Third Mainland Bridge every other day. No one knew Ma Mabel. Her bar had been near Kam Salem for longer than I remembered. Some of the patrons said she had died, others said she was an old woman confined to a wheelchair, and only came out of her house at night. She was elusive, a poor imitation to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. I doubt she had Gatsby’s boundless charm though.
Given we all had never seen Ma Mabel, we saw her in the bar, in the smiling faces that surrounded us all as we guzzled our drinks. Her bar was a happy place, a no man’s land full of happy feelings, situated on Moloney Street, where policemen bristled with angry energy and money people came to exchange dollars from the lanky Hausa money-changers that loitered in front of the banks.
Her place was a haven we could all be ourselves. I often sat at the back, where I could see the older gentlemen walk in, their ill-fitting suits losing the battle to keep their heavy paunches confined, and their trousers grazing the tops of their shoes. They guffawed as they discussed amongst themselves, sparse, grey whiskers peeking from their dewlapped faces. The women usually got here earlier than them. They leaned close to one another as they prattled endlessly, while their footwear sat underneath their tables like numbers around the dot of a clock. On their faces, smudged make-up did its best to doll their smiles up in the lights of the restaurant. Younger men like me came in with bags slung around their shoulders, holding sports newspapers with loud images and sensationalized soccer reports. Hamstrung, yet still bristling with the energy of the city, they smoked cigarettes with gusto and drank from bottles of Guinness. Only when a lady close to their age sashayed past would they pause, leer at her, and continue their unscripted chatter.
Ma Mabel’s bar was a large place, with patches of the yellow walls blackened from age and smoke. There was usually an intermittent pounding from behind the counter, where three women took turns swinging pestles on defenceless slices of boiled yams. The air was redolent with an assortment of stews and a homey scent of middle-class folk. It was a regular scent of cheap leather and locally-made perfume oils bought under Carter Bridge. Drinks fizzed as bottle corks clattered off tables, while Coca-Cola calendars hung from the walls, advertising the protean nature of Coca-Cola with a variety of local dishes.
More often than most, the bar was agog with conversation. It reverberated with a cacophony of sounds, a synergy of hearts that found a haven there. It was not the kind of conversation that took place in workplaces, stilted and subdued, nor was it the chivvying voices of harlots at night down in Isale Eko. However, it was similar to the shouting matches in Balogun market, heard over stamping feet, grinding machines, and loud adverts, and sometimes it was the expressive outpouring of a tired, proud and fierce heart of one Lagosian to another, the type that occurred in danfos1.
I had been dining in Ma Mabel’s bar for three months before I met Bimpe. She walked in slowly, placing one leg right in front of the other as she made her way to a seat close to mine. She was an observer, like me. She ate nothing, she only varied her drinks. The few times she spoke to someone, either responding to a greeting or ordering a drink, her voice held neither the fatigue of a tiring day nor the typical impatience of a thoroughbred Lagosian. We all flocked to Ma Mabel’s bar like schoolchildren set loose for a few minutes of respite on a playground before being hounded in by a stern schoolmaster. We were all alike in that moment; the fierce, tribal-marked policemen, their prey – danfo drivers who suffered extortion on a daily basis, heavy-paunched, middle-level civil servants, scheming traders, and their prey, unsuspecting, naive minds like Bimpe and I. Ma Mabel’s bar, nestled so delicately on Moloney Street, wrapped us in a haze of mutual affection. For a couple of hours, we were no longer warring Lagosians, we were simple-minded folk with temperate desires who lived and craved for a good meal, brief respite from life’s buffeting winds, beer, hearty laughter, and acceptance. In Ma Mabel’s bar on Moloney Street, amidst the smorgasbord of personalities, Bimpe found her place. She usually walked in slowly, in that manner of hers, as if measuring her steps, a large handbag clutched to her side. Regardless of what she wore, a wide wristband always adorned her left wrist. It looked out of place against her stylish blouses and flared pants. I chalked it down to an eccentric fashion sense. After all, this was Lagos.
That night, she sipped Star from a can and glanced around with a relaxed familiarity. After she left, I asked Modupe, one of the servers, about her.
“Ah, that madam,” Modupe replied, “e don tey wey she come.”2
I was surprised. Apparently, Bimpe was a regular who had been away for a while. That was the first time I saw her in here. Though there was a new face in here every now and then, I had gotten round to recognizing almost all the regulars.
Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street had a drawing on the wall. No one gave it a second glance. The weak highlights and fading corners told me it had been there for a long while. It was opposite my seat. It was a picture of shirtless boys chasing a ball. Their hands outstretched, and their faces grimy yet happy, as they were forever suspended in time reaching for a ball that would never fall into their hands, out of reach for them for all time. I often stared at the picture, trying to see the sense in it, while in my mind, throttling the poor excuse for an artist who painted such nonsense. When I look back now, my anger at the artist was more for my perceived translation than for his lack of artistic craft. In spite of the contentment he tried to portray, the picture usually reminded me of sadness, a wicked, pitiful imitation of reaching for misplaced happiness by an amateurish and misguided painter.
That interesting gamut of folks – the policemen, the artisans, the traders, and the middle-level civil servants who came to Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street – all found her old arms welcoming, a haven of cold comfort against the city. To think a place with darkened walls, a poor drawing on the wall, named after a woman we never knew was that place we found what was left of our persons.
“Do you have any idea why they call this restaurant Ma Mabel’s place?” Bimpe once asked me.
I had thought about it once or twice but didn’t dwell on it. You would sometimes find “Arinze Store” on the masthead of a grocery store in Isale Eko without an Arinze.
“Maybe it belonged to an old woman named Ma Mabel,” I said.
That seemed the only plausible explanation. It didn’t matter.
“That makes sense,” she agreed. She sipped some more of her Star. Changing the subject, she said, “Modupe said you asked about me last week.”
I was surprised. It was mere curiosity. The last thing I wanted was for my curiosity taken for nosiness.
“I-I just-” I stammered.
She laughed. “Relax, it’s fine,” she assured me. “She looks out for me.” She drew random shapes with her forefinger on the plastic table.
“Looks out for you?” I repeated. She nodded. “Do you know each other?” I asked.
“She’s my sister-in-law.”
I was even more surprised. I struggled to find words, and it must have shown on my face. Bimpe giggled at my expression.
Modupe, with her broken English that stubbornly clung to her Ibadan accent and nails blackened from handling charcoal all day, was related to Bimpe? Bimpe, with her permed weave and natty dress sense? I turned to look for Modupe as if I hadn’t seen her before and looked back to Bimpe.
“I always get that reaction,” she said, smiling. She wasn’t offended one bit.
“She’s a real sweetheart,” she said, rubbing the inside of her left wrist. Her garish wristband wasn’t on today. In spite of the dim light of the restaurant, I could see several ugly, healing gashes she so delicately rubbed. The humour in her eyes went out as quickly as it came.
I looked up to find her eyes on me. The warmth had evaporated, the corners of her lips turned up in a saturnine smile. She didn’t need to say more. I tried to project my “I’m-here-with-you” kind of smile and forced pity out of my voice.
“She’s a real sweetheart,” I repeated. The previous warmth slowly replaced the shadows that danced in Bimpe’s eyes. We both turned to look for Modupe and sure enough, found her placing a couple of bottles of Guinness on a table of several young men, swiping at sweat on her forehead, her expression open.
In Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street, we all, as alike as we were different, showed faces we concealed from others in here, parts of ourselves we glossed over with the veneer of the city and versions of ourselves we created to blend in. I often wondered if another restaurant like Ma Mabel’s place existed on the island. The painting on the wall was our flawed perfection. Ma Mabel’s place lacked splendor, yet gave us the idyll we needed as we jetted around in the city, pieces of our minds chipped away, thereby losing the essence of our humanity, which left us craving the finer attributes of life and rarely found galloping around – kindness and acceptance. We loosened our neckties,rolled-up our sleeves, time slowed down, and our browbeaten minds felt the strain taper off. It gave me something to look forward to at the end of every day.
However, the more I came to Ma Mabel’s bar on Moloney Street, the more those faces on the wall seemed to become familiar to me. In them, I saw my face, Bimpe’s, the heavy-whiskered man who sat near the front who loved discussing politics, and the pockmarked lady who happily showed off pictures of her twin boys. We all had our hands outstretched for that ball. But were we happy? That was why we came here. In Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street, we might have had that ball in our hands. The aura of Ma Mabel’s bar and the unspoken feeling resonating in the air filled the impassiveness that roaming the streets of Lagos had created in me. In the rat race on the streets of Lagos for that long line of money, that rat race that culminated in wasted hours in Lagos go-slow3 on Third Mainland Bridge, lined up like greedy ants on a trail of sugar. The false glamour blinded us to our fading humanity. We believed we were chasing that ball, but in the process, we jostled and tripped, smeared mud on ourselves. We gnawed away at our very essence, hollowed our insides and sought to fill it with superficial pleasures.
Like me, Bimpe came here for a reminder of who she was. She came back to unearth her persona before it was buried and sullied in that smash-and-grab race for wealth, leaving her with a gaping hollow. Lagos life was fast, too fast. It was thrilling, like the way I felt zooming on an okada4 from one end of Falomo Bridge to another, the wind in my eyes, blurring my view of the world, and giving me too little time to appreciate the scenic beauties it offered.
Maybe I shouldn’t have had any complaints. It was the Lagos life. There was no time to be slow, to reflect. That would have made me a su egbe5. Lagosians acted first and thought later. We ate in a hurry, rushed to work in a hurry, even made love in a hurry. Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street gave me a chance to pause, reflect, laugh, which stripped me of that siege mentality the city of Lagos so forcefully thrust on me. It was not something I found in the slovenly pile of files that were strewn on my desk or in the flashing lights synonymous with long lines of traffic.
A few years later, my job took me out of Lagos. I was transferred to Ogun State, and I never lost the feeling Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street gave me. I never went to another bar for fear I would lose the feeling Ma Mabel’s place left with me. Like a fish removed from the deep, I craved going back someday.
I got my wish, but not the way I wanted. I visited my mother’s family in Isale Eko after a burial. I went down to Moloney Street for a feel of my old stomping grounds.Ma Mabel’s place, which was beside Kam Salem House, the police academy, had been torn down for expansion of the academy. Cruel world. I imagined I wouldn’t be the only prodigal son met with the realisation. I thought of the artisans, the traders, and the professionals who all came here, if they had so quickly masked those faces we only saw in here.
I thought of Bimpe, and of Modupe, wondering if their tender hearts had been squashed in the harshness of the city, just like Ma Mabel’s place had been.
But most of all, I thought of myself, and those smiling faces on the wall, and the outstretched arms in carefree happiness. I considered the vestiges of my humanity after chasing that long line of money in the city.
In Ma Mabel’s place on Moloney Street, beside Kam Salem, we found something to fill the chasm in us for a while, which we still kept trying to fill, unsuccessfully.
Danfo – means small, privately-owned, commercial buses extremely popular on the streets of Lagos
“e don tey wey she come” – an expression in pidgin English.Translated as “it’s been long she came.”
Go-slow – a pidgin English expression, which refers to traffic. The term is gotten from the slow movement of vehicles in a traffic jam
Okada – means a motorcycle used for carrying passengers
Su egbe – a derogatory term, meaning a slow, dimwitted person
Image: Third Mainland Bridge – Lagos. Olusegun Aderogba, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
11 thoughts on “Beside Kam Salem by Adédoyin Àjàyí”
Hi there Adedoyin,
This was very well written.
It also captures the nature and idiosincricies of a ‘locals’ pub brilliantly. The different characters, their specific situations, them looking out for each other was all believable.
I think the idea of them searching for themselves whilst being comfortable in the pub is a very poetic contradiction in terms.
So many try to write about the dynamics of a pub and they miss this by a mile for the simple reason that they have never spent anytime in one. To do this type of story justice you need to watch, listen, drink, be patient, be involved but don’t get involved many a time.
All the very best.
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Thank you so much Hugh.
It’s quite a paradox when you mention it, the idea of searching for themselves, whilst having that air of invincibility and comfort in the pub.
I haven’t spent that much time in pubs, I got the idea for this story from a common saying among Lagosians – “suffering and smiling.”
I’ll take your advice regarding being in a pub; that way, I could write a better story with similar elements.
Thank you so much once again.
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The setting is extremely well conveyed. The descriptions of the money changers and police are perfect. Yet no matter where one is in the world, you’ll always find a place like that run by Ma. I hope it is always that way.
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Thank you so much.
Exactly. I believe we all are more alike than we think, regardless of the distance between us.
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Atmospheric & enigmatic – I was left wanting to know more about Bimpe!
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Many thanks Steven.
I wish I did too.🥺
But I found it hard making Bimpe more involved without the story dragging along.
Thanks for your observations.
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A story that does an excellent job of transporting the reader to another place … practically another world for many of us, I imagine. Everyone could use a Ma Mabel’s in their life.
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Thank you David.
That’s the idea. Taking readers to another world.
Thanks so much.
Made me think of the fictional Cheers and pubs I’ve known in Portland and Eugene Oregon USA. We mourn our recently deceased literall Local about a block away. None of them were as interesting as Ma Mabel, but they too were comforting.
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I’m sorry about that.
It’s usually a warm feeling when a place wraps one in such comfort.
Such rich, evocative writing which transport you right into the bar. So well done. The place and characters all come alive in your superb descriptions.