Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
It was after Mass on Palm Sunday that Mother announced that the Bosahs would be coming for lunch on Good Friday.
“The Bosahs would be having lunch with us on Friday,” she said loud enough for everyone to hear as she kicked off her heeled shoe on the tiled floor and walked towards the fridge.
I was standing on a side stool about to hang the palm frond on a nail beside Mother and Father’s wedding picture when she made the announcement. I had weaved the frond into single strands like the hair of my favourite character in the new cartoon on DSTV and father had approved my hanging it in the sitting-room.
I was stopped in my track, my eyes turning in her direction before looking around in the direction of Father and Mmesioma as if expecting a reaction. It wasn’t the first time the Bosahs would be visiting but I couldn’t say why this sounded different. Perhaps it was because it was going to be Good Friday. It seemed strange to me to have a lunch fixed for such a day. A day no one was supposed to eat meat. A day Jesus was crucified.
I sensed that father felt the same way I did. I sensed he wanted to say something in disagreement. I knew that look on his face. It was the look he had on the day he had come to rebuke my school principal after that bully in JSS2 beat me up and I bruised my elbow. His eyes become squinted with the skin on his forehead tightening into many folds like the darts on my skirt, the one Aunty Nkoli bought me for last Christmas. But that afternoon, I watched as his lips parted yet no words came out. He just closed them and returned to fixing his Sunday missal into the vacant space on the book shelf.
Mmesioma didn’t seem concerned. She sat on the edge of the first cushion, sucking furiously at her thumb. Her other hand held
Skubby her now flabby lizard toy close against her chest. Skubby had been mine before it became hers.
No one spoke.
And no one talked about the lunch in the house until Friday. That morning, I lay in a no-longer-asleep-yet-not-fully-awake state, with scenes from the movie we had watched before bed floating through my mind. School had vacated the Friday before so we didn’t have to rush to brush our teeth and take our bath. Usually at this time, father would have come to wake us up, and together we would kneel and pray before marching to the bathroom to brush and bath. While we bathed, Father would go down to the kitchen to pack our lunch boxes with bread and sandwiches, while calling out continuously that we hurry up.
I was still in my trance when Mmesioma re-entered the room and jumped on the bed. I wasn’t aware of her leaving the room earlier, so the nature of her entry startled me.
“What is it, Mmesi?” I asked in a tone mixed with both annoyance and concern.
“She is in the Kitchen!” was all the response I got. I knew at once who she was referring to. Mmesi had never gotten round calling Mother “Mummy”. She was going to be five in three months and she had no speech impairment. She simply did not know who Mummy was.
I had been privileged to know her sparingly myself. I was six when she got the job at the bank and those six years were all I knew of her. Mmesi was only a year old then. Since she got the job we both stopped seeing much of her. She left home before we woke up and sometimes she returned just before we went to bed. At the beginning, she seemed worried about my not seeing much of her. She would come to my bedside as I was drifting to sleep and tell me that Mummy loves me and that Mummy needed to do the job so that she could make some money to buy me a new doll. I remember her promising it was only going to be for some time. That she would soon quit.
But it continued and with time she stopped coming to my bedside. She got busier. We didn’t see her even on some Sundays. She left us in the care of Aunty Nkoli, Fathers
younger sister who lived with us. It was she Mmesi knew as Mummy. Mother was this strange woman who appeared once in a while, buying us Snickers chocolate bars and Supreme Ice-Cream and making repeated visits to the fridge to grab a bottle of beer.
So Mmesi never called her mummy. Once she had told her class teacher that she had no mummy. The lady was teaching them that a home was made up of father, mother and children, but Mmesi had disagreed insisting that her home had no mother but an aunty. The teacher had come over to the house to discuss it with Father and Mother but she only met Father. When she left, Father called Mmesi, and carrying her in his arms, began to speak to her gently, telling her that she had a mother. He showed her the large framed picture beside his , and took her into their room to show her more evidence. Mmesi had sucked on her thumb throughout the process, seemingly unconcerned.
When Father told Mother about the teachers report over lunch the next Sunday, she laughed aloud and pulled at Mmesi’s nose and called her little cockroach. Sunday lunch was the only thing we did together as a family. It was the only time we saw Mummy stationary, not rushing into her car or speaking into the phone. I always looked forward to this day, not because I missed her, but because I liked looking at her eyes. Aunty Nkoli said I had her eyes.
“Little cockroach, so you don’t know I am your mother?” she said that day amused. No one else joined in laughter. When she was done, we continued eating in silence until her phone rang. She sprang up like she had just had a sting, and told Father she had to meet up with a customer somewhere, managing to grab her hand bag before disappearing through the door.
“She is in the kitchen!” Mmesi repeated tugging at the duvet I was buried under.
“You mean Mummy?” I asked throwing aside the duvet and squeezing out the rays of the early morning sun that hit my eyes. I figured it should be past seven already.
Mmesioma nodded before sending her thumb back into her mouth. I sat up, pulled the duvet off my legs while wondering why Mother should still be at home at that time. Perhaps she was on leave, I thought. The last time she was on leave she had spent only a day at home before announcing to us that she needed to go to somewhere quiet to have a good rest. The next morning before we woke up, she had left. Aunty Nkoli said she went to a place called Obudu where the earth met the skies. When she returned she bought me and Mmesioma a big packet of candies and the new duvet which had pictures of Spider Man. That was almost a year ago.
We had taken some of the candy to school, me and Mmesi, sneaking out wraps during break to lick as candies were not allowed in the school. Our headmistress, Sister Lola said candies were bad for the teeth.
I was still reminiscing when it suddenly occurred to me that Mother was at home because it was a public holiday, and yes, that was the day for the lunch with the Bosahs. The realization seemed to inject some life into me. I jumped off the bed and rushed into the bathroom to brush my teeth.
* * *
Lunch was served at some minutes past two.
The Bosahs had turned up right on time. Just when the silver clock with the picture of Pope John Paul II was playing the song to indicate it was now 2.00pm, I heard the sound of a car driving into the compound. I was still in the room struggling to get into my tight blue jeans trouser. Mother had sent me back to the room insisting that I should go and dress well, that the skirt I was wearing didn’t look right. I didn’t know what was wrong about the skirt, but I had hurried off to the room, Mmesi hurrying along right behind me as if to show some solidarity.
I heard Mother’s voice first welcoming them, and then Father’s voice saying he hoped the traffic wasn’t so much.
“They have come.” Mmesi said, withdrawing her thumb from her mouth and sticking it back in immediately. She was sitting beside me on the bed and eyeing the jean trousers I was forcing up my waist. I knew she wasn’t just announcing the arrival of our visitors because I already knew that. She was letting me know that I needed to hurry up before Mother called.
Mother had been in a rather unpredictable mood all day. When I joined her in the kitchen earlier in the morning after brushing my teeth, I had met her whispering to herself as she busied about the kitchen. I stood at the door to the kitchen wondering if I should walk in or just go away. It was such a strange sight having her in the kitchen so early in the day. And as I stood there I imagined it was Aunt Nkoli.
I missed Aunty Nkoli. Her cheerful mien, her smile and the way she ran her hand through my hair. She did not call me by my name. She called me Omalicha and said my beauty was like that of a river goddess. Every Saturday, she would plait my hair in tiny braids that often left me squirming in pain. On cold nights, Mmesi and I would snuggle in her bed while she told us stories of life in the village and about the Tortoise and the Hare. It was now almost a year since she stopped living with us.
“What are you doing standing there?” Mother had barked out on noticing me at the door. “Don’t you know we have visitors today?”
I shook out of fright as I dashed into the kitchen not knowing what she wanted me to do in particular. She kept cursing and fuming, complaining about how we had disorganized her kitchen, how nothing was kept where it was supposed to be, how untidy the whole place was. I was so scared. I even feared she would talk down on Father in the same manner she was talking to me. I had once seen her shouting at Father in their room. Father had used her car the previous day, and she was very angry about
it. That day, I ran back to our room before they could notice me standing at the door. And without warning, I had felt tears trickling down my checks.
Her mood changed after she returned from the market. She had gone to buy five large live catfish which she was going to use to prepare the peppery nsala soup. She smiled at me when I came to collect the bag from her, and she asked if we had taken our bath.
“The fresh fish pepper soup will be the appetizer.” She told me later in the Kitchen. “Not too peppery though.” She added with a smile, “Nonso doesn’t like it too peppery.”
Nonso was Mr. Bosah’s first name. He was her assistant at the bank. Whenever she was at home she was always on the phone with Nonso, discussing some clients or some accounts. She was always going on and on about how she and Nonso successfully got a big company to transfer their account to her branch. It was a popular topic from her during the only periods we shared together as a family –the Sunday lunches. She would say Nonso was very hardworking and intelligent. That he was responsible for her retaining her post as bank manger, despite all the efforts of some people at headquarters to discredit her. That she owed him a lot. I imagined that today’s lunch was a way of appreciating him in person.
At the table I sat opposite Mrs. Bosah. She had two straight marks on either sides of her cheek which made her look like she was perpetually shedding tears. It wasn’t for that reason that I felt some kind of pity for her. It was because she seemed to be always pregnant. The last time they were here for lunch, she was pregnant, but I over heard Mother telling Father one day that she lost the baby. Today she sat opposite me, very pregnant, her stomach pushing against the edge of the dining table. I felt pity for her. It seemed like she had been dragged here, like she would prefer lying down and resting back at home.
“So what really does the man think he would achieve by all this?” Father asked reaching out to pour himself a glass of water.
“I guess he thinks the job of CBN governor is about chasing bank chiefs all over the place with a whip like a village headmaster.” Nonso replied with some fish in his mouth. He paused to swallow before continuing. “You can’t imagine the kind of crises he has generated. Now nobody is lending. Who wan die?”
“That means businesses would suffer.” Father said, holding the glass away from his mouth.
“You can say that again.”
“That’s not good at all.”
I noted that the look of concern on Fathers face was very genuine. He was an aspiring business man and needed to be worried. It was now three years since he lost his job at the ministry. The protracted court case against him and some other staff of his had left him broke and quite desolate. He had only recently begun to toy with the idea of starting a business. He had told me and Mmesi about it one night. He had come to sit on our bed just before we slept. He told us he knew he had not been providing us with all the things he should, that he had not been taking us out to the beach as he used to. He said he was sorry, that things have been a bit difficult, but that he was planning to start something soon, and that everything would be OK again. As he spoke I felt he had tears in his eyes. He dragged every word like he had something in his throat. I thought I felt his shoulder shake, and his breath was a bit loud, like he was sniffing. But I saw no tear when he bent over to peck me on my forehead.
“Sincerely speaking, most bank chiefs had seriously abused the lending process. You wouldn’t blame the man for taking such drastic steps.” Mother said. She was sitting beside me and sitting opposite her was Nonso.
“Very true” Nonso responded. “The other day I learnt some of them granted loans to pastors to establish churches.”
“Reminds me of that Alhaji, what’s that his name again?”
“Which one is that?” Nonso asked, the skin on his forehead squeezing slightly.
“That one now…what’s that his name again o? That one with tiny eyes, that likes wearing his cap to one side. Remember now? That one who said he bought me a perfume from Saudi Arabia.”
“O… OK! Alhaji Maikudi.”
“Exactly! Remember he wanted a loan to take a new wife. Imagine that, and to think that he already had four wives. He told me he was going to divorce his first wife who was now too old to make room for his new bride. The shameless man nearly bored life out of me with tales of how he needed to take this new wife in order to seal a long lasting business relationship. The bride to be was the daughter of one of his business partners.”
“I remember you told me about it then. Shameless old man! How on earth did he think he would get ten million without collateral?”
“See me see trouble o! You should have seen the way he stormed out of my office when I told him it wouldn’t be possible. Hah! he almost knocked down my door storming out as he was cursing in Arabic and swearing to make sure I lost my job. But you will be shocked, that inspite of his attitude at the office, plus the silly intent he needed loan for, my dear, he still went ahead to BNB and walked home with the loan!”
“Ah! BNB? Na their way now!” Nonso let out a long discomforting laugh which Mother joined in.
“May we now pop this wine?” Father said after their laughter, reaching out to grab the bottle of red wine at the center of the table.
Nonso’s wife didn’t ever utter a word. She just smiled or sometimes she made a sound in her throat. Mmesioma was busy picking out bones from the fish in her soup and lining them in irregular patterns on her side plate. She was lost in her own world. Father interjected once in a while, but for most of the time it was Mother and Nonso
talking and laughing. It felt uncomfortable sitting at that table. Though I was done, I couldn’t leave. Mother said it was wrong to leave the table before your elders. So I sat there looking from Nonso to Mother and wondering if Father didn’t feel uncomfortable too.
* * *
Ten years after, I remember that lunch on Good Friday as I listen to Aunt Nkoli’s squabble with the driver. The man is asking for more money because of the traffic we were caught up in. It is the first Saturday of the month . Although, I hear her words rise, but it is the images from that day that fill my senses. I remember how they had been kicking their legs under the table like teenagers during the lunch. I remember his throaty laughter which had gotten throatier as the second bottle of wine emptied. I remember there had been music after the meal, and that it had been Mother and Nonso that lasted longest on the floor holding themselves so close and moving gently to the beats from the speakers. I remember how Father pretended to be interested in the day’s paper, stealing glances at the dancing pair from atop it from time to time. I remember Nonso’s wife sitting quietly in the corner — her face, dark and omnious, looking like she was crying.
I am wondering what I am going to tell Father today. I am wondering if I am going to tell him that Mother died the week before — that she finally succumbed to the stroke! I am wondering if it would mean anything to him. I am wondering if anything meant anything to him these days. The last time I was there, he hardly smiled, he just held onto his copy of the Gideon’s bible nodding and grunting.
It was now nine years since he started serving term for man slaughter at the maximum security prison! The charge had been for murder, but the lawyers worked hard to save him from the gallows. He got twenty five years which was as good as a life sentence. Each time I go to visit him all through these nine years, I remember that lunch and I feel that satisfying justification for the action taken. But today, as I look back again, I feel something different this time. For the first time, it dawns on me that in an attempt to save what was his – his wife, he destroyed all our lives!