I wasn't born with a silver spoon. I never even had the luxury of using steel spoons when I dug into the palm-oil-drenched jollof rice that my mother so often labored to prepare in the sooty corridor of the unpainted tenement where we lived. It was all plastic: the spoons, the plates, the cups and even the smiles on all our faces. It wasn't that we weren't blessed; in truth, we were - only, it was with penury. I remember vividly the squalor that wrapped itself around us like a shroud. Even now, as I think of it, I shudder, because I can almost reach out and touch its fabric.
The people in our yard loved to whistle and sing and quarrel in the dimly lit corridor. It was the songs that drew my attention the most. They were ironic: songs about wealth and mansions, none of which they had, or would likely ever have. When the women quarreled, it was about a stolen condiment or whole pot of soup that had been sitting idly on the stove while its owner had hurried indoors to fetch something. Or sometimes it was about a woman who stayed too long in the only bathroom that was crawling with geckos and red-capped lizards. But when the men raised their voices trying to outshout each other, it was either about football or money. And it seemed they liked to dwell on matters that involved money, the kind they would never have. They blabbered on about the billions of naira looted by the Nigerian government and when they did, they said "our money," as though they really paid taxes, or as though the total sum was theirs and the government had come into their homes to snatch it.
I sat in our single-room apartment with my halfwit younger brother and listened to them on the weekends because this was when the arguments were heated. My overbearing, gruff-voiced father, it seemed, was always the one to start. I assume when he got off work on Fridays, he stopped by the vendor's to search out controversial issues that would serve as topics for the next two days' arguments. This assumption is solely because I do not remember ever having found a newspaper that belonged to us - not even when I needed one to enfold my books to keep them from aging. Put simply, he never bought them. He merely scoured them and set them down again at the vendor's. Looking back at it, I think he perhaps found fulfillment in those arguments, in vocalizing those large monetary figures that had lots of zeros in them. And then afterward, he would pass my mother by the smoky stove and come in to rest his exhausted frame on the only bed in our room that had become squeaky with age.
"Azuka, don't pour saliva on that chair," he would bark at my restless, drooling brother.
He was grumpy and it seemed that every time he walked in through that door, a thick fog of anger descended on him so that he looked around for the tiniest offence - something poorly done or something out of place - that would allow him the opportunity to vent. My mother bore the brunt of this because he eventually blamed her for everything; he blamed her for Azuka and for his shortcomings, which were mostly a direct result of his unstable mental condition; he blamed her for my own mistakes too, which was usually after he had lashed me severely with his cheap brown leather belt; he blamed her for her own mistakes; and quite oddly, he blamed her for his too. One time, after we had just returned from church on a Sunday, and he felt in his pockets for the housekey and didn't find it, he fumed and began to mutter profanities. Then he turned to my mother as Azuka and I looked on.
"Where is the key?"
He glared at her like an angry bull. "What kind of stupid question is that? The housekey of course."
"You did not give it to me, nnayi!"
"What do you mean? Are you saying the key developed legs and jumped out of my pocket. You mean I don't know what I'm talking about?"
My mother's brows furrowed and the lines on her forehead became contorted as she paused to think back to the moments before we left for church. And then the lines straightened out again.
"Nnayi, I remember. You did not give me it."
My father checked himself again, feeling in the same pockets for the hundredth time and still there was nothing.
"It must have gone missing," he said at last, throwing his hands up in frustration. "That is what happens when you marry a woman who is deaf. Did I not tell you to get a key-holder for that thing. Now what you want has happened. We will sleep outside today."
But we did not have to because he found a cutlass and wedged it between the door and its frame and hit the door again and again with his trunk until it swung open and banged against the inside wall of our room. All of this was in my tenth year.
In my eleventh year, I began to understand that my family was both close-knit and closelipped. It was like the military. My father was the general and we were the soldiers he commanded. Having an occasional chitchat with the neighbors was like giving away intelligence to the enemy; we would be compromised. He wasn't having any of that and so communication with outsiders was minimal. He issued commands and we followed them to the letter or faced dire consequences. One of the first commands I ever received was to keep my younger brother within the yard.
"Don't let him set one foot outside this yard. If he does, I will hold you responsible," he said, pulling on his earlobe.
And thus, Azuka became my responsibility. I watched him when I wasn't at school. I ensured he didn't get into trouble with the other kids, as he tended to without my supervision. I let him sit in a corner of our yard and watch them play on the road and not get mixed up in their games. And when he wouldn't listen and somehow managed to interfere with their soccer, perhaps intercepting a pass or a goal, and some angry kid yelled imbesard, I would shout blasphemous words in his defence and pull him away.
Azuka's presence disgusted them, and some adults too, and indeed all that saliva dribbling down the sides of his mouth and the imbecilic waver of his hands should have irked me too but I guess growing up together and eating from the same bowl had dulled my sensitivity enough to make his abnormalities seem normal to me. I scarcely even remembered that his head was unusually small, or that he was flat-faced, slant-eyed and short-necked; they all seemed like perfectly normal features to me now. I had learned to accept him for who he was - at least around the house where everyone knew we were brothers.
Azuka wasn't allowed to stray too far from home and so I mostly didn't have to worry about bumping into him on my way home from school with my friends. But there were those times when he did stray, perhaps whilst going on an errand because, inept as his retarded mind was, he liked to explore. And so, when he only had to go two blocks to get seasoning or kerosene or palm oil, Azuka would find a reason to go to the next street, which was also my route home from school. Once, as Okwuchukwu and I walked home, kicking at stones and empty cans whilst sucking on our saccharine ice cream sachets, I caught sight of Azuka waddling toward us. His distorted gait was unmistakable. Many thoughts juggled around in my head. Okwuchukwu lived in the street after mine and right until that moment, he still did not know that I wasn't the only child I often claimed to be at school. That day, as we inched closer to Azuka, I realized that only the timely occurrence of a rapture could save me from everlasting embarrassment. I ceased to kick at things and clutched the straps of my overstuffed schoolbag until we neared him and he said my name. Now, dimwitted as he was, Azuka was quite sensitive and as a matter of fact, loved to trade improperly articulated insults with other kids, and sometimes adults who mostly ignored him for his condition. By virtue of this, I was in a dilemma. I decided I'd respond.
"Where are you going?"
He took too long verbalizing his intended meaning and I didn't have to look to see the grossed-out, wrinkled expression that had formed around Okwuchukwu's eyes and mouth. We walked away without letting him finish and when Okwuchukwu asked who he was, I answered with a dismissive wave of the arm: "My neighbor." It was a good lie, close to the truth because neighbors stayed in the same building, and Azuka and I had that in common. Besides, it would explain a whole lot if Okwuchukwu ever visited and found Azuka loitering around in the yard playing with silly objects or insects, as he always did.
When Azuka returned to my mother's kiosk later that afternoon, she scolded him and went inside to finish her cooking, leaving the two of us behind to watch after her wares. Azuka stood there for a bit and then began to fiddle with the egg crates and biscuits until I asked him to go and play. I watched him go across the gutter into the compound and stand beside Chukwuma to watch him play Tetris on his Brick Game. Like me, Chukwuma was one of those few people who had learned to put up with Azuka's idiosyncrasies, and so he didn't mind that Azuka stood annoyingly close and occasionally reached out to disrupt his game. And I imagine, too, that he didn't mind the slightly unnerving body odor that Azuka carried about with him.
Sometime in the following weeks, my mother fell very ill. She vomited until she became lean and frail and her eyes appeared sunken. My father had already spent a lot on chloroquine and panadol and agbo before he decided that her illness was more than the run-of-the-mill apothecary could handle. For the first time in years, a member of our family saw the inside walls of a hospital - a real one that actually smelled like a mixture of carbolic and drugs. My mother was admitted and got several drips over the next few days before she could really eat anything.
Back home, I managed her kiosk and attended to all the buyers who wanted biscuits or sweets or cigarettes. I managed Azuka too. Or at least I was supposed to, because Chikodi, a rather effeminate teenager who had recently come to live with his elder brother in our yard, walked up to the kiosk holding a bleeding Azuka by the hand.
"So this is where you are," he said, pushing Azuka toward me. "If you see how all those boys nearly killed your brother now, eh!" He gesticulated and snapped his fingers so many times as he spoke that for a moment I was thrown off balance, unsure if I was right about his masculinity.
In the end, I didn't have to ask what boys. I knew who they were - Francis, Chuma and Ifeanyi. They were all boys who lived in our yard - my mates - and frankly Azuka had had it coming for sometime now as it was with their games that he so often interfered.
"Where are they?"
"Why are you asking? Don't go and fight, o!"
I thought about it properly. It was really best not to fight or I could get beaten too, as they outnumbered me. I turned to an unrepentant Azuka.
"What did you do?"
Chikodi watched him with pointed interest as he struggled with his unwilling vocal cords to express the injustice that had been done him. Afterward, he clapped his hands and spoke again in a flurry of seamless, fast-paced words.
"This one that he's talking like this, don't let him go back there, o."
"Who will allow him? See the wounds all over his body." I was suddenly feeling excited. I was the elder brother to whom his younger one's wellbeing had been entrusted. And there was also the uncharacteristic rapport that had sprung up between me and an older boy. I continued speaking: "My father has not finished paying my mother's hospital bill, and he will now come and add this one?"
Chikodi clicked his tongue and walked away and I forgot all about him until later that night when my father roared my name as he entered the room, although he clearly saw that I was sitting right there with Azuka. I stared up at him, confused. His eyes bulged like two boiled eggs as he stood in the doorway and glared at me.
"Oya, pick pin, fast fast! Osiso." He pulled off his shoes and made his way to the bed, just beside Azuka, then he sat on it, panting like a lizard fallen from an iroko tree.
I stared at him, puzzled, unsure what he meant since he had only just returned from checking on my mother at the hospital, but I hunkered down to look for the pin anyway.
"Are you mad?" he thundered, and I nearly chewed on my own heart from fear. "I said pick pin!"
I gaped at him, still very uncertain how different this command was from the initial one. And then I continued to search for the offending pin. The knock that landed on my head the next second came with so much swiftness and precision that I was left utterly stunned and dazed. I crouched close to the linoleum-covered ground holding and rubbing my aching head. All the rubbing in the world did nothing to numb the burning ache I felt. I watched him through tear-glazed eyes as he demonstrated what he meant by pick pin - he stooped down, set one finger on the ground and hung one leg in the air. Slowly I roused myself and did what he had just shown me.
"So you go around telling people that I cannot take care of my family, eh? What did you tell Chikodi today?"
It quickly dawned on me - I should have realized that Chikodi's effeminacy had already transcended the physical and now cloyed his reasoning too. Through the sweat that had formed on my face and back, and the one that trickled from my armpit down my quivering right arm, I gathered the strength to place a firm curse on Chikodi - one about thunder striking him dead and another about acute diarrhea befalling his family for generations to come - and in that moment of intense pain and bitterness, I really hoped those things would happen to him in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and flowing over.
When my mother returned with my father a few days later, a wry smile plastered to her sunken face, she examined Azuka and I as though we were the ones who needed scrutiny.
"You people have not been eating well. Look at your necks. See your bones sticking out." She was clearly weak, her mouth twisted at the side as she spoke and her voice coming out in near-whispers.
I gave a toothy smile. "Mama, we are fine."
My father led her to the rusty old spring bed and helped her lay down on it, and although I cannot say what went on in Azuka's hazy mind that day, for a moment, I thought I saw his eyes light up just like I knew mine had. It was strange to see my dictator-father exuding so much warmth and compassion. It was even more quaint that he had been at the hospital with my mother for most of her illness, running around to get prescribed drugs and fruits. But maybe the light in Azuka's eyes had only been ignited by the fact that what remained of those fruits would soon be ours.
My father did not go out to argue that weekend, and when all the noise and whistling got a little too loud outside, he asked me to go and hush them. Some of the men came back with me to say ndo and to wish my mother a quick recovery. One after the other, she thanked them through an exaggerated smile that lasted so long on her face that its superficiality soon became ostensible, like the plastic smile of one taking a picture.
I stayed back home the next day to help my mother with her business because, although Azuka hadn't been enrolled at any school, he was where my mother's shop was concerned as useless as a white crayon, or the letter g in sign. The idea of arithmetic or any calculations at all was hazy for him, even when expressed in monetary terms. Using his fingers, he could count to ten. With difficulty, he could include his toes and count to twenty, but numbers beyond that blurred into some indistinct infinity called many. Every time he went on errands, he was always at the mercy of the seller. And my mother only sent him because she knew the shop-owners around wouldn't take advantage of him; they would know she had sent him.
It rained that day, a light rain with large translucent droplets that fell in slants and hit the walls and pattered rhythmically on our torn rusty roofing sheets. And afterward, the sky was coated in a resplendence of bright blue and white that gave it the newness of something recently washed. But the beauty of that afternoon lay only in the skies because down below, our dirt road had become wet - an intricate maze of puddles that had litters hibernating on them.
I was attending to a light-skinned customer who wore a transparent shower cap and wrinkled her nose restively as though it was my fart and not the pungent gutter water that disturbed her. She'd come to buy eggs and was still complaining about the stench when I saw my father trudging home, his tie partly undone and hanging loosely around his collar. And although it had rained, I saw the perspiration on his forehead and the sweat-patch that peeked out from beneath each armpit, and for a split second, I wondered if he'd walked the distance home. But it was highly unlikely - Oshodi to Bariga was just too far. As he neared the compound, I averted my gaze because at the time, I dreaded making eye contact with him. I would be too miserable afterward and fraught with inexplicable unease. I hoped he would come over and ask for the key and then I could say, "Welcome, sah!" But he didn't. He clearly expected my mother to be indoors. And although he looked at the kiosk, and indeed at me, I could tell that he saw neither. His gaze ahead was so transfixed that he seemed lost in thought as he walked and when his steps faltered so that he kicked the curb as he tried to go over the gutter, I knew I was right.
I could tell it would be a bad day for us because it had obviously been a bad day for him; perhaps his boss had shouted him down, or maybe he'd threatened him with another sack letter and perhaps this time, like the last, he had done it in front of his students. Although it was far out in town, and he had to spend a fortune commuting to and from work, it was one of the few almost-average-paying teaching jobs and my father had learned to put up with his boss's excesses - like we did with his.
Later, when my mother ambled out, arms akimbo, a frown glued to her face, I knew my father had returned to his usual grumbling self.
"Go and find something else to do," she said, taking my seat and relieving me of my duties. But at that moment, the shop was my haven and I wanted to stay there. Being there meant I didn't have to go in and face the widening gulf that stood between my father and us all.
"Mama, go and lie down," I told her. "You still look very weak."
"Nna, don't worry about me. Just... Just go and play, you hear?"
I crossed over to the compound, feeling like a convict newly placed on death row. Then, I made up my mind to not go indoors. And just as I did, I caught sight of Azuka and Chukwuma crouched together at the far end of the yard. Azuka grouchily awaited his turn, making a fuss every few seconds because Chukwuma kept playing even after losing. I joined them and we played, a little more fairly now, until it was dark and we all had to retire to our homes. That night, my father did not say anything to any of us. He ignored my mother and her fragile health too.
The next morning was no different either, only we knew we wouldn't have to deal with it past half-past-seven. But when the clock chimed to announce that it was eight o'clock and my father still lay cozy on the bed, his rumpled yellow wrapper pulled over his body, we knew something wasn't quite right.
"Nnayi, no work today?" my mother asked.
Slowly, he turned away from the wall to face her. Then he pointed at the wooden rack from which his clothes were suspended in a corner of the room.
"Take one shirt and pair of trousers and go for me," he said and turned back to the wall.
My mother looked with astonishment from me to Azuka, then she left for her kiosk. That evening, my father staggered home, inebriated and cursing. He snored all through the night like the engine of a train and when he woke up with bloodshot eyes the next morning, he remained in bed. I could tell that he felt some amount of remorse. My mother ignored him and went about her business and when it was night again, he pulled on a shirt and went out. When he returned this time, he vomited enough bile to make the room take on the sick smell of ingested beer throughout that night.
My mother left the floor uncleaned. She wanted him to see the mess he was making of himself. If he wouldn't listen to reason, perhaps he would listen to raw undigested evidence. In the end, Azuka and I had to squeeze into a tight corner on the parched linoleum and curl our bodies into a ball. But the next morning, it was I who cleaned up his mess. My mother came in as I mopped with the old sandy rag.
"Nnayi," she said to my father, "it is not as if I am challenging your authority, o, but I don't understand you anymore. You did not go to work yesterday. Today again, you did not go. Hope all is well?"
I saw that she had tactfully neglected to mention that he now drank too many bottles and made our room smell sickly. My father stared at her for many minutes before he spoke.
"How much do you have?"
"I said, how much do you have?"
"Did you not hear my question, nnayi?"
"You will have to lend me about five thousand naira. It is urgent."
"Nnayi, did they sack you?" My mother was blinking a little too fast now. She was noticeably anxious. I cleaned a little more slowly and pricked my ears to listen.
My father exhaled and stayed silent for a moment.
"Will you give me the money or not?"
As I watched my mother, I wondered how she could not tell when it was so clear what had happened. It was scribbled boldly across my father's refusal to regard her question. Saying yes to my mother's question probably felt to him like admitting defeat - like admitting failure. But maybe she could, because she did not push anymore.
"I don't have it," she muttered and went back out to her kiosk.
That gray evening, as soon as my father left the house, my mother hurried in and asked me to wait outside. She locked the door after me and I heard the scraping noise of a few moving things before she eventually unlatched the door to let me back in. I wasn't sure what she had hidden or searched for but I made a mental note to find out as soon as I was alone.
Two days later, my father was back at it again, asking for five thousand naira, but my mother's answer remained negative.
"What do you do all day in that kiosk if you cannot produce a simple five thousand naira?" my father snapped.
My mother murmured something and my father, perhaps having caught a few words of it, flared up. "Say it! Say what you just said! Repeat yourself, let me hear you."
"I said it is from there that I have been cooking these past few days."
My father was infuriated. I could tell that he felt emasculated. He stared at her with so much anger that for a moment, I imagined he would bite her head off and feed it to our caretaker's rabid dog. But he didn't. He stormed out afterward and not another word was said about that incident until Saturday morning when my mother raised an alarm about her missing money. My father was out arguing as always, but this time his voice did not stand out as before. His being there was mechanical, done only to avoid the questions that would spring up if he wasn't.
"Buchi, did you see my six thousand naira?" My mother asked.
"Azuka, what of you? O giwa?"
He shook his head and the clear drop of saliva that had been clinging desperately to his lower lip lost its grip and hit the arm of the threadbare couch on which he sat. It was the only other furniture in our apartment besides the bed and small cupboard where we stacked our plastic plates and spoons.
Azuka's answer made my mother even more restless. She untied her headscarf now to reveal disheveled hair. Then she pulled out all her suitcases and polythene bags. The search was intense, desperate, futile, so that when she was done, things were upturned and clothes were strewn about.
I watched her mouth open and close with indecision when my father returned. She was unsure how to ask him without seeming callous and thoughtless, after all she had said she didn't have any money when he'd asked her for some days before.
"Nnayi," she ventured at last, her voice thinned by uncertainty, "did you see any money?"
My father's response was a long hard look that was the equivalent of an acid bath. He ignored her and motioned for Azuka to vacate the couch. Then he let himself fall into its musky scented coziness.
"Give me my food."
My mother proceeded to do as he had requested without uttering an extra word. Then, in the evening, just before he left for the beer parlor, she asked again.
"Did you take my six thousand naira?"
My father shook his head apologetically. "You had six thousand naira and when I asked for five thousand naira, you claimed you didn't have it."
"It's my business money, nnayi. I can't touch my business money."
"Oho! Well, someone who knows how to touch business money has touched it for you now. How do you like it?"
My mother's lips quivered with things unsaid as she stared at him from the bed where she sat. He was pacing, fastening the buttons on his white shirt.
"Nnayi, that money is the money I have been using since Monday to buy things. Did you take it?"
My father did not answer.
"Please return it if it was you. I don't have any other money. That six thousand is my heaven and earth."
"I am going."
"Nnayi, hope it's not my money you're using to buy drinks?"
From where I sat on the floor, I felt the heat of the fiery gaze my father shot her. And for a moment, I thought he would descend on her with heavy blows for speaking so insolently to him before us. But he didn't. An eerie silence enveloped us all as he walked out, leaving my mother's question hovering unanswered. I know she wished she had handled it with more tact.
That evening, when it got too dark out and my father still hadn't returned, my mother thrust her rubber-band-wrapped phone into my palm.
"Call him. Ask him where he is."
I found his name in the log and called him but after several trials, the calls still went unanswered.
"Send SMS if he's not picking up."
"What should I write?"
"Ask him where he is, na!"
I composed a brief text and clicked send. We waited for about half an hour before the phone beeped to announce a new unread message. I checked it: Don't disturb me. I'm enjoying her. I read it again to be sure I'd read right the first time.
"Ogini? What did he say?"
I read it to her and I saw her face tighten with annoyance. The room fell silent, too silent, so that Azuka's snore suddenly announced itself effortlessly. A mosquito buzzed around my ear. I took a swipe at it and missed.
"Cover your brother well so that these mosquitoes won't finish him," she said and reclined on the bed. She pulled her wrapper over herself and turned to face the wall and its peeling paint.
"Lower that lamp before you sleep," she mumbled, and although her voice carried a sense of finality, I couldn't help the feeling that tugged at me; it was the feeling of something unfinished. I wanted to tell her that maybe the message was a mistake. But I knew what she would say: It's not. He's retaliating. So I kept mute. A pink gecko slithered across the wall, close to the heat-blackened ceiling, and I knew I would have nightmares that night.
The silence throughout the next day was fragile, like cracked glass. We did not go to church. Even Azuka seemed to be aware of the impending disaster. We did not say one word to each other until noon when my mother called me out to the aromatic corridor, which was a little too cacophonous with the clanging of pot covers and a little too hot with the heat and steam wafting from stoves and pots. But somehow, the women's voices rose above all the other noise, as they traded compliments and requests: Mummy Blessing, this your food nice, o, I will eat. Aunty Mary, you get small grinded pepper?
In the midst of all that commotion, my mother seemed like the pariah. She kept to herself, sweating, occasionally wiping her forehead with one end of her blue wrapper. The blue smoke from the just-put-out stove was stifling as I waited for her to finish dishing out the jollof rice.
"Take this one," she said, passing me a plate. "Give it to your father. Call Azuka to come and carry his own." She pointed at the slightly larger plate of rice that sat on the sooty cupboard. "See your own here."
We ate in silence afterward and pretty soon Azuka and I sneaked out to join Chukwuma and Ifeanyi in the yard. A short time after, I saw my mother go out to her kiosk and unlock it for business. I stared at her in amazement. She never opened the kiosk on Sundays. It was all too evident now. Things had never really been fine with us but now the situation had deteriorated. And until the next day, I didn't know just how much.
I returned from school, worn out and thirsty, to find my mother's kiosk locked. Inside, our room had suddenly become spacious. I studied it, just as Azuka studied me, until I realized that my mother's suitcases and polythenes were gone. A sudden wave of panic gripped me.
"Azuka, where is mama?"
He gestured to say that he did not know.
"What of papa?"
He repeated the same gesture, and for a moment, I regretted that he was my brother. A brother who couldn't tell his parents' whereabouts was no good. And then I shook my head free of the thought and settled down on the bed to sort out the million and one other thoughts that assailed me.
My father seemed unbothered when he returned that day. He provided money for us to buy already cooked food from Mama Endurance, our local food vendor, and I knew that this was how it would be for a very long time.
Many things began to change with my mother's departure. My father's nature was one of them. He became like a tortoise that had retired into its shell. He was no longer his overbearing self. He grew so tolerant and forbearing that even when he found out I had spilled water on the couch the previous day, so that it now gave off an offensive stench, like the smell of a dead decomposing rat, he simply said: "Take it outside and let it stay in the sun."
Another thing that changed was the administration of kitchen details. I began to oversee all culinary affairs. And although the food mostly came back stale or burnt, we ate without grumbling. For a short time after my mother left, my father continued to go out to the bars in the evening and return home staggering and drunk. And then, gradually, there was a decline, with him going every other day. And eventually he stopped going altogether. Soon, he began to go out with a white file tucked firmly under his arm and I knew that he was job hunting. Other changes occurred, like the inevitable weightloss in all three of us. Our ribs and collarbones began to stick out at our necks and sides.
There was also the gloom that sat inherently within us everyday, all day long. We would sit in solitude, caught up in our own world of thoughts. My father found Camara Laye's The African Child at the bottom of a huge pile of books and papers and began to read from it. It was brown with age and musky and its first few pages were ripped off but my father read it anyway and soon became engrossed in the world the writer had imprinted on those pages. But as he lay supine, reading from it and ignoring all else that happened around him, I could tell that the book was merely a contrived escape from reality. It was his marijuana, his temporary relief from something that should be tackled straightaway.
In those slow, miserable days, I spent my time discovering myself, discovering maturity, learning it. When my father had punished me for my seemingly nocuous disclosure to Chikodi, he had said to me: "Learn how to talk. A fool at forty is a fool forever." That statement had reverberated in my head afterward, not because he'd said it to me, but because other people had said it to me in the past. Although with a slightly different expression that I cannot now remember, Ngozi, my classmate, had said it to me when I pulled off her beret and ran off with it as she spoke to a boy she liked in class. I thought of what it meant to be mature, how it helped to ruminate before speaking or acting. For most of my young life, I'd simply blurted out things as they came to me and a good number of my actions had been equally spontaneous. I spent quite a lot of time brooding in isolation, either outdoors or in our room. I drifted so far into myself that when I sat outside by myself on the raised soakaway platform, I noticed even the most unimportant things, like how the big red-capped lizard chased after the smaller green-capped lizard on the rough walls of our building, with their thousand and one crevices. And when I was indoors, I noticed how one ant would find a grain of sugar by a whole cube on the floor and then run along and inform its compatriots of its find so that they could come back reinforced and in large numbers.
Azuka sat by himself too, but he was having the time of his life. A very dark boy he talked to from the next street had given him his Brick Game to use temporarily, and now he had it all to himself. I knew the boy; his name was Sopuru. He bought biscuits from us sometimes. His skin was so dark it reminded me of what it looked like under our bed. The boy's mother had threatened to sieze it because he didn't read his books anymore and exams were just around the corner. Azuka had only been too willing to relieve him of this burden. He was on cloud nine, albeit a little too theatrically, with too many oooooohs and aaaaaahs backed by a few poorly articulated expletives when he failed at a mission and it said 'Game Over' on the gadget's monochrome screen. Lines of concentration stood out on his forehead as he pushed the buttons feverishly.
Our lives continued in this obscurity until one humid Friday afternoon about a month later. I lay on the bed, staring up at the distended ceiling, collecting my thoughts and hoping that the hundred metallic voices reciting alahu akbar in the distance would go quiet. The Muslims on our street were observing their Jum'ah in an old mosque that stood a short distance away from our compound. Azuka was out in the yard letting the boys take turns playing Tetris on his borrowed Brick Game and my father was attending an interview for a teaching job that paid less than his last job. And then, I heard excited shouts and pleasant chatter. The buzz was followed by a thousand approaching footsteps until, one by one, the barebodied children of our neighbors filed in, bearing suitcases twice their size. Even if her familiar voice hadn't found my ears as she exchanged pleasantries with the neighbors' wives, I'd still not have needed to see my mother to know she had returned. I leaped up from the bed with a force that was alien to me. In the corridor, I pushed past a couple of slightly younger children to get to her, and then I flung myself at her. I felt her grip tighten around me in a bear hug. She'd missed us too, I could tell. Her grip loosened and I pulled away to study her closely. Like us, she'd also changed, only she'd changed for the better. Her cheeks seemed plump, her body fuller and her caramel skin glowed more than I had ever seen it.
"Nna, how are you?"
"Fine, mama," I said. I wanted to tell her that I had only just become fine, that in the weeks since she left, I had been like a walking zombie, alive but dead. But I didn't. I pulled her away from all those people and led her indoors. There she sat on the bed, with the unease of a guest, and we talked endlessly about everything except papa and where she'd been all this time.
"Where's Azuka?" she asked after I fetched her a cup of water.
"He's playing outside with his friends."
"I didn't see him."
"Oh! Maybe they're in the backyard. He'll soon come running now after one of those children tells him you're back."
My mother was looking at me curiously, and smiling. She was probably thinking about how much I'd grown since she left. I noticed she still hadn't asked after my father, and I imagined just how awkward it would be when he returned. At last she sighed and stood up, perhaps for a lack of things to say.
"Nna, help me get these things in that corner," she said, and together we moved the suitcases. Azuka's antiquated wooden box kept one of my mother's pieces of luggage from fitting into its former space. I grabbed it by the handle and as I pulled, its faulty lock came undone so that it fell open, with several of his rumpled, slightly moist clothes pouring out over themselves. As always, they smelled rancid, like a mix of the odors from a sweaty armpit and an improperly dried cloth. He didn't fold them; he just stacked them there. And then something caught my attention; it was money - the kind that Azuka wasn't supposed to have. Only a bit of it was visible because it was stashed away in a corner of the box, with most of it obscured from view by folds of foul-smelling clothes. I took it and counted the notes; there were six crisp five-hundred-naira notes. My mother was looking from my face to my hand, her expression bewildered.
"How did Azuka get it?"
"I don't know." But I could very well hazard a guess - a really good one. In that moment, I envisioned my mother wringing his hands with disappointment; I envisioned my father wringing his neck. "Let me call him," I offered and dashed out swiftly to fetch him.
"Welcome," he mumbled when we returned. His eyes were bright with restrained elation. He wasn't as effusive as me. Perhaps his mental health made him so.
"Azuka, who has this money?" She held the notes out for him to see.
Azuka's eyes darted to his open box and then he went numb. His nose twitched for a moment and then he gave a retarded smile that revealed his crooked teeth.
My mother rephrased her question, her voice going up a notch. "Azuka, who gave you this money?"
But Azuka remained uncommunicative until my father walked into the room, his shock at seeing my mother masked by unwarranted anger.
"Buchi, who left that bucket outside?"
I remembered I had used it as a makeshift footstool when I sat on the soakaway out in the yard, having upturned it so that its bottom faced up.
"How many times have I told you to never leave our buckets outside. Are you mad? Believe me, if that thing goes missing, I will sell you and buy another one."
I ducked past him on my way out to avoid being hit on the head but it proved unnecessary. When I returned, he'd pulled off his shirt and was lying on the bed in his singlet and the earth-brown knickers he used as boxers. He was muttering something about dirty pigs whose clothes were strewn about like they were rags. My mother sat on the couch smoothing a hand over the furry black fabric on its armrest. I wasn't sure if they'd spoken and I didn't think they had. She'd probably welcomed him and he'd grunted something inaudible.
Azuka sat stuffing his clothes and numerous odds and ends back into his box. I stood by the doorway, unsure whether or not to go in, seeing as the atmosphere was tense, like a rubber band stretched taut. And then my father rolled on his side and pulled something out from under him.
"Who put this money here?" He held it up for us to see, but his pupils strained to look at my mother from the corner of his eyes.
"It's mine," she said and held a hand out to collect it. Ironically, he didn't thrust it into her palm. He hesitated for a bit and then roused himself up, his brows furrowed. He looked from my mother to Azuka and then back again. Then he turned to me.
"Why are his things scattered?"
I was at crossroads, unsure which one to take. I was saddled with the responsibility of snitching and I wasn't particularly sure whether or not my mother meant to let him in on the day's discovery.
"Are you deaf?"
My mouth felt dry when I opened it. And when I'd finished talking, he pulled his trousers off the rack and slid his cheap brown leather belt out of the belt loops. He folded it in two and stretched it deftly so that it made a slap sound, and then he went into a frenzy and lashed out with mad fury at Azuka until Azuka lost his voice and began to bleat and writhe on the floor. In tears, and with a voice husky from screaming, Azuka confessed that the Brick Game he'd been keeping with him for weeks was his, and that he'd paid three thousand naira when he bought it from an itinerant trader. I knew its real price - it was a paltry two hundred and fifty naira. But I did not say this. I was so terrified that I stood rooted to the spot until the belt stopped falling on him.
It was my fault. I looked at my mother to see if she blamed me like I blamed myself, but she wasn't looking. She was staring out the window at the moss-encrusted fence. I knew why; it was too much for her. She'd made to intervene a few times, but every time she'd caught herself midair and slumped down on the seat again. For some reason, she was holding back. Perhaps it was to keep the peace - to let my father's authority go unchallenged - or maybe it was simply to let him treat his wounded ego. She'd taken a knife to it when she implied he'd taken her money.
I saw that my father felt light and relaxed when he had finished beating Azuka. He breathed more easily now, like he'd just let loose some pent-up steam. And although he didn't say a word to my mother as he climbed into bed again, I knew he had forgiven her. But I wasn't particularly sure if it was his place to forgive her. Maybe she had to forgive him for erroneously texting her instead of here, even though she'd probably known all along that it had indeed been done in error. Or maybe he had to forgive her for implying, after several years of marriage, that she didn't trust him, that he was a thief. Perhaps it was a mutual thing. Or maybe not, because I would later learn that my father's absence from work when my mother fell ill had cost him his previous job.
We didn't have dinner that night. Azuka lay on the floor, where he'd been beaten, and I lay a short distance from him because I was fraught with guilt, and hunger. My stomach grumbled and I turned restlessly on the cold ground long after my mother had climbed in bed beside my father, long after Azuka was fast asleep and snoring. And when I ceased to roll because my sleep-stained eyelids were starting to slide shut, I heard faint noises. It came from the bed. There was panting, there was moaning and there was the steady squeaky sound of a disturbed metal bed.
Alex Kadiri is a graduate of English and Literary Studies. He is a budding writer of fiction from Nigeria. As a pastime, he finds pleasure in stringing words together to make beautiful stories. He's had work published in a couple of literary magazines across Africa, some of which include Expound, Afreada and ShortSharpShot. Find him on instagram (@alexwrites) or on his blog: fictionalex.wordpress.com.