By Caleb Okereke
Monday, July 27, 2015.
It was Halima who had first told me that the new girl had come. She had overheard Mrs Oleh telling the other Igbo woman who dressed always in a green head tie and the beige white T-shirt with the words CHIOMA crawling over her bossom that the girl was on her way. But I had not believed her, I had not believed her also when Laila had in pretence brought kokoro wrapped in plastic bags to our room so she could talk to us.
“It is true what Halima says” she said. She sat on our soft Vita Foam that creased benignly as it accepted her weight. Her three tribal marks did not show in the receding evening sun and her skin, dark like Father’s shoe polish was almost invincible. But I had not believed Laila either when the Navy blue Volvo had ridden into the yard that night and a broad shouldered man dressed in a stainless white tunic had come out of it. I had watched him pat the night dogs on their heads and then ruffle their furs with the haviour of someone who knew them quaintly.
It was the next morning, when the rays of dawn had just bathed the common room in a broad strip of its lavender light, when Mrs Oleh had asked us to eat breakfast hurriedly, to scrub the black tiles in the common room till they shone like the back of an oily frying pan placed in sunlight. It was when she told us to wear the blue dress with even pleats, the one we wore only when the Minister visited once a year, when she asked Lady to style our hairs with the creams she kept in slim, long glasses on her dresser. It was then Halima’s words had gained meaning.
“Zainab do you now see what I say?” Halima said, we were trimming the sunflowers that sat in broad vases around the common room with the secateurs from Lady’s wardrobe. Lady had styled her hair by parting it in two, and then twirling each of the parts into a lofty puff so that it looked like two oranges were placed atop her head. Later we would pick the trimmed parts lying on the floor and then weave them into beautiful articles for our hairs.
“She would change things Zainab, she would” Halima said. There was fear in her voice, it quavered. She seemed different from the girl who had squeezed my hands tightly and then told me all would be well the first day I had come; this Halima was vulnerable, prone. Like the sunflower, it seemed Halima’s never waning courage had been trimmed but with secateurs of the new girl’s arrival.
“You do not know for sure that it is her” I said, willing my words to be as I had spoken them. Perhaps it was the Minister, perhaps he had chosen to visit the centre twice this year. If I said it enough, if I told myself the words then they would become true.
But I had not said them enough. I had not said them enough because before noon Mrs Oleh had asked us all to gather in the common room. Sixteen of us, Northerners and Government property having to live together in a child service centre had pranced down the stairs. Our leather slippers made slap slap sounds along the wooden stairs that punctuated the still air and our blue dresses blended with our matching blue hats so that when we stood in line, we looked like a strip of blue paint.
I stared at Laila and then Halimat. I did not want their words to be true. I did not want them to be true because after the gathering, Mrs Oleh would walk up to one of us, the way she had walked up to that Aminat before she had left to one of the crowded reform centres. The evening of the day Laila had first come.
“Aminat the Minister called” she had said and Aminat ducked her face into her pillow sobbing loudly. She left that night in a coaster bus with the words EASTERN PROVINCE CHILD AND TEEN CENTRE emblazoned on it. The driver had patted her warmly on the shoulder before giving her a slim wafer in green wrapping to chew. I never saw her again.
I remembered even clearly now staring at the gaudy diamond neckpiece Mrs Oleh wore loosely around her neck the day I had first come. The day I had ridden in the Navy blue Volvo with the words HELPING HANDS REFORM CENTRE emblazoned on it. Perhaps, Mrs Oleh had made the girls scrub the tile floors too, perhaps she had made them trim the sunflowers or part the muslin drapes in half triangles so that dawn’s lavender rays could filter in. But the polished tile floors had shown, they had shown even when Darlington, who Lady replaced had led me up the stairs to my room.
“What is your name?” she had asked me. The colour of her face, the soothing colour of brown leather calmed my nerves. They somewhat reminded me of Father’s brown leather belt which he hung across the wardrobe door after work every evening. The belt had reeked of protection, of knowing Father would whip my second cousin and his servant boy Sanusi, if he dared fiddle with my nipples ever again, of knowing its cold leather straps would prick Sanusi’s tender coal coloured skin if he peeked at me through the keyhole when I bathed. It was the same feeling I got when I stared at Darlington’s face, the feeling of protection in a world so unprotected.
“Zainab” I muttered, so that I feared she would not hear. But she did.
“Zainab, what a beautiful name and for a beautiful girl too” she smiled. I could tell it was what she told every girl, her “Beautiful” was the kind that was almost synonymous to good morning. It was the kind people said out of courtesy, of a conventional procedure.
She continued “I’m sure you’d like it here. There are just sixteen of you” she said “you” as if we all were some kind of species, perhaps dogs or a breed of newly discovered mutants “Mrs Oleh tries to ensure they never exceed that. It is unlike the other reform centres that are so crowded they sleep in wardrobes” She laughed slightly as though it had been a joke “Nice woman, Mrs Oleh”
I did not see Mrs Oleh as a nice woman, I did not see also the red boubou she had worn when she had shaken my hand vigorously to welcome me or the gaudy diamond neckpiece she had fiddled with when the Minister had called to confirm my arrival as articles to determine her niceness.
Darlington told me also about the house rules, about bathing in groups of twos to save time, going to Mass every morning and then afternoon lessons. She told me too about keeping away from the ferocious dogs that guarded the yard at night, about never wearing trousers or dresses that held too tightly and fell before my knees. She said I would have to do away with my Hijab and jewelleries too if I had any. She said also that Mrs Oleh was a Christian and so was the organisation by default.
I had cried that night because I knew Mother would cry too. Mother would cry if another had to look upon me without the holy covering of my Hijab. But Mother was shroud in the white Kafan, cloth in Father’s hometown. She was in the rectangular hollow like a deep freezer that Sanusi had joined the youths of our town to dig on the morning of the Janazah ceremony. She was also in the flowing white dress her tailor, Aunty Hiba had sewn and her nose was stuffed with so much cotton wool that I feared her soul would suffocate to death.
Father had not felt that way. I knew because after he had thrown his oil ball, he had squeezed my hands and then pressed my shoulders close to his body so that I could smell the tangy Tony Montana perfume he had worn that morning. I knew also because I had seen Aunty Hiba in her slender Ankara skirt smiling warmly at him, pressing him too close to her body when he exchanged hugs with friends and family. So that when I saw her tiptoe into his room that night, when I heard the muffled moans of pleasure and heavy breathing sifting through the paper thin walls of his room, I had not been at all surprised.
I had not been surprised either when he had called me to his study after breakfast the next day. He was drinking hot Lipton from the MTN cup Mother had always used in making his morning tea and his eyes were galled and flushing from behind steel rimmed glasses. It was the same study that had books with difficult titles-THE AMERICAN WHO SCREAMED BLACK, RACE AND THE COMMUNIST gaping out sideways as though they would fall like a pack of cards if prodded with a finger, the study that had also the portrait of a man with straw coloured hair and hanging on its wall smiling slightly as if smiling cost him effort.
Father had called him Bill Clinton the other night. He had been talking to Dr Okenwa, his Igbo physician who smelled of camphor and dried tobacco. I did not like Dr Okenwa. He had had a certain scripted humility. He spoke too loudly when he and Father differed on an issue, but his voice lowered when they concord. It was as if, perhaps he saw himself as superior to Father, as more learned. This character he tried to hide behind the vigorous handshake he gave Father bowing slightly or the way he ran his hands across Papa’s books with rehearsed awe. When I met Mrs Oleh the first time, I had thought of him. Not because they were both Igbo but because they were similar, both too conscious of what people thought of them. Their lives were an open sore oozing the pus of people’s expectations.
The year Mother’s illness had begun, Dr Okenwa’s visit increased. At first Mother was taken to the medical centre for weeks but when she had returned home, he spent longer hours in Father’s study. During those hours their voices were not raised in conventional arguments. They did not mention “Clinton” “Communist” or say “Abacha!” with Dr Okenwa’s stress on second syllable intonation before he added in Igbo “Ekwuzina Ifa!” when Father said something he did not agree with. Father’s eyes were galled and flushing whenever Dr Okenwa closed the door to Mother’s bedroom with solemnity, like a memory one wanted to leave behind. Once, I had heard father ask.
“How much time does she have?”
I was seating at the dining, my head buried in my Integrated Science textbook. The door to Father’s study was slightly ajar and I could hear the sound of the MTN cup touch the wooden table. I had made Father’s Lipton that morning, because Mother had been too weak to, because her skin had become the ashen colour of cement and her eyes had reddened to the yellow orange of an improperly fanned coal stove. I had not made the Lipton too well. I had not known whether I had put too much Peak milk or too little cubes of St Louis sugar because I had never made it before. But Father had not complained, he had accepted the tray bearing the MTN cup and then patted me slightly on the cheek.
“The Cancer has eaten deep into her cells” Dr Okenwa said and I felt Father sigh, I felt him sigh helplessly because I did too. Dr Okenwa had not directly answered Father’s question, yet Father had not asked again. Perhaps Dr Okenwa’s answer meant two years, or two months or even a week, but Father had not asked even though he could. It was as if he too knew, as if he too knew the words Dr Okenwa shied from speaking.
I had asked Sanusi about Cancer that night when he had come up to my room. It was the second time he had tried to lie with me. I had threatened to tell Father and he had pleaded. The first time, Father had laced his brown belt with brackish Cameroon pepper and then taken him to his study. The slap slap sounds of leather landing against flesh echoed along the house simultaneously followed by the sound of Sanusi’s whimper so that it became somewhat a rhythm, somewhat like the fast paced Fela songs blaring from Father’s car stereo on Friday mornings. I had enjoyed the songs and I felt guilty for it, because Mother said they were lewd, because she buffeted when I bobbed my head to the beguile rhythm.
Normally, Sanusi would tell me nothing about Cancer, he would tell me nothing about anything at all. But his nineteen year old unschooled wisdom was compensation for my not telling Father about his advances.
“Bad thing, Cancer, kill fast fast” Sanusi said “It is what kill that my Aunty that time” I smiled slightly, I remembered Sanusi’s Aunt. Not in person, but in the blur of happenings during her illness. I remembered Mother emphasizing that I made Waraka, healing prayers to Allah for her during Jumat. I remembered also her giving him on many occasions’ plastic bags protuberant with bottles of Lucozade boost, tins of Glucose and Milo to take to the Medical centre.
“The chemotherapy fail” Sanusi said the night she had died. Although I did not know what Chemotherapy was, I knew it was not his words he spoke. I knew also that most of Sanusi’s wisdom’s were meagre and that Chemotherapy was a too big word for his unschooled understanding. Yet, I had understood that night the mystery of Cancer. I had understood that it always killed people.
He tiptoed out of my room then and for long, I thought on his answer. Although, he had echoed Dr Okenwa’s words about Cancer, they seemed largely different. His words did not have the precision in Dr Okenwa’s; they did not capture the essence, the sovereignty of Cancer. His words made Cancer into a joke, slight as a headache, broadened Cancer into a blunt idea than the tapering sharpness in Dr Okenwa’s.
Dr Okenwa had died the Friday Aunty Hiba had first come to visit Mother. I heard Father tell her outside Mother’s bedroom door after she had placed the fried golden brown Chicken at Mother’s bedside that Dr Okenwa had been killed in a religious riot. That the religious bigots had thrown a tyre over his head like a floater, sprinkled petrol over him before burning him to crisp. Father had not turned on his stereo that morning and the absence of Fela’s voice singing in pidgin translated the silence into somewhat a dirge.
I imagined Dr Okenwa in flames, I imagined his skin turning golden brown, like the Chicken Aunty Hiba had carried on a paisley tray to Mother’s bedroom. Perhaps he had ranted about “Abacha” or “Clinton” as the flame licked his cocoa coloured skin or he had stayed still, his lips pursed in silent prayer. Years later, when I would think about the inception of Aunty Hiba and Father’s relationship, I would think about that morning. When she had held Father Close, drowning his sobs in the puffs on her sequined blouse.
Dr Okenwa’s replacement had come the next week. A young man with coffee coloured skin and eyebrows that were too far apart. Father referred to him not by his name but as “The University doctor” and did not talk with him about anything aside Mother’s ailment. The few times they spoke quite leisurely about a publishing house getting shut down or the forced exile of an assertive writer, there were evident undertones of business, of seriousness. Unlike with Dr Okenwa, they were not friends.
Yet I liked the new man. Perhaps it was because I had not liked Dr Okenwa and because I felt liking his replacement would somehow bleed into my not liking him, would compensate his soul even in death with the knowledge that I was capable of liking a physician. But the new man was different; he was young and spoke soothing English so that pinpointing what part of the country he was from became a chore. The new man had the air of someone who perceived he was too special to the world, the air of effeminate people. Once Sanusi had called him “Dan Kishili, Homosexual”, a sneer had followed before he had muttered a curse under his breath for people who committed abominations. I had asked him for long what he meant but he had shrugged me off, and when I repeated his words to mother, she had placed her frail palm so quickly over my lips that my breath ceased. I never spoke of it again. But the second time I had heard the word mentioned was in Father’s study. It was the first time I had heard Father mention Clinton to The University doctor.
“I do not agree with Clinton’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy” Father was saying, there was anger in his voice, hatred.
“He is only trying to speak for the Homosexuals, to give them an equal playing field, an honourable thing to do” The University doctor replied and then Father had closed the door to his study.
It was that day I had concluded that Homosexuality was a bad thing because Father did not agree with it, because it made anger refulgent in his voice, although I had not known what Homosexuality was. Yet, the first time Sanusi would lie with me, I would imagine the coffee coloured face of The University doctor panting and gasping over my naked body and not Sanusi’s. It was that day also that Aunty Hiba had walked into our living room with a pack of stainless white handkerchiefs.
“The pastor at Word and Fire for freedom deliverance gave me this. He says it cures Cancer, he is a strong man” She said to Father, certainty palpable in her voice. Yet from the way she plodded to Mother’s bedroom, the handkerchiefs tucked underneath her arm, it was as if she too had doubted the words she had spoken.
Mother had died that same week, on an afternoon it rained heavily and Father had sat at the dining table for long hours staring at the MTN cup.
So that was why when I stood in Fathers study, the morning after Mother’s Janazah, I had known the words he wanted to say before he had said them.
“Zainab I’m going to marry Aunty Hiba” he had said. Perhaps he had wanted me to cry, to prod my finger in his chest, mutter curses and plead under my breath, but I did not. I just stared at the portrait of the white man that hung on the wall wondering how he could do it so easily, how he could betray Mother and then drink hot Lipton from the MTN cup.
“These things are not things you would understand. You are just fourteen and they might be quite complex, but I love Aunty Hiba and she has been a pillar through this time your mother passed” I could tell from the way he stared at the coagulated mass of creamy Peak milk adrift about his tea that it was not his words he spoke. I could tell also that it was the words of Aunty Hiba that she had sat him on the edge of his bed after their episode of intimacy and then advised him on the best way to convey such news to his fourteen year old daughter. But what I did not understand was how he could look upon Aunty Hiba’s nakedness, say the words he wanted to about marriage and then drink from Mother’s MTN cup without guilt choking him, drink and wince when the Lipton scalded his tongue as if nothing had changed. I did not understand either how he could wear the Tony Montana fragrance that Mother had so loved, that she had made him wear every morning before going to the railroad and still let the words slide down his tongue without effort.
Sanusi had come up to my room that night after washing Father’s Nissan. He had fiddled with my nipples and then pulled my night dress over my head but I had not told father.
They were married the next week, in a brief ceremony held in our living room. I sat on the veranda that night and watched the rustle of the Shea trees that lined our front yard. I watched their tips touch laxly like mourners holding hands at a funeral. Before, Mother would make Sanusi pick the nuts into large baskets from which we would extract their ivory coloured butter, she would press the butter into slim long glasses and then use them to oil our feet during the Harmattan so that it lay like an ivory glaze over our skin.
I would sit on the veranda every day after that and listen to the door screech as father walked in. I would listen to Aunty Hiba say a weak “Welcome” in her convivial tenor that watered down every day. I would listen also to Father’s tired response, to the sound of their moans when he urged a kiss against her lips. And when the disputes began, when the door flung open rather than screeched, when Aunty Hiba’s “Welcome” was so gentle that I thought perhaps it was I who had imagined it, when father would pettifog about why she washed his orange tie instead of the blue, why she had put too much salt in the soup for dinner, when he would compare her to Mother who neatly placed his ties in order and woke by three to prepare his breakfast, I was on the veranda too.
Soon, I waited even for the sounds of their fights, for Aunty Hiba to tug at her belly and threaten Father with the child she carried in her stomach. I waited to hear Father’s quavering voice when he said “You know my daughter is outside, don’t tempt me”. I wondered for long what he meant by “Don’t tempt me” and I had asked Sanusi about it when he came up to my room those nights.
“Perhaps” he had said “They want to do the do, you know the kind of things I do to you” and he had tickled me till we both fell on the soft vita foam and I could feel his erection firm against my belly.
But I did not wonder for long, for on the night Aunty Hiba had flung the MTN cup at Father till it shattered against the wall and left yellow shards on the living room floor, he had said she had tempted him beyond limit before he had started to hit her. I knew because I heard the leather strap of his belt jab her gentle skin, because I smelled the dried tears that clung to the air when I had come in that night. I knew also because Aunty Hiba had slept on the couch and not in Father’s bedroom, because she had rummaged through Mother’s things to find Aboniki balm which she had applied all over her body till the atmosphere tasted of the foul smell.
And the next day, after she had left at the crack of dawn speaking on the phone with a man she addressed plainly as Supervisor, Father had called me to his study.
“Zainab, some people would come” He had said “They would take you away. I’m so sorry, but they say they have to” his eyes were glassy from tears “They say they would put you in the best of those kinds of places. I’m sorry I can’t help you Zainab, I’m so sorry”
It was that day the Navy blue Volvo had ridden into our yard, the day I had watched Mrs Oleh fiddle with her diamond neckpiece.
Now, as I watched Mrs Oleh fiddle with her neckpiece and lady lead a girl clout in mufti into the common room, I thought for long about Father.
“I want you all to meet Sochukwuma, she’d be staying with us from now on” Mrs Oleh said “Remember we’re all sisters” she clasped her hands together before we went in a neat file to hug the new girl and then say the words “God bless you, he loves you, we love you more” like lady had so painstakingly taught us to say. Before, we would press a kiss to the lip of the new person, but the gesture had been stopped since Darlington had been fired. Since Mrs Oleh had caught Darlington being intimate with one of the girls in her bedroom. Mrs Oleh had not told us, she did not tell us such things. But we knew, the same way we knew Mrs Oleh was unmarried though there was a “Mrs” before her name, golden band on her ring finger and though wrinkles like folded paper creased her forehead.
I was making trimmed parts of the sunflowers into long strips that evening when I heard Mrs Oleh’s voice from down the stairs. Laila’s radio was blaring, the BBC newscaster was talking about a familiar name, Clinton, about an Improper sexual relationship seemly refulgent in her distinct English words. But Mrs Oleh’s voice carried from down the stairs.
“Zainab, the Minister called” She said.
And once more, I could see yellow shards splattered on a living room floor.
Caleb Okereke is a Nigerian writer.