Waiting for Father
By Jennifer N. Mbunabo
Sunday, June 22, 2014.
A short, plump woman in a fitted gown, whom I presumed to be Stepmother, answered the door that I had gazed upon for a long time, after heavy knocks from Uncle who stood beside me. She looked at me, squinted then looked at Uncle. Then after a brief moment she apologized for not recognizing us. Uncle started to explain and while he talked, she smiled and nodded, her hand still gripping the door handle. When he finished she threw her stubby arms around me.
“Oh my daughter, sorry I did not recognize you. You have grown so big. Please come in.” She disengaged herself from me and brandished her arms towards a door. I dropped my travel bag on the floor, pulled off my shoes and stepped into a dim, sparsely furnished room with green curtains and brown chairs. We sat down and I stretched my legs and wriggled my toes beneath a dusty, glass table with a flower vase at its centre. I wished I could stretch my body instead. We had travelled from Benin where I lived with mother and Uncle; her younger brother, but after her wedding I was compelled to live with father in Lagos because she and her husband were leaving the country. Stepmother came in smiling, then flicked on the light switch and sat down on the arm chair opposite us, beside another door.
“Please what can I get you? Malt? Soft drinks?” She searched our faces.
“Nothing. Thank you.” Uncle smiled and shook his head.
“Okay.”She said and turned to the door beside her, raised the tattered curtain and called, “Rita. Rita….” There was no answer, but I heard the shuffling of feet. A tall and slim girl donned in a blue skinny jeans and strapless white top came out through the door and greeted. Uncle answered.
“Sandra, this is Rita, my first child, she just finished secondary school and she is only fourteen years.” Stepmother said beaming with pride.
“Haaa, must you tell everybody?” Rita hissed and went back inside. After a moment she dashed out and stood in front of me.
“I have heard a lot about you. It is good to finally meet my older sister.” She said.
“Yes. Same here” I was just a year older. I did not think it was much of a big deal after all she was out of school and I was not. I noticed a sort of sarcasm in her voice though. We hugged and she went back into the room after telling her mother she was going to see a friend. She came out with bold red lips and the scent of jasmine clung to her. Stepmother turned towards her.
“Is this lipstick not too much? Is a pink gloss not better?”
“They are not your lips, bye bye.” Rita replied and walked out.
“All these children of nowadays, they think they know more than their parents.” She smiled and turned to my uncle. Uncle nodded and after some petty talk rose to leave.
“Aunty thank you for everything.” He then looked at me. “Remember to respect aunty, she is your mother, hope you know that?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“I am sure she is a good girl. And don’t you worry about her, this is her father’s house. I will take good care of her.” She said and walked him out, after I waved him goodbye. I sat back on the couch and watched the television. She came in and led me into a square room clustered with many bags and boxes against the wall, that there was hardly any space to put mine. She however created a small space for me by dumping the bags over one another. She told me that father had gone on a short trip and would be back soonest maybe in a few days and that if I got hungry I could go to the kitchen. I was glad, I had not expected this much kindness.
I did virtually nothing on the first few days of my arrival. I was treated as a guest, with little or nothing to do. Rita and I did not say much to each other because she rarely stayed at home during the day and night. After a few days, I started going out to fetch water from the next street, hawking Stepmother's ankara materials and when I came back she gave me so much work to do that I only had time for myself at night. There always seemed to be unending chores and most times her friends hired me to work in their houses. Sleeping at night was often difficult because I was always too tired to sleep. One time I managed to close my eyes for a while. I probably did not sleep for long because when I opened my eyes I saw Stepmother staring down at me with arms akimbo and a smirk on her black scaly lips. I gasped and leapt out of bed.
“Ma, did you call me?”
“Sandra, what do you think the time is?” Her angry eyes shot at me. I looked around the room, scanning the peeling wall for any clock. I did not see any.
“Ma, I don’t know.”
“You even have mouth to talk” she bit her lower lip. “Before I close and open my eyes you better run to the back, pick the biggest metal bucket and run to the borehole and make sure you fill the drum in the backyard!” she exclaimed.
I looked down at Rita as she lay down unperturbed her eyes wide awake, then ran out to the backyard. I picked a rubber pail and sauntered into the fog. Harmattan was crawling in, the cold wind flushed my pale cheeks and blew a clod of earth across my eyes. I ducked and covered my face with a piece of cloth, then hurried past the woman washing her baby probably a year old in a yellow plastic basin, the crooked man brushing his teeth with a fat chewing stick and the Mallams unlocking their fettered shanties. It did not take long before I got to the public pump. The queue was long. Buckets and basins lined up behind each other and their owners stood by the side. And so I waited for a long time till my turn came and fetched. I had hardly lifted my bucket on my head when Rita called out from afar.
“Mama, will kill you today!” she exclaimed pulling her ears and widening her eyes. I put down my bucket.
“Why, what have I done?”
“Look at the time” she said looking at her wrist. She had no wristwatch on. “Since you left, it is now you just fetched, Mama has not had her bath.” she continued all in a rush. “You better rush back” she concluded.
“Thank you” I walked head on till I entered the compound fatigued.
“Sandra! Is that you?” I heard step mother shouting.
“Pour the water into the drum and come and kneel down by my bedside.”
“Yes ma” I poured the water into the drum and entered her room. The windows were locked and a stale smell oozed from the bed. Her wrappers were strewn across the floor and an oval stainless tray blurred with dust and cobwebs lay on the termite- infested table beside the bed. It was as though nobody inhabited the room.
“What are you staring at?” She said from behind.
“Nothing.” I knelt down on the concrete floor smeared with sand and fishbone.
“Where did you go?” she asked, this time she was before me.
“Ma…ma…”I stammered, when I noticed the long cane on her right hand.
“Have you lost your tongue?”
I couldn’t control the locked in tears anymore. I started to cry. And at the same time dabbed my eyes with the piece of cloth I used to support the bucket on my head. Then I felt the piercing sting of the cane on my back. I groaned, crossed myself and in between heavy sobs, begged her not to flog me anymore. She acceded to my plea.
“You better get up and continue with that water Lazy girl, you think that after all these years you will just come back and be my daughter and take everything from me. God forbid!” she spat.
Days crawled into weeks and receiving strokes of the cane and beatings from Stepmother was a ritual I grew accustomed to. My back looked like the world map with lines demarcating the distance from one continent to another. At night I slept with difficulty. I never slept on my back for fear of opening a fresh wound. Rita used to help me press it with a piece of cloth soaked in hot water until Stepmother threatened to deal with her the same way. I no longer slept on the bed with Rita. Stepmother threatened to kill me if she ever saw me lying next to her. It happened one night while we slept. I heard a scream, but I felt that perhaps I was dreaming. Then I heard it again and opened my eyes only to see Rita jerking and white foam bubbling from her mouth. I screamed and ran to Stepmother’s room, banging on her door.
“Go away foolish girl” she shouted. When I did not hear any shuffle I shouted again.
“Mama, Rita is dying”.
“Eh! Chei!” she opened the door and ran ahead of me to the room. Rita was breathing slowing, and the white foam still flowing out of the left side of her mouth. Stepmother put her middle finger in Rita’s mouth.
“Hey, Chime!” she panicked. “Bring me a stainless spoon foolish girl.”
“Yes ma” I ran back to her room to get the spoon. She removed her middle finger and put the spoon.
“Bring the Udaku (palm kernel oil) under my bed!”
“Yes ma” I ran to her room again. I bent and looked under the bed. Many wooden boxes were huddled together and so I started moving them against each other till I found the plastic bottle. I opened it and placed it under my nose. When I was sure that it was the right bottle I ran to her.
“What took you so long foolish girl? You want to kill my daughter eh, just the way you killed your brother? eh?” She collected the Udaku from me and rubbed it all over Rita’s head and arms.
“No ma, I did not kill my brother”. I looked at her sternly, my twin brother died at birth. I don’t know why in the world she would imagine that I would have done that as a child. A tear rolled down my cheek. I had just saved her daughter’s life and instead of being grateful, she accused me of killing my own brother. She did not reply me. Rita, whose eyes had been white all this while blinked and her iris returned. Stepmother placed Rita’s head on her chest and spoke indistinctly low.
“My enemies cannot succeed over me, they will die. I have not suffered or killed anybody’s child, so anybody that wants to cause me pain will die before my time, they must die. Why are you still standing there?”
“Since you don’t have anything to do, go and lie down over there!” she said pointing to the floor.
“Yes ma” I nodded and went to the corner. I rubbed the floor with the tip of my right toe and felt sand. I went out to get a broom and dustpan and then threw the dustpan on the floor.
“What exactly do you want to do this night?” She said.
“Ma, the floor is dirty. I want to sweep it before sleeping…..”
She cut me short. “Are you mad? Do you think I did not see it before I asked you to lie down there?”
I did not answer. I simply stared. I felt drowsy. I wanted to sleep.
“If you had been sweeping it every day like I told you, would you see any dirt there?”
“Ma, I have swept this whole house everyday as you have required of me. Even this spot where I am standing, I swept it yesterday. I don’t know the person that did this.” Of course I knew it was Rita. And she also knew.
“Is it me you are talking to like that? She roared. I swallowed hard. “You are so lucky that I am sitting down, if I was standing I would have bent that mouth of yours.” She twisted her upper lip. I did not reply. I just lay down there, on the sand. I heard her cursing till I slept.
One morning soon afterwards as I was scrubbing the dishes, Stepmother stood at the doorway watching me. I continued scrubbing, impervious to her jocular comments about my skill in dish washing. When she saw I wasn’t laughing, she cleared her throat and said father would be coming back in two weeks time and that Rita would be travelling to her sister’s place in Warri to write the JAMB examinations. I kept quiet and only the clattering pots and babbling water spoke. She then walked towards me and dropped a phone on the cabinet. She said it was a gift and that it was needed because I would be commencing lectures in the tutorial class within the week. That caught my attention so I whirled around to face her. She hugged me and apologized for her behavior, promising to make amends. For some reason it seemed to me that she was trying to treat me well so I wouldn’t speak evil of her before Father. True to her words she changed. She stopped the physical and verbal abuse and registered me in a tutorial class. And so I began attending lectures that commenced at 9am and ended at 5pm. On a particular day I came back earlier than usual, around 2pm, only because I forgot my lesson note for the 3pm class. So when we were told that the 2pm Tutor wasn’t coming around, I thought it wise to quickly get my note at home. When I got to the house, it was locked, so I opened with my key. I ran in to get my lesson note among my pile of books, then feeling thirsty, I poured myself a glass of water. While drinking my phone vibrated. I was so startled that I dropped the glass on the table and rummaged through my satchel for the phone. Unfortunately, I upset the glass cup with my wrist, hence spilling some water which ran across a large brown envelope. I lifted the envelope, shook off the water then opened it and took out a folded paper. The folded paper was not affected but the envelope was and so I dashed out to the Mallam’s store in front of the house and bought a similar envelope. Curiosity got the better of me as I opened the folded paper. It was father’s will. My eyes ran down the properties; parcels of land in choice areas, cars, houses and share holdings. And he bequeathed everything to stepmother and her children. I was not mentioned at all. My phone beeped again, it was an alarm. I folded the document with trembling hands and slipped it into the new envelope then thrust the wet envelope in my satchel and left the house after turning around to see everything was in order. For the remaining part of the day, my mind wandered over the properties and Stepmother’s recent change of attitude. I could not understand anything. I was glad at least for the most part that she said nothing about the changed envelope.
It was a day to father’s arrival and Stepmother asked me to accompany her to the market to buy some foodstuffs, to cook. She wanted to prepare different delicacies for father and then Frank and Paul, her two sons who were coming home for the holidays. On our way from the market we stopped at a boutique and she bought me some nice clothes. It was hard to believe that she once had maltreated me. I was beside myself with joy and the dark circles around my eyes had disappeared for I slept better and did not work late into the night.
The next morning, I sat on the couch sipping a glass of juice when I heard the door bell. I called on Stepmother, telling her someone was at the door. She had this queer habit of answering the door, but this time she surprised me by asking me to answer it. She said Father would be pleased. I thought her kind. I rubbed my hands and opened the door, only to see two austere men in dark suits before me. They identified themselves as Policemen and asked to see Stepmother. I led them in. Stepmother came out, smoothing her new weave. They identified themselves again and one, brought out a handcuff. She turned pale, her hands left her weave and dropped to her sides, then she took two quick steps backwards and swirled around, about to run and as fast as lightning the two men ran forward and grabbed her by the arm. One of them handcuffed her.
“Madam, you are under arrest for the murder of Mr Emenike. You have the right to remain silent and anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law.” She did not struggle, only murmured as she was led to a black Hilux. The other man turned towards me and asked who I was. I told him I was the daughter of the man that owned the house and that father was coming back today. I was afraid to mention that he was the deceased's namesake. He shook his head and looked straight into my soaked eyes. “I am sorry young girl but your father is never coming back, this woman killed him for his money.”
With these words said, he walked away, leaving me to wonder if it had all been worth it waiting for father.
Jennifer N. Mbunabo is a writer and poet. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.